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Authors: Rita Cameron

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BOOK: Ophelia's Muse
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“Why don't you make an offering?” Jeannie teased. “Maybe you'll have a vision of your husband tonight! Here,” she said, stooping to pick up a flower that one of the little girls had dropped, then handing it to Lizzie. “Willing to try your luck for a glimpse of your white knight?”
Lizzie shook her head, but she put the flower into the pocket of her cloak. “I don't care what he looks like,” she said lightly, embarrassed that she had confided in Jeannie, who would surely spread gossip around the shop. “So long as he appears! I'm dying of boredom at Mrs. Tozer's—I must have some new adventure.”
“Just take care that you don't end up like Bess Bailey. She has adventure in spades now, to be sure.” Jeannie grinned at Lizzie and then gestured to a little street on her right. “I'm just up this way. I hope that they kept some supper warm! Goodnight then, Lizzie, and hurry home.”
She turned with a wave and darted up her street, leaving Lizzie, who had no intention of hurrying, alone in the midst of the crowded city.
Lizzie set off, determined to enjoy her solitude. No one would expect her at home for at least another hour, and it wasn't often that she had a few moments to herself. At home she shared a small room with her sister, Lydia, in a crowded house, where it always seemed that there was a baby crying or a teakettle screaming for attention. To be alone with her thoughts, or better yet, with a book of poetry, was a treat worth savoring.
Fleet Street was still crowded, even at this late hour. Newspapermen were stumbling back to work after a few at the pub, and messenger boys darted past them, running tips and copy between the offices. Wishing to escape the crush, she slipped down a side street and into the parklike oasis of the Inns of Court. A narrow path wound between the gracious limestone and brick chambers of the city's barristers, and through the windows Lizzie saw the glow of their lamps as they hunched over their writs and pleas. Passing under a stone arch, she entered a series of courtyards made pleasant by manicured hedges and whispering fountains. She was only steps from the noise of Fleet Street, but the Inns were so quiet that she could have been miles away. The tap of her boots hitting the flagstones was the only sound as she followed the path past an expanse of green lawn and down toward the Thames. Cutting right, she made for Blackfriars Bridge, which would lead her across the river and home to Southwark.
She paused on the bridge to lean against the stone rail and look out at the water below. The river shimmered darkly under the night sky, and a light fog rolled along its banks. The bridge was lively in the afternoons, but now it was quiet and shrouded in mist, and Lizzie was glad for the privacy that it offered.
She sighed and removed her gloves. It was a cool night, but she didn't hurry on. Instead, she placed her fingers against the cold stones of the bridge, using them to soothe her raw hands.
The sounds of the city washed over her: the lap of the water against the bank, sailors calling to each other from their ship decks, the hum of wheels and the crack of hooves as a carriage passed behind her. It was a pleasant change from the millinery, where the incessant gossip was punctuated only by the sharp voice of Mrs. Tozer, criticizing some poor girl's handiwork.
Lizzie had forgotten that it was St. Agnes' Eve. She thought of the girls throwing their flowers onto the church steps, and another, older memory of the night surfaced: Lizzie, at thirteen years old, slipping a dusty volume of Keats from the shelf in the parlor. She had carried the book to bed with her, and burned down one of her mother's precious candles reading a poem of romantic love fulfilled on the Eve of St. Agnes. She could still recite her favorite verse, and she now began to whisper the dreamy words to the night air:
They told her how, upon St. Agnes' Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey'd middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
Lizzie smiled and slipped her hand into her pocket. The flower was still there, wilted but intact. Glancing around to make sure that she was unobserved, she threw it into the river and began to mouth the words of the old chant: “Agnes sweet, and Agnes fair, hither, hither, now repair; bonny Agnes, let me see, the lad who is to marry me.”
The flower landed on the water and quickly sank below the surface. Her prayer had begun as a game, a moment's folly as she stood daydreaming. But as she stared down into the water, she struggled to contain the hope that beat against her chest and rose into her throat. “Please, please,” she whispered to the silent waters, “show me some sign that I will love, and be loved!”
