Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Shadow on the Blind ~ Mrs Alfred Baldwin

Mrs Alfred (Louisa) Baldwin (1845–1925) was one of the remarkable daughters of Reverend George Browne MacDonald, a Wesleyan Methodist Minister. Her eldest sister, Alice, was the mother of Rudyard Kipling. Another sister, Georgiana, married the artist Edward Burne-Jones, whilst her elder sister, Agnes, married another artist, Edward John Poynter, who painted the portrait of Louisa shown here. Louisa married the industrialist Alfred Baldwin, and their only son, Stanley Baldwin, went on to become the British Prime Minister. Her lifelong interest in the supernatural began when she was just a child, when she attempted to contact her sister during a séance. She began writing novels for adults and books for children during the early years of her marriage, but none of them did terribly well. Her first supernatural tale, ‘The Weird of the Walfords’, appeared in Longman’s Magazine in November 1889, and ‘The Shadow on the Blind’ was published in The Cornhill Magazine in September 1894. Mrs Baldwin published only one collection of supernatural tales, and these days she is all but forgotten.

The Shadow on the Blind and Other Ghost Stories was first published by J. M. Dent & Co. in 1895. It contains: 'The Shadow on the Blind', 'The Weird of the Walfords', 'The Un-canny Bairn', 'Many Waters Cannot Quench Love', 'How He Left the Hotel', 'The Real and the Counterfeit', 'My Next-Door Neighbour', 'The Empty Picture Frame', and 'Sir Nigel Otterburn's Case'.

In 'The Shadow on the Blind', Mr Stackpoole, a cheerful and energetic man of sixty years of age who likes to do up old houses, takes a fancy to Harbledon Hall, which has stood empty for seven years. When the old sexton tries to warn him that the previous tenants left in a hurry, 'as if they was running away from the plague', and that ghosts were at the bottom of things, Stackpoole is not put off, despite his wife experiencing a feeling of depressed foreboding. Despite hearing more tales of ghosts once he has taken on the house, he is sure that no spectres will haunt its passages, as he has installed electric lights and banished all dark corners where spooks may once have been thought to lurk. But has he?

The narrator of 'The Weird of the Walfords', Humphrey Walford of Walford Grange, destroys a much hated oak bed that has served his family as deathbed for ten generations. He is hell bent on its complete destruction, but allows his carpenter, Gillam, to salvage two or three beautifully carved panels, as long as he himself never has to set eyes on them again. Then he locks up the hated death chamber, and it remains so until a few years later, when his new wife, unaware of the room's history, insists on using it as her sitting room.

In 'The Uncanny Bairn', David Galbraith owns a farm in East Lothian and lives there with his wife and young son Alexander. When, at the age of seven, young Sandy exhibits signs of having second sight, his father is extremely concerned, as his own grandmother had it and was 'the terror of her family'.

In 'Many Waters Cannot Quench Love', it is the autumn of 1857 and John Horton, wanting a few weeks' holiday in the country, takes rooms at Maitland's Farm. He has been there a month when he is woken in the wee small hours by an unearthly sound of weeping.

Mole, the narrator of 'How He Left the Hotel' used to work the passenger lift in the Empire Hotel. Colonel Saxby, of room number 210 on the fourth floor, used to go up in the lift every day, as regular as clockwork, until he fell ill. Only then did he go down in it, and out into the midnight snow.

In 'The Real and the Counterfeit', Will Musgrave invites his two good friends, Hugh Armitage and Horace Lawley, to spend Christmas with him at Stonecroft Hall. When Musgrave announces that the place is haunted by the ghost of a Cistercian monk, but that the spectre hasn't been seen for forty years, Armitage gets it into his head to play a prank on his friends.

The narrator of 'My Next-Door Neighbour', once a wealthy man but now quite poor, falls ill and has to spend the winter months in hospital in a public ward. During the first week of the new year, a new patient arrives in the neighbouring bed, a Breton called Jean-Marie Thégonnec Pipraic, whose prognosis isn't good. As Jean-Marie's condition worsens, he has a dream about his dead fiancée, in which she tells him he has only three days left to live.

In 'The Empty Picture Frame', Miss Katherine Swinford, spinster and owner of Eastwick Court, invites her cousin, Joceline Hammersley, to stay with her. Joceline is named after her ancestor, Joceline Swinford, who pined to death when her lover Colonel Dacres died. The two women have never met before, and Miss Swinford is struck immediately by her cousin's resemblance to their dead ancestor, a portrait of whom hangs in the library. Indeed, the likeness is uncanny.

Mr Caxton, the narrator of 'Sir Nigel Otterburn's Case' is a medical student who is asked, by celebrated physician Dr Grindrod, to watch over Sir Nigel Otterburn's case. Sir Nigel has malaria, but the usual treatments fail to bring improvement, and both the patient and his daughter appear mysteriously convinced from the outset that there is no hope of recovery, and that 'they will come'.

If you like fairly gentle Victorian supernatural tales, then this collection will be just your cup of tea. I like all of the stories, but my personal favourites are 'The Empty Picture Frame' and 'The Real and the Counterfeit'. The latter, as it is set during the festive season, I intend to post here for you to read for yourself in a couple of days time. Ho ho ho!

The Shadow on the Blind is a difficult book to find, and it's almost impossible to get hold of a copy in nice condition. If you can find an attractive copy, it will set you back about £600 (approx. $900). But generally speaking, copies show up with tatty covers, and they cost around £200.

Ash-Tree Press published the collection as a limited edition hardback in 2001, and added 'The Ticking of the Clock' which was first published in Longman’s Magazine in 1894. Copies cost about £30 (around $45) at the moment, but they can be hard to find.

Wordsworth Editions published a paperback edition, The Shadow on the Blind and Other Stories, in 2007, which also contains the supernatural tales of Lettice Galbraith, and that costs a mere £2.99. And there's a Kindle version, published by Black Heath Editions, for less than a pound. I can't vouch for the content of these two, as I've not read them.

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