A painter’s demise

The scene is at Mildred “Millie” Browning’s estate in the years of the roaring twenties. It is late at night, and by now most of the guests have decided to head home for the night and the children tucked away in bed, but there are still a few gathered around the table for cards and conversation – the latter currently being that of the paranormal.

Mr. Barry Clarke, former worker at one of the many art museums in the city, clears his throat. “I know a story or two that you might find interesting, regardless of whether you believe in the uncanny.”

Millie takes a sip from her glass of champagne, smudging the rim red with her lipstick. “I might be interested.”

“It’s a story I’ve heard at the museum I worked at. One of the lesser known ones, but still one that might pique your curiosity.”

Rosie takes a drag from her cigarette. “I’ve heard a thing or two about that place – supposedly haunted, or something along those lines. Nothing too specific, though.”

“Yes, I’ve heard things about that place, but it was all secondhand and far, far too vague.” Millie leans in. “I’d be interested in hearing one of your stories firsthand, Barry.”

He clears his throat and removes his spectacles. “Yes, there are quite a few stories about the museum being haunted, and yes, some of them I’ve had witness to. One such story is about how one of the paintings came to stand in our museum, and our story goes far back to England, in a town called Brighton, when Queen Victoria still reigned…”


“When Queen Victoria still reigned, there lived a rather famous painter on the coast. His name was Robert Corbyn, and he had renown for good reason – in fact, some of his paintings still occupy the very gallery I worked at. He received quite a bit of praise for his work – the vivid colors, the intense attention to detail, the use of chiaroscuro… some people swore that it felt almost as if the people in his portraits or scenes would peel off the canvas and come to life.

The protagonist of our story is his daughter, Violet Corbyn. She aspired to become as talented of a painter as her father, and spent much of her childhood learning from him. There was, however, a secret she knew that no one else did. The secret was that her father’s paintings did indeed come to life.

As a child, she befriended the paintings that occupied the family estate. She’d have long conversations with them when her father or the servants were too busy, and often hid inside of the paintings when she played hide-and-seek. She, too, hoped that one day she’d be able to paint her own friends.

With his status, it was only natural that her father would host lavish gatherings at the mansion. And when she was still a little girl, Violet would be allowed to sneak off and talk with her painted friends, but as she grew a bit older her father encouraged her to stay at said gatherings for a bit longer. Violet, however, would have still preferred to sneak off, since every time one of the many unfamiliar faces swam up to greet her she’d end up choking out a jumbled string of words, repeating the phrases “Pleasure to meet you” and “Thank you” over and over again until said strange tired of her company and left. Old women she’d never seen She tended to stay on the sidelines at these gatherings.

Until she met Jacob.

She met Jacob one evening when he stopped by, and preparing for herself to choke out the same responses over and over again, she braced herself. Jacob, however, confessed that he’d snuck off as well because he too would have preferred to drift away at such gatherings.

“It’s quite strange, though, because I’ve done work as an actor,” he said. “I can perform on the stage in front of hordes of people, but talking with them as opposed to talking at them? …Not the easiest task.”

“Really? What plays were you in?” Violet asked. She herself had read the works of Shakespeare in her father’s library, and had even gone to see a play or two.

“Ah, I’ve done a few performances in the works of Shakespeare,” he confessed. “Richard III and Macbeth are the ones I remember.”

Finally able to articulate a bit better, this sparked a long conversation between the two about Shakespeare’s works, how differently the performers portrayed their characters, and how on earth Richard III could be considered a tragedy with the fact that the villain dies at the end.

Both went onto the ballroom floor to try dancing at a point in the evening, but their feeble attempts caused them to both burst out laughing. By the end of the night, they had taken quite a liking to each other, and Jacob promised that he would see Violet again.

He adhered to his promise, showing up at party after party to meet with Violet again. Soon, friendship turned to feelings, and feelings turned to marriage. At the time, Violet was twenty-one when her friend-turned-love Jacob requested her hand. To no one’s surprise – not to her father or even the paintings, as she’d been rambling to them both about Jacob – she accepted. The two were wed, exchanging their vows of staying with each other during sickness and in health. At his wife’s behest, Jacob moved into the mansion to stay with her and her father.

“I’m quite happy for the two, but nothing aside from the fact that the paintings are sentient really stands out,” Millie comments.

“You’ll see,” Barry says. “I’m about to get there.”

Jacob, however, did not get along very well with the lady’s father. Indeed, the two often found themselves getting into fights, yelling and shouting at each other over things that some might consider arbitrary. As much as Violet tried to talk to her husband and father in private about these things, it was all to no avail – as kind as each treated her, Jacob and Robert simply couldn’t stand each other.

So it was during arguments like these that Violet found herself seeking the company of her painted friends once more, climbing into the frames of a lady’s portrait or of a seaside scene until the bickering ceased.

It was on one such night that Violet hid within the sugar-pink hues of a tea party painting, drinking tea and chatting with old friends until she heard footsteps approaching. Excusing herself, Violet crawled out of the frame to greet her father.

“Violet-” he began.

“-I know. I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “I… I just wish things would get better. I know that things are difficult for both you and Jacob, and… I love you both very much. I don’t know what to do.”

“You’re doing all you can,” her father reassured her. “There are certain differences Jacob and I have, but I promise your words are helping us. It’s simply taking a while.”

