"As you can see," Gordon Penvellyn said from behind Lasher, interrupting his thoughts, "for a mere 'aspiring' painter, Gabriel is a rather prolific one."
Lash grimaced. "I would say that anyone who actually sets bristles to canvas is a bit more than merely 'aspiring'," he corrected, before he could stop himself.
Gordon did not appear to take offense at this contradiction; he spread his hands apologetically. "I expressed it badly. This is well outside my province, as I tried to tell Gabby when he left this collection in my charge. For all I know, Gabriel Erasmus Penvellyn may be the greatest living artist of our nation, England's answer to Van Gogh; that is, if he is ever discovered, within or without his lifetime. I hope, for his sake, that he will be sooner rather than later. But all the same…"
He glanced around at the walls of the summer house. He didn't really need to say anything more; this was a private exhibition, with the sum total of its visitors all currently present.
"You said he's your older brother?" Lasher asked. Ever since they had arrived at The Poplars, its true owner, Gabriel Penvellyn, had been a looming, enigmatic figure. Lasher's curiosity in him was growing exponentially, especially now that he had actually seen his work.
Though it was not the most original collection of artworks, featuring a lot of staid subjects of the sort that formed the regular back-catalogue of the ambitious amateur, there was some admirable technique here and there. The method of colour-blending was good; the compositions, though conventional, were just a bit better than average. But it was the selection of colour that was truly most noteworthy. There was a sensitivity and restraint to it, which suddenly gave way to a confronting clash of hues. In a frame level Lasher's left shoulder, there was a bunch of ruby-red grapes draped haphazardly over a blue-and-white porcelain bowl, otherwise filled with a few anaemic-looking pears; the starkness of the red against this pale surround was as startling to the eye as a slick clot of blood. Everywhere Lash turned, this strange effect was recurring: there was another bold flash of vibrancy against a banal backdrop, another bolt of colour through an otherwise dreary scene.
Like a gunshot repeatedly fired into a gallery, Lasher thought to himself, recalling an anecdote that he was particularly fond of.
And yet, despite all these potential distractions, his gaze kept returning to that contradictory vision of the lady, her stark-white skin standing out against the inky shade of the doorway's gaping maw; her blue-tinged complexion deadened and wan, though her hair and her eyes were vividly alive with warm sienna tints…
"Yes," Gordon said, in answer to Lasher's question. "He precedes me by four years."
"Even so, he still has plenty of time yet to make a name for himself."
"In his current state, he isn't up to making much of anything, let alone a name."
At this cryptic statement, both Lasher and Tristan turned on Gordon, quizzical expressions upon their faces. Gordon looked from one of them to the other, and sighed. Lash noticed that this seemed to be the standard reaction to any mention of the elder Penvellyn; perhaps he was about to learn just what warranted it.
"I suppose I can explain it all to you. It's all common knowledge now, at any rate. And you might want to know, for the sake of helping you decide which picture to take. Especially since you seem to have such an interest in that one. It is, after all, the one you asked for; the one that Mrs Emery suggested."
Lasher gave a start. Marking another quick inspection of the portrait, he spotted a slip of card tacked to the edge of its frame, which he hadn't noticed before. Leaning in towards it, he read:
The Old House at Richmond
Gabriel Penvellyn, oils on canvas
This was written with dark grey pencil in a rather angular hand, which Lasher guessed must belong to the absent older Penvellyn; its irregular slant was too unlike the precise, orderly print that one would expect of an accountant.
"I didn't even realize," Lasher admitted; for a little while at least, his feigned task of picking out a charity piece, and the subtext behind this false errand, had been entirely forgotten. "I was simply attracted by the painting itself. It may sound strange, but I think I have seen its subject somewhere before…"
He had promised Miss Carmody that he wouldn't mention her name; this was as much as he dared indicate in her direction.
It was Gordon Penvellyn who said, with a bemused grin: "You may have done, if you read the social pages. This is Miss Carmody, the celebrated beauty of Bloomsbury. Well, one of the beauties, I should say. There are actually two sisters – Bethany and Elizabeth. They are twins, and identical ones at that. I could never tell them apart, though Gabriel could. Perhaps it takes an artistic eye."
