ImogeneHis Courteous Muse
“Be careful with that! For heavens’ sake, be careful!” Lewis yelped.
The startled footman nearly dropped the easel he was carrying, and Lewis moaned miserably.
“I am sorry, Your Grace,” the unfortunate man mumbled, and Lewis made a vaguely forgiving gesture.
“It’s all right, just … Please, don’t touch any of my canvases.”
His valet, Stevens, cast a stern glance at the footman, who flushed and backed away.
“Careful, James,” Stevens admonished. “Although it must be said, sir, that he did not come to your rooms expecting to carry an art apparatus. Art equipment is, I believe, a little more awkward to transport than the traditional suitcases and valises that a gentleman might be expected to have.”
That was a pointed comment, and Lewis knew it. Stevens firmly believed that a gentleman’s bedroom quarters were solely for the all-important business of dressing and redressing, and for the less vital occupation of sleeping. Lewis had lost count of the times Stevens, having thrown open the curtains on a morning, had turned to stare pointedly at a half-finished painting propped up near the window.
He had stopped just short of flinging the canvas, paints, brushes, and all out of the window, although Lewis was sure he indulged private fantasies of doing just that.
Lewis privately thought that poor Stevens had stubbed his toe on his master’s art equipment too many times. Then, of course, there’d been the terrible incident in which Lewis had gotten a dot of red paint on a beautiful blue silk waistcoat. The paint refused to come out, and the waistcoat was ruined. He wasn’t sure Stevens had ever really forgiven him for that.
“I was inspired last night,” Lewis said mildly. “I had to seize the moment. I won’t be able to paint the carriage, will I?”
His valet merely tightened his lips.
“I do hope, sir, that you won’t keep your painting equipment in your rooms at Bedfordshire. I have heard Lady Karina Pemberton, the duchess, is exceptionally nice when it comes to propriety. I know how clumsy you can be with your paints, and everything in Her Grace’s home is very expensive. You must remember that you are no longer here at Brackley Hall, sir.”
“You needn’t worry, Stevens, I won’t be painting in my room. I know you think I’m a complete fool, but I do know how to behave when I’m invited somewhere as a guest.” Lewis peered over Stevens’ shoulder at the case he was packing. “You’ve forgotten my hat.”
“No, I have not,” Stevens answered icily.
Lewis rummaged around in his half-empty drawers—half-empty thanks to Stevens and his stellar packing skills—and withdrew his favourite item of clothing. It was a battered old hat, deeply unfashionable, and with a wide, floppy brim. It was ideal for keeping the sun off one’s face when one was painting outside, and it had a certain artistic feel to it. Lewis thought it made him look like a real artist. Not a gentleman, not a marquess, just a painter. It was covered in all colours of paint from countless art projects, and Stevens hated it with a passion.
“Here it is. Chuck it in, will you? Please?” Lewis added.
“Sir, I must protest.”
“I need it for painting.”
“We are not visiting the Pembertons to spend the summer painting.”
“Mama said I might find my muse there,” Lewis pointed out. His mother had waxed poetic about the beauty and various charms and accomplishments of the two Pemberton girls, who were both said to be beautiful, rich, eligible, and most importantly of all, out. They had presumably ended their first London Season unengaged, and as with many Society belles, time was of the essence. His mother and Lady Karina had doubtless arranged this between them, and poor Lewis was caught in the middle.
Lewis was quite sure his mother was imagining her son escorting one of the girls to the altar, but he simply wanted to paint them.
“That may be so, but you simply cannot attend social functions in paint-splattered breeches and a darned shirt,” Stevens said firmly. “If you did such a thing, I would have to do away with myself to preserve my honour. I would never work again in polite society. Please, sir, put on something more appropriate.”
“I’m only sitting in the carriage with Mama,” Lewis argued. “I don’t need to dress up for that.”
“Yes, but at the end of your journey, you will be getting out of the carriage and greeting your hosts and their family.”
Lewis wilted a little under Stevens’ glare. He was right, after all.
“Very well,” Lewis conceded. “I’ll wear something proper—something you can choose—if you promise to pack my painting hat.”
“Very well,” Stevens said heavily. Once he had given his word, Lewis had no fear of the man accidentally on purpose throwing the hat out of a window or something. Stevens would stoop to many things, but not to break his word.
