Sunday, 11 April 2021

Review: The Magnificent British Garden Robin (in his own words)

 On the blog page for my novel We Are Villains All, I included this gorgeous illustration...

It comes from a Victorian natural history-type book called Creatures of the Night by Alfred W Rees and I imagine the aim of it was to bring the animals to life for the reader.  I'm a huge fan of such books as they are wonderfully illustrated and teach you a lot about animals you see everyday.  There were scores of them, all gorgeous and fascinating...

...and of late the genre has made a bit of a reappearance as we all slow down and take more time to appreciate the beauty that is on our doorstep (especially in the last year when that is about as far as you are allowed to go).  A couple of Christmases back I bought this little book on robins...

And so I was delighted when I was approached to review a new book on our red-breasted friends.  Not only is the new book on robins, it was written by an actual robin himself.  I am a fan of primary evidence, so I was delighted to read more...

I'm just guessing but this has to be one of the first autobiographies written by a bird I have ever read.  The entire mechanics of how Mr Robin writes are not a problem as far as I'm concerned (far less problematic than how Mr Pusskins uses a phone in the seminal Mr Pusskins by Sam Lloyd) and who better to explain a year in the life of the nation's favourite little bird and a constant visitor to all of our gardens?

The book has a lively Deco feel to it, and it's split into the four seasons, explaining how robins live, love and feed in different parts of the year. For example, it's rather joyous to think as Spring creeps upon us that there are tiny feather-y folk building nests and warming eggs in our gardens as we speak.

I own chickens and so spend many a happy day carrying a hen around, and the subject of their ears has always puzzled me.  I mean, really, where are they?  And how can their hearing be so sensitive that they know when the end of a croissant is not going to be eaten? Honestly, it's just one of the many mysteries of birds, but I do feel a little more educated after reading this book and had a lot of fun doing it.

The illustrations are plentiful and delightful.  I'm a massive fan of Edith Holden (as testified in this post) and so appreciate a well-illustrated nature book.  You will be charmed and disarmed by the little robins and so impressed by their writing skills...

Included in this book are pages on the history of robins and their names through the ages, the Christian iconography and frequent appearances in Victorian paintings. One of my favourite things is spotting the little robin in Millais' Ophelia...

Sort of top-left-ish, in case you were wondering.

There are all sorts of handy, practical things you can learn from this book, from building your own bird bath, to what to feed the little chaps and when. Nothing in my garden can compete with my massive sparrow army, but when my robin does appear, I like to think I'm helping his survival with the food I leave out and I hope he sees at least a few of the mealworms (although with my hens around, it seems a little doubtful).

This is a charming book and perfect for a summer read while we are mostly home-based. It's good to have a greater appreciation of our surroundings and not to come off too Park Life, caring for the wildlife does give you a feeling of enormous wellbeing. I think we could all do with a bit of that right now.

The Magnificent British Garden Robin can be purchased from Amazon UK here and USA here now.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Mary F Raphael (1861-1942)

Occasionally I'll see a picture and think - 'That's lovely, I'm sure there is loads known about that artist...' and then see it's by a woman and think - 'Rats...' because unless that woman is lucky, or has a lot of kids to keep her art then donate it when the market is more favourable, or she has a solid presence in public collections, then they are often lost.  Anyway, this is the story of Mary F Raphael, one of those artists...

Marianna (Mary) Florette Moses was born on 11 July 1861.  Her father, Assur Henry Moses, was a very well respected Jewish merchant and stockbroker who married Henrietta Cohen in 1855. Marianna was the eldest of six children who followed in the 1860s.  In a later article on her life, it was reported that she was talented with pencils as a child but probably never thought it would be a part of her life.  Her father was apparently a talented pen and ink draughtsman and Mary would idly fill the margins of her school books with ivy leaves, dogs, cats and even mermaids.  These were passed down to her younger sisters who treasured them more for Mary's art.  She was allowed to study art at Mr B S Marks studio in Linden Garden, but this was just biding time before her marriage in 1883, to Arthur Lewis Raphael.

The Water Nymph (undated)

Arthur Raphael came from an extremely wealthy family - when his father died in 1899 he left over a million pounds to his children and grandchildren. I'm sure Mary thought she was set for a straightforward life, with her husband and baby daughter Gladys, born in 1885, but it was not all easy.  Gladys was born with hip problems and was disabled as a child, but no doubt the wealth of the family aided treatment as I will tell you of Gladys's exploits in later life in a bit. Mary fulfilled the role of a society wife, appearing at functions such as the Royal Drawing Room, in May 1889, dressed in velvet and white satin, embroidered in gold.  All was opulence and luxury. Then in on Valentine's Day 1891, Arthur died suddenly, aged only thirty three.

Florizel and Perdita (undated)

Possibly Mary turned to art as a salve after such a shock, possibly it had been planned before Arthur's death and she carried on regardless, but months after becoming a widow at 30, Mary enrolled at Cooke's Studio on Fitzroy Street (in the very pleasant Fitzrovia area of Greater London). The studying there was strict, and she was only allowed to use charcoal until the end of her preliminary study period of technique was completed.  A visiting artist-teacher, Solomon J Solomon saw Mary's art and was impressed, encouraging her over her three and half years of study. She went then to Paris to study at Julien's Atelier under William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, Jean Paul Laurens and Gabriel Ferrier.  Solomon and Mary must have remained in touch because in the 1895 Society of Portrait Painter's exhibition, Solomon exhibited a portrait of Gladys Raphael, praised for its simplicity and sincerity.