"How fascinating," Lasher said, as casually as he could; he managed to mask his astonishment with a supreme effort. "Twins, you say? If I do indeed recognize one of them – I feel as if I've seen this face, on a street in Soho, perhaps – I wonder which of them it was?"
There was a long pause, before Gordon said, in an odd tone of voice: "If it was recently at all, it must have been Liza. The other one, Beth… she died about two months ago. Just after Father."
"Oh… how unfortunate." Lasher really couldn't think of any other appropriate remark; his amazement was too great.
"Quite," Gordon replied, with meaning. "It would have been a terrible tragedy in any instance, but the timing couldn't possibly have been any worse. Gabby went to meet Mother abroad, settle the bills, help bring poor Father home… and while he was gone, Beth suddenly passed away. I got the news myself, and had to break it on to him. It was the wickedest blow that could have been dealt him, what with everything else he had already been given. You see, she was rather dear to him… she was practically all but engaged to him. He never mentioned it to me in as many words, but… he was certainly very fond of her. Anyone could see that. It's the reason why he's so broken now."
He pointed at the placard beneath the painting in question. "That is where he has gone – to the old house at Richmond. There is a little holiday villa down there that our family has had for generations. Gabby and his artistic circle are forever shuttling back and forth between it and his place in Bloomsbury. He's taken the old place as his refuge now – he is, as they say, prostrate with grief, and Richmond is where he's chosen to go and fall to pieces. I guess the house reminds him of Beth. It might bring him some comfort to be there, in a place where he can perhaps still feel her presence.
"Before he left, her death had been weighing on him endlessly. Last Thursday morning, he finally threw a great moping fit, packed an overnight bag, and went off without any prior warning, telling me to manage things in his absence. So here I am, giving gallery tours, while he is holed up at Richmond, sulking over the loss of his dearly departed. The paintings were part of his fit as well. That one there -" he pointed at the portrait "- was the last he did before he left. Done in memory of her, I suppose. That's the side door of the Richmond place, with her standing in it. I guess he went down there to find her – in spirit, if nothing else."
"Then this painting is definitely of her?" Lasher asked.
Tristan looked at him curiously, for his tone seemed to contain a barely-veiled trill of excitement. His whole manner had changed; whereas before he had been respectfully solemn whilst Gordon spoke of the deceased girl, he was now all but straining to conceal some hidden excitement. Though his manner was outwardly matter-of-fact, Tristan had come to recognize the signs; something had piqued his interest.
Something like a clue.
"Yes," said Gordon Penvellyn. He apparently hadn't detected the change in Lasher's manner; or, at least, refrained from remarking on it. "Despite the title, there is very little of the Richmond place in that frame. It is much more a portrait of Beth Carmody."
"It is Bethany though, isn't it?" Lasher asked, a little more insistently. "You said they were identical twins; how do you know this isn't the other one… Lisa, was it?"
"Liza. Short for 'Elizabeth'." He gave a slight chuckle. "Gabriel used to tease them about that. Eliza-Beth and Beth-Any, sharing the same face and same half-a-name between them. But, yes – well, I assumed that it was Beth. She was the one that Gabriel had an eye for, the one he spent the most time with. I used to feel for poor Liza sometimes, hanging on there like a third wheel. I warned Gabriel not to come between them. He got along well with both of them, and tried his best to treat them equally… but still, you could easily tell that it was Beth he conversed with the most, whom he would more often sit beside and be merry with. You could see that she reciprocated it, too; she always laughed at his outrageous jokes, joined in the fun more than the other, more restrained sister ever did. I don't mean to be critical of the fairer sex; Liza is fine in her own way, but… Beth just suited him. We all knew that."
Realizing he had gone far off-topic and into treacherously personal channels, Gordon gave an embarrassed cough and hurriedly changed the subject."O-of course, I naturally supposed the portrait was of Beth, since he painted it just after she died. She would have been in his thoughts at the time, so it was little wonder he put her on the canvas as well. Come to think of it, that must have been what spooked him."
