Cry of the Peacock

Abbie and Mariana stood before the mirror. The aunt stood behind, appraising the seamstress’ work as she cut the last of the threads and brushed the skirts straight and adjusted the starched and high-collard blouses they now wore beneath tailor-made jackets of stiff, almost immovable material. Coffins in crepe and coal black lace.

“It is as I feared, Arabella, I’m sorry to say. You do not look well in black. But there is nothing we can do.”

The look on Aunt Newhaven’s face as she examined Mariana required no words. Her sister always had and always would look well in anything she wore. Were it the dark, lustreless fabric alone, or the stiff, almost masculine cut of the cloth, Abbie might not have looked so ill. But she was ill. Dark circles beneath her eyes bore the evidence. Her skin was sallow, not the radiant, rose glow she was used to. But her aunt, having never laid eyes upon her before these last two weeks, would not know. Abbie knew. And so did Mariana, though she was too polite to say.

The aunt, casting her approval over the new attire, if not over the girls themselves, at last left the room, accompanied by the elf, in order to arrange to have the wardrobe finished, complete with died undergarments and handkerchiefs. And to have it all done in the quantities necessary for the year, or what was left of it, that they would remain in full mourning. Her clothes, at least, were not a permanent arrangement. But such offered little comfort, for it begged the comparison to other matters.

“At least we will still have our lessons,” Mariana said, faithfully optimistic.

It could not be much easier for her, Abbie understood, for her dreams had been dashed as well as her own.

“Yes,” Abbie answered. “Though I suspect it’s so we will pass on what we know to our future charges. Hardly for ourselves.”

“But it is something to look forward to. Some occupation, don’t you think? And we will be better for it.”

“Do you want to be a part of this venture, Mariana?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“I suppose not.”

“Then I might as well choose to be happy as not,” was Mariana’s surprising answer.

Abbie had miscalculated her sister entirely. Mariana, always the dreamer, at times the mercenary, always admiring what others had and wishing it for herself, had grown up a good deal in the last fortnight. Perhaps she had avoided any unnecessary labours before now. Perhaps she had been vain and idle. But too, she had always been optimistic, turning the worst of situations into the potential for better things to come. ‘Where one door closes,’ she had used to say, ‘another always opens.’ Abbie could take a lesson or two from her sister. And she vowed to do it.

*                      *                      *

Over the next few weeks, Abbie committed herself to putting on a brave face, to smile when she felt like crying, to speak respectfully when she felt like screaming. Perhaps Mr Meredith saw her struggle, for on the few occasions he joined them for meals, or to visit of an evening, he made an especial effort to encourage her, drawing her out into the light and pleasant conversation that was best for her in her recovery, both from grief and illness.

“Have you never been to London before, Miss Gray?” he said, folding his ringless hands before him. She must have imagined he had ever worn one.

“No. Never.”

“There is much to see and do, you know. You have much to look forward to, when time and circumstance allow it, of course.”

“My aunt had told me, I believe, that it was you who would decide what was to be done with us. Is this true?”

“To a certain extent, I suppose.”

“And so touring London is part of your plan?”

“It might be. If you will be very good and learn to deserve it.” He smiled then, almost coyly. “You are looking much better, you know.”

“I’m not and you know it.”

“You are at least smiling. That makes a greater difference than perhaps you can imagine.”

She looked at him askance. She could never quite tell if his manner was fatherly or slightly flirtatious. She compromised and called it brotherly. Elder brotherly. Much elder. And laughed to herself.

“What is so funny?”

“Oh, nothing. I was just wondering if you meant to play tour guide and slap my hands when I tried to touch the exhibits, or, if I was very good, you would buy me an ice cream at the end of the day.”

He laughed at this. “I doubt very much you can be that well-behaved.” And then, quite unexpectedly, he took his leave of them.

What was fun a moment ago left her feeling uncomfortable now, as if she had attempted (and failed) to flirt with her favourite uncle. She alternately liked him and was made to feel uncomfortable by him. She was desperate for friends, she supposed, while her sister spent all of her free time with their aunt. It was good of her, really. But, in spite of her best efforts, Abbie felt increasingly alone. Still, she felt he was a good man, Mr Meredith, if a bit strange at times. Look what he was doing for all these fallen and friendless women. But then…how had he come to be in such a position in the first place? How did he know where to look and just how to gain their trust?

Conscious that she was overanalyzing (he was merely her aunt’s lawyer, after all) she turned to her aunt, who offered her a half-puzzled, half-condemning look. Was she in trouble for engaging in warm and animated dialogue with a gentleman of her aunt’s paid acquaintance? Or was the unspoken reprimand in consequence of his being driven from the room—by her?

Again, she was thinking too much about it. Heaven, how she needed a distraction! She was going fairly out of her mind, she was quite sure. Grief, boredom, loneliness…these were conspiring against her greatest efforts to conquer her darker emotions. And together they were breeding something not quite safe or sane.

*                      *                      *

If Abbie was in need of a diversion, it was soon enough provided. Upon descending the staircase one evening, a knock was heard at the door. Seeing no one else in sight, she opened it to find Mr Meredith holding, half carrying, a young woman, pale and in evident distress. The kind Abbie understood by now, though she’d not seen it for herself since leaving Holdaway. The woman bore an air of desperation and shame Abbie had never before seen, even under the worst of circumstances.

“You shouldn’t have opened the door,” Mr Meredith said to her.

“You knocked, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but you shouldn’t have opened it.”

He didn’t quite look at her, engaged as he was with his burden, and began to ascend the stairs. His hand, resting on the banister to support them both, bore a ring. So she had not imagined it!

“There’s a housekeeper for a reason, Miss Gray.”

“Well, next time I’ll remember to make you wait.”

