Sossity Chandler smiled when she saw Heather Alabaster sitting at an open-air table at Tarleton Manor. They embraced and sat down, chattering about how glad they were to see each other. The day, sunny and cool, would be perfect for exploring the gardens that surrounded the manor house. Sossity was alone. She wore sunglasses and a hat to lessen the chances of being recognized by fans.
“You didn’t bring Alwyn,” Sossity observed.
“I thought I’d leave him with Priscilla.” Priscilla was her live-in nanny. “We can just talk and enjoy ourselves for a while without having to manage a child. And the manor house isn’t real child-friendly anyhow. Let me get our tea.”
Sun streamed down and warmed Sossity’s face. Tarleton Manor was an estate that had been given to the British National Trust, which had transformed it into a museum. The extensive grounds and house, Heather had said, were lovely (the British used that term a lot, Sossity reflected) and the site was a remote, out-of-the-way tourist attraction where her chances of being bothered by fans would be lessened.
She perused the brochure, her eyes resting on miniatures of the art collection in the manor. Sossity Chandler liked to go to art museums when she toured. She hoped to go to the Tate this trip, though her schedule was tight with concerts in London, Oxford, and Liverpool in the upcoming week.
Heather returned carrying a tray. The two of them enjoyed tea and scones spread with clotted cream and jam. Heather discussed the joys and trials of being a mother and how much she missed her husband.
“Harrington’ is the number-one show on US TV,” Sossity said. “When are you coming over to the US?”
“I suppose I should come over sometime soon,” she sighed. “I’ve just got to get up the nerve to face the press.”
Sossity recalled the scandal of Heather’s marriage to Jonathan Carlton.
“If you have to face the press I’ll go along with you. You should go. John gets lonely all by himself in New York.”
“I know he does. I’ll guess I should plan to go there soon.”
“You should. And you ought to reconsider coming with me tonight. I could tell them I won’t attend if you’re not allowed in.”
“I think it would be better for me to stay away. I created a little bit of a scandal–and you know he will be the head of the church some day.”
“If he outlives his mom–I still think you should come with me.”
“I’ve had enough of scandal, Sossity. And I’m sure the Prince of Wales doesn’t want ‘Naughty Nun Heather Alabaster’ crashing his reception.”
“As if the royals act like saints,” Sossity commented dryly.
“I want you to have a good time,” Heather insisted. “Promise me you’ll go and promise you won’t bring my name up at all. I’ll come with you but I’ll stay down here.”
“With all the other servants?’
“Something like that.”
“All right,” Sossity grumbled. “Because you’re my friend–but for that reason and that reason alone.”
They talked on, finished their meal, and went into the manor house.
Like many English aristocratic households Sossity had visited, this one was filled with painting and sculpture. Portraits of oddly dressed Elizabethan earls and ladies gazed benevolently down from gilt frames on walls in elaborately furnished rooms. She saw paintings by Reynolds, Congreve, VanDyke, and Sergent. One name she did not recognize was that of Jemima Martindale.
“Never heard of her,” she commented to Heather, though she noticed four portraits by her–as good, she thought, as the ones by Reynolds and Gainsborough. “I haven’t heard of her either,” Heather replied. “She’s quite an artist, though. Of course, back then women who wrote or painted were considered scandalous. Being an artist was not something a woman could do with propriety.”
Sossity gazed at one of the portraits. Her heart stirred with a mixture of fear and some sort of longing.
“Are you coming?” Heather asked.
They explored more of the manor. As they got ready to leave Sossity said she wanted to see the paintings by Jemima Martindale again.
They found them. As Sossity gazed, she felt the sensation once more. She stared for some moments at the portrait. Heather touched her arm.
“Are you all right?”
The sound of Heather’s voice brought her back. She smiled.
“Sorry. Sometimes art just hypnotizes me.”
“That’s okay. It’s wonderful to see someone who appreciates good art.”
But Sossity knew it was something more.
That night she put on a new outfit. She had hired someone to do her hair, nails and make-up. Her driver brought Heather by at seven-thirty. They arrived at the estate and went through an elaborate security check. Heather remained in the restaurant adjacent to the manor, the place they had taken tea together earlier in the day (it had been set aside as an area for valets and drivers). Sossity was escorted up to where the reception was being held.
