Looking the Other Way
By Fiona Knowles-Holland
Papa is not pleased. In fact, he has spent the last month expressing a deal of anger. He slams doors. He is rude to the servants. He even told Mama to get out of his sight. I am glad to say that she did not. She remained, steadfast, at the breakfast table, slowly placing pineapple, piece by piece, in her mouth, looking down at her plate. In the end, he stormed out of the breakfast room, and James had to pick up his fallen chair. Mama’s chin was trembling but she pulled her hand away when I tried to comfort her.
No-one tells me what is the matter, but there is definitely something very amiss. I have written to Caroline in Bristol, but she denies any knowledge. I think she is much taken up with the new baby. I have tried asking James but he is very loyal to Papa and will not tell. Papa spends much of his time on the dockside, checking the cargoes leaving and arriving into Liverpool. Occasionally merchants and agents come to the house to discuss business.
“But Heywood”, I heard one man say. “If we do not go along with this new trade, then not only will others flourish at our expense, there is a very real possibility that our own interests will suffer greatly.”
“It’s immoral. It is against the rule of God and Nature.” Papa’s voice sounded adamant. “There is no shame in the transportation of sugar, of tobacco, of cotton. Trade is what makes this city great. But are we to besmirch ourselves with the blood of Africa?”
“We have no choice, Heywood. Already our tobacco imports are declining, most of it going to Glasgow. We cannot get enough cotton. Would you really limit your ambition to running with a few bales here and there when there is real money to be made? London and Bristol are already engaged. Look at Lisbon, La Rochelle, Nantes. Do they hesitate?”
There is silence. Then another voice takes up, quietly, persuasively. “It’s really very simple. One. Two. Three. We run down the west coast of Europe, taking with us guns, beaten metal goods, alcohol, finished cotton to West Africa. Then across to the Americas where we offload and back to Europe with sugar and other exotic goods. Twelve months at the most. We can double our investment. “
Papa lowers his voice. “I will not be party to this. You can go ahead with your devilish schemes. I will risk what comes to me.”
Gradually, over the months since these conversations, the mood of the house changes. Objects, people drift away one by one as our fortunes falter. Miss Armstrong tells me that she is obliged to find another situation and, within a week, she has moved to Lincoln where she now tutors the two sons of a clergyman and finds the situation altogether less fraught and the pay more regular. I spend my time with Mama now, sewing and practising my handwriting. She is even more tight lipped. James appears to be doing the work of several servants and this in the shoes more fitting of a vagabond than a footman.
Items disappear. Our wine cellar is now empty. Paintings and tapestries leave their ghosts against the walls. Meat is more gristle than flesh and I long for fresh fruit. I wish I knew what is to happen. I think we may soon be poor.
Daniel Gervais has arrived! Mama says he is supposed to save our Fortune and looks at me curiously as she says this. Mr Gervais is a painter, no, not a painter, an Ar-tist. An artist of some repute. He is returning to his home in Dublin for a short while, “for to recover my wits and restore my equanimity”, after a busy and successful season in London. We are very lucky to have been able to engage his services. He mentions Uncle George quite a bit. I think he is quite impressed that Papa’s brother is the High Chancellor although the cast of his face as he looks about the house hint at his silent thoughts that trade should be more profitable or the fruits thereof more conspicuous in their display.
Papa speaks soothingly to me now and tells me that Mr Gervais is to paint my portrait. I ask him if I am to go to London soon. He says we shall see. I would so love to go to London. I wager the smell of fish and tar doesn’t linger on every street. I would not expect seagulls to argue quite so querulously upon the Palace roof as they do upon ours and every roof around. I imagine the wind to be gentler, nor would there be beggars and drunken seamen on the kitchen steps every other morning.
Sometimes Papa sits in with us and sometimes Mama. Mr Gervais does not talk to Mama but he does talk to Papa. He tells Papa that he will do some rudimentary sketches over the next few days. I ask him what he wants me to wear. He says it matters not. I ask him how I am to arrange my hair. Again he says it matters not. On his return, he promises to have transformed the sketches into a painting of singular beauty. I cannot wait. Papa looks very satisfied, which pleases me.
He and Papa talk about beauty, or at least Mr G talks and Papa listens. I am not sure he really understands what Mr G is saying. He talks about beauty as enchantment. How beauty can have both strengths and flaws and still be captivating. He looks deep into my eyes. He asks me to turn my hands this way and that. He bobs and shifts about as if he would remember each plane of my features, each lash, each pore. He comes close, moves away, comes close again and talks to Papa over his shoulder, his breath falling on my cheek. “You must see your subject for what she is. From multiple perspectives. Knowledge at this proximity is a form of intimacy.” Papa looks a bit uncomfortable at this and shuffles in his seat. I don’t really know what he is talking about but have the feeling he isn’t really talking about me. I am becoming a composite in front of him. At the end of the week, he has a notebook of sketches – hands, eyes, hair, the fall of a dress, an expanse of skin. None of it really seems like me. I have become broken into fragments.
That night Papa takes my chin in his hand. His eyes make tracks over my face. I want to tell him that everything will be alright. It’s as if he has somehow captured my thoughts when he says, “Darling child. Don’t fret. Matters will come right. You are nearly … nearly … so beautiful.” I feel a blush creeping over me when he talks like this. I look to Mama for guidance but she is taking the calico covers off her dresses, throwing them on to the floor. The back of his hand brushes my cheek, he grips the back of my neck, his eyes are searching, searching.
“What is it, Papa? Tell me, please tell me.”