“I’m here,” Mrs Giles said, rushing into the hallway. “This way, Mr Meredith. Have you got her? That’s good. If I can just get by you. I’m so sorry. Yes, just this way.”

“Please, Miss Gray,” Mr Meredith said now, as he continued his way up the stairs, and doing his best to follow Mrs Giles, “next time wait for the housekeeper.”

She did not like his patronizing tone and stood mutely watching as he shouldered his burden the remaining distance.

He returned a moment later.

“May I be of some assistance?” she asked him as he descended the stairs once more. “I have some experience in—”

He stopped just before her.

“Miss Gray, you and I both know you are not entirely well. I don’t think it a good idea. Besides, we—”

“Let me do something,” she said, exasperation heavy in her voice. “I’m desperate for something to do. And I can do this. I can. You’ll see.”

“And besides,” he said again and more pointedly, “we have a doctor. If you’ll just let me fetch him.” And he pushed past her toward the door. Before he shut it behind him, he turned back. “Perhaps you should rest. It’s bound to be a long night.”

“Does that mean I can help?”

“It means,” he said, with a hint of irritation, “that you may find your sleep disturbed.” And the door slammed to.

Abbie turned back to the staircase.

“What is it?” Mariana said, emerging from the parlour. “What is the matter? I thought I heard voices.”

“Someone has come, Mariana. Another of our aunt’s young women. Her time is close at hand.”

“Her time? You mean…?” and she too turned her attention toward the upper floor.

“Yes. Mrs Giles is with her, and Mr Meredith has gone for the doctor.”

Mariana simply stared for half a minute. Such situations she had so far avoided with success. She had rarely helped her mother, and then only with supplying nourishment and small comforts to the mother. Or later, to the child. She had never helped Abbie. Not once. But it didn’t matter. Their help was not wanted. Still, it was plain the shock of reality was great despite the forewarning they had been given of their aunt’s occasional unexpected guests.

“I’ll just go get our aunt, I think,” Mariana said, half dazed.

She returned a moment later, following behind her aunt, who, upon stopping before the staircase, hooked her walking stick over the banister and proceeded to climb them with no aid whatsoever. She stopped just at the first landing.

“Mary. You might be able to assist me. You are very patient and quiet. You might calm the poor girl.”

“Please, aunt,” Abbie asked in her sister’s behalf (for she had suddenly grown quite pale) as well as for herself. She needed a purpose, some meaningful employment or she would simply go mad. “Might I help? I asked Mr Meredith, but he thought it not a good idea. But truly, I do have some experience in these matters.”

“Experience!” and she scoffed. “Mr Meredith knows best. If he would not allow it, then neither will I. Perhaps an early night for you? You look quite done in. Mary, if you will?”

Mariana offered her sister a look that was both regret and apology. But she followed nevertheless. Abbie yet remained where she stood, helpless to help and lost to do anything else.

The door opened once more. Mr Meredith and the doctor entered.

“Back? So soon?” Truly she could not have been standing there above ten minutes.

“It was no great distance, Miss Gray. His is but the next house over.”

Ah. The doctor was also the neighbour. “And you live?”

“Some would say I live here. What do you say?”

“Yours is next door as well, isn’t it?”

“Just so! Now do go to bed, there’s a good girl.” And he and the doctor went upstairs.

Tentatively Abbie followed. It was quiet. Too quiet. She located the room, having discerned it from the others, not by the low hum of whispering voices, but by the crowd of idle and anxious housemaids who had gathered in light of the excitement. Why had she thought she could be of so much use? Clearly help was readily at hand. And Mariana’s services were likely more for the aunt’s benefit than the young girl’s. There she knew herself to be powerless. And so, with resignation, she returned to her room and prepared herself for bed. And slept.

*                      *                      *

Abbie awoke suddenly. A scream filled the house. Doors slamming, people walking quickly, loudly. She arose and dressed. The sun was just beginning to rise, casting an eerie half light through soot encrusted windows.

She washed her face. The circles beneath her eyes were as dark as ever. She brushed her hair and tied it up, then dressed as quickly as she could before creeping out into the corridor and up the stairs. All was quiet now. She approached the girl’s room. The door was open, just a crack. Abbie peered inside. The young woman was lying quite still. Mariana, sitting beside her, rested her head on the bed. Had she been there all night? Had she fallen asleep? But no, for she looked up then, tears streaming down her pale face.

Abbie pushed the door open and entered. The doctor, with his back to the door, stood on the other side of the room, whispering earnestly with the aunt, but the sound of the creaking door startled them. In Aunt Newhaven’s arms lay the child, resting too quietly.

“What has happened?” Abbie asked, but knew already.

“The child did not make it,” the doctor answered. “It was a breech birth. He strangled on the chord.”

“You did not send for me?”

The aunt, with the dead child, limp and blue in her arms, turned away.

“There was nothing anyone could do,” the doctor answered.

“And the woman?”

“She’s lost a great deal of blood…”

Abbie looked, and immediately wished she had not. Like a rag doll the woman lay, spent and wasted in her futile labour. Abbie felt instantly weak. The room was unbearably warm and close. And as it began to spin, she turned from it, and walked, with one hand on the wall to steady her, as quickly as she could down the corridor to her own. Her knees gave out upon the stairs, but after a moment’s rest, she arose again and found her way to her room. But she had hardly stepped into it before she realized she could not remain. Decorated in vertical stripes, it now looked to her as a jail cell. Or a prison tower. She was the Lady of Shallot. I am half sick of shadows said… Was her whole life to be one of futility and missed chances?

From this room too she turned, and as quickly as her still spinning head would allow her, she walked down the stairs and straight out the front door. To stand in the garden, if only for a moment. She needed air. She needed freedom. But even the fence, with its wrought iron bars, seemed as a cage.

