We came to Birchwood Manor because Edward said that it was haunted. It wasn’t, not then, but it’s a dull man who lets truth stand in the way of a good story, and Edward was never that. His passion, his blinding faith in whatever he professed, was one of the things I fell in love with. He had the preacher’s zeal, a way of expressing opinions that minted them into gleaming currency. A habit of drawing people to him, of ring in them enthusiasms they hadn’t known were theirs, making all but himself and his convictions fade.
But Edward was no preacher.
I remember him. I remember everything.
The glass-roofed studio in his mother’s London garden, the smell of freshly mixed paint, the scratch of bristle on canvas as his gaze swept my skin. My nerves that day were prickles. I was eager to impress, to make him think me something I was not, as his eyes traced my length and Mrs Mack’s entreaty circled in my head: ‘Your mother was a proper lady, your people were grand folk and don’t you go forgetting it. Play your cards right and all our birds might just come home to roost.’
And so I sat up straighter on the rosewood chair, that first day in the whitewashed room behind the tangle of blushing sweet peas.
His littlest sister brought me tea, and cake when I was hungry. His mother, too, came down the narrow path to watch him work. She adored her son. In him she glimpsed the family’s hopes fulfilled. Distinguished member of the Royal Academy, engaged to a lady of some means, father soon to a clutch of brown-eyed heirs.
Not for him the likes of me.
His mother blamed herself for what came next, but she’d have more easily halted day from meeting night than keep us apart. He called me his muse, his destiny. He said that he had known at once, when he saw me through the hazy gaslight of the theatre foyer on Drury Lane.
I was his muse, his destiny. And he was mine.
It was long ago; it was yesterday.
Oh, I remember love.
This corner, halfway up the main flight of stairs, is my favourite.
It is a strange house, built to be purposely confusing. Staircases that turn at unusual angles, all knees and elbows and uneven treads; windows that do not line up no matter how one squints at them; floorboards and wall panels with clever concealments.
In this corner, there’s a warmth, almost unnatural. We all noticed it when first we came, and over the early summer weeks we took our turns in guessing at its cause.
The reason took me some time to discover, but at last I learned the truth. I know this place as I know my own name.
It was not the house itself but the light that Edward used to tempt the others. On a clear day, from the attic windows, one can see over the River Thames and all the way to the Welsh mountains. Ribbons of mauve and green, crags of chalk that stagger towards the clouds, and warm air that lends the whole an iridescence.
This was the proposal that he made: an entire summer month of paint and poetry and picnics, of stories and science and invention. Of light, heaven-sent. Away from London, away from prying eyes. Little wonder that the others accepted with alacrity. Edward could make the very devil pray, if such were his desire.
Only to me did he confess his other reason for coming here. For although the lure of the light was real enough, Edward had a secret.
We came on foot from the railway station.
July, and the day was perfect. A breeze picked at my skirt hem. Someone had brought sandwiches and we ate them as we walked. What a sight we must have made – men with loosened neckties, women with their long hair free. Laughter, teasing, sport.
Such a grand beginning! I remember the sound of a stream close by and a wood pigeon calling overhead. A man leading a horse, a wagon with a young boy sitting atop straw bales, the smell of fresh‐cut grass—Oh, how I miss that smell! A clutch of fat country geese regarded us beadily when we reached the river before honking bravely once we had passed.
All was light, but it did not last for long.
You knew that already, though, for there would be no story to tell if the warmth had lasted. No one is interested in quiet, happy summers that end as they begin. Edward taught me that.
The isolation played its part; this house stranded on the riverbank like a great inland ship. The weather, too; the blazing hot days, one after the other, and then the summer storm that night, which forced us all indoors.
The winds blew and the trees moaned, and thunder rolled down the river to take the house within its clutches; whilst inside, talk turned to spirits and enchantments. There was a fire, crackling in the grate, and the candle flames quivered, and in the darkness, in that atmosphere of delicious fear and confession, something ill was conjured.
Not a ghost, oh, no, not that – the deed when done was entirely human.
Two unexpected guests.
Two long-kept secrets.
A gunshot in the dark.
The light went out and everything was black.
Summer was curdled. The first keen leaves began their fall, turning to rot in the puddles beneath the thinning hedgerows, and Edward, who loved this house, began to stalk its corridors, entrapped.
At last, he could stand it no longer. He packed his things to leave and I could not make him stop.
The others followed, as they always did.
And I? I had no choice; I stayed behind.
It was Elodie Winslow’s favourite time of day. Summer in London, and at a certain point in the very late afternoon the sun seemed to hesitate in its passage across the sky and light spilled through the small glass tiles in the pavement directly onto her desk. Best of all, with Margot and Mr Pendleton gone home for the day, the moment was Elodie’s alone.
The basement of Stratton, Cadwell & Co., in its building on the Strand, was not an especially romantic place, not like the muniment room at New College where Elodie had taken holiday work the year she completed her master’s. It was not warm, ever, and even during a heatwave like this one Elodie needed to wear a cardigan at her desk. But every so often, when the stars aligned, the office, with its smell of dust and age and the seeping Thames, was almost charming.
In the narrow kitchenette behind the wall of ling cabinets, Elodie poured steaming water into a mug and flipped the timer. Margot thought this precision extreme, but Elodie preferred her tea when it had steeped for three and a half minutes exactly.
As she waited, grains of sand slipping through the glass, Elodie’s thoughts returned to Pippa’s message. She had picked it up on her phone, when she’d ducked across the road to buy a sandwich for lunch: an invitation to a fashion launch party that sounded as tempting to Elodie as a stint in the doctor’s waiting room. Thankfully, she already had plans – a visit to her father in Hampstead to collect the recordings he’d put aside for her – and was spared the task of inventing a reason to say no.
Denying Pippa was not easy. She was Elodie’s best friend and had been since the first day of Year 3 at Pineoaks primary school. Elodie often gave silent thanks to Miss Perry for seating the two of them together: Elodie, the New Girl, with her unfamiliar uniform and the lopsided plaits her dad had wrestled into place; and Pippa, with her broad smile, dimpled cheeks and hands that were in constant motion when she spoke.
They’d been inseparable ever since. Primary school, secondary school, and even afterwards when Elodie went up to Oxford and Pippa to Central Saint Martins. They saw less of one another now, but that was to be expected; the art world was a busy, sociable place, and Pippa was responsible for a never-ending stream of invitations left on Elodie’s phone as she made her way from this gallery opening or installation to the next.
The world of archives, by contrast, was decidedly un-busy. That is, it was not busy in Pippa’s sparkling sense. Elodie put in long hours and engaged frequently with other human beings; they just weren’t the living, breathing sort. The original Messrs Stratton and Cadwell had traversed the globe at a time when it was just beginning to shrink and the invention of the telephone hadn’t yet reduced reliance on written correspondence. So it was, Elodie spent her days communing with the foxed and dusty artefacts of the long dead, stepping into this account of a soirée on the Orient Express or that encounter between Victorian adventurers in search of the Northwest Passage.
