Lady Higgins has already delivered two fine sons to her husband, so her future and the future of their estate are secured. She sits across from me looking young, innocent and weary, her clothes more function than fashion. A collar of lace sits high and protective around her neck, as she displays a ring Lord Higgins bought from the Ural Mountains in Russia, which looks impractical and not at all her taste. It’s a Siberian faceted beryl, which sits aloft her delicate finger like a small mountain.
“Lord Higgins, what took you to Russia?” I inquire.
“I went as a representative of the Church of England and also for my own intellectual curiosity. There is a great deal of unrest in Russia these days. Factory workers and mill workers are striking to defend their rights and elevate their moral and religious status. But this is not well received by the current Tsar. A Father Gapon is leading the revolution against the Tsar’s autocracy by cooperating with radicals. There is bloodshed and I fear the worst from the regime.” He pauses, looking troubled. “But this is not appropriate dinner conversation. Forgive me. What of you, Lady Attwood? I hear you’ve engaged an art teacher near Scarborough.
The parlor maid removes the saddle of mutton and roasted potato, renewing the cleanliness of the tablecloth with a crumb knife.
“Mr. Whidbey comes highly recommended,” I answer. “I will begin my studies on Monday. Sonia, my ladies maid, will accompany me to town. I am eager to commence my studies, having recently viewed new paintings by women from France, working in a new impressionist style. They are intimate and emotive, a genuine inspiration to the craft.”
Lord and Lady Higgins disapprove of my pastime, thinking I should busy myself with affairs of family instead, but say nothing. Awkward pity hangs in the air, as potent as the lemon-rosemary from the roast. When the room can bear the hush no longer, Lord Higgins yields. “I’m sure you’ll produce lovely landscapes, the blessing of your gender freeing you from the menial tasks of grinding color and reproducing a master’s work.”
John wipes his mouth, picks up his goblet and begins twisting the stem. “Ivy is interested in painting portraits,” he replies. “Her interest lies in human elements, more than the out of doors.”
Lord Higgins stiffens. “Obviously that is out of the question when there can be no life drawing for reasons of decorum, and portraits can not be accurately painted without classes in anatomy.” He begins to soften, turning his gaze toward me. “Have you considered the convent, Lady Attwood? The sisters there do wonderful work copying manuscripts. Many are very artful. That might be better suited to your character.”
John stands, his napkin folded on the plate. “Shall we have dessert in the drawing room?”
Lord Higgins rises, walks to his wife and waits in back of her chair. John continues. “Lady Higgins, would you honor us by playing the harpsichord? My wife tells me you play very well.”
I study Lord Higgins in the mirror above the fireplace. His jaw is set, his shoulders slightly slumped and his hair, red and curly. His sideburns run full and crimson, falling beyond his ear, nearly squaring the set of his mouth. His collar stands stiff and white against a black dinner jacket, more vicar than lord. His appearance is youthful and earnest, despite his worldliness. I memorize his appearance, daydreaming of painting his features on wood to match his unyielding views.