Seeing Lasher look askance at him, he adjusted his collar uncomfortably. "He has a few funny ideas, my brother. I always just put it down as part of his artistic temperament, but… once he fell in with the Bloomsbury crowd, things became downright queer. He stumbled upon a group who call themselves the Heremetic Order of the Golden Dawn. They are what you would call a 'cult', I suppose; they cobbled together some mystic nonsense, then believed it like it was the Lord's Prayer. Hideous blasphemy, that's what it is. If memory serves, I believe the acquaintance you and Gabby share, Mrs Emery, is part of that same hullabaloo. The Carmody sisters were at the edge of the group, but once they met Gabriel, they struck off on their own; and just as well, I should say. They developed a spiritual interest of their own devising –nothing as extreme as the Order, mind, just a bit of harmless fun, something to amuse themselves.
"They came up with this theory that they called 'empathicalism'. It is similar to automatic writing, I suppose, but instead it's 'automatic painting'. The three of them believed that the sisters shared a strong psychic bond, since they were twins. Perhaps they really did; they used to finish each other's sentences all the time. On occasion they would get this distant look about them and go quiet at the exact same time, as though they were sharing unspoken thoughts between them; it was downright uncanny. They hoped that Gabby could tap into that bond, using his art as the conduit to do so. They reasoned that if their thoughts were perfectly aligned, the power of that combined telepathy could be strong enough to convey the idea to another mind – 'like gathered thunderclouds shooting bolts of lightning into the sea', so they used to say. It sounds awfully dramatic, but actually the twins would merely try to predict what Gabriel would paint – or influence it, to put it more accurately. I used to watch them do their empathetic experiments here, in this summer house, which Gabby had set up as his painting studio. The twins would supposedly 'align' their thoughts, so that they both pictured the same subject in their minds; this mostly consisted of them standing with eyes closed and hands clasped, concentrating deeply, willing themselves into a trance. Then one of them would take up a brush and make a few marks on a new canvas- ah!" He suddenly exclaimed. "That's how we can tell who it is!"
He crossed to the painting, very carefully took it down from the wall, and turned it over. "See here," he said, motioning Lash over. "She wrote her initials on the back, to show which twin made those first few brushstrokes."
In the bottom-right corner of the canvas' backing, someone had painted in large, awkward letters, such as a small child practising their alphabet might write:
The 'B' was rather faint, as though the brush had run out of pigment on the last stroke, then been re-dipped in order to daub the 'C'. Nevertheless, it was plainly legible.
Gordon nodded in satisfaction. "Yes, this was definitely Beth's handiwork. Elizabeth signed all of hers with an 'L' for 'Liza', I've seen it on the backs of some of the other pictures. Gabby would've wanted to paint a portrait of Beth on a canvas that had her mark on it."
"There you are," Lash agreed, with an affirmative nod. "I guess that confirms it."
Something about his manner caught Tristan's notice. It was that same animated look, a knowing glint in his eye which suggested he had seen something beyond the surface of the paint. Whatever it happened to be, it wasn't visible to Tristan himself. Swallowing a small mutter of annoyance, he turned his attention back to what Gordon was saying.