Such social engagement across time made Elodie very happy. It was true that she didn’t have many friends, not of the flesh-and-blood variety, but the fact did not upset her. It was tiring, all that smiling and sharing and speculating about the weather, and she always left a gathering, no matter how intimate, feeling depleted, as if she’d accidentally left behind some vital layers of herself she’d never get back.
Elodie removed the teabag, squeezed the last drips into the sink and added a half-second pour of milk.
She carried the mug back to her desk, where the prisms of afternoon sunlight were just beginning their daily creep; and as steam curled voluptuously and her palms warmed, Elodie surveyed the day’s remaining tasks. She had been midway through compiling an index on the younger James Stratton’s account of his 1893 journey to the west coast of Africa; there was an article to write for the next edition of Stratton, Cadwell & Co. Monthly; and Mr Pendleton had left her with the catalogue for the upcoming exhibition to proofread before it went to the printer.
But Elodie had been making decisions about words and their order all day and her brain was stretched. Her gaze fell to the waxed-cardboard box on the floor beneath her desk. It had been there since Monday afternoon when a plumbing disaster in the offices above had required immediate evacuation of the old cloakroom, a low-ceilinged architectural afterthought that Elodie couldn’t remember entering in the ten years since she’d started work in the building. The box had turned up beneath a stack of dusty brocade curtains in the bottom of an antique chiffonier, a handwritten label on its lid reading, ‘Contents of attic desk drawer, 1966 – unlisted’.
Finding archival materials in the disused cloakroom, let alone so many decades after they’d apparently been delivered, was disquieting and Mr Pendleton’s reaction had been predictably explosive. He was a stickler for protocol, and it was lucky, Elodie and Margot later agreed, that whoever had been responsible for receiving the delivery in 1966 had long ago left his employ.
The timing couldn’t have been worse: ever since the management consultant had been sent in to ‘trim the fat’, Mr Pendleton had been in a spin. The invasion of his physical sphere was bad enough, but the insult of having his efficiency questioned was beyond the pale. ‘It’s like someone borrowing your watch to tell you the time,’ he’d said through frosted lips after the consultant had met with them the other morning.
The unceremonious appearance of the box had threatened to tip him into apoplexy, so Elodie – who liked disharmony as little as she did disorder – had stepped in with a firm promise to set things right, promptly sweeping it up and stashing it out of sight.
In the days since, she’d been careful to keep it concealed so as not to trigger another eruption, but now, alone in the quiet office, she knelt on the carpet and slid the box from its hiding place . . .
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The pinpricks of sudden light were a shock, and the satchel, pressed deep inside the box, exhaled. The journey had been long, and it was understandably weary. Its edges were wearing thin, its buckles had tarnished, and an unfortunate musty odour had staled in its depths. As for the dust, a permanent patina had formed opaquely on the once‐fine surface, and it was now the sort of bag that people held at a distance, turning their heads to one side as they weighed the possibilities. Too old to be of use, but bearing an indefinable air of historic quality precluding its disposal.
The satchel had been loved once, admired for its elegance – more importantly, its function. It had been indispensable to a particular person at a particular time when such attributes were highly prized. Since then, it had been hidden and ignored, recovered and disparaged, lost, found and forgotten.
Now, though, one by one, the items that for decades had sat atop the satchel were being lifted, and the satchel, too, was resurfacing finally in this room of faint electrical humming and ticking pipes. Of diffuse yellow light and papery smells and soft white gloves.
At the other end of the gloves was a woman: young, with fawn-like arms leading to a delicate neck supporting a face framed by short black hair. She held the satchel at a distance, but not with distaste.
Her touch was gentle. Her mouth had gathered in a small neat purse of interest and her grey eyes narrowed slightly before widening as she took in the hand-sewn joins, the fine Indian cotton and the precise stitching.
She ran a soft thumb over the initials on the front flap, faded and sad, and the satchel felt a frisson of pleasure. Somehow this young woman’s attention hinted that what had turned out to be an unexpectedly long journey might just be nearing its end.
Open me, the satchel urged. Look inside.
Once upon a time the satchel had been shiny and new. Made to order by Mr Simms himself at the royal warrant manufactory of W. Simms & Son on Bond Street. The gilt initials had been hand-tooled and heat-sealed with enormous pomp; each silver rivet and buckle had been selected, inspected and polished; the fine-quality leather had been cut and stitched with care, oiled and buffed with pride. Spices from the Far East – clove and sandalwood and saffron – had drifted through the building’s veins from the perfumery next door, infusing the satchel with a hint of faraway places.
Open me ...
The woman in the white gloves unlatched the dull silver buckle and the satchel held its breath.
Open me, open me, open me ...
She pushed back its leather strap and for the first time in over a century light swept into the satchel’s dark corners.
An onslaught of memories – fragmented, confused – arrived with it: a bell tinkling above the door at W. Simms & Son; the swish of a young woman’s skirts; the thud of horses’ hooves; the smell of fresh paint and turpentine; heat, lust, whispering. Gaslight in railway stations; a long, winding river; the wheat fragrance of summer—
The gloved hands withdrew and with them went the satchel’s load.
The old sensations, voices, imprints, fell away, and everything, at last, was blank and quiet.
It was over.
Elodie rested the contents on her lap and set the satchel to one side. It was a beautiful piece that did not fit with the other items she’d taken from the box. They had comprised a collection of rather humdrum office supplies – a hole punch, an ink well, a wooden desk insert for sorting pens and paperclips – and a crocodile leather spectacle case, which the manufacturer’s label announced as, ‘The property of L. S‐W’. This fact suggested to Elodie that the desk, and everything inside, had once belonged to Lesley Stratton‐Wood, a great-niece of the original James Stratton. The vintage was right – Lesley Stratton‐Wood had died in the 1960s – and it would explain the box’s delivery to Stratton, Cadwell & Co.
The satchel, though – unless it was a replica of the highest order – was far too old to have belonged to Ms Stratton‐ Wood; the items inside looked pre-twentieth century. A preliminary rifle revealed a monogrammed black journal (E. J. R.) with a marbled fore-edge; a brass pen box, mid-Victorian; and a faded green leather document holder. There was no way of knowing at first glance to whom the satchel had belonged, but beneath the front flap of the document holder, the gilt-stamped label read, ‘James W. Stratton, Esq. London, 1861’.
The document holder was flattish and Elodie thought at first that it might be empty; but when she opened the clasp, a single object waited inside. It was a delicate silver frame, small enough to fit within her hand, containing a photograph of a woman. She was young, with long hair, light but not blonde, half of which was wound into a loose knot on the top of her head; her gaze was direct, her chin slightly lifted, her cheekbones high. Her lips were set in an attitude of intelligent engagement, perhaps even defiance.
