‘Absolutely marvellous. A triumph.’ Sir Romney Kirn rubbed his meaty hands together enthusiastically, his fingers like plump sausages, as he gazed at the canvas which had just been unveiled to him. ‘Quite, quite splendid. I’d say he’d done me justice, would not you, my love?’
‘Indeed, my dear,’ his good lady agreed. ‘One would even go so far as to say he has made you more handsome and distinguished than you are in the flesh, if that were possible.’
Sir Romney Kim was not a man short of flesh, nor much given to modesty. The glow which suffused his already ruddy and bloated face was therefore most likely attributable to a surfeit of port the previous evening. Lady Kirn turned, her corsets creaking disconcertingly, towards the artist responsible for her husband’s portrait. ‘Your reputation as a genius is clearly well deserved, Signore,’ she said with a simpering little laugh, her eyelashes fluttering alarmingly.
She was clearly smitten, and in front of her husband to boot. Had she no shame? Giovanni di Matteo sighed. Why did women of a certain age insist on flirting with him. In fact why did women of all ages feel it necessary to throw themselves at him? It was tedious beyond belief. He gave the merest hint of a bow, anxious to be gone. ‘I am only as good as my subject, my lady.’
It worried him that the lies flowed with such practiced ease. The baronet, a bluff man whose interests began and ended with hop farming had, over the course of several excruciating sittings, imparted his encyclopaedic knowledge of the crop while he posed, a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in his hands – a volume which he admitted bluffly had not previously been opened, let alone read. The library which formed the backdrop to the portrait had been purchased as a job lot and had, Giovanni would have been willing to wager, remained entirely unvisited since its installation in the stately home – also recently acquired, following Sir Romney’s elevation to the peerage.
Giovanni eyed the glossy canvas with the critical eye his clients sorely lacked. Technically, it was a highly accomplished portrait: the light; the angles; the precise placing of the subject within the composition, Sir Romney being posed in such a way as to minimise his substantial girth and make the most of his weak profile; all were perfect. An excellent likeness, his clients said. They always did, and indeed it was, in as much as it portrayed the baronet exactly as he wished to be seen.
It was Giovanni’s business to create the illusion of authority or wealth, sensuality or innocence, charm or intelligence, whichever combination his sitter desired. Beauty – of a kind. This polished, idealistic portrayal was what his clients sought in a di Matteo. It was what he was famed for, why he was sought after, and yet, at the peak of his success, ten years since arriving in England, the country he had made his home, Giovanni stared with distaste at the canvas and felt like a failure.
It had not always been like this. There had been a time when a blank canvas filled him with excitement. A time when a finished work made him elated, not desolate and drained. Art and sex. He had celebrated one with the other back in those days. Illusions both, like the ones he now painted for a living. Art and sex. For him, they used to be inextricably linked. He had given up the latter. Nowadays, the former left feeling cold and empty.
‘Now then Signore, here is the – er – necessary.’ Sir Romney, colouring, handed Giovanni a leather pouch rather in the manner of a criminal bribing a witness.
‘Grazie.’ He put the fee into the pocket of his coat. It amused him, the way so many of his clients found the act of paying for their portrait distasteful, unwilling to make the connection between the painting and commerce, for beauty ought surely to be priceless.
Refusing the dainty glass of Madeira which Lady Kirn eagerly offered, Giovanni shook hands with Sir Romney and bade the couple farewell. He had an appointment in London tomorrow. Another portrait to paint. Another blank canvas waiting to filled. Another ego waiting to be massaged. And another pile of gold to add to his coffers, he reminded himself, which was the whole point, after all.
Never again, no matter if he lived to a hundred, would Giovanni have cause to rely on anyone other than himself. Never again would he have to bow to the wishes of another, to shape himself into the form another expected. He would not be his father’s heir. He would not be any woman’s plaything. Or man’s for that matter – for there were many men of a certain type, wealthy and debauched, who liked to call themselves patrons but who were more interested in an artist’s body than his body of work. His answer to those proposals had always been succinct – a dagger held threateningly to the throat – and always had the desired effect.
Never again. If he had to prostitute something to maintain his precious independence, then let it be his art and nothing else.
The room rented for the evening by the London Astronomical Society in Lincoln’s Inn Fields was already crowded when the young man slipped unnoticed into his seat, anxious to remain inconspicuous. The meetings of this learned body of astronomers and mathematicians were not open to the public, but the way had been paved for his attendance by one of the members, Charles Babbage. The connection had initially been a family one, Mr Babbage’s wife Georgiana being a remote cousin of Mr Brown, the name by which the young gentleman went upon occasions such as this, but a shared passion for mathematics had cemented the acquaintance into a somewhat unconventional, some might even say subversive, friendship.
