London February 1904 Henry Scott Tuke.
Was he beginning, at long last, to recover?
Perhaps it was the daffodils, those clumps of bold yellow trumpets below the trees of Green Park, their perfume, as he bent to breathe it in, almost as powerful as those growing wild in the Cornish fields. Or perhaps it was the thought of the trip he was about to make – two months or more on the Mediterranean coast, escaping the British winter – by no means over, despite the daffodils – to paint in the sun.
He lost, as he strode out into Piccadilly, the scent of the flowers, overwhelmed by the stench of horse and human waste. The overhanging pall of coal dust caught at his nostrils, his throat tingled and memories of the clear Cornish air vanished from his mind. Working his way between the hansoms, broughams, motor buses, tramcars and the crested carriage of at least one aristocratic family, all brought to a standstill by congestion in Piccadilly Circus, he sauntered in the direction of Burlington Gardens and the Ladies’ Naval and Military Club where he was due to lunch with a Lieutenant Colonel and Mrs Grundy, to discuss the portrait they had commissioned him to paint. He was much in demand these days as a portraitist, which left him less reliant on sales of his other works.
Those ‘other works’ – his studies of ships and seascapes and the other, more controversial, paintings of boys, mostly naked, generally in or around boats or sitting or lying on one of the beaches near the little house in Falmouth where he spent many months of the year – would always be his favourites but it was undeniably pleasant to have a secure income.
Perhaps this thought also contributed to his improved mood.
Redruth, Cornwall. Faith Vigo.
She wrapped her shawl around her mouth and nostrils on account, not of the cold but the dust clogging the air this early spring morning. Air which, had the wind been blowing from the north, would have been clear and salt-scented from the Atlantic ocean four miles distant but, since it was blowing from the south, was filled with mineral dust from the great, multi-headed steam stamp at Carnkye, which was a great deal closer.
It was nothing, Papa was always telling her, to the conditions men suffered working underground in the mines, sometimes in up to a hundred degrees of heat, in air thick with powder from the rock blasting and the fumes from the tallow candles on their hats. Or the bal maidens, who worked on the surface, crushing the ore with their hammers, their hands and faces scarred and pitted from the flying shards of stone – not to mention stained red from the iron oxide in the ore.
Here, high up in Clinton Road, where the air was relatively fresh, if still tainted by the sulfurous smoke from several dozen mines all burning the cheapest coal, they had, he would tell her, nothing to complain about. She should think more about her fellow men and women and less about herself.
Papa was right, of course, but when her eyes stung and the bitter-tasting dust filled her throat and set her coughing it was hard to feel as grateful as he expected. And yet how often had she seen men who, however old they might look, might be less than forty years old – miners not living to any great age – collapsed against a wall or clinging to a lamp standard in order to keep upright as they struggled to breathe? Or their pale skin disfigured with great, scarlet blotches from one of the dreadful diseases contracted from the human dirt left below ground? Or missing limbs from one of the frequent blasting accidents or from getting them caught in machinery?
She was indeed fortunate and she should give thanks for this, not complain about a small inconvenience like dust. Had not George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, to which her family belonged, told them they should walk cheerfully over the world – and he had written this from prison in Launceston, which was notorious for its terrible conditions?
What right had she, Faith Vigo, to complain?
Except that she was still coughing half an hour later when she returned from changing her mother’s library books. And Mama, downstairs for the first time in days to rest on her couch in the drawing room, was not pleased with her selection.
“I’m certain I’ve read this one before.” She flicked a languid finger across the first book in the little pile. “And it wasn’t at all to my taste.”
Sighing, she lay back and closed her eyes. The books remained, unopened, on the table.
And would need, Faith thought, to be removed before her father came home.
For her mother was not, like the rest of the family, a member of the Society of Friends. Father had, in Quaker terminology, ‘married out’ and, although pretty Maud Vigo had been pleased enough to be married to such a good-looking, hard-working and relatively successful man and had attended Meetings for Worship with him in the early years of their marriage, she had bored of the sobriety and disciplined nature of the life she was expected to lead and it was many years since she had involved herself in the life of the Society.
Perhaps William Vigo had become stricter in his observances as he became older but there was certainly a disparity between his wife’s tastes, in clothing, in furnishings and in recreational activities and his own. Where William valued simplicity in all things – including their food – and spent what leisure time he had on Quaker work, Maud would have preferred a more frivolous style of living.
Perhaps, Faith often thought, this was why her mother spent so much of her time in her prettily furnished, bedroom. Frivolity was not a commodity in great supply in their house in Clinton Road.
But at least tomorrow – she took up the knitting she had discarded earlier – she would be returning to school after the half term break, which, although other girls might complain that the holiday had been too brief, she would have been happy to do without. Anything would be better than sitting here, struggling to knit a woolen baby vest for the New Mothers’ Comfort Box, while her mother complained about her library books and where the windows, tight-closed as always, did not keep out the constant thudding of the tin and copper stamps or the clatter from further up the hill behind the house of the mineral tramway, which ran between the ports of Portreath on the North Coast and Devoran in the South, carrying either tin or copper ore to be shipped to Wales for smelting or the imported coal which supplied the mines.
