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“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, gentlemen, 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 to the comfortable dining room where 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 is 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.
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 . . .
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.
Left this in haste; off now to the club – I may take it then, that ye shall join us there this evening ?
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.
‘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 mantle 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.’
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.
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 glimpse 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 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.’
“They say she knew the alchemist,” whispered one woman to another, as they rested in the shallow shade cast by the awning overhead. It was a bright spring market day and I had paused after my long walk into town to catch my breath and rub my swollen joints. For a moment, I hardly realised it was me they were speaking of. As she continued I experienced the strangest sensation, one I hadn’t felt in nearly forty years of solitude; that of seeing myself through the eyes of another. “I saw her arrive last week – no luggage to speak of, just an odd-shaped hamper on her back. Probably full of nasty books on demons and potions and that.” She shuddered at the thought – I suspected it was the half-intoxicated shudder of a young woman who liked the thought of wicked things, despite an innocent exterior. I had been so, once.
“What does she look like?” asked the other, a little older with a belly big with child.
“All crooked and bent, raggedy grey hair. Must be eighty at least.” As if old age alone were grounds for suspicion. Besides, I was not yet sixty. “She had a cat, too – a black one.” The cat had met me at the cross-roads and followed me all the way home. I say ‘met’ – I suppose cats don’t ‘meet’ at all. We didn’t shake hands or exchange pleasantries. But it looked at me with eyes full of peculiar understanding – odd, grey-coloured eyes. His eyes.
“Sounds like a right old witch.” She giggled. No-one believed in witches anymore, not really. Not since the days of my grandmother had people talked of them as if they were hiding up every chimney. They didn’t speak of me in fear. It was the derision in her voice that caused a small stab of pain somewhere in the pit of my belly – for then I knew I had become pathetic. I no longer had energy for market day. I took my empty basket and made my way out of town, knowing how I must look; a small old witch with a stick and a back twisted as the wind-blasted trees that grew around the drained moat at Ghasten Keep.
The cat was waiting at the door when I returned. I poured him a small dish of milk, and then sat at the table in the centre of the single room that held the few tattered belongings that remained of my life; a straw mattress, a lantern with one cracked pane, a bronze candlestick, two pottery bowls and a small bundle of cutlery. Set upon the table were two large pots of ink, several quills and a manuscript bound with leather. I opened it. The faded title was written in my master’s hand: ‘The Memoirs of Agnes Forrester’. The rest of the manuscript was blank.
“I suppose, after all these years, I ought to begin,” I said. My knuckles were already swollen and sore with the cold that stayed with me even when I could smell summer on the air. It didn’t matter; for once, I seemed to be able to ignore the pain. I unstopped the ink and readied my quill.
Alchemy was out of fashion by the time I was employed by Lucentio de Ghast. Papa talked of Enlightenment, of Revolution – ours, the newspapers told us, was a time of modernity and change. But then, my new master wasn’t very modern. I remember the first time I saw him. It was cold, sometime in late December. I’d been there a week but hadn’t caught a glimpse of him – and there was enough talk about that I didn’t really want to. Then I passed him on the hall stairs that morning carrying an armful of laundry and a mental list of chores. Despite my preoccupation, his outlandish jesters’ garb was enough to make me stop and stare. A motley of black, white and bright, bloody red, painted across his face so that I could scarce tell where his costume ended and skin began. He didn’t half give me a fright – near dropped my laundry in the great murky puddle at the bottom of the staircase. I thought for a moment he was one of those demons the other servants gossiped about, the ones he trapped in great crystal balls in the dungeons. Then he was gone, hurrying up the stairs as quiet as a wolf.
No-one had ever been to the dungeons but we’d all heard the noises. Of course, I only half believed the foolish talk of demons and ghosts, whispering the devilish secrets of our masters’ craft for some terrible price. But there was something unearthly about the groans and screeches that shuddered across the courtyard in the night, bourn on breezy carriages to our tiny attic window. I told myself it was those horrors I read before bedtime, Lady Ghast’s discarded Radcliffe novels. I’d sit there by the window and, skimming until I reached a chilling passage, read aloud by moonlight to the other girls. None of us would admit it, but those tales of wailing white ladies and blood-drenched nuns can’t have helped with our nightmares.
