THE CARRIAGE STOPPED AGAIN and Julius sighed. The streets of London were simply inadequate for the amount of traffic fighting through them. This was why he hated coming, because he spent most of his time waiting to live his life. Checking his attire again, he flicked a piece of lint off his cuff.
No, enough of this, he thought and tapped the ceiling with his cane to let the driver know he was exiting. “I might walk,” he said when he stepped out of the carriage, “or I’ll be sitting here all day. Return home—if you can.”
With cane in hand, he walked, prepared to use it as a weapon in case he was accosted. People seemed to be hungrier in the city lately. The economy was bad, but the government should see to it that people ate.
Another reason he avoided London as much as he could. The teeming mass of humanity. It distressed him to see the state of it. It had no simple solution, but he did applaud the efforts made with public health and sanitation. He sat on a few of the committees, but he found the task weighty at times. When one looked closely, there were no easy answers, unfortunately.
In no way did he not realize how fortunate he was. He was a privileged man, but his station came with responsibilities that many did not understand.
The street was filthy and teeming with people. The smells were noxious. For all the work they had done to improve sanitation, it hadn’t transformed the city into a garden as some of the dreamers had hoped.
Reaching his club without incident, he made his way into the quiet and solemn sanctuary. The chaos of London fell away and was replaced with refinement, hushed voices and intelligent conversation. Compared to the outside, the atmosphere of the club was pleasant. He liked the company and the interesting information he tended to pick up. The people at the club ran this country, and if you wanted to know what was happening, or was about to happen, these were the people who could tell you.
Accepting his typical whiskey, which the bar staff knew he preferred, he took a seat by the fire. His intention was to come for lunch, but he’d arrived early to read the paper and relax.
A parliamentary committee had brought him to London, so he was here for a few days. In that time, he might visit some wine merchants, dine with friends and start the process of procuring a new set of boots for winter. Buying footwear, along with most things, was a thing best done without rush. It took time to make a good quality pair of boots.
Another reason he disliked coming to London was the scandal of his wife living with her Italian lover. The worst of it had died down now, especially from those who had realized he couldn’t be riled about it. And honestly, he didn’t truly care. His marriage had been a transaction that had suited them both, until the time that Cressida had decided she wanted a different life. At the time, he hadn’t expected it, had been more annoyed with her lack of discretion. Whether it was the lover who pushed for a more public life between them, or Cressida, Julius didn’t know. Nor did he particularly care.
Her lover was royalty and that did impress Cressida. It might be the greater portion of the man’s appeal. In the society the prince kept, they lived like man and wife, and she was even carrying his child. Legally, it was Julius’ child, as they were still married.
While Julius didn’t care about her disloyalty, he also wouldn’t release her from the marriage, because once one made a commitment, one stuck with it, and marriage was the biggest commitment of all.
So yes, she could leave the marital house, have her lover and that royal lifestyle she coveted, but she wasn’t being released from her commitment. Some things could not be put aside.
As it was, he didn’t see his marriage as a failure, like many suggested. Suffering from her absence was perfectly bearable. The marriage had produced a male child, so an heir was secured. The purpose of the marriage had been fulfilled. The transaction had been completed.
Obviously, he knew it was a clinical way of thinking about it, but it had been the purpose of the marriage all along. There had never been much affection between him and Cressida. They had both enjoyed the benefits of their merger. In the end, she’d found a superior merger, but she would simply have to put up with the fact that she was a married woman.
“Hennington, how are you?” a voice said, drawing his attention away from his paper. Joseph Straithmarsh, a man he’d known for years. They’d been to Oxford together, but had never been very close friends. Cordial was a better word for how they fared. The Straithmarshes were a powerful family, a duchy, and Joseph had always suffered with pride for it. It wasn’t something Julius begrudged him, but it did make him a little tedious on closer association. It was all fine and good to be proud of one’s background, but there came a point where the elevation of status and privilege didn’t hold up the conversation anymore. Joseph was enjoyable in small measures.