Satisfied, Lewis put the hat on and took a moment to preen in the mirror.
Yes, it was a truly hideous hat. A real artist’s garment.
Lewis knew he was a handsome man; it had been remarked on often enough. He was tall, with fashionably dark hair that he took pains to rearrange every day, he was well built and well-featured, and Stevens ensured that he left the house looking presentable, and even fashionable, every day. He had dark eyes that some ladies had described as the colour of chocolate, shot with threads of gold. That seemed unnecessarily poetic; Lewis thought his eyes were the colour of mud or a horse’s flank.
He simply couldn’t find it in himself to care. Of course, it was nice to be handsome. Lewis did feel a passing pride at his own good looks, but they were hardly his personal accomplishments. He had his parents and the diligent efforts of Stevens to thank for his face and person. Personal beauty was fleeting, and Lewis was well aware that he would not look like this forever.
Capturing beauty on a canvas with a painter’s brush, however, was something entirely different. That sort of beauty was immortal, and Lewis knew that not every painter was as talented as him with a brush. Didn’t everyone dream of capturing a moment? Taking a likeness was so much more than replicating a person’s face and form onto paper or canvas.
No, one must capture the essence of a person. Their expression, their spirit, that indefinable quality that person embodied. Naturally, if the quality was indefinable, it was usually impossible to paint.
However, “usually impossible” was not “always impossible.”
Lewis lived to paint. He dreamed of it, both at night when he slept and during the day, when various occupations and responsibilities kept him away from his true love. Ever since Lewis had first begun to draw little chalk sketches on his slate when he ought to have been doing sums, arithmetic, Latin, or Greek, art had consumed his life.
Which was a fact often bemoaned by those around him, particularly Stevens and the formidable Lady Lavinia Carmichael.
Speaking of which, Lewis realised with some discomfort, he was supposed to have met his mother downstairs some fifteen minutes ago. Throwing the hat onto the bed, he raced out of his room, trusting Stevens to get the rest of the cases and valises to the carriage on time.
Lady Lavinia Carmichael was waiting for her son at the foot of the stairs. She was impeccably dressed, as usual, in a dress of vibrant blue silk, thick with embroidery and studded with pearls. There were matching pearls in her dark hair, which was barely streaked with grey. She was an extremely handsome woman for her age, and she knew it.
All in all, Lewis thought the cost of his mother’s toilette today would buy a nice little cottage in the country for somebody.
“You are late,” Lady Lavinia said heavily. “That means that we are late.”
“I’m sorry, Mama.” Lewis stooped to kiss his mother’s soft cheek. “I had to oversee the packing of my painting things. The footmen knock them about terribly. I can’t see why I can’t simply carry my things myself.”
A short, demure, middle-aged lady standing behind Lady Lavinia hissed with disapproval. Lewis smiled weakly at her.
Felicity Heath, companion for Lady Lavinia since they were six and ten years old, nodded regally and disapprovingly. She and Lady Lavinia exchanged glances.
“You are the Marquess of Broadwater,” Lady Lavinia said, in a tone indicating that her son possibly had not yet noticed it. “You are the son of the Duke and Duchess of Buckinghamshire. Do you wish to be seen carrying easels and paint brushes around under your arm, like some sort of jobbing artist?”
“Lewis, we have been through all this often enough. I have no serious reservations about your hobby. Painting is a worthy pastime. I see how these worthless young rakes end up, and I thank God daily that you are not among them. After all, you could well have ended up with an addiction to gambling, or flirting, heaven forbid. However, hobbies must be kept in their proper place, do you understand?”
Lewis knew it wasn’t worth arguing over. “Yes, Mother … I understand,” he answered meekly.
The three made their way outside, Lewis handing his mother and Felicity into the carriage before climbing in himself. The two ladies sat side by side, already murmuring together about the latest scrap of gossip.
Lewis settled into the seat opposite, and then they were off, carriage wheels crunching on the gravel. He sat back and closed his eyes.
The carriage was the latest model, comfortable and well-sprung. A pair of glossy, high-stepping brown mares were on duty today, seeming to relish the task as the wind blew through their well-brushed white manes. The coachman was highly experienced, hardly jolting his passengers at all. Even so, Lewis knew from experience that he could not produce a suitable drawing in a moving carriage. Besides, if he produced paint and brushes anywhere near the ladies’ clothes, he would surely be beaten to death with umbrellas or stabbed with hatpins.
