By S M Chen, posted October 29, 2015
“He that hath the Son hath life…” – I John 5:12
I am unable to ascertain whether this tale is factual, or merely purported to be such. Regardless, whether true, based on actual events, or fabricated, despite being no doubt familiar to a number of readers, its message is potent and poignant.
I have taken the liberty of modifying it somewhat, hopefully remaining true to the spirit and substance of the versions I’ve encountered.
There once lived a man of considerable means. Simon’s wealth was inherited, and, as with many such, whose affluence arrives solely by virtue of their progeniture, he was only mildly cognizant of how he had attained, and gave little thought to how he might have to live should misfortune befall him. An only child, he was self-indulgent and parsimonious. His attitude toward the many less fortunate was mostly that of disdain, although outwardly he tried to maintain a veneer of tolerance.
Simon had the good fortune to meet and marry a fine woman (her virtues exceeded his own, something he grudgingly admitted) much his junior.
His wife, Claire, was beautiful, educated, and well bred and, unlike him, possessed a kind and compassionate nature. It was she who encouraged what philanthropy they engaged in. It was also Claire with whom the servants preferred to deal. She was more light-handed than he, and had a sweeter disposition.
Claire died during childbirth, a complication for which doctors said there was no effective treatment. Simon had loved her very much and never remarried. A life-size portrait of Claire in her prime hung on one tall wall of the wood paneled library. It had been commissioned by a local acknowledged master artist, who had rendered Claire with a combination of such imagination and realism that viewers of the painting were unanimous in their praise.
Simon and his son, Christopher, were gratifyingly close. It was only natural that father would dote on son. As Christopher matured, he became interested in and knowledgeable about his father’s vast art collection, including that which adorned the spacious walls of the family estate. The young man had an eye for art and a mind for business, and he became an invaluable asset in dealing with various art collectors. His father was simultaneously proud and delighted.
Christopher possessed, perhaps inherited, his mother’s gentle temperament and kind nature. He was less concerned than his father about material matters, and he cared more about people and animals than things, something that, on occasion, caused conflict between father and son.
After Christopher had finished his formal education (and Simon made sure he attended the best schools, for his intelligence was superior, money was no object, and Simon was convinced Christopher was destined for great things), while he was still a young man, Christopher met Emily. It was virtually love at first sight, a match made, if not in heaven, then not far below.
Like Claire, Emily was highly attractive, refined, educated, and had a sweet disposition. Her favorite color seemed to be pink, and it became her. That she came from a family of means, although less than that of Simon, only enhanced her appeal in Simon’s eyes. Christopher averred her financial state of affairs was not important to him; Simon frowned but said nothing.
In more than one way she reminded Simon of his deceased wife. Simon told Christopher as much.
Christopher and Emily appeared to be deliriously happy and delighted to have found each other. Emily’s parents, initially reserved, subsequently thawed and expressed their approval of Christopher.
The young couple seemed to have a bright future together. It was only a matter of time, Simon thought.
But war broke out, and Christopher, against the wishes of Emily, enlisted in the military. Simon was at first opposed to his son leaving home, but Christopher convinced him that he should serve his country (it was the right thing to do; it was patriotic; other members of the aristocracy were doing it), so the old man relented. He secretly hoped Emily might dissuade Christopher, but it did not happen.
Only a few weeks later, Simon received a telegram informing him that Christopher was missing in action. Within days, his worst fears were confirmed when he was again notified – this time that Christopher had been killed while helping a fellow soldier.
It was winter. The old man faced a forthcoming lonely Christmas with unquenchable grief.
Emily had stopped by after being notified, and, weeping profusely, shared a few letters Christopher had sent from the front. Simon had placed an awkward arm around her but, despite their common grief, neither found much comfort in the other. After a short time and few words, she departed. Simon watched her pink figure vanish in the fog which had enveloped his mansion.
Christmas morn someone rang the bell at the stately front door. The butler answered.
“Shall I send him away, sir?”
“No. Let me.” The old man lumbered to the portal.
At the door stood a solider with crutch in fresh fallen snow, holding a sizable package. He said, “Sorry to disturb you, sir, but I was a friend of your son. I was the one he was rescuing when he was killed. May I come in for a few moments? I have something to show you.” As he breathed and spoke, his words seemed almost visible in the cold morning air.
In the elaborately decorated drawing room, the soldier told Simon of his friendship with Christopher, and how he had learned of Christopher’s (and Simon’s) love of fine art. “I’m not an accomplished artist,” said the soldier, “but I think your son would have wanted you to have this.” He leaned forward on the crutch.