Gladys (1895) Solomon J Solomon

Mary came to prominence at what was probably her first Royal Academy.  She was hung on the coveted line in Gallery VI and her painting, The Wood Nymph, was praised for its delicacy and design. The St James Gazette described it as a pretty and graceful nude, but the outline was a little hard.  However, there was a feeling of 'general unity and whiteness of the flesh tones which is observable in the work of Bronzino and Correggio'. 

Britomart and Amoret (1899)

Her fame continued with a frontispiece in 1899 in the Art Journal.  Her Britomart and Amoret was praised by some for its quality and considerable style, but for others, it was not so sweet.  The East and South Devon Advertiser reported that it was 'a nice clean picture of two models posing as a knight and a lady with an impossible dragon kicking about in the background. Is not this sort of thing rather played out in 1899? Mr Hacker or Mr Byam Shaw, rather than Rossetti, is  the inspirer here.'  I hesitate to go against such an illustrious publication as the East and South Devon Advertiser, but I rather like Britomart and Amoret not least because the couple are two girls, the knight Britomart rescuing the beautiful Amoret from a wicked wizard Busirane (well, actually it's Busgrau the Dragon, but still Girl Power and all that). Britomart is wearing some stunning armour and that is definitely some outfit goals when I come out of lockdown.  I find it interesting that, although the viewers would have been familiar with the subject (there were other depictions of the pair, most famously by Etty), there was no discussion of how androgynous  Britomart was in comparison to previous paintings. Being a lady-knight previously seemed to involve some armoured boobs, apparently...

Britomart Delivering Amoretta from the Enchantment of Busirane (1824) Henry Fuseli

By the 1901 census, Mary and Gladys were living at 2 Hanover Terrace (current property price estimate, £8million) with four maids and a cook.  In her later memoirs, Gladys remembers that her mother became a rather distant figure, so immersed in her art that Gladys was left to governesses, growing up as a shy and timid child. Interestingly in 1901, Mary lists herself as a retired artist.  She had exhibited with the Society of Women Artists in 1900, showing A Lady in White, a portrait of a lady in a white satin dress and sable cloak against a pale blue background.  In the May after the census, she presented Queen Guinevere at Almsbury at the Royal Academy.  She also produced a cover design for An Island Interlude by John Amity, as what seems to be her first foray into the publishing world...

It's not overwhelming and you have to tilt the screen a bit to get the effect so I wondered if there was a more spectacular version of the cover available, but I haven't found one so far.  Not only that but in 1904 she held an exhibition of forty-five oil paintings, entitled 'At Home and Abroad' at McCleans Gallery in the Haymarket.  The Queen magazine reported that 'Mrs Raphael's colour is good, and in her treatment of sunset effects she displays praiseworthy control of her palette, while her street scenes maybe regarded as her best work; she conveys a sense of sunshine without undue glare of colour. "Fields of France" is a charming landscape, soft in colour and having nice feeling.  Her studies of flower are also very pleasing.' One reporter complained that although they appreciated her art, 'too many cases the drawings were spoiled by excessively heavy frames'.

Queen Guinevere at Almsbury (1901)

1904 also saw the marriage of Gladys to Louis Ernest Mendl.  Mendl was actually the brother of Gladys's uncle (married to Mary's sister Frances) and you have to wonder whether it was a slightly arranged affair to sort out Gladys's future. Mary painted either her daughter or her sister as 'Mrs Mendl' in 1906 in a full-length portrait, although there was a mention that 'some of the attention which should be bestowed on the handsome and pleasant face is diverted to the rich texture and colour of the dress.'

In 1905 she exhibited Iphigenia in Tauris showing the figure of a priestess of the temple of Artemis, the complication of emotion playing over her face. Without seeing the painting, it's tricky to say but I wonder if the priestess was there to sacrifice poor Iphigenia (daughter of Agamemnon, who offended Artemis and had to sacrifice his eldest daughter) or if the figure they are describing is in fact Iphigenia. The year later Queen magazine described her painting The Three Witches, praising the sunshine flickering through the trees onto the mossy bank below the trio.

Hide and Seek (undated)

In 1911 at the time of the census Mary was staying with her sister Frances and her husband Sigismund Mendl (brother of Gladys husband. Keeping up?  Jolly good).  She was travelling most of the time in this period, spending time in Venice, then returning to her studio at Hanover Terrace.  In 1912 she held an exhibition in Baillie's Gallery, including Versailles Twilight...

Versailles Twilight (1912)

As War approached, Mary turned her art to more charitable purposes, holding exhibitions in aid of St Dunstan's Hostel for Soldiers and Sailors Blinded during the War.  Both Mary and Gladys were supporters of female suffrage and offered assistance in the cause but it was Gladys who took this forward.  She divorced Mendl in 1912 and almost immediately remarried to Australian bateriologist Dr Harry Schutze, another suffrage supporter.  In 1914, Gladys took part in a deputation to Buckingham Palace where she was beaten by a policeman and kicked by a police horse, injuries from which she never completely recovered.  She remained a keen supporter of the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union) and sheltered Emmeline Pankhurst at her house in Chelsea, Glebe Place, from where Pankhurst gave  a speech from her balcony.  She also smuggled WSPU documents to Christabel Pankhurst in Paris, rolled up in her hair.  