She found the royals charming, though a bit distant–she knew this kind of detachment was expected of the top family in England’s aristocratic heap, but as an egalitarian American it rankled her.
A meal was included. She felt surprised and flattered that the steward seated her next to one of the younger generation in the royal line. He immediately engaged her in a conversation about her music and introduced her to the others seated around them.
The night went better than she had thought it would. After the meal, she walked about to mingle with the crowd and chat. The wine was the best she had ever tasted and two or three people she knew from the music world were there. Her table-mate, the scion of the family, introduced her to his father and his father’s wife; she found them more amicable after everyone had drunk a good quantity of wine.
But as she walked around she began to feel the sensation she had felt earlier in the day. It persisted as if to summon her. As she passed a door, the feeling came so strongly she turned and walked away from the light, noise, and color of the reception into a dark, quiet corridor.
Sossity walked, not certain where she was going. She could hardly see in the dark but sensed guidance. She came to a room with high windows. Moonlight filtered in and illuminated the area enough that she could see the portraits that had cast a spell over her that same day.
She stared up at them, once more held by their power. She heard a rustle of cloth, turned, and saw a woman standing a foot or two away from her. She wore a linen smock and looked pale and emaciated. Her reddish hair fell over her shoulder in long strands. Her fingers were stained–it did not look like blood. Sossity could see the outline of the wall behind her through her semi-transparent body.
“Who are you?” she asked, stepping back, fear creeping into her heart.
“Please don’t be afraid of me,” she whispered.
“Who are you?” she repeated, too frightened to say more.
“I am Jemima Martindale.”
A wave of fear rose up, but seemed to break apart and dissolve as it descended. The woman did not look threatening. And Sossity had encountered the supernatural enough in the past to know that caution rather than fear was the best reaction.
“You’re a ghost,” she said, half a question, half an observation.
“I suppose I am. Are you afraid of me?”
“No. I’ve . . . encountered ghosts before.”
“I won’t harm you. I’ve never harmed anyone or frightened anyone–at least not intentionally.”
“You don’t seem to be a malicious spirit.”
“Malicious–no–I’m not malicious in any way.”
“Please believe me: I bear you no ill will.”
“Why are you a ghost?”
The woman sighed. Sossity discerned that the splotches on her long fingers were paint stains.
“I have no one to blame but myself. I took my own life. I hanged myself”–she pointed–“from the lintel of that door about this time of night. That was almost two-hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Why did you do that?”
“It’s a long and complicated story.”
“I wish I had the time to listen, but the Prince is in the next room. I will be missed.”
“Yes, I know. Your duty is to him.”
“But I want to hear your story, Jemima.”
“There is a painting of mine in the gallery on Addington Street.”
“The Tate–yes, I know it.”
“If you come there I will speak with you again. I am only able to appear and speak near my paintings.”
“I can be there in two days.”
“I’ll know when you are there.”
The specter of Jemima Martindale vanished. Sossity stood in the silent, moonlit room where, now she knew, a suicide had occurred. After a long moment, she rejoined the party. No one seemed to have noticed she had been gone.
The next morning the band practiced. That night they played to a sold-out crowd at the Royal Albert Hall. Sossity spent the next day doing photo shoots and interviews. She listened to her chief accountant read a financial report on Sossity Chandler Productions, UK, had supper with Sarah, Sally and Guma, and then told Tonya she was going to the visit the Tate.
“Alone?” Tonya responded.
“Tonya, I’m a big girl. I can go places by myself.”
“You need Jason or someone with you. You could be mobbed or some deranged fan could come after you.”
“Not in an art gallery, for Christ’s sake. Mark will drop me off. I’ll call you when I’m finished.”
“Remember what happened to John Lennon? And Selene?”
“You’re too morbid.”
“I have a right to be,” Tonya replied. “It’s really spooky when you do things like this.”
“It’s spookier than you’ll ever realize,” Sossity replied.
