Saturday 7th June 1862
The Grand Ball was to be held this evening, a glittering occasion which would be attended by over a hundred invited guests in addition to the resident house party. Esme had wanted to record some of the preparations on camera, but since it required her subjects to cease their work while she set up and timed the exposure, she had not been particularly successful. Lady Armstrong's suggestion that she set up in the still room where she was overseeing the flowers being arranged was a welcome surprise.
"Though that will require you to take yet another photograph of me, I'm afraid," her ladyship said while Esme set up her camera. "Would it be possible not to show my face? I am sick of the sight of it, as you must be."
"Why don't you sit at the table at an angle with your head turned away, as if you are speaking to someone at the door. Then I can focus on your silhouette against the backdrop of the flowers and the ladies arranging them." Esme demonstrated the position, knowing that Lady Armstrong did not like to be touched. "Like that. Yes, perfect. Do you think you can hold that pose?"
"Easily. Are you pleased with the photographs you have taken so far this week?"
"I think so, but the important question is whether or not you will like them."
"I know I will. You have an eye for quirky detail that never fails to make me smile. I always look afresh at a person after I have seen one of your images. The acid test though is," Lady Armstrong said with a faint sigh, "whether my lord will approve. If he does, it could lead to a number of new commissions for you."
"I appreciate that, my lady."
"Please, you know I prefer you to call me Mercy when we are alone. Will he approve?"
"I took several photographs at each location. I believe I have managed to reflect his lordship's vision of how he wishes posterity to view his house party in some of them."
Mercy gave a most un-ladylike snort of laughter at this, immediately apologising for the slight movement of her shoulders. "May I have a set of the—what do you call them, the real photographs, for my own entertainment?"
"Of course. Lady Armstrong—Mercy—I must thank you most sincerely for this opportunity, given your husband could send a great deal of business my way, and…"
"Don't thank me, for I am aware that it will be a mixed blessing," Mercy interrupted. "Taking the kind of photographs my husband and his coterie wish to see must be quite tedious for someone with your flair and talent. You are an artist. You should not have to waste your talent on men like my husband."
"Men like your husband pay my bills." A circumstance that had begun to chafe even more in the days since she had last spoken to Guy, who thought the same thing. How to find a more satisfying balance with her work was something Esme had resolved to do when she was finished here. If she could succeed, it might even compensate for the loss of the man who had suggested it. The man she had told herself only an hour ago, she must stop obsessively thinking about!
Mercy, her hands, hidden from view of the camera, could be heard rustling some of the greenery in front of her. "I have confided a great deal in you over the years, while you have been studying me through your lens."
"You know that I would never…"
"Of course not. I trust you implicitly, and you may trust me too, Esme. I have been making a study of you these last few days, as if I was looking at you through the lens. I think you are in love with Mr Minard. Or if not quite in love, in danger of falling."
"Damn!" Esme emerged from under the hood. "Excuse my language. I've spoiled the exposure.
"Never mind, posterity can most certainly do without another image of me. Won't you sit down here? I'd like to talk to you."
"I haven't even spoken to Guy—Mr Minard—since last Monday," Esme said, taking the seat indicated very reluctantly. "If you are thinking to warn me off…"
"Not at all." Mercy had been shredding the leaves from a long fern. It lay completely stripped on her lap. She discarded it and began the process with another. "You have both been at great pains to avoid meeting each other's eyes, but when you think yourself unobserved, there is an expression on your face that is quite unmistakable. And on his, the same."
Esme tried to cool her burning cheeks with the backs of her hands. "I know it's wrong, and he does, too. We have no intentions—the scandal—you have been so good to me, and I would not dream— Not that it's gone that far."
"I really couldn't care less about the scandal from my own perspective. I want to know if there is anything I can do to help you. There are very few people that I care about," Mercy said diffidently, "and it seems to me that those I care most deeply for are those I can do the least to help. My sister Prudence, for example, who as you know is forced to wear a veil in public, because of her disfigurement, I wish— But I can't help Prue."
"You are already doing a great deal to help me."
"With commissions you would rather not take."
"With commissions that give me my independence."
"Which matters to you a great deal. I can understand that. Was your marriage miserable? You didn't have any children."
"No." Knowing how much the subject mattered to Mercy, Esme chose her words extremely carefully. "My husband was never particularly— The intimate side of marriage did not particularly— He wasn't very amorous."
Her face was flaming. Mercy's cheeks too were tinged with colour. "You mean he did not— That you and he did not share a bed?"
"Not often. And when we did, he took measures to avoid conception." Esme's voice was no more than a whisper. "I spent most of the time wishing for it to be over, to be honest. It was never— It never gave me any pleasure."
"Pleasure?" Mercy asked, her fine brows rising in astonishment. "Did you expect it to?"
"I assumed that it was— Well, we are told, aren't we, that it is only men who enjoy such things. But I have since discovered that— In short, I don't believe that is true."
"What on earth— Do you mean Mr Minard has actually…"
"No! No, I swear—I told you matters had not gone so far as that."
"Good heavens, Esme, are you telling me that you wish they had?"
Wished, longed, yearned, even now, was the honest answer. "Yes," Esme replied simply.
"Are you saying that you are in love with Guy Minard? You do understand why he is a guest at this party, don't you? He has told you?"
"Yes, yes, he told me the first time we met. I'm under no illusion—I'm not in love with him," Esme said. Not yet. Oh, dear heavens, not yet.
"But you have a—a passion for him?"
"I don't know how to describe it. He makes me feel so—so young! And alive. He reminds me of all the hopes and ambitions I once had, of changing the world with my photographs, of making the world see that a camera is every bit as powerful as a paintbrush in telling a picture."
"He arouses a passion for more than art in you, though."
"Yes, he does," Esme replied stiffly, brought back down to earth by her hostess's tone, "and when I"m with him, it is difficult to resist, but I have resisted, Lady Armstrong."
Her return to the formal means of address made Mercy flinch. "I'm not disapproving, I am merely— It won't surprise you when I tell you that I have no experience of such feelings. Do you think it is my lack of passion, Esme, that has kept me childless?"
"Not at all." She caught Mercy's hand in hers, squeezing it tight. "Oh no, I am sure it has nothing to do with that."
"I thought not." The hand was gently withdrawn. "One gets rather desperate, in the middle of the night sometimes, and clutches at straws, you see. Do you regret not having a child, Esme?"
"I was very young when I married, and thought only of my work. We barely scraped a living, my husband and I, and he was so much older than me. He several times told me that he believed himself too old to become a father."
"But you are only just thirty now."
Far too old, Esme was upon the point of saying, then recalled that Mercy was five years her senior. "Since I have no intentions of getting married again, the question doesn't arise."
"You are quite certain of that?"
A great deal less certain than she was before she met Guy, Esme was forced to admit to herself, but there was a limit to what she would say, even to Mercy. "When I was married, despite the fact that I had a better business head and a clearer artistic eye, I had to defer to my husband's wishes and decisions. The truth was, I married him because he offered me protection, a roof over my head, and the opportunity to train as his assistant. I never forgot the obligation I owed to him for all of those, but once I had outgrown him, marriage was suffocating. I have no need to look to anyone to provide me with a roof over my head or to put food on the table now."
Nor would she ever do as Mercy had, and marry in order to have a child. Which left only one reason. Guy's reason. Love. Esme's mind skidded away from this dangerous path. She could not love Guy. It would be madness to love Guy. "So the answer to your question," she said, with as much firmness as she could muster, "is that yes, I am quite certain."
Gloomily, she rose and set about preparing another plate for her camera. The remaining few days of the house party were going to be an ordeal.
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