“What can you tell me about Eustace Randolph? What sort of man was he?” I asked as I took out my notebook. Gillian Reynolds, Secretary of the Friends of Eagle House, let her excited smile slip slightly at the corners.
Our small town hardly offers up much in the way of news, but I do my best, even though the Milverton Echo is only a community newsletter. My neighbour Annette wrote a story about a pigeon trapped inside the church hall for the February issue and our editor put it on the front page. I began to hope there was more of a story here at least.
We were standing in front of the house, a grand Georgian affair set back a little from the street behind crumbling gateposts. The huge black-framed sash windows, the twisting ivy, the claret-coloured door looked imposing, even in the cool morning sunshine. It had been shut up as long as I could remember, and naturally it was known to be haunted. Or a witch lived there. Or both.
Soon after he started junior school my son told me the story of how Theo Richards had climbed over the iron gate on a dare, one dark and stormy night. Peering through a gap in the shuttered window, Theo saw nothing but darkness at first. Then a woman in white loomed out of the shadows towards him. He screamed, scrambled over the gate, ran home and would never go back. Theo was 27 now and working at the butcher’s. I wondered if he regretted this story, passed from generation to generation at Milverton primary school, or if he was proud of his legend.
“We’ve included some biographical information on your hand out. It’s all in there,” Gillian said brightly. I glanced at the sheet. Birth, hobbies, death.
“Thank you, yes. What I mean is that Echo readers will want to know about Eustace the individual as well as Eustace the photographer. Some of these Victorian gents were rather eccentric, weren’t they?”
Gillian laughed nervously and twisted her small pink fingers, glancing up at the house. Heavens, I thought, she’s actually frightened of me. I wondered if the rest of the committee were this skittish. No wonder it had taken them so long to open the house to the public.
“Was he popular in his day?”
Her face brightened. “Oh yes, all the county ladies would get their portraits done here. It was very much the thing you know, very fashionable, for a while anyway.”
“For a while?”
She looked pained. “Well… you know he was such a pioneer. A real artist. He was ahead of his time, and some people just didn’t understand.”
“A bit too avant garde for Milverton?”
“Yes! And there was some concern about his methods, but really…”
She looked afraid again and fell silent. Drat.
“Shall we go inside?” I said, breezily. “You can tell me more as we go round.”
She threw up her hands and shook her woolly head. “Oh no, you go ahead. I’ll wait here. I’ve brought a chair! We want you to have the whole place to yourself, to really, you know… for your article.”
I smiled and tried to hide my exasperation as she began to bustle. “Sadly we can’t open all the rooms up yet, and we’re still furnishing them all, you know how it is.”
I didn’t, but nodded sympathetically.
“His pictures are truly sublime, Mrs Braddon.” She beamed, slightly breathless. “I am sure you will love them. And your readers too!”
We’ll see, I thought, as she opened the door.
The biographical information on my handout was brief. Born into a local aristocratic family, Sir Randolph bought the house in 1853, in his early forties. He was engaged for a time to a young widow, a beauty apparently, but they never married. No details were given about what became of her.
More space was devoted to listing the usual range of interests held by Victorian gentlemen, of whom Sir Eustace Randolph was no exception: antiquity, taxidermy, entomology, Egyptology, spiritualism, and the cultivation of ferns. That is until he saw his first daguerrotype, after which photography became his reigning passion, though the sheet of paper had almost nothing to say about his achievements, equipment, or the processes he supposedly pioneered. Then at the age of 71 he died, unremarkably, in his sleep.
There was one peculiar detail, though. On the night of his death he had arranged one of his own cameras at the foot of his bed, as if to capture the moment of his departure. As if he had known. Perhaps he set it up every night, and that fateful morning he was not around to put it away again. Or perhaps he knew he was leaving, and intended the poor housemaid who discovered his corpse to take a quick snap before sending for the coroner.
Even in these sparse particulars I could see the outline of a life full of obsessions but empty of people, except for those framed by his camera lens. I folded up the paper and set to exploring. The hallway was not as grand as I had hoped. The Friends had clearly done what they could with a small budget and raided eBay for an old bookshelf and some leather-bound volumes, an ornate brass light fitting, and a few poor oil paintings of ships and dogs. One of the dogs was so badly done it looked as if it was melting.