At any rate, Stevens had deliberately packed Lewis’ art things away in a case, which was now stowed on the top of the carriage and lashed into place.
So, Lewis was condemned to a long, dull journey. Stevens was riding up with the coachman, and Lewis had nobody to talk to. He loved his mother very much and had the greatest respect for Felicity Heath, but they never quite seemed to talk to him, rather just—at him.
“Lewis, I am speaking to you,” Lady Lavinia said waspishly, and Lewis jumped.
“Sorry, Mama. I was just drifting off.”
“You mustn’t sleep here. You’ll get all crumpled and untidy. It is a long journey, but please endeavour to keep yourself awake. It becomes a gentleman to exercise self-control in all things. I was saying to Felicity that you aren’t acquainted with the Pemberton girls at all.”
“No, I’m afraid I’m not. This was their first Season out, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s right. Such pretty girls,” Lady Lavinia added approvingly. She had been a tremendous beauty in her time and was still an extremely handsome woman. She admired fortitude, wealth, and strength of character, and so on, but she was very open in her love of beauty. “They came out at the same time, which I think is a good idea. I’ve always thought that forcing younger daughters to stay at home and wait until their elder sisters are married to come out is very unfair. Had I had daughters and had more than one, I think I would have done the same. You recommended it, I recall, Felicity. Elizabeth is seventeen and Anne is one year younger.”
“They’re very young,” Lewis commented. He knew that plenty of young men his age—or even older, in their thirties and beyond—seemed quite happy to marry little sixteen-year-olds, but Lewis didn’t feel particularly comfortable with that. All the sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds he had met—even those who were decidedly out—seemed very childish.
Dazzled by the lights and music of the dance halls, and quite in love with their beautiful dresses and hairstyles, these young girls were swept away by the glamour of Society. Lewis had seen it happen. He had an artist’s eye, which meant he spotted details that others missed. Far too many young girls of barely sixteen had thrown away their lives on some dull old man seeking a pretty wife, in exchange for one glorious Season.
Sixteen, and even seventeen-year-old girls, ought to be playing with dolls and trying on new dresses and bonnets with their friends, not looking for a husband. But Lewis knew better than to mention it. Lady Lavinia had been married at seventeen and with child at eighteen and was a hearty advocate of early marriage.
Naturally, this was a bone of contention between herself and her son, who had reached the advanced age of twenty-four without lighting upon the woman he wanted to marry. There’d been no heartbreak, no almost-engagements, and not a whiff of scandal, much to Lady Lavinia’s disappointment.
It wasn’t as if Lewis was particularly opposed to marriage. He would like to meet a nice young woman and fall in love, but it simply hadn’t happened yet. There had been one or two nice young ladies whom Lewis had thought he could have grown to like, but their bland, uninterested responses to his paintings had worked strongly against them.
Lewis wasn’t necessarily looking for another artist to marry, but a little oneness of soul would not go amiss. Of course, his mother did not have a high opinion of the oneness of the soul. Oneness of wealth and beauty, yes, and a oneness of an understanding between the couple and the couple’s parents, certainly, but souls really did not come into marriage. Not in Lady Lavinia’s opinion. Neither, in fact, did love.
Lewis sighed to himself, leaning an elbow on the sill and resting his chin in his hand. Lady Lavinia and Felicity had lost interest in him again. Felicity was fussing over Lady Lavinia’s hair, as if her coiffure was not already perfect.
He watched the scenery flash by impassively. They were still in Buckinghamshire lands, and Lewis had sketched these scenes more times than he could recall. Landscapes were all very well, but Lewis found them a little—well, dull. One could never capture the beauty of nature as well Nature herself, and it was almost impossible to imbue a landscape with any kind of real passion.
That led to a dissatisfactory painting and countless dull landscapes that, somehow, all looked the same.
No, Lewis preferred to draw people. He had a talent for catching a person’s expression, their character, their very soul. A portrait he had done of Lady Lavinia had been framed and hung in his father’s study, where she glowered icily and disapprovingly down at all who visited.
Lewis smiled to himself. That portrait of his mother signified the very first time he had truly understood what it meant to capture a piece of a person’s soul in their portrait—and the first time he had realised he had a talent for doing so.
