An Imperfect Ideal


London, 1793

The night Adelina St Adalbert arrived in London, the clouds were rolling uneasily across the sky and producing sinister sounds her brown eyes could but marvel at. The painter's house did not stand out in any feasible way from the others lined along the fashionable street. It was very peculiar for an artist to own a house in Park Lane; Archer Barry was said do be born of a wealthy mother who had bequeathed him every penny at her demise, so he had certainly not been a diamond in the rough.

He could not have bought the house with his earnings, as an artist is paid only in guineas, Adelina thought to herself as she knocked softly on the door for fear of waking the inmates. After nearly ten minutes of idling in the cold mist that was beginning to cling to her clothes and skin, the door opened to a small crack, and the red nose of a woman peeked out, surveying Adelina with shrewd suspicion.

"Are you the new maid?" she hissed, with a look that spoke her displeasure of having a foreign maid in the house.

"Yes, madam," she nodded, her eyes widening alertly as she pulled her shawl snugly about her shoulders. "I am Adelina St Adalbert."

"Come in, then," the housekeeper in the nightcap muttered, holding the door ajar for her and then clicking it closed. "The master is a very light sleeper, so mind you keep your voice down." Adelina nodded, following the acid-faced housekeeper into the gloomy servants' quarters. "You're to sleep here," she explained as they entered a dark room, and then glancing at the young woman snoring in the bed opposite, "With the head house-maid." And that was all. Adelina sank into her assigned bed after the housekeeper had shut the door, forgetting to undress – not from carelessness, but from the exhaustion of travel.

"So you're from Poland, are you?"

"Yes," she nodded in reply to the head housemaid's query.

"Which area?" continued Bess, perceiving Adelina's maidenly discomfort.

"Bess," the butler cut in abruptly. "Leave the girl alone. She can hardly understand you, you know. Ain't it so, Miss St Adalbert?" She gave him no answer. It was as though she had not even acknowledged his words. She had a curious face that unsettled him. She had wide hazel eyes, a crown of thick brown hair that was plaited into a braid and pinned around the top of her head, a long nose, drooping cheeks, a sweet smile and an elongated neck. All this would have been insignificant had her eyes not been filled with so many juxtaposing emotions. There was maiden madness intermingled with shades of innocence, overall chilled by a more prominent expression of bitter insolence.

"He'll like her," he said to Bess as the table was in disorder after the morning meal. "She's in his style." Bess smiled knowingly at him, and then shrugged, saying, "But he can't touch her. She's—" Adelina was standing behind them, waiting to be given her first orders.

"There you are!" she said, both domestics looking with surprise at the captivating young maid. "Come with me," and taking her by the wrist, she led her down to the ground floor, where she paused and pointed to where she was to clean. "There is his parlour, girl. You are to clean it at this hour every morning, after which you are to report back to me and then I'll tell you what else you are to do. Understood?"

"Yes, Bess," she nodded, wiping her delicate white hands on her crisp white apron with nervousness.

"Don't worry, girl," said Bess, after looking understandingly at her. "He doesn't use the parlour very often, unless he's got guests. But even then, he prefers the drawing-room. It's much finer."

After having finished tidying the parlour, Adelina crept out, taking a worried glimpse of the front hall to ensure that no one was there. Silence reigned over the elegant town house. He was a late sleeper. She was slithering silently across the hall when a voice at the top of the stairs paralysed her.

"You, girl," said a man's smooth and civil voice. She kept her eyelids drooped over her eyes, while her lips uttered the gentle words, "Yes, sir?"

"Look at me," he insisted politely, and she looked up with a timid blush. He smiled placidly. He had a rather broad but angular face, a deep cleft in his chin, sleepy brown eyes, hair the colour of a field of rye and there was a slight dent on the bridge of his nose, as if it had been broken in his youth. He was donning a silk green Banyan and a pale red negligee cap. "There you go. I do not know you, do I? You must be the new maid."

"Yes, sir," she nodded mechanically, her pink mouth hanging slightly open in wonder. His fingers were pulling the edges of his silk Banyan together at his waist. He was observing her. This was the man that was renowned for his placidity of temper and his inoffensive sense of humour more than his art.

"What is your name?" he asked after a pause he doubtless did not at all find uncomfortable. Adelina felt the absurdity of the question, for he had spoken to her father before they had sent her to the grey, rainy island.

"Adelina St Adalbert, Mr. Barry," she murmured hesitantly, although it was a good thing she was not stiffened by prudence.

