Read an Excerpt
"This will take a deal of work, melady," Brodagan said, shaking her head in grim anticipation of the job before us. "An ant itself couldn't find room to perch in this jumbled-up old attic."
The "melady" was an honorary title, to remind us that Mrs. Brodagan had known better days than working for plain Mrs. Barron. In her youth in Ireland, she had peeled potatoes for six months in the kitchen of Dublin House. Her own title of "Mrs." was assumed as well. Mrs. Brodagan had never known marital bliss, for which every bachelor in Christendom should get down on his knees and thank the Almighty.
Brodagan could strike fear into the heart of an Attila. She has shoulders like a horse, and stands five feet ten inches in her stocking feet. Taking into account her towering white headdress, she tops six and a half feet. The headdress of starched linen, similar in construction to a bishop's miter, was assumed at the same time as her title.
Before that, she was plain Abigail Brodagan and wore a decent cap. Her dark hair grows blacker with each passing year. It has the unnatural gloss conferred on boots by the application of Kelly's Boot Black. She wears a rustling white apron over her black gowns, and is such a confirmed pessimist that she actually enjoys disaster. She can espy it lurking in the most innocent of events. Mama says (behind her back) that the reason Brodagan will not have her ailing tooth drawn is that she enjoys the pain, but I do not go quite that far. Now that I have denigrated her to my heart's content, I must add that she is also an admirable housekeeper and cook.
Mama and I looked at the jumbled room, which would indeed take a deal of work to transform into myart studio. Until six months before, it had been Uncle Barry's bedroom. Barry McShane was Mama's brother, since deceased. His career was in India, working for "John Company," otherwise known as the East India Company. With what he called "the McShane luck," he had returned from gold-paved India empty-handed save for his pension. He came to visit us after a short visit home to Ireland, and never left. For five years he had lived in the east tower wing of our house. He insisted on paying room and board like a regular lodger. Uncle Barry was very little trouble, and it was nice to have a man in the house, as Papa had died the year before.
Now that my uncle was gone, however, I meant to turn his room into my studio. It is a pretty octagonal room looking out over the rolling Kent countryside, liberally sprinkled with fruit trees, wooded hills, and meadowed valleys. With windows on three sides, it gives good light for my painting. It is actually a part of the attic, but with its own staircase, which makes it nice and private. But before I took occupancy, there was "a deal of work" to be done clearing away the bedroom furniture and Uncle's rubbish.
"You'll not be wanting that bed for a start," Brodagan informed me, nodding her miter at the bed hung with gold draperies of ancient vintage.
"No, though I shall keep the desk and a couple of chairs, and perhaps the old dresser, to hold my supplies."
The furnishings were the lesser part of the room's contents. Like any traveler in a strange land, my uncle had brought home several trunks of souvenirs. Gaudy shawls hung on chairbacks, an elephant's foot designed as an umbrella stand was full of bric-a-brac. A brass statue of Shiva, a mischievous Indian god with an improbable number of arms, stood on the desk. The clothespress held not only his clothing but more cartons of souvenirs.
"A regular everything shop," Brodagan declared.
"One hardly knows where to begin," Mama said, looking about with a vaguely troubled air. Mama always seems to me a creature of yesterday, a delicate Fragonard lady, perhaps. She is small, pale, and pretty. Her copper hair is beginning to soften to gray, but her eyes are still a lustrous blue. She was in mourning for her brother. Six months was considered enough for a mere niece, however. With the arrival of June, I had returned to colored gowns.
"I'll have Steptoe bring up some boxes from the cellar and take this lot to the attics," Brodagan said, with a sweeping gesture at bed, desk, shawls, elephant's foot, and Shiva.
Mama is one of those ladies who cannot throw anything out. The attic was already jammed from floor to ceiling with the detritus of twenty-six years. She walked to the bed and laid a sentimental hand on its dusty silk curtains. "These hangings came with me from Ireland, Zoie," she said. Ireland, you must know, is sacrosanct. If she had brought a piece of peat bog with her, it would still find a place at Hernefield.
"Brodagan will see they are carefully packed away, Mama."
Mama moved to the desk and picked up a chipped glass inkpot with a silver-plated lid, the silver mostly rubbed away. "I remember Barry had this inkpot for his sixteenth birthday. He was used to speak of being a writer. I shall put it on the desk in the study."
The desk already had two inkpots, but never mind. The first priority was to get it out of my studio. She toured the room, assigning other worn-out items a place belowstairs. As the octagonal room was at the very top of the house, I knew she would not return often. I would wait until she left before telling Brodagan to have the worn-out carpet and curtains removed, or they would end up in the morning parlor, or saloon.
