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Authors: Daisy Goodwin

The Duchesss Tattoo

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“The Duchess's Tattoo”
by Daisy Goodwin, author of
The American Heiress

London 1895

Mr. Palmer was working on the thirty pieces of silver when the bell rang. He was experimenting with a shade of mauve that gave the blood money just the right tinge. It was his subtle palette that made him the choice of the discerning customer, that and the artistry of his designs which paid for these premises in fashionable Bond Street, a long way from the back room in Cable Street where he had started out, inking the names of sweethearts onto the brawny biceps of sailors. Palmer dared to hope that one day his art would be considered sufficiently respectable to allow him to display a royal warrant. He was, after all, as entitled to one as Asprey's the jewellers next door. Hadn't he practiced his craft on His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and his son the Duke of York? He had even worked for the Duchess of York, although he doubted whether he would ever be allowed to display her coat of arms.

“There's someone here to see you, sir.” Betty's voice interrupted his thoughts. A lady,” she added in a whisper.

Palmer put down his needle. “We'll finish this later, Sam. Another hour or two should do it.”

Sam got up from the table, where he had been lying face down, and stretched out his massive shoulders. Christ and his disciples were ranged across his back, from Doubting Thomas on the right shoulder to Judas on the left. The Son of God was blessing the bread and wine somewhere to the left of Sam's spine.

It was Palmer's most magnificent piece yet. He was going to display it at the Berlin Exhibition, along with his depiction of M. Eiffel's extraordinary tower, which stretched up the back of the sailor's right calf.

The tattooist pushed back the heavy velvet portiere that hung over the door to his studio and went into the small waiting room. He saw at once that Betty had been correct in describing his visitor as “a lady.” Although most of his female visitors were well dressed, there was often a touch of gaudiness that betrayed their humble origins. But this woman was the real thing. She was wearing a navy blue costume trimmed with sable, and a neat round hat with a veil. She was so impeccably turned out that Palmer wondered whether she might be foreign, French perhaps. English ladies, in his experience, cultivated a certain shabbiness; he thought of the minute darn on his last Countess's jacket sleeve. But this young woman looked as though she had never worn anything that wasn't brand new.

From habit, Palmer looked for skin and found a thin band of flesh between her glove and the top of her sleeve. He could see from the dusting of hairs that she was a redhead, with the waxy white skin that would make the perfect background to one of his more elegant designs. Too often his most delicate work was obscured by darker hair.

He introduced himself and asked, “How can I help you, madam?” He did not pause for her to tell him her name as, in his experience, his female clients, the respectable ones at least, preferred at this stage to remain anonymous. His visitor lifted her veil and he could see that she was young, barely into her twenties, he guessed. There was something familiar about her face. Was she an actress after all? Surely not; she was too shy to be on the stage. The woman looked at him, and he saw that her eyes were such a light brown as to be almost golden.

She cleared her throat and said hesitantly, “I was given your name by the Duch…I mean by an acquaintance.”

She stopped, blushing at her own slip. Palmer could tell from the sound of her voice that she was an American and, from the size of the diamond drops dangling from her earlobes, a rich one. Suddenly he remembered where he had seen her face before—in the
Illustrated London News
. She was Cora Cash, the famous Dollar Princess who had exchanged her enormous fortune for the title of Duchess of Wareham earlier in the year. The paper had called her the richest girl in the world and the Duke the luckiest fortune hunter in Britain. But looking at the girl in front of him, Palmer thought that the Duke was lucky in every respect.

“My friend tells me that you are the best in London,” the Duchess said.

Mr. Palmer tried and failed to look modest. In the end he nodded, acknowledging the truth of this reputation. “I believe I am one of the more artistic practitioners in the field.”

The Duchess began to peel off one of her kid gloves. When he saw how white and unmarked the skin of her hand was, Palmer almost gasped.

“I have some pattern books you could look at,” he said. “From Japan. Some lovely designs that are very popular with my lady clients.”

The American Duchess shook her head. “Actually, that won't be necessary. I know exactly what I want.” The glove was completely off now, and she held up her slender wrist crossed by delicate blue veins. She pointed to a spot an inch below her palm,

“I want a snake that goes around my wrist like this—” she traced a circle around her wrist with her other kid-gloved finger— “and ends up with its tail in its mouth. I want it to be green, jade green.” She looked up at him, her outstretched hand trembling slightly. “I hope it won't be too painful.”

Palmer paused and then said slowly, “I am afraid the wrist is one of the more sensitive areas of the body. If you are worried about the pain, may I suggest a—” he tried to find the appropriate word— “a fleshier place.”

But the Duchess was not listening. “No, it has to be the wrist. That's where people have them—covered with a bracelet, of course.” She smiled, and Palmer again thought how lucky the Duke had been, to find a wife so rich and so lovely. And she had the most remarkable skin; it was the first time in his professional career that Palmer had actually encountered skin that really did look like alabaster. He imagined putting a swallowtail butterfly on her white shoulder. But the Duchess was still talking with her American twang. Now that she had got over her initial shyness, she seemed happy to chatter away as if she was enjoying the sound of her own voice. Palmer wondered if this American girl might perhaps be a little lonely.

“I might as well tell you, you look like a man of discretion.” Palmer inclined his head. “My mother-in-law, the Double Duchess, has one.” Palmer nodded; he knew all about the Duchess of Beaufort's tattoo, having applied it himself.

“She's called the Double Duchess because she married two Dukes in a row. Back home, we would call that positively greedy, but then we don't have any titles.” She rolled her eyes and went on, “I wondered why she always wore this big diamond bracelet. I mean, she makes such a fuss about things being too showy and yet she wears this great big thing all day long, and even I know you don't wear diamonds before lunch.” Her hand went instinctively to the gems dangling from her ears.

