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A Bright Lady, Surpassingly Fair

A BRIGHT LADY,

SURPASSINGLY FAIR

Aonghus Fallon

Copyright 2016 Aonghus Fallon

Shakespir edition

 

One clear moonlit night, many years ago, a man stood on the deck of a small brig bound for the Irish town of New Ross, viewing the approaching coastline with a certain trepidation. Tall and lean, he was plainly no sailor, for he was very dapperly dressed in a black frock-coat and breeches, made of good English wool and trimmed with silver braid, and a quilted silk and linen waistcoat. The face beneath that tricorne hat was long and sombre – the face of a Celt or a gypsy. It is doubtful if the many ladies acquainted with its owner would have recognised him at that particular moment, as that countenance was normally more affable in their company.

Newlyn Greer was a playwright of some distinction, largely thanks to being the protégé of the celebrated actor David Garrick, for whom he had written a number of dramas of various sorts. The remuneration for his labours had been small, but the popularity of the plays themselves had made him a welcome visitor in many a London drawing room, helped further by his diffident air. Greer was very popular with the fairer sex. He was not a gentlemen, but he carried himself very like one and his manners were always impeccable.

Few would have guessed the troubled history which lay behind this carefully cultivated exterior, or the poverty which had been Greer’s lot as a child. He had spent the bulk of his youth in Wales, the only son of a Welshwoman and an itinerant Irish preacher – a dyspeptic Ulsterman, secretly partial to the very whiskey he was so quick to condemn as the source of all evil. This man had treated the boy very cruelly, entirely breaking his spirit, and Greer deserved some credit for rising, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of his younger self to become the man that he was.

Yet the look his face now wore was not that of a successful man, but of a haunted one, and if Greer’s greatest creation had been himself, it was clear this feat had been accomplished some time ago: his hair was still dark and luxurious and there was still a certain (albeit determined) boyishness about his demeanour, but his clothes, though very fine, were somewhat old-fashioned – the waistcoat being rather low by the standards of the day – serving much the same function as its sturdy carapace serves the lobster, and being as much resistant to change.

Greer was surveying those distant hills with no great enthusiasm because they evoked memories of his father and those memories were not happy ones. The decision to visit Ireland had not been his. Garrick – his master in everything but name – had insisted that Greer should write him a play with a strong Irish flavour: that is, a play inhabited by wild and colourful characters, and which drew heavily on Irish folklore for inspiration.

Furthermore, he reckoned Greer would be greatly helped in writing his ‘Irish’ play if he were already in Ireland while doing so. With this scheme in mind, he had allotted Greer a small sum of money, so that Greer might visit that island, travelling about the country and gathering material, his last stop being Dublin, where he was to begin work on the play itself.

It so happened that Greer had been visiting relatives in Pembrey shortly afterwards. When he had told them about his latest commission, it had been suggested he take passage aboard one of the many vessels that plied their trade between Pembroke and Ireland. Given that the alternative would have been to travel up to Liverpool – a journey which alone would have cost a substantial amount of money – and the fare from Liverpool to Dublin was bound to be many multiples of whatever he might pay some small merchant ship, Greer had decided to do precisely that.

In this way he would also arrive some distance south of the country’s capital and collect his material en route.

Once in Dublin, he was to introduce himself to an acquaintance of Garrick’s – a Lady Maxwell, a woman noted for her excellent translations of various French farces – who had promised to ensure that suitable lodgings were found for him.

Now the Cassandra was making its way up the estuary on which both the towns of Waterford and New Ross were located, the sea glittering like silver. Greer was particularly struck by the headland on his right; a long finger of land, almost devoid of any vegetation or indeed any signs of human activity, but for the stone walls which criss-crossed it. He had already been told by the captain of the vessel that they were to weigh anchor briefly somewhere along its coast, there to transact some business, the nature of which the captain proved evasive, but which Greer suspected must entail the handing over of contraband goods to a relative for safe-keeping.

An instant later he saw a patch of open beach up ahead, with several figures waiting on it and knew this must be their destination.

Only when the brig changed direction and began to make its way towards this spot did Greer notice the ruins overlooking the beach: the remains of some old church, of which the most distinguishing feature was a large, oblong tower. That it was indeed a church, if a very ancient and abandoned one, was made obvious by the rash of gravestones around it and which were enclosed by low, crumbling walls.