The wide staircase was impressive, despite the threadbare green carpet. The mahogany bannisters swept upwards confidently to a landing with a huge window, where a grandfather clock ticked softly. As the seconds settled around me, I listened. There was no other sound except myself. Old buildings are talkative, but Eagle House seemed to be holding its breath. I shifted my feet to break the stillness and tiny creaks rippled across the ancient floorboards.
There were doorways either side of the hall. The one to my right was closed, but I walked over and tried the handle anyway. Locked. I walked back towards the open door opposite under the watchful eye of the grandfather clock. Stuck to the door was a sheet of paper, reading ‘DRAWING ROOM’ above a blue Clip Art arrow ushering me inside. It had smart navy walls, a rosy marble fireplace, and some splendid plaster cornicing, but the room was gloomy and bare. Standing in the centre of a worn Persian rug was an antique camera on a tripod. It was the big, box-shaped kind with a brass lens, and black cloth hanging behind under which the photographer – Sir Randolph himself, presumably – would have stood, hunched over the viewer, adjusting the focus.
Perhaps it was the sprightly wooden legs, or the dark glassy eye, but the object had a sense of life to it. The camera seemed alert. Standing ready, like a hound awaiting its master’s command. I felt distinctly – I suppose unsurprisingly – that it was watching me. I found myself avoiding standing directly in front of it, and admired it instead from the side.
As I turned to leave I heard a soft whispering sound behind me. I looked back and saw the camera fabric settling into place, as if it had just been lifted. Then everything was still again. A draught from the fireplace no doubt, but it was an eerie effect. I walked briskly back into the hall.
Following more blue arrows down a dim corridor armoured with dark wood panels, I stepped suddenly into a light-filled room: the studio. It had a dusty, grassy smell. The walls and ceiling were glass, and a back wall was hung with various drapes, and a cracked yellow painting of a country park. A chair had been placed in front of the vista, its green velvet cushions blotched and torn, and a reproduction blue and white Chinese vase stood on a small plinth beside it. Otherwise the room was empty, save for a large wooden chest and a folding screen for dressing.
I walked up to the glass and gazed out into what was once a compact Italian renaissance style garden. Now overgrown, its squares and low hedges were just about traceable through the weeds and tangle of brambles. One sad little putto stood mournfully above a fountain clogged with dead leaves, its face gently caved in by wind and rain. I wondered how many years it would take the Friends to retrieve the garden from neglect and decay. Touching my hand to the cool glass, I shivered.
There was a soft blur of movement to my left, and it took me a second to understand that it wasn’t something in the garden but in the room behind me. I span round and felt my heart jump with fright. At the top of the folding screen there was a hand. A man’s hand, greyish. It retreated behind the screen to its owner, crouching unseen.
“H-hello?” I called out.
There was no response. Not a sound except my own shallow breath. I thought about striding over and pulling the screen away to confront him, but the awkwardness of the situation defeated me. I made my way out, silently, keeping my eyes on the screen.
Returning to the hallway shaken and angry, I mounted the stairs to the first floor. Another volunteer? A builder? Why was he lurking that way and watching me? I paused to let my nerves settle, and stood hesitating in the slab of pale sunlight thrown across the landing by the mighty Georgian window. The moss green carpet was neatly quartered by its slanting cross-shaped shadow. I decided to finish my tour and complain sharply to Gillian about her colleague’s absurd behaviour later. After briefly inspecting the grandfather clock (walnut, I believe, late 18th century), I pressed on.
Two large doorways faced each other on the first floor landing. The door on the left was open, and bore a sign reading ‘EXHIBITION’. Inside, the varnished floorboards were stained a dark treacle brown, and the walls covered in faded damask of a sickly yellow-green shade. The room was empty, except for black and white photographs in ornate frames which covered every wall. The opus of Sir Eustace Randolph.