“But I didn't dare ask her about it. Englishwomen, I've discovered, can be very funny about direct questions. But then one day I saw her washing her hands. She had taken the bracelet off and I saw the snake.”

“It's called an Ouroboros,” said Palmer. “It's an ancient symbol of fertility.”

“Oh, really.” The Duchess blushed, and Palmer had the satisfaction of seeing the red flush work its way across her face. She coughed again and then resumed her story,

“The Double Duchess saw me looking at it, and she said that it was quite the fashion now to have these tattoos done, and that you were the only place to go. To be honest, I was rather surprised she was so forthcoming. I don't think I am quite the daughter-in-law she hoped for. She isn't very fond of Americans. I mean she doesn't actually say so, but then she doesn't have to; if she thinks I am being too vulgar and American, she does this thing with her nose—it actually moves independently of her face. I've never seen anything like it. I guess it goes with being an aristocrat, like strawberry leaves.” She giggled, and her hand flew to her mouth.

“Anyway, when I saw the snake, I knew I had to have one. I may be American, but I know how to be fashionable.” She reached into her reticule and took out a morocco leather box tooled in gold. She pressed the catch, and the lid sprang open to reveal a bracelet quite dense with diamonds.

“I brought this with me so that you could make sure that the tattoo fits under it exactly. It comes from Asprey's. When I went in there and told them I was looking a diamond bracelet about an inch thick, they knew exactly what I was looking for. They had three of them on a special tray.”

Yes, thought Palmer, they would.

“I want it done now because we are going to stay at Ventnor next week and the Prince of Wales will be there. I haven't met him yet, and I do so want to make a good impression. I hear he only likes fashionable women, so I thought I should get the very latest thing.”

Palmer looked down at the diamonds on the bed of blue velvet and at his visitor's long white fingers. He felt the hairs on his arm prickle. Could this girl really be unaware of what she was asking him to do? It seemed hardly possible that someone moving as she did in high society could be oblivious to the significance of the snake tattoo. But perhaps he was being fooled by her youth and faux naïveté perhaps she knew very well. He thought of the three wrists he had inked with the ouroboros in jade green at thirty guineas each. Wrists that belonged to some of the most
experienced
women in London, including the American Duchess's own mother-in-law. It was difficult to credit that this radiant young woman was part of that particular club. He found himself shaking his head almost without realizing it.

“Forgive me if I am being impertinent, Your Grace.” The Duchess blinked as she registered that Palmer had recognized her. “But does your husband know that you are here?”

The Duchess laughed. “Of course not; that would spoil the surprise. Ivo thinks that I have no idea how English society works. He calls me his little savage, as if I grew up in a teepee with feathers in my hair instead of in the biggest home on Fifth Avenue. That's why I want to do this, I want to show him that I don't need him to tell me every single thing—that I am quite capable of being as smart as any of them.” Her voice grew a shade defiant during this speech, and Palmer realized that the Duchess was not finding it altogether easy to take the place in society that her wealth, beauty and position should entitle her to.

“All these women like my mother-in-law—” the Duchess went on— “they're like a club with their own rules. They sneer at you all the time for getting things wrong, but no one will tell you what the rules are. The men aren't so bad, but it is the women who matter.”

Palmer looked at her slender white wrist with longing. It would be a rare pleasure, he thought, to add the finishing touch to such perfection. Really, he would almost pay to work on such a canvas, but he knew his duty.

“I am very sorry, Your Grace, but I am afraid that I simply don't have the time at the moment to undertake such a commission. The Berlin Exhibition is coming up, and I have a major work to complete before them.” This much, at least, was true.

The Duchess shook her head in disbelief. “But Duchess Fanny told me it wouldn't take more an hour to do it. Surely you could spare an hour?” She gave him a smile, and Palmer felt his mouth go dry. “If it's a question of the fee, I can assure sure that I am good for whatever you care to charge.” Her smile broadened; when it came to money the Duchess clearly had no doubts as to her competence and expertise.

Palmer caught a snatch of her scent as she tilted her head toward him, and he felt his resolve weaken; but then he thought of the three other wrists encircled by the snake tattoo.

“It's not a question of money, Your Grace. A tattoo, I must remind you, is irrevocable. For some people they bring back pleasant memories, but for others they can be a permanent reminder of a mistake.”

The American Duchess frowned. “But I am not making a mistake.”

Palmer winced as he saw the furrow in the creamy skin of her forehead, but replied, “With respect, Your Grace, I don't think you have all the information.”

She stared at him for a moment and then dropped her chin and stood up. He could see that she was angry; there were red welts forming on her neck. He wondered if she was going to cry, and if so, whether he would be able to resist those tears.

But her pride won out. Closing the bracelet case with a resounding snap, the Duchess said coldly, “I shall just have to go elsewhere, then.”

Palmer shook his head. “I am afraid that won't be possible. That particular shade of green is my own patented invention.”

The Duchess was trying to pull on her gloves, but her hands were shaking so much that she tore the delicate kid leather with her nail. “I suppose it's because I am an American that you won't do it. Sometimes I wish that I had never come to this horrid, unfriendly country.”

Palmer saw that her eyes were glistening now. But he knew better than to respond. He opened the door for her and said, “Good afternoon, Your Grace.”

She swept past him without looking at him, Palmer could see that one tear had escaped and was already rolling down her cheek. He clenched his fist, suppressing the urge to wipe away that tear.

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