1914 saw a change of direction for Mary.  She had been involved with cover design of books and her portraits had appeared in books, but in 1914 she published her first novel Phoebe Maroon, the story of an artist's model. It was given very positive write-ups, some remarking that it was thrilling and 'handles an absorbing theme with tact and delicacy'.  This was followed by The Lure of the Loire (1923), The Romance of English Almshouses (1926), The Best PolicyJust in Time and Keeping her End Up, amongst others, all of which were popular and a number published through Mills and Boon. She also published countless short stories in the newspapers and seemed to find greater, or certainly as great, success as a writer than as a painter.  Gladys also wrote, publishing as Henrietta Leslie, and produced books of memoirs which I now am eager to read because she seems to have had a hell of a life.  The frontispiece of one of her memoirs was the portrait by Solomon J Solomon.

Henrietta Leslie (Gladys Raphael Mendl Schutze) (1933) Bassano

The eve of the Second World War saw Mary staying in the New Forest on the south coast, at the Bulmer Lawn Hotel (very fancy indeed although the traffic in Lyndhurst is a nightmare) with countless other people who lived on their own means and had possibly brought their own ladies' maid. She died in 1942, back in London.  Gladys died in 1946 while staying in Switzerland with Harry, who died barely a month later.  I can't imagine it was a coincidence but can't find any mention of the circumstances, despite the fact that her books continued to be talked about after her death.

The Wood Nymph (1896)

So why do we not know Mary F Raphael, despite her having two very successful careers as both a novelist and an artist?  She was well connected, she was wealthy, it's hard to see what the problem is.  Only one of her paintings is in a public collection, The Wood Nymph which resides in Cheltenham at the Wilson Collection.  Her dates are not listed and I could find no more information on the links between her art and her novels.  Mary F Raphael (1861-1942) is yet another woman artist who needs our attention.  I really want to see more of her paintings in colour, and I also want Britomart's armour.  Also, why on earth has no-one written a biography of Gladys? Any woman who smuggles feminist secrets to Paris in her hair has my attention...

Saturday, 30 January 2021

A Drawing of Mary Hillier

 One of the things I most love about this blog is being contacted by people who have images to show me, and then being able to bring you those pictures for your pleasure too.  Also, I love the fact that we often act as a hive mind to solve art mysteries and this is a bit of both. This weekend I have been contacted by someone who had a drawing of Mary Hillier.  Imagine my utter delight because, after all, this book appeared last year...

Up to that point, I was unaware of many, if any, drawings of Mary, who only seemed to exist in the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron and a bas relief by Murial Perrin. As you can see by that post, the Perrins also drew Mary, but as an old woman.  However, I knew that Mary had acted as a traditional artists model, as in a 1926 local newspaper interview, she talked about sitting for people like G F Watts and Coutts Lindsay, but I had never come across their, or any, other sketches of Mary.  I am fairly certain that Watts turned this photograph given to him by Cameron...

The Holy Family (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron

...into this painting...

Charity (1898) G F Watts

...however, up to this point I had not seen anything like the chalk drawing I was shown, which I shall now show to you.

Right, to start with, it was bought as 'Portrait of a Scottish Girl' by Margaret Cameron, but is clearly Mary Hillier (who wasn't even vaguely Scottish, in case you were wondering).  Here are a couple of useful photographs for comparison...

Group (1870) Julia Margaret Cameron

Study After The Elgin Marbles (1867) Julia Margaret Cameron

The nose bump gives it away. As far as we know, Cameron did not draw as well as photograph, but her circle certainly contained enough artists to be likely candidates.  I have to admit, I was strongly reminded of some of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's sketches of Fanny Cornforth, like these...

Fanny Cornforth (late 1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Fanny Cornforth (1865) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 Whilst we know Rossetti knew Julia Margaret Cameron, so it isn't out of the question he borrowed her best model, we also know that Rossetti avoided her company, and didn't visit her on the Isle of Wight.  Rossetti would have mentioned it in his copious correspondence that we still have, and I can't imagine for a moment that Julia would have been able to hold back from telling everyone she could if she managed to get Rossetti in the doors of Dimbola.  Plus, she would have definitely have photographed him.  

Okay, so who else?  Edward Burne-Jones was in the Little Holland House circle, so could it be him? He doted on Cameron's niece Julia Jackson, so could he have used the lovely Mary as a model too?

Desiderium (1873) Edward Burne-Jones

Whilst Burne-Jones did have the opportunity, his style of drawing is often more stylised.  I mean, we can all pick a Burne-Jones woman out of a line up, they are so willow-y perfect.  However, that's not to say that he didn't do the chalk sketch of Mary, he had range as we can see from Desiderium.  However, are there any other suspects?

Portrait of a Girl (undated) Val Prinsep

How about a member of the family, like Val Prinsep, who would have had lots of access to Cameron's home? I don't know enough of Prinsep's drawings to be able to compare, and I haven't seen any chalks by him.  This is where you lot come in - do you have any ideas who did this wonderful chalk of Mary Hillier?  If so, tell me, I'll be excited to hear you thoughts.  It's such a gorgeous chalk and I am so pleased to see other artist's imagery of Mary.  

 I look forward to hearing from you...

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Price and Forse

 Happy New Year and let's hope 2021 treats us a lot less roughly than 2020 did.  I'll kick the year off with a post on two men and one painting.  To start with, here is the painting...

