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Authors: Rita Cameron

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BOOK: Ophelia's Muse
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“Well, well, I never thought I'd see the day!” said a plump girl at the end of the table. “Miss Siddal 'as gotten herself in trouble. Behind on your orders, are you, Lizzie?”
Lizzie colored but remained silent. She didn't know why Mrs. Tozer might want to speak with her.
“I think she has a beau,” chimed in a thinner girl, with mousy brown hair. “I saw a fellow watching her in the shop this morning with eyes like a lovesick cow!”
“A beau!” the plump girl said. “I don't believe it. I never seen a girl that could cut a man down like Lizzie can. But I suppose even ice can melt.”
“I've no idea what you're talking about,” Lizzie said. She was proud that she knew how to keep unwanted attention at a distance, as her mother had taught her. A few of the other girls at the shop could have used such a lesson. They were always flirting with the clerks and errand boys who hung around the shop—boys who could offer them nothing but trouble. Lizzie turned back to her work, but the other girls had already seized upon the idea.
“Oh, come on,” the plump girl pressed. “Don't keep us guessing! Who's your handsome lad?”
“He must have an eye for redheads—thinks her fiery!” called out another girl.
“Nonsense,” Lizzie said, reaching up to smooth her hair.
“Well, maybe you don't have a beau, but you ain't so perfect as you would like everyone to think,” the mousy girl pouted. “I seen you three times this week reading a book in the storeroom when you was supposed to be putting away the fabrics.”
Lizzie bit her lip. She hadn't known that anyone had seen her little indulgence, glancing through a book of poems to break up the monotony of the day.
“What do you care?” Jeannie Evans snapped, coming to Lizzie's defense. “You're only jealous because you couldn't read a child's primer.”
This elicited a roar of laughter from the other girls, and the mousy girl scowled. Before she could make a retort, Mrs. Tozer entered the workroom, all bustle and the swish of starched skirts. “That's enough, girls. Back to work. I want to hear nothing but the sound of flying needles.” She looked over at Lizzie. “Miss Siddal, if you're finished, I'll see you now.”
Lizzie stood and followed Mrs. Tozer into a small office at the back of the shop. Mrs. Tozer dropped heavily into a chair and indicated that Lizzie should sit as well.
“It feels good to sit for a moment,” Mrs. Tozer said, kneading her hands against the small of her back. “It's hard work keeping after all you girls, you know! And the orders keep coming in, sometimes three or four for the same customer!”
Lizzie nodded, unsure why Mrs. Tozer should have called her aside. As far as she knew, her work had been satisfactory.
“Lizzie,” Mrs. Tozer began, with a confidential smile. “I have a very interesting proposal for you. It seems that you've caught the attention of one of our customers, a Mrs. Deverell. She has a son, a painter, and he wishes you to sit for a portrait.”
Mrs. Tozer's words caught Lizzie completely off guard. “A portrait? For an advertisement for the shop?”
Mrs. Tozer laughed. “No, dear, though that's certainly an idea! It's a proper portrait he wants.”
“There must be some mistake,” Lizzie said, thinking that she was being set up for some elaborate joke.
“No mistake, but between us, I was as surprised as you! I suggested that Miss Evans might be more suitable, but he seemed set on having you.” Mrs. Tozer paused, perhaps aware that she had been unkind. “But really, you do have some nice features. It's a shame about your hair, of course—such an unfortunate color—but your complexion is lovely. Apparently this Mr. Deverell sees something artistic in you! So there it is.” Mrs. Tozer did not seem to notice Lizzie's growing embarrassment. “His mother made a large order, and I couldn't very well refuse her request. And at any rate, you'll be paid seven shillings a day for your work; your mother can hardly turn her nose up at such a sum.”
Lizzie was quiet. It was true that her mother could easily find a use for seven shillings a day. “But my position here? Don't you need me?”
“You needn't worry about that—I can spare you for a few days, though it will be a strain.”
Lizzie had seen many portraits of ladies in exquisite gowns in the halls of the National Galleries. How many times had she imagined herself to be one of them? A slight smile passed over her lips and then faded. It was out of the question, of course—her mother would never allow it. And besides, having a society portrait done was quite a different thing from sitting as a paid model. The former was an honor afforded to wealthy ladies, while the latter was often done by women who wouldn't be fit to serve in their houses.