Elodie felt a familiar stirring of anticipation as she took in the sepia tones, the promise of a life awaiting rediscovery. The woman’s dress was looser than might be expected for the period. White fabric draped over her shoulders and the neckline fell in a V. The sleeves were sheer and billowed, and had been pushed to the elbow on one arm. Her wrist was slender, the hand on her hip accentuating the indentation of her waist.
The treatment was as unusual as the subject, for the woman wasn’t posed inside on a settee or against a scenic curtain as one might expect in a Victorian portrait. She was outside, surrounded by dense greenery, a setting that spoke of movement and life. The light was diffuse, the effect intoxicating.
Elodie set the photograph aside and took up the monogrammed journal. It fell open to reveal thick cream pages of expensive cotton paper; there were lines of beautiful handwriting, but they were complements only to the many pen and ink renderings of figures, landscapes, and other objects of interest. Not a journal, then: this was a sketchbook.
A fragment of paper, torn from elsewhere, slipped from between two pages. A single line raced across it: I love her, I love her, I love her, and if I cannot have her I shall surely go mad, for when I am not with her I fear—
The words leapt off the paper as if they’d been spoken aloud, but when Elodie turned over the page, whatever the writer had feared was not revealed.
She ran her gloved fingertips over the impressions of the text. When held up to the last glimmer of sunlight, the paper revealed its individual threads, along with tiny lucent pinpricks where the sharp nib of the fountain pen had torn across the sheet.
Elodie laid the jagged piece of paper gently back inside the sketchbook.
Although antique now, the urgency of its message was unsettling: it spoke forcefully and currently of unfinished business.
Elodie continued to leaf carefully through the pages, each one filled with cross-hatched artist’s studies with occasional rough-sketched facial profiles in the margins.
And then she stopped.
This sketch was more elaborate than the others, more complete. A river scene, with a tree in the foreground and a distant wood visible across a broad eld. Behind a copse on the right-hand side, the twin-gabled roofline of a house could be seen, with eight chimneys and an ornate weathervane featuring the sun and moon and other celestial emblems.
It was an accomplished drawing, but that’s not why Elodie stared. She felt a pang of déjà vu so strong it exerted a physical pressure around her chest.
She knew this place. The memory was as vivid as if she’d been there, and yet somehow Elodie knew that it was a location she’d visited only in her mind.
The words came to her then as clear as birdsong at dawn:
Down the winding lane and across the meadow broad, to the river they went with their secrets and their sword.
And she remembered. It was a story that her mother used to tell her. A child’s bedtime story, romantic and tangled, replete with heroes, villains and a Fairy Queen, set in a house within dark woods encircled by a long, snaking river.
But there had been no book with illustrations. The tale had been spoken aloud, the two of them side by side in her little-girl bed in the room with the sloping ceiling—
The wall clock chimed, low and premonitory, from Mr Pendleton’s office, and Elodie glanced at her watch. She was late. Time had lost its shape again, its arrow dissolving into dust around her. With a final glance at the strangely familiar scene, she returned the sketchbook with the other contents to its box, closed the lid, and pushed it back beneath the desk.
Elodie had gathered her things and was halfway through the usual motions of checking and locking the department door to leave, when the overwhelming urge came upon her. Unable to resist, she hurried back to the box, dug out the sketchbook, and slipped it inside her bag.
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Elodie caught the 24 bus north from Charing Cross to Hampstead. The Underground would have been faster, but she didn’t use the Tube. There was too much crowding, too little air, and Elodie didn’t do well in tight spaces. The aversion had been a fact of life since she was a child and she was used to it, but in this instance it was a regret; she loved the idea of the Underground, its example of nineteenth-century enterprise, its vintage tiles and fonts, its history and dust.
The traffic was grindingly slow, especially near Tottenham Court Road where the Crossrail excavation had left the backs of a row of brick Victorian terraces exposed. It was one of Elodie’s favourite views, providing a glimpse of the past so real it could be touched. She imagined, as she always did, the lives of those who’d dwelt within these houses long ago, back when the southern part of St Giles was home to the Rookery, a teeming, squalid slum of crooked alleys and cesspits, gin shops and gamblers, prostitutes and urchins; when Charles Dickens was making his daily walks, and alchemists plied their trade in the sewer-lined streets of the Seven Dials.
The younger James Stratton, sharing with so many of his fellow Victorians a keen interest in the esoteric, had left a number of journal entries recording visits to a particular spiritualist and seer in Covent Garden with whom he’d enjoyed a long-running dalliance. For a banker, James Stratton had been a gifted writer, his diaries providing vibrant, compassionate and at times very funny glimpses of life in Victorian London. He had been a kind man, a good man, committed to improving the lives of the poor and dispossessed. He believed, as he wrote to friends when he tried to enlist them to his philanthropic causes, that ‘a human being’s life and prospects must surely be improved by having a decent place to lay his or her head of a night’.
Professionally he had been respected, even liked, by his peers: a bright, sought-after dinner party guest, well travelled and wealthy, successful by every measure a Victorian man might care to name; yet, in his personal life, he’d cut a lonelier figure. He had married late, after a number of short-lived, improbable romances. There was an actress who’d run off with an Italian inventor, an artist’s model who was pregnant with another man’s child, and in his mid-forties he developed a deep and abiding affection for one of his servants, a quiet girl called Molly, upon whom he bestowed frequent small kindnesses without ever declaring his true feelings. It seemed to Elodie almost as if he’d set out purposely to choose women who wouldn’t – or couldn’t – make him happy.
‘Why would he do that?’ Pippa had asked with a frown when Elodie mentioned this thought to her over tapas and sangria one night.
Elodie wasn’t sure, only that although there was nothing overt in his correspondence, no declaration of unrequited love or confession of deep-seated unhappiness, she couldn’t help but sense something melancholy lurking beneath the pleasant surface of his personal letters; that he was a seeker for whom true fulfilment remained forever out of reach.
Elodie was used to the sceptical look that settled on Pippa’s face whenever she said that sort of thing out loud. She would never be able to describe the intimacy of working day after day amongst the artefacts of another person’s life. Elodie couldn’t understand the modern urge to share one’s innermost feelings publicly and permanently; she guarded her own privacy carefully and subscribed to the French notion of le droit à l’oubli – the right to be forgotten. And yet it was her job – more than that, her passion – to preserve, and even to reanimate, the lives of people who had no choice in the matter. She had read James Stratton’s most private thoughts, journal entries written without a view to posterity, yet he had never even heard her name.
‘You’re in love with him, of course,’ was Pippa’s comment whenever Elodie tried to explain.
But it wasn’t love; Elodie simply admired James Stratton and felt protective of his legacy. He had been granted a life beyond his lifetime and it was Elodie’s job to ensure it was respected.