Reverend Edward John George Forse (1906) Reginald Price

Here we have a nice chap of the cloth, the Reverend Edward John George Forse, painted by Reginald Price, but who were these men and how did they come to meet?  I love a good mystery and so I did a bit of digging.  Let's start with Reginald Price...

St Mary's Church, Selly Oak - Thomas Price was the first incumbent in 1862

Actually, Mr Price turned out to be the least interesting of the two in terms of what he left behind him, which is terribly unfair as he came from an interesting enough background. He was the youngest son of thirteen children (thirteen! heavens...) and only older than his younger sister Helena.  Born in Selly Oak in 1878, he was baptised by his father, Reverend Thomas Price, the Vicar of St Mary's Church.  The Price children were obviously close with each other, and through the censuses you can see them staying with each other, or living with each other, the married siblings taking the single ones in. I wonder if there was a 'second parent' sort of a relationship between them all as there was twenty years between eldest Price child, Clement, and Reginald.

By the 1891 census, the Price family were living at Claverdon in Warwickshire, with Reverend Thomas looking after the church there.  He must have made the job look attractive because his son Hugh was his curate and other son Bernard was studying theology.  Reginald had other ideas than going into what seems to have been the family business and took himself off to study art in Birmingham.  Hurrah!

Birmingham School of Art (c.1900)

Full disclosure, I massively miss Birmingham which contains many family, friends and Pre-Raphaelite Society meetings.  Anyway, Reginald took himself off to the Art School there which had girls and art and no-one becoming a vicar! Looking at this image (and the others on this site) it looks heavenly and I want to go too.  By 1901, Reginald was staying with brother Hugh (who had his own vicarage and everything, level unlocked!) in Aston Manor and working in metals as a 'craftsman' of the arty persuasion. He found employment at Rossell School in Fleetwood, teaching art, including painting in oil and watercolour, drawing from cast, nature and the blackboard, drawing from memory and outdoor sketching in the summer (according to their advert in 1911). Just before this however, Reginald became acquainted with a young Edward Forse, a clergyman three year his senior...

Edward John George Forse was definitely a force to be reckoned with. With both his parents teachers, I guess it is unsurprising that Edward was clever.  Born in 1876 in St Jude's Schoolhouse, Englefield, he went off to London University at a very early age, graduating at 18 while also acting as a pupil/teacher. As he was the youngest ever to achieve his degree while teaching, a newspaper report praised his ability and dogged determination in his studies, working seven and a half hours a day, five days a week.  One of the tactics Edward had deployed was if he had not understood part of a text he was studying, he would write to the author and ask.  This paid off well in the case of The Brus, a poem translated by Walter William Skeat, who when asked, wrote back 'a long and most kind letter, literally teaming with information'.  

Walter William Skeat, very helpful indeed.

Less helpful was William Morris, who, when asked about his work Jason, replied that it was so long since he wrote it he had forgotten the subject matter himself.  Seeing as it was around 30 years since Morris had written, this would have been fair enough had Edward Forse not  seen an advert shortly afterwards for a new edition of Jason, 'thoroughly revised by the author'. The newspaper concluded 'Mr Morris's Socialism seems to be of the strictly academic kind which does not permit of his sharing anything, even information, with a casual correspondent.' Ouch.

William Morris, not helpful, apparently.

After London came Cambridge where he received an MA - it's not noted whether he bothered any authors there too, but I'm assuming he did as he was a thorough fellow and I respect that. He also was not short of opinions and certainly not backward in coming forward, as we shall see...

The first letter I found was from 1904 where he wrote of the failings of paraffin lamps and how you have to clean them, you filthy people.  He followed that up with a 1906 letter which went into the statistics for illegitimate births. Apparently the people who compiled the statistics had not gone into the matter of lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy and so the percentages were not telling the whole story.  This is technically correct (the best kind of correct) but makes you wonder who feels moved enough to write a letter to this effect to the newspaper. A man of substantial intellect and desire to share it, no doubt.

Edward was also responsible for numerous books including Glimpses of Poland (1917), La Frontera (1933) and a book of poems and prose, not to mention my personal favourite, Ceremonial Curiosities and Queer Sights in Foreign Churches (1938).  He was also quoted from his parish magazine to the local newspapers, mainly because of his extraordinary trains of thought.  Being one who is not averse to a random thought myself, he is an absolute hero...

The Sydney Herald 1929 (yes, that's Australia), quoted Edward's article about snobs and language.  This is absolutely corking so I hope you will forgive me quoting fullsome-ly...

'The sniffy genteel who contemptuously abhor vulgar abbreviations and never, never, never say 'bike' when they mean 'bicycle', might at least practice what they preach. By George and James and Jehoshaphat and the living Jingo, they will have their work cut out! Remember that 'cab' is a vulgar abbreviation of 'cabriolet', 'pun' should be 'pundigrion', 'mob' is 'mobile vulgus', 'wig' is short for 'periwig', 'chum' is short of 'chamberfellow', 'wag' for 'waghalter', 'rum' for rumbullion', 'gin' from 'Geneva' and so on, ad infinitum. On the other hand, 'pal' is not an abbreviation at all, but a highly respectable Sanskrit word meaning brother. And 'guts' is a polite Anglo-Saxon term of the same origin as ingot.'