But of course she saw nothing. The dark water offered no sign, and if she had allowed herself to indulge for a moment in childish hope, she now brushed it from her mind. It would take more than a whispered prayer to escape a life of drudgery in a millinery shop.
She was lost in her thoughts and plans when a footstep behind her brought her firmly back to the present. For one wild moment she imagined that this might be her vision, her future come to reveal itself. She had almost turned, a smile forming on her face, when she came to her senses. Whoever was behind her was no vision, but a living, breathing man.
The heavy footsteps drew nearer and she tensed, her skin growing clammy despite the cold. The empty bridge, so recently a haven, now felt desolate and foreboding.
The man was now close enough that she could hear the pant of his breath. With a chill, she caught the sour scent of alcohol on the air. It was a tramp, or worse. She pulled herself up to her full height before turning around, her most commanding expression on her face.
“Oh!” she said, letting out her breath. The man behind her was no tramp—he was an older gentleman, in evening clothes of obvious quality. There was nothing to fear from him. But as he came closer, too close, she saw that his cheeks were red with drink, and the broken vessels across his nose mapped a history of many such nights.
Lizzie began to edge away from him, but he stepped closer, blocking her way.
“Evening, pretty,” he slurred. “May I join you?”
“Certainly not!” Hands shaking, she pulled her cloak tighter, as if it offered her some real protection.
He grabbed her arm. “You look like a good sort of girl. D'you work in the shops? Let me show you a nice time—I'll take you out on the town! A pretty girl like you shouldn't be all alone.”
Lizzie looked across the bridge toward Southwark, wishing that she had just hurried home, as she ought to have done. If anyone she knew were to see her with this man, it could ruin her. She didn't dare to make a scene, but she had to get away.
“You must excuse me. My companion is waiting,” she cried, hoping that the specter of a chaperone might scare him off. She gestured toward the other side of the bridge. “I really must go,” she added, and then stopped, hating the pleading note in her voice.
“Your companion?” He squinted at the empty road. When he turned back to her, the thin veneer of drunken jollity had fallen from his face. “Now, don't be coy with me, or I'll teach you your place with the back of my hand.” He looked her up and down, taking her measure with his eye. “Girls like you are ten to a penny.”
Without warning, he tightened his hand around her arm and pulled her closer, his fat, ring-laden fingers holding her like a vise. She felt his hot breath against her cheek and shuddered.
“You're nothing so special as you think, missy,” he hissed. “Girls like you always end up lifting your skirts for some bloke or other. You all think you're different, but I know better.”
Their eyes met for a moment, and Lizzie recoiled at what she saw—neither pity nor desire, but only a terrible blankness. She tried desperately to pull away, but the man had her pinned firmly. She cried out, no longer caring what anyone might think, just wanting to get away. Her breath came fast and shallow, and her mouth felt dry. The man's face grew dim before her eyes, and her knees gave way with a sickening lurch.
The old drunk didn't hear the other man until he was nearly upon them. Lizzie saw him first, over the drunk's shoulder, a young man hurrying toward them, calling out and waving. As he drew nearer the drunk turned, surprised, and his hand went slack. Lizzie took her chance, twisting away from his grasp.
She ran without seeing, not wasting a moment or glancing behind her. She felt herself brush past the stranger, but she didn't stop.
“Wait! Miss! Are you all right?” he called. His voice, deep and calm, broke the spell that fear had cast upon her.
She took a few more steps, and then, feeling that she had gained a safe distance, she paused and looked over her shoulder. The drunk was leaning against the rail, and the other man had positioned himself between them. He looked at her curiously, and despite the fog, she thought she could see real kindness in his regard. Was it possible that his eyes were the same pale gray as her own? She watched as he looked at the drunk, his jaw setting with contempt. Could he guess what had happened?
The emotion of the last few minutes flooded through her, leaving her weak and shaking. She felt a mad impulse to go to this stranger, her rescuer; to lean on his arm and seek his protection. But the feeling diminished as quickly as it came, and instead she turned and ran on, anxious to get away.
