Of Soul Sincere (extract)

“A catalogue of the genteel household furniture, one piano-forte, a capital eight-day clock, plate, silver, ornamental china, a few pictures and drawings and numerous curious articles, the property of the late Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq, deceased; which will be sold by auction by Mess. Cardew  & Penn, on Friday the 10th, and Saturday the 11th of June, 1791, at eleven o’clock, on the premises, at Bower House, South Lambeth, by order of the executors. . .”

“Bower House itself, an elegant building completed in 1762, property of Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq. deceased, will be sold by auction, also by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Monday the 13th of June, 1791, on the premises, by order of the executors . . .”

‘Lot number 42, a handsome piece of furniture, design and execution by Mr Chippendale and son, an escritoire in the French Style, at a starting price of 30 pounds and 14 shillings- what am I bid ? what am I bid ? Mahogany wood, gentlmen, a fine wood, beautiful inlay on the table, ladies, to write your letters on, what am I  bid, 32 pounds, 32 pounds, am I bid 33 pounds ? 33 pounds sir ?yes, thank you, 33 pounds, what am I bid . .’

It is hot in the auction room, the occasional fly buzzes in and out, the odd bidder swipes at it, and is nearly mistaken for an actual bid – no,no, sir? are you quite sure ? 40 pounds it is, then, haha, but we nearly had you there – and on it mounts – gradually the competition drops off, as one by one of the florid gentlemen in heavy brocade waistcoats give way, until the duel is fought out at last between the two most dogged of them, and the writing desk is found a new home with a gentleman whose pockets happened to contain 10 shillings more than the other. Money changes hands, the new owner writes his name in the auctioneer’s book ( Edward Rokesham, Esq.), and a label of purchase is tied on to his new property. The auctioneer’s assistant, a callow youth, smudges the ink and is cursed at briefly by his superior, before lurching off to bring forward the next item for sale. And so the auction continues.

Come Monday, and the crowd has swelled to double. The property is a fine example of its kind, with large rooms whose long, fashionable windows  generously let in the light. There are delicate plaster ceiling roses and ornaments, and as for the stables and garden at the back . . .

The size of the audience leads the auctioneer briefly to imagine a huge amount of bidding, and he looks forward to an exhilirating battle of wills. As the auction proceeds into the late morning however, he notices a far smaller number of actual bidders than predicted. And several  of these, after some fierce competition, seem to fall back and become mute, as if contemplating some inner abyss of despond. The auctioneer perseveres and has still not quite achieved the asking price, when he notices small groups of people whispering together in corners. He coughs, frowns, clears his throat, all to no effect. He raises his voice to overcome these ill-behaved intruders, and signals to the boy (devil take it – where has he got to NOW?) to approach them and ask them (ask them ? Nay, tell them,boy, order them !) to lower their voices or better still, to continue their banter without.

This proves ineffectual, as the buzz of rumour flies at odd angles across the room, touching first the old dowager and her maid by the window, who demonstrate shock and horror, then the family near the door, who affect mild, refined surprise, next the merchant in the middle row, bent over his copy of the catalogue with an eyepiece, who stands up, glares at the hapless auctioneer, and stamps out, growling and waving his fist, and so on, until finally it reaches the ears of a lean, quietly dressed gentleman in the front row who lifts his shoulders as well as his eyebrows, takes a pinch of snuff and . . . lifts his hand in a bid.

‘GONE!’ The auctioneer’s gavel lands heavily, with a resounding bang! and the auctioneer wipes at his perspiring face with a piece of cambric. A last minute bid. No one had challenged. The bid had stayed. One of their more favoured clients, too. Henry Paglar Esq. Member of Parliament. No question of Queer Street with HIM. Money fairly pouring out of his pockets in musical fountains. The auctioneer bows, smiles, extends his hand towards the register. The auction house clerk scurries across, hair tied back in a knot,with limp cravat and worn coat two sizes too large for him, holding quill and inkpot.