Marvellous, and I shall henceforth call people 'chamberfellow'! Another one of Edward's glorious pieces was quoted in the Daily Mirror in 1934 on the subject of London, which he confidently predicted would not exist in 60 years time.  Cities of the past had vanished, he reasoned, and these had been built of solid stone, rather than today's modern 'friable brick, rusting steel and crumbling mortar'.  London would be reduced back to 'a walled town the area of Green Park' surrounded by bramble, most probably by 1995...

Edward obviously travelled with his work, serving as curate in St Paul's in Jarrow, St Bede, Monkton, Maidenhead, Guildford and Southwark, as well as travels abroad, before settling later in life as the vicar of St Katherine's in Bournemouth.  There he stayed, living at 3 Wollaston Road, Southbourne (very nice too, have a look on Google maps), still writing and providing clues for crossword puzzles in The Scotsman. On his retirement, he moved to Boscombe and possibly had to downsize (Vicarages are often generous in size) and so donated the painting by Reginald Price to his local art gallery, the Russell-Cotes. He died in 1944, aged 67 and left his money and belongings to his younger brother Leslie, who was also a vicar. Naturally.

Royal Warwickshire Regiment, First World War

I wish I could say that Mr Price had as happy an old age but he did not reach it.  As a teacher at Rossall School, he felt the call on the outbreak of war in 1914 and enlisted immediately. Rossall seems to have embraced the military life as part of its regime, and many pupils both past and at the time joined up as soon as they could.  Reginald rose through the ranks becoming first a corporal and then a second lieutenant with a commission in the autumn of 1915 with the 6th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment in France. His battalion arrived at Mailly in time for the beginning of the Somme and on the first day, 1 July 1916, they moved forward only to be trapped, pinched in from the sides by German troops. Of the Royal Warwickshire's 1st 6th battalion (there were three different 6th battalion due to size of area they were drawn from, Birmingham) on that first day of the Somme, 130 men were killed or missing presumed dead, with 316 wounded.  Among them was Reginald Price, missing presumed dead, only 37 years old. His name is among those of the boys he taught on Rossall School memorial which is depressingly long.  He is listed on the second panel, one of almost 300 Rossallians who died.

So how did these two very different men meet and how did a painting come to be? I like the mystery of this as, on the face of it, they did not seem to know each other, and Reginald Price was not a portrait painter (that we know of) and so how did we end up with this work?  It's a really beautiful painting and judging by the photograph in the front of Edward Forse's book, a good likeness.  Reginald specialised in metalwork, not painting, but obviously was skilled enough with oil to create this work. As Edward was a vicar, along with many of Reginald's brothers I think it likely that is how the pair met.  Edward is a striking looking chap, so possibly either Reginald just wanted to paint him or Edward commissioned him to do the portrait, which he kept until just before his death.  He obviously thought enough of the work to take it to his local art gallery to donate it, even though Reginald never had the chance to become a well-known artist (no other paintings by him are in public collections). It's a wonderful painting, giving us a thoughtful young man with his fragile golden glasses glinting on a handsome face.  It would be entirely fanciful to presume any other sort of relationship between the two men, but Reginald gives us a very beautiful image of the young, dynamic curate, one the latter would treasure to the end of his life.

So, Chamberfellows, I shall leave you with this mystery.  I now want to read more of the Reverend Edward's thoughts on any subject, but we shall probably never know more of Reginald Price, who died without leaving a trace.  At least we have this painting revealing the talent of one and the beauty of the other.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Thursday 24th December - A Ghost Story for Christmas Eve

Do It Now
A cold, damp Christmas Eve brought John Montague to the plain-fronted club in the London side street.  Shrugging off an overcoat that was heavy with drizzle, his eyes were drawn to the open door through which he could see men sitting peaceably with papers, drinks and each other.  Moving through the room, he reached an ox-blood red leather chair by the fireside, which slowly revealed a slumped figure who cradled a glass of scotch, untouched.  As Montague approached, Alec Braithwaite’s expression was shielded by the chair’s wing, a protective curl around the man whose head was bent, deep in thought.

‘Braithwaite?’ Montague rested a hand on the back of the chair.  When he saw his friend’s expression, Montague looked concerned but also as if he had expected it. His tone quavered a little as he tried again, ‘Alec? Minnie sent me out to find you.  You know what my sister is like, a regular worrier if left unchecked.  She had some foolish notion you were in some sort of trouble…’

His voice trailed off, all jollity, forced through like winter flowers, running out.  Braithwaite’s face barely registered his presence, but at Minnie’s name he seemed to flinch, then stir as if coming to from sleep.

‘Monty?’ His friend shifted in the chair, his still-full glass placed on the table and a pretense of normality established, before he gestured to chair on the other side of the fire facing him. ‘Heavens, what is the time? I was quite lost in thought.  So much to plan, you know, so many considerations for –‘

Braithwaite paused, as if coming to the frayed end of his pleasantries.  Creases of something troublesome clustered around his eyes. Again, he seemed to pull himself to the surface as Montague friend sank into the facing chair. He had feared the worst when Minnie had propelled him out into the night to find her errant fiancé but, dash it all, he liked Alec, older than him by a good few years and so worldly.  Just lately however, the drinking had become more noticeable, the humour sharper, his attention distracted, forever straying to something else. Someone else? Minnie had demanded of him. Lord, he hoped not, he was not up to untangling that sort of mess. He braced himself as he posed the question in the vaguest possible way.

