​‘It must not be told.’  Illustration to page 23 of The Subject of a Portrait

THE SUBJECT OF A PORTRAIT

Part I: By Bridge of Turk

1

 

            In the night before they left for the Highlands, she sat up stark awake. She had never had such a dream – in which a man made of mud was catching her close. He was tall and dripping, but stronger than her. In his clasp she herself was turning to mud, the fingers dripped off her melting hand. She heard the words in her head only after she woke, ‘The King of the Night is waiting for you’. But who could that be? Her secret, her shadow?  The darkness expanded to immeasurable size -- till she heard John’s long snore where he nestled beside her.

            In the pitch-black she scarcely knew where she was. London, Scotland? Still she was calm. It was not quite a nightmare, for all the wet dirt. And tomorrow their journey would begin. They would climb in the Highlands, follow rivers back to their boggy beginnings -- and with two young men for company.

            In the morning, at King's Cross, she felt only excitement. She looked round at the jostling, sunlit crowd, the bevies of children, and ladies who fussed in colliding big skirts. Two rosy-faced men doffed tall hats to each other, while beyond them the funnel of the engine streamed smoke.

            ‘It’s like a picture by Frith.’

            John nodded, but at the same time winced. She did not mind, she liked to name the artists he refused to admire. With energy she pinched his elbow.

            ‘I’m glad we are going to my country, John.’

            He started and blinked. ‘We shall not be going anywhere if the brothers don’t come. And then where will my portrait be?’

            John’s portrait – that too was their reason for travelling. Everett already had a brilliant name, he would paint John in a beautiful place they would find, while John was composing his lectures for Edinburgh.

            ‘They will be here.’

            She refused to worry, the air was too bright. She was aware nearby people glanced shyly at them. She turned her head, she could endure to have a famous husband – while John hardly noticed when he was noticed. He ought to fuss less. With his large nose he seemed to be sniffing his watch.

            ‘Do you think I should ask Crawley to unload our trunk?’

            ‘Be easy, John – the brothers are here.’

            She smiled to see them, as they pressed to either side of a long lady in crepe. They wore identical light summer suits, and had identical German peaked caps on their heads. She knew Everett already, tall and thin as his pencils, with a shock of fair hair. His lean face was stern as he pushed through the crowd. William the teacher she did not know, but she saw he was fair-complexioned and handsome. He was tall as Everett but broad-built as a door.

            ‘John, Mrs Ruskin, my brother William.’

            ‘Mr Millais, a pleasure to meet you. This is Mrs Ruskin, whom I call Effie.’

            The men shook hands, she dipped to the brothers. Everett turned to her. 'You are well?' His face was bright with recognition.

            'Thank you, yes.'

            But already he had returned to John, to praise a review which he had written. She thought, but Everett, I can see your bones. Had he lost more weight since last she saw him?

            Beside them the engineer pressed a valve. A shrill whistle blew and a ball of white smoke rose into the sky. And still they had not decided, would they sit in an open carriage or closed? The brothers said open, John preferred closed.

            ‘I’m for open,’ she said.

            ‘But your bonnet may be lost, my dear, and your hair blown all awry.’

            ‘I shall tie my ribbon tighter, then – and you hold on to your hat.’

            They took their seats in the train, she and John facing forwards with the brothers opposite:  there was a zest in sitting with two handsome young men. It was innocent too.

            John was explaining, ‘We shall break our journey at Wallington Castle. Lady Trevelyan will make us welcome.’

            Lady Trevelyan! She slightly frowned. John’s lady admirers were half the aristocracy.

            The train jolted into motion. Before long she was gazing down from a viaduct, at rings of tight houses with narrow mud yards. Women were walloping clothes into tubs, in the distance smoke teemed from factory chimneys. Then they ran into a tunnel, where smuts blew in their faces. Moving faster, they passed between wooded hills, where some hats took leave of their owners. A red parasol bowled away down a meadow. The carriage rocked as they reached the limits of speed, she clasped John’s arm.

            ‘Dear Effie,’ he absently said, and licked his pencil’s tip. He had his notebook out, she saw his lectures were forming.

            It was hard to talk now, but from time to time one or other brother would smile or nod to her. What now caught her eye, and her heart as well, were the glimpses she saw of the back of a family, milling in the next division of the carriage. A boy stood up shakily on the seat, another leaned over the carriage's side, and was quickly hauled back by his father’s arm. A girl turned bright eyes to her mother’s bonnet. Even the baby, in the nurse’s arms, stretched fat frilled hands to the streaming air.

            ‘Mrs Ruskin.' Everett held out a handkerchief to her. ‘The wind is strong in your eyes.’

            She swallowed, and thanked him, and took out a handkerchief of her own. She could pretend her tears were the wind’s work. In courtesy she nodded again to Everett, then she took off her bonnet and lifted her head, so the wind dashed into her face. Let it blow, they were travelling free. She closed her eyes as if rapt, as if she washed her skin in air.

            And when she opened her eyes, still, she met Everett’s eyes, which studied her steadily.

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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