With quivering hands, Simon removed the plain brown paper wrapping, revealing a portrait of Christopher. While in no danger of being mistaken for a masterpiece, it was a reasonable semblance. Christopher’s face had been rendered in painstaking detail, his eyes especially expressive.
Momentarily speechless, Simon dried his eyes, then offered to pay the soldier; the latter refused, saying it was a gift and that it was the least he could do.
As he rose to depart, Simon had a fit of inspiration and hospitality. “Do you have any plans for the day?” he inquired.
The soldier shook his head.
“Well, by all means, stay. Smythe will run a bath.” Simon eyed the soldier up and down. “We’ll put out a change of clothes. I think some of Christopher’s things will fit.”
And they did. Remarkably well. From the three-piece worsted gray suit to shirt and cravat. Even the black shoes and socks. And hat. The soldier had never dressed so well.
After a satisfying repast considerably better than the fare to which the solider was accustomed in the trenches of war, at a table large enough to seat twenty comfortably, Simon showed the soldier his art collection. As they moved to a group of smaller paintings, the old man stopped. “Do you like any of these?”
“They’re all marvelous, sir. This place is like a museum. Better than some I’ve visited.”
“But do you like any piece in particular?”
The younger man hesitated, then gave a nervous cough. “I’ve always been partial to Van Gogh.”
“Then you shall have one.” Simon moved to the wall and pointed. “Is this one satisfactory?”
The soldier could only nod his thanks.
“Fetch a carton for this, Symthe,” said the old man. “A sturdy one.”
The next day, the driver transported the solider from the estate. From a window, after retracting the rich, heavy velvet window covering, Simon watched them recede in the distance, knowing that the value of the Van Gogh was such that its sale would allow the soldier to live the rest of his days in comfort if he so chose.
Moving some expensive paintings, the old man set the portrait of Christopher above the mantle of the massive fireplace and spent much of the rest of the day gazing at it. The roaring, crackling fire evoked some memories, mostly fond, but did little to thaw the chill that had settled in Simon’s chest since he had learned of his son’s death.
What few friends Simon had, including Emily’s parents, sent flowers and condolences. Some visited. Simon was unaffected. The ice in his chest would not melt.
In subsequent weeks, Simon learned of Christopher’s gallantry and heroism in battle; he had rescued dozens of wounded comrades before being felled by an enemy bullet. The painting took on greater meaning.
A few months later, in the spring, constitution weakened by despondency, the old man took ill. He died not long thereafter.
News of Simon’s passing spread quickly and widely. According to his will, his art collection would be sold at auction on Christmas day that year. It would be one year from the day he had received the painting of his son.
Art collectors from around the world gathered to view and buy some of the world’s finest paintings. The air was electric with anticipation.
In the great room that had been designated for this purpose, the auctioneer stepped forth and held out the painting of Christopher. He asked for an opening bid.
“We don’t want that!” came a voice from the faceless crowd. “We came to see the good stuff – the Picassos, the Monets, the Rembrandts!”
“Yes, get on to the real art!” chimed in another.
The auctioneer was firm. When it was again quiet, he said, “We have to sell this first. Who will open the bidding at $100?”
Silence. Then murmuring, which crescendoed into a din. Then silence again. The auctioneer waited patiently.
“Who’ll take the son?” he asked. And he held up the painting again for all to see.
Finally, from the back of the room, a voice, that of the family gardener, spoke: “I don’t have $100. Ten dollars is all I have. I knew the lad, so I’d like the painting. Will you take $10?”
Men glanced back. The gardener was rudely dressed, in stark contrast to the attire of other attendees.
“Will anyone go higher?”
Beside the gardener sat a man in a gray suit, supporting himself on a crutch. He leaned toward the gardener, offering some bills. The gardener shook his head.
Next to the man in gray suit sat a lovely young woman in pink attire. Her hand on his arm, she observed the unfolding of events with keen interest.
“Going once, going twice. Sold for ten dollars!” The gavel dropped.
Cheers erupted. “Now we can get on and bid on the treasures!” exclaimed someone.
“I’m sorry,” said the auctioneer. “The auction is over.”
Stunned disbelief pervaded. “What do you mean it’s over? We didn’t come here for a picture of some old guy’s son. What about all these paintings? There’s millions of dollars of art here! I demand that you explain what’s going on!” cried one.
Others voiced similar displeasure.
When the din had subsided, the auctioneer responded, “I am sorry. When I was called to conduct this auction, I was told of a secret stipulation in the will. I was not allowed to reveal that stipulation until now. Only the painting of the son would be auctioned. Whoever bought that painting would inherit the entire estate, including the paintings. The man who took the son gets it all.”