Mrs. Tozer sighed. “It's just like one of my girls, not to see a real opportunity when it comes their way! There's no need to look so scandalized, Lizzie. You'll be properly chaperoned at all times, Mrs. Deverell has assured me. And it's really very flattering! If he wants to paint you, he must think you beautiful. Perhaps it will lead to something more. At the very least, you're bound to meet some really refined people—artists, and perhaps others in their circle, their patrons. I've seen you glancing over your books and daydreaming when you thought no one was looking—not much passes in my shop without my knowledge. But of course you must do as you see fit.”
“But if people should find out. It could ruin my chances . . .”
“It's not as if you'll be posing in your knickers! This is quite a different thing—you shall sit to Mr. Deverell as if you were his sister. He tells me that the subject of the painting is taken from Shakespeare—what could be scandalous about that? And really, my dear, what chances do you have to be ruined? I hope that you don't mind my being blunt, but that is my way. You really only have something to gain.”
And yet, it seemed beyond foolish to Lizzie to risk what little she did have—her good reputation—on the slim chance for advancement that sitting for an artist might afford her. The thought was as terrifying as it was exhilarating. But Mrs. Tozer was right. If she didn't make a change now, she would soon have no chances at all, and each day would be just like the one before, with only herself changing: growing older and thinner, fading under the strain of the work. There was no future for her here.
She slowly nodded to Mrs. Tozer. She would try her luck, then, and see what came of it.
That night Mrs. Tozer walked Lizzie home, and for once Lizzie was happy for the company. The old drunk on the bridge had tempered her taste for lonely walks, and there was no chance of being accosted with that formidable lady by her side, parting the crowds with her stout frame, eliciting respectful nods with her sweeping gaze.
They reached the Siddal house and Mrs. Tozer looked it over with a sharp eye. It was a narrow structure wedged between a greengrocer and a chemist, with a shop downstairs and two perilously settled floors above, where the family made their home. Only the well-scrubbed front step and the window boxes set it apart from the other tired houses lining the street.
Mrs. Tozer glanced over her shoulder at Lizzie, with a look that asked how a girl who lived above a shop had come by such a fine accent. Lizzie Siddal obviously had designs above her station, much like Mrs. Tozer had at Lizzie's age. She paused at the door and turned back to Lizzie. “Let me do the talking, dear.”
Lizzie nodded and showed Mrs. Tozer in, leading her up the narrow steps and into a neatly kept parlor. Lizzie stole a glance at Mrs. Tozer, trying to see what she made of the small house. Lizzie had nothing to be ashamed of—she wouldn't have been working for Mrs. Tozer, after all, if her family had been in better circumstances. But visitors always made her more aware of the house's shortcomings.
The Siddals fell into that class of persons who had gently, and almost without noticing, drifted downward from the comfortable middle class to the hardships of the London tenements. They had, several generations ago, been a family with a respectable income and various property holdings in Derbyshire. But any fortune that the Siddal clan could lay claim to was now long gone, chipped away at by each succeeding generation, with a profusion of claimants to an ever-dwindling stock. The remaining family property, Hope Hall, had gone to a distant cousin who ran it as an inn.
Mr. Siddal firmly believed himself to be the rightful heir to the Hall, and it had grown in his imagination into something far grander than it was. He often neglected his work as a cutler, making and sharpening knives, to go over the endless details of a lawsuit that he had brought to reclaim the family property. But his efforts had been thwarted by a legion of relatives, all as convinced of their own right to the property as he was of his, and so far the suit had rewarded him with nothing but solicitors' bills.
As a child, Lizzie had dreamed alongside him, imagining her triumphant return to the family's rightful home and all the finery that would entail. But now, at nineteen and almost a woman, the thought of the pointless suit just depressed her, and she would have preferred that her father put his mind, and his meager savings, to something more useful.