With a last sighing look around, Mama said, "I shall send Steptoe up with the boxes, Brodagan. You will remember to set aside the inkpot, and take care with those bed hangings. They are valuable."
"You run along, melady," Brodagan said. "I'll have this jumble cleared away while you'd be saying one, two, three."
Mama left, and I began to remove Uncle's jackets from the clothespress. "The press can stay here, Brodagan," I said. "It is too heavy to move. It might be useful for storage."
Brodagan lifted a blue jacket from its hanger and studied it. "It's many a twist life does," she said morosely. "There is Mr. Barry, stretched out on his back growing grass, and he not a day older than myself. There was a time he was the most spoken-of man in Wicklow. Oh, the high-and-mighty ladies courted him. His old da tried to set him up with Lord Munster's gal. But there, he preferred an inch of 'want' to a foot of 'should,' and darted off to India to escape her. 'Tis a pity he fell amongst thieves," she said, not without satisfaction.
This last sinister sentence referred to a little misunderstanding with John Company. My uncle was the chief accountant at Calcutta. One of his assistants made off with some company funds, but the culprit was found and most of the money returned. As the man's superior, however, Barry bore a part of the blame, and retired a little earlier than he had intended.
Steptoe, the butler, arrived with the boxes. I left the servants to their chore and went to the blue spare room that I had been using as my studio. I gathered up my paints, brushes, and equipment and put them in an old bandbox for removal to my new studio. It had taken a deal of convincing to get Mama's permission to use the octagonal tower for this purpose. She feared, I think, that I was becoming too serious about my art, and might use it as a substitute for a husband.
She was right to be concerned. I am not one of those ladies who leap at the altar as though it were a throne. I have not yet met the man whom I prefer to a paintbrush. My earliest memories are of holding a pen in my fingers, trying to put on paper what I saw. Dogs, cats, birds, horses, and later, the human face and form. Landscape has little appeal for me. My interest became an obsession shortly after my uncle's arrival from India. Uncle Barry thought my talent was a little out of the ordinary, and encouraged me. He took Mama and myself to Brighton on a holiday, and there I met Count Borsini at an art exhibit. I made bold enough to compliment him on his paintings; mentioned my own difficulty in setting an eye, and before we left Brighton two weeks later, he had been kind enough to call on us and critique my work for me.
It was a delightful surprise to meet him in Aldershot that autumn. He usually spent the winter in London, but he was tired of following his patrons about. As his interest was changing from portraits to landscapes, of which Kent has a plentiful supply, he set up a permanent home-cum-studio at Aldershot. He inquired how my work was progressing; I complained a little at my lack of progress, and before we parted, he had agreed to give me a series of lessons. When he is not too busy (and he is not usually that busy), he comes to Hernefield once a week, on Tuesday at two o'clock, instructs me for two hours, has tea, and returns to town.
Barry was usually our chaperon when he was alive. Now that he is gone, the duty has fallen to Mama or Brodagan, or my friend Mrs. Chawton. As it is the human form I paint, the chaperon serves double duty as model. On fine days, the lessons take place outdoors. Come autumn, they will move into my studio. The matter of chaperonage has been much discussed. The current plan is to enlarge the class to include a more mature lady to save Mama and Brodagan the stairs. Mrs. Chawton, the doctor's wife, is the only one who has showed the least interest thus far, and I fear her interest is more in Borsini than art.
Did I mention he is a monstrously handsome bachelor? He is Italian, of course, with the darkly romantic Latin looks that young English ladies like, and English gentlemen envy. The count is the younger son, with no expectation of inheriting his papa's palazzo in Venice. At least I think it is in Venice, although he once mentioned his papa had sent him wine from his vineyards in Tuscany. Perhaps the Borsinis have more than one estate.
Brodagan used to call him a "twister," and say he was too "cute" for me, which was her way of saying he was angling for my poor five-thousand dowry. I was quick to remind her he had painted the Prince of Wales, and was not likely to need my pittance. But I think her dislike really softened to adoration when he began honoring her with a burlesque flirtation.
I tidied up the blue room while waiting for Brodagan and Steptoe to clear away my studio. I had dropped a bottle of linseed oil on the carpet of the blue room, which meant some furniture re-arrangement to conceal it. I made a mental note to have Steptoe remove the carpet from Uncle Barry's room. It is impossible to paint in a carpeted room. I would splurge and have linoleum laid down.
I meant to leave the windows uncurtained, have the walls painted a severe white (which Borsini said reflected the light well), and make the room as professional-looking as ten pounds could contrive. A second easel was definitely on my shopping list. Mrs. Chawton could use it during the lessons, and in the interim, I could have two paintings going at once. When Uncle Barry and I visited Borsini's studio at Aldershot, he had not less than four easels occupied.