“Straithmarsh, good to see you. I hope you’re faring well.”
“As well as can be,” the man said and brought out his pipe to knock the spent tobacco into the ashtray. “The weather is deary. One does start to long for Tonleith after a long winter. The weather isn’t quite fine enough yet, but it will get there.” Tonleith was the family seat and it was a genuine castle that had been in the family from back to the Norman Invasion. They were infinitely proud of their heritage—one few could compete with.
It certainly would be unlivable in the winter, which was a detriment to the family’s long history. Denham Hall was much more comfortable, especially as it had been extended in more modern times. Not quite as refined a history, but a much more tolerable house.
“How is your sister?” Joseph asked. “I heard matrimony finally called her.”
Another thing that his family prestige didn’t get him, Octavia’s interest. There was a certain bitterness about it.
“Yes, she is happily wed. Lady Fortescue now.”
“Don’t know the man.”
Well, he wouldn’t. Finn cared about as much for refined society as Octavia did. Actually, that wasn’t true. Octavia did enjoy society somewhat, but her reasons for traversing it had changed. No longer was she interested in the unmarried men of society, and she had remained absent for a while now as she raised her young ones.
Octavia threw herself wholeheartedly into things, and for the last few years it had been her husband and children. Over time, he expected her to start noticing the outside world again.
“Will you be attending Ascot this year?” Joseph asked. The quick change in subject was intended to be dismissive of Octavia, but Joseph didn’t understand the lack of caring on both his own part, and on Octavia’s. Such moves came across as simply tedious to the uncaring.
“I had intended on it,” Julius said. “We have raised some fine horses in the last couple of seasons, so I have high expectations.”
“I’ll have to see the specimen you bring. My uncle has commissioned a portrait of our prized stallion, and I have to say it came out nicely. He keeps it in his study. We’re considering commissioning the artist for some family portraits as well. Saying that, I don’t rightly know if those gifted in painting equine subjects are as gifted with people. But it is important to have portraits. How else are our descendants going to know us? Our family portraits are very much a part of the treasures of the family.”
“I have to admit,” Julius said in absolute candor, “we don’t actually have one of my father. He wasn’t interested in portraits.” And now that he was gone, they had missed the opportunity to.
“That is a shame. To future generations, he will be invisible, I’m afraid. If you don’t have a portrait, you might as well not exist. Do you have one yourself?”
“My mother had one commissioned when I was young.” It was a nice portrait, but it was very much a child’s portrait.
“Well, don’t wait too long. You want one done when you’re young and virile, rather than some decrepit man with a wig.”
What Joseph said was eminently sensible. Obviously, he wanted a portrait that his son was proud of, and one the boy could one day tell his grandchildren about. Because as it was, his son wouldn’t have any memories of his own grandfather, and no portrait of him. “That is a good idea, now that you mention it.”
“Not all artists are good. I’ve known a few that have paid good commission and received paintings they can’t stand the sight of. It’s not an area worth scrimping on. Like I told my uncle: with portraits, it’s better to get someone very good. It is, after all, the only personal legacy one leaves. Are you dining?”
“Yes, I intended so.”
“We should dine together. How are your investments? I hear you do well.”
“TELL YOU THAT CHILDREN are utterly exhausting?” Octavia complained as she sat down. “I haven’t had a moment to think all day. Even with nursemaids, I must guide them all day long. I must decide what they eat, when they go out, what they wear. The decisions are endless. And, of course, the children wish to be with me every moment. How are you, Julius?”
His sister did look tired, but she also looked happy, despite her complaining. “As well as can be expected, I suppose. I abhor coming to London.”
“You’ve always hated London. Tea?”