For the first time since embarking on his journey, Greer felt the faintest quiver of interest. Besides, he badly needed to stretch his legs.

However his proposal was met with a marked reluctance. ‘You’re best off staying on board, sir,’ was the captain’s phlegmatic reply.

‘Why so?’

The captain spat over the side of the boat. ‘‘Tis is an evil place, by all accounts.’

‘It is haunted?’ Sensing material for his play, Greer’s curiosity was greatly increased. However, the captain refused to elaborate, only admitting that unloading the goods from the boat would be a matter of half an hour: more than enough time for Greer to investigate the church if he so wished.

And so Greer made his way up the steep, sandy path from the beach to the church, only to find the ruins rather ordinary. The tower in particular, was much smaller than he might have expected, although this may in part have been due to how the open fields stretching off around it would have dwarfed any building.

Having carried out a cursory inspection of both it and the adjacent hall, he then began to examine the many gravestones. Alas, sea winds had rendered many of these illegible, although those of more recent vintage could still be deciphered, and were replete with grim details; drowning, it seemed, was a commonplace end for citizens of the area.

Greer was stepping back from one gravestone, having been bent over it for some time in an attempt to read it, when he noticed a woman not ten yards away, laying some flowers on a grave. Her back was to him, yet something about her dress and demeanour was instantly familiar to him, so that for a moment Greer was transfixed. Only when the woman had fully risen to her feet and turned to face him – the moonlight etching out her features – was he certain. There could be no mistaking that perfect oval of a face, those full lips, pursed in a frown, or those dark, melancholy eyes.

‘Lucy?’

The woman stared back at him in wonderment. ‘I beg your pardon?’

Greer drew closer. ‘Lucy? It is I, Newlyn Greer.’

‘Newlyn?’ The woman murmured the name as if it were wholly unfamiliar to her, but when she spoke again, it was with absolute confidence. ‘Newlyn? Is this truly you? After all these years?’

‘It is, it is.’

The two embraced and when they drew apart, Greer was struck by how little his former fiancé had changed – though it was twenty years since they had last parted, she did not seem to have aged a day. She was even dressed in a very similar fashion. Indeed, he could have sworn it was the same grey dress and the same grey bonnet.

‘What a strange coincidence,’ he murmured softly. ‘To meet you here, in this desolate spot, and in a different country to boot, and so many miles from home!’

Lucy had been Greer’s first love. At that time he had had no reputation to speak of, and had been as poor as a church mouse, whereas her family had been gentry – if he were honest with himself, Greer would be forced to admit that it had been his love’s station in life as much as her looks that had made her so attractive in his eyes. However, her father had not approved, and various means had been employed to discourage Greer, culminating in a sound beating, administered to him by several bravos hired specially for that purpose. Greer had abandoned his suit and travelled to London, never to see his first love again.

‘I married a captain of the dragoons not a year later,’ she now explained. ‘He was billeted to Ireland, but died of Diphtheria. This is his grave.’

‘You are paying your respects? At so late an hour?’

‘My home is five minutes’ walk from here and tonight would have been our wedding anniversary.’ For a second Lucy’s features were sorrowful, then she smiled at Greer, though tears still winked in those dark eyes. ‘I need not ask you how you have spent the intervening years, Newlyn. I am all too familiar with the many excellent dramas the talented Mr Greer has written on behalf of his patron, Mr David Garrick!’

‘You are too kind,’ Greer replied, but he was flattered and his cheeks were burning hot. That she should remember him! That she should take an interest in his career!

Nor could he not help considering how his beloved had acquired a house and a pension since they’d last parted. And so he found himself entertaining fresh hopes that they might renew their acquaintance. However, before he could press his suit any further, cries from below informed him that the captain and his men were preparing to disembark.

‘Go,’ Lucy said, leaning forward and kissing him quickly on the lips, before standing back and pressing one pale hand against his waistcoat, her eyes fixed on his own. ‘This is not the time or the place for us to talk. I will be visiting Dublin shortly and will seek you out when I arrive.’

‘I have yet to move into lodgings –’ Greer stammered.