The auctioneer bows again. Henry Paglar Esq. (Member of Parliament) raises his eyebrows once more and leans over the book, holding out his hand for the quill. It is dipped in the ink for him, and proferred with due reverence. He takes it and scratches his name out in the ledger. The deed is done. There are bills of exchange and terms and contracts to be drawn up; the executors are even at this moment in the house, through there, dear sir, preparing the papers.The Member of Parliament is escorted through to the (study?)and the business is concluded.

Only a few members of the audience remain to act as chorus to the whole scene; the rumour that sped through the air but a few moments before, hovers around them.

‘But is it true then ? And that gentleman has gone and bought it even so ?’

‘I would not  live in such a place, not if you was to pay me for it – why, even just standing here, in full light of day, makes me shiver . .’

‘And where was it they found him ?’

‘Up the stairs – hanging – from the stairwell . . .’

‘Was it . . . was it murder then ?’

‘No . . ‘ and here the voices lowered still more . .’ by his own hand , they say. . .’

A short pause. Then : ‘Shall we go and see ?’

Almost on tiptoe, the little group wanders out into the hallway, to gaze, with ghoulish relish up at the sun-filled stairway and landing.

‘Aye,’ murmurs one of them at last, ‘ he’ll not rest easy, that one.’

‘Well I do not know about such things,’ blusters one of the party, sticking his chest out, ‘but I should say the Honorable Member made a sharp bargain – and if he ain’t concerned about suicides and unquiet graves, why then, he is welcome to it. And I, for one, say well done for catching a bargain before it can wriggle away.’ With that, he declared himself ready to partake of a pint of ale and a pork pie at the White Horse down the road, and set his hat firmly upon his head.

In the meanwhile, the executors are seated at the table with H.Paglar M.P., looking anxiously at one another. One of them clears his throat. Paglar, who has been perusing various papers, looks up.

‘It has come to your notice then, that the previous owner . . . ‘ begins the executor. Paglar completes the sentence for him.

‘ . . was found hanging from the stairwell, yes, yes indeed, I am aware of that.’

‘And that does not trouble you, sir ?’

‘No, why should it ? Did I know the man ? I did not. Did he do it on purpose to put me out of countenance ? He did not. Have I bought a handsome property at a devilish good price ? Indeed I have. That is enough for me, and I should imagine that it would be enough for you.’

The two executors agree wholeheartedly, that indeed it was enough for them – although privately they weighed up the odds of good outweighing the devil in such a proposition, and found the balance wanting.

H.Paglar M.P. curtly pushed some more papers away from him, nodded, and once again was offered the quill. A few more flourishes on legal parchment, and the business was transacted finally – to the cool satisfaction of the new owner, and the intense satisfaction of the executors, who tripped away eagerly, anxious to leave that building with its solitary air and echoing chambers.

‘My servant shall collect the keys tomorrow morning, then.’

‘Very good, Mr Paglar. They shall be ready,’ came the answer from halfway down the street.

The M.P. set his hat on his head and turned his heel, and stepped away in his elegant buckled shoes, until the early evening dusk had melded him into the background.

The house was locked up for the night and left to its own devices.

Night advanced.

Houses make sounds long after people have ceased to move about in them. Wood is the most culpable, as if wishing to remind all in the vicinity of the strain and use to which it has been put during the day.

Is that the reason then, for a rhythmic, persistent creaking in the hall? It must be one of the floorboards on the upper landing, reacting to the cool of the night air. A rather talkative floorboard, however. Strangely, the noise, slight as it is, continues throughout the night, and only fades away with the bustle of the morning traffic in the street outside.

Within a matter of weeks the house was being re-furnished, and a month again after that, a dinner was held.

The creaking of carriages and stamping of hooves filled the air, likewise the clapping of doors as the footmen jumped about, opening and shutting, leading the guests through the front doors with the finest of tapers.

