O.Wilde, Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. (...)
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. (...)

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. (...)
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself...

O. Wilde (1854-1900),
Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A Terribly Strange Bed, W. Collins

Wilkie Collins

1824 – 1889

English novelist, playwright,
and author of short stories.

His works were classified at the time
a genre seen nowadays
 as the precursor to detective
and suspense fiction.

A Terribly Strange Bed


I soon felt not only that I could not go to sleep,
but that I could not even close my eyes.
I was wide awake, and in a high fever.
Every nerve in my body trembled-
-every one of my senses seemed to be preternaturally sharpened.

I tossed and rolled,
and tried every kind of position,
and perseveringly sought out the cold corners of the bed,
and all to no purpose.

Now I thrust my arms over the clothes;
now I poked them under the clothes;
now I violently shot my legs straight out down to the bottom of the bed;
now I convulsively coiled them up as near my chin as they would go;
now I shook out my crumpled pillow, changed it to the cool side, patted it flat, and lay down quietly on my back;
now I fiercely doubled it in two, set it up on end, thrust it against the board of the bed, and tried a sitting posture.

Every effort was in vain;
I groaned with vexation as I felt that I was in for a sleepless night.

What could I do?
I had no book to read.
And yet, unless I found out some method of diverting my mind,
I felt certain that I was in the condition to imagine all sorts of horrors;
to rack my brain with forebodings of every possible and impossible danger;
in short,
to pass the night in suffering all conceivable varieties of nervous terror.

I raised myself on my elbow, and looked about the room—
which was brightened by a lovely moonlight pouring straight through the window--to see if it contained any pictures
or ornaments that I could at all clearly distinguish.

While my eyes wandered from wall to wall, a remembrance of Le Maistre's delightful little book, Voyage autour de ma Chambre, occurred to me.
I resolved to imitate the French author,
and find occupation and amusement enough to relieve the tedium of my wakefulness,
by making a mental inventory of every article of furniture I could see,
and by following up to their sources the multitude of associations which even
a chair,
a table,
or a wash-hand stand
may be made to call forth.
In the nervous unsettled state of my mind at that moment,
I found it much easier to make my inventory than to make my reflections,
and thereupon soon gave up all hope of thinking in Le Maistre's fanciful track-
-or, indeed, of thinking at all.

I looked about the room at the different articles of furniture,
and did nothing more.

There was, first, the bed I was lying in;
a four-post bed,
of all things in the world to meet with in Paris-
-yes, a thorough clumsy British four-poster,
with the regular top lined with chintz-
-the regular fringed valance all round-
-the regular stifling, unwholesome curtains,
which I remembered having mechanically drawn back against the posts without particularly noticing the bed when I first got into the room.

Then there was the marble-topped wash-hand stand,
from which the water I had spilled, in my hurry to pour it out, was still dripping, slowly and more slowly, on to the brick floor.
Then two small chairs, with my coat, waistcoat, and trousers flung on them.
Then a large elbow-chair covered with dirty-white dimity, with my cravat and shirt collar thrown over the back.
Then a chest of drawers with two of the brass handles off, and a tawdry, broken china inkstand placed on it by way of ornament for the top.
Then the dressing-table, adorned by a very small looking-glass, and a very large pincushion.
Then the window--an unusually large window.

Then a dark old picture, which the feeble candle dimly showed me.

It was a picture of a fellow in a high Spanish hat,
crowned with a plume of towering feathers.
A swarthy,
sinister ruffian,
looking upward,
shading his eyes with his hand,
and looking intently upward—
it might be at some tall gallows at which he was going to be hanged.
At any rate,
he had the appearance of thoroughly deserving it.

This picture put a kind of constraint upon me to look upward too-
-at the top of the bed.
It was a gloomy and not an interesting object,
and I looked back at the picture.