Lady Lavinia was proud of the painting and proud of her son, but she never had the time or inclination to sit for further drawings. Lewis needed to find somebody to replicate that feeling, that sensation of finding the perfect image to transcribe onto canvas.
He had drawn countless beautiful men and women since then. People of nobility, servants, even the long-suffering Stevens on one occasion. None of them were quite right. Lewis was beginning to understand he was searching for a muse, somebody to inspire him, somebody he simply needed to paint.
He had no idea who that person might be. It was apparent that beauty was not the only criteria. Something else was needed.
Lewis reflected that his search would be infinitely easier if he knew what, exactly, he was searching for.
Well, no matter. He was unlikely to find it in Bedfordshire, in a couple of preening, overconfident young misses straight out of the schoolroom. Beauty and youth were all very well, but it took more than that to make a truly timeless painting.
He thought often of that timeless painting—it would be his masterpiece. And, well, his masterpiece was a painting of which he was beginning to despair of ever even starting on the first brushstrokes.
Heavens, an artist’s life certainly was constant suffering.
Imogene closed the library door behind her and heaved a sigh of relief. Nobody would be in here, and she could snatch a few hours’ respite.
She knew it wouldn’t last; it never did. Sooner or later, someone would come looking for Cousin Imogene, waspish and flustered, with a long list of jobs for her to do.
“Come on, Cousin, are you just reading in the corner? Make yourself useful and help me trim my new bonnet.”
“Imogene, go and help your cousins! Lizzie and Annie are fighting over the yellow silk shawl again.”
“Have you been reading all day, Imogene? Really, we haven’t all got endless hours to waste.”
Imogene shuddered. For her, reading was not a waste of time. Her aunt was the worst. It was easy to presume that Lizzie and Annie were just a little young and selfish, following the lead of their parents. Her cousins were dazzled by fine things and the sparkle of Society, and Imogene could understand that. They were little more than children, after all.
However, Imogene’s Aunt Karina seemed to silently reproach her niece at every turn. She had never outright said that she and her husband had fed, clothed, and cared for her, and done a great and unpayable kindness in taking in the little orphaned Imogene all those years ago. Still, the words were always there, hanging unspoken in the air between them. Imogene was uncomfortably aware that without the help of her aunt and uncle, she would have nowhere to go. She would have no friends, no family—no money. While Imogene had never wanted for anything—she certainly did not want for gratitude, either—her aunt and uncle had never seen fit to set aside a portion for her, or to educate her to develop a skill.
She was completely and wholly dependent on her.
Imogene’s little bedroom was no real sanctuary. Lizzie and Annie barged in at any time of the day and night, and on the one occasion Imogene had been so bold as to lock the door and refuse to open to their repeated knocks, they had run to tell tales to their Mamma.
Aunt Karina was not pleased with Imogene’s presumption. It was made clear to Imogene that this was not her house, not really, and she had no real right to lock doors in somebody else’s house. If her cousins wished to spend time with her, why should she be so unkind—and, dare one say, ungrateful—to refuse them?
So, Imogene had learnt to retreat to the library. Apart from their fashionable and unused library, as well as Lord Lucas’ expensive, unread books that he kept in his study, there were no other books in the house. Lady Karina never had the time or inclination to read, and her daughters were no different. The library was Imogene’s territory.
Since nobody—nobody important, that is—ever ventured into the library, the housemaids rarely bothered to clean it. There was a fine layer of dust laying across the shelves, the carpets were in dire need of beating, and there were visible cobwebs hanging from the chandeliers.
Or at least, there had been. The housemaids had clearly been in here recently, and the library was clean and tidy for the first time in a while, no doubt in preparation for the arrival of their illustrious visitors.
They were the reason Imogene was seeking refuge in her library. Guests were arriving, and the house was in chaos.
Imogene never had cause to enjoy visits. Her aunt’s friends rarely spoke to her, and when they did, they exclusively talked to her about how grateful she must feel to live here with her aunt and cousins, and hadn’t they been so terribly, terribly kind?
They had, of course, but Imogene had been reminded of it almost every day since she was four years old. Lizzie and Annie’s friends at least took themselves off to the dressing rooms to try on gowns and waste lace and fabric on bad alterations.
