“I say, there’s Lord Ogilvie, Earl of Douglass,” Horace Atherton said, raising his voice above the clinking of glasses and the murmur of table talk.
Blair Dunleavy searched through the pall of cigar smoke at the checkerboard of black tailcoats and trousers, white waistcoats, and bow ties. He located the Earl, sitting among the industrialists, merchants, and bankers, all here to view the risqué art.
Blair smothered a yawn. He was here under sufferance to keep Horace company. Two months spent in London was proving to be too long. He had to admit he’d stayed longer than usual just to pique his mother. He had sent a letter off this morning to advise her of his imminent return.
Despite his annoyance at his mother’s demands, Blair was eager to return home to Ireland. The estate didn’t run itself, despite what his friends might suggest. After he had solved the problems, his steward would have for him, the woods awaited, full of red deer and grouse, the river stocked with salmon and brown trout.
He turned his attention back to the room as conversation fell away. The auctioneer had taken his place at the podium.
The first painting appeared. Once placed on the stand, complete silence descended on the room bar the odd, sharp intake of breath. It was an explicit portrait of a woman’s body from the waist down, in perfect, biological detail.
“What do you think of that, eh?” Horace whispered. “Rather well done, what? Like to buy it?”
“I prefer the real thing in my bed,” Blair answered dryly.
The auction took off with an offer of fifty pounds from Charles Ogilvie, the ginger-haired, hollow-cheeked Scot, known for his questionable tastes. Blair found the man as cold as the climate of northern Scotland where he resided in an ancient castle. Soon others joined in, quickly raising the stakes to eighty pounds.
After the gavel came down, and the painting went to Ogilvie, another, entitled Death of a Christian, by Harold Schiller appeared. In this painting, a young woman was bound to a post, the bonds seeming to cut into the soft flesh of her arms. Blair thought it lacked beauty, but the emotive work drew a lively response, going to a fellow, Blair didn’t know, for one hundred pounds.
The next painting to emerge from behind the curtain was Aphrodite, by Milo Russo, a Pre-Raphaelite work. There was no denying its sensual beauty, but there was something more personal, a tenderness from the artist’s brush, a sort of reverence for his subject. In an Ancient Grecian setting, a young woman reclined on a couch.
Blair found himself holding his breath as if waiting for the lady to raise her hairbrush to her waist-length, golden-blonde hair. Her robe had slipped off one smooth, creamy-skinned shoulder, its folds outlining the perfect curve of waist and hip. On the table beside her sat a glowing, red apple, like the one Eve had bidden Adam eat. Did she await a lover? The languidness of her pose suggested he had just left the room.
Blair leaned forward in his chair. The painted silk gown gave a tantalizing glimpse of the girl’s high, rounded breasts. Her slightly raised knee left to the imagination of the observer what had been so intricately detailed in the previous painting. To Blair, it only made her more desirable. This girl was no milk-and-water English miss. The nostrils of her strong nose flared slightly, and her luscious, full-lipped mouth parted in a half-smile. Her magnificent eyes, somewhere between green and brown, seemed to both invite and disdain the onlooker’s gaze.
“My God,” Blair said under his breath.
“Reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia,” someone behind him muttered. “Another superb painting of a courtesan.”
“Eighty pounds,” called Lord Ogilvie.
Blair raised his hand. “One hundred.”
Heads turned to look at Blair with knowing faces.
“One-fifty,” countered Ogilvie in a challenging voice.
“Two hundred,” Blair said.
“Two-fifty!” Ogilvie’s eyes narrowed, and he turned to glare at Blair.
“Five hundred pounds,” Blair said meeting his glance coolly.
There came a collective gasp from the fascinated onlookers.
Ogilvie stood so quickly his chair fell to the floor. He threw down his catalog and stalked from the room without glancing right or left.
“Going, going…” When no one bid further, the auctioneer’s gavel dropped. “Gone! To Mr. Dunleavy for five hundred pounds.”
“I say!” Horace clapped Blair on the back. “Not totally immune to good art, eh?”
“Not at all, my friend,” Blair replied, leaping to his feet. “I intend to find that model.”
Blair shook his head as knowing laughter followed him from the room. In the office, behind a curtain, Blair arranged payment and had the painting wrapped. It would be perfect for the boudoir of his London townhouse where he could enjoy it–until he found the real thing. Unfortunately, he couldn’t delay his return to Ireland for even another few days. Damn, he wished he hadn’t sent that letter.