The man called after her again, but she didn't stop and he didn't follow her. When she reached the street she gathered her courage and looked back, but she was alone. She turned and fled into the alleys of Southwark, grateful, for once, to be running toward the familiar outlines of its crumbling streets.
In the main hall of the Royal Academy of Arts, Dante Gabriel Rossetti found himself in the awkward position of nodding off during a lecture. Try as he might, he could not force his eyes to stay open, and his head dropped forward over and over, only to snap back to attention with a jerk.
The professor droned on in that aloof and nasal monotone particular to academics and the nobility, of which he was both. But his dry tone didn't stop the other students from leaning forward in their seats as they transcribed his every word with a chorus of scratching pencils. Rossetti alone was indifferent to the professor's words.
He was beginning to think that he would have to find his future outside of the halls of the Royal Academy, where conformity and tradition were valued above all else. He'd been drawn to the Academy by its excellent reputation and delighted when he was accepted; graduates of the Academy were practically guaranteed a steady income from their art, and even a chance at making a great name for themselves, so long as they painted in the accepted style. But to Rossetti, such a path was beginning to seem impossibly dull. He was twenty-one, and he felt himself too old for lessons and too young to compromise his ideas about art for a steady income earned with stodgy paintings. He stifled a yawn and stared idly at the paintings that hung on the walls above him while the professor continued his lecture.
The Royal Academy occupied quarters in the new National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, and the lecture hall was lined with an impressive collection of paintings in heavy gold frames. The pictures formed a catalogue of the Academy's illustrious history: a pompous self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Academy's founder; Sir Edwin Landseer's paintings of well-fed dogs and preening deer, which were much loved by Queen Victoria; and the dramatic seascapes of J. M. W. Turner, which were the best of the lot, in Rossetti's opinion.
Rossetti turned his attention back to the professor, who was smacking his stick against the side of the lectern for emphasis and saying, for at least the tenth time: “You must look to Raphael, you see, and nowhere else, for your proportions of light to dark. The light is an accent to be sparingly used. Do not be tempted to stray from these classical proportions. Raphael attained the highest excellence in execution and form, and it is toward his example that you must strive.”
Rossetti let out a snort, which was noted with raised eyebrows by a few students near him. Classical proportions were all well and good, Rossetti thought, but true art should celebrate vibrant color and the beauty of light, the romance of imagination and the truth of nature. It could hardly be denied that Raphael had attained near perfection when it came to the classical forms, but the Academy was now so slavishly dedicated to his example that they no longer cared, in Rossetti's opinion, whether a painting contained real truth or beauty.
The professor turned his attention to critiquing a bland painting that sat next to him on an easel, and Rossetti began to nod off again. The paintings above him swam and floated before his eyes: Landseer's dogs paddled through Turner's raging seas, while Sir Joshua Reynolds looked on from the deck of the ship, disapproving. “Sir Joshua, Sir Sloshua,” he muttered sleepily.
He leaned back in his chair, content to wait out the end of the lecture with a nap. But as he gazed at the Turner seascape, the professor's words echoed through his mind like the dissonant tones of a cracked bell: “You must look to Raphael, you see, and nowhere else, for your proportions of light to dark. The light is an accent to be sparingly used.” But here, right in front of him, was a painting that radiated light, as if it were illuminated from behind. He sat up straight and stared at the seascape as if he were seeing it for the first time. The golden sun bled into the water below and reflected off of every conceivable surface, gilding the edges of the clouds and the crests of the waves, and catching in the full sails of the ships. It captured the exact feeling of watching the sea, when the sun reflects so strongly off the water that you have to squint to look at it, and the clouds shift constantly overhead, bathing the shore in unreal washes of yellow and gray.
Rossetti let out a low laugh. So Turner had strayed from the rigid practices of the Academy, and yet they had hung his picture in a place of honor. Perhaps, he thought, the Academy's rules only applied to the mediocre. If you were truly great, a genius, they didn't give a damn if you followed the rules or not.