In the distance she heard the cry of a peacock. The sun had fully risen, but was hidden by a heavy fog that loomed and rolled about the empty street. She shuddered in the chill air. She heard the cry, once more, of a captive bird. Was there a park so near? The fog cleared, to reveal the gate and a sign. But before she could quite make these out to be what she wished them, a cab obstructed her view. It stopped before the house adjacent. Mr Meredith’s house. One of his clients, perhaps. A gentleman, no doubt.

Yes, it was a gentleman. He was standing on the street now, looking very seriously, very purposefully about him. He examined the door before him and found it not to be the one he wanted. He stepped away, then turned to walk in the direction of her aunt’s door. As he came closer, she saw that the look on his face was one of irritation, perhaps even anger. He stopped just before the gate, while she remained half hidden behind the withered and dying late summer flowers.

Aunt Newhaven’s door bore no number, and so he stared for a moment, as if willing it to reveal its secret. Of course it would not. He heaved a frustrated sigh and stood back to examine the façade.

And then he saw her. He looked at first surprised, then irritated again, half angry, and then… Something changed. He suddenly looked sympathetic, kind. Concerned.

“Are you quite all right?” he asked her and came to stand just at the gate.

“Yes, of course.”

“Something has not upset you?”

It was only then that she realized she had been crying. Confused in her near delirium, distracted by the unexpected appearance of a stranger, she had not thought to wipe her tears away. She was crying no longer, but the traces yet remained. He offered a handkerchief. She took it.

“You are looking for someone?” she asked him, when she had done wiping her eyes and dabbing her nose.

“I— Yes. Possibly.”

“You’re unsure?” she said and laughed.

He smiled with grey-blue eyes. He was very handsome when he smiled. “I think I must have the wrong address. Perhaps you can help me.”

“I doubt it. I—” But how explain her circumstances? She did not know the neighbourhood though she had been here nearly six weeks. She lived with her aunt, and with her sister. And with… Good heaven, she couldn’t explain that! But she did not want him to go. She wanted him to stay. Or better, take her away from here. To go anywhere. She didn’t much care at the moment.

“Miss Gray?” It was Mr Meredith’s voice. He was just emerging from his house. And he was now approaching. “What are you doing outside, Arabella? What are you doing standing- Good day, sir. Can I help you? Are you acquainted with this woman?”

The question was plied to the stranger and had a curious effect. On a sudden he had resumed his former irritated manner. No, she was quite sure he was actually angry now.

“Not at all,” he said, rather too emphatically, and gracing her with a last icy glance, he turned to walk away.

What could she have possibly done to offend him?

“You will at least tell me your name, sir,” Mr Meredith called after him.

But the gentleman did not answer. Mr Meredith followed then, but the stranger was too quick. He was in his cab and pulling from the kerb before the lawyer could catch up to him.

“Arabella!” The aunt now. “What on earth do you think you are doing? What has gotten into you? Come inside this instant!”

And so she did.

And while her aunt scolded, and Mariana (who had now joined them) removed her wrap and warmed her hands with her own (and as she took something from them), and as Mr Meredith returned with more questions (“Do you know that man?”, “What did he want?”, “Did you get his name?”, “Are you sure you’ve never seen him before?”) Abbie felt the will to continue drain out of her. Her vision began to blur and dim. The walls tilted and began to crush down upon her. The floor rose up to meet her. And she met it half way.

*                      *                      *

“You said you saw her?”

“I did.”

“With your own eyes?”

“How else?”

James whistled and sat back in his chair before the fire. They had agreed to meet at their club, where they sometimes took rooms when they were in Town. The townhouse, of course, was shut up this time of year. “And she is…?”

“Finish your sentence, if you will,” his brother answered.

“She is…,” and he shook his head, “…as common as we supposed her?”

“It’s hard to say.”

“No it isn’t. Say it. She is common tenant riff-raff. A wanton opportunist and a mercenary grasper.”

“I couldn’t possible tell all that simply by looking at her.”

“Then what did she look like?”

David cast a sideways glance at his brother.

“Good G___! Don’t tell me she’s a stunner? David Ransom Crawford, are you that soft?”

“I never said anything of the sort. She had been crying.”

“You are soft!”

“And she looked as though she had recently been ill. Or perhaps was still.”

“And despite all that…”

“I told you, I never said she was a stunner.”

“But you didn’t say you didn’t think it.”

“You don’t think Ruskin would be moony after a plain faced waif, do you?”

James took in a deep breath and released it with his answer. “I suppose not…,” he drawled.

“But as she is not to come after all it really cannot matter now.”

“Ah!” James answered and withdrew a fold of paper from his pocket. Which he handed to his elder brother.

“What is this?”

“Read it.”

David opened it and read. “Damn!”

“Exactly.”

“So she is to come. This can’t be allowed to happen.”

“Exactly!”

David groaned and ran his hands roughly through his hair. “So we are back where we started, are we?”

“No. We started with Ruskin having his eyes set on the Mountbatten thing. Lacking in charm, not exactly a looker, but she had what counts. And it might have come to something too. But then he returned to the estate, you see, and that’s when the little minx got her claws into him.”

“He needn’t have done much more than look at her, you know.”

“It’s that bad is it?”

“It might be.”

Silence.

“This can’t be allowed to happen,” David said again.

“It’s happening, brother. But she can’t stay, and that’s a fact.”

“What do you mean to do about it?”

A rather wicked look played upon James face.

“What are you thinking?”

“You don’t want to handle it, I take it? You have your work to keep you in Town?”

“Yes. And no!” He waved his hand in an obscure circle. “Reverse that. You know what I mean.”

“You’ll trust me to handle it, then?”

David laughed. “I trust you can handle it, yes. Do I trust you? That’s asking something entirely different.”

James rubbed his hands together. “Very good.”

“Just… Don’t…”

“What?”

“Don’t do anything to hurt her, will you? I think her life this last year has been difficult enough.”