Even as the word ‘respect’ took form in her mind, Elodie thought of the sketchbook, deep inside her bag, and her cheeks flushed.
What on earth had come over her?
Panic mixed with a terrible, wonderful, guilty sense of anticipation. Never in the decade that she’d worked in the archive room at Stratton, Cadwell & Co. had she transgressed so emphatically the edicts laid down by Mr Pendleton. His rules were absolute: to take an artefact from the vault – worse, simply to shove it in one’s bag and force upon it the sacrilege of being transported on a twenty-first-century London bus – was beyond disrespectful. It was inexcusable.
But as the number 24 skirted Mornington Crescent station and started up Camden High Street, with a quick glance to reassure herself that no one was watching, Elodie took the sketchbook from her bag and opened the pages quickly to the drawing of the house in its river setting.
Once again she was struck by a sense of profound familiarity. She knew this place. In the story that her mother used to tell, the house had been a literal gateway to another world; for Elodie, though, curled up in her mother’s arms, breathing in the exotic fragrance of narcissus that she wore, the story itself had been a gateway, an incantation that carried her away from the here-and-now and into the land of imagination. After her mother’s death, the world of the story had become her secret place. Whether at lunchtime in her new school, or at home in the long quiet afternoons, or at night when the darkness threatened suffocation, all she had to do was hide herself away and close her eyes and she could cross the river, brave the woods and enter the enchanted house . . .
The bus arrived at South End Green and Elodie stopped briefly to make a purchase at the stall by the Overground station before hurrying up Willow Road towards Gainsborough Gardens. The day was still warm and very stuffy, and by the time she arrived at the door of her father’s tiny house – originally the gardener’s cottage – Elodie felt as if she’d run a marathon.
‘Hello, Dad,’ she said, as he gave her a kiss. ‘I’ve brought you something.’
‘Oh, dear,’ he said, eyeing the potted plant dubiously. ‘Even after how things ended last time?’
‘I believe in you. Besides, the lady selling them told me this one only needs watering twice a year.’
‘Good God, really? Twice a year?’
‘That’s what she said.’
Despite the heat, he’d prepared duck à l’orange, his speciality, and they ate together at the table in the kitchen as they always did. They’d never really been a dining-room family, only on special occasions, like Christmas or birthdays, or the time Elodie’s mother had decided they should invite the visiting American violinist and his wife for Thanksgiving.
As they ate they spoke of work: Elodie’s curation of the upcoming exhibition and her father’s choir, the music lessons he’d been giving recently at one of the local primary schools. His face lit up when he described the little girl whose violin was almost as long as her arm, and the bright-eyed boy who’d come to the practice room of his own accord and begged for cello lessons. ‘His parents aren’t musical, you see.’
‘Let me guess: the two of you came to your own arrangement?’
‘I hadn’t the heart to say no.’
Elodie smiled. Her father was a soft touch when it came to music and wouldn’t have dreamed of denying a child the opportunity to share his great love. He believed that music had the power to alter people’s lives – ‘their very minds, Elodie’ – and nothing made him quite as excited as discussing brain plasticity and MRI scans showing a connection between music and empathy. It made Elodie’s heart clench to watch him watching a concert: the utter transfixion of his face beside her in the theatre. He had been a professional musician once himself. ‘Only second violinist,’ he always qualified when the subject arose, a trace of reverence entering his voice as he continued predictably: ‘Nothing like she was.’
She. Elodie’s gaze drifted to the dining room on the other side of the hall. From where she was sitting only the edges of a few frames were visible, but Elodie didn’t need to look upon the wall to know exactly which picture was hanging where. Their positions never altered. It was her mother’s wall. That is, it was Lauren Adler’s wall; striking black-and-white photographs of a vibrant young woman with long, straight hair and a cello in her embrace.
Elodie had made a study of the photographs when she was a child and they were thus printed indelibly on her mind’s eye. Her mother, in various attitudes of performance, concentration fine-tuning her features: those high cheekbones; the focused gaze; her clever articulated fingers on strings that gleamed beneath the lights.
‘Fancy a bit of pudding?’
Her father had taken a quivering strawberry concoction from the refrigerator, and Elodie noticed suddenly how old he was compared with the images of her mother, whose youth and beauty were locked in the amber of her memory.
Because the weather was glorious, they took their wine glasses and dessert upstairs to the rooftop terrace that overlooked the green. A trio of brothers were tossing a frisbee, the smallest one running back and forth across the grass between the others, while a pair of adults sat together nearby, their heads bent close in conversation.
The summer twilight cast a soporific glow, and Elodie was reluctant to spoil things. Nonetheless, after a few minutes of the easy companionable silence in which she and her father had always specialised, she ventured, ‘Do you know what I was thinking of today?’
‘What’s that?’ He had a spot of cream on his chin.
‘That bedtime story from when I was little – the one about the river, and the house with the moon-and-stars weathervane. Do you remember it?’
He laughed with soft surprise. ‘Goodness! That’s taken me back. Yes, of course, you used to love that one. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of it. I always wondered that it might not be a bit too scary for a child, but your mother believed that children were much braver than they were given credit for. She said that childhood was a frightening time and that hearing scary stories was a way of feeling less alone. It seemed that you agreed: whenever she was away on tour you were never happy with the books I read. I used to feel quite rejected. You’d hide them under your bed so I couldn’t find them and demand that I tell you instead about the clearing in the deep, dark woods and the magic house on the river.’
‘You were not pleased with my attempts. Feet were stomped, words like “No!” and “Not like that!” bandied about.’
‘It wasn’t your fault. Your mother was a wonderful storyteller.’
Her father fell into a melancholy silence, but Elodie, who was usually mindful not to trespass on her father’s old grief, pressed on gingerly. ‘I wonder, Dad – is it possible that the story actually came from a book?’
‘Would that it had. I’d have been saved a lot of time trying to console my inconsolable child. No, it was an invention, a family story. I remember your mother saying it had been passed down to her when she was young.’
‘I thought so too, but perhaps she got it wrong? Maybe whoever told her the story had read it in a book? One of those illustrated Victorian books for children.’
‘It’s possible, I suppose.’ He frowned. ‘But what’s all this about?’
With a prickle of sudden nerves, Elodie withdrew the sketchbook from her bag and handed it to her father, open to the drawing of the house. ‘I found this at work today, in a box.’
‘It’s lovely . . . and obviously drawn by a fine artist . . . wonderful penmanship ...’ He looked at it a little longer before glancing at Elodie uncertainly.
‘Dad, can’t you see? It’s the house from the story. An illustration of the very same house.’
He returned his attention to the sketch. ‘Well, it’s a house. And I see there’s a river.’
‘And woods, and a weathervane with a sun and moon.’
‘Yes, but . . . lovey, I dare say there are dozens of houses fitting that description.’