She had the driver drop her off. She did not feel like donning a disguise. If people recognized her she would make the best of it. No one seemed to notice, though; or, at best, a few people did double-takes when she walked by. She found a brochure, walked toward the portrait room, and found the painting Jemima had mentioned.
She had not said it was a self-portrait.
Jemima Martindale certainly was a good painter. The portrait of her was not stylized; it was a near photographic reproduction. Her hair was piled up in the elaborate bouffant style popular back then. She wore a dress that showed the top half of her breasts and left her neck and shoulders bare. At the sight of her long, white neck Sossity shuddered, imaging her looping a noose around it then spending the last agonized moments of her life flailing and choking in a dark room, so tormented she could not endure to live.
As she gazed the familiar feeling seized her. She followed it to a small out-of-the-way gallery that contained mainly landscapes. After a moment Jemima Martindale materialized before her.
“We’re safe here. Hardly anyone comes to this particular chamber. That landscape is mine.”
Sossity turned her eyes on a small, nicely-done painting of a valley at dusk. She noted Jemima’s signature in one corner of it. She looked back at the ghost.
“The gallery only stays open until nine,” she said. “Please tell me what you want to tell me. I read today in a book that you died of consumption.”
The ghost smiled sadly.
“My husband’s lie—he did not want the scandal of a suicide in his family. Our physician was easily swayed by a bribe. He supplied a false report.”
“Why did you do it, Jemima? Why did you not want to live?”
“Because I was not allowed to paint.”
“When I was a girl I had a passion to paint. My parents thought it a harmless pastime that would keep me of trouble—we lived in Italy—my father was in the British diplomatic mission—so they permitted me to go ahead with it. I studied with some very good teachers.”
“I can see that. Your work is excellent.”
“Thank you. We returned to England when I was in my twenties. By that time my father was well-thought-of because of his many years of faithful diplomatic service. He stood for our district for Parliament and was elected.”
“Did he forbid you to paint?”
“No. I painted well and he felt pride over my skill. As long as I stayed unmarried and under his care it was all right for me to be a painter and I was a favorite of several noble families like the one that lived at Tarleton House. They deemed it permissible for a young girl to paint—and I suppose it would have been permissible for an old maid too—and I was well on my way to becoming one—or at least they all thought so.”
“I suppose I can tell you. I want it to be known. I lost my virginity when I was seventeen. I became lovers with an Italian boy who loved me and loved art. For me the two things—art and love—were inseparable. After we returned to England, I found other men. I had to have men to paint. I suppose that sounds perverse, but so it was.”
“I don’t think it’s perverse. Go on.”
“Somehow a local vicar heard about my amours. I didn’t know how. He told my father he should arrange for me to be married because certain ‘unseemly rumors’ had begun to circulate about me. That was the beginning of the end—the end of painting and the end of me.”
Someone entered the gallery. Jemima vanished. Sossity studied Jemima’s landscape. When the strollers left, Jemima rematerialized. Sossity glanced at the clock. The gallery would be closing in fifteen minutes.
“You need to finish quickly.”
“Yes,” she said, looking sad in the linen smock, her hair catching the bloody glare of the exit lights. “My new husband told me in no uncertain terms I was not to paint. I had three children in the next three years and was mewed up like a naughty kitten, hardly permitted to leave the house. My husband kept watch over me. As the children grew older he was satisfied that he had tamed me and broken my desire to paint. But he had broken nothing. Business called him away a great deal. I started drawing—pen and ink were all I could find. Soon I found a lover. Of course, my husband constantly played with harlots when he went into town. Everyone knew that and so did I. I began to learn to get around the strictures he had placed on me. My lover supplied me with paints and brushes and canvas. I began to once more do the thing I loved. I began to paint again.”
An announcement came over the PA that the gallery would close in ten minutes.
“I will hasten my tale. My husband found out about my lover and killed him in a duel. I had my paintings and sketches and my journals. I managed to send some of my works whilst the duel was being investigated and my husband was in custody. Finally he was exonerated of wrong-doing. I took my own life the night before he returned.”
She fell silent. Sossity glanced at the people moving toward the rotunda. By the time she turned again Jemima had vanished.