James narrowed his gaze.

“Don’t compromise her or anything.”

“I thought you said you trusted me.”

“I believe I said I didn’t.”

James arose and threw his coat on. “I’ll take care of it. Never fear.” And he patted his brother on the back before turning from the room.

“Where are you going?”

“Out!”

“Again?”

“Things to see, people to do. Or whatever.”

“Have I told you you smell like cheap perfume?” David called after his brother, who was already halfway through the door.

“And watered brandy. Yes, twice today.” And the door slammed closed.

David ran a hand through his hair once more, and pulled hard at it before letting it go. Then blew a great breath. “Damn it!”

The Gondola Cat (excerpt)

1870. Or thereabouts. Four in the afternoon. Or thereabouts. On a hot summer’s day. (Is it imagination or were summers longer then ?)A man with a mane of greying hair, an excellent moustache for keeping out draughts (but a less than impressive beard), and a straw boater, marching briskly along the dusty banks of a narrow canal, encumbered with various suitcases and boxes. 

A cat, a huge tabby, wandering and twining aimlessly along, nearly colliding with said man (William Thomas, late of R.A. , naturally impoverished), who has now arrived at his destination: a fading green door halfway along the embankment.

He pulls at the bell and listens patiently for the shambling footsteps of Lucia, the lady who ‘does’ for his hospitable friends. They are away at present, but have kindly left their house at Mr  Thomas’s disposal for the summer, as they have done before. Lucia, breathing heavily (her knees bother her in this heat), eventually opens the door, and cordial exchanges are performed. Yes, everyone is very well, we have been fortunate with the weather, how was the crossing ? Very good, very good. Then, sir, the usual rooms are ready, hot water will be brought up directly; Well,well, what a magnificent beast – eh, Mrs Lucia ? Nearly knocked me over – Does he, indeed ? Must make an excellent mouser . . . How are the knees ? – No,no, I can manage perfectly well, and you must consider yourself on holiday; you will remember my needs are simple – dinner at 8.00 ? Capital , capital. A dopo.

A fair number of stairs to the top, which creak with comforting familiarity, a narrow corridor with several doors leading off from it, turn the handle, throw the suitcases down and fling open the shutters. Red rooftops, blue sky, white stone, yellow walls, green water, and black boats. The afternoon sun dapples lovingly on the water, plays tricks on the underbellies of bridges and flirts engagingly with the metalwork on the long, lazy-looking black boats. There’s that huge tabby again, curled up now in one of the boats. Well, well. Such is this city of stone and water. Mr William Thomas, late of the Royal Academy, turns first to a battered brown valise and proceeds to sort out his most precious belongings: paintbrushes, colours and pencils. Summer is not a time for idleness for such as he. Summer is to be spent seeking to emulate that hero (and namesake) of his: tight-fisted, secretive, successful, brilliant Mr Turner, also R.A. Also fond of Venice. Also, from what Mr Thomas recalls, amiably tolerant of cats. It really is a magnificent beast, even curled up down there; positively huge. No doubt Lucia is partly responsible for its massive girth . . .

An absent-minded fly settles on the cat’s nose. He swipes at it languidly, but really, it is simply too much effort. The fly will get bored and float away of its own accord. The sun is just a little lower in the sky. The cat settles down to another light nap.

Mr Thomas has finished unpacking. Water has duly been brought up; he has washed, and inspected his rooms – a bedroom, a larger room with a balcony and a long table which makes do as studio, and a third room- quite unnecessary, he tells himself, – the ‘parlour’- in the unlikely event that he should receive visitors. All in order, as ever.

It remains only to take in the fresh air from the very top of the house – up a somewhat decrepit stairway in the ‘parlour’ to the rooftop, where a wooden platform has lain basking in the sun for the last two hundred years or so. It is the altana, possibly the artist’s favourite part of this most comfortable of lodgings, ideal as an extended studio for painting on fine days. This is where, in days gone by, ladies of leisure sat bleaching their hair, he muses, an incorrigible romantic. He might even make it the subject of a painting. (He might not, if he realized what noxious substances they were busy lathering their heads with at the time).

The day is not quite finished, nor yet the evening quite begun. There is that lingering light, what some like to call the Flemish light you see in Carpaccio or Bellini. It is a little more than twilight yet a little less than dusk. It is the moment of change, where one thing becomes another, or is not quite as it appears.

It is the moment for change . . .The cat starts to grow in the smallish, neatish boat which also begins to turn into . . .   A long and narrow and black boat, with a cabin in the middle, in the best of traditions.

A low rasping chuckle across the water; a velvety movement in the prow of the boat and suddenly, a figure rises apparently from nowhere, doffing his hat to the world at  large, before settling down again. To the passer-by, it would appear there really is someone sitting there.

Yellow; red madder, crimson lake , ultramarine, burnt umber. . . to work tomorrow.

Thus musing, Mr Thomas hardly hears the voice at first.

‘Oé . . .’

Familiar calls of the boat men, ferrying their way about, looking for custom.

‘Sinior ! Sinior ?? Oé ! Andemo in gondoá ?’

One of them down below. In the boat he’s seen the cat in. Waving. At Mr Thomas ? A rather optimistic character, as Mr Thomas is unlikely to want to trail all the way downstairs for a boat trip. However, to be polite, he waves back. The light has changed again. But he is tired after the journey, and retires to his room to dress (with trepidation) for dinner. If memory serves him well, Lucia will be preparing dumplings.

 The cat takes a quick look around, as if seeing things for the first time.

It espies Mr Thomas on the altana, who has returned the gesture of the raised hat. Aha. The man sees. The cat purrs meditatively.

