“You are most meticulous with the tools of your trade,” the old man said, as I packed away brushes and paints into their worn wooden box.
“I have to be, my success depends upon it,” I said, wiping my paint-stained fingers with a ragged cloth. “Besides, it would not do to have any evidence left at the scene of the crime, now, would it?”
I disliked the old codger, even though he did have good cause to order both the portrait and the death of his son-in-law. I took a last look at the insouciant smirk of the man in the portrait. Only in oils would his charming smile be seen, since by now it had faded into the grimace of death when I had completed his portrait. I wondered whether his long-suffering wife would reminisce over it fondly, recalling earlier days, before her husband revealed his true nature.
The old man stood alongside me and joined me to gaze at the portrait. “It is astonishing how life-like you have made him, though we both know he was never as noble as you have painted him.”
He sighed and placed a folded document into my hands. “Here is the deed conveying ownership of my estate to your uncle. He drives a hard bargain, the blackguard, but my daughter’s happiness is worth it.”
He did not take his eyes off the glistening portrait, its veneer still wet, as he added, “I am tempted to burn it, so she can forget him, but I will not. It will be a legacy to my grandson, and should put to rest any remaining rumors about his father.”
I placed the valuable document into a small leather pouch inside a special pocket concealed in my skirts. My uncle had extorted this nobleman’s estate as the price of the assassination, and I shrugged off any guilt for my part in it. The cad would have probably lost his wife’s estate at the gaming tables, anyway. However, I did think Uncle was growing a bit too bold in pricing my services. It was never wise to cause clients to grumble; it would not do to draw any attention to our enterprise.
A servant entered silently and showed me out. My traveling bag stood by the door, and I allowed the footman to carry it to the waiting coach, while I kept hold of my paint box.
He grows too big for his breeches. His portrait should be magnificent.
A slip of paper, with a phrase and a name, conveyed the subject of my new commission, along with instructions and an address where and when I should appear.
Light streamed into the morning room, and I took another sip of tea as I held the paper up close. The name was one I recognized, as would anyone in this year of 1858: a Whig MP for Bristol, known as the Reformer. I imagined he had earned great enemies among the powerful, and it was certain he had little suspicion of the true intent of those colleagues who had commissioned his portrait as a gift. I rose and tossed both the envelope and its contents into the fire, ringing for my servants to prepare my things for a journey.
Luckily, Bristol was now connected to London by the Great Railway, so I was to be spared a long journey jostling over the moors with my paintbox in my lap. I placed the new hat gently over my dark brown hair, careful not to disturb the artfully arranged curls that had pained my maid to create. The large carpet bag and trunk had been packed and were ready for transport, and I had ordered a smart new ensemble for the journey.
I had learned that men of power judged women solely by their appearance, and so I had been just as meticulous about mine as I was about the contents of my paintbox. I drew on a new pair of grey leather gloves, a perfect match for my traveling suit, and took a last look at myself in the large hallway mirror. With the objectivity I used for studying my subjects, I deemed I still had several years of good looks and a softness that would disarm most men of Society. My eyes, a cold blue, were the only hint of the steel inside me, deadened to sympathy for those I been ordered to paint.
I entered a first-class compartment and made myself comfortable, carefully positioning my cherished paintbox on the seat beside me. I did not want or expect company and the snippets of countryside flashing by the window were hypnotic, relaxing me into a state of internal contemplation.