November, 1853. Inspector Field has summoned his friends Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins to examine a body found in an attic studio, its throat cut. Around the body lie the lacerated fragments of canvas of a painting titled A Winter of Despair.
On closer examination, Wilkie realizes he recognizes the victim, for he had been due to dine with him that very evening. The dead man is Edwin Milton-Hayes, one of Wilkie's brother Charley's artist friends. But what is the significance of the strange series of faceless paintings Milton-Hayes had been worked on when he died? And why is Charley acting so strangely?
With his own brother under suspicion of murder, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens set out to uncover the truth. What secrets lie among the close-knit group of Pre-Raphaelite painters who were the dead man's friends? And who is the killer in their midst?
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Wilkie Collins, Hide and Seek, 1854:
'The morning had been fine for November; but before midday the clouds had gathered, the rain had begun, and the fogs of the season had closed dingily over the wet streets, far and near. The garden in the middle of the Square – with its close-cut turf, its vacant beds, its rustic seats, its withered young trees, seemed to be absolutely rotting away in yellow mist and softly-steady rain, and was deserted even by the cats. The grim brown hue of the brick houses looked more dirtily desolate than ever; the smoke from the chimney-pots was lost mysteriously in deepening fog; the muddy gutters gurgled; the heavy rain-drops dripped into empty areas audibly.'
A miserable winter! It had started badly. Nothing going right for me. Hated London and longed to be back in Italy. Not to be a painter; I didn't want to paint. I just wanted to be out of the fogs of London and in the sun. My father had made a good living as an artist, but I knew that I was never going to be a painter, never anything but barely competent. My young brother Charley and his artist friends, Millais, Holman Hunt and Gabriel Rossetti were all so much better than I. No, I longed to be a famous writer like my new friend, Charles Dickens. I envied him. To have the world waiting with bated breath for my next novel; not to have to tout it from publisher to publisher, just like a jobbing salesman. And so I spent as much time as I could with him, tried to learn his secrets, to listen to his advice and even, though I was not an active man, to be his companion on those long walks of his. But I had this uneasy feeling, deep down, that the book I was writing now, Hide and Seek, was never going to be as good as my first book, Basil. Somehow, somewhere, I had lost that drive, lost that sense of urgency.
And so on that miserable day in November Dickens and I trudged along: hat brims pulled well over eyes; heads lowered; mouths and noses swathed in protective scarves; blind and deaf to the world about us; I, thinking of the book that I was writing about a painter; he, probably, thinking of his new book, Hard Times, both thinking so hard, wrapped up so well that it was a few seconds before I realized that someone, somewhere high above us, was calling my name.
'Mr Collins!' The fog muffled the sound; it took me moments to locate the window on the top storey where a man's head protruded below the dripping roof. The next sentences were muffled in the fog; 'painting, portrait, painters' were the only words to float down to my ears. The head disappeared; reappeared minutes later on the doorstep. It was Inspector Field of the Detective Force.
'You're just the man that I need, Mr Collins. Come and look at this. You, too, Mr Dickens.'
A shiny round rosewood table in the hall, thick, heavy carpet of red and green on the stairs, walls patterned with birds, trelliswork and flowers – a typical rented house in this part of London, but not so typical, as the top room in the house had been turned into a studio. We followed the inspector into the large room. A painting-stand with quantities of shallow little drawers, some too full to shut; a small square table of new deal, and a large round table of dilapidated rosewood, both laden with sketchbooks, portfolios, dog-eared sheets of drawing paper. And, at the back of the room, a movable platform to put sitters on, a platform covered with red cloth. Our eyes went to it immediately. Went to it with a gasp of horror! Slumped across that platform, like a sack of clothing, the body of a man lay.
A dead man; a horribly-reddened shirt-front, throat lacerated, face hidden, head twisted as though he had sought to avoid that last deadly stroke, two livid and bloody hands and on the floor beside him an ornate, gilded frame, the picture within it slashed and scarred as though it, too, had been whipped by a knife, pieces of canvas strewn on the platform and around the floor.
There was something so artificial, so like the setting of a scene to be painted that neither Dickens nor I said anything. Just stood. Stood and stared.
'Who found him?' asked Dickens.
'The housemaid. She works here from ten o'clock in the morning until one o'clock midday. She came in and saw that there was no milk. Went out, purchased the milk and then came back about fifteen minutes later,' explained Inspector Field. 'When she came back the door was ajar, though she is sure that she had closed it behind her. She heard something. From the studio up here. She must have disturbed the intruder. Says that she thought she heard a door closing as she pushed the door open. No sooner was she inside the hall when she heard footsteps running down the stairs from the top of the house. Says that he must have slipped into a bedroom on the second floor and waited while she went up to the top floor to see if her master wanted her.' Inspector Field rapped out his comments in a staccato fashion while looking hopefully from one of us to the other. Impatiently he kicked at a fragment on the floor.