‘So precisely? Come on, Dad. This is the same house. The details are identical. More than that, the artist has captured the same feel as the house in the story. You must be able to see it?’ The possessive instinct came upon her suddenly and Elodie took the book back from her father. She couldn’t explain more emphatically than she already had: she didn’t know how, or what it meant, or why the sketch had turned up in the archives at work, but she knew it was the house from her mother’s story.
‘I’m sorry, love.’
‘Nothing to be sorry for.’ Even as she said it, Elodie felt the sting of impending tears. Ridiculous! To cry like a child over the provenance of a bedtime story. She grasped for a different subject, something – anything – to move the conversation on. ‘Have you heard from Tip?’
‘Not yet. But you know what he’s like. He doesn’t believe in the telephone.’
‘I’ll go and see him at the weekend.’
Silence fell once more between them, but this time it was neither easy nor companionable. Elodie watched the warm light at play on the leaves of the trees. She didn’t know why she felt so agitated. Even if it were the same house, what did it matter? Either the artist had made sketches for a book that her mother had read, or it was a real-life house that someone had seen and enfolded into the story. She knew she ought to let it go, to think of something pleasant and benign to say—
‘They’re predicting fine weather,’ her father said, at the very same moment Elodie exclaimed, ‘The house has eight chimneys, Dad. Eight!’
‘It’s the house from her story. Look at the gables—’
‘My dear girl.’
‘This all makes sense.’
‘It’s the wedding.’
‘Yours, of course.’ His smile was kind. ‘Big life events have a way of bringing the past back to bear. And you miss your mother. I should have anticipated that you’d be missing her now more than ever.’
‘No, Dad, I—’
‘In fact, there’s something I’ve been wanting to give you. Wait here a minute.’
As her father disappeared down the flight of iron stairs that led back to the house, Elodie sighed. With his apron tied around his middle and his too-sweet duck à l’orange, he just wasn’t the sort of person with whom one could maintain a state of prolonged irritation.
She noticed a blackbird watching her from one of the twin chimney pots. It stared intently before responding to a command she couldn’t hear to fly away. The littlest of the children on the green began to wail, and Elodie thought of her father’s account of her own petulance in the face of his best bedtime story efforts: the years that had stretched out afterwards, just the two of them.
It couldn’t have been easy.
‘I’ve been saving this for you,’ he said, reappearing at the top of the stairs. She had presumed that he was going to fetch the tapes she’d asked him to put aside, but the box he was holding was too small for that, not much bigger than a shoebox. ‘I knew that one day – that the time would be right –’ His eyes were beginning to glisten and he shook his head, handing her the box. ‘Here, you’ll see.’
Elodie lifted the top.
Inside was a swathe of silk organza, light ivory in colour, its scalloped edge trimmed with a fine ribbon of velvet. She knew at once what it was. She had studied the photograph in its gilt frame downstairs many times before.
‘She was so beautiful that day,’ her father said. ‘I’ll never forget the moment she appeared in the doorway of the church. I’d half convinced myself she wouldn’t show. My brother teased me mercilessly in the days beforehand. He thought it was great sport and I’m afraid I made it easy for him. I couldn’t quite believe that she’d said “yes”. I was sure there’d been some sort of mix‐up – that it was too good to be true.’
Elodie reached to take his hand. It had been twenty-five years since her mother’s death, but for her father it might as well have happened yesterday. Elodie had only been six, but she could still remember the way he used to look at her mother, the way they’d intertwined their fingers when they walked together. She remembered, too, the knock at the door, the low voices of the policemen, her father’s awful cry.
‘It’s getting late,’ he said with a quick pat to the top of her wrist. ‘You should be heading home, love. Come on downstairs – I’ve found the tapes you were after, too.’
Elodie replaced the lid of the box. She was leaving him to the burdensome company of his memories, but he was right: the journey home was a long one. Besides, Elodie had learned many years before that she was not equal to the task of healing his sorrow. ‘Thanks for keeping the veil for me,’ she said, brushing a kiss on his cheek as she stood.
‘She’d be proud of you.’
Elodie smiled, but as she followed her father downstairs she wondered if that were true.
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Home was a small, neat flat that sat at the very top of a Victorian building in Barnes. The communal stairwell smelled like chip grease, courtesy of the fish shop below, but only the merest hint remained on Elodie’s landing. The at itself was little more than an open-plan sitting room and kitchenette and an oddly shaped bedroom with a tacked-on bathroom; the view, though, made Elodie’s heart sing.
One of her bedroom windows overlooked the back of a row of other Victorians: old bricks, white sash windows and truncated roofs with terracotta chimney pots. In the gaps between drainpipes she could glimpse the Thames. Better yet, if she sat right up on the sill she could look all the way upriver to the bend where the railway bridge made its crossing.
The window on the far wall faced the street, lining up with a mirror house on the other side. The couple who lived there were still eating when Elodie arrived home. They were Swedish, she had learned, which seemed to explain not only their height and beauty, but also their exotic Nordic habit of dining after ten. There was a lamp above their kitchen bench, which looked to be made of crepe and sent light shimmering pinkly onto the surface below. Beneath it, their skin glowed.
Elodie drew her bedroom curtains, switched on the light, and took the veil from its box. She didn’t know much about fashion, not like Pippa, but she knew this was a special piece. Vintage by dint of its age, covetable owing to Lauren Adler’s fame, but precious to Elodie because it had been her mother’s and there was surprisingly little of her left. Surprisingly little of a private nature.
After a moment’s hesitation, she lifted the veil and held it tentatively at the crown of her head. She slipped the comb into place and the organza unfurled over her shoulders. She let her hands fall to her sides.
Elodie had been flattered when Alastair asked her to marry him. He had proposed on the first anniversary of the day they’d been introduced (by a boy Elodie had gone to school with who now worked in Alastair’s firm). Alastair had taken her to the theatre and then to dinner in a fancy Soho restaurant, whispering into her ear as the cloakroom attendant stowed their coats that it took most people weeks to get a reservation. Whilst the waiter was fetching them dessert, he had presented the ring in its robin-egg-blue box. It had been like something from a movie, and Elodie had seen the two of them as if from outside: he with his handsome, expectant face, his perfect white teeth; and she in the new dress Pippa had made for her when she’d given the Stratton Group 150-Year Presentation speech the month before.
An elderly woman sitting at the table beside them had said to her companion, ‘Isn’t that lovely. Look! She’s blushing because she’s so in love.’ And Elodie had thought, I’m blushing because I’m so in love, and when Alastair lifted his eyebrows she’d watched herself smile and tell him yes.
Out on the dark river a boat sounded its foghorn and Elodie slipped the veil from her head.