‘Alec, is everything as it should be?’

For the longest moment, Braithwaite stared at him in silence before remarkably, the corners of his mouth twitched a smile and a snort of hard laughter shot from him. His eyes wandered as thoughts crowded him and again a bolt of laughter broke the silence between them. Montague waited for an explanation but none came and the silence resettled over them, so he pressed the point, fighting the discomfort.

‘Minnie is worried that – well, that you are having second thoughts.’ His blustering, clumsy and mortifyingly embarrassed, seemed to register with his friend, whose expression softened.

‘Oh heavens, no, no, I have absolutely no doubts on that front. I am…’ A pause and briefly, like a flicker of a flame, Braithwaite’s face shimmered a genuine smile. ‘Monty, your sister is one of the finest women I have ever met. If it is indeed my fate to marry her, then I shall consider myself to have been blessed by the angels.’

Montague rushed to be satisfied with this, a bloom of relief growing then wilting back as Braithwaite sank back into his thoughts. Montague sat forward, preparing a second assault. He paused as the club’s man brought him his drink and nodded that the men wished to be left alone.

‘You and I, Alec, we have been friends now for ten years.’ Montague started again with real intention, despite the discomfort in his voice. ‘I mean, heavens, you are marrying my sister. Come now, I must have the truth about this blessed gloom that has come over you. You are worrying Minnie, and if she becomes distressed, we shall all suffer…’

He tailed off with a guilty smile that Braithwaite returned as a pale echo. Shifting in his chair, Montague watched his friend reach for his glass and drink deeply, then looked at his friend with purpose. Montague willed him to speak, the seesaw of his moustache as his wound up his nerve to tackle some uncomfortable topic.  Braithwaite’s further pause brought a blustered explosion of frustration from Montague.

‘Damn it, I demand you tell me immediately what this accursed matter is, or I shall call the wedding of myself!’

His threat was entirely in vain, not least because poor Monty would not have dared get between Minnie and her bridal dream, nor even less between his mother and her new chartreuse hat. Stiffly, slightly, as if restrained, Braithwaite moved himself in the chair. He looked at the expectant face of his friend.

‘If I tell you a story, Monty, if I tell you, then it must remain here.’ The stillness of his friend’s voice brought Montague forward in his chair once more with an eager nod. Braithwaite held up a slightly quivering hand, as if to slow his keenness. ‘You shall not like, nor even understand, what I am about to tell you. Dash it all, I’m not sure I understand it myself.’

‘Tell me, old man, tell me. Let’s get this settled here and now so that all this can be forgotten.’

The older man leaned back, not lost in thought this time, but seeming to compose himself. He placed his glass back down on the table between them and wove his fingers into a bridge, on which he rested his lips. When he spoke, it was against his fingers as if he tried to hush himself.

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’

This opening was so sudden and plain, that Montague, for a moment, thought he was joking and a wry laugh escaped him. His friend’s face did not move, his eyes still fixed on him.  Montague looked around, self-consciously.

‘Well, foolishness, I know, but I mean, I’ve never –‘

Braithwaite’s hand rose again, this time without the tremor.

‘If I was to tell you there was a ghost with us now, what would you say?’

In shock, Montague jumped a little and looked swiftly around with such gusto that the few other men in the club looked over, eyebrows raising, murmured disapproval. He gave a short laugh.

‘There is nothing, I see nothing here. You are joking, I see, very funny.’ His voice was unsteady, and his surety in his friend was being sorely tested. He arranged his face sternly against such teasing, but Braithwaite remained still. His eyes flickered to the side.

‘She’s not here for you.’

Montague heard his own breath quiver out and a creep of fear stroked his spine.  Braithwaite settled back in his chair and began to tell his story.

‘Although I am a few years your senior, Monty, we are both old enough to have seen some life. I fear that possibly when both of us were young, our decisions were not the wisest nor the kindest. If at the end of this tale you wish to take your sister far away from me, I will quite understand. I will publish a letter in the Times to the effect that the blame was entirely mine.’ Braithwaite paused, as Montague began to object, but his love for his near-brother meant that the younger man relented and allowed him to talk. ‘You must hear me out, my friend, you must allow me to explain what has been dogging my step and crowding the corners of every room I rest in. I say ‘what, but I mean ‘who’. I shall tell you how I came to meet Miss Lydia Hargreaves.’

‘I was eighteen when I first saw her. Her father worked for mine, and every so often she would be sent by her mother on some errand that brought her to the offices. In truth I was very fond of her father, so completely unlike mine. James Hargreaves was soft spoken, gentle, patient, and his talent with ink and paper made him the most accomplished draughtsman I have ever seen.  He should have risen higher, achieved more, earned more, but my father liked him where he was. To allow Hargreaves to rise would have meant removing his boot from the man, and that was not my father’s way.

James Hargreaves became an old man under my father’s eye, still producing the same quality of work, the same fine drawings. His daughter had been born and grown to become a beautiful young woman, all while he was finely inking those blessed plans for Nathaniel Braithwaite and Sons. I began to see that the only time his daughter got to see her father was in those brief moments of errands, such were the hours my father worked him. You would think they would be like strangers, but no, an easy affection always filled the room as she crept in to slip a note or a wrapped parcel of food to her father.  I allowed it because I craved that familial warmth.  It was alien to me, but I could observe it as a play on the stage of our office. Her presence removed years from the dear old man’s face, she filled the room with a glorious glow and one day I realised, with a start, that it was love.