Octavia poured from the dainty oriental teapot into equally dainty cups that Julius worried would break if he grabbed hold of them. Somehow, they’d manage to keep this tea set away from the children. Unlike himself, who had kept Atticus with his nursemaid for most of his life, Octavia’s household was much freer. The children had run of the house, it seemed. Although the adults were firmly locked in the salon, while the little monsters raged outside. “You do need to practice some discipline,” he finally said.
“They are five and three. Life is magical to them. What is the point of discipline now?”
“If you don’t start early, they will never have it.”
“Posh. They’re not machines set in their motion, Julius. How is your son?”
“Fine.” At least he thought so. He saw the boy typically every few days when he came to the study. The conversation wasn’t much, but the boy was six. In all honesty, Julius couldn’t really think what to do with the boy. Mostly he spent his time in the nursery or went for walks with his nursemaid. Although he supposed the boy missed his mother. “He grows.”
“I suspect he will be tall.”
Truthfully, Julius hadn’t thought about it. He was very handsome with rosy cheeks and clear blue eyes. Saying that, Julius remembered full well what terrors boys could be with lax discipline. It was a surprise both Caius and himself had survived their childhood.
On second thought, maybe he should give the boy a little more freedom, especially as he was now moving beyond his toddler years. But there was also the matter of keeping him safe. Julius certainly didn’t want his son to get up to the things he and his brother had. That would be much too risky.
“How long are you staying?”
“Just a few more days. Then I’ll return to Denham for a while. Spring is an important time. The fields must be sown.”
“Well, let’s not pretend you do any of that personally,” Octavia said tartly. “I do miss father.”
“Yes.” Their father had died peacefully in his sleep, not making a fuss, which was how he’d liked to have done it. “He was elderly.”
“Still, I just didn’t see it coming. Have you heard from Caius?” Octavia asked.
“He came by for supper the other day. I believe he and Eliza will travel to Bickerley in April, and they will spend the summer there.”
“Well, I do hope they’ll drop in.”
“I’m sure they will. You really should spend more time in London. Who do you have to talk to staying there all winter?”
“Granted, it is a little slow on riveting conversation.” And since his father’s death, there was even less of it. At times, he had considered taking himself off to London, but it had felt a little like admitting defeat. Saying that, he absolutely loved Denham and the estate around it. There was something exhilarating about going for a ride on a frosty winter’s morning. The countryside was beautiful through the cold season, but most didn’t stay to see it. “One makes do,” he said, wishing this particular topic didn’t continue.
“I hear your wife is galivanting all over Europe with her Italian prince.”
An even less desirable topic. “I wish her well.” And that was true. He had no bitter feelings about it. Perhaps a little judgmental about her character for not sticking to her bargain, but it wasn’t as if he was jealous. In all that, perhaps it said something about the state of their marriage, as it had been. Marrying for mutual benefit was more common than people admitted to. If one had requirements outside the marriage, one conducted such things with absolute discretion. One didn’t run off to take up a lover in the most public manner possible.
The rebuke was battling to get out of her lips, how she’d told him the marriage would be a disaster. While she thought so, the marriage had been a success. It had achieved everything it had intended to. The fact that it was now effectively over was happenstance. Obviously there could be no reconciliation. His standing and pride could never tolerate it. She had made her choice and she had to live with the consequences. Truly, he felt it was little of his affair now. The truth was that he had discreetly inquired about a divorce—had even instructed his solicitor to make progress. But his sister’s pressing was annoyed him deeply, so he refused to acknowledge he was doing anything at all. It would be fair to say he’d hampered the progress because of it too. It also annoyed him that Cressida tried to dictate to him to make him do what she wanted. The woman was used to getting what she wanted, and Julius was in no mood to by anyone. If that gave her sleepless nights, then it was less than she deserved.
To be fair, there had been a hope that they would fare really well together. They had many things in common—values and perceptions, but they hadn’t ever settled well together and achieved that sedate comfortableness that married couples often had together.
Thinking about it was putting him in a bad mood.
“I met Joseph Straithmarsh yesterday,” Julius said.