"How old are you, Adelina?"

"Sixteen years, sir."

"I see. You may send for Bess, Adelina. I have forgot to ask her something of vital importance to my… comfort."

The next time Adelina saw her master, she was pouring him and a company of aristocrats tea in the drawing-room. She wore a yellow cotton dress with red stockings and wooden shoes, and her sleeves were tailored above the elbow, as was the fashion in those days. As she was leaning over Archer Barry to fill his cup, she saw that his attentive black eyes were hooked curiously to her frame with an artist's admiration.

She was far too discreet for clumsiness, but felt a broiling feeling of admiration increasing within her breast as her eyes dwelled upon his emotionally rigid face. He saw right through her, and she could not escape that.

This was the first time that little Adelina St Adalbert saw Teresa Ballad, a lady who had been born of English parents in Turkey and who, because she embraced her exotic origins, was known as the Pretty Greek. She was sitting in a sensual cross-legged position, and wore her most characteristic gown – a green-gold striped ball gown, with ermine lining her plunging neckline. She wore a red-white silk turban with a peacock's feather sticking out of it and with her ebony hair spilling out of its silky folds like ink onto her canvas-like white brow.

Her peering eyes were focused on him with a conscious smile, and though they were full of life, Adelina thought them eerily fatal. She observed the sneering aristocrats in frozen gentleness, the only movement she made being her shifty eyes jumping from his face to hers. They seemed intensely captivated by each other, and he seemed already to have forgotten about her until she had slipped out of the room, and was abruptly accosted by him. He had been watching her, but too discreetly for her to have noticed.

"Where are you going, Adelina?" his soft voice demanded passively from behind her. She did not answer him. He stood very close to her – the tip of his polished black low-heeled shoe was touching her heel, and it was sending a warm current through her frame. "Come back into the drawing-room," he said at last. "Miss Ballad requested to be brought some coffee. You must ask cook if we have got any left. She is Turkish, so it had better be good."

"Yes, sir," she murmured, darting away with the utterance of those words.

Archer Barry worked long hours in his studio, and yet he was one of London's most gregarious of gentlemen. Though at times he preferred a philosopher's company, Adelina more often than not saw him entertaining noble and famous guests whom he adored to flatter and humour with his passive sense of sarcasm. When he was a young boy, he had suffered a severe chill that had left him partially deaf in one ear, and in result of this whoever he spoke with was obliged to keep in mind his deformity and speak at as loud a level of voice as they could manage.

Though he was exceedingly popular as a portraitist, his professional career had not as yet peaked, and he had such painters to contend with as Gainsborough and Reynolds. He was one of the members of the Royal Society of Arts, and as a lecturer he was sensitive and perceptive. He was one of London's finest and most admired gentlemen, and yet he lacked a certain human quality that is vital in any one. He lacked the capacity to love. He had often invited his models to sit for him for more time than was necessary, but this only confirmed that he had selfish, manly urges, and that he cared very little for the illusion of love or for caritas.

He was beginning to adore Adelina like an artist does his muse, but he could never pine for her with as much lust as he did the nineteen-year-old Teresa Ballad. He was one of the rare painters of his time who practised the Grand Style, which essentially depended on the idealisation of the imperfect.

He began coming upon Adelina in the most unexpected moments and places, and of speaking amiably to her, as though she were his sister and it was entirely natural for him to lavish so much attention on her. He would always complain about how hard it was to catch her eyes, and asked whether they were so shifty from cowardice or from bashfulness. He wished to possess her soul by capturing it on canvas, and though his address was gentle and unaggressive, his sudden appearances were ostentatiously deliberate.

One evening, when Adelina was tidying the dim dining-room, her master entered it with a brass candelabra in one hand, and approached her with it, the tongues of fire flickering as he sat on the edge of the table where she was cleaning. She did not draw back, though his knee brushed her thigh.

He had removed his white cravat, and she fixed her eyes on his Adam's apple, counting the many times it rose and fell as he swallowed.

"I have come to ask something of you, Adelina." She gazed inquiringly into his face. Her emotions seemed to rule over her speech, for she transmitted everything she would have meant to say through her eyes. "Would you be willing to sit for me?"

She hesitated.

"I paint very quickly," he said in a manner of suave persuasion. "You needn't sit for me very long."

"Why?" she looked up with a furrowed brow.

"I shan't dignify that question with an answer. Sit for me. Tomorrow at eight o'clock in the evening. Be there."