Lizzie glanced around the parlor, hoping that her father was out. He would be sure to talk Mrs. Tozer's ear off about the lawsuit, and Lizzie didn't want any gossip about it. She was relieved to see that he was still in the shop. She was about to call out to her mother when two of the younger children, a boy and a girl, rushed in from the back room and wrapped themselves around her knees.
“Lizzie, Lizzie!” they cried. “Will you read aloud to us? Oh, please?”
“Hush!” Her tone was serious, but her smile was affectionate. “I can't read to you now! Don't you see that we have company?”
The children glanced up at Mrs. Tozer, but, not recognizing her, they paid her no mind. The noise, however, brought Mrs. Siddal into the parlor. One quiet word from her and the children made a quick bow and curtsy before scampering back the way that they had come. Mrs. Siddal strode forward to greet her visitor.
“Mother,” Lizzie said, “allow me to introduce Mrs. Tozer.”
Mrs. Siddal nodded her head in greeting and gestured for Mrs. Tozer to take a seat in front of the fire. If she was surprised to find her daughter's employer in her parlor, her face did not betray it. “To what do I owe the great pleasure of your visit?”
Mrs. Tozer made herself comfortable and regarded Mrs. Siddal with interest. She had the same fine manners and impeccable dress as her daughter, and her hair, though somewhat faded, was of the same hue of golden red. Only her hands, the skin red and cracked, betrayed the hard work that it took to maintain appearances.
“Mrs. Siddal, so lovely to finally meet you. Lizzie has been such an asset to our shop. Her work is of the first order, and I can always depend on her to show the new girls their way about the workroom. She is a very talented seamstress.”
A slight frown passed over Mrs. Siddal's face, and Mrs. Tozer paused. It was clear that Mrs. Siddal's pride weighed more than her purse, and that she was ashamed that she had to put her daughter out to work. Mrs. Tozer summoned up all of her saleswoman's powers of persuasion and started again: “What I mean to say is that I've taken a particular interest in your daughter, and in her prospects. She's obviously a girl of many fine qualities, very much apart from her talent at millinery.”
The new tactic worked, and Mrs. Siddal instantly warmed to Mrs. Tozer. “She is indeed a girl of good qualities. Of course, she's had no formal education, but I tutored her myself. Lizzie can recite poetry, speak a little French, and draw. I raised all my girls the way I myself was raised.”
Mrs. Tozer saw her opening. “Her artistic accomplishments are quite obvious in her work. That's why I'm so anxious for Lizzie to be further exposed to such . . . artistic elements.”
Lizzie watched the exchange with barely suppressed excitement. Mrs. Tozer's words had done their work; Lizzie was beginning to see the opportunity as an adventure, rather than a sordid way to make a few extra shillings. But despite her growing excitement, she kept her eyes down and her head bowed. If she looked too eager, her mother would be suspicious.
“It will come as no surprise to you,” Mrs. Tozer continued, her voice smooth and flattering, “that Lizzie has caught the eye of a painter who wishes to paint her portrait.”
At the first mention of the painter Mrs. Siddal began to shake her head. “An artist paint Lizzie? No, no, I'm afraid that it's out of the question.”
“What I meant to say is a
artist. A graduate of the Royal Academy Schools. I would hardly bother you with such a request if I had any doubt that the situation would be advantageous to Lizzie. I feel strongly that this could be an opportunity for her to be introduced into a very genteel circle.”
“I'm sorry,” Mrs. Siddal said. “But I'm well aware of what sort of women pose for artists, and I won't have my daughter counted among them. Really, Mrs. Tozer! I'm surprised that you would allow such goings on among your girls!”
Mrs. Tozer gave a tight smile. She often said that she could sell a bible to a bishop or a sinner alike, and Mrs. Siddal was no different than any reluctant customer.
“You're right, of course. The respectability of my girls is of the utmost importance to me. As is their social advancement, when possible. I've had my eye on Lizzie for some time, and I'd like to see her introduced to some better society. Mrs. Deverell, the painter's mother, could be a great ally to Lizzie if she finds her agreeable.”
“Of course I want the best for Lizzie. But a thing like this could do real harm to her reputation. If there were to be any improprieties. . .”
BOOK: Ophelia's Muse
2.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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