These guests, however, would be different, and Imogene was dreading it.
She was tired of the very name Carmichael.
The Duchess of Buckinghamshire and her son, the Marquess of Broadwater, were the ones who had thrown the household into absolute chaos. Aunt Karina was desperate not to fall short as a hostess in front of the duchess, and her daughters were excited to have the opportunity to attract a marquess. They were currently fighting in the drawing-room over who would wear the green muslin, as they both looked very well in it and were quite sure the marquess would fall in love with whoever wore the dress in question.
Imogene privately thought that a man who could be swayed by a dress was not worth having, but she suspected that her opinion would not be well received.
And so, Imogene had retreated. She was not looking forward to having visitors over the summer. She imagined that the duchess would be icy, unfriendly, and on the lookout for any mistakes. She supposed that her son, the marquess, would be a spoiled, unpleasant young man, seeking a rich wife.
She vaguely recalled Lewis Carmichael, Marquess of Broadwater. They had met several times over the years as children, although he had spent the last two years studying abroad. Imogene only knew that because her cousins had excitedly discussed Lord Lewis’ recent activities over breakfast. Imogene herself had never once wondered nor cared what had become of the blurry, dark-haired young boy of her memory.
She did remember his paintings, though. Imogene had no artistic ability herself, but she could admire it in others. The little marquess had possessed quite a talent with watercolours and charcoal if she remembered correctly.
Still, Imogene didn’t imagine that this summer’s activities would endear him to her any further. No doubt he was only here to discover whether Lizzie or Annie—who both came with substantial dowries and had impeccable breeding—would make a suitable wife for a marquess.
Lizzie and Annie weren’t particularly cruel, but they had a nasty habit of putting down Imogene in company, believing it would make them look cleverer. Aunt Karina did not seem to particularly care. It wasn’t as if Imogene, firmly labelled a spinster at the advanced age of twenty (to her cousins at least), was a real threat in the marriage market.
At least I’ll be able to avoid them during the day, Imogene consoled herself. Nobody is going to miss me, and Aunt Karina will have organised plenty of social events to keep them all busy. I’ll have to see them all at mealtimes, but apart from that, my time should be my own. The marquess and his mother probably won’t be library people. He probably can’t even read.
Lizzie and Annie’s raucous tones drifted down the hall, still discussing the green muslin. Sighing to herself, Imogene curled up in her favourite seat, a red velvet armchair hidden behind a row of bookshelves. It allowed her to look out of the window onto the grounds but kept her hidden from view of the library door. If somebody peeped into the library, they would think it was empty. Imogene opened her book, Robinson Crusoe. So far, the book was excellent. Imogene loved adventure stories, and strongly sympathised with the plight of the hero.
I wish I could sail away, Imogene thought miserably. She often read stories full of swashbuckling adventures, with impossible escapes and daring feats. Unfortunately, all the heroes seemed to be male, with swooning, beautiful women in the background. None of the ladies seemed to have adventures, and if they did, they were reluctant and extremely miserable, usually requiring a rescue.
Although Imogene often felt she could sympathise with the wish to be rescued from a miserable situation.
It wasn’t that anyone was unkind exactly. Imogene knew that her uncle and aunt had been especially kind in taking her in. She’d wanted for nothing, and Imogene was well aware that impoverished four-year-old girls often met with cruel and miserable fates. She had been lucky.
Still, it was unpleasant to see one’s life stretching out before one, full of enforced gratitude, always being left behind, and never having one’s opinion consulted. Imogene had no money, and she had no illusions about marriage. Who would marry her without a portion? Certainly, nobody in her aunt’s social circle.
There were usually surgeons and soldiers who were happy to marry penniless noblewomen, and Imogene sometimes allowed herself to imagine marrying such a person. Her aunt and uncle would be furious, of course, but then Imogene might have the opportunity of being truly loved, and loving in return.
It was a hollow dream, and she knew it.
Imogene flinched as the voices in the hallway grew louder, coming towards her.
“Annie, you simply can’t wear green. It drains you.”
“No, it doesn’t, you’re being selfish! I shall tell Mama.”
“We can both wear green. Wear Imogene’s green dress.”
Annie scoffed. “Ugh, no thank you. It’s ugly. Imogene doesn’t have any nice dresses.”
“Wear your blue silk, then.”