At last the class came to an end, and there was a general shuffling as the students stood up to leave. The student in the next chair noticed that Rossetti was still staring at Turner's seascape. “It's a fine painting,” he said.
“It's more than fine,” Rossetti declared. “It's genius.”
“Well, yes, of course,” the man said, taken back by Rossetti's zealous tone. “Turner is one of the Academy's most esteemed graduates.”
“It's genius,” Rossetti repeated, “but not for the reasons that you think. In fact, I suspect that if you've been listening to this travesty of a lecture, you're completely blind to the very things that make it great.”
“Well, I say!” The student stared at Rossetti, as if he suspected that he'd been insulted, but wasn't entirely sure how.
“Oh, never mind,” Rossetti muttered. There was no point in arguing over the merits of the Academy with its acolytes. He gathered up his portfolio and stalked off, leaving his fellow student staring in his wake.
Outside the lecture hall the other students were standing on the terrace overlooking Trafalgar Square and lighting pipes, popular among the more bohemian element at the Academy.
A tall, young man in a paint-spattered smock waved Rossetti over and slapped him on the back good-naturedly. “Dante! I can see that you got a lot out of that class. A lot of rest, that is. I saw you nodding off. Not too impressed with the learned old Academician?”
“Hardly,” Rossetti sniffed, not caring if the other students thought him arrogant. “This place becomes less of a school and more of a shrine every day.”
“Harsh words!”
“Perhaps. But what else am I to think when we are asked to worship dead masters as our gods, and make ourselves over in their images? There is nothing to be learned here. We would all be better off in a field, painting a flower and learning from nature.”
He spoke loudly and his words drew a small crowd of students, as they always did. Rossetti might have been considered eccentric by many at the Academy, but he was the sort of person who always drew others toward him. They may have admired him or despised him, but he was rarely ignored—even his critics were secretly proud of a kind word from him about their work. When Rossetti turned his attention on you, it was as if the sun shone brighter, and when he left a gathering it often signaled the end of the evening. But his growing resentment of the Academy was a sore point among many of the other students, for whom winning a place at the Academy was their proudest achievement. One of these students was shaking his head as Rossetti spoke. “I, for one, am honored to study at the feet of such masters!” he exclaimed.
“Then you shall learn to paint on your knees. What satisfaction is there in churning out pale copies of another man's work?”
The man flushed with anger, but before he could reply, Rossetti added: “Of course, the lecturers would be very pleased with your attitude. The Academy has a habit of rewarding cleverness in execution, rather than talent or originality.”
“And I suppose that you think yourself much possessed of the latter? Tell me, has all your talent and originality made you a rich man, or even gained you a single spot at the Exhibition?”
The other students laughed, and Rossetti colored. He had, as of yet, only sold a few small watercolors, and he'd finished no major works in oil that would be suitable for the Exhibition. But he had high hopes for his current picture, though its style, almost medieval, was so far from the current fashion for the picturesque that he had shown it to only a few close friends.
“If I'm not a rich man yet,” he said, “it's only because the public buys what the Academy sanctions—mostly fruit bowls and brown cows dotting a muddy country lane, as far as I can tell. I have no wish to paint decorations for drawing rooms.”
“And what do you want to paint, then?”
“Beauty and light! The style today has become so dark and dreary. We're taught to pay attention to form and perspective, at the cost of truth and beauty.” He spoke carefully, trying out an idea that was bound to be unpopular with the other students, but in which he fervently believed. “There was more perfection in a single face or scrap of tapestry in a medieval painting than there is in a whole gallery of Landseer's insipid portraits. I want to paint with the rich color and the pure light of the old Italian masters, before we became so enamored of Raphael's exacting ratios. I've no wish to make proficient paintings, when there is true beauty in the world.”
“But don't you find the earlier work quite primitive? All those saints with shining faces crowded in upon each other, with no perspective to speak of?”
“Hardly. Is beauty primitive? I want my art to celebrate beauty, as it is, as I see it. I don't want to bend it through the lens of what the Academy thinks is right, or proper, or appropriate.” He spat out the last word, as though it pained him.