 The new owner stood in the hall with his family to receive every new arrival with a quiet smile and a careless wave towards the dining room. More footmen stood at the ready to draw chairs out for the ladies; the sideboard was weighed down with carafes and bottles and decanters, and silver dishes with covers. NO expense had been spared – the guests observed it all, took note, smiled, smirked and winked and nodded their way through the meal, offering toasts to H.Paglar M.P. ‘a worthy holder of office’. He has made a speech in the House this very day, on the subject of coffee-houses and charity schools – did anyone hear the speech ? No, not a word of it ! But ‘t is said it was very good, very good indeed – and so forth.

 Come the pies and oysters, and their good opinion has been swelled again – mostly on clouds of excellent wine, and one of the company, who considers himself something of a wit, demands yet another speech of their host, thinking this good sport. H.Paglar dabs at his mouth with his cloth, and smiles deprecatingly; however , he stands, and raises his hands.

A hush falls.

The host claps once.

A footman standing near a door at the far end of the room, immediately turns and opens it, and as if called up by Oberon, come ‘sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not’. A gentle applause, and the audience, transported by the delicate good taste evinced by their favourite parliamentarian, one by one, tiptoes into the next room, where musicians sit sawing away at their instruments.

Such has been the general merriment and gorging on the feast that few have closely observed the general pallor of both Mr and Mrs Paglar. Indeed, had the guests observed it, they would doubtless have put it down to the necessary fatigue of preparation for this evening. Then , as the strains of Mr Purcell’s ‘When I am laid . .’ waft through the air, it seems that even the the conscientious, refined host and hostess find some repose and comfort, for their heads incline, and their eyes begin to close. One or two guests wander about, admiring the paintings and hangings.

The sounds of music however have hardly ‘crept in their ears’ when a shriek breaks the sweet harmony. It startles the musicians, who break off with echoing screeches as their bows jar on the strings. It shakes the Paglars awake on the spot; they sit up straight, staring at each other. It is near – it comes from within the house itself. It comes again. The guests jump up and question one another, while Paglar strides forward together with the servants and male guests into the hall.

They find one of the female guests in the centre of the hall, staring wide-eyed above her and pointing up at the stairwell.

Gradually as the guests gather, a low collective gasp breaks out, echoing in waves, as each newcomer joins in the horror. All heads crane up to see a figure hanging from the stairwell, swinging slowly, to and fro. In the silence that has fallen comes the rhythmic, persistent, creaking that has continued every night for the last month and more, murdering Mrs Paglar’s sleep. Worse still however, the figure, when it passes into the moonlight coming through the upper window, disappears completely – then comes again. It fades in, and out, translucent, transparent, before gradually fading away completely, until nothing is left but the dismal, rhythmic creaking . . .

1891

Bower House, Wednesday the 13th of July.

Still the same house, still the same family. Nothing outwardly had changed over the years. A succession of Paglars, all descended from the same Henry Paglar who bought the house in 1791, and lived only a few years longer to repent of his acquisition. Ever since then, however, a Paglar had lived there, entered Parliament, and achieved this or that minor success, before being gathered up and turned to dust. It was true that sudden death ran in the family. Rumour had it that the house was a troubled one; in its relatively short life it had already acquired at least one ghost, that of the original owner, to be seen occasionally, hanging from the stairwell. Naturally, Myth and Rumour lost little time in attaching the significance of an Omen to any such sightings.

This particular Wednesday in 1891 had started off a misty, steamy summer’s day, and there was enough sunlight left of the late afternoon to pour through one of the long, elegant windows in the library. Henry Paglar had not only left a haunted house; his descendants had on the whole also inherited his lean build. A tall, angular young man stood in the sunlight, gazing down at a visiting card that had been left for him.

‘Dear P.W

    Left this in haste; off now to the club – I may take it then, that ye shall join us there this evening ?

Claude Berrington’

George Paglar Watts turned the card over and over in his fingers, his brow creased, uncertain how to proceed. He had been deuced unlucky recently at the gaming table, and was not in the mood to lose more. He was also beginning to grow suspicious that one of the players was cheating. He tapped the edge of the card against the table, jingled the sovereigns in his pocket and cursed briefly.

