The Girl Who Fled the Picture - Jane Anderson
Chapter One - Buda, Hungary April 1742
Isabella feigned an innocent smile, as Uncle Richard quoted Mr Collins an exorbitant price for the gold necklace. Collins’ Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. He coughed and laid the heavy cascade of amethysts back on the table. ‘On reflection, I believe my fiancée has a similar piece.’
Brazen liar, she thought.
‘Is your heart set on a necklace?’ Richard Godfrey asked. ‘I have several lovely brooches. Or would you consider a piece made of silver?’
Isabella had already warned Uncle Richard that this one wouldn’t go for gold. She’d endured his company touring the sights of Buda for two whole days. Her uncle had struck up a conversation with Collins and pretended that his gout left him unable to take Isabella sight-seeing. Mr Collins fell for the trap and requested she join him on excursions with his tour guide. Unfortunately, Collins had talked over their knowledgeable guide, then failed to tip him. Isabella usually felt sorry for the wealthy tourists her uncle fleeced, but Edward Collins was a miserly, pompous idiot.
An uncharitable thought. Had her heart become hardened by weeks of pretending to be something she was not? She’d agreed to Uncle Richard’s scheme reluctantly, charming these Grand Tour travellers with the specific aim of turning them into clients. She thought it a sordid transaction but she’d also discovered that the art of bland conversation was hard work. This man wasn’t interested in her, he was travelling through Europe gathering objects and she was merely a temporary acquisition, a pretty accessory.
Mr Collins peered over the array of jewellery, his head so close to Richard’s that their wigs collided sending up a puff of starch. Despite this, his whisper was clearly audible. ‘Thing is, Mr Godfrey, Isabella’s company has so enriched my stay in Buda that I’d like my budget to cover a gift for her too.’
It was amazing how these English gentlemen with their booming voices seemed to think her deaf as well as stupid.
‘Take a look at these brooches, Mr Collins. This one is set with splendid aquamarines.’
‘And what stone is this?’ Collins asked, picking up the paste brooch.
‘That, sir is a strass, a new continental fashion. We’ve only just started using this special glass and it offers excellent value.’
Uncle Richard looked up and blinked twice, the signal that he wanted her help.
Isabella picked up the paste brooch turned it to catch the light. ‘I so love these strasses. Look how they sparkle, why a girl would feel like she was wearing diamonds.’
‘It’s remarkably convincing,’ Mr Collins agreed.
‘Would you bring us some brandy please, Isabella,’ Uncle Richard said.
Isabella left the room, closing the door behind her. The brandy sat not on an elegant sideboard, but with two glasses on a shelf in her bedroom cupboard. Fetching brandy was a ruse to leave while Uncle Richard talked money, and their two small bedrooms were the only other rooms in this apartment. She knew to give them five minutes.
These boarding house rooms offered a decent parlour for receiving guests, whilst the meagre bedrooms meant the cost was not too high. Isabella opened her window, the old whorled glass let in light but gave no view. She kicked off her shoes and climbed up onto the deeply recessed window sill, hugging her knees while she looked down on the cobbled street below. The road was empty but for a patient donkey standing motionless in front of a cart. Buda was disappointing after three extraordinary weeks in Vienna, where the streets thronged with people day and night.
Isabella had turned fifteen in February and her uncle had declared it time to put her genteel lessons to use. They’d practised their act through the small towns of France, Switzerland. By the time they’d reached Vienna, Issy was confident of her ability to talk to rich strangers. She walked into the dining rooms of expensive hotels with an easy manner. That their London home was two dingy rooms above the workshop, was their secret.
A boy appeared and jumped up behind the donkey, the jingle of the harness faded as they disappeared around the corner. Isabella sighed and climbed down. She had to stretch to relieve the discomfort where her boned stays dug into her stomach. A lady’s outfit was most uncomfortable.
Both men smiled at her when she returned and poured two brandies. Mr Collins raised his in a toast and handed her the velvet box.
‘A small token of my esteem, Miss Godfrey. This is the last stop on my European tour and your companionship has made it the highlight.’
She thanked him and curtsied. When their glasses were drained he picked up his hat.
‘Will you change your mind about the theatre, Isabella? I’ve taken a box.’
‘Unfortunately we have a commitment tomorrow evening,’ Uncle Richard said.
‘Then I look forward to seeing you in the afternoon. If it’s dry we could walk by the river,’ Mr Collins added.
Isabella lit her chamberstick from the candelabra and went to the door. ‘I’ll see you out, Mr Collins.’
She held the candle aloft creating a pool of light in the dark passage, then preceded him down the stairs. Just before they reached the front door the man pushed her against the wall, one hand on her breast and the other pulling up her skirts.
‘No,’ she said, and tried to push him away.
He silenced her with his mouth, no tender kiss but another assault. She struggled and dropped the chamberstick, plunging them into darkness. Panic gave her new strength and she burst out of his grasp. He growled deep in his throat like an animal.
The sound of footsteps above and a flicker of light signalled Uncle Richard’s approach. He appeared holding the candelabra at the top of the stairs. ‘Is everything all right?’ he asked.