“But surely you admit that Raphael is the greatest of all the masters?” pressed the other student. “That can no more be argued with by any sane man than that Shakespeare is the greatest writer of the English language!”
“I admit nothing of the sort. In fact, I propose to you that the works of Raphael were the first step in the long decline of Italian painting.”
A few students gasped at this sacrilege, but Rossetti continued unabashed. “They're not so bad in and of themselves, of course.” He paused as the men laughed at his casual tone. “But they had the unfortunate effect of setting a precedent, and a very static one at that, for every work that followed. They've made art so mannered, and so elegant, that it no longer shows anything of life. I want to break free from all that. I want to recapture the romance of the old masters.”
“Well, then, you are a pre-Raphaelite,” pronounced the smocked student, with a wondering laugh.
“Perhaps I am,” Rossetti agreed with a smile, breaking the tension. The square echoed with the sound of the bells at St. Martin's. Rossetti counted them silently . . . seven, eight, nine. “Damn, I'm late,” he said, nodding goodbye to the other students. He hurried down the steps and into the square. He thrust his hand into his pocket to see if he had a few shillings for a cab, but all that he came up with was a handful of old ticket stubs. No matter—his friends would surely not begin without him. It was he who had called the meeting, after all.
It had recently become fashionable among the students to form clubs around their artistic and political interests. Some were little more than drinking clubs with amusing names. A paper had recently been posted in the vestibule advertising for a Mutual Suicide Society, in which any member, weary of life, could call at any time upon another to cut his throat for him. This had caused a great deal of amusement, and garnered a fair number of signatures. But other societies were far more serious, with strictly observed rules and rites of membership. Tonight would be the first meeting of a new society, formed by Rossetti and his friends and fellow artists. By banding together, they hoped to give each other support in their pursuit of a new direction for British art. It was a bold plan, Rossetti knew. But what did he have to lose—besides his wits—if he had to endure any more tedious lessons at the hands of the old professors?
He cut across the wide expanse of Trafalgar Square and made his way through the winding streets toward the river and Blackfriars Bridge. He ducked down an alley where children scavenged in the refuse behind the shops, and factory men, fresh from the gin shop, staggered past him on their way home. Women with brightly painted faces and hollow eyes called out from the doorsteps, but Rossetti ignored them, intent on his purpose.
When he reached the foot of Blackfriars Bridge he stopped at the sight of a solitary girl at the far end of the bridge, leaning over the rail. For a moment it seemed that she meant to do herself harm, and he started toward her. But then he saw that she was only tossing something into the river, and he paused, curious. From where he stood he could see that she was plainly dressed, but a hint of red hair and the sweep of a high, perfect cheekbone were visible beneath her bonnet.
The fact that he was already late, and that a half-dozen men awaited his arrival, hardly crossed his mind. He was fascinated by the girl's graceful posture as she leaned against the rail and the porcelain-like curve of her cheek. It was like glimpsing the edge of a fine piece of stationery mixed among the dull pile of bills in one's mail, the creamy paper promising a glittering invitation or perfumed love letter. As a painter, he felt entitled—almost obligated—to indulge these romantic fancies, and tonight he imagined that he had spied a royal among the street rabble. A painting began to take shape in his mind: a girl on a bridge, but a bridge far from London. She was suddenly an Italian contessa, tossing an illicit love letter into the Arno in Florence.
He stood watching her, imagining the scene, and a line from Dante came to mind: “
My lady looks so gentle and so pure, when yielding salutation by the way . . .
” He was translating Dante Alighieri's love sonnets into English, and he couldn't help but be reminded of the moment when the poet had first seen his beloved muse, the lady Beatrice, in the streets of medieval Florence. The poet fell in love with Beatrice at first sight, and though the strictures of courtly love, and his own delicacy, prevented him from doing anything more than admiring her from afar, his passion lasted his whole life. Rossetti had often longed for such a love: a passion that would transform and inspire him, and give direction to his art.
BOOK: Ophelia's Muse
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