His father would have to know at some point. Perhaps he did know, or guess. There was so little between the two of them at the best of times that it was hard to tell what his parent thought. His father’s recent sudden rise in the House had singled him out for wider public attention; now was hardly the time for his son to be found in debt at the gambling tables of his club.

Dammit, of course he must know – word flew like the wind, it would have reached his ears within days – hours even. Had George noted any extra show of indifference in him at breakfast ?

But what if . . what if George was not only able to win back his losses, but also unmask the sharper who had been fleecing him and the others ?

A flurry of coat tails, and a topper was seized; tap tap tap went the shoes down the stairs, and out into the street. He would walk to the club.

‘Misty again this evening, Fenby.’

‘Set to become a Particular, I should say, sir. The other gentlemen are already in the gaming room.’

‘Mr Berrington too ?’

‘Mr Berrington arrived at six, and has been playing cards ever since.’ The Club servant took Paglar’s hat and coat and then coughed discreetly.

‘Yes, Fenby?’

‘Pardon me, sir, but he has been winning again ; high stakes too.’

Paglar’s heart sank at this. There was always the choice of returning home directly, of slinking upstairs to his room and hiding away.

A sudden, raucous round of laughter burst out from the upper floor, causing a spurt of anger and pride to course though him. His money, dammit, his money was lying upstairs, in Berrington’s pockets – Paglar was damned if he was going to leave it there.

‘Very well, Fenby. Thank you.’  He tripped up the stairs, in an attempt to appear lighthearted and at ease and failing miserably.

Fenby looked after him and shook his head ever so slightly.

As promised, the Particular came in, sweeping and billowing across, smothering the City. Carriages went slowly, pedestrians took extra care before crossing the roads.

A footman approached Fenby with a folded note on a small tray. Fenby frowned briefly in puzzlement. He opened the note to read it, and stood looking at it impassively while the footman waited to one side.

‘Very good – I shall manage this.’

The footman faded away into the shadows and Fenby went out of the club.

A carriage, with cloak hanging over the door-panel, stood there in the swirling fog, its driver and horse both facing forward, steam and breath adding to the swirls. A gloved hand holding a cane waved imperiously at Fenby who advanced respectfully. There was low-voiced exchange which lasted some little while, ending with the gloved hand holding out a small packet, which Fenvy took. Fenby bowed his head and stepped back. The cane was rapped against the ceiling of the carriage, and the driver flicked his whip. Wraith-like, the body moved off, until it melted away. Fenby  peered after it long after it was visible. Again, he shook his head ever so slightly before returning to the Club.

Another sort of fog swirled around in the gambling room, and it was not just the smoke from pipes and cigars. George Paglar’s brain was filled with it. The cards were not behaving properly, jumping about at sixes and sevens  . . he chuckled at the idea.

‘Care to share the joke, Paggers?’ quipped Berrington from across the table.

‘It’s ha – it’s – haha – it’s the cards y’see . . . sixes and hahahah sevens . . . very good, don’t you think, very good indeed . . . ‘

Berrington exchanged looks with the other players, who began to look concerned.

‘Look here, Paggers,’ said one of them, ‘if you ‘re not feeling the thing –‘

‘But I am – I am feeling – quite the thing,  . . .’ Paglar flung down another two cards and called for more brandy. One of the other players shifted uncomfortably.

‘Excuse me, Mr Paglar sir,’ Fenby is at his side, holding out a silver tray.

‘Oh devil take it , man, can’t you see we’re at play here ?’ cries out Berrington.

‘Begging your pardons, sirs, but there is an urgent message for Mr Paglar. . .’

Paglar takes up the packet, and opens it.

A long pause. A few muffled coughs. Paglar places his cards on the table, throws down a couple of sovereigns from the evening’s winnings, and sweeps the rest into his handkerchief. tying it up tightly.

‘But the game, dammit, the game !’  comes the general outcry.