‘No matter. I will find you.’ So emphatically did his old amour say this, that Greer was suddenly certain that she would do exactly as she promised. And so he made his way back down to the beach and the waiting men, that brief kiss all too vivid in his mind.

 

It had been Greer’s intention to visit Lady Maxwell immediately on his arrival in Dublin, partially because of Garrick’s assurance that Lady Maxwell would find him suitable accommodation during his stay, partially because he had been nursing the faint hope she would permit him to remain in her home as a guest, and perhaps even introduce him to Dublin High Society, such as it was.

However, various factors conspired to prevent him from keeping his appointment. He had arrived in Dublin to find it a city of contrasts. Much of its centre had been rebuilt in the Georgian style, with long promenades lined on either side by tall, handsome buildings. However parts of it – especially those areas around the city’s foremost churches – had been left much as they were; a maze of narrow, filthy lanes and alleyways.

This same disparity was equally noticeable in the city’s inhabitants. Never had he seen the division between rich and poor so pronounced. The city was smaller than Liverpool, but inordinately crowded, and the bulk of its population consisted of beggars and ruffians of one sort or another, evil of countenance, clad in rags or their better’s cast-offs and invariably barefoot, who made a great show of bowing and scraping to the city’s ruling elite – conspicuous by their fine attire – whenever such personages passed through their midst, yet did so in such a leering and false fashion as to make their true feelings only too clear. Red uniforms were everywhere, especially in proximity to Dublin Castle.

These people were not fellow citizens, but a subject race, still nursing a grievance for how they had been treated, behaviour he might have expected to encounter in one of the more far-flung outposts of the empire, but which he found surprising and disturbing so close to home.

His journey up to the city had not been an easy one. He had been forced to change coaches more than once and had spent the final part of the journey on a hay cart. Now he wandered the streets in a daze, Lady Maxwell entirely forgotten, his old lover still uppermost in his mind. Again and again, he was struck by the fortuitous nature of their encounter, how little his amour had changed and her promise that she would visit him shortly. In retrospect the whole episode had all the quality of a dream.

Such were the thoughts passing through his mind as he turned off Dublin’s chief shopping street and towards the quays, unconsciously making his way to the city’s one theatre as was his wont whenever he was in a particular metropolis, the bills decorating the walls in any theatre’s vicinity always giving a very clear idea of what was currently popular and what had passed out of fashion.

Greer was not a naturally inventive man. His particular talent lay in appropriating the ideas of others and somehow making them his own – or at least, sufficiently his own as to excite no comment. In this respect, such posters were a very useful source of ideas.

It was early afternoon by then and a performance must have just finished, for a number of actors were leaving the theatre as he arrived – a small but elegant building of plain grey stone – and one of them recognised him. He was invited to accompany the group, spent the night in their company, and was ultimately given the use of the garret in the topmost room of the house which they were all sharing.

This proved a mixed blessing. The bed itself was infested with fleas, and the actors noisy fellow tenants, for all that they spent most of their time on the ground floor. On the other hand, it placed no further imposition on his finances.

There and then, he decided to commence work on the play and to visit Lady Maxwell at a later date. Though his memories of that moonlit encounter seemed, with the benefit of hindsight, ever more extraordinary, he still entertained the faint hope that he had not been the victim of some brainstorm, that everything had happened just as he recalled, and that his beloved would keep her promise to him. In which case, they would be together a great deal. In turn, this meant he was better off getting the important business of the play out of the way beforehand.

And so he bought himself pen and papers, then sat down at the plain wooden desk by the window overlooking the street below – only to find his thoughts returning again and again to his beloved. Even when, by dint of greatest effort, he managed to push her from his mind, it was to find himself wholly unable to conjure up a story that might win Garrick’s approval. This despite the fact that he had heard tales from a variety of people on his journey up to the capital concerning the disposition and malice of the little people, the bravery of Ireland’s many ancient heroes and the battles in which they had fought, and much more besides.

It was as if he had never written a line in his life.

Two barren days passed before Greer decided to keep his promise to Garrick and visit Lady Maxwell, if only to distract him from his growing frustration. The visit would serve no useful purpose, as he had already found lodgings. Still. There was always the possibility Lady Maxwell might be so taken with him as to invite him to stay on in her house as her guest.