'Don't!' I said mechanically. I had grown up in a household where the smell of oil paint was a feature of my whole childhood, where my father's work and the pictures that he painted were sacred to my infant consciousness. Not a mote of dust, not a ray of sunshine was allowed to fall upon his works of art and they were draped and sheltered like holy icons until the day came for them to be varnished and then taken carefully to the salesrooms or the art galleries. Now I knelt down on the ground and peered at the fragment. It was a title, engraved upon one of those stylized scrolls which some artists used when the title was of significance to the work of art. I picked it up and rubbed the blood from it with my pocket handkerchief.
Winter of Despair, it read and I placed it upon the table. Belonged to the mutilated picture, no doubt.
'See what you can make of the rest of it, Mr Collins,' said the inspector encouragingly and so I cleared a space on the table and began to pick up the lacerated fragments of canvas, laying them out on the deal surface and trying to match colours. The paint had flaked under the violence of the knife strokes and I despaired of making sense out of the ruined picture. My eyes kept going back to the body slumped on the platform. I tried to avert my eyes from it and I looked around the floor for more fragments of the picture, but could see nothing that would make the words appropriate. And I listened in a daze to Dickens who was asking the name of the man and what had happened.
'I'm hoping that you can help me with this, Mr Collins.' For once Inspector Field's attention was not focussed on my famous friend. I was the man that he wanted. 'You know all about artists, don't you, Mr Collins?' His voice was firm and his eyes alert. 'Recognize this man?' He beckoned us to come around to the side of the platform and then crouched down, peering at the twisted head. We knelt beside him.
'Surely that is Mr Milton-Hayes, your principal guest for tonight's dinner.' It was Dickens who spoke. He had gone a little nearer and was leaning over the body, focussing on the face. I could say nothing. My throat had swelled and my eyes ached with the horror. I took off my glasses, wiped them and put them back on again.
'Yes, that's the man,' I said and heard the unsteadiness of my voice as though it were the voice of a stranger. 'He was due to dine with us tonight, at my mother's house, inspector. He was going to bring along a few of his latest paintings. My brother Charles, who is an artist, does this from time to time, invites one of his colleagues or friends to give a showing of paintings. Just an informal gathering of people who are interested in Pre-Raphaelite art. The main guest gives names of people that he wants invited. It's always rather jolly, people go on arguing and talking about the picture or the pictures right through dinner.' I was conscious that I was babbling and was angry with myself for introducing Charley's name. The memory of that fight, years ago, between my brother and the man now lying dead at our feet, intruded itself and I pushed it away rapidly. I was conscious, though, that Inspector Field seemed to be looking at me from under his bushy eyebrows with one of his shrewd penetrating glances.
'What do you reckon that picture is about, Wilkie?' asked Dickens. He, too, I guessed, had noticed my discomposure.
'I couldn't tell,' I said shortly.
'I was wondering why it was destroyed,' put in Inspector Field. He looked from one to the other of us.
'Anger, hatred of the dead man. Could be an annoying fellow, Milton-Hayes,' said Dickens briefly. 'Or perhaps a fury of jealousy. Anyway, these Pre-Raphaelite painters are always arguing with each other, always having fights about various matters. Who knows what drives a man a step further, drives a man to murder.'
'And this portrait?' The inspector was not interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, but in the mutilated picture lying on the floor beside the dead man. He leaned a little forward, as though to penetrate the meaning from those slashed and crushed fragments on the floor. 'What do you think it's about, Mr Collins? Strange name, isn't it? Winter of Despair. Who do you think that this is meant to be?'
'It's a picture, not a portrait. It was a picture, I mean.' I corrected my first words. 'Milton-Hayes used models, of course, but his pictures were not meant to be portraits. They represented a situation. The pictures often ended up looking quite different from the model that he used. He might alter an expression, alter a feature.'
The inspector contemplated the picture for the moment while he thought about this. 'But he would use a real person as a model,' he said eventually.
'Yes,' I said impatiently. 'He would use a model. But the face, if there was a face, has been ruined. Impossible to see what ... who ... see who it was meant to be.' I was stumbling over my words like a man who had been drinking heavily.
'Perhaps this figure at the edge is a portrait, though, is a real woman. A society woman. Here's a bit of a dress, painted with great care. Look at it, Wilkie.'
It was Dickens who spoke. He was leaning over the dead man, and had gently pulled a fragment from under him. 'Look, inspector, look this was a person. But the face is destroyed. Look how the mouth is slashed and the eyes, too. And the hair. No, it's too damaged. No one could tell who it was meant to be. Only one shoulder. A shoulder from a dress. It must be a woman's dress. It may not even be a real dress. What do you think, Wilkie? Just one that the painter imagined. These tiny rosebuds look too real to be just embroidery.'
'You're an expert, Mr Dickens.' There was a note of admiration in the police officer's voice as he studied the fragment from the violated picture and I began to pull myself together.