‘Oh yes – let Swift take my place. I have to go.’ And so, amongst imprecations and protestations, with a distracted air, Paglar leaves, staggering downstairs as if the hounds of hell were after him (or at least an enraged, over-weight boxer), takes his hat and cane, and steps outside into the Particular. The foul air wafts over him, nearly making him sick. He reels back into the hallway of the club, where Fenby has managed to catch up with him.

‘If you would care to wait, sir, the carriage will be here to collect you – to save inhaling the noxious air.’

‘By Bacchus, I think I might wait indeed, after all. Foul stuff, ain’t it. I think I shall, I shall . . . ‘

With Fenby’s assistance Paglar sits in one of the chairs near the door.

The distant clopping of hooves, muffled by the fog, gradually loudens as the carriage returns. There is still a mantel covering the carriage door, but seemingly no passenger within.

Fenby assists Paglar into the carriage, rather as a servant with an elderly, gouty master, slams the door shut and knocks twice. Again the carriage moves off, phantom-like into the fog and is swallowed up in seconds. Again Fenby peers after it, and shakes his head briefly before returning within.

At the Bower House, all is quiet, save for the gentle ticking of the clock in the hall. It chimes softly and a silver moon is visible on its face, moving slowly around the numbers in measured time.

The ticking is so gentle, it cannot quite wipe out the sound of that infernal creaking floorboard, which still plagues the stairwell every now and then, almost as if someone was standing on the sensitive spot, moving backwards and forwards to make it sound out. Tonight the real moon has difficulty shining in through the fog, and creates a smothered silvery gauze. No one is there tonight to witness that vague form, swinging to and fro, only half visible in that false darkness.

The Thunderer, Thursday, 14 th July 1891

 ‘The London Particular claims another victim.

‘Last night, a Constable was called to assist in the recovery of a body from a fountain in Vauxhall Gardens; a physician was also called, but after due examination, pronounced life quite exinct.

The body was that of a young man, well-dressed, with a cigarette case engraved with the initials G.P.W.in pocket, likewise gold stop-watch, also inscribed; nothing else was discovered that could identify the deceased.’

Drip, drip,drip.

Mr A. Paglar Watts, M.P. turned his collar up,wrinkling his nose in distaste. He followed the police officer to the marble slab, and waited as the cloth was lifted back from the face of the corpse.

The M.P. gazed stonily down at his extinct progeny, and stated drily : ‘Well, that would appear to be him.’

‘You are quite certain of that, sir ?’

‘I am.’ The M.P. continued in the same vein of mild distate, as if referring to a rotten borough, and addressed himself directly to the surgeon present : ‘Cause of death ?’

Here there was a pause, a distinct awkwardness. The surgeon hesitated, looking at the police officer.

‘That part of the case is still under investigation.’

Mr A. Paglar Watts shot the officer a sharpish look, and paused, on the brink of some biting comment. The officer felt a brief pang of sympathy for the man’s now deceased son.

The cloth was lowered, the two men left.

Drip, drip, drip.

The inquest was held, and no explanation found. Death was presumed accidental, a fatal combination of alcohol and bad weather, which somehow had caused him to fall into a fountain in the derelict Vauxhall gardens and drown. Quite how he came to be in such a place at such a time remained a mystery.

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5 thoughts on “Of Soul Sincere (extract)

    • It’s the sequel I’ve started working on, Julia comes into it later on, the idea is ‘genus loci’ where one house stays in the same family, ‘collecting’ events and people, apparently influencing behaviour . . .or is it something else . . .

      • Oh my gosh! I do this in my books. There’s a house, and a couple of minor characters who connect the three books. But my editor/friend told me not to do it. It wasn’t working, only I don’t think I can NOT do it, you know? I’m so glad. I find that so encouraging.

  1. Evolution comes through experiment, else how did we manage to end up with classical literature in the first place ? And in order to keep to a specific period genre with an authentic feel, there are ingredients that go into making it feel right – things that also go to making the reader feel at home, comfortable, a sense of ‘oh goody, I know this’ or ‘that’s just my kind of a read’ (I’ve had that sort of comment more than once on Greenwood).. . a certain amount of recognition is, I feel, a key factor.

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