In the kitchen, the water comes to boil, while Lucia thrashes the soul out of several potatoes. She believes in her gnocchi. She is convinced that her gnocchi are what any human being with a decent appetite desires at the end of a long day’s journey. She sings under her breath and prepares the sauce. She is also convinced that Mr Thomas is devoted to her gnocchi sauce. She heaves the potato dumplings into the pot hanging over the fire. Plup,plup,plup. Spat, spat, spittle.

Wooden table, creaky chair black with age, old crockery and silver polished to gossamer, everything in place. Mr Thomas sat at table with a mild air of resignation. There remained only the question of Lucia’s dumplings, after which he could look forward to a night of either mild or galloping indigestion.

The dumplings arrive, accompanied by a beaming Lucia, amidst clouds of steam. The wine jug (Mr Thomas’s only hope of salvation at this point) is cheerfully banged down before him. Outside the now shuttered windows he can hear the occasional footfall of a passer-by, the blip-blop-blip-blop of water lapping against boats.

‘Ah, the famous gnocchi, yes indeed, thank you, most kind, thank you, that is sufficient  – is that our friend the cat miaowing outside ? I saw him sleeping in the boat earlier on – as you say, probably belongs to no-one in particular – but no doubt looks so well because you feed him – oh you don’t ? At least, not as far as you know – yes, well . . .’ and he continues in this vein until mercifully Lucia remembers she left something in the kitchen undone and leaves the room. He tastes one dumpling gingerly. Quite. Quick move to the nearest window, open the shutters and peer out furtively, like a criminal escaping with the family jewels. Nobody about. Seize the dish, take aim – there’s that cat again. In the dim evening light he appears to loom even larger, and patters heavily towards the window in the way cats do, with a most beguiling expression made up of innocence and conspiracy. It is the act of a moment to feed him and return with empty dish to his place at table, and there await the return of Lucia with (thank heavens) some cheese; this at least she had no hand in the making of. Mr Thomas allows himself a slightly smug expression. It bears no comparison to the smugness on the face of the cat sitting outside on the canal’s edge in the warm summer night, with girth even more distended than before. It allows itself a quiet burp.

Satisfied and relatively comfortable, Mr Thomas makes his way to the library for a brief visit before going up to bed. On this visit there is the added boon of sorting out the massive collection of books housed there.  He has been asked, almost apologetically, to do his friends the favour of looking over some old prints and engravings, knowing his ability as restorer. And naturally, equally aware of his scholarly inclinations, they have invited him to look through any part of the collection that catches his interest. They could little have imagined his enthusiasm at the prospect, for they did not realise  that here was a man with a secret ambition.

Lucia brought the key to the library before clearing away the dishes, laying it reverently on the table, on its own little worn velvet cushion. He now wanders around slowly, savouring every moment of transitory possession, taking in the worn spines and faded lettering in the flickering candlelight.

He gloats, for the collection is known to contain a great mass of material concerning the old masters – some handwritten in ancient notebooks, quite possibly unread for a hundred or more years. Mr T’s aspiration is no mean one – he has determined to make the Discovery of the Ages, and dig up , in a manner of speaking, the Golden Key.

He first heard it mentioned during his student days; it was the fever of the time in many artistic circles, but where others had lost spirit and settled for eking out their livings in teaching and etching, he had never lost the fire those words had first ignited : the Golden Key. The Secret. The Secret to the Great Art of Painting, to which all artists aspired. Some had become obsessed and self-destructive, wrecking their own work and that of others in an attempt to re-discover the secrets of the Masters; some had ended even in the mad-house, or dead in miserable hovels. Mr T. had continued with the fervour of Pan chasing Echo. Any library caught his attention – whisper to him that there were papers on the life of Titian, or the technique of Van Eyck, and he would not sleep till he had found an opportunity to peruse them. This collection in the creaky old house in this city of stone and water would surely be a treasure trove.

 He barely refrains from rubbing his hands in a child’s glee at the thought of opening his box of delights the following day. With great self-restraint he withdraws before the candle can burn too far down.

His first task in the library, the next morning, was to sort through the set of engravings kept in the holder/rack.

They were varied and in various conditions – some almost in pieces, others wearing through in parts, laid between tissues. He spent the morning setting them out on the long library desk.

He made out a list of materials and equipment that would be required and went through to the kitchen where Lucia was peeling potatoes. His heart sank. More gnocchi. She nodded when he gave her the list. Her nephew would oblige. He also needed canvasses prepared. All in all, a good part of the day had passed before he got down to the serious business of painting. He made some drawings, and made do with a wooden panel for his first oil sketch.

He heard the boatman again. The occasional ‘Oé – andemo in gondoá?’fading away as the dusk came in.

Several days went by peacefully enough, despite Lucia’s cooking. Bright sunshine, brilliant colours, brush on canvas, morning, noon and evening – and the persistent calls from whoever it was attempting to attract Mr Thomas’s attention.

‘Oé . . .andemo in gondoá ?’

As ever out of politeness he would raise his hat and wave, and continue to paint, but curiosity had begun to seep in, and he had even gone down on a couple of evenings – only to find nobody there. On the fourth day he decided to investigate again. It had been a scorcher of a day, he had worked rather less as a result of feeling the heat, and felt he could do with a quiet amble outside in the cooler evening air to clear his head.

 So down he trundled and creaked, his hat at a rakish angle, his notebook and pencil in a capacious pocket, at the ready. The heat of the day hit him as he stepped out; all day it had been quietly storing up in the walls of the building, and now unleashed itself. Fortunately he had thought to pack a handkerchief in his other pocket, and dabbed briefly at his forehead. There was a little bridge at the further end of the canal; he strolled towards it and stood awhile, gazing at the stonework, marvelling at the moss-covered porous brickwork and the plants climbing in between the bricks and stones. He was so absorbed in the study of this landscape he scarcely noticed the quiet swirl of water behind him, the gentle rasp of wood against stone. A rumbling clearing of the throat startled him; he turned round to see a figure in a boat, outlined in the strong, low light of the evening sun. The figure bowed, lifting its large, feathered hat in a grand sweeping gesture. Mr Thomas was so taken aback that he paused awhile before speaking. The figure cleared its throat once more, and placing a well-filled gauntlet across its chest, spoke.

