‘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.
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.’
‘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.
‘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.
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.
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 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.