Killellan Manor, Sussex, Thursday 29th May 1862 (Whitsun Break)
Guy Minard edged his way towards the long French windows, threading his way through the sofas, chairs, tables, cabinets and whatnots which covered the garish crimson-and-gold carpet. It was a wonder that the ladies elegantly circulating the room managed to prevent their crinolines sweeping the cluttered surfaces clean of porcelain figures, ornaments, and curios.
With a sigh of relief, he reached the terrace, where a large potted fern hid him from view. His elder brother Max would strongly disapprove of his failure to make the most of the early opportunity to mingle, and prove himself worthy of the role he was being sized up for. He had come here resolved to do his duty, but as soon as he stepped into the salon of Lord Harry Armstrong's country house, all the doubts and reservations Guy had tried so hard to suppress had returned.
The select gathering consisted of highly influential diplomats, politicians, and eminent peers and their wives, who between them controlled the country and large swathes of the empire. Palmerston was not present, but the prime minister was expected tomorrow, and the Earl of Derby later in the week, for Lord Armstrong liked to keep a foot firmly in both political camps. In this milieu Guy felt exactly what he was, an outsider in this exclusive and powerful coterie which Lord Armstrong had inherited along with the title from his father. Everyone seemed delighted to be here. Everyone, that is, save himself and his hostess, the acknowledged beauty Lady Armstrong, whose pained smile betrayed her.
A late arrival was announced, and all eyes turned towards the distinguished couple who entered, close confidants of Queen Victoria. Her Majesty, deep in mourning for the loss of her beloved Albert in December last year, made few public appearances. Though the queen had surprised everyone by opening Parliament back in April, she had failed to appear at the International Exhibition in May, and the question on everyone's lips was whether she would attend Princess Alice's wedding in July. Most of Lord Armstrong's guests had been invited. Not Guy, thankfully. He found the opulence, the eye-watering expense of such occasions, obscene when so many had so little.
An urgent need to escape from this melange of strangers overcame him. He didn't belong here. Turning his back on the room, he hurried down the terrace steps and out into the gardens. It was a hot, sultry afternoon, and the salon had been oppressive and stifling. Guy strode quickly across a stretch of lawn so manicured it looked as if Lord Armstrong's gardeners had trimmed it with nail scissors, cut through an archway and found himself in a long yew walk.
It was cooler here, and quiet, with only the distant drone of bees and sporadic birdsong to disturb the silence. He shrugged himself out of his coat, rolling his shoulders to ease the tension he hadn't realised was there. He would wander down to the fountain at the end of this walk and allow himself fifteen minutes' quiet contemplation, then he'd return to the party before his absence was noted.
Strolling along in the shadow of a high wall, he came across an open door and peered inside to discover a kitchen garden conventionally laid out in four squares separated by paths. A long glasshouse was set against one wall, and facing it was a camera set on a tripod. There was a figure under the dark cloth draped over it. A woman. He could only see her from the rear, but it was a very attractive view, the soft folds of a grey gown showing him a very attractive bottom undisguised by a crinoline. Intrigued by her unconventional attire and occupation, Guy entered the garden. He could hear her muffled curses as he approached, and just as he was about to clear his throat to warn her of his presence, she threw the black cloth back and emerged, saw him, squealed, and leapt into the air.
She looked to be in her late twenties, no more than five foot tall and slightly built. Her rich chestnut hair was considerably dishevelled. Her skin was lightly tanned, she had big grey eyes, a most decided nose, and a mouth that some would dismiss as too generous and which he thought luscious. She would never be considered a beauty, but Guy's reaction to her was visceral. She was the most attractive woman he had ever met.
"For goodness sake, you gave me a fright!"
Her voice was husky. As if she had just risen from her bed, with her hair tumbled down her back, and—and dear lord, what was he thinking! "I do beg your pardon," Guy said belatedly. "I didn't mean to startle you."
A half smile formed on her distracting mouth, and her brows rose as she studied him, making no attempt to disguise the fact that she was doing so. "I assumed you were one of Mr Heseltine's assistants come to explain why he had been delayed, but you do not look remotely like an under gardener."
"I am Guy Minard, seeking respite from the house party. And if I may say so, you do not look like a typical photographer."
She eyed his extended hand with some surprise before taking it. Her hands were small, but her fingers were long, the nails stained, presumably with a chemical compound she used in her profession. "Mrs Esme Thomson. I am here at Lady Armstrong's request, to take photographs of the house party guests for posterity."
"And of the staff also?"
"Oh no, those photographs are of real people, taken in my own time."
"Which implies you consider privileged guests like me to be frauds?" he said, amused.
She studied him for a moment, chewing her lip. "If the cap fits." As his smile faded, she gently tugged her hand free from his clasp. "I didn't mean to offend you. I am afraid you must blame my photographer's eye. The camera, Mr Minard, sees a great deal more than its subjects realise."
It was to be hoped that she had not noticed his disturbing and completely inappropriate reaction to herself. What he ought to do was take himself back to the tea party. "I'm not offended, only surprised," Guy said. "I do feel like a fraud, or at any rate, an imposter."
She drew him a quizzical smile. "As an outsider myself, who belongs neither upstairs nor downstairs, who in the eyes of your fellow guests, doesn't even exist when she emerges from behind the camera, I feel obliged to contradict you. You are clearly of genteel stock."
"Oh, my lineage is beyond reproach. My brother is a marquess. I have a pedigree that could fill a stud book."
"Precisely my point," she said, with a snort of laugher. "Lord Armstrong would not have invited you otherwise. I, on the other hand, while a regular attendee at grand houses such as this, am here to work. As a photographer I am a social anomaly. Neither a servant nor a tradesperson, but without the cachet of an artist."
"Are you a successful photographer, Mrs Thomson?"
"I make a good living, if that is what you mean. More than enough to keep myself in comfort."
"I am a widow."
He had no reason at all to feel relieved at this information, absolutely none. Mrs Esme Thomson, photographer and widow, could be nothing to him, now that his circumstances were about to change so dramatically. It was a depressing thought. Guy pushed it to the back of his mind. "Please accept my condolences."
"There's no need. My husband died four years ago," she said, sounding no more sorry than he. "Frankly, the business has flourished without him and so have I—as a photographer, I mean."
"Indeed?' He quirked an eyebrow, trying not to laugh. She bit her lip in response, but her grey eyes brimmed with merriment. The effect on him was physical and embarrassing, making him glad of his long frock coat.
"I enjoy my independence," she said. "As to my work," she added more soberly, "I earn my corn taking cartes de visites, with the occasional larger assignment such as this one. Neither satisfy my artistic soul, but I am a practical woman, and so I compromise by capturing images of more interest to me, in my own time. Which is what I was setting up when you stumbled across me."
"Is it a satisfactory compromise?"
She frowned, taking a moment to mull over this question. "My life is my own, and that matters a great deal to me, though I don't suppose you understand, for you are a man, and by your own admission both privileged and well born."
And on the cusp of paying the price for both, he thought, his mood abruptly deflated. "It is because I am both those things that my life is not my own," Guy said. I'm here to be given the once over, you see. If I pass muster, his lordship will give his seal of approval to the match my brother has brokered between myself and Lord Armstrong's niece."
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