Hargreaves passed one afternoon.  He slipped from his chair with the smallest of cries, as if apologising for the meagre fuss he made before dying there on the office floor, his pen still in his hand. I cannot now explain the despair that came over me, as if I had lost my own family, but I think, to my shame, what I was most bereaved of was those visits by his daughter;  the hushed laughter, her toffee-coloured hair in a glinting bundle under an often askew hat. She seemed a confection of my own imagination, more so after poor Hargreaves passing as I dreamed of her, her step on the stair to my office, her fine gloved hands presenting me with hastily wrapped parcels of food, her smile, that warm, heartening beam that brought life and purpose to any man who saw it and no doubt sustained Hargreaves against the slow destruction my father ground against all who worked for him, kin and all.

I pressed my father to allow my presence at Hargreaves funeral. The pretense was a presence from the company, which, being a proud man who liked things to seem proper and appropriate, he agreed to, although made much of the work I would have to make up for the hours I would be absence. There, swathed in black, was my jewel, her glimmering presence muted by her sorrow, yet no less beautiful and her warmth somehow intensified by her need to comfort. I had never met Mrs Hargreaves before, yet she obviously knew me as my hand as seized as if I was family, and she wept openly. She was forthcoming with her fears of widowhood, how was she to manage now? She cried so freely that I became more than discomforted, I became actually afraid of such an outpouring and to me, a stranger! Her daughter moved silently to her mother’s side and pressed steadying hands on her shaking figure.  The girl’s expression when her eyes met mine was embarrassed, not of her mother’s display but that I, Alec Braithwaite, had seen them in such pitiful times. Had she sensed that my life was already colourless enough? She tilted her face to mine, a little of the sparkle returning, if only for a moment, and when she spoke it was with the clarity of a pert brass bell.

‘My father held you in high esteem, Mr Braithwaite, it would be a pleasure if you would visit us when we are less strained, to take tea and tell us of his work.’ She paused, and her mother’s plaintive mewing ceased, as caught by this idea as I was.

‘It would be my pleasure, Miss Hargreaves,’ I replied and her hand, just for a beat brushed my arm, before she turned her attention to the mourner who had approached.  I did not wish to outstay my welcome and so gave my attention briefly to the mother, whose hand had taken the place of her daughter’s on my arm.  Her face was now electric, although still shining with tears.  She had seen clearly, like a fox, all that I had hidden, both in my heart and my account books. Her fingers tightened as she whispered, ‘Yes, come. It would mean so much to Lydia and myself.’

Lydia Hargreaves – I finally knew her name, and when I attended their modest home for tea, I was entreated to call her Lydia.  I brought her the softest of paisley shawls, tinted with the same golden strands as her hair.  Her quiet delight filled me with joy and she discretely concealed the shawl from her mother, promising to wear it when her mourning was over. My Lydia, as I came to think of her, had all the gentle looks of her father, and stayed attentive through my visit.  Her mother, however, was quite another creature.  She was sharp and a little too familiar for someone who scarcely knew me.  Where her husband had been respectful of our position, almost to a fault, Mrs Hargreaves took liberties by inches, and would not relinquish what land had been gained, until you found yourself occupied. It was clear at once that she intended her daughter for me.  This revelation was not unpleasant, quite the reverse and I allowed this invasion without considering the implications. Lydia and I developed the understanding without having the time to truly get to know each other, and therein lay the fault, for which I take full blame. I should have realised that despite assuming the gentle manner of her most excellent father, it took two parents to create this blessed child and I had not considered the mother’s character in my Lydia. Indeed, she became ‘My Lydia’ in my mind, before I discovered who the girl really was.

‘Do it now!’ became her favourite refrain.  At first it was a cheery cajoling, a tease and pleasurable invitation. It grew to be a stick with which to drive me towards whatever she desired. The request of a kiss on one day became a pressure to strive harder at the company, to ask for more than I could manage, to just become more for her sake. There were not enough hours in the day to cater for her whims.  Her mother became her echo, it was as if I was courting the both of them as they were always together, a duality of pressure until I was saddled and yoked and hip deep in the furrow I could barely plough. My beautiful Lydia, my sunshine and spark had become my drover, demanding that rings be bought and houses found, all immediately. I struggled and I buckled.’

There was a pause in the narrative as Alec drew his tumbler once more to his lips with a shaking hand. Montague watched, his mouth open in uncertain horror and at the silence, he stumbled to speak.

‘But, surely, Alec,’ he began in a hurry, ‘you did not marry this girl?’

Alec shook his head, swallowing, his eyes dipped.

‘I did not,’ he confirmed, shame washing his words. ‘I would have, yet fate stepped in and Miss Hargreaves died.’

‘Good God!’ Montague exclaimed, then adjusted his tone from relief to one of sympathy, not wholly convincingly. ‘I’m sorry to hear that, but you were free!’

‘I was.’ The two words were murmured, then followed by three more. ‘So I thought.’

‘The mother?’ asked Montague, but Alec shook his head.

‘No, that harridan faded into the background. I found myself unshackled from them both, and for my shame, I celebrated my freedom. I did so discretely because to the world I was a bereaved man, affianced if not wed, but still I had to maintain the pretence of sorrow when all I felt was relief.  Still though, she found me out.’