A guard came up to her and told her the museum was closed. Sossity nodded, took one last look around, and walked out of the colonnaded room. She got out her cell and told Tonya she would be returning to the hotel. No one at the gallery, she added, had recognized her.
Sossity received no further visitations from the ghost of Jemima Martindale. She and her band toured and, in off times, she tried to find information on the woman whose spirit she had encountered. No one had written a book on her. She found one or two articles on her paintings, but these were highly technical studies that gave no information on her life. Wikipedia only had a stub on her. But she did find out that a painting by her hung in a tiny gallery in Saint Ives.
She asked her boyfriend, Diggory Marks, to go along with her.
“Are we going to meet the man with seven wives?” he asked.
“Yes, and we’re going to pet all the 2,401 cats.”
Diggory took a vacation week from his investment firm. The two of them flew over to Heathrow and rented a private plane that landed them at the airport near Land’s End and finally hired a car to take them into Saint Ives.
They came into the seacoast town on a bright day. Diggory remarked on the flowers everywhere, the palm trees, the rocky cliffs and curve of the bay.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Sossity said. “I came here with Heather back in my poverty days—just after you and I split up back in Lafayette.”
She and Diggory had dated years earlier and only recently resumed their relationship. They checked into a hotel, had lunch, walked around the beach and found the local gallery where the painting hung.
The docent, a young, blonde, healthy-looking girl, immediately recognized Sossity. Sossity gave the girl an autographed CD and asked if she would show her around. Elated, she gave the tour. The gallery contained only seventeen paintings—mostly by obscure artists, though they did have a treasure by Berthe Morisot.
“Do they pay you much for doing this job?” Sossity asked.
“They don’t pay me at all. I’m a volunteer. I love art, but for some reason I just like being here and working here. The gallery is going to close, though, in a few months. Most of the paintings have been sold.”
“You have a painting here by Jemima Martindale—is that correct?”
“We have her painting Andromeda.” Then she smiled. “I’m surprised you’ve even heard of Jemima Martindale.”
“I saw some of her art at the Tate and at Tarleton Manor in London.”
“She’s my favorite painter. I like her better than Monet or Van Gogh—or anyone else for that matter.”
“I’d like to buy her painting.”
“I’m afraid it’s sold already.”
“The one by Jemima Martindale has been sold?”
“Yes.” The girl pointed. “This is it.”
Sossity saw before her a large painting in an ornate frame: a nude woman chained to a rock. She racked her brain for the Greek myth then remembered Andromeda. In this painting, Andromeda had not been freed by Perseus but awaited the approach of the sea monster that would devour her. In her anguished eyes and the dread of her expression Sossity recognized Jemima.
“This was the last picture she did before she died of consumption in 1775.” The girl recited this from a script she had no doubt memorized for tours. “The painting was anonymously sold to a local family who kept it in a private collection until 1963, then it was donated to the gallery. Experts have identified it as a genuine work of the female painter Jemima Martindale. Miss Martindale’s nude is very explicit for its day.”
Sossity gazed at the picture. Andromeda held up her chained wrists in appeal. This dramatic gestured accentuated the anguish of the figure but also made it so she was not, as the social mores of the time demanded, covering her body. Sossity and Diggory stood there, held by the painting’s power. Sossity turned to the girl, who had stood beside them the entire time.
“You say this painting has been sold?”
“It has, ma’am.”
“Damn,” she muttered. “I’ve been looking for it for months and now it slips through my fingers.” She turned to the girl. “Who’s selling it?”
“The gallery is run by a board, and they’ve sold the paintings. The board members live all over England. The gallery will close in six months and the paintings will be shipped after that.”
Sossity turned to Diggory.
“Can you leave us alone for a little while, Dig?”
He stepped over to another part of the gallery. She moved closer to the girl and lowered her voice.
“What’s your name?”
“Rosie, Miss Chandler.”
“Please, call me Sossity. Rosie, can I ask you a favor?”
“What might that be, ma’am?”
“Can you let me in the gallery tonight? I know that’s against the rules, but I need to find something out. I’ll pay you some money. And this will stay between you and me.”
“I don’t know, ma’am. It is against the rules. If we get caught I’ll be in a lot of trouble.”