“Oh, that ponce,” Octavia said and sat back with her teacup. “That must have been tiring. No wonder you’re eager to leave.”
“Don’t be unkind. He sends his best regards.”
“I’m sure he does,” she said sarcastically.
“Well, he is tedious, but he had some good points. I need to have a portrait made.”
Octavia’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You wish a portrait of yourself?”
“Are you not sorry we don’t have a good portrait of Father? You children are never going to know what he looked like.”
Taking one of the ginger biscuits, Octavia considered the statement. “I suppose what you say is true.”
“And why have a portrait done when you’re old and decrepit?” He hated that he was repeating all of Joseph Straithmarsh’s points, but they were good points.
Octavia conceded. “It takes a great deal of time. Eliza had some miniatures done of her children by that artist we met once. Remember the girl from Brighton that we dragged around with us one season?”
“The one that didn’t manage to find someone to marry?” Julius replied, less than impressed.
“She did an outstanding job. Made the little monsters seem like angels. If ever there was someone to make you look handsome, it would be her.”
Julius gave her a chiding look. “I’m not looking for a miniature.”
“She has remarkable skill. The artist Eliza chooses, and she deals with artists fairly regularly. That should tell you something.”
The woman Octavia was referring to was a mere slight of a girl that Julius vaguely remembered. A charity case, if he recalled right. For some reason or another, Eliza had decided to give the girl a season. Well, it had been a waste of time and money, as no one had offered for her, in the end. Seemed she still worked as an artist.
“Well, she would have to come to Denham,” Julius said. “I’m certainly not going to Brighton.”
“I will ask Eliza to write to her and see if she’s available. If you’re going to have a portrait done, you don’t want to spend all that time and then find out that the artist wasn’t up to the job.”
Actually, now that he thought about how long it would take, he was starting to have second thoughts. Was this really something he wanted to subject himself to? Hours of sitting while someone painted him? But then he wasn’t someone who backed away from things simply because they were uncomfortable. This was his personal legacy, what he would leave behind of himself other than a well-managed estate.
“Fine,” he said. Eliza did know a great deal more about artists than he did, so if this was the one she chose to paint her children, he should trust her judgement. It wasn’t as if he had any means of making judgement on good art. It was something he barely paid attention to at the best of times.
“Now, you really must come to supper. We’ll invite Caius and have a proper family meal. Finn will be happy to see you. I have no idea why he likes you, but he does.”
From the moment they’d met, Finn and him had gotten on famously. While he would never admit it, he couldn’t imagine putting his sister in better hands, and their marriage seemed to be very successful.
THE SKY WAS BRIGHT THAT morning and the sea glistened, but it was still biting cold. The wind seemed to come from all directions, at times tugging on Jane’s hair. Brighton was trying on hair, and bonnets could at times strangle one. Luckily, Jane hadn’t worn one in years. They simply didn’t suit her, and she felt restricted and confined inside one. Better to see and feel the entirety of the world around her, even if it got her hair wet every once in a while.
Walking along the promenade, she made her way to her favorite café. It was away from the beach, but the promenade provided a good thoroughfare from her building, which was close to the beach, but on the outskirts of town, in a neighborhood that no one would describe as ‘fashionable’. The people who lived there weren’t always classified as desirables, but it had a number of artists, philosophers, thespians, and other professions whose work people wanted, but not the more bohemian lifestyle that went with it. Ideally, the world wanted her to be free in mind, but not in action, life, behavior or perspective. Someone who conformed fully, but then also produce the work she did.
There was no way to be a painter and to conform to society’s expectations. The two things simply couldn’t exist together, unless she painted landscape watercolors under the watchful eye of her husband. It had been a fate she’d considered for a moment and then chosen not to pursue. A wife could not spend a couple of months working on a painting, certainly not when that work was rarely at home. And a husband didn’t want a wife who spent endless hours in her study, covered in paint and turpentine.