 

Lady Maxwell’s house was a mile north of the river which divided the city in two and on the very outskirts of the town: a fine old house on a steep street of fine old houses, beyond which were a number of allotments and then open countryside.

A good location, yet even after spending but a few days in the city and from conversation with his friends, Greer knew the area was not so highly regarded as it had once been. The Duke of Leinster had built a particularly magnificent house south of the river some twenty years earlier, resulting in a general exodus of the gentry from one side of the Liffey to the other.

Yet Lady Maxwell had chosen to remain behind. It did not augur well in relation to his earlier hopes she might introduce him to the more exalted members of Dublin Society!

A large, ruddy-faced butler in pink-and blue livery, with a head of thick white hair and a rather sly expression answered the door. ‘Lady Maxwell’s residence. Whom shall I say is calling?’

‘Tell Lady Maxwell that Newlyn Greer Esquire pays her his compliments and that they have a mutual friend, a Mr David Garrick.’

‘Certainly, sir.’

So there were no footmen. Another ominous sign. And as he was escorted up the stairs, Greer could not help noticing that the house was rather shabby, although the furniture and the fittings were all of good quality.

His doubts were finally confirmed on his being introduced to Lady Maxwell herself. Lady Maxwell lived alone, her husband having died many years previously, and it was obvious that she spent nearly all her days in her study, a musty room on the third floor. Her attire was as venerable as everything else in that house; a lappet cap that had clearly seen better days and a voluminous brocade sackgown, now very faded, which she wore over her petticoat. In appearance he thought her an extremely plain woman; already in late middle-age, plump, sharp-nosed and weak-of-chin. Her most striking feature were her small grey eyes which – while not in any way being attractive – gave the impression of alert intelligence. ‘So you are Mr. Greer,’ she said tartly, rising to greet him. ‘You are nothing if not consistent, sir.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Greer was mystified.

The faintest of smiles lit up that plain countenance – the sort of smile meant to sugar a remark that is clearly being made with malice aforethought. ‘Your shiny plumage may impress the young ladies, sir. Do not think it will impress me. I know you for what you are, Mr Greer; one who would as soon pocket a fellow author’s story or idea as a magpie will fly off with some pretty bauble!’

Greer shrugged and smiled, though her remark had cut him to the quick. Clearly Lady Maxwell had been listening to one of his enemies, and taken that person’s estimation of him at face value. There and then he discounted any likelihood of being invited to stay as her guest. At least this gave him the freedom to be candid. ‘How many stories are truly original, Milady? A mere handful. It is only in the telling that they differ.’

‘Semantics.’

‘Not at all. Consider how often a play starts out life in one language, only to be translated into another. And how rarely the translator gives credit to the original author! And why should he do so? When the play has been changed by the alchemy of another tongue into an entirely different beast?’

‘Perhaps, perhaps,’ Lady Maxwell said, somewhat coldly. ‘What news of Drury Lane? Mr Garrick’s letter was far too brief.’

Greer did his best to answer her. Once finished, he made some mention of Garrick’s request on his behalf – a mere formality, as he was now quite certain Lady Maxwell would be of no help to him in this regard.

‘There I fear I must disappoint you,’ admitted Lady Maxwell, who had sat down in the meantime, picking up her quill as she spoke. ‘I have sought high and low, but alas, found nothing suitable. And now you must excuse me.’

Greer realised he was not to be offered so much as a cup of tea. Nonetheless, he could not resist asking before he departed – ‘Milady is translating another French farce?’

‘That is correct.’

‘Regnard? Lesage?’

‘Armand Favreau,’ Lady Maxwell said absently. ‘The Homunculus. A young Parisian medical student visits the chateau of a certain countess, whom he suspects to be engaged in scientific experiments of questionable merit. It is one of Favreau’s best, I think.’

‘No doubt there is a beautiful young woman waiting for our hero at the chateau?’

‘There is.’

‘And a dashing rival?’

‘But of course,’ admitted Lady Maxwell, not looking up, although he could tell by her tone that she was impressed by his knowledge of Favreau’s work. ‘Along with the usual setbacks and revelations. However the plot has a neat twist that is not typical of Favreau.’