“Whatever trouble you get in I’ll make it worth the risk. I’ll give you enough money to pay for college, to do whatever you want to do, go wherever you want to go. I don’t want to sound like this is a sleazy bribe, Rosie. It’s something very important to me. I’m not going to steal the painting or anything like that. But I do need to come here tonight after dark—after the sun is down.”
“I can let you in and I can disable the alarm system.”
“I’ll only need a little while. I’ll bring the money with me. It will be a lot of money. If we’re discovered, I’ll take the consequences upon myself and make certain nothing bad happens to you.”
“Okay, Miss Chandler. I’ll let you in—say at eleven? It’s dark by then. But—”
“Like I said, Rosie, I won’t let anything bad happen to you if we’re caught.”
“Yes, ma’am. But there’s something else and I don’t know how to say it. You’ll think I’m daft.”
“Well#0133; there’s#0133; a ghost. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s true, ma’am. I’ve seen her. So have a lot of people. And I’ve heard her crying once or twice when I came here at night because I’d left something at the desk. I know you think this is silly country superstition, but it isn’t.”
“I don’t doubt you, Rosie. I’ve seen a ghost or two in my time, and I’m not being sarcastic when I say that. Thanks for your concern, but just let me in. If I see the ghost I’ll deal with her. You just be here tonight—eleven on the nose.”
Telling Diggory she was going to meet someone from the board who planned to leave in the morning, Sossity tucked a cloth carrying bag under her arm and made her way through the streets of Saint Ives. Taking a narrow, uphill alley, she came to the gallery. She saw Rosie, in a white dress, her garment and blonde hair looking pale in the moonlight by the dark gardens and shadows of walls and buildings.
“I’ve disabled the alarm system,” she said. “Go on inside, Sossity. I’ll wait out here. Be careful, ma’am. The ghost has never harmed anyone but with beasties you never know.”
Sossity smiled. “Wait here. I shouldn’t be long.”
She went inside. Enough light filtered in that she could see. She walked to where the painting of Andromeda hung; she stood and waited.
After a few minutes she whispered.
“Jemima.” After she called a third time the gallery filled with pale light and the specter appeared, transparent, casting a soft glow.
“I’m sorry it took me so long to get here. I was in London and didn’t know you would be here.”
Sossity gestured at the painting. “This is one of the finest paintings I’ve ever seen, Jemima.”
She glanced at it.
“Finishing it was the last task I did on earth—the last lawful task, at least. Her anguish was my anguish.”
“I can see that.”
“Behind it—hidden between the wood backing the canvas and the boards on the back of the frame—are my drawings. And my journals, which tell the story I have told you. And the note I left before I took my life. I hid them, knowing my husband would destroy them should he have discovered them. I left them”—she hesitated then went on—”I left them with my son—a son I had out of the bonds of wedlock. No one knows of him but everyone shall know when my story is read.”
“Will you tell me about your son?”
“He was a child of a lover. When I knew I was with child I told father I was coming here to paint the sea. I stayed with an aunt who was old and all but blind. The servants were sympathetic and concealed my condition, found a midwife for me, and helped me with the child in the earliest days. I left him with a family here and sent money to support him. We saw each other when we could. He became a painter as well. His story will be known when mine is. Take the painting down.”
The frame was heavy. Sossity used all her strength to take it off the mounting.
“Now pull off the third board from the right.”
Sossity pulled. The plank broke loose, scattering dust that made her sneeze. She reached in and took a sheaf of papers wrapped in oil-cloth, tied with ribbons, and two long, thin calf-skin bound journals. She replaced the board and re-hung the painting. She turned to Jemima.
“Now I am able to go,” Jemima said.
“Where will you go, Jemima?”
“To my rest. I was told that to slay one’s self damned one irreparably to hell. I know now that cannot be. God does not reward injustice. It was for injustice that I died. Now my story will be told and justice done.”
“I give you my solemn promise I’ll have the contents of your journals published. And I’ll have your drawings displayed as well.”
For the first time since Sossity had seen her—and probably for the first time since the American Revolutionary War—Jemima Martindale smiled.
“Thank you so much, Sossity Chandler.”
A thought crossed Sossity’s mind.
