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Authors: Edward Marston

The Painted Lady

BOOK: The Painted Lady
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The Painted Lady

EDWARD MARSTON

‘A plague on it!’ cried Henry Redmayne, smacking the arm of the sofa with a petulant hand. ‘This is the worst news I ever heard in my entire life. It’s left me prostrate with grief.’

‘I feel betrayed,’ said Elkannah Prout, morosely.

‘We’ve
all
been betrayed, Elkannah. Every red-blooded man in London has been betrayed. Not to put too fine a point on it, our whole sex has been betrayed. And the sorriest victims of this betrayal are here in this room – you, me and poor Jocelyn.’

Henry indicated Jocelyn Kidbrooke, a portly man in his thirties who sat in a complete daze, still trying to absorb the grim intelligence. Kidbrooke’s podgy face was a study in dejection. Had his own wife been violently snatched from him, he could not have looked more melancholy. Prout, by contrast, thin, angular and still passably handsome, was seething with rage, barely able to contain himself as he perched on the edge of his chair. He kept bunching his fists pugnaciously and swearing under his breath.

Drawn together by disaster, the three of them were in the drawing room of Henry’s house in Bedford Street. Though they passed themselves off as gentlemen, they were confirmed rakes, pursuing lives of ceaseless pleasure in the capital city of dissipation. Prout was the oldest of them, a well-dressed bird of prey on the verge of forty. Henry Redmayne was younger but his wayward existence had robbed him of his good looks and
given him in return a pale, drawn, pinched countenance that was deeply etched by years of corruption. All three friends were fashionably dressed but it was Henry who wore the most ostentatious apparel and had the most flamboyant periwig.

‘I would never have believed it of her,’ he declared.

‘Nor I,’ said Prout. ‘It’s shameful.’

‘It’s nothing short of indecent, Elkannah. When a woman guards her maidenhood like the Crown Jewels, then she should, in all honesty, only yield it up to someone who truly deserves it. In short,’ said Henry, slapping his knee before rising to his feet, ‘to one of us. Damn it all – we’ve
earned
it.’

‘We spent time and money on the jilting baggage.’

‘I offered her my undying love.’

‘So did I, Henry – and so did Jocelyn.’

He gestured towards Kidbrooke but the latter was too absorbed in his thoughts to hear a single word that was being said. The others might talk of a shared feeling of betrayal. All that concerned Jocelyn Kidbrooke was his own misery. He did not hear the distant ring of the doorbell and he did not even look up when a servant showed a visitor into the room. Beaming happily, Sir Willard Grail made straight for Henry and shook his hand warmly.

‘Henry, my darling-sin, how is’t with you?’

‘Very ill,’ replied the other.

‘Such sadness among friends?’ He looked at the other two men. ‘What ails you? Why these long faces? Why this dreadful whiff of despair in my nostrils? Have I come to a house or a hospital?’

‘I can see that you have not yet heard, Sir Willard,’ said Prout.

‘Heard what?’

‘The hideous truth about Araminta Jewell.’

‘Dear God!’ exclaimed Sir Willard, bringing both hands up to his throat. ‘Do not tell me that the dear creature is dead.’

‘It’s worse than that.’


Worse
?’

‘The little traitor is married,’ said Henry.

Sir Willard Grail was dumbfounded. He was an affable man in his late twenties with an almost permanent smile on his lips. Tall, fair, lean and immaculately dressed, he cut an imposing figure. He did not look so imposing now. Reeling from the impact of the news, he seemed to shrink in size and lose all vitality. The characteristic smile was replaced by a grimace.

‘Araminta is
married
?’ he croaked.

‘In secret,’ said Henry. ‘Behind our backs.’

‘Married to whom? What sorcerer has bewitched her and stolen her away from us? Name the villain.’

‘My tongue will turn black when I do so.’

‘Why – who is the fellow?’

‘Sir Martin Culthorpe.’

‘Culthorpe?’ Sir Willard spat out the name like a foul poison that he had inadvertently tasted. ‘That angel of delight has
sacrificed
her virginity to Sir Martin Culthorpe? It’s unspeakable.’

‘But nevertheless true,’ admitted Prout. ‘It’s an insult to all of us. Culthorpe is a sanctimonious nonentity.’

‘Araminta does not think so,’ said Henry, ruefully.

‘What conceivable attraction can Culthorpe have for her?’

‘Extreme wealth and a title.’

‘I, too, have money,’ said Prout, thrusting out his chest.