Tonight, the Society’s president John Herschel was presenting his paper on double stars which had recently won him a gold medal. Though it was not an area in which our young man held a particular interest, primarily due to the fact that he had no access to a telescope of his own, Mr Brown took notes assiduously. He had not yet given up hope of persuading his father to purchase such an instrument by stressing the educational benefits which young minds, namely the younger siblings so indulged by his parent, could derive from star-gazing. Besides, Mr Herschel’s process of deduction based on reason and repeated observation was a technique common to all of the natural philosophies, including Mr Brown’s own particular area of interest.
Candles fluttered on the walls of the panelled room, which was dimly lit and stuffy. As the lecture progressed, coats were loosened and the levels of the decanters fell. The erstwhile Mr Brown, however, partook not a drop of wine nor removed his hat, never mind unbuttoned the bone buttons of his over-large frock coat. He was of considerably more tender years than the other members, if appearances were to be believed, with a soft cheek which looked to be untouched by a razor. His hair, what could be seen of it, was dark brown and corkscrew-curled giving him, frankly, a rather effete appearance. His eyes were an unexpected blue, the colour of a summer sea. Wide-spaced and dark-fringed, a close observer would perceive in them a hint of a sparkle, as if he were laughing at his own private joke. Whether from reticence or some other motive, Mr Brown took care not to allow any such close observation, hunching over his notebook, meeting no glances, chewing on his lower lip, shading his face with his hand.
The fingers in which he held his pencil were delicate, though the nails were sadly bitten, the skin around them picked raw and peeling. His slenderness was emphasised by the heavy folds of his dark wool coat. Under-developed, he looked to be, or simply under-nourished as studious youths often were, for they neglected to eat. At the Astronomical Society they were accustomed to such types.
As soon as the lecture was over, the applause given and the myriad of questions addressed, Mr Brown got to his feet, huddling into a voluminous black cloak which made him seem even slighter. To a kind enquiry as to whether he had enjoyed the President’s lecture he nodded gravely but did not speak, hurrying out of the room ahead of the other attendees, down the shallow steps of the building and into Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The gardens across the way loomed, silent and slightly foreboding, the trees dark shapes which logic told him were simply trees but which felt menacing all the same. ‘Be a man’ he muttered to himself. The words seemed to amuse him, and his amusement served to banish his trepidation.
The other buildings, once grand town houses, were these days almost all given over to offices of the law. Though it was after ten at night, lights burned in several windows. The shadow of a clerk huddled over his desk could be made out in the nearest basement. Conscious of the lateness of the hour, determinedly ignoring the lurking danger which any sensible person must be aware accompanied the location, our gentleman skirted Covent Garden and made his way towards Drury Lane. It would have been an easy thing to procure a Hackney here, but his destination was relatively close, and besides he had no wish to speed his arrival. Head down, keeping the brim of his hat over his face, he passed the brothels and gaming houses. Eschewing the quickest route along Oxford Street, he headed for the genteel streets of Bloomsbury and allowed his pace to slacken.
A distinct change came over Mr Brown as he neared Lord Henry Armstrong’s substantial town house in Cavendish Square. The sparkle left his eyes. His shoulders hunched as if he were retreating into himself. His steps slowed further. A combination of illicit thrill and intellectual stimulation had charged his blood and his brain during the meeting he had attended. Looking up at the tall, shuttered windows of the first floor drawing room which stared blankly down at him, he felt as if those sensations were literally draining away. Though he fought it, he could not conquer the feeling, not quite of dread but of dejection, which enveloped him.
He did not belong here, but there was no escaping the fact that it was his home. Through the closed drapes of the window on the ground floor to the left-hand side of the door, light glimmered. Lord Armstrong, a distinguished senior diplomat of many years standing who had contrived to retain his post and increased his influence in the newly-elected Duke of Wellington’s government, was working in his book room. Heart sinking, the young gentleman turned his key in the lock and made his way as silently as he could across the reception hall.
‘Cressida, is that you?’ the voice boomed.
The Honourable Lady Cressida Armstrong halted in her tracks, one foot on the bottom step of the staircase. She cursed in a most un-ladylike manner under her breath. ‘Yes, Father, it is I. Goodnight, Father’ she called, foolishly crossing her fingers behind her back and making for the staircase, diving as fast as she could for the sanctity of her bedchamber before she was discovered.