"Once one of the sisters had left their mark on the canvas, it would be down to Gabriel to interpret it, turn it into a finished piece. The sisters were hardly artistic – they are more accustomed to holding parasols and curling-papers than paintbrushes, I imagine – but they had supposedly left their telepathic imprint there, which they believed Gabriel would then be able to paint over, turning it into whatever they had been picturing in their own minds. Most of the time – if not every time – I think they merely humoured Gabby, telling him he had guessed and painted it exactly right, for the sake of embellishing their theory. Well, perhaps he may have really gotten it right a few times. I noticed that both twins tended to get preoccupied with whatever was on the table in front of them – flowers, bowls of fruit, or what have you – to the point where I could sometimes predict what they were thinking of. I am quite sure that most of the time, they just enjoyed playing at pretend. I doubt Gabby ever really believed it. It's just… in his current frame of mind…"
Gordon sighed again, looking at the portrait of Miss Carmody with a rather mournful expression upon his otherwise bland features. "He must have decided to paint that portrait from one of the 'telepathic imprints' Beth had made while she was alive, as a tribute to her. Once he finished it, the picture began to scare him. He claimed that it haunted him, that her eyes watched him reproachfully. I suppose he blamed himself for not being there when she died; he was gone for only a week or so, but the onset of her illness came very suddenly, and it was all over within the space of a few days, well before he was due back. By the time I managed to notify him that she was ill, she was practically through death's door; he barely made it back in time for the service, let alone any chance of saying goodbye. Probably because of that, he became convinced that the painting was possessed by her. I worried at the time that the delusion was a symptom of brain-fever, but the family doctor said it was likely just an aspect of the grieving process, and it would likely pass once he had time to come to terms with it. Whatever the cause, Gabby insisted that the painting, and all the others he had done with the twins, were to be locked up in here. He refused to even be under the same roof as them, they rattled him so. Then, that proximity got to be too much as well; he went off to Richmond last week, and I have no idea when he is coming back."
There was a long stretch of silence after Gordon finished telling his sad, strange account. Then Lasher said: "Poor man. He has suffered so much; I hardly blame him for acting as he has. It's the worst of tragedies, to deal with a death so close to oneself; but to have as much loss as he has, and to have lost those that were so precious to him… he must be hurting terribly. He, and the other sister as well, the one who is still alive. To lose a twin… I can't begin to imagine how it must have affected her."
Gordon looked at him wonderingly. "It's funny you should say that; it really is the logical thing to suppose, isn't it? Since twins are presumably even closer than fraternal siblings, one would think that the sister left behind would go into deep mourning. And yet, while my soft-hearted brother has practically fallen to pieces, the other sister seems to be made of iron. I've spent the better part of the past few days contacting Gabby's old acquaintances to see if any of them will have some paintings – Mrs Emery agreed to take several that had a more… spiritual flavour to them – and in due course I telephoned Liza Carmody, to see if she wanted that same portrait. Since Gabriel seemed so eager to part with it, I thought that perhaps she should have it, since it is of her sister. And the loss is as much to her as it has been to him, if not even greater.
"Well, she very curtly told me that she had no use for such sentimental objects. She was so irate about it, I didn't dare ask her to come and actually look at it, or to take any of the other pictures off of my hands, both of which I had originally intended. As a co-author, I supposed that she had a right to some of them; but she has refused, point-blank, to have anything more to do with them. I don't know if I said anything to offend her – I just thought that she should have first claim, if that picture is to go to anyone other than Gabriel – but she seemed pretty sure of her own mind. Anyway, since she has turned it down, and Gabby is loath to ever again clap eyes on it again, I suppose it may as well find a more appreciative place at Pembroke House."
Lasher gave a violent start. Lost in his investigation – which was progressing better, and straying down far stranger paths, than he had ever expected – he had completely forgotten about the falsehood he had told.
"Oh-! I couldn't!" he exclaimed, without any hint of pretence whatsoever. "Something of such personal significance-!"
"It is because of its significance that you are welcome to it," Gordon retorted. "Of all the paintings here, this is the one that I least know what to do with. I may not know much about art myself, but I would be pleased to know that my brother's work is in good hands, with people who know its proper value and treat it respectfully." He slowly turned the frame around, handling it cumbersomely, then held it out to Lasher.
"I'll explain it to Gabriel. I'm sure he'll be quite agreeable, at any rate. He would want the artwork to be donated, so it can do some good in this world, among those of us who are still living. I'm sure that is what Bethany herself would have wanted, too. Please, do say you'll take it. For Bethany's sake."
Gordon said this so beseechingly, Tristan felt almost compelled to step in and reply on Lasher's behalf, since the latter remained silent long after his words had ended.
Lash didn't respond for a long time. He merely looked at the painting that was being offered to him. The lady appeared to be watching him, as if she really were peering out of the doorway at him, her eyes locked on his with a reproachful gaze.
