Ross King’s delightful, Rabelaisian novel recounts the adventures of young George Cautley, an aspiring artist who, as he makes his way through London’s high society, finds that nothing is as it seems and everyone wears a disguise. Moving from masquerade balls in London to the magnificent and mysterious opera houses of Venice, Cautley is drawn into a web of intrigue and murder spun by the seductive and tempestuous Lady Beauclair. Suspenseful, menacing, and laced with black humor, King’s picaresque tale is full of surprises and suspense, told at the pace of a thriller and with the richness of a restored painting.
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Ross King is the bestselling author of the nonfiction works Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, and the novel Ex-Libris.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I shall begin at the beginning. I was born in the village of Upper Buckling, in the county of Shropshire, in the year 1753. Before my birth a gypsy fortune-teller predicted to my mother that I should become a prosperous merchant or a noble statesman. My mother, fortunately, set little store by such pagan superstition, being the wife of a clergyman; and this indeed was the profession she was content to reserve for me despite these intimations of future grandeur. My reverend father likewise refused to believe that the clues to our characters resided in tea-leaves or in the palms of our hands-as the gypsy had confidently asserted-but, rather, held they were to be discovered in our faces: in the conformation of the head, the situation therein of the eyes, the length of the nose, the width of the lips, the shape of the eyebrows, the angle of the jaw. He expended a good many years and a great amount of stationery establishing the irrefutability of this hypothesis, the final fruit of which was a learned treatise entitled The Compleat Physiognomist. What of my own lot in life he may have glimpsed in the blots, blemishes and truculent expressions of my youthful visage he did not reveal, but in any event he was agreed with my mother on the choice of my future occupation. This prospect I did not contemplate withenthusiasm, but as a second son I relented to their wishes, however unprepossessing they were to my imagination, which instead prompted dreams of literary fame or of the popular applause I would achieve with my paintbrush in the salons and exhibition halls of the Continent.
My prospects for the clergy changed, however, with the death of my elder brother William. At eighteen years William had been purchased a commission in the army, but this career was soon terminated in battle beneath the falls of the Mississippi by the musket-ball of an Indian chieftain. Then, altering my course still further, in the following spring William was followed to the grave by my father, claimed by a fever, The Compleat Physiognomist sadly incomplete. Since my father had entertained a philosophical carelessness to financial affairs, believing that the positive reception of his treatise would obviate the need for all worries in this area, my mother was left without a groat. Under these altered circumstances it was resolved that upon attainment of my seventeenth year I should depart for London, there to foster an alliance with my kinsman Sir Henry Pollixfen. Besides being my mother's cousin, Sir Henry was also a man of wealth and civil rank; the very sort of gentleman, in short, whose public stature the gypsy's prophecy had implausibly reserved for me.
Before setting out in the world I was made to comprehend that preparatory to any future establishment through my kinsman I should require the offices of the most cautious diplomacy, as civil contact between the families had lapsed at the time when my mother first received the addresses of my father, and then had ceased altogether upon their marriage. The causes of this breach, now entering its third decade, I understood to be a patch of arable land adjoining the estates of my maternal grandfather, as well as an eligible young man who had been legally attached to it. To my grandfather's dismay, this young gallant had not, however, been attached to the fancy of my mother, who remained devoted to my father, deaf to every advice or threat.
So it was that on the morning following my seventeenth birthday I set out for London, bearing with me on the packsaddle twelve guineas, one suit of clothes, three ruffled shirts, two pairs of worsted stockings, my paintbox, the stained and furling manuscript of The Compleat Physiognomist, and a three-cornered hat which in a former service had protected the more heavily lined brow of this treatise's author. That is to say, I carried with me everything I owned in the world, and on the strength of these slender qualifications, and of my mother's letter of introduction to my honoured kinsman, I precipitated myself into the unfathomed depths of that mighty city.
My only other resource in London was my friend Topsham, or Lord Chudleigh as I now could call him. Toppie's acquaintance and subsequent avowals of friendship had followed from my father's performance of various sacred duties for the previous Lord Chudleigh, the last of which, two summers before, involved burying him. Toppie then succeeded to large estates not only in Shropshire but also in County Cork, as the legacy of a forebear's devotion to Cromwell. Determined to live among the highest company, he arrived in London some weeks after me, though his route from Shropshire had been more prolonged and adventuresome than my own, encompassing regions from Paris to Constantinople. Then, too, before repairing to London he had lingered for two months on the Portuguese coast, for after a year of dissipating studies in the less salubrious climates of the Continent he had found it necessary to recruit his health with the assistance of a painful course of mercury.