It was the day that I passed the master on the stairs that I was summoned to the North Tower. One of his mutes tapped me on the shoulder as I was chopping onions. I nearly dropped my knife and shrieked but papa had always praised me for my level-headedness, so I stopped myself. I couldn’t bear the mutes – their eyes seemed to speak more than tongues ever could. I always felt that they were trying to tell me something of the terrors they had witnessed. And then there was the way he dressed them: all in black, as if they were perpetually in mourning.
He led me through the twisting passages of the castle. I hadn’t got my bearings yet – as far as I was concerned, grey stone corridors led to grey stone rooms and grey stone walls led to grey stone skies. Then that bleak, bone-rattling wind. I missed home, where our town was surrounded by green meadows, not these northern heathers like bruises in the land, blooming in alien seasons of purple and red.
My legs were not used to stairs. I stopped three times. The mute waited patiently, watching me with those almost-talking eyes. I was relieved when we reached the top – at least, I would have been relieved if Ghast wasn’t waiting for me.
“You’re not like the others, are you?” he said, abruptly. Breathless from the exertion of the climb, I was unable to reply. Instead, I followed him through the doorway, guarded by grimacing grotesques, and into a room that was every bit as frightening as its owner. Once upon a time, one of the other girls had told me, there was a great battle here, with cannons and guns and explosions that filled the sky with smoke. I wondered if one such explosion had caused the gaping hole that ravaged one curve of the circular tower. In front of this makeshift window, the only one in the room, stood an enormous brown-tinged atlas on a brass stand. It reached Ghast’s nose when he stood beside it as he now did, and he was a tall man. He turned it carefully under his fingers – a gesture, I thought, of ownership.
“I don’t know what you mean, sir,” I mumbled, not sure where to look. Perhaps the empty fireplace with its howling chimney, or the motley of ink-spattered papers on the floor, or the mildewed manuscripts littering the bookcases as if they had been flung there in a fit of rage. Or there was the great table that took up the whole of the centre of the room – a sprawling rectangular thing that might have been meant for banquets. Instead, on its surface an array of odd-shaped glass instruments, lumps of dull metal, scorch-marks and livid-bright liquids in crystal glasses provided an obstacle course for the most enormous spider I had ever seen – almost as big as a dinner plate. No, I wouldn’t look there.
“Your father, what was he?”
“He owned a printing press, sir.”
“Richard Forrester, sir.”
“Unusual name for a girl,” he remarked. I couldn’t tell if he was joking; there was a certain crookedness about his eyes, as if they were always laughing, even when the rest of him was still.
“I’m Agnes Forrester.” I had forgotten something. “Sir,” I added, a little too loudly, as if volume could make up for tardiness.
As Ghast stepped down from the window, where the grey light behind him had thrown his features into shadow, I got a better view. He was younger than I expected; they always talked of him in hushed tones, as if he were the sort of person who’d been around so long that speaking of him was like gossiping in a Cathedral. But even without the garish costume of that morning, there was something uncanny about Ghast – the planes of his face were a little too sharp, his eyes a little too deep. It looked a bit, I thought, as if he were wearing a mask.
“You’re no beauty,” he told me. I did not need to be told. I’d had enough of mama praising me for my ‘brilliant mind’, while somehow managing to look disappointed about it.
“Then why is it? Why is it that you are different?” The question ought to have been rhetorical, but it was posed in such a tone that it seemed he expected me to answer.
“I… I don’t know, sir.”
He examined me. Father had told me of vivisections; how scientists would cut up living creatures to see how bodies worked. But Ghast’s slow, methodical gaze, I thought, was far worse than a knife. It was more like a dissection; as if I were already a dead thing. Each piece of me was separated, momentarily, from the rest. Shoulder, collarbone, neck, chin, nose.
He looked at my eyes, then, and that was the worst – his own were like instruments themselves, silvery and sharp. I felt unsteady and held out my hand for a wall, to discover only air. He caught my shoulders just as one would stop a bookcase from falling; not because he cared for my wellbeing but because he wanted to avoid the inconvenience of clearing me up.
A mute escorted me back to the kitchens but I wasn’t much use the rest of the day. The girls asked me about him – hoping for a true horror story, no doubt. But I hadn’t the heart for it. We went to sleep without stories that night.