‘But no title.’

‘I have a title,’ argued Sir Willard.

‘Yet you lack the affluence to go with it,’ noted Henry. ‘And without wishing to be overly pedantic, I have to point out that you, Sir Willard – like Jocelyn here – are already married. Elkannah and I were the only bachelors in the hunt.’

‘Apart from Culthorpe, that is.’

‘A vile thief who stole the richest jewel in Christendom.’ Henry flopped into a chair and stared vacantly at a painting of rampant satyrs in pursuit of a trio of naked nymphs. ‘It’s an ignominy that must not be borne, gentlemen. We are victims of a heinous crime.’

With a nod of agreement, Sir Willard lowered himself on to a chair. All four of them brooded in silence. Araminta Jewell was, by common consent, the most beautiful young woman in London and the fact that she kept her many suitors at arm’s length only added to her allure. She was everything that the four men sought in a mistress and they had been so beguiled by her charms that they formed a Society for the Capture of Araminta’s Maidenhood. The person fortunate enough to win his way into her bed was also destined to collect the large reward to which they had all generously contributed.

A disturbing thought made Henry sit up with a start.

‘Hell and damnation!’ he howled. ‘Does this mean that we have to forfeit the contents of our fund to Sir Martin Culthorpe?’

‘Never!’ said Prout, defiantly.

‘He achieved what four of us signally failed to do.’

‘All that I lacked was time, Henry. Give me another month and she would have wilted under the pressure of my blandishments.’

‘I looked to have seduced her within a fortnight,’ said Henry.

‘Away with these fond imaginings!’ said Sir Willard, testily.

‘You do but cry over spilt milk and that’s ever a foolish exercise. As for Culthorpe, he’ll not get a penny from us because he was not party to the wager, and I’ll not pay any man to bed his wife.’

‘Had I wed Araminta,’ said Henry, ‘you’d have had to pay me.’

‘There was no mention of marriage in the articles we drew up.’

‘Nor was it excluded, Sir Willard. I was always impelled more by love than by lust. For her sake,’ he went on, dramatically, ‘I’d have endured all the restrictions of holy matrimony.”

Sir Willard smiled urbanely. ‘Choose the right wife and there
are
no restrictions,’ he observed.

‘The matter is settled, then,’ said Prout. ‘Culthorpe gets no reward from us and the Society is hereby disbanded. My vote is
for raiding the purse and spending it in a night of uninhibited abandon.’

‘A capital notion, Elkannah.’

‘But one too hastily conceived.’ Henry was thoughtful. ‘Why disband our Society when it can simply be re-christened? Why squander the money when it can be won afresh?’

‘How?’ asked Sir Willard.

‘How else but by seeking our revenge? The milk may be spilt but it’s still sweet enough for us to lick. Since we cannot secure the lady’s maidenhood, we can at least cuckold the rogue who did.’

‘Two horns on the head of Sir Martin Culthorpe.’

‘With the man who puts them there taking the prize.’

‘I like the idea,’ said Prout with enthusiasm.

‘I love it,’ said Sir Willard. ‘What about you, Jocelyn?’

All three of them turned to Jocelyn Kidbrooke, still seated and still deep in thought. Eyes blazing, he gnashed his teeth audibly.

‘Did you hear my suggestion?’ prompted Henry. ‘The chase is still on and the winner takes all. What’s your view of Culthorpe?’

Kidbrooke looked up. ‘Something must be done about him.’

‘That’s why the Society must have a new objective.’

‘There can be only one objective with regard to Sir Martin Culthorpe,’ said Kidbrooke with quiet intensity. ‘Araminta is in need of salvation. We must get rid of her husband.’

 

‘How soon will you be ready to start?’ asked Sir Martin Culthorpe.

‘As soon as the lady is ready for me,’ said Villemot. ‘I hear so much about your wife’s beauty that I long to meet her.’

‘I want you to immortalise that beauty on canvas, Monsieur.’

‘Then you come to the right man.’

Jean-Paul Villemot struck a pose, chin held up and arms spread out with a dancer’s grace. He was a swarthy man in his
late thirties with a neat black moustache and beard giving definition to a gaunt face. His command of English was good but it was filtered through a strong French accent. Like Van Dyke and Lely, he was a portrait painter who had built up such a reputation in England that he was constantly in demand there. They were in his studio, a large, low-ceilinged, untidy room filled with half-finished paintings, discarded sketches and the pungent smell of artist’s materials. A black cat nestled in a chair. An easel stood near the window to catch the light.

