September 4th 1853
I am sitting with Dauncey on my lap, drinking morning coffee on my own terrace at last. I am glad no-one is with me to chatter and bewilder my mind still further – last night’s supper with that woman was enough to send me mad. I shall have to tell Josiah what she said, of course, but for now I must order my thoughts and work out what it is that he must know and what I must keep to myself (and Boo).
As the boy drove me up the lane to Lydiatt House, the whole drab collection of Cornbenches idled out to meet me, like a herd of docile cattle. I alighted from the trap and was dragged pathetically into the house by the children – who showed as much spirit as could be expected, I suppose, from those borne into dreary dullness. Mrs Cornbench clasped my arm and said,
” Oh my dear, how pleased we are to see you back in your rightful place! Blindingham is empty without you. Do come and eat with us while we tell you everything that has happened here while you have been up in London. You might not think the City so exciting when you learn what goes on in the country!”
She babbled on in this tiresome manner throughout the whitebait and right up until the end of the soup. Eventually Mr Cornbench hushed her and we endured some greying beef in relative peace.
The Cornbenches are very modern people who believe their children should dine with company – I can only imagine how quiet they are when alone – so it was not until they had been sent to their beds that I began to understand the reason for all the faddle about village news.
“My dear Mrs Hatherwick, permit me to speak with freedom in the interests of your continued happiness, now you are returned home.” (Mr Cornbench addressed me as if I were at the Assizes; I became quite unsettled at his tone) “You will be pleased, I am convinced of it, that we have taken it upon ourselves to apprise you of recent events.”
He paused, waiting for what I don’t know. I adopted an expression of puzzled interest in the hope that he would carry on speaking without me having to bother to request it. He took my hint,
“Someone has arrived to take lodging in the Village. A very interesting character – he is from Italy by all accounts and is every bit as exotic as his provenance would suggest.”
Exotic? What on earth could he mean? And it would only take two cloves in an orange for Mr Cornbench to declare a whole fruit basket exotic, so I was not expecting a great deal from this story.
” He is called Mr Fortuna. Mr Garcia Fortuna from Naples. Naples is in Italy.”
“I guessed as much,” I said. “And do you know why has this Mr Fortuna come to live in the village?”
“He is to paint our portraits – every one of us! He has a commission from a very honourable patron; we are all to become famous in the Galleries of Rome!” Mrs Cornbench squealed and bounced around in her seat, til I was forced to address her, too.
“Paint our portraits? Who on earth should wish to see the residents of Blindingham preserved in oils?”
I was quite perplexed by the news and by the degree of excitement it warranted, until I heard the answer to my question.
” My dear! We are to hang in the halls of the Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef! Mr Fortuna is to spend a year observing us ordinary village folk (I bridled a little at being included in that group, but bit my tongue in the presence of Royalty…) and he is to send his works to Italy where the Emperor is regaining power from the Revolutionaries! Now, tell me that is not the most exciting news ever to have reached your pretty ears!”
Mrs Cornbench had quite forgotten herself as she reached for my ears to tweak them in her frenzy. I recoiled enough to save my dignity, but I was extremely exercised by the whole business.
I could not – and can still not – fathom why an Emperor of Austria should wish to furnish his Italian acquisitions with images of rural Surrey. But if Signor Garcia Fortuna is to paint portraits for the Royal Houses of Europe, I should like to ensure that one of them is of me.
My concern now is how much of this news to convey to Josiah. He is quite capable of living an entire six-month at Blindingham without knowing anything of local activity or gossip, but if I am to sit for a painting I shall have to spend some time with this Mr Fortuna. If he is an unmarried gentleman, Josiah will not hear of it, I am sure. I will write to Boo and ask her advice – she is quite shrewd where my husband is concerned and has often steered me to the best course of action in my dealings with him. Bless her, she must listen as closely as any friend could when I speak of him – she almost knows his thoughts as well as I do myself!