‘Ah. Let me guess. The girl is the homunculus, a creation of her beloved aunt, the errant scientist.’

‘You are mistaken.’

Thus, by making assumption after assumption about the play, did Greer get the dowager to divulge the entire plot. He did this for no other reason other than curiosity.

It was not until Lady Maxwell had finally and firmly dismissed him and he was making his way back down that broad staircase that it struck him the play which she had outlined to him could be very easily adapted to provide just the sort of drama Garrick had commissioned him to write.

So struck was he by the idea, that he paused upon the staircase to consider the matter further. He had always been a quick worker, while (from what he had seen) Lady Maxwell had only just finished translating the first act.

Naturally she would be furious, were she to ever find out. Yet her denunciations would stand for nothing if his play were to precede hers and if it were to enjoy some measure of success. She was a casual acquaintance of Garrick’s, nothing more. His master would be indifferent to her wrath, providing the play furthered his own career.

Most importantly of all, he himself was entirely devoid of ideas. Garrick had promised him some additional funds were he to send a rough draft of the play as soon as possible, and his finances – despite careful husbanding – were already starting to run low. Indeed, he was not sure he would have sufficient monies to return home.

 

He began work that same night. Three days later the play was complete. Concerning as it did, the travails of a young Englishman visiting Ireland and his dealings with the local gentry – and their dealings with the local fairies – Greer did not think it bad at all, considering the difficulties it had presented.

In the past he had always been able to appropriate a character or a scene created by another author and make it almost entirely his own with a few deft touches, chiefly because he could envision the scene and the character so clearly in his mind. But this particular skill had suddenly deserted him. Never had he been more conscious of its benefits, now that it was gone. Whenever he put down his pen, sat back and closed his eyes, she would suddenly fill his mind. And it seemed to him each time she did so, he remembered more and more details concerning their encounter: the rustle of her dress, how she had tilted her head, her strong, pale hands.

It struck him that his imagination was haunted by that chance meeting with his old flame, and that that vision of loveliness had succeeded in scaring away all other visions from his mind. The notion felt so strangely apposite that he shivered.

The lack of inspiration meant that completing the play had taken all his ingenuity – a poor substitute for real talent, but all he had been able draw on in this particular instance – yet he had managed it nonetheless. No mean feat, and one which on which he was reluctantly forced to congratulate himself.

He decided to call the finished work The Changeling, and promptly sent it to Garrick for approval, hinting that his funds were now exceedingly low and that any advance would be greatly appreciated.

 

A week later a letter arrived from Garrick. The actor was much impressed by the play and thought it just the thing. And as a token of his confidence, he had enclosed a promissory note for five guineas which Greer was at liberty to withdraw at any bank convenient to him.

Greer read this all with growing relief. That is, until he came to the final paragraph, in which Garrick explained that a second opinion might be of some value, especially if the person in question were not only familiar with the nuts and bolts of stagecraft but with the setting. It was with these considerations in mind that Garrick had forwarded the play to Lady Maxwell in the hopes that she might tell him what she thought of it.

 

That same evening, Greer stood across the street from Lady Maxwell’s home, watching as the lights blinked out one by one in the lower floors, though one light still flickered and burned far above.

What little he had seen of the house led him to surmise that Lady Maxwell had but three servants: a cook, a butler and a maid.

Even when only that last light still burned, he remained standing beneath the lamp, his face set in a frown. He was thinking of his father and their midnight excursions. For though his father had spent his days denouncing the evils of drink, he had occasionally resorted to house-breaking when times were particularly hard. Nor had he been a novice at the business. He had known enough to teach his son how to break open a window, at any rate.

Now, standing on that street and looking up at that solitary, lighted window, Greer found himself wondering not for the first time which of the two aspects of his father was the true one – if his father had been a good man, brought low by circumstances, or a wicked soul wearing the mask of virtue.

Lady Maxwell would have received Garrick’s letter that same afternoon. More than likely she would have composed a reply, exposing his chicanery, but the letter would not be collected until the following morning. There was still time to reason with her. He could not afford to let Garrick discover the truth. His play had yet to prove itself. Exposure at so early a stage meant that Garrick would disown him and that meant ruin.