‘So you have come at last,’ it said. ‘Out for an evening stroll, are we ?’

‘Yes, that is so. And you – business is not quite what it could be, I take it ?’

The boatman shrugged. ‘I do not need it, as such. Come here a lot, do you?’

‘Every summer for the last few years.’

‘I do not recall seeing you before. But then, I am often busy.’

‘Indeed,’ rejoined Mr T., politely refraining from commenting that he had certainly never seen anything like the boatman before.

‘And what will you be having for dinner tonight ?’ added his companion carelessly.

Mr T winced slightly at the thought of Lucia’s cooking.

‘The housekeeper makes dumplings rather often.’

‘Ah, but you are not so enthusiastic about them, is that the case ?’ replied the ca- replied the boatman. Mr T could not help himself thinking of whiskers – and he could have sworn he heard a licking of chops.

‘In fact, you would prefer to give them generously to a cat than to eat them yourself, or am I mistaken ?’ So he had been seen feeding the tabby.

‘Let us see if we can tempt  your appetite with something more interesting . . .’

‘I may as well tell you my friend, I have no money for fares.’

‘Mon-  oh, that stuff,’ shrugged the boatman as Mr T pulled out a few coins from his pocket. Mr T. began to be intrigued. A boatman uninterested in money was a thing wholly new to his experience. His dress was rich, that was true – an eccentric nobleman, weary of idle living in some dark and fusty palace ? So he donned his hat every evening, and sauntered out in his boat to accost unwary foreign visitors in an attempt to enliven an otherwise boring existence ?

‘Besides,’ Mr Thomas continued in genuine concern, ‘ I fear my housekeeper is unaware that I have left the house – I did not think I would be out long -‘

‘Oh it will not take up any of your time,’ replied the eccentric airily, grasping the oar. ‘It is a little place I know of.’

‘Is it far ?’ asked Mr T anxiously.

‘Not so very far, in some ways,’ replied the boatman(devil take it, the fellow really did put one in mind of a cat)  – and held  out an imperious, well-filled glove that put Mr T in mind of nothing so much as a large paw. ‘Are you going to stand there all evening ? Me, I prefer comfort.’ So saying he stepped back down into his boat and indicated the cushions, carpet and little chaise that furnished his vessel. Mr T, bemused, allowed himself to be settled down, and had to admit it was extremely comfortable after a long hot tiring day. It was cooler on the water, and the lapping sound was very relaxing. They moved smoothly, swiftly on, curving easily round a bend in the water; the only difference being a change in the sounds; more activity, more footsteps, more voices. The relative silence of the place they had left behind them was broken , chased away by this new, brash noise. They shot along and suddenly passed an opening in the plastered or wooden walls lining the waterside. A sandy bank ran down to the water; there were stalls and open tents, with groups and huddles of people, chatting ,eating and drinking – and here Mr T began to blink, for he had not seen quite such costumes as these people wore, unless at a masked ball.

‘I should have brought my sketchbook with me. Must remember to put it in my coat pocket another time -is this local traditional dress ? ‘ He asked his companion, who merely nodded and replied : ‘I imagine you could call it that – Although they will tell you it  is the height of fashion.’

Mr T. gazed on, wondering. ‘I do not believe  I have ever seen it on my previous visits – at least, not outside of a painting . . .’

More riddles. The boatman sidled the boat up to one of the mooring post and tied up. He turned and helped Mr T onto the sandy earth. They staggered up as another crowd of brightly dressed people, in equally bizarre costumes, wandered across the beaten earth, chatting and laughing.  There was however nothing bizarre about the smells wafting over from some of the stalls. His companion was smacking his lips quite loudly now, and wandered around, sniffing appreciatively. Mr T. patted his pockets and found a few remaining coins. As he lifted them out of his pocket his hand brushed against the cloth, and he was surprised by the sensation of velvet rather than his usual coarse linen. He glanced down. In place of his flannels he was unaccountably wearing dark velvet robes down to his feet; his pockets were now deep slits in the sides, from which he had just extracted a leather pouch tied with cord – not at all his usual means of carrying funds.

Mr T came to a quick decision. He had evidently fallen asleep, and this was a very vivid, colourful dream. With strong smells of food in it. This was admittedly a novelty in the way of dreams, but no doubt hunger was causing him to dream of food. It was all amazingly real, including tripping over a tuft of grass and banging his knee against a bucket; likewise the chicken drumstick the eccentric boatman offered him from one of the first stalls they came to.

Mr T fished around in the pouch for coins which felt rather heavy and handed over one of the larger ones. The stall keeper’s eyes were popping; the boatman took hold of the pouch and opened it out; the stall keeper nervously picked out some of the smallest coins and waved a hand invitingly at the rest of the food. The boatman made a strangely appreciative growly sound at the back of his throat, and fairly pounced on a plate of prawns. It seemed that the coins sufficed for a fair amount of food.

There were some dark narrow green rolls on a dish; Mr T thought to ask what they were.

‘Vine-leaves, gentle sir, stuffed with rice – very tasty-‘, the stall keeper quickly placed some on a smaller dish with olives and goat’s cheese for him to try.

For a dream, it all tasted remarkably good. There was a clinking sound to his left. A man was standing near him, with a jug, pouring water into a glass. A huge amphora stood beside him; when the jug was empty, he would dip it into the amphora. He caught Mr T’s eye and held out a glass questioningly.