‘All fine thank you, Mr Godfrey, only Isabella dropped the candle. Good night now.’
He adjusted his hat and looking her straight in the eye, winked at her. She was about to slap him when their landlady cracked open her door.
‘See you tomorrow,’ he said, then left.
‘Thankfully not,’ she muttered under her breath.
‘He gave you some trouble?’ her uncle asked when they were back in their chambers.
‘The rogue thought a paste brooch bought him privileges.’
Her uncle shook his head. ‘Precisely why we never let you go to a box. We should have taken him for the aquamarines.’
‘The amethyst necklace wouldn’t make the swine tolerable.’
Her uncle went to bed and Isabella tidied all the jewellery back into the cabinet. The familiar routine calmed her nerves while she replayed what had happened in her head. In her room she stripped naked and poured water into a basin, she scrubbed herself to banish his touch. Isabella swilled a mouthful of brandy and swallowed it with a shudder. Men had overstepped the mark before but this time she’d felt in real danger. She wished she’d kicked him.
Issy retrieved the brooch from the pocket in her petticoat. She ran her fingertip over the fine engraving and felt how each stone was set firmly and in perfect alignment. This was her own work and she’d been proud of it. Now she grimaced, today’s events had sullied the piece. She’d have to rework it.
The next morning they were in their carriage leaving Buda just before daybreak. They exited every city in the dark. Uncle Richard swore they were doing nothing illegal, but they always left without a goodbye or any mention of their destination.
‘I’ll look for a boat in the next town. I’m told the Danube is a quicker route south to Constantinople and there seems no point in lingering. There were few enough tourists in Buda and it will only get worse,’ Uncle Richard said.
‘I’ll be glad to escape a coach for a few days. How far can we get by boat?’ she asked.
‘Almost to Belgrade, I believe.’
He was quiet for a few minutes, then asked: ‘Did you remember to pick up your new gown from the dressmaker?’
Isabella grimaced. ‘I did and it’s in the latest fashion as you suggested, but honestly it’s a ridiculous design. Some fool has decreed that the hoops should be even wider at the sides this year. Heaven knows how I’m meant to tackle doorways and stairs.’
‘By turning sideways I suppose,’ he answered drily. ‘If the Ambassador agrees to meet us, I’m sure his doors and staircases will be plenty wide enough.’
‘Are you not certain? Surely we’ve not come this distance to be turned away?’
He shrugged. ‘I think he’ll see us but I don’t know how soon or how he’ll greet us. If you play your part well, there’ll be no need to do business with the likes of Collins again.’
Isabella had been working with her uncle since her father died seven years ago. He often reminded her she was lucky she hadn’t ended up in the workhouse, since most bachelors wouldn’t have taken on an eight year old. She was grateful to have avoided that fate, but she knew he needed her too. His eyesight had started to fail and her growing skill in fine work allowed her to take over. She loved working with jewellery, but this new role playing the lady made her uncomfortable. Despite his assurances her conscience was troubled.
They skirted Constantinople’s city walls on a fine May evening. Then crossed the strait in a small boat to the district of Pera, where all the foreigners lived. The porter unloaded their luggage onto the quayside and went to ask for directions to their boarding house. The heat of the day radiated up from the stone jetty beneath her feet, and now Isabella had her first proper view of the old city. There on top of the hill beyond the stretch of water they called the Golden Horn, was the magnificent Hagia Sophia, its huge dome and minarets dominating the skyline.
This dock was crowded with people and boats. Tall-masted frigates and Arab dhows strained against their anchors in the fast-flowing Bosphorus, and sailors called to each other in a dozen different languages. Her feet were in Asia, and her long journey through Europe was beyond the horizon. This was the furthest edge of the Western world. The place was buzzing with an excitement Isabella felt as a shiver down her spine. Surely this was the kind of place a girl’s life might change?
Four days later they were on their way to take tea at the British Embassy. The Ambassador, Sir Everard Fawkener had responded to Uncle Richard’s note immediately. He’d emphasised the importance of making a good impression so often, that she felt sure she would stumble or drop her teacup.
Isabella gazed out the carriage window to take her mind from her churning stomach. She’d visited so many cities on her way here, but even Vienna couldn’t rival Constantinople for fascinating pedestrians. Local men wore long robes and huge turbans which must have used yards of cloth. Some women were completely swathed in black including their faces, but others wore coloured dresses and a veil so diaphanous it emphasised their beauty. The merchants’ clothes revealed traders from all over the world.
The size of the large British Embassy set Isabella’s heart galloping again.
Uncle Richard helped her out of the coach. ‘Shoulders back, head high. I’m told the Ambassador is considered both polite and sociable, you’ve nothing to fear.’
It’s your silly fussing that’s making me nervous, she thought to herself. How many nibs had she met in her journey? An ambassador was surely just another man in a silk coat.
The footman opened the front door and Uncle Richard gave him their names.
‘Sir Everard is expecting you,’ he said.
They entered a panelled room with high ceilings, a rich Turkish carpet stretched across its width. An ordinary looking middle-aged man jumped to his feet and grasped Uncle Richard’s hand. Only the footman’s deference revealed this was actually the ambassador.