“Harvey,” Jane called brightly as she walked into the café with small Parisian tables and chairs and a dusty floor. Paintings covered every inch of the walls, and it was dark and gloomy, but she loved coming here every morning for coffee and a roll. It set her up for the day. Some days, these were the only people she saw.
“I wondered what time we’d see you today. You have a letter.”
“Right,” Jane said as she sat down at her usual table. She wasn’t the only regular customer, and they had their preferred tables established between them. Taking her gloves off, she placed them on the table. Her nails had a ring of blue paint around the cuticles that had just proven too hard to budge. Luckily, she’d managed to clean the smear off her face, but it wouldn’t be the first time she’d turned up here in the morning with paint on her face. Usually, she had the wherewithal to check.
Both the letter and the cup of coffee were placed down in front of her. By the handwriting, she saw it was from Lady Warwick, her habitual employer and casual friend. They weren’t fast friends, but Eliza Hennington, Lady Warwick, was a lovely person, who used illustrators for the educational materials her company produced.
It had been a while since Jane had heard from her as her focus had turned more toward her young children. But perhaps this was about some work on offer. Paid work was always a good idea, but too often, these days, Jane’s interest lay more with the avant-garde painting she was currently interested in. They got accolades from her artistic community, but they rarely paid the bills, and painters always needed supplies.
Turning the letter over, she saw the Warwick coat of arms stamped into the red seal. This seemed to come from Eliza personally, rather than from the Babbling Brook Educational company. That was unusual.
At one point when things had been particularly grim, Eliza had employed her, and then gone above and beyond any expectations and offered her a season in London. That had been an interesting time. Balls and parties, and every delight that the ton could offer, but at the end of it, Jane had chosen a different life, and she’d never regretted it.
“Good news?” Harvey asked, returning with her bun on a small plate.
“Excellent,” he said and retreated. No doubt he now looked forward to his bill being paid. Harvey was good in that he was prepared to wait until funds were available, which made him very popular with the artistic set.
Carefully, she cracked the seal and opened the stiff parchment. As she expected, it was a letter where Eliza asked how she was and mentioned her and her family were well. There was also mention that the educational business was doing well too, but she was writing about another matter. Julius, her brother-in-law, was commissioning a portrait of himself, and Eliza had recommended her based on her skill.
Jane’s immediate reaction was ‘no’. The last thing she wanted was to spend a couple of months painting Julius Hennington—a man she remembered quite clearly. They’d gone to a few events in the same company, but it hadn’t been hard to ascertain that he wasn’t welcoming of her presence. In fact, he hadn’t wanted her there at all. Not that he was directly rude, but one always felt when one wasn’t wanted.
So no, she did not want to paint some arrogant aristocrat for two months. Someone would find that to be the dream commission, but not her. Obviously, she liked to help Eliza whenever she could, but this was one she would pass on.
Drinking her coffee, she put the letter away and focused her attention on her surroundings. There were a few folded newspapers available for the patrons, but there was never anything worth reading in there. At no point had she ever picked up a paper and felt she’d been enriched by it. There were some quarterly magazines she enjoyed, written by artists, with in-depth articles about important topics such as artistic freedom, or the philosophical movements on the continent. Those were interesting reads that expanded the mind.
The sun came out on the street outside, and she enjoyed watching the light play and cast shadows. Light was always on her mind, her muse. Nothing existed without light. It was the medium by which they existed in the world.
Finishing the last of the bun, she made her way outside again and breathed in the crisp sea air. This town was marvelous. Granted, it filled with visitors from London coming down by train for a day by the sea. Somehow, she felt they added to the charm, even as many people derided their presence. Brighton wasn’t a sleepy little coastal village, and that was just how it was.
Pulling on her gloves again, she wondered if she should drop past her favorite art supply shop on the way home. Admittedly, it was a little more expensive than the larger art shops in London, but there were enough artists here to keep the prices reasonable. And she’d used up her tube of yellow.