He returned to the foyer to collect his silk top hat, cane, and overcoat, and found Horace retrieving his cloak. Horace favored a certain poetic style of dress that required a carelessly tied cravat and a waistcoat held together by one button, his curly hair, wildly disordered. He had a good stock of quotations from the poets and even dashed off some poetry of his own, which, unfortunately, was rather bad. He had the grace to admit it, and it did make him popular with the ladies.
“Not so wise to humiliate Ogilvie a second time, d’you think?” Horace asked.
“That wasn’t my intention. But if I have, I don’t regret it.”
“Well, he took it that way. Damned peculiar fellow. You accusing him of cheating at that card game brought him unstuck, y’know.”
“It’s no secret he’s been cheating for years.”
“Trouble is, young Blakeney was there,” Horace said.
“Ogilvie was courting his sister, Elizabeth. That’s not going to come about now.”
Blair shrugged. “Luckily for Elizabeth.”
“Ogilvie needed the infusion of funds that marriage to Elizabeth would bring him. He’s seriously strapped for cash. That castle of his in Caithness is crumbling into the sea.”
“Can’t say I’ll shed any tears over it,” Blair said. “Have you seen the way he treats his cattle? Saw him whipping a stray dog in the park, too. Took the whip from him and broke it. The man’s a monster.”
Horace’s eyebrows rose, and he shook his head. “You’ve made an enemy there. Wouldn’t care to have him against me.” He ran his fingers through his riotous curls and put on his hat. “A few of us are going to the theater. We feel the need of a little feminine company. I trust you are coming?”
“Not tonight.” Blair tucked his cane under his arm and pulled on his gloves. “I’ll pick up a cab at Hyde Park Corner and go home.”
Horace looked askance at his handsome, dark-haired friend. “Home? It’s only ten o’clock. You aren’t sickening for something, are you?”
“Not in so many words, Horace.”
“It’s that painting.” Horace stared at the wrapped parcel. “That’s not like you. I declare I believe you to be bewitched. Remember, it is the spectator and not life, that art really mirrors.”
Blair smiled. “Are those your words, my friend?
Horace chuckled. “I am not known for such erudition sadly.” He gestured to the painting.
“The artist may well have taken poetic license with his subject. It’s doubtful the real flesh and blood woman will measure up to his concept of her.”
Blair raised an eyebrow. “If we must lapse into literary quotations, here is one that is surely apt: Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
Horace waved his silver cane. “Touché! Shall we have a bet that my premise is correct, should you find that model?”
Blair nodded. “Why not indeed?”
“A hundred pounds.”
“Done.” Blair shook Horace’s hand.
“And should I be proved right, don’t despair. There are many beauties in London,”
Horace added with a grin.
“I’m well aware of it. Have I not accompanied you on your sojourns these two months past?”
Horace laughed. “I’m not sure what it is about that painting that has captivated you. Women of the demimonde are ruthlessly self-seeking. They will tear a fellow’s heart to pieces should you become too fond of them. Treat them lightly, or you’ll pay a high price with your heart and with your pocket.”
“Spoken from experience, Horace?”
Horace nodded with a sour look.
Blair grinned and slapped him on the back “You are indeed a good friend, Horace. Keep your own advice in mind tonight. I wish you a good evening.”
“Then sadly, I must relinquish your company,” Horace said, “And hope to see you restored to sanity at the Athenaeum tomorrow. I’d like to spend some time with you before you disappear back to that big, rambling house of yours in Killarney.”
* * *
Gina Russo raised her eyes to the attic window above her where driving rain had caused a leak to form.
Water dripped down onto the floorboards, forming a pool at her stepfather’s feet. Milo seemed completely unaware of it, but then, when he was painting, the building could burn down around him.
She put her hands on her hips. “You must move your easel, Milo. Your trousers will be wet and in this miserable, moldy climate, you’ll catch your death.”
He stared at her blankly, paintbrush poised above the canvas where he painted a still life.
“But, the light, Gina!”
“I do not intend to be orphaned in this cold-hearted city. What would I do without you?” The thought chilled her through.
He laughed and wiped his brush on a cloth, then threw it down onto a table piled with brushes and half-squeezed tubes of paint. “You have made a good point. You’re not just pretty, my girl, you have something up here,” he tapped his forehead smearing it with red paint.
She helped him move his things away then ran to place a bowl under the drip.