He did not deserve to pay so heavy a price for one minor transgression, and he was certain that Lady Maxwell – if he were but to talk to her – would be inclined to agree.

 

He waited another half hour. Then walked briskly across the street, clambered nimbly over the railing adjacent to the front door and prised open one window with a crowbar he had brought along especially for the purpose, breaking the catch in order to do so. He then slipped inside, pulling the window shut behind him and making his way to the hall and the staircase – up which he crept until he could see the pale glow Lady Maxwell’s lamp cast out onto the corridor.

The door was half-ajar, yet she sensed him – the very faintest displacement of air perhaps, the creak of a floorboard underfoot – and turned her head. ‘Mr Greer,’ she said, her face expressionless. She did not seem surprised.

He knew then that she would not listen to reason. That she would show him no mercy. Almost without thinking, he stepped forward and fastened his hands about her throat.

How she flailed and struggled! How she scrabbled at his fingers! How she gasped and gurgled and groaned, those small grey eyes bulging glassily in the lamp-light! The feeling of her rough, wattled neck disgusted him, yet he did not relent. His grip was like iron.

He held her tight until she moved no more.

Her reply to Garrick was still on her desk, unfinished. The way in which she had spoken of him made him glad he had made an end of her. He took the letter, the copy of his play which he had sent to Garrick, removed a number of rings from her fingers (in the hopes that the city’s constables would think she had been the victim of a simple robbery) then slipped out of that room like a shadow, making his way noiselessly down those stairs, and only breathing freely once back out on the street.

He was safe. His reputation was safe. Newlyn Greer had avoided disgrace, just as he avoided the hangman’s noose, and would continue to charm the good ladies of London for the foreseeable future.

 

The murder of Lady Maxwell was the talk of all Dublin for nearly two weeks, but the consensus was just as Greer had hoped – that she had fallen prey to thieves, who had come up specially from the country to carry out their nefarious crime and been attracted to her home precisely because it was on the city’s outskirts, and possibly because they had learnt in advance that the house, for all its size, had only four occupants.

During this period Greer had no choice but to remain in Dublin for fear of exciting suspicion were he to suddenly leave, although it was a place he had come to cordially loathe; he would forever associate it with his crime and with the lack of inspiration which had tormented him since his arrival. During this time he corresponded briefly with Garrick, telling him of what had happened to Lady Maxwell, while also making any necessary revisions to his play.

One morning he had just left his lodgings when he was approached by a large gentleman in a great coat whom he did not recognise at first because the man had been wearing livery when he had last seen him. It was Lady Maxwell’s butler, who greeted him with what he felt was unnecessary enthusiasm. ‘This is most fortuitous, sir.’

‘Indeed?’ Greer was confused, as it was quite clear the man had been waiting for him.

‘Why yes, sir. Although we were only briefly acquainted, I could tell from your face that you were a kindly soul. Milady’s unfortunate demise has meant that I have lost my position and am now adrift in the world, and I was wondering if you could oblige me with a small loan.’

Greer expressed his commiserations, then gave the man a few shillings.

Having pocketed the money, the butler blew his nose in a gigantic and rather grubby handkerchief. ‘Very much obliged to you, sir,’ he said.

‘A bad business,’ Greer remarked, by way of making conversation. ‘All the more so as it has resulted in your unemployment.’

‘It was,’ agreed the butler. ‘But I won’t lie to you, sir. Milady had a sharp tongue to match her wit, and many’s the time I bore the brunt of it. Consider yourself lucky she died when she did. I think she meant to give you a piece of her mind.’ This said with a quick, sly glance.

‘Really?’ Greer said, his heart sinking. ‘In what regard?’

That big, florid face was suddenly the picture of innocence. ‘Something about a play that you had written, sir, and which she believed bore an uncanny resemblance to one on which she was working. You were writing it on behalf of some other gentleman, as I understand it, and he sent it to her for a lookover, little realising she would jump to conclusions the way she did.’

Greer smiled tentatively up at the larger man. ‘Clearly she was a woman prey to the most curious notions.’

‘Without a doubt,’ the former butler said equably. ‘Let us hope the city constables are not equally susceptible, eh?’