Hesitant, Violet nodded. “I can see that. Yet if there’s anything you need from me, let me know.”

“I will. Good night.”

That would be the last time she saw her father.

Or rather, that was the last time she saw him alive. She saw him soon after when she was awoken to a loud scream from his room the next morning, when she woke with a start and ran into his room to find him with a slit throat.

Things went by quickly from there. One of the maids was the one found guilty, and it was concluded by the authorities that it was she who had stood over Robert Corbyn and plunged the knife into his throat while he had slept. She was taken away, Corbyn given a funeral, and Violet and her beloved would go on as much as they could without his presence.

Except Violet could not.

Something seemed off to her – perhaps it was about how quickly the maid had been found so guilty, or how Jacob had seemed so strangely… detached at the funeral and when he had found out her father was gone.

She found herself pacing back and forth in her father’s room, the room where they had found him. There was just something that didn’t add up, a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit. Perhaps, if she had the energy to, she would weep. But Sso much of her energy had been spent on the planning of the funeral and of telling her story at the inquest that she couldn’t.

“It wasn’t the maid that killed him.” Violet turned to face the portrait of the sailor returning home on her left. He shifted.

“What do you mean?”

“It wasn’t the maid. It was Jacob.”

“What do you mean?”

“I saw him enter, and I tried to warn Robert, but he was too deep in sleep to hear me. And I couldn’t make a sound with Jacob in the room, otherwise he would have found out we existed. I wanted to tell you, but there were too many people at once and you were out of the house too often since the funeral.” The sailor leaned in as close as he could through the canvas. “The other paintings down the hallway can tell you, too.”

But Violet had heard all she needed to hear. She knew she could trust her painted friends.

Try as she might, there was no way to go about the rest of her day “normally”. Her hands clenched around her fork during breakfast, she couldn’t focus at all in her studies, and went about most of the day shying from the company of her husband. For the first time, she lied to him, telling him that she was busy that day, but to herself Violet wondered if he could see through her facade.

It wasn’t as if there was much she could do. Who would believe her? She only had the words of the paintings, and she couldn’t just tell the family secret to anyone. And considering her position as a young, married woman at the time, she doubted that even if she had valid proof that anyone would even consider her to be telling the truth. There was a decision to be made, but Violet didn’t know what decision to make.

Her choice became apparent that night.

She sat alone in her room working on yet another painting of hers. Splotches of green and white smudged her hands, stained her nightgown and paintbrush, yet she continued. She didn’t know what would await her when she fell asleep, and didn’t want to find out. So she worked, painstakingly, losing track of time and place with only the light of a candle to guide her.

So engrossed in her still unfinished piece was Violet that she almost didn’t see the figure standing in the doorway.

She stood abruptly, turning to face her husband. “It’s quite late, dear,” Violet said. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“Shouldn’t you?” His words were painfully slow and quiet. “Yet you still continue to work on your painting. You’ve been contradicting yourself throughout this whole day, Violet – telling me there’s work for you to when you have next to none, saying nothing’s wrong when you wear a frown on your face… lying to me when you say you don’t know anything.”

“Well then, if it’s the truth you want, I’ll tell you the truth, Jacob.” Her grip tightened on her paintbrush. “I know what you did. I may not know why, but I know you killed my father. And if you’re worried, it’s not as if I can tell anyone – who’d believe me, of all people, with nothing to prove it?”

“Perhaps you can’t tell anyone. But then again, there’s the chance that you could, and I can’t have that.”

He smiled. And brought out the knife from behind his back.

The metal tore through the sleeve of Violet’s nightgown as she dodged him, barely scratching the surface of her skin. For a moment, Violet was left clutching the cut on her arm before Jacob grabbed her by the collar, bashing her against the wall and sending her brushes and paint tubes clattering to the ground. Scratching and trying to wrench herself free from her grip, Violet fumbled across the floor. Then her hands grasped cold metal – a pair of scissors.

Once more Jacob raised the knife above his head, but was met with Violet slamming the blades of her scissors into his throat.

He fell backwards, spewing up hot blood from his mouth as she pulled out the scissors and brought them down again.

For a moment, Violet was left staring down at what had once been her husband, his throat cut to ribbons. Thoughts of what might happen flashed through her mind – the maids stumbling across his body the next morning, her being found as the culprit, sent to jail for her crime in spite of the fact that he tried to strike her first.

She looked to the unfinished painting, then to the body of her husband, and back to the painting.

She knew what to do.

“No one knew what had become of Miss Violet Corbyn until the next morning,” Barry says. “They found her note the next morning in her room. The note recalls how the death of her father devastated both her and her husband both, so they formed a pact to take their own lives by the sea, and that as her last will and testament she wanted her and her father’s paintings to be donated to the museums across the country for the world to see. In her room there were two paintings – one unfinished piece of what looked to be a messy rendering of her husband. The other a completed, breathtakingly realistic portrait of Violet herself, clad in purple and clutching a book to her chest. They never found the body, but to this day everyone remembers the poor Miss Corbyn and how devastated she must have been after the death of someone so dear to her.”

There is a moment of silent, and then polite applause.

“That’s all well and good, Mr. Barry, an excellent story,” Millie comments, “…But how’ll we know if it’s true or not – if it is even true in the first place?”

He smiles thinly back at his hostess. “Are you forgetting the job I had before retirement, Millie? I worked at the museum, the museum with several pieces by Corbyn.”