Upon his first arrival in the capital Toppie faithfully sought out my humble rooms in the Haymarket, above the wigmaker's shop; or, rather, his footman sought me out, dropping his new master's engraved card through the shop door. Many times thereafter Toppie promised to introduce me to Persons of Quality (as he called them), who, he said, would be most anxious to provide me with material assistance once they appreciated the quality of my landscapes and portraitures. The generosity of this kind offer was not lost on me, as my kinsman had so far remained impervious to my several advances. A good face may be, as The Compleat Physiognomist stated, `a letter of recommendation to its bearer', but Sir Henry, alas, declined to peruse this particular document however desperately it was offered, preferring to conduct our correspondence through the person of a tall and saturnine porter, who upon my last visit to the handsome residence in Queen's Square had threatened to cudgel me should these entreaties persist. The continuing sad issue of this affair therefore predisposed me to accept Toppie's invitation to accompany him to a drum held at the residence of Lord W-, a peer well known for his convivial social habits, though somewhat infamous in the beau monde on account of his family history.
It was at this ball, two months into my sojourn in London, that I first made the acquaintance of Lady Petronella Beauclair and her ambiguous companion Tristano. These names are not so well known today as they once were; indeed Tristano, once so notorious, the subject of scandal and gossip, of pamphlets and broadsheets, was an old man, all but forgotten by the time I met him; and each has now been dead for more than four decades. I alone remain to tell the story of their lives, which for a few short months swept like comets within the orbit of my own, changing that orbit for ever.
Without compromising the remainder of my memoirs I shall inform you (if it not be already too apparent) that I did not become a prosperous merchant or a noble statesman, nor even a poet or an eminent painter. And neither was I to find any material assistance at the hands of my kinsman Sir Henry Pollixfen. It seems that I have spent the entirety of my life belying the gypsy's prophecy. I am, I shall confess at the outset, a murderer; and even those possessing no knowledge of my crime-for which I have been punished by my conscience alone-would say I have become a debauched creature, a monster of moral abomination reviled by all who pretend to virtue or goodness. Yet I merely ask you to restrain judgement and to hear my history, or Lady Beauclair's history, or Tristano's-whatever the case may be.
Under other circumstances I might have pursued my way on foot, for Lord W-'s house stood in St James's Square, a short distance from my lodgings above Mr Sharp's shop. Yet the invitation having come from him, Toppie saw fit to bear the expense of hiring transport-he had not yet purchased the ostentatious equipage for which he later became known-and so at nine o'clock the two of us clattered through the Haymarket in two glass-chairs borne by burly and sweating chair-men.
I should admit straight away that after two months in London the assembly was my first excursion into polite society. This may perhaps explain, if not exactly excuse, some of what follows. True, I had been several times to Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea, where I paid half a crown for the privilege of walking round the Rotunda or watching fireworks in the presence of Persons of Quality; and the previous week I drank to the King's health with Toppie and several of his new friends after a concert at Vauxhall Gardens. But more often than not I kept only the more humble and sober company of Mr Sharp and his family, which made up for in quantity what it may have lacked in quality. This attachment was one Toppie sought to discourage: for, as he frequently reminded me, no wigmaker with seven mouths to feed could have any particular wish to commission a portrait or a landscape.
As we approached the house, situated in a moonlit square lined with chariots, phaetons, sedan-chairs, and polished coach-and-fours spattered with the mud of the country, Toppie became liberal in his assurances about the female acquaintance I might make at tonight's drum. I listened with much eagerness to his descriptions of Miss This and Lady That, for I was not always so ugly as I am now, and deep within my breast I harboured shy hopes of matrimony. He also provided encouragements regarding the quality of the company I could expect to meet and intimated that, if I created a favourable impression, there would be many faces willing to avail themselves of my pencil and paints. He spoke, furthermore, of the famous painter of portraits and founding member of the Royal Academy, Sir Endymion Starker, who, he surmised, would be in attendance tonight. He declared that there was not a famous visage in London, and scarcely one in all of Europe, that had not been reproduced by Sir Endymion's deft brush: Lord North, the Duke of Grafton, Edmund Burke, Lord Rockingham, the Marquês de Pombal, Madame de Pompadour, even King George himself-each, and many more besides, had apparently sat to this distinguished gentleman at one time or another.