“Will Rosie let me take these things out? Aren’t they the property of the gallery?”
“She will let you take them. She’s a relative of mine.”
“Does she know that?”
“No. She is descended from my son. Her line is lost in the onrush of the years. But his blood flows in her veins and so I have some influence with her. She’ll let you take those things out. Then I will go.”
“You deserve your rest.”
“One more task is yet to be done before that.”
Sossity opened her mouth to ask what the task was but Jemima vanished from sight.
She found her way to the door and stepped out into the cool night air. Rosie was waiting there. Sossity thanked her and gave her an envelope containing #50,000. She walked back and joined Diggory in the bar of the hotel.
That night, after Diggory fell asleep, Sossity slipped on a nightgown and walked out on the balcony of their hotel room. She put her hands on the rail and looked out over the bay.
Stars gleamed above the waters. She could see the Church of Saint Nicholas and the sea beyond. She smiled. The last task, she assumed, had been to influence Rosie. Now Jemima could go to her rest. Sossity shivered but felt the exhilaration as the cool wind blew through the material of her cotton nightgown. She could not get the painting, but that could hardly matter now. A captive soul was free. The truth about the life of a woman who suffered in an era when women were not allowed to be a part of artistic or intellectual endeavor and were restricted to small circles would be made known. She smiled. It would be fun to spend a few days with Diggory. So much had changed since the long weekend she and Heather had spent here so many years ago. She enjoyed the chill sensation, turned, closed the doors, and sought the warmth of bed and of her lover, the man who had also come, a revenant, to grace her life after she had lost him years and years past.
The third day there Sossity received a note that a museum official wanted to speak with her. Fearful her well-executed, supernaturally facilitated scheme had been undone, she called the number. Her fears quickly melted when the man representing the gallery asked her if she still was interested in purchasing the painting “Andromeda” by Jemima Martindale.
“I understood it was already sold.”
“It was, ma’am, but our buyer rescinded the offer.” She heard a dry English chuckle on the other end. “Seems he was haunted, he said, by a specter who indicated to him he would be tormented with her presence forever if he took the painting out of England. Funny to think a German—one of those people who pride themselves on the ability to think rationally—would succumb to such old-fashioned superstition; funny to think that anyone these days really believes in ghosts.”
“Yes. It is ironic, isn’t it?”
“Are you still interested in purchasing it, madam?”
“I will triple whatever price he offered.”
“Well of course, Miss Chandler,” the board member said, elated, “and that is very generous of you.”
“It’s such a marvelous work. I’ll be honored to be its owner and caretaker.”
She said she would come by for it that afternoon. She smiled as she hung up the phone. Obviously she had been wrong about the task that remained for Jemima Martindale.
When the journals and drawings of Jemima Martindale were published it caused a sensation in the art world. Not wanting the publicity to fall on her, Sossity made arrangements with a scholar she knew and the materials were all published in the scholar’s name. Jemima Martindale began to be studied. The circumstances of her death prompted an English art historian to sleuth about until he found the diaries of her family physician; one of the diaries included an account of Jemima’s suicide and confessed his role in covering it up in return for a large bribe from her husband. The uncovering of these facts spurred even more interest in her life and her art. Sossity established a chair for the study of Jemima’s work at a major university and funded a foundation that would promote research on women artists in general and of Jemima Martindale in particular. Some months afterward she received a letter from Rosie thanking her for the money and informing her that she had traveled to Florence to study painting. She remarked that a love of art seemed to be “in her blood.”
Sossity kept the painting in a private room at her house—a secure area that housed art she had collected over the years. When she stood before the painting, she sometimes wondered if she would once more feel the sensation of kinship and of summons she had felt at Tarleton Manor, at the Tate and at the tiny gallery in Saint Ives. She did not. She should not, she realized, since Jemima had gone on to whatever it was that lay on the other side.
Whatever it was, she thought, that awaited us all.
david w. landrum teaches Literature at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. His fiction has appeared in many online and print magazines, including Amarillo Bay, Aethelon, Sinister Tales and Dark Distortions. He edits the online poetry journal Lucid Rhythms: www.lucidrhythms.com.