“My poor head. It could be bursting!” Her mother, her thoughts echoing Faith’s own, gave a little shudder and pulled her shawl closer about her shoulders. “I shall go to my room.”
“Oh please don’t.” It was not good for her, Doctor Henderson had said, to spend so much time in bed. “Would you like me to read to you?”
“And worsen my headache still more?” Her mother closed her eyes in irritation. “Please allow me to know what is best for myself.”
Pulling open the door as if it had caused her some injury – although perhaps it was Faith who had done this – Maud Vigo gathered her skirts around her and swept through it. Faith remained helplessly in her chair, the half-knitted woolen item in a sad heap in her lap.
“How’s your young protege, Harry? That good-lookin’ Cornish lad you were teaching to draw. Farmer’s boy or somethin’?”
“He’s very well. At least he was last time I saw him. And he was a market gardener…”
Rufus Bonham was not a friend, although they belonged to some of the same clubs and, unfortunately in Henry’s view, the same circle of acquaintance. And it was obvious that no-one had thought to warn him to keep off the subject of Henry’s ‘young protege’ – although it was equally possible that they had done so and that Bonham, who had little discretion or concern for other people’s feelings, had chosen to ignore them.
“Market gardener… farmer… All the same, surely?”
Bonham reached for the decanter and helped himself to more of his host’s claret.
“I doubt either would agree. However, the boy is settled with his own small plot but continues to draw and paint. I am hoping to arrange an exhibition of his work when I am back in Falmouth in the summer.”
His anxiety to prove imperturbable misfired, merely arousing Bonham’s interest still further.
“Are you indeed?” The salacious grin that spread across the man’s slightly too-red lips – was it possible, Henry wondered, he was using some sort of cosmetic preparation? – was at odds with the jealous glint in his eyes. (And the man was jealous, he reminded himself, of his success as an artist and at the loyalty he inspired in the young men who were willing to pose naked for him.) “Are you then settin’ yourself up as his protector?” He smiled again. More suggestively, if possible, than before.
Henry, who rarely if ever lost his temper, felt the anger rise up inside him now as if it were a living creature that might take hold and overwhelm him. That might drag him from his seat to lean across the dinner table, reaching his hand for his almost-full glass to fling it with the force of the handy bowler he was into the grinning face of the man opposite…
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” His host’s interruption could not have been better timed. “I would like to propose a toast,” Hugh went on, “to our friend Harry Tuke, who has been elected a member of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour,” and the whole table rose, turning towards Henry, raising their glasses and calling out their congratulations. After which it was easy to turn away from Bonham to the neighbour on his left – Lizzie Carnoustie, a lovely, somewhat unconventional, woman married, in Henry’s view, to one of the dullest men in London, but one who had at least the virtue of allowing her the freedom to enjoy a social life of her own.
“You look rather upset.” She spoke in the lowest register of her naturally husky voice, “for a man who’s just been elected to the Royal Society of Something or Other. Is something wrong?”
“Nothing that ten minutes of your undivided attention will not put right.” Henry could not resist swivelling his eyes, very slightly, in the direction of Bonham.
“Ah.” Lizzie was quick on the uptake. “Our resentful friend. Who is wearing, if I’m not mistaken, a cochineal salve on his lips.”
“Really?” Henry’s anger dissipated as quickly as it had been aroused.
“Oh yes, It’s the same as I wear myself.”
She had an almost boyish face, Lizzie, in spite of her tawny mass of piled-up hair and the attractively – in her case – reddened lips to which she had referred. A healthy, open-air complexion that matched her energetic stride and her enthusiasm for games of tennis and cricket.
“In which case, I have to say it becomes you far more.”
Henry leaned over to whisper into her ear, moving smartly back as she let out a shout of unladylike laughter.
“Dear Harry!” She put down her fork to lay her hand against his wrist. “What a shame…”
What a shame what? He might have wondered. What a shame that Lizzie was married to one of the dullest men in London? Or what a shame that Henry was, as she might have expressed it, ‘just not interested.’
He liked women – of course he did. He was a sociable man who liked most people – and could generally find something of interest even in those he did not like – and he enjoyed especially the company of women like Lizzie, cheerful, lively women with a love of sports and other activities. (And one particular activity in which Henry, had he been a different sort of man and in spite of the dull husband, might have been happy to join her.) But he was not, it seemed, that sort of man and now, approaching the age of forty six, was unlikely to change.
“Hugh has promised bridge after dinner,” he said now, as she removed the hand and turned her attention to her fricase’ed sweetbreads. “I hope you will partner me.”
“I hope so too. I have already spent this month’s allowance and need some winnings.”
Henry was, Lizzie knew, an excellent player of cards.