That was how it happened, she supposed. That is how people become engaged. There would be a wedding – in six weeks, according to the invitation, when Alastair’s mother said the Gloucestershire gardens would be at ‘their late summer best’ – and Elodie would be one of those married people who met up at weekends to talk about houses and bank loans and schools. For there would be children, presumably, and she would be their mother. And she wouldn’t be like her own mother, talented and sparkling, alluring and elusive; but her children would look to her for advice and comfort and she would know what to do and say because people just seemed to, didn’t they?
Elodie set the box on the brown velvet chair in the corner of her room.
After a moment’s uncertainty, she slid it under the chair instead.
The suitcase she’d brought back from her father’s house was still standing by the door where she’d left it.
Elodie had imagined getting started on the tapes tonight, but she was suddenly tired – intensely tired.
She showered and then, guiltily, switched off the lamp and slunk into bed. She would start on the tapes tomorrow; she had to. Alastair’s mother, Penelope, had already called three times since breakfast. Elodie had let the calls go through to voicemail, but any day now Alastair would announce that ‘Mummy’ was cooking Sunday lunch and Elodie would find herself in the passenger seat of the Rover, being transported up the tree-lined driveway to that enormous house in Surrey where the inquisition would be waiting.
Choosing the recording was one of only three tasks she’d been set. The second was visiting the reception venue owned by Penelope’s best friend, ‘just to introduce yourself, of course; leave the rest to me’. The third was liaising with Pippa, who’d offered to design her dress. So far, Elodie had completed none.
Tomorrow, she promised, pushing all thought of the wedding aside. Tomorrow.
She closed her eyes, the faint sounds of late-night customers buying battered cod and chips drifting up from downstairs, and without warning her thoughts returned to the other box, the one beneath her desk at work. The framed photograph of the young woman with the direct gaze. The sketch of the house.
Again that strange sensation, like the glimpse of a memory she couldn’t grasp, disquieted her. She saw the sketch in her mind’s eye and heard a voice that was her mother’s, but somehow also wasn’t: Down the winding lane and across the meadow broad, to the river they went with their secrets and their sword . . .
And when she finally fell asleep, at the very moment that consciousness slid away, the pen-drawn picture in her mind dissolved into sunlit trees and the silver-tipped Thames, and a warm wind brushed her cheeks in an unknown place she somehow knew like home.
The odd, unsettled feeling was still with Elodie the following day and she spent the train ride into work jotting down every‐ thing she could remember of her mother’s bedtime tale. As London blurred on the other side of the window, and a group of schoolboys further down the carriage sniggered at a phone screen, she rested a notepad on her knee and let the real world disappear. Her pen raced across the page, but as the train drew nearer to Waterloo, her enthusiasm began to wane, her pace to slow. She glanced over what she’d written, the tale of the house with its celestial weathervane, and the mercurial wending river and the wonderful, terrible things that happened in the woods at night, and Elodie felt slightly embarrassed. It was a children’s tale, after all, and she a grown woman.
The train stopped at the platform and Elodie gathered her bag from the floor beside her feet. She eyed the sketchbook – wrapped now in a clean cotton tea towel – and a wave of uncertainty washed over her as she recalled her recklessness the afternoon before, the sudden compulsion she’d felt to take it, her growing conviction that the sketch presaged some sort of mystery. She’d even harboured a suspicion – thank God she’d had enough sense not to share it with her father! – that the sketch had been waiting for her all of these years.
Elodie’s phone rang as she was passing St Mary le Strand and Penelope’s name appeared onscreen. As a butterfly swooped in Elodie’s stomach, it occurred to her that her father might have had a point. That perhaps it was the wedding after all, and not the sketch of the house, that was stirring up these strange feelings. She ignored Penelope’s call, tucking the phone away in her pocket. She would log in with her formidable mother-in-law-to-be that afternoon, after she’d met with Pippa and had something concrete to report.
For the many thousandth time, Elodie wished that her own mother were still alive to create some balance in the force. She had it on good authority – and not just from her father – that Lauren Adler had been extraordinary. Elodie had gone on a research binge when she was seventeen, the internet first and then beyond that by applying for a Reader Pass at the British Library, collecting every article and interview that she could find relating to Lauren Adler’s glittering career. In her bedroom at night, she’d read all of the articles, forming a picture of an exuberant young woman with a stunning talent, a virtuoso whose mastery of her instrument was complete. But it was the interviews that Elodie had savoured, for there, between the inverted commas, she’d discovered her mother’s own words. Her thoughts, her voice, her very turns of phrase.
Elodie had read a book once, found beneath the bed in a hotel room in Greece, about a dying woman who wrote her children a series of letters about life and how to live it in order that she might continue to guide them from beyond the grave. But Elodie’s mother had had no warning as to her impending death and had thus left no such sage advice for her only daughter. The interviews, though, were the next best thing and seventeen-year-old Elodie had studied each one, learning them by heart and whispering certain choice phrases to the oval mirror above her dressing table. They had become like revered lines of poetry, her very own list of life commandments. Because, unlike Elodie, who’d been struggling with bad skin and a hopeless case of teenage insecurity, seventeen-year-old Lauren Adler had been radiant: as modest as she was talented, she’d already played solo at the Proms, cementing herself forever as the nation’s musical sweetheart.
Even Penelope, whose self-confidence was as old and established as the string of perfect pearls around her neck, spoke of Elodie’s mother in tones of nervous awe. She never referred to ‘your mother’; it was always ‘Lauren Adler’: ‘Did Lauren Adler have a favourite concert piece?’ ‘Was there a venue that Lauren Adler preferred above all others?’ Such questions Elodie answered to the best of her ability. She did not mention that much of her own knowledge had been acquired from interviews that were freely available if one knew where to look. Penelope’s interest was flattering and Elodie clung to it. In the face of Alastair’s grand estate, his tweed-and-twill parents, the weight of tradition in a family whose walls were covered with ancestral portraits, Elodie needed every advantage she could claim.
Alastair had mentioned in the early days of their relationship that his mother was a classical music buff. She used to play herself when she was a girl, but had given it all up when she became a debutante. He’d told stories that endeared him to Elodie, of the concerts his mother had taken him to when he was a boy, the excitement of the London Symphony Orchestra opening night at the Barbican or the conductor’s arrival on stage at the Royal Albert Hall. It had always been just the two of them, their special time. (‘My father finds it all a bit over the top, I’m afraid. His favourite cultural activity is rugby.’) They still had a long-standing ‘date night’ each month, a concert followed by dinner.
Pippa had arched her brows when she heard that, particularly when Elodie admitted that she hadn’t ever been invited to join them, but Elodie had brushed it off. She was sure she’d read somewhere that men who treated their mothers well made the best partners. Besides, it was nice for a change for people not to assume that she must be a classical music aficionado. Throughout her life she’d had the same conversation over and over: strangers asking what instrument she played, the look of confusion when she told them that she didn’t. ‘Not even a little?’