‘Indeed. Well I must be on my way –’

‘I was wondering, sir –’

Greer paused. ‘Yes. What is it?’

‘Much as your donation is appreciated, is there any possibility you could provide me with a somewhat larger sum? I am quite destitute.’

‘How large a sum had you in mind?’

‘A guinea.’

It was on the tip of Greer’s tongue to remonstrate with the man, but he thought the better of it, handing over the asked-for guinea without a word.

The butler beamed. ‘Thank you, sir! The world has treated me cruelly, but at least I can seek some consolation in the fact that you can be relied on to help me out whenever my funds run low.’

And with this, the man tipped his hat, turned and was gone.

 

Greer was under no illusions as to the true substance of that brief conversation. He was being blackmailed. The butler’s last remark in particular chilled him to the bone – At least I can seek some consolation in the fact that you can be relied on to help me out whenever my funds run low.

It was the use of the word ‘whenever’ that had struck Greer most forcibly. He was not to leave the city. If he were to do so, Lady Maxwell’s former employee could not be relied on to keep his mouth shut.

It was pointless telling himself that it was one man’s word against another. He was neither a proper gentleman, nor a good, honest citizen. He lacked the resources to ensure such allegations came to nothing, while there would be some – those he might deem his inferiors – who would resent his position in society, which they would see as indicating delusions of grandeur. Greer was grimly certain he could count the city’s constables amongst their number.

There and then, sitting in his tiny garret, with the sounds of merriment drifting up from below, he decided to make an end of himself.

With this scheme in mind, he consumed the best part of a bottle of brandy (purchased to steel himself for so unpleasant a task) only to find himself sinking into a drunken stupor instead.

 

He dreamt he was standing in the graveyard once more, and that Lucy was waiting for him. It was a clear moonlit night, just as it had been on his first and only visit to the place, and she had never looked more beautiful, although there were certain discrepancies – the line of her jaw was somewhat sharper than he remembered and there was a curiously hungry look about her gaze rather than an air of quiet melancholy. She was smiling at him.

He was in that state of mild paralysis which characterises most dreams; he was not rooted to the spot but knew that any movement could only be accomplished with the greatest difficulty; his thoughts were dim and confused and somewhere – from some great distance away – he could hear the steady, sluggish thudding of his heart. This all changed the instant he opened his mouth and spoke –

‘You are not Lucy.’

A cold, prickling fear swept over him as he uttered those words; for all that he realised he had suspected as much for some time, just not openly acknowledged it, and suddenly his thoughts were very lucid while his heart quickened fractionally in tempo. In that same instant, the graveyard and the woman leapt into sharp focus, to the extent that he might truly have been standing in that spot.

Every detail of the woman’s garments was now crystal clear; the bright ribbons bedecking her grey dress, a dress like, yet unlike, the one which Lucy had worn; the silk bonnet, perched at an angle upon the woman’s graceful head, her cool, amused gaze. Stranger still, the longer he looked at her, the more precise these details became.

The woman drew closer. ‘I am whatever you wish me to be, Newlyn,’ she said in her soft, low voice.

He was remembering his dearth of ideas since their first encounter. Was it possible that his creative energies had been directed – unbeknownst to him – elsewhere?

‘You are a thief, madam.’

The faintest tilt of the head, even as that smile grew fractionally more pronounced. ‘As are you.’

‘My end will also mean your own. That is why you have visited me. To dissuade me into acting otherwise.’

A tinkling laugh. ‘My constitution is more robust than you might think, dearest Newlyn! I come to you in your dreams only to make you an offer. If you wish to be rid of this man, I can help you, but you must promise me something in return.’

‘And what is that?’

A pout. ‘That you come visit me, of course. This is a lonely, desolate place and I would be glad of your company.’

‘It seems you can already visit me – in my dreams.’

‘It is not the same. Promise to visit me, and I promise to take care of your blackmailer. Are we agreed?’

Greer was under no illusion what the consequences of such a visit might be, but said nonetheless – ‘Very well.’

 

An instant later he was wide awake, sprawled on his filthy cot, his head throbbing.

He stared up at the beams above for a very long time. He did not regret his bargain with the creature. ‘For how can she keep her end of it?’ he said aloud. ‘And if she were to do so,’ he added to himself, under his breath this time, ‘then I would feel no great inclination to oblige!’