“When will you pose for me again, Gina? I have great hopes for the last painting I did.”
“When you have sold another painting and we can afford some coal,” she said. “I am not stripping off in this cold. Not when I am hungry. We need decent food.”
“I can taste a tender turkey breast stuffed with sweet Italian sausage and chestnuts, and we shall have it too when the money comes in. I made a mistake with my early paintings not demanding I be paid on delivery; several buyers still owe me money. And I’m not getting the prices I think I deserve.”
“I told you not to hand them over unless they put the money in your hands. You’re too trusting. We shall soon be eating your Still Life with Apples, Milo.” Gina watched as he settled at his easel once more, and picked up his brush. There would be no more conversation for the afternoon.
Frustrated, she grabbed the broom and swept the floor at the far end of the room. She worked to warm herself. It needed sweeping again. No matter how many times she scrubbed it, sooty grit crunched under her shoes. Work helped to clear her mind. She was constantly thinking up schemes to leave horrid, foggy London. She had been thirteen years old when her mother brought her to England, old enough to remember the sunny days and green hills of Tuscany they had left behind.
She turned to study the bowl of wizened fruit and vase of wilting flowers she had purchased from the market that morning for Milo to paint. The sun-ripened fruit of her homeland would be sweet. Her mother had been like a delicate flower, she had not thrived in an English winter. She hated the cold and fog and was fond of saying that Italians knew how to live, and the men knew how to love.
It was certainly true that the Englishmen who pursued Gina had wallets filled with money where their hearts should be. They knew nothing of a love that took hold of you, mind, body, and soul. To them, she would be an acquisition, someone they could flaunt in front of their friends and boast about in their clubs. No matter how hard things became, she would have none of it. She had promised her mother.
When her mother married Milo and he brought her to England, she had become a much sought-after artist’s model. Even after her death, Gina and Milo remained loyal to their friends of the demi-world, the shadow world of fellow artists, models, writers, thespians, courtesans, and musicians, through which the upper classes wandered, paying for anything they desired. It could be an exciting world, but it had a dark side of despair, poverty, ruin, and untimely death.
At just thirty-six, her mother had died of inflammation of the lungs. She was already ailing when she married Milo. He was fifteen years her elder, but she said he would take care of Gina after she was gone. Even when her health was failing, she would drag Gina to church every Sunday. Her final words still echoed in Gina’s ears. “We have a saying in Italy, sweet child. You never forget your first love. I loved your father and if only he’d lived... No matter how hard life gets, don’t ever be tempted to sell your body, for that will destroy your soul. Remember you are a good Catholic girl.” She would take Gina by the shoulders and shake her. “Promise me!”
She touched the hair-bracelet on her wrist, made with her mother’s lovely golden hair. When Gina had questioned her about her father, her mother would always turn away. “Better that you don’t know. Her standard reply left Gina wondering what made her so sad and reluctant to reveal the past. She began to doubt that her mother and father were married.
“Bah,” Gina said, swatting at some imaginary speck of dirt. She was sick of being grindingly poor. The struggle to live tore the heart out of you and dragged you down. She hated London, its miles of rat-infested, filthy cobblestone alleys and shabby brick and stucco houses, the noise and the smells and the dirt. She hated feeling desperately sad for the tatty, barefoot children. She hated her cheap dresses and longed to have something store-bought and pretty.
And she hated their ugly, leaky attic rooms that no amount of cleaning could turn into a home, most of all.
A block away, the street prostitutes trolled between the gin shop and the pawnshop, younger than her, some of them. Green from the country, they quickly become addicted to the drink and their gentle eyes turned hard. When lying in bed at night, she’d listen to them out there under the gaslights, dancing, drinking, and singing into the small hours. The sounds of their hollow laughter made her want to weep and pull a pillow over her head.
As she put away the broom, Gina’s thoughts turned to Milo. How did he produce such beauty in his paintings, in a place like this? She started and put her hand to her mouth. How could she be so ungrateful?
“Did you say something, mio caro?” Milo asked while his brush brought a painted apple to life with a clever highlight. The apple had become his signature and appeared in all his paintings. His painted apple was so much fresher and redder than the one in the bowl. Perhaps that was his secret, he saw life through rose-colored glasses.
“No, Milo,” she said, going to stir the minestrone soup that with bread and cheese, would have to do them until the end of the week.
“You’re a good daughter, Gina,” he said absently.