At five and twenty, I have ceased thinking of marriage and decided to devote my life to my first love--art. Borsini feels the only reason the world has so few successful lady artists is marriage. Art is a full-time career. How can one devote all her attention to it when she must be worrying about children, meals, and entertaining her husband's colleagues? Borsini has noticed a great improvement in my work. My palette, he said, was too light. His own sparkles with the jewel tones of ruby, emerald, sapphire, and topaz, but somehow I cannot find these rich hues in the human face.
With time to spare, I began a sketch. The quantity of self-portraits in my collection does not denote self-love, but a shortage of models. When I am alone, I often sit in front of the mirror and sketch myself, as Rembrandt did. The hand must be trained to do what the artist wants, and like any other craft, practice makes perfect. I pulled the chair close to the mirror, propped my sketchpad on my knee, and studied the familiar face in the mirror.
I doubt there are many ladies who are as familiar with the lineaments of their face as I. Borsini is kind enough to tell me I have a classical face, which is not quite accurate. He has that easy Latin way with a compliment. My face is the proper Grecian shape, however, and my green eyes well spaced. I have lately taken to arranging my black hair in a Grecian knot, more for convenience than to ape the Greeks. It is really the nose that falls considerably short of the classical ideal--or perhaps I should say, falls long. Venus had not such a long nose, nor such wide lips.
My mentor tells me it is the straying from the ideal that confers that peculiar uniqueness of true perfection. I know well enough that "perfection" does not encompass such a far straying from the ideal as my own features. I have been called pretty, never beautiful--except by Borsini.
Time has a way of flying by when I am at work. I was vaguely aware of boxes being carried down from the octagonal tower, along the hall, and up the other staircase to the attic. When Brodagan's towered head appeared at the door, she said, "It's teatime, melady. Your studio is cleared away, if ye'd care to cast a glance at it. I'll not drag my poor old legs up them stairs again. Seven trips, it took. I don't know how in the world I did it. You have the youth still. You can take a run up."
"Thank you, Brodagan," I said, and set aside my sketch to dart up the narrow staircase. Brodagan is not much interested in her salary, but she is greedy for praise.
Steptoe was still there, just opening the dresser drawers. Our butler is our only English servant. Mama brought servants with her from the old country when she married, and has replaced them with other Irish servants as they retired or passed away. Steptoe has a polite contempt for all of them except Brodagan, whom he fears. He is of middle years and medium stature, with brown hair just turning gray. I can scarcely write his name without adding Brodagan's favorite adjective for him, "uppity." Steptoe was used to work for the local nobility, Lady Weylin.
"Shall I clear away your late uncle's linens, madam?" he asked. Steptoe always called both Mama and myself "madam."
"Yes, put all his clothing in boxes. I shall have it taken to the poorhouse." Even Mama would not insist on keeping old clothing.
He began lifting shirts from the top drawer while I strolled around the room, seeing it in my mind's eye with the bed gone, the curtains down, the floor covered in linoleum, and the walls painted a bright, reflecting white. When I turned back to Steptoe, he was holding a small leather bag, dangling from his fingers by a cord.
"What is that, Steptoe?" I asked.
He handed it to me. "It rattles, madam," he said.
I loosened the string and shook the contents out into my palm. The sunbeam slanting through the windows caught the object in my palm and reflected a myriad of iridescent rainbows. A muted gasp hung on the air as I gazed in disbelief at the object. I searched for the clasp and held it to catch the sun's full beams. It was a beautiful diamond necklace.
From a chain of smallish diamonds, a large sunburst of larger stones suspended at the front. I am not familiar with the terminology of diamond cutting, but I could see there were various shapes and cuts of stones in the sunburst, some of the stones quite large.
Uncle Barry had no fortune. He paid his board from his company pension. "Where on earth did he get this?" I asked.
For a wonderful sixty seconds I thought uncle had made his fortune in India after all. Some prince had given him the diamonds as a reward for saving his life. Uncle told many such wonderful tales. The nawabs, it seemed, had no notion of the value of gems. In that sixty seconds I had set out on a tour of Italy to study the masters, with Borsini as my guide. Mama and I would hire an Italian villa, and visit Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. We would float in a gondola down the Grand Canal in Venice to the Palazzo Borsini.
Steptoe came and peered closely over my shoulder. He cleared his throat and said, with a sly look, "It looks very much like the necklace Lady Margaret Macintosh reported stolen five years ago, madam."
"Stolen! Good God! You mean to say Uncle Barry was a thief!"
"That would not be for me to say, madam, but it is certainly the same necklace, or one exactly like it."