Alec paused, drinking deeply, his eyes settling on his friend, who was agog. With a nod, he continued.

‘At first the voice was indistinct. Do it now she’d whisper in my ear and I’d turn and see nothing.  I believed it a figment, a result of overwork, of drink, too little sleep. Then I would catch a glimpse of her in the corner of my eye, so close and smiling. Do it now, Do it now. I could not believe it was Lydia, her presence there to force me still further from beyond the veil. Do it now, Do it now, on and on, scarce leaving me alone. I tried to ignore her, I moved city, abandoned my family business, and even fell in love with another, but still, just in the corner of my eye she dwells, never satisfied.’

Montague turned sharply, looking about.

‘And she is here now?’ he whispered. Braithwaite nodded stiffly, causing the younger man to lean forward. ‘Be gone, spirit! Off with you, you are not needed!’ he intoned softly.  The older man smiled weakly.

‘Thank you, Monty, but it will not help. It is down to me, I believe I can dispel the phantom myself.’

‘But it is Christmas Eve, my dear fellow, come back with me.  Minnie is beside herself with worry over you.’ Montague reached over the table, his hand extended. Braithwaite capitulated, shaking it, and gave a faint smile.

‘All will be well, brother, if I might call you so. Return to your home and tell Minnie that all is as it should be.’

‘Well then,’ Montague nodded, and rose, ‘we shall see you in the morning, for church?’

‘As you say,’ Braithwaite replied, and allowed his companion to leave.  Montague reached the door, but could not leave without a final glance back. All will be well, he had promised.  A fancy, a foolishness, his nerves possibly frayed by work, or drink or something. Possibly a tease, a joke from his brother to be, yes, that would be it.  As if to signal this, Alec Braithwaite nodded reassuringly towards him as he loitered. All would be well, Montague was certain.

Back out in the black, glittering night, the cold air pinched at Alec Braithwaite’s lips and nose. His steps turned homeward, back to his rooms. What a liar he had become, and how solidly now she dogged his steps, her face contorted with pity. Had he provoked her on purpose? Oh, but she was there, hovering, crowding him, beside him as he strode purposefully onwards.

What now then, Spirit? Confess it all? Ridiculous. Tell dear, stupid Montague and his pretty, wealthy sister what had happened with Miss Hargreaves, what had truly happened?

Her silence was concerning. He had given her plenty of reason to speak now, plenty of justification to tell her tale but she was mute. He had always craved her attention so deeply. She found it impossible to refuse. He had been drawn into the Hargreaves home by the mother and had taken what he wanted there.  Oh, the mother, now there he had been honest.  A foulsome woman bent on social climbing despite the lack of ambition her husband showed on that front. She had thrust sweet Lydia in his lap, expecting him to propose. To marry beneath him was unthinkable.  Lydia had not thought so. Had he encouraged her?

He had asked for a kiss, just one and in return he would bring her a gift. She had smiled, shyly, and timidly acquiesced. Her face humorous, she had agreed. Do it now she had murmured with a wrinkled nose.

He had promised a ring if she would allow a little more liberty. She had tilted her head uncertainly, but pressed and promised, the liberties were allowed. Do it now she had whispered afterwards, her voice shaking and ashamed. A paste ring had been given with no formality. 

He had promised a wedding if more ground had been given. Bolder, crueller demands followed and each time she yielded, expecting a formal declaration, her plaintive plea of Do it now, sorrowfully echoing.

Alec turned sharply to his door, and could almost hear the swish of her skirt, the pull on his arm, that final time they had met. She had pursued, begged and pleaded. His child was growing inside her, he could not deny her any longer, he must save her, if he had any love for her. She had clung to him and he had turned on her fast and hard his hands on her arms, driving her back, back, back until she hung over the rail backwards, her breath catching.  He felt his body alive with her fear and she had seen it all, finally.

Do it now, she had said, her voice soft and final.

How dare she? He had pushed her over and away. That was an end to it.

Alec slammed the door behind him, a futile gesture as she was already inside the house, the tap of her shoes on the hall tiles in the darkness.  He strode through to his room, but this time closed the door softly.

‘So, here we are, my sweet Lydia. I see now how you will never let it alone.  Will you dog me down the aisle? On my wedding night, will you be in attendance?’

He paused, listening, his arms raised in challenge in the empty room.  There came no reply. He roared in frustration.

‘Well, now, silence is it? After all I’ve said, all I accused you of to poor stupid Monty? What use is your silence now? I know you are here. Am I never, ever to be free of you?’

He filled a tumbler with scotch, listening intently but the room was quiet, but for his own noises. A rustle of silk pulled his head to the left, searching the dim room for the source.

‘What? What must I do, you accursed harpy?!’ he screamed uncontrollably, spinning to see her. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the glint of gold on her toffee hair, the timid way she drew back from him, out of his sight.  He cries became a choked sob and he turned this way and that, trying to find her as she slipped from him. ‘Lydia, please, Lydia, don’t leave me. Speak, please, speak, once more, I beg-’

In a dark corner of the room, a side table held an object that Alec had not noticed before, a box. He approached unwillingly, his tumbler of whiskey swaying with his uncertain movement.  He raised the lid and saw his pocket revolver nestled in a paisley shawl, the golden threads glinting.

Do it now.

Her voice, sweet and soft.  She had not deserted him, and for the first time, Alec granted her wish.