“No, I want to wear the green!”
Imogene stayed as still and quiet as possible in her little hiding place, trying not to breathe while her cousins passed by.
Then, she heard the knob of the library door turning and realised that her delightful cousins were coming in, no doubt to seek her out as mediator. Imogene wasn’t quite sure why they bothered to do so. She had no authority, and they were usually unhappy with her judgements, in any case. She thought that sometimes her cousins just enjoyed having an unfortunate third person to hear their tedious and petty cases.
Imogene got up from her seat, book tucked under her arm, and tiptoed across the room. There was another door in the library, leading out to the terrace which encircled half of the house. From the terrace, one could get into the gardens.
Her slippered feet were silent on the newly-beaten carpets as Imogene opened the door and stepped out onto the terrace, closing the door behind her. While her beloved cousins did not often venture into the library, they knew exactly where to find Imogene whenever she was needed. Her sanctuary was not much of a sanctuary at all.
A narrow escape. She might not be so lucky next time. Imogene’s safe places were rapidly becoming unsafe, and her opportunities to be alone were few and far between. Imogene’s world was narrowing, and there was no chance of escape.
“Off to your little hospital, Lady Imogene?” One of the outdoor workers, the head gardener, greeted her as she made her way across the grounds.
“Yes, John. I’m rather wishing I’d put on better shoes; the morning dew is quite soaking my feet!” Imogene called back, waving.
The house and garden staff seemed to quite regard Imogene as one of their own. Or, at least, not quite one of the family. Imogene supposed she ought to be offended, but it was very nice to be welcomed so kindly. Most of the garden staff knew about Imogene’s little hospital and did their best to help maintain it.
That made a pleasant change from her cousins’ laughter and mockery and Aunt Karina’s visible annoyance.
Imogene’s little hospital consisted of various animals she’d found on the grounds. There was a crow with a broken wing, who stood upon the little perch Imogene had made for him, inspecting the world around him with a calm, intelligent eye. There was a baby finch, the sole survivor of a cat-ravaged nest, which required hourly feeding. Imogene could not manage all of the feeding herself, but John, the head gardener, had organised the stable boys to help out with the chore, which they rather seemed to enjoy.
There was a fox with a broken leg, sleeping in its little pen; its leg was nearly healed, by Imogene’s reckoning, and the fox would soon be well enough to be released into the wild. Finally, there was Imogene’s favourite patient—Jiminy.
Jiminy was an old bloodhound, mostly blind and very deaf. He was slow and unsteady on his feet and had no more interest in sniffing out prey than in climbing the garden walls or dancing on his hind legs. The nearby squire who owned him had casually mentioned that he would drown the dog since he was of no further use.
Helped by good old John, Imogene had rescued Jiminy and set him up in a little corner of the animal hospital. Jiminy did not require too much care, only regular meals, a warm and dry place to sleep, and a little daily attention from Imogene.
The animals set up a little ruckus as Imogene unlocked the door and slipped inside. She liked to imagine they were happy to see her and not just the food she stole from her aunt’s kitchens for them. Once again, Imogene was fairly sure that cook herself and most of the kitchen maids were aware that Imogene spirited away scraps and handfuls of food for her little animal hospital, and they all shook their heads fondly and turned the other way.
She was glad. Imogene loved her animal hospital, and not just for the good it could do for a few innocent creatures.
This was another safe place for Imogene. Her aunt would never come near this run-down, dirty-looking shack, and her cousins certainly would not. Lizzie and Annie did not mind kittens and lapdogs, but they were not particularly fond of other animals. Insects and spiders sent them into flurries of shrieking panic, and large, grubby, or over-exuberant animals were nothing less than a threat.
“I don’t believe they’ve forgotten about your muddy paws on their fine lace sleeves,” Imogene whispered to Jiminy. He wagged his tail mildly at her. Imogene bent down and kissed his soft head, fondling his long, floppy ears. When he drank from his water bowl, she had to hold back his ears to prevent them from dipping in the water. She’d occasionally thought of tying them back with ribbon.
She doubted she would be able to spend much time in her little animal hospital over the summer. Imogene sighed, not looking forward to the following weeks. Perhaps she’d go unnoticed—one could only hope.
Smooth and fashionable the carriage may have been, but that did not mean very much after a long day of being bounced and jolted about. Every bone in Lewis’ body ached, and his fingers twitched to grasp a pen or brush.