`I have met Sir Endymion once or twice,' Toppie said, `and should I see him, George, I shall introduce you, be sure of that.'
As we disembarked into the cooling air-it was early September-these words, like those of the gypsy fortune-teller, swelled into a promise that, for the moment, it seemed impossible to betray.
When Toppie announced himself at the door we were admitted into the house by a liveried footman who relieved us of our hats. This old sentinel courteously submitted a low bow, though it seemed as if he may have regarded my father's weathered tricorne and several of my other accoutrements with less esteem than he pretended. For the occasion Toppie had furnished me with one of his coats and a pair of gold-buckled shoes, to which Thomas, his footman, had with great vigour applied a rag and polish. Still, my waistcoat and breeches did not perhaps suit the occasion, and, moreover, had seen regular duty on Sunday mornings for a year or two already, a service betrayed more conspicuously than I would have preferred.
Upstairs we discovered the company assembled in a splendid salon with a corniced ceiling and walls festooned with scrolling acanthus leaves, golden sheaves and wreaths of honeysuckle. Toppie introduced me to several ladies of degree, who dropped deep curtsies and politely favoured my addresses with lowered eyes. I was on the point of engaging myself with one of them for a future minuet, when Topple excused us and drew me into an octagonal room with red velvet walls and antique marble busts on brackets. Here a singer acclaimed for the quality of her mezzo-soprano voice had just completed an aria, and her audience now picked up their cards to resume the game of ombre.
`She's not come,' Toppie muttered into his lace cravat, in some despair.
He had been induced to attend the drum by Lady Sacharissa Lascelles, or, rather, by the prospect of seeing her again. He had made her acquaintance the previous evening as we played Dutch-pins at the Adam and Eve Tea Gardens in Tottenham Court Road. I immediately suspected that Lady Sacharissa, the daughter of a newly created peer, had made a vivid impression in his breast, for in her presence his play had been elated and uncharacteristically competitive.
I pursued him back into the crowded salon, where we partook in a glass of punch. As we drank, Toppie indicated the names and ranks of various dignitaries in attendance; but these intelligences abruptly ceased when his attention came to rest at last on the visage of Lady Sacharissa, who was in animated intercourse across the room with a small party of gamblers. Excusing himself, he crossed beneath the chandelier, and soon after the two of them were curtsying and bowing to each other.
I turned my attention to the other guests. `Persons of the highest quality', Topple had called them, in a reverential undertone, as we ascended the processional staircase, a marble cascade flowing between pairs of fluted columns. These were the richest, most noble, most dazzling figures of the beau monde, all of them perfumed and powdered, equipped with gold-laced hats and silver-hilted swords, attired from top to toe in their finest ruffled and brocaded court dress. Here or there a necklace of diamonds, the glittering spoil of India or Araby, could be seen sparkling on a white bosom, while on another's alp of elaborately dressed hair rubies caught the candle-light as she laughed with a fine young gentleman who displayed a beauty-patch on a rouged cheek. Some of the ladies, I noted in amazement, had submitted themselves to a most ostentatious fashion, for bouquets of fresh flowers, bunches of grapes, young vegetables and tiny models of coaches and horses sprouted from, hung upon, or else cantered across, their décolleté bodices and beautiful fountains of hair. What, I wondered, might the good and sober :matrons of Upper Buckling think of these practices?
More incredibly, some of the gentlemen also flaunted monstrous eccentricities of dress that surpassed all wonted bounds of fashion. Their exceedingly tight waistcoats and breeches bore the bold stripes of African zebras or the bright colours of peacocks and canary-birds, and from their pockets emerged gold or silver fob-chains of prodigious length, upon which loops oscillated one-and sometimes two-pocket-watches of seemingly inconvenient measure. In one hand these creatures clasped tiny spyglasses, through which they peered rather critically at the company; in the other, canes of fantastic length, decorated with yellow tassels.
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Book Description Vintage, 2003. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0099464551
Book Description Vintage, 2003. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 99464551