'Milton-Hayes was like that. They all are. My brother, Charles, could spend an hour painting one lily head. He's a genius with flowers.' I stumbled over my words. What possessed me to bring Charley's name once again into the business?
'And Milton-Hayes with women's faces.' Dickens looked grimly at the ruined painting with the heavily scored lines obliterating the features, but leaving some of the delicate skin tones. 'It had been finished, don't you think, Wilkie?'
'It was finished. And framed. Look how he has even put the title.' I contemplated the title Winter of Despair. It sent a cold shiver down my back and I tried to distract myself, picking up pieces of broken frame from the ground. Milton-Hayes always had very elaborate frames for his pictures, carved wood, painted in pale gold and with a curled scroll at the bottom where he hand-painted the title. I picked up another fragment of frame and frowned at it. 'I think that it might have been a triptych,' I said thoughtfully. 'See there are two little hinges here. Or more likely a diptych,' I added, picking up another few broken pieces of frame. I looked at the inspector's puzzled face and launched into a slightly confused explanation of how a pictorial story, a diptych, could be painted in two halves, hinged together so that the second picture finishes the story begun in the first picture, or else in three parts for a triptych. 'There should have been two titles, I would say,' I said as I found yet another piece of frame that finished off one of the lower corners of the picture. 'No sign of the second one,' I said after a minute and I went back to matching up colours and shapes. I was beginning to make sense of the picture.
'Looks like a bridge,' I said. 'And that bit here looks like faces on the bridge. The woman with the rosebud dress would be at the end of the bridge.' Now the picture was beginning to grow under my fingers and my hand was automatically picking out the correct pieces in order to complete the shapes. 'Looks as though there is a crowd on the bridge, looking down on a body floating in the river,' I said eventually. 'I can't seem to find a face for the body, though. It's just a blur in the water and the face has been cut away – perhaps cut into tiny pieces.'
'Hmm,' said Inspector Field. 'Doesn't help us much, does it? Of course if we had a face that one of you gentlemen could recognize, well then ...' He sighed heavily several times, watching me sort the pieces, matching the colours and shapes. 'It could be anybody, any man, couldn't it? Just as it could be any man who murdered this artist, any man who knew him, who had featured in this painting of his. There are no clues, so far, are they? Not even much of a clue about why the picture was destroyed.'
'Or any woman.' I spoke half to myself and half to them. 'It might have been a woman who killed him. It's impossible to say whether it's a man or a woman floating in the river, or whether it is supposed to be a murder or a suicide. He's painted the Thames as murky and judging by the bits that I've put together it's supposed to be foggy, murky weather.' I peered a little closer. 'Yes, I think that the body floating could be that of a woman. It may have been a suicide. The title Winter of Despair sounds like a suicide more than it sounds like a murder. It may be a woman with a terrible secret. And she may be the one who murdered Milton-Hayes.'
'What! A woman! A woman wouldn't have the strength for something like that, Mr Collins. Not a society lady. Nor the nerve. This Mr Milton-Hayes is a strong-looking man, young, too.' The inspector dismissed my suggestion with a short bark of laughter.
'It depends on the weapon, inspector; it could have been a canvas knife.' He laughed again and that laugh annoyed me. I knew more about artists and their equipment than either he or Dickens. After all I was the son of an artist and the brother of an artist. 'Every artist has several good sharp knives,' I told him. 'These canvases are very tough. I've done a bit of painting, and I've helped my father to prepare a canvas so I know how difficult they are to cut, but once you have the right tool, you have no problem. You need a very sharp knife and a steady hand, and then you can slice through them. And a sharp knife will cut through human flesh as easily as through canvas, inspector.'
I didn't really think that it was a woman who had killed Milton-Hayes in that brutal manner, but I resented the way Inspector Field always dismissed my suggestions as ridiculous while bowing down in admiration over anything said by my friend, the famous Mr Charles Dickens.
'Yes,' he said now, 'we've found a couple of knives, Mr Collins. Not a trace of blood on any one of them. All of them as clean as a whistle, put away in a drawer.'
'Could have been cleaned,' I said, but hopelessly, as I guessed that he might have means of examining the knives, with a very powerful magnifying glass or something like that.
He ignored me, though, going over to the window, opening it and thrusting his head out over the sill in just the same way as he had been doing when he called down to us.
'Here's the van at last,' he said after a minute. 'Now we can get rid of the body. The surgeon might have a look at him. Any notion of where his family live?' He looked at me hopefully but didn't wait for an answer before looking once more around the room. And then he cast a glance at the cluttered desk in the corner of the room. 'I've been through his papers, but nothing about a family. He didn't half make a good living, though. I've seen his bank statements from Coutts.' He left the room and then thrust his head back in again, twisting it around the door frame to make a last observation. 'Would make an honest policeman think about taking up painting. Wouldn't take long to do one of those things, I suppose, if you put your mind to it, would it?' he enquired hopefully.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Winter of Despair"
Copyright © 2019 Cora Harrison.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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