His mother and Miss Heath were talking amicably, not seeming to mind the long journey at all. They were mostly discussing the recent Season, which Lewis could not possibly have cared less about. Fortunately, they did not seem to expect him to weigh in.
Lewis found he simply couldn’t muster up any interest to hear about who had danced with whom, and what engagements had narrowly happened (but had not, in the end, become a reality). It was hard to sleep with his mother’s loud voice talking on and on, but Lewis was sure he could drop off to sleep with a little patience and determination. Sleep seemed to be the only possible way to while away the time on this seemingly endless journey.
So, he leaned back and closed his eyes with determination. Alas, it was not to be.
“Wake up, Lewis,” Lady Lavinia said suddenly, jolting Lewis out of what was very nearly a pleasant doze. “We’ll be there soon enough.”
Lewis stretched and yawned, wishing he were anywhere except this wretched carriage. His mother was watching him with shrewd eyes.
“I don’t suppose you recall much about the Pembertons.”
“I’m afraid not, Mother.”
“Well, they’re a delightful family. Lady Karina—our hostess—and I went to school together. She had an older sister, Regina.” Lady Lavinia smiled to herself, lost in a memory. “We were good friends. Regina, of course, died some eighteen years ago, a tremendous tragedy.”
“I recall her husband,” Miss Heath chipped in, “Lord Diarmuid O’Reilly. Such a handsome man, and so charming. He drank himself to death only two years after Lady Regina’s death. It’s sad, of course, but one must admit it’s rather romantic.”
Lewis blinked at the ferocious Miss Heath. Romantic? When did throwing one’s life away for love—or anything, really—come to be seen as romantic? Lewis had always particularly hated the end of plays and books where somebody killed themselves or wasted away for no apparent reason due to spurned love, lost love, or some other ridiculous love-related reason.
“I agree.” Lady Lavinia said to her son’s endless surprise. “Although, it must be said that the poor man had very little to live for. His poor daughter was left absolutely penniless.”
Lewis sucked in a breath. “A daughter? He had a daughter?”
“Yes, Lady Imogene O’Reilly, Lady Karina’s niece. You’ll meet her today. She lives with the Pembertons,” Lady Lavinia explained. “The poor girl hasn’t a penny. Lady Karina scooped her up from an orphanage in Ireland after her father died. She would have been about four, I think, so I daresay all she can remember of her childhood is living with her aunt and uncle.”
“She has much to be grateful for,” Miss Heath said firmly. “How easy it would have been for her to have died in misery and poverty.”
“The two don’t always go hand in hand,” Lewis mumbled, earning himself a sharp glare from his mother.
“Is she likely to marry, do you think?” Lady Lavinia asked Miss Heath, who shrugged in reply.
“She’s twenty now, if she’s a day. I hate to say it, but the girl is well past it.”
Lewis snorted, and this time both women turned to glare at him.
“What was that, Lewis?” Lady Lavinia asked tartly.
“Well, twenty is hardly old,” Lewis pointed out. “I’m twenty-four, and…”
“Yes, and it’s high time you were married.”
“Perhaps, but there’s no talk of me being past it. In fact, I’m considered to be in my prime, with plenty of time ahead of me to find a wife. Yet, Lady, um…”
“Lady Imogene O’Reilly,” Miss Heath helpfully supplied.
“Yes, thank you. Lady Imogene O’Reilly, four years my junior, is quite an old maid. That seems unfair, doesn’t it?”
Lady Lavinia sighed heavily, making a gesture as if to brush away her son’s inconvenient opinions. “That is different, Lewis, and I think you know it.”
“How is it different, Mamma?”
“Well, for a start, Lady Imogene is a woman, and if I have to tell you that the world takes a very different view of women to men, then I must conclude that you’ve been breathing in too many paint fumes. Also, Lady Imogene is penniless. She has no land, no dowry, no prospects, nothing beyond what her rich uncle and aunt may choose to give her. She is dependent, through no fault of her own, and marriage is the only way she can secure herself a real future.”
“I still don’t think it’s fair,” Lewis mumbled.
Lady Lavinia and Miss Heath exchanged glances, making Lewis feel like a disobedient child in front of long-suffering parents.