‘Mr Godfrey, you cannot imagine how delighted I was to receive your letter, and this must be Isabella.’
Uncle Richard gave a small bow. Isabella curtsied.
‘It is most kind of you to receive us, Sir Everard.’
‘The pleasure is all mine. I’ve missed so much of young Isabella’s life. We have a great deal of catching up to do.’
Isabella looked at her uncle in confusion. His smirk told her that he wasn’t surprised by the Ambassador’s words. A footman hovered with a tray of tea things.
‘May I offer you some tea and would you like honey? I normally have Turkish coffee at this time of day, but I assume you’d prefer tea.’
‘I find the local coffee too strong, your Excellency, but surprisingly Isabella likes it.’
The Ambassador gave a loud laugh. ‘I should have guessed, it’s in her blood, her father adored it. Jenkins please pour Mr Godfrey some tea. I’ll call Ahmed to do us coffee, Jenkins hasn’t the knack at all.’
Isabella stared at Sir Everard. His warm tone implied an intimacy with her father. The pang she felt was a mixture of loss and jealousy. She so wished she could remember her father more clearly. The Ambassador turned towards her uncle, she hoped he didn’t find Richard’s ingratiating smile annoying.
‘I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance, Richard. I can’t believe we never met before,’ he said.
‘When I joined my brother’s business my role was strictly behind the scenes. After James’s death, I was forced to get involved in everything.’
A man in local dress arrived with coffee in a swan-necked brass pot. When he poured, the distinctive scent of cardamom-laced coffee made Isabella smile. She loved the idea that her papa had liked it too.
Uncle Richard had only told her this powerful man had known her father. He hoped his influence might open doors to wealthy customers back in London. Isabella hadn’t anticipated he’d unlock memories of the happy childhood she’d trained herself to forget.
The Ambassador passed Isabella a small glided glass of coffee. ‘You’re so grown up, Isabella, but I do think I can still see that little girl.’
Should she remember him? His smile was friendly but still she felt wary. Her life had been so isolated and those men she’d met on the journey had taught her caution.
‘Excuse me for asking, Ambassador, have we met before?’
‘Many times. I knew your father before he married, then I had the honour of being at you parents’ wedding.’
‘You knew my mother too?’
He nodded. ‘I never knew two people more in love. I don’t think your father ever got over your mother’s death.’
Issy’s mother had died when she was four and she knew no one but Richard who remembered her. She longed to ask him a dozen questions. ‘I’m so sorry I don’t remember,’ she said.
‘Why would you? You were often in bed when I visited and I guess you were only six or seven the last time. I left London to come here. I only heard of your father’s death long after I arrived in Constantinople. I still can’t believe it, and I’m so very sorry. When I heard he’d died I tried to track you down. I often worried about what had happened to you.’ The Ambassador smiled at Uncle Richard. ‘I’m delighted to find you have family to care for you.’
Richard Godfrey was her only family. Perhaps he did care for her in his way?
‘So what do you make of Constantinople, Isabella?’ the Ambassador asked.
‘I think it’s the most beautiful place I ever saw. I do wish I could visit the Stamboul side.’
‘Ah, you are your father’s daughter, curious and intrepid. You do know you’d have to wear a robe and veil?’
‘I wouldn’t mind,’ she replied.
‘Bravo. There are European ladies in Pera who’ve lived here for years and never ventured over. What would you like to see? The Hagia Sophia? It’s rather hard to get admittance for a lady, but I’d do my best.’
‘That would be marvellous.’
She glanced at her uncle, who smiled broadly. She decided to risk it.
‘Most of all, I’d love to visit the Grand Bazaar. Uncle has been and says the gold market is incredible.’
‘Gold, fabrics, carpets, more things than you can possibly imagine,’ Sir Everard replied. ‘So you take an interest in your father’s business?’
She sensed her uncle’s glare without looking at him, he took her for an idiot.
‘Which girl doesn’t love beautiful jewellery?’ she replied.
The Ambassador laughed. ‘Well, a visit to the bazaar is the easiest thing in the world to organise,’ he turned to Uncle Richard, ‘if your uncle will allow it.’
‘It’s most kind of you to offer, Ambassador.’
‘Where are you staying, Mr Godfrey? I’ll send you a note with the arrangements.’
‘We’re in a temporary boarding house,’ he said, writing down the address, ‘although if I can do some business here we might look for a small house to rent.’
‘And you still work with jewellery?’ the Ambassador asked.
‘Yes. I’ve a mind to find some inspiration in Constantinople and perhaps sell some pieces too.’
‘Splendid idea. Would you like some advice on houses?’
‘If it’s not too much trouble, although I must tell you our budget is tight.’
‘Let me make some enquiries.’
They parted with an arrangement to go to the bazaar a few days later.
Meanwhile, in Constantinople’s harbour, an English gentleman stepped ashore. Sir John Brady raised his chin and puffed out his considerable girth. He liked the look of this place; any number of pleasures might be bought by a man of his wealth. It was the last destination in his Grand Tour and he meant to enjoy himself.