He couldn't argue with Gordon Penvellyn; couldn't think of anything to counter such a profound appeal. Though his guilt stabbed painfully at his conscience all the while, he slowly reached out and took the frame in his hands, holding it in an accustomed grip, having handled such things countless times before. Still, the painting felt unusually weighty in his hands.
It wasn't the materials themselves that made it seem heavy; it was the burden of responsibility – the pall of remembrance – that so encumbered him. The gesture, as he took it, felt like some sort of ceremonial changing of the guard. He was, in effect, accepting the last earthly image of Bethany Carmody.
At least, to all appearances…
He remembered the previous day's interview with his client. With the advantage of hindsight and additional knowledge, it was only now that he realized what those sudden lapses in her lackadaisical charade had meant. It was only now that he fully understood all the hopes and fears that she had pinned upon this one canvas – a canvas that she didn't dare to look at herself. And so she had come to Lasher, sending him in her stead…
It was incredible that she would involve him, a complete stranger, in something so acutely personal! It wouldn't do. If she really wanted the knowledge, well, Lash would give it to her; if she were to believe him, she would have to see it with her own eyes. She would refuse to come to this house itself, that much was clear. His coming appointment with her was for that afternoon. He needed it for then; he needed her to see it.
She needed to see, for herself… and for him…
His resolve gathered, blotting out any last speck of guilt.
He would honour Gordon Penvellyn's request. The painting would be used to do good amongst the living. Not quite in the way that the bland young man had envisaged; but undoubtedly, it would do a world of good for someone.
It would more than fulfil its purpose as Bethany Carmody's final legacy.
He gave Gordon a solemn nod. "Very well, then. On behalf of Pembroke House, I very gratefully accept this bequest. I will personally see that it is instated in its rightful place."
A few minutes later, Lash and Tristan were walking back down the front path, in the shade of the two towering poplars that lent the house their name.
Their interview with Gordon Penvellyn had lasted a little under an hour. All through that time, Lasher's inner preoccupations had been completely inscrutable to Tristan; and, in fact, they still were. Lash walked beside him in absolute silence, apparently musing to himself. His eyes had that well-known look of intense concentration, such as he only wore when he was either painting, or detecting. His gaze was focused upon some abstract point in front of him; since an over-hanging weed, which may or may not have been stinging nettle, slapped against his knee without him reacting in the slightest, he obviously wasn't devoting any of this consideration to the path ahead of him. He would have perhaps walked right into the front gate, if Tristan hadn't stepped forward and opened it for him. He only then looked up and uttered a quiet 'thank you', the first words he had spoken since they had left Gordon's company.
Tristan was possessed of an unusual amount of patience; all the same, even his generous stock could eventually wear thin. As much as he stolidly insisted that he had absolutely no interest in Lasher's side-profession, even he was sometimes susceptible to common curiosity.
"You found what you wanted?" he ask gruffly, inwardly regretting that he was giving even this much acknowledgement to anything that had taken him so far from his kitchen.
Lasher gave a small, preoccupied nod. "I believe I have," he said, thoughtfully.
He did not elaborate. After a few moments, Tristan followed one grudging question with another. "Do you think the painting is… haunted?"
He instantly looked ashamed of himself for voicing anything so absurd. Even Lasher realized how ridiculous it was; it recalled him from his stupor. He turned and gave Tristan a wry chuckle.
'What," he said, with a return of characteristic good humour, "do you fear that if we bring this home you'll get poltergeists in your pantry? Or spooks in the scullery?" As he spoke, he lightly brandished the brown-paper parcel that he carried; Gordon had obligingly made the painting up into a neat bundle for them.
Tristan's already pinkened ears glowed a little more hotly at his jibing; but they then dimmed again as Lash answered his question in all seriousness. "No." He gave a definite shake of his head. "I certainly don't think that. You should know by now that I don't believe in such things, Tris. But I have some inkling as to why Gabriel Penvellyn might have believed such an unlikely thing. Only an inkling, mind…"
"He was in some hokey religious order," Tristan pointed out. He was still embarrassed to be discussing such things; he may as well have mentioned the weather forecast for Fairyland, he looked so uncomfortable.