I counted the feathers in the man's hat-
-they stood out in relief-
-three white, two green.
I observed the crown of his hat,
which was of conical shape,
according to the fashion supposed to have been favoured by Guido Fawkes.
I wondered what he was looking up at.
It couldn't be at the stars;
such a desperado was neither astrologer nor astronomer.
It must be at the high gallows,
and he was going to be hanged presently.
Would the executioner come into possession of his conical crowned hat and plume of feathers?

I counted the feathers again-
-three white, two green.
While I still lingered over this very improving and intellectual employment,
my thoughts insensibly began to wander.

The moonlight shining into the room reminded me
of a certain moonlight night in England-
-the night after a picnic party in a Welsh valley.
Every incident of the drive homeward,
through lovely scenery,
which the moonlight made lovelier than ever,
came back to my remembrance,
though I had never given the picnic a thought for years;
if I had tried to recollect it,
I could certainly have recalled little or nothing of that scene long past.
Of all the wonderful faculties that help to tell us we are immortal,
which speaks the sublime truth more eloquently than memory?

Here was I,
in a strange house of the most suspicious character,
in a situation of uncertainty,
and even of peril,
which might seem to make the cool exercise of my recollection almost out of the question;
nevertheless, remembering, quite involuntarily,
minute circumstances of every kind,
which I had thought forgotten for ever;
which I could not possibly have recalled at will,
even under the most favourable auspices.
And what cause had produced in a moment the whole of this strange,
complicated, mysterious effect?
Nothing but some rays of moonlight shining in at my bedroom window.
I was still thinking of the picnic-
-of our merriment on the drive home-
-of the sentimental young lady who would quote 'Childe Harold'
because it was moonlight.
I was absorbed by these past scenes and past amusements,
in an instant,
the thread on which my memories hung snapped asunder;
my attention immediately came back to present things more vividly than ever,
and I found myself,
I neither knew why nor wherefore,
looking hard at the picture again.

Looking for what?
Good God!
the man had pulled his hat down on his brows!
the hat itself was gone!
Where was the conical crown?
Where the feathers-
-three white, two green?
Not there!
In place of the hat and feathers,
what dusky object was it that now hid
his forehead,
his eyes,
his shading hand?

Was the bed moving?

I turned on my back and looked up.
Was I mad?
giddy again?
or was the top of the bed really moving down-
-sinking slowly,
right down throughout the whole of its length and breadth-
-right down upon me,
as I lay underneath?

My blood seemed to stand still.
A deadly paralysing coldness stole all over me
as I turned my head round on the pillow and determined to test whether the bed-top was really moving or not,
by keeping my eye on the man in the picture.
The next look in that direction was enough.

The dull, black, frowzy outline of the valance above me
was within an inch of being parallel with his waist.
I still looked breathlessly.

And steadily
and slowly –
-very slowly-
-I saw the figure,
and the line of frame below the figure, vanish,
as the valance moved down before it.

I am,
anything but timid.
I have been on more than one occasion in peril of my life,
and have not lost my self-possession for an instant;
but when the conviction first settled on my mind that the bed-top was really moving,
was steadily and continuously sinking down upon me,
I looked up shuddering,
beneath the hideous machinery for murder,
which was advancing closer and closer to suffocate me
where I lay.

I looked up,

The candle, fully spent, went out;
but the moonlight still brightened the room.

Down and down,
without pausing and without sounding,
came the bed-top,
and still my panic-terror seemed to bind me faster and faster to the mattress on which I lay-
-down and down
it sank,
till the dusty odour from the lining of the canopy
came stealing into my nostrils.

At that final moment the instinct of self-preservation startled me out of my trance, and I moved at last.
There was just room for me to roll myself sidewise off the bed.
As I dropped noiselessly to the floor,
the edge of the murderous canopy touched me on the shoulder.
Without stopping to draw my breath,
without wiping the cold sweat from my face,
I rose instantly on my knees to watch the bed-top.
I was literally spellbound by it.

If I had heard footsteps behind me,
I could not have turned round;
if a means of escape had been miraculously provided for me,
I could not have moved to take advantage of it.

The whole life in me was,
at that moment,
concentrated in my eyes.

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