Alastair had understood, though. ‘I don’t blame you,’ he’d said, ‘no point competing with perfection.’ And although Pippa had bridled when she heard this (‘You’re perfect at being you’), Elodie had known that wasn’t what he’d meant – that he wasn’t being critical.
It had been Penelope’s idea to include a film recording of Lauren Adler in the wedding ceremony. When Elodie said that her father kept a full video set of Lauren Adler’s performances and that she could ask him to pull them out of storage if Penelope wished, the older woman had looked at her with what could only be described as genuine fondness. She’d reached out to touch Elodie’s hand, the first time she’d ever done so, and said, ‘I saw her play once. She was stunning, so focused. A technician of the highest order, but with that added quality that made her music soar above all others. It was terrible when it happened, just terrible. I was bereft.’
Elodie had been taken by surprise. Alastair’s family did not ‘reach out’ and they did not broach subjects like loss and bereavement in casual conversation. Sure enough, the moment was over as quickly as it had come, Penelope moving on to general musing about the early arrival of spring and its implications for the Chelsea Flower Show. Elodie, less adept in quicksilver changes of subject, had been left with a lingering sensation on her hand where the other woman’s touch had been, and the memory of her mother’s death had shadowed her for the rest of the weekend.
Lauren Adler had been the passenger in a car driven by the visiting American violinist, the two of them making their way back to London after a performance in Bath. The rest of the orchestra had returned the day before, straight after the show, but Elodie’s mother had stayed behind to take part in a workshop with local musicians. ‘She was very generous,’ Elodie’s father had said many times, practised lines that formed part of the adoring litany of the bereaved. ‘People didn’t expect it from her, someone so impressive, but she loved music and she went out of her way to spend time with other people who loved it, too. It didn’t matter to her if they were expert or amateur.’
The coroner’s report, accessed by Elodie from the local archives during her summer of research, said that the accident had been caused by a combination of loose gravel on the country lane and poor judgement. Elodie had wondered why they hadn’t been on the motorway, but coroners didn’t offer speculation as to travel arrangements. Thus: the driver had taken a hairpin bend too quickly and the car had lost traction, skidding across the verge; the impact had thrown Lauren Adler through the windscreen, breaking her body in countless places. She would never have played the cello again had she survived, a fact that Elodie had learned from a couple of her mother’s musician friends whose conversation she’d overheard from her hiding place behind the sofa at the wake. The implication seemed to be that death was the lesser of two ills.
Elodie had not seen it that way, and neither had her father, who’d made it through the immediate aftermath, the funeral, in the grip of a shock-induced composure that was more alarming for Elodie in some ways than his plunge into the grey depths of despair afterwards. He had thought he was concealing his grief by remaining behind the closed door of his bedroom, but the old brick walls were not as thick as all that. Mrs Smith from next door had smiled with grim knowing as she stepped into the breach, serving up soft-boiled eggs and toast for dinner each night and telling Elodie vivid stories about London in the war: her girlhood nights spent amidst the bombs and the Blitz, and the day the black-rimmed telegram came with news of her missing father.
Thus, the death of her mother was something Elodie could never quite untangle in her memory from the sound of explosives and the smell of brimstone and, on some deep sensory level, the fierce longing of a child in need of a story.
‘Morning.’ Margot was boiling the kettle when Elodie arrived at work. She pulled down Elodie’s favourite mug, sat it beside her own and dropped a teabag over the side. ‘A word to the wise: he’s on the rampage this morn. The time management fellow has issued a list of “recommendations”.’
Elodie took the tea to her desk, careful not to catch Mr Pendleton’s eye as she passed his office. She felt a collegial affection for her crotchety old boss, but when the mood took him he could be punitive, and Elodie had enough to get done without the assignment of a gratuitous index revision.
She needn’t have worried: Mr Pendleton was well and truly distracted, glaring blackly at something on his monitor. Elodie settled herself at her desk and without wasting a moment transferred the sketchbook from its towelling shroud within her handbag back to the box from the disused cloakroom. It had been a temporary madness and it was over. Best thing now was to catalogue the items and assign them a place in the archives once and for all.
She donned her gloves and then took out the hole punch, the ink well, the wooden desk insert and the spectacle case. Even the most cursory of glances revealed them as mid‐-twentieth-century office paraphernalia; the initials on the spectacle case meant that they were safely enough recorded as having belonged to Lesley Stratton-Wood; and Elodie was glad to relax into the ease of preparing a clear contents list. She fetched a new archive box and packed the items, carefully affixing the list of contents to one side.
The satchel was more interesting. Elodie began a meticulous inspection, noting the worn edges of the leather and a number of scuffs on the back, closer towards the right-hand side; the needlework in the joins was of a very high quality, and one of the buckles bore a set of five hallmarks suggesting that it was sterling and British-made. Elodie fitted the monocle magnifying glass to her left eye and took a closer look: yes, there was the lion for sterling; the leopard for London – uncrowned, which placed the item after 1822; a lower‐case ‘g’ in old English font connoting the year (a quick consultation of her London Date Letters chart revealed it as 1862); the duty mark showing Queen Victoria’s head; and, finally, the maker’s mark, a set of initials that read ‘W. S.’
Elodie consulted the directory, running her finger down the list until she reached ‘William Simms’. She smiled in recognition. The satchel had been made by W. Simms & Son, a high-end manufacturer of silver and leather goods with a Royal Warrant and, if Elodie remembered correctly, a shop situated on Bond Street.
Satisfying, but not a complete story, for the other marks on the satchel, the scuffs and patterns of wear, were of equal importance in determining its past. They showed that the satchel, no matter how exclusive its provenance, had not been purely decorative. It had been used and used well, slung over its owner’s shoulder – the right shoulder, Elodie noted, as she ran her gloved fingers gently along the unevenly worn strap – and knocked habitually against the owner’s left thigh. Elodie mimed hanging a satchel over one of her shoulders and realised that her instinct would have been to drape it in the other direction. There was a strong chance then that the satchel’s owner had been left-handed.
That ruled out James Stratton, even though his document holder had been inside the satchel; but then, the gilt initials sealed to the leather flap of the satchel had done that already. ‘E. J. R.’ Elodie traced a gloved fingertip lightly over the cursive E. The same initials were on the sketchbook. It seemed safe to assume then that the person who had made the sketches was the same person to whom the initials belonged and that this was his (or her) satchel. An artist, then? James Stratton had liaised with a number of well-known artists of the day, but the initials were not immediately familiar. There was always Google, but Elodie had an even faster line to information about art. She pulled out her phone, quelled a heart utter as she noticed that Penelope had left a second message, and then sent a text to Pippa:
Morning! Can you think of an artist, probably mid-Vic, with the initials EJR??
The response was immediate:
Edward Radcliffe. Still on for today? Can we make it 11 instead of 12? Will text address.