Above the fireplace hung an especially large portrait in a black oval frame crusted with carvings. It was a photograph of a dark-haired woman in a white dress, in her early thirties I guessed. I noticed a filigree ring on her left hand. Sir Randolph’s fiancee? She had a gentle face. Her eyes seemed rather sad, almost pleading, and it was hard to turn mine away.
I took my time studying each wall. While I wasn’t in raptures as Gillian seemed to expect, they were, I confess, very good photographs. They were all portraits of women, ranging in age. Some were elegant, dressed in smart jackets and crinolines. Some were nude, sheathed in gauzy, sparkly fabric, or clutching a fan of curled feathers. Others wore plain day dresses with muddy hems, battered aprons, or even rags. One was holding a cloth, as if interrupted while washing up.
In many I recognised the painted country park from the studio below, the chair, the plinth. Others sat or stood in unfamiliar settings, in unknown rooms and corridors. Many were standing, and had an air of having just walked into the frame. A few were blurred, the dark spaces of their eyes and mouths stretched gaping over shuddering faces. Evidently they had moved after the lens cap came off, fixing them forever in motion. Had they fidgeted? Or were they simply surprised?
The more I looked at the photographs the more it seemed that every one had a melancholy expression, more than the usual solemnity of a Victorian portrait. Their frozen faces formed a silent chorus of pain. I was reminded of another room in a grand house I had visited once, in which every wall was hung with severed heads: deer, bison, antelope, musk ox, a moose… Their glossy black eyes shone with the same vigilant sadness.
My curiosity about the former owner of Eagle House was developing into a strong dislike. I left the room feeling haunted, angry, and restless. But I needed something more concrete than an eerie feeling for the article, and I was sure Gillian would clam up again. I turned back towards the stairs and noticed that the door on the other side of the landing was standing slightly ajar. There was no laminated sign, no blue arrow, no label. Feeling a small thrill of adventure, I laid my hand flat on the heavy wooden door and pushed it open.
As I entered the room I started. Another antique camera stood in the corner, pointing directly at the doorway. It had me square in its sights. I felt reluctant to move closer while it watched me, and I paused on the threshold.
The room was heavy, and had a faint coppery smell. The walls were deep crimson and the floorboards dark, though mostly covered by a rug, worn and faded like the rest. The only object in the room besides the camera was a small silver picture frame on the marble mantel.
I should have turned and left, but a good journalist is nothing if not tenacious, and I was determined to uncover the mystery of Eagle House. So I stepped forward towards the fireplace, and peered at the photograph in the frame.
It was me. Myself. The back of me, leaving the drawing room half an hour earlier.
From the corner of the room came a familiar dull whisper. I looked up and gaped in terror. The black cloth behind the camera held the form of a figure hunched low, two suited legs and shoes growing beneath it. I couldn’t move, even as I saw a hand reaching out from the cloth, grey fingers fondling the lens cap.
The sound of tapping on a window broke my trance, and I sprang backwards onto the landing. Through the doorway of the exhibition room I saw with shock that the portrait of Randolph’s fiancee above the mantel had changed. Or rather the woman within it had changed. Her hands were raised in front of her, palms out as if they were pressed against the glass. I looked at her for a moment in horror, then bolted down the stairs, only to stop short.
There was someone there. But there wasn’t. Although I was alone, the thin cross-shaped shadow which fell across the floor held another. The unmistakable outline of a man, standing in front of the window.
For a moment I stood trembling. Then a great plume of anger arose within me, furnishing me with both courage and adrenaline and I charged down the stairs. I will not forget the sensation of a cold and unseen hand brushing my neck. But I hurtled forward down the second set of stairs and towards the door without looking back, thanking heaven for my sensible shoes.
As I barged out of the front door Gillian jumped up from her folding chair in surprise. I came to a stop on the path and tried to catch my breath.
“What did you think?” she asked, tentatively.
“I saw him. In the red room.”
She looked stunned, and opened and closed her mouth a few times.
“Oh! I’m so terribly sorry. I locked it this morning! He must have… Well, you know how artists are.”
I stared at her. She started wringing her hands again fretfully.
“Will you – will you put it in your article?”