‘What ? No milk?’ he heard the eccentric boatman say. The waterman shook his head and waggled his eyebrows over to another seller across the clearing; this one had pails hanging from a yoke over his shoulders. The boatman had the noisiest set of chops for smacking with in Mr T’s experience and trotted over at high speed. Mr T followed with his purse, feeling under some sort of obligation for this intriguing, colourful dream.

‘Are you all here every evening ?’ he asked the milk seller.

‘Indeed, master, there is always someone here – are you a visitor here?’

‘Yes . . yes, I am. No, I am unfamiliar with all of your customs . . Mm. Very good , these.’

Of Moths & Butterflies

October 1880

In the parlour of her uncle’s London house, Imogen sat alone.  The fire, burning low, provided the only light in the darkened room.  With each creak in the floorboards above, her heart stopped.  Then started again with violent but predictable irregularity.

Again, the footsteps above.  The doctor had been upstairs for hours already and this late night vigil did not bode well.  If the man should die, she might be at liberty.  But where would she go?  How would she live?  And yet there were concerns more immediately pressing.  The shameful circumstances of her life here, the events which had led up to the tragic finale of the evening, these secrets must come to light eventually.  Perhaps the doctor was hearing of them now.  She felt her anxieties rise, and with them, fear and desperation.

A coil of dark hair fell across her shoulder as she closed her eyes and rested her head in the palm of one hand.  Her conflicting and tumultuous emotions betrayed themselves only in her occupation of busily fingering the fringe of her paisley shawl.  Out of date, it was her mother’s and she wore it often.  She wore it for comfort.

A knock at the parlour door startled her from her meditations.  Mary entered, followed closely by the doctor.  He paused a moment before crossing the threshold, his frame a black silhouette against the lights that burned in the hall.

Imogen sat up, pulling her shawl more tightly around her.

At last he approached, and as he came within the glow of the fire, a more kindly light was cast upon him.  No look of harsh judgment appeared there, no accusations, or, worse and worthier, repulsion.  Sympathy was all she saw.  But pity was just as difficult to bear.

“Your uncle requests his solicitor, Miss Everard.”

Obediently, silently, Imogen arose and crossed to the writing desk, where she began to compose, in a shaky hand, the dreaded missive.  She finished, blotted and sealed it, and then made the directions for its delivery.  The doctor returned to his patient, leaving her once more to her dark thoughts, interrupted now and again by the creeks and groans of a centuries’ old house, by the hall clock as it marked the passing of time.  And the passing of a life.

It was not an hour later when she heard the ring at the street door, and then the sound of voices.  The doctor, it seemed, had come down to meet the lawyer upon his arrival and the two gentlemen held a brief and hushed conference before climbing the flight of stairs to her uncle’s rooms.  What secrets were being relayed in those indistinct and earnestly offered words?  How many more must know before this would all be over?  Would it ever be over?  She closed her eyes to the thought.  And waited.

*                      *                      *

The gentlemen returned downstairs as the sun’s rays began to turn the London air from impenetrable black to a dull and hazy grey, marking the end of the night, and of one man’s life.

The doctor spoke kindly before taking his leave, offering his heartfelt condolences and advising Imogen to get some much needed rest.  For all her efforts, the strain told quite plainly upon her face.

The lawyer remained.

A man of imposing stature and stern demeanour, Mr. Watts might be called intimidating by some.  For many years he had been in Mr. Everard’s service, and in that time he had become a close confidant of that man.  Perhaps not a friend, but an advisor and a bearer of secrets—and now, presumably, of her own as well.

“You have aunts,” he began without preface.

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ll go to them.  They’ll take you.”  It was as much a question as a statement.

“Yes, of course.  But-”

“You don’t wish to go?”

She averted her gaze, unable to answer.

“Have you any alternatives?”

“No, sir, not that I can presently see.”

“You have a cousin.  One in particular, I think.  Your aunt’s nephew by marriage.  Is that not an option?”

For a woman in her position, alone, without resources, with hardly a character to speak of, of course marriage was the only conceivable option.  Still…  “I’m not sure it is, sir.  Not just at present.”

Another long silence followed as he examined her carefully.

In the interim, Imogen took a moment to contemplate the room, the centre of the house that had been as good as a prison to her.  Everything was so dark.  From the heavily covered windows, to the somber browns and greens of the papers, and the gleaming wood of the panelled wainscoting, every detail conspired to oppress her.

At last the lawyer leaned back in his chair.  From his coat pocket, he withdrew an envelope.

“If you’ll be so kind as to peruse this, Miss Everard,” he said laying the letter down before her.  “I’ll return in a few hours’ time.  We can discuss matters in further detail then.”

Imogen saw him as far as the drawing room door, where he turned once more to speak.

“I’ve already sent word to the family.  You can leave the formalities to me.”

“Thank you, sir,” she answered, relieved to know that these burdens, particularly the informing of her aunts of their brother’s death, would not be hers.

“Get some rest if you can,” he said and, turning, shook his head before shutting the door behind him.

Rest?  There was no rest to be had here.  Not with her uncle lying upstairs.  Not with the family coming any hour now.

The sight of the letter still lying upon the table reminded her that she had an obligation to read it.  She took it up but could hardly bring herself to break the seal.  Calmly, determinedly, she placed herself in one corner of the sofa and with a snap between deft fingers, the wax crumbled.  She smoothed the document across her lap and read.  It took some doing to convince herself that the words she saw were the words that had truly been written, but after reading it a second and then a third time, there was simply no denying it.

So he had thought of her after all.  Ten years under his roof and now he regretted, now he wished to do something for her.  In disbelief she stared into the dancing flames.  If only they could offer some answer as to what she ought to do.

“You look an absolute wreck, Imogen.”

She awoke to the sound of the familiar voice and, seeing him, arose to greet her cousin.  Roger placed a kiss on each cheek and then, her hands still in his, he stood back to look her over more studiously.  Tears had gathered by now.  She felt the prick of them, but would not allow them to spill over.