"The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn," Lasher said, repeating Gordon's words. "Yes, I have heard of them and their automatic drawings. Really, what is the point of even beginning a drawing if you have no intention of expressing yourself through it? If I had to wait for spirits to furnish me with ideas, I would not get very much work done at all."
He shrugged, dismissing an ideology that he didn't really understand. "We have no business with such concepts. Behind every so-called supernatural incident, there is usually a very human explanation. That is just what I have procured for my client."
Tristan raised one heavy eyebrow. He too had heard all of Gordon's discourse during the past half-hour; yet he himself hadn't gleaned any such indications that Lasher's ambiguous errand had found its answer.
"You did?" he asked, a little dubiously. Lash was, after all, an artist; and artists tended to have overactive imaginations; he may have invented some convenient solution where there was really none. Tristan had suspected him of doing this more than once, and his impressive past record did little to allay these suspicions.
"Yes." Lasher gave another nod of professional satisfaction, such as he might give a painting which was more or less finished, barring a few final brushstrokes. "Though my findings would ideally do with a little more confirmation. I don't have time to go to Richmond before my appointment with my client this afternoon, much as I would like to. It's a shame, but…"
He trailed off as his eye lit upon Algernon, who was lounging in the driver's seat of the coach, reading a hefty journal which bore the title 'General Stud Book' upon its cover.
"But perhaps," he said, with a hopeful glimmer of a smile just barely lightening his features, "the answer I need is right in front of me."
As they approached, Algernon looked up from his reading material. "Welcome back, gents," he said. "Still in one piece, I see. And with an added parcel to boot; looks like it was a friendly household after all. I suppose it will fit in the luggage rack?"
"No need," Lash said quickly, "I can hold onto it for the trip back. But there is still something I need to know, Algernon, and I believe you may be able to furnish me with it."
"I, Master Lasher?" Algernon looked flattered."If I can do anything to assist, I will certainly be delighted."
"Very good. If you could kindly cast your mind back to that instance when you saw Elizabeth Carmody's name mentioned in the paper. Do you recall exactly which day that was?"
Algernon pondered for a moment. "Which day? Let me see; I was looking up the form for the 4.50 at Chester, so… yes, it was last Thursday, I should think. Does that help at all?"
Lasher's tentative smile had grown into a broad grin. "Yes, it helps tremendously. It means that everything fits; everything I suspected is more or less proven. I have the answer my client needs, so we can head back to Pembroke now. And not a moment too soon," he added.
As he spoke, he directed his gaze upward. He had noticed that clouds had been gathering overhead as he had looked up at the wisteria trellis. Now they had darkened significantly, like a blot of ink that had pooled upon the surface of the sky, spreading its stain right across the weakening sun.
It was lucky that Algernon had chosen an enclosed coach for his trip to Pembroke that morning. As the carriage rounded the corner and set off back down Frognal Lane, a distant rumble of thunder heralded the onset of a seasonable London shower.
Author's note: Well, this chapter took a lot longer than I anticipated, mostly because I was trying to get the next chapter finished before I posted it. Chapter Five is about one-third written, so I guess that's good enough. I think all the necessary clue are included in this chapter - at least, I hope they are!
Special thanks goes out to a pair of twins on deviantArt who partially inspired this story, and gave me lots of useful feedback on writing about twins. I wanted the plot-point to be sensitive towards real-life siblings, instead of just throwing them in there as a gimmick. I probably totally over-thought the whole concept, but it was good to know that I wasn't offending any readers who happen to be twins themselves!
As an aside, one of my all-time favourite writers is G. K. Chesterton - if I could write like anyone else it would be him! - and I recently found a book of short stories by him, called 'The Poet and the Lunatics', that I'd never heard of before. It is wonderful - as good as the Father Brown stories! The main character, Gabriel Gale, is a lot like Lasher - tall, blond, an absent-minded artist who notices seemingly insignificant things and solves crimes by unconventional means. It is so close to what I wanted to make with Lash, it's uncanny - except Gale's special talent is telling when people are mad. Not exactly a career path that Lasher would be keen to follow! ~ W.J.