“I think you should focus your attention on Lady Karina’s daughters, who do have dowries and prospects,” Lady Lavinia said firmly. “They are both lovely young ladies, and both came out together this Season—which you missed, by the way. They were a tremendous success.”
“A success, but no offers,” Miss Heath pointed out. “Perhaps they’re a little too spoilt.”
“Or a little too young,” Lewis chimed in. “Didn’t you tell me they were only sixteen and seventeen, Mamma?”
“Nonsense. Elizabeth is the oldest, and she will have a fine portion. I would like you to seriously consider her, Lewis. I am quite serious about this. It is time for you to marry, and if you don’t settle on one of the Pemberton girls, I shall expect you to fix on some other young lady soon enough.”
“Mother, I don’t wish to marry. I am married to my art, remember?”
Lewis turned to look out of the window, but Lady Lavinia leaned forward, grabbing his wrist in her hand, forcing him to look at her. Her fingertips dug into his skin, and her icy gaze chilled him to the bone.
His mother was not making a joke. She was deadly serious, and Lewis felt a shiver run down his spine.
“I mean it, Lewis,” Lady Lavinia said. “Your father is in full agreement with me, but you are quite welcome to write to him in India if you like and get his opinion on the subject. I don’t object to your painting as long as it does not interfere with your real life, do you understand?”
Lewis nodded numbly, feeling the full weight of his mother’s personality come crashing down on him. Not for the first time, he wished he could have inherited a pair of gimlet eyes and an iron will like hers, instead of an artistic temperament.
“Perhaps,” Lady Lavinia continued, with the air of one making a suggestion that was not really a suggestion at all, “you might try painting a family portrait of the Pembertons. I’m sure they would love that. You might even want to paint the ladies individually.”
“I will, perhaps.” Lewis managed.
Lady Lavinia gave a brief nod and sat back, satisfied her point had been made. She turned back to Miss Heath, and they resumed their conversation.
All good humour in the carriage had gone now. Lewis was beginning to understand just how far his mother was willing to go to see him married off. Still, he was his own man, of independent means—well, mostly. She could not force him to make an offer, and he could only hope that the ladies Elizabeth and … Anne? Was it Anne? … would be unsuitable brides.
Still, he could paint them. Ladies always liked to have their likenesses taken, and it would be a good opportunity to show his mother he was taking the business of “finding a suitable lady” seriously, without actually making any promises to anyone.
At least, that was how it ought to go.
The name Imogene O’Reilly rang a bell, however. Lewis strained his memory, sure he had met her before. He imagined a blurry image of a small, neat young girl, with clouds of dark hair and a serious expression.
He couldn’t conjure up any more detail than that. Shrugging, Lewis leaned back in the seat and feigned sleep. He wasn’t sure he could take any more of his mother’s shrewd, all-knowing stare, or Miss Heath’s quiet but visible disapproval.
I ought to have ridden, or at least sat with the coachman and Stevens, Lewis thought miserably. Although, the summer may not be a total loss. The Pemberton girls were said to be quite pretty, and Lady Imogene was likely fairly good-looking, too. They would be a pleasure to paint, and who knew—one of them might be his muse.
Lewis’ heart sped up at the idea. The thought of finding the perfect person to paint, somebody to draw over and over again, is the root of many masterpieces. He had never yet found a figure or face he wanted to paint more than once or twice. Besides, all the great masters had their muses. Muses were an inspiration, and without inspiration, a painter was nothing.
Well, well. He would see. Lewis knew better than to talk about his desire for a muse to his mother. If he told her he was searching for a lady to act as his muse, Lady Lavinia would presume he was looking for a girl pretty enough to paint, and then marry. In reality, one’s relationship with one’s muse was so much more complicated than that. It was a difficult thing to explain, and Lady Lavinia simply did not have an artistic bone in her body.
Lewis wasn’t sure he could stand to be mocked, and his mother could be particularly cutting at times. So, he kept his eyes closed and pretended to be asleep until sleep really did take him. The carriage rattled on and on, drawing ever closer to its destination.
Miss Heath elbowed Lewis in the side when they were crunching up the gravel drive to the Pembertons’ house, giving him only a few moments to tidy his clothes and smooth his hair. They had arrived.
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel“Imogene, His Courteous Muse”. Claim your copy now on Amazon!