“Are you really so very sorry?”

“I’m not inhuman, after all.”

“Of course not, my dear,” and he reached out to her, to take her in his arms as he had done so many times before.

She moved away from him and returned to her place upon the sofa.

“They’re here then?” she asked him.  “My aunts have come?”

He sighed and answered.  “I came ahead of them.”

“I’m so glad,” she said with a look of honest relief.  “Yours is the only face I can bear to look at just now.”

He smiled and his manner relaxed once more.  “I was unsure I should come, you know.”

“Why should that be?”

“Well,” he paused and his gaze shifted awkwardly, darting towards her face before examining the room.  Then, lowering his brow, “You’ve been a bit unpredictable of late.”

“Have I?” she asked cautiously and looked away.

“Well, yes, if you want to know.”

She knew it was true.  Since the day, nearly three months ago when she had quite suddenly come to realize the extent of her value to her uncle, and to the gentlemen who came to borrow money from him, she had begun to see the world in a very different light.  She understood now what dangers lurked behind the seemingly innocent smiles and glances offered between a man and a woman.  The friendly touch of a hand upon her arm.  How quickly these turn into something more, crossing the lines of propriety when no obstacles are set in place to check them.  And they were not.  To all this, her uncle had turned a blind eye.  If it meant keeping business then who was he to deny a man some little reward for his trouble?

Roger had always treated her with respect, but she was no fool.  She knew very well that, underneath it all, he was little different from the others.  For the names of the card rooms, and the gaming houses, and those other houses, all of which she ought to have known nothing, were the same, whether they were mentioned in reference to her cousin’s exploits or to her to uncle’s more practical business dealings.  Perhaps they were all the same at heart, these “gentlemen”.  Indeed, what reason did she have to believe otherwise?  But Roger would never hurt her as others had done.  He would never force her to give him what he desired.  She knew that.  But neither could she freely give what had been forcefully taken.  Not to him.  Not to anyone.

“What is this?” Roger said, observing the letter that had been dropped upon his entrance and which now lay haphazardly upon the floor.

He picked it up and, with a look, made his request.

She dared not deny him.  With a nod she acquiesced, and Roger unfolded it and read.

“What do you make of this?” he asked her in astonishment.

“What do you think?”  And she really wanted to know.

“It looks to me as though your darling uncle has attempted a last gasp attempt to buy back his soul, if you want my opinion.  But it should be a relief to you truly.  You are a wealthy heiress now.  You may live your life as you like.  You should be happy.”

“With my family, everyone I’ve ever known, looming down upon me, ready to prey upon my good fortune?”

He threw a hand through short brown hair.  “And so what do you propose to do?”

She should have known he wouldn’t understand.  “What can I do?  I’m not yet twenty-one.  I’ll still require a guardian for another year or more.  My aunts will insist and what then?”

“But the laws are changing, will change.  If you’ll just be patient.”

But she couldn’t be patient.  She had no reason to expect that the laws of men would ever provide the liberty for which she, and thousands of women like her, hungered.  Similar reforms had been passed already, after all.  None of these had the power to protect her.  And now the hope she had so briefly entertained, that her life might at last be her own, had been dashed like so much dust in a burned out hearth.

Roger sat down beside her, and watched.  And when, at last, the first tear fell, he reached up and gently, carefully, tenderly wiped it away.  She dared a smile of gratitude, but the look on his face gave her little comfort.  She had not meant to encourage him.

“You have not forgotten my offer?”

“Roger-  Don’t.”

“What other choice do you have?”  He was trying to be patient, but his irritation showed.  “Besides, of course, the one I’ve been trying to convince you of for months now.”

“Which you know you don’t mean.”

“I know no such thing.  Imogen, I am in earnest!”

“So am I.”

“You will not marry me?”

“You don’t love me, Roger.”

Slowly, he shook his head.  “That’s simply not true.  You don’t love yourself, and so you cannot believe that anyone else should.”

“The money, Roger.  It complicates things.”

He rose to his feet and began pacing before her.  She waited for his remonstrance, for some vain assurance.  It did not come.

“I don’t mean to accept it.”

Roger started, his eyes wide as he faced her.  “Are you mad?  You’d give it up to them?”

“Yes.  Perhaps.  I don’t know,” she said, the quaver in her voice betraying a hint of the desperation she felt.

“Certainly it will provide you the independence you’ve always wanted.  Take it, Imogen.  For heaven’s sake, take it and set yourself apart!  There must be a way.”

But if there was, she couldn’t see it.

“I can’t take it and have any respect for myself.  It’s payment.”

Roger stopped and turned to her once more.

“No.  No it isn’t,” he said, his hand slicing the air, one finger extended as if scolding a wayward child.  “Not like that.”

Imogen was silent for a moment, fighting back the tears.  “They’ll wonder why,” she said at last.  “They’ll find out if they can, though I’m sure they know enough already.”

“Drake Everard was a vulgar brute and deserved to be hanged for what he’s done to you!”

“Roger!”  There was a look of terror in Imogen’s eyes.  “You don’t know-” she said in something between a whisper and a hiss, “-anything.”  The unspoken question, “do you?” hung in the air.

Roger sat down beside her, his hands folded before him.  “I know what he was capable of,” he said in a voice low and filled with emotion.  He did not look at her.  “I know that those fellows who came to him for money would like to have taken much more away than a debt and a few pounds of liquid cash.”

So he knew.  He could guess, at any rate.  Clearly he did not know all, but his understanding, so far as it was formed, convinced her that only by the most drastic of measures could she ever hope to separate herself from a history that had so far defined her and would prejudice all against her, herself included.

Roger stood, then crossed to the window and looked without.

“Have they come, then?” Imogen asked.

Roger turned.  “Yes, they’re here.”

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.