He was reckoning on the revenant’s reach having certain limitations. ‘Whatever she is, she is confined to that place. Why else visit me in my dreams? And would she still be able to accomplish even that much, were I back in London?

I doubt it.’

 

And then he must have drifted off asleep a second time although on this occasion, thankfully, his slumbers were free of ghosts.

When he woke again it was early morning and a grey dawn light was pouring into that dusty little room. It was a second before he realised what had roused him, though his heart was beating loud and fast. It was the voices coming from the stairwell below. Two men were in conversation with one another and he was quite certain that one of them had mentioned Lady Maxwell by name. Had the finger of suspicion finally pointed in his direction?

‘Lady Maxwell’s butler?’ the other said after what was clearly a long pause. ‘I have no memory of the man I’m afraid.’

‘A stout, red-faced old party. Briggs by name.’

‘And he is dead, you say? Most curious. Is it possible that he had something to do with the robbery and fell out with his accomplices? You said he was something of a rogue.’

‘He enjoyed his cards and his whores, but I doubt if he would have stooped to anything so questionable as an out-and-out murder. No, apparently he died of fright.’

‘Fright?’

‘He went to bed as merry as a lord. The following morning he was dead. His daughter found him. She said she had never seen a look of such naked terror on a man’s face.’

‘Well, well! Lady Maxwell strangled and her retainer dead of fright! I cannot feel there must be some sort of connection. You say the man was no murderer, but on the face of it I am inclined to wonder. Maybe in his final moments, our unfortunate friend Briggs was privy to what awaited him – an eternity in Hell’s fiery furnace. Maybe this is what frightened him so.’

‘Maybe, maybe. ‘Tis a mystery.’

With this the men continued their descent of the staircase, their voices growing ever fainter, while Greer lay in his bed and reflected that he alone, of all the good citizens of Dublin, was probably the one man who knew how Briggs had met his end, a little shiver running down his spine at the thought.

The apparition had assured him she could become whatever he wished. It followed that she could also become whatever one most feared – something the unfortunate Briggs had learnt to his cost.

 

This latest development was enough to convince Greer he must leave the city as soon as possible and he went down onto the docks that same morning.

Alas, Liverpool was shrouded in heavy fog and would be so for the next week.

An ever-growing sense of urgency made so long a wait untenable. With a sinking heart, he realised he had no choice but to return home the way he had come. His chief concern was that when he fell asleep again that night, his lady would be waiting for him and her treatment – on realising he had no intention of keeping his bargain with her – would not be so gentle.

He hired a horse and set off for New Ross, riding all day without pause, intending by high means or low to have rid himself of Ireland before sunset or before weariness got the better of him, whichever came first.

Once on the other side of the Irish Sea, he felt certain, he would be beyond the grip of the harpy who had ensorcelled him.

He made good time, being in County Waterford by late afternoon. However, even as he congratulated himself on his progress, it struck him that he was now all the closer to keeping his appointment with his mistress, and his elation was replaced by a creeping dread.

And it was here that his luck ran out. The countryside was drab and unkempt. It had rained heavily all day, water dripping from the hawthorns that seemed to line every road and lane, and as one lane was all but identical to the next and there were so many of them, twisting and turning and forking again and again, Greer quickly became lost, his plight not helped by the curious befuddlement suddenly clouding his brain.

He rode on nonetheless, until he was travelling in pitch darkness. Again and again he scanned the gloom ahead for the twinkling lights of New Ross, but always without success.

His weariness was so great by now that he found himself nodding off in his saddle, no matter how hard he tried not to do so, lulled by the steady clip-clopping of his horse’s hooves.

When he finally woke, he knew – with a brief, terrible pang of dismay – that it was too late. Under a full moon, the fields of that all-too-familiar headland stretched away to his left, while to his right and below, he could hear the soft murmur of the sea.

He had been woken by the sound of graveyard gates as they clanged shut behind him.


A Bright Lady, Surpassingly Fair

  • Author: Aonghus Fallon
  • Published: 2016-08-02 14:05:12
  • Words: 7306
A Bright Lady, Surpassingly Fair A Bright Lady, Surpassingly Fair