Walking along the backstreets, she made her way to the art supply shop and was met with the distinct smell. Not exactly pleasant, but a smell she loved nonetheless. At that moment, it struck her how much she loved her life.
“Hello, François,” she said to the surly man behind the counter.
“Miss Brightly,” he acknowledged with a nod. “What do you need today?”
In all the years she’d known him, she had never seen him smile, as if he was persistently weighted down with the sheer heaviness of existing. “Yellow. Two tubes,” she replied, and looked around the store while he collected and wrapped them for her. Most of the things on display were for the dabblers. Typically, women from wealthy families who counted painting with watercolors as one of their hobbies, and pretty products were made for them. Whereas Jane needed the charmless, smell tubes of oil paint in primary colors. But it was the finer ladies who supported François’ shop, and for some reason, they even put up with his surliness.
“Thank you,” she said as she approached the counter and pulled out her coin purse, noting how light it was. She needed to sell a painting. Her funds were presently on the meagre side. Handing over the necessary coinage, she took her parcel and tucked it under her elbow before making her way out and down along the parade. The wind was much stronger in the open. Bitingly cold, so the tourists were few.
Up the three flights of stairs to her small apartment was a note pinned to her door. An eviction notice. Her eyebrows drew together. What in the world was this? She’d paid her rent. This couldn’t be right. This apartment had perfect light.
Grabbing it, she tore it from the pin holding it. They were refurbishing the building, it said, improving the state of it. Jane swore. This meant they were aiming to make this building fit for a better class of tenants. Damn it. Brighton was becoming more popular, and it was also becoming popular with elderly ladies of a finer sort living on annuities, who sought small, but high-quality seaside apartments. Really, this was a little far from the center of town, wasn’t it? Apparently not. The landlord saw an opportunity to attract these better paying tenants.
So where was she supposed to go—and everyone else who lived here? Why did these society women have to come into their neighborhoods? It was, unfortunately, a repeating story. Artists made a community lively and beautiful, and then came the people who sought the charm of it. And now it was her turn to be turfed out, and likely the whole of the neighborhood was seeking to attract a better class of inhabitants. In the process, destroying the charm they promoted as part of the neighborhood.
This was the last thing she needed. Moving was expensive and finding an apartment with decent light wasn’t easy. It took time and luck.
Now she had to wonder if she, and her community, was to be priced out of Brighton entirely. This was unfair, but money always won. It was the sad truth she always fought against. Some things should be more important than money, but when it came down to it, little was. And now she was undesirable.
What was she going to do?
Turning the key, she made her way outside and threw the scrunched-up letter away in the corner. This was horrible. Where could she go? There was a chance she could find another apartment nearby, but this upgrading had been creeping in for a while now, so this wasn’t entirely surprising.
There was nothing for it. She simply had to move further inland, to a rougher neighborhood—which were often not all that welcoming to artists. In a way, this rippled down as the people who were turfed out then invaded another neighborhood and the displacement continued.
There was nothing else for it. Unless she could afford to pay higher rent. It was possible. She was in the position to earn more money, if she chose—if she took commissions like the one Lady Warwick had just sent her. It would mean less time doing the kind of art she wanted to and more time doing work for the sake of paying rent. By no means a new conundrum, and maybe she’d been lucky to avoid it for a while.
What were a few commissions a year? It would pay the bills and let her stay in the neighborhood she loved, even though many in her community had to find alternative choices.
This was the last thing she needed, but again, it had been coming. It was finally her turn.
Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out Lady Warwick's letter. Unfortunately, she needed the money right now, no matter what happened. So maybe she should stop being so hardheaded and go paint the man. It wasn’t the end of the world. Two months and she would be paid well.
With a sigh, she dropped the letter on her small desk and then left it there. The response could wait. She had work to do.
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© 2020 Camille Oster.