Edward Radcliffe. The name was vaguely familiar, though he was not one of the artists with whom James Stratton had kept up a regular correspondence. Now Elodie typed him into Google and clicked on the Wikipedia page. The entry was brief and she skimmed the first half, noting that Edward Radcliffe’s birth year of 1840 made him a close peer to James Stratton, and that he had been born in London but spent some of his childhood in Wiltshire. He’d been the eldest of three children, the only son of a man who sounded like something of a dilettante and a woman with artistic pretensions, and had been raised for a number of years by his grandparents, Lord and Lady Radcliffe, while his parents were away in the Far East collecting Japanese ceramics.
The next paragraph described a wild youth, a fierce temper and a precocious talent, discovered by chance when an elderly artist (unfamiliar to Elodie but evidently of some renown) stumbled upon his work and took the young man beneath his wing. There had been some promising early exhibitions, a patchy relationship with the Royal Academy, a brief but fiery public spat with Dickens after a poor review; and then, finally, vindication when the great John Ruskin commissioned a painting. By all accounts, Edward Radcliffe had been on track for a distinguished career, and Elodie was just starting to wonder why she wasn’t familiar with his work, when she reached the final paragraph:
Edward Radcliffe was engaged to be married to Miss Frances Brown, the daughter of a Sheffield factory owner; however, when she was killed tragically during a robbery, at the tender age of twenty, he withdrew from public life. Rumours abound that Radcliffe was working on a masterpiece at the time; but, if so, neither the painting, nor any bona fide preliminary work, has ever seen the light of day. Radcliffe drowned off the coast of southern Portugal in 1881, but his body was returned to England for burial. Although his artistic output was not as prodigious as it might have been, Radcliffe remains an important figure in mid-nineteenth-century art for his role as a founding member of the Magenta Brotherhood.
The Magenta Brotherhood. The name rang a distant work-related bell and Elodie made a note to cross-reference it with her Stratton correspondence database. She reread the paragraph, lingering this time over the violent, untimely death of Frances Brown; Radcliffe’s withdrawal from public life; his lonely death in Portugal. Her mind stitched links of cause and effect between these points, arriving at a picture of a man whose promising career had been cut short by a broken heart and whose constitution had been weakened ultimately to the point of physical exhaustion.
Elodie took up the sketchbook and turned over its pages until she found the loose sheet containing the scrawled love note. I love her, I love her, I love her, and if I cannot have her I shall surely go mad, for when I am not with her I fear—
Was it true that there was a love so powerful that its loss could drive a person mad? Did people really feel like that? Her mind went to Alastair and she blushed, because of course to lose him would be devastating. But to be driven mad? Could she honestly imagine herself sliding into irredeemable despair?
And what if she were the one to go? Elodie pictured her fiancé in one of the immaculate bespoke suits made by the same tailor his father used; the smooth, handsome face that drew admiring glances wherever they went; the voice warmed by inherited authority. He was so assured, so clean-cut and contained, that Elodie couldn’t imagine him being driven mad by anything. Indeed, it was sobering to reflect on how quickly and quietly the gap made by her absence might close over. Like the surface of a pond after a pebble is dropped.
Not like the turbulent aftermath of her mother’s death, the high emotion and public grieving, the newspaper columns that ran alluring black-and-white photographs of Lauren Adler and used words like ‘tragedy’ and ‘sparkling’ and ‘fallen star’.
Perhaps Frances Brown had also been a sparkling person?
A thought occurred to Elodie. The document holder that had once belonged to James Stratton was still inside the satchel and now she took the framed photograph from inside.
Was this Frances Brown? The age was about right, for this face could not belong to a person much older than twenty.
Elodie stared closely, captured by the young woman’s gaze, her direct expression. Self-possession, that’s what it was. This was someone who knew her own mind, her own worth. The sort of woman about whom a passionate young artist might write: ... if I cannot have her I shall surely go mad ...
She typed ‘Frances Brown’ into Google and an image search brought up multiple copies of the same portrait: a young woman in a green dress, also beautiful but predictably so – not the person whose likeness had been captured by the photograph.
Elodie felt a dull wash of disappointment. The feeling was not unfamiliar. It was the archivist’s lot, for they were treasure hunters, in a way, sifting through the everyday detritus of their subject’s life, sorting it methodically, constructing records, always hoping for that rare precious find.
It had been a long shot: the sketchbook and note had been found in the same satchel as the document holder containing the photograph, but there was no apparent connection beyond that. The satchel and sketchbook had belonged to Edward Radcliffe, the document holder to James Stratton. At this point, there was no evidence that the two men had even been acquainted.
Elodie took up the photograph once more. The frame itself was of a high quality: sterling silver, intricately patterned. James Stratton’s document holder was dated 1861 and it seemed reasonable to assume that the photograph inside it had belonged to him and that it had been acquired after that time. Also, that the woman in it had meant enough for him to keep it. But who was she? A secret romance? Elodie couldn’t think that she had ever come across any of the telltale references in his journals or letters.
She looked again at the beautiful face, searching it for clues. The longer she stared at the image, the stronger the pull it exerted. The photograph was over a hundred years old, more likely a hundred and fifty, and yet the woman in it was unmarked by time; her face was strangely contemporary, as if she might have been one of those girls outside now on the summery streets of London, laughing with her friends and enjoying the sun’s warmth on her bare skin. She was confident and amused, staring at the photographer with a familiarity that was almost uncomfortable to perceive. As if Elodie were trespassing on a private moment.
‘Who are you?’ she said beneath her breath. ‘And who were you to him?’
There was something more, something difficult to articulate. The woman in the photograph was illuminated: it was that face, of course, with its beautiful features and the enlivened expression, but it was the styling of the image, too. The long, unfussy hair, the romantic dress, loose and earthy, but also alluring where it caught her waist, where a sleeve had been pushed up her arm to reveal sunlit skin. Elodie could almost feel the warm breeze coming off the river to brush against the woman’s face, to lift her hair and heat the white cotton of her dress. And yet, that was her mind playing tricks, for there was no river in the picture. It was the freedom of the photograph she was responding to, its atmosphere. Now, that was the sort of dress Elodie would like to wear at her wedding—
Elodie glanced at the clock and saw that it was already quarter past ten. She hadn’t even responded to Pippa’s message, but she was going to have to get moving if she expected to be at King’s Cross by eleven. Gathering her phone and notebook, her diary and sunglasses, Elodie loaded her bag. She surveyed the desktop for anything she might have forgotten and, on a whim, picked up the framed photograph, the woman in that wonderful dress. With a glance at where Margot was hunched over by the ling cabinet, she wrapped it in the tea towel and tucked it in her bag.
Making her way through the office door and up the stairs into the warm summer’s day, Elodie started texting her reply. 11 is fine, she typed; Leaving now – send me the address and I’ll see you soon.