He releases his grip of me and consults the almanac on mother’s writing desk. He counts. “Today is 13th January. By one … two … three …”, he counts under his breath, “Forty-five, forty six days, our fortune will be restored. My darling child, you will look marvellous. We shall have money again.” He gives a small nod to Mama who is holding up a dress. It is the colour of the flesh of an exotic fruit, its taste both rank and sweet, putrid yet inviting. This dress is in the room next time Mr Gervais comes to sketch. He lets the silk run through his fingers, nodding and stroking his beard.
What am I to conclude from this? That by the end of February, all will be restored? Papa will be happy again? Mama will speak again? I may talk of visiting London again? We shall be happy. Not sad.
The winter sets in. The fire dances a sorry jig in the hearth; we have no visitors. Many of the rugs from Turkistan have been rolled up and taken away out of the scullery door so that the draught may circulate more easily around the chilly spaces of our house. There was no goose at Christmas, only a rather stringy capon. We must fend for ourselves as best we can. Only James remains and his shoes get more and more threadbare by the day, made more so by his surreptitious forays to the market for food.
Ghosts of our hunger and fear issue from our mouths as vapour. There seems little to cheer us, except for a few brazen and foolhardy crocuses in the garden. Fingers of frost enter the house by stealth through cracked panes. We are burning furniture.
When Mr Gervais returns, he is hard-pressed to hide the look of shock on his face. “Come in, my good fellow”, says my father as he escorts him down the hall. “You may understand why we are so pleased to see you and why so much is dependent upon what you might bring us.”
We gather round as Mr Gervais, still in his cloak and gloves, struggles to untie the string. He removes layers of paper, hessian, cotton. We all gasp as he pulls his canvas free. Light and warmth bounce off the denuded walls. For the first time, I can see myself as I have never seen myself before. Or at least a composition of myself. I look so … so … perfect. My parents struggle for words. Mr Gervais looks from one to another of us. “Do you like it?” “Oh, yes”, we echo one another. I come forward to take a closer look at myself.
I do not recognise the dog that gazes up at me but I am delighted to see, in my right hand, the papier mache globe from Papa’s desk; my left index finger is pointing to a place in the Atlantic Ocean at a point off the west coast of Spain. Mr Gervais has captured the detail splendidly– the wavy lines of the continents, the compass in the ocean, the whale the size of Zeeland.
“I am satisfied”, says Papa. “Mr Gervais, we are deeply indebted to your kindness and to your talent. I trust that you will be successful in the furtherance of your commission.”
Why does Mr Gervais repack the painting and leave?
Over the next few weeks, we draw our cloaks around us and wait.
There is a letter from Mr Gervais on Papa’s desk. I read it. He assures Papa of his continuing and ardent efforts on our behalf and informs him that the painting has courted many admirers, the subject being found to be very pleasing and her virtues of beauty, intelligence and obedience more than evident. Nonetheless he is aggrieved to apprise Papa that no concrete offer has been received so he would be very obliged to Papa to receive the full and final settlement of his account.
If Mr Gervais is asking for money for the painting, then I am very doubtful that Papa has the means to honour his obligation.
There is a rumpus in the hallway. It seems that Mr Gervais has brought the painting back with him from London. Mama and I listen from the upstairs landing. She has her hand pressed to her mouth, my heart flutters as if it would fly away. Papa tells him that he cannot pay for the painting, that he does not wish to be indelicate but that the execution of the painting was merely one part of the commission; the second part of the commission was to find his daughter a husband. I cannot prevent a gasp escaping my lips. Mama does not look at me. Mr Gervais replies that moral character in a wife is as prized as beauty but questions what can be deduced about the former if the father himself proves to be as inept in business as he is in settling his debts. Beauty, it seems, is no compensation for poverty and penury. Papa shows him forcefully to the door.
Oh dear. Oh dear.
The brig, the Ptarmigan, has sunk. Run aground on rocks just out of Cadiz. All hands lost.
Everything is lost. Everything.
We walk as if we are spectres. Father is beyond melancholy. He mutters over and over, “Orange. Oranges. Naranja. Anaranjado.” He has lost not only his cargo, it seems he has lost his mind. We are just waiting for the bailiffs. They could walk right through us, we are so wasted, so without substance, so without hope.
Today as I entered the breakfast room, that painting was propped in my chair. I approached it cautiously, tainted as it is by its proximity to all our misfortunes. In the seat next to it, with his arm draped over the back, is Mr Frobisher whom I recognize as one of Papa’s business associates. He is eating a plum. Although it is not the season for such fruit, it is as if he has plucked it straight from the bowl in the canvas. He eats noisily and messily. Papa and Mama are sitting at the table too. There is an air of resolution, of resignation in the room.
Mr Frobisher continues talking. “So, you may remain in this house. Your lovely Amelia comes with me. You may no longer involve yourself in trading from Liverpool. You sign over all rights and interests to me. Should Amelia wish to offer you the stipend I give to her, then so be it. That should keep you in a certain amount of comfort and ease.”
I listen dumbfounded. My eyes move to the painting. I notice that the globe has now been replaced by an orange. Is this a cruel reflection on Papa’s loss? On the sinking of the ship and any last hope that Papa may have held on to?
My attention returns to Mr Frobisher. He continues to talk as his eyes rove. They brush over me and I shudder.
I see that the orange, ripe and plump, curiously has a white flower. Fruit of the fruit perhaps?
It is obvious to me what my destiny is to be. I cannot refuse.
Mama rises. Her chair falls backwards, but there is no James to retrieve it. She turns her anger on Papa, “You refused to involve yourself in the transportation of … of …”
“Slaves, Margaret, slaves.”
“… but you are willing to sell your daughter.”
She leaves the room and so does Papa. I am left alone with Mr Frobisher, me and this image of myself as the unwitting player in the dramas and intrigues of others. I wonder which – or what – will please him the most.