‘Araminta will come here tomorrow,’ said Sir Martin.

‘How long have you been married?’

‘Three weeks.’

‘Three weeks?’ echoed Villemot. ‘And you are ready to let a young wife out of your sight? I see you are no Frenchman.’

Sir Martin straightened his back. ‘I’m a true-born Englishman,’ he attested, ‘and proud to be so. That means I have the most profound respect for the fairer sex.’

‘So do I,
mon ami
. I love, honour and respect the ladies.’

The Frenchman’s raised eyebrow went unseen by his visitor. Sir Martin Culthorpe was clearly not a man for innuendo and he was patently lacking any sense of humour. His face was pleasantly ugly, his expression one of beetle-browed seriousness. Now in his forties, he was upright, well-built and of medium height. While the artist wore colourful attire in the French fashion, his client chose only the most sober garments. Sir Martin was a rich landowner, known for his piety and his charitable inclinations. During the rebuilding of London in the wake of the Great Fire, more than one church rising from the ashes was doing so with the help of Sir Martin Culthorpe, who saw it as his Christian duty to restore the spiritual fabric of the capital.

‘Now,’ said Villemot, rubbing his hands together, ‘we come to the very important point.’

‘Have no fears on that score, Monsieur. I’m a wealthy man. I know that you are expensive but I want only the best. I have heard your terms and accept them willingly.’

‘I do not talk of money, Sir Martin.’

‘Oh?’

‘I talk only of clothing. I think, maybe, that you would prefer that your wife, she is painted in a dress.’

‘Of course,’ said Sir Martin, stiffly. ‘Isn’t that always the case?’

‘No, no,’ replied the artist with a broad smile. ‘Some husbands, they like to see their wives or lovers
deshabille
. Look, I show you.’ Moving to his easel, he drew back the cloth that covered the portrait on which he was working. ‘
Voila
!’

Sir Martin gasped in horror. Pretending to be a Greek goddess was the nude figure of a gorgeous young woman, carrying a quiver of arrows that hid nothing of her ample curves. What stunned him was that Sir Martin believed he recognised the face as belonging to Lady Hester Lingoe and he recalled, with dismay, that she had always shown a keen interest in the Classical world. It had never occurred to him that she might take it to such lengths. Ashamed of what he had just seen, he turned away in disgust. Jean-Paul Villemot quickly drew the cloth over the painting.

‘It is not to your taste, I think,’ he remarked.

‘It most certainly is not,’ said Sir Martin, righteously. ‘I came in search of a portrait – not of an obscenity like that.’

The Frenchman shrugged. ‘What I am asked, I paint.’

‘Then I’ll ask for something very different, Monsieur.’

‘We come back to the lady’s wardrobe, then.’

‘My wife has already chosen what to wear.’

‘But she may not have chosen well,’ said Villemot, wagging a finger. ‘Lady Culthorpe only sees what is in the looking-glass. Jean-Paul Villemot, he has the eyes of the artist.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I will pick out the colour to enhance your wife’s beauty and the fashion to display her at her best. Let her bring three or four dresses and try them on for me.’

‘That’s far too unseemly,’ protested Sir Martin. ‘My wife is no
doll to be dressed and undressed at another man’s pleasure. If you must give advice about what Araminta should wear, you will have to visit our home and explore her wardrobe.’


Tres bien
! I will come this very afternoon.’

‘We’ll be ready for you, Monsieur.’

‘And the portrait, it is of your wife only?’

‘Who else?’

‘Many husbands, they like to celebrate their marriage with a painting of themselves and their bride. This is not for you?’

‘No,’ said Sir Martin, firmly. ‘My face does not belong inside a gilt frame. It’s too unsightly. I would only spoil the picture.’

‘As you wish.’

‘That brings us to the question of your fee, Monsieur Villemot. I know that you do not ask for money until the portrait is finished but I insist on paying in advance.’

‘Thank you,’ said the artist, taking the fee from him, ‘though it was not necessary. I never want the money before I start. The only thing I want from my clients is that they keep to one simple rule.’

‘Rule?’

‘When someone sits for me, he or she must be alone.’

‘But I was hoping to accompany my wife.’

‘Then you need to find another artist to paint her portrait,’ said Villemot, folding his arms with a flash of temperament. ‘While I work, I do not allow anyone to look over the shoulder. It holds me back. I must have – what do you call it? – the freedom of expression.’

BOOK: The Painted Lady
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