Tuesday 18th July, 1876
Dear Mr Smith,
I do not recall asking for a bath to be run for me, you know.
I think I must have murmured my intentions aloud at some stage, or perhaps somehow made known my desires without meaning to, observed and not realising the fact, and at no point did I leave a note or some such for the servants. I had intended to run the bath myself.
Nevertheless, as I was writing my last letter to you, the bell rang in the bathroom, and when I stepped into the master bath, I found that my bath had indeed been run.
The scent of hyacinth hung sweet upon the air, not so heavy as to be oppressive, but only seductive, and for a moment I lingered in my slippers and my banyan, inhaling deeply the floral scent that greeted me, and then I stepped further forward. No servant had come through my room as I had been at my writing desk, and I stepped toward the door that led from the bath into the corridor, locking it with a quiet click of the key in the lock.
The bath was quite full, more than full enough that I should be fully submerged in it, and a handful of small, lilac petals had been scattered on the water’s surface – the hyacinth I could smell, no doubt taken from one of the many bottles of dried flowers shelved for the purpose of scenting a bath, which were neatly arranged in bright rows of colour upon one wall.
A rug had been rolled out beside the great bath, some sort of fur, and the stool from the vanity had been set beside it, with two towels and some soap stacked on its seat. When I stepped out of my slippers and onto the rug instead, I sighed without meaning to at the softness beneath my soles, and I knew that when I stepped from the bath, it would protect my feet from bite of the cold floors. What luxury.
I had heard no servant’s footstep, nor even heard the running water or the clatter of the pipes as my bath had been made ready for me, and looking about the bathroom even then, I saw no evidence that another soul had stepped foot inside: there were no fingerprints or marks of condensation upon the bath’s taps or edges, no scant drips of water on the floor or wet stains upon the rug, nor marks upon the towels. Even the bottles of flowers seemed untouched, not one of their number any less full than the rest, although one had been used this evening.
I saw only my bath, made fit for me as though I were some prince, or perhaps a priest to be made clean before his evening’s worship—
I could never be a priest, I do not think.
I have not the strength of being.
After a moment of gazing at the beautiful surface of the steaming water, the sight no doubt reminiscent of some long-forgotten hot springs cleaved into the side of ancient Olympus, I disrobed, and sank therein.
What heat, Mr Smith, and what a soothing balm was the water on my flesh – there were salts in the bath as well as the flowers, and I felt them hum against my skin, my eyes falling closed as I leaned slowly back into the water, sinking underneath its surface. A towel had been rolled and pinned against the head of the bath, that I might rest my head upon it, and I laid myself in the waters, and felt much at peace.
The weight of the water was impossible, and for some while – I know not how long – I lay there beneath it, feeling its kiss on my skin.
I have no doubt, Mr Smith, that at some point to come, I shall paddle in the sea that laps upon the shore at Heatherton, perhaps even roll up my trousers and step forth, that those small waves might run over the backs of my calves, my knees, even, but I would go no further. I don’t know that I could step upon a boat, for fear of what lurked beneath it, and to swim in open waters, I should surely die even to think of it. I spoke to you of my fear of the abyss, of the leviathan in it, and I fear I could never swim in the open sea lest I die from fright, but a bath, why—
What is a bath, Mr Smith, but a boat in perfect reverse?
Here one might be submerged beneath the water, held in its perfect embrace, and yet there is no abyss below, no infinite stretch of the deep – here are the walls of the bath, to keep the bounds of one’s solace. There is only the comfort of the finite here, and its gentle clasp.
Have you ever been beneath a shower of water, Mr Smith, or a very heavy rain, and cupped your hands to your breast, and watched the water fall and gather in the bowl you have made of your gathered palms, and overflow over your fingers, and drip between their gaps?
I have often dreamed of a bath such as that. To lie back in great palms carved of marble, their paint long-since washed away by the flow, and feel oneself at once bathed in water, with it showering over one’s head – in my dreams, those hands are as warm as they are impossible in their size, and in them is a tremendous safety, and at the same time, a terrible peril.
One could never be truly safe in the grasp of a titan, Mr Smith.
Even a gentle man might harm a mouse without meaning to – so too could a titan harm man.
You must never think, Mr Smith, that I would be of a mind to fall asleep in my bathwater – at such a time as I am very tired, I never step into a bath, even in cold water, and I wash myself only at the basin. As much as I trust my bath, so separate is it from the deepest of far-spread waters, I could not wholly trust the water even now.
Once, when I was a young boy, I was in the bath across from another boy, Thamyris, who rested in the other bath. We had drawn the longest straws, and each enjoyed the hottest, cleanest water that night – of course, the water was lukewarm at most, and in it was a red and rusted tang from the copper in the pipes, but to us, it was a great hedonism, only that Thamyris had spent the day playing out of doors, and by the time we were to bathe, he was very tired indeed.
Ordinarily, he was a loud boy to bathe with – he would sing at the very top of his lungs, and the beautiful wonder of his voice would reach the rafters and shake the dust from them, but on this night, he did not sing. Sitting forward in the bath, as I scrubbed at my shoulders and my back, my arms, my legs, he drooped forward, his eyes drooping closed.
I believe he must have fell asleep when I dipped my head beneath the water to rinse my hair of soap, because when I raised my head again, I could not see him, and when Carystus – Telamon was our headmaster, and we had tutors, but Carystus was in charge of caring for us outside of our studies – came into the baths to tell us our turn was finished, and that we were to pass our baths over to the next boys, he saw Thamyris laid down in the water, and hauled him out by his hair.
Thamyris rose sputtering, coughed water over the side of his bath, and Carystus told him, “Will you make of yourself the spectre in the water, that lured Narcissus to his death?”
“That spirit was Narcissus,” coughed Thamyris. “The spectre of his ego.”
“As you say,” Carystus had said, and shoved his head back ‘neath the water.
“Carystus,” I said, after a moment or two had passed, anxious and uncertain, concerned when I saw water coast over the edge of the bath, and spatter on the floor. Thamyris was kicking from where Carystus – a big man, an archer with strong shoulders – held him underneath the water, and lacked the strength to overpower him. “Carystus— Carystus, release him. Carystus—”
Thamyris was screaming, I thought.
I could hear the sound eke out from beneath the water, could hear a once-musical voice turn ragged, like dried-out strings on a lyre, and I stumbled from my bath and grabbed Carystus by the wrist, pulled for what little good it could do me, and begged that he should release him.
“Why should I?” asked Carystus. “You don’t think the nymph should be given his water?”
“You will kill him,” I said wretchedly, and Thamyris went limp in the water.
“Take your towel,” said Carystus as he pulled Thamyris from the water, held limply by his hair, and for a moment I stared at him, quite horrified, until Thamyris coughed, and spat water over the edge of the bath. His eyes were red-rimmed and his face was very pale, and when his hands landed on the bath’s edge, they were weak and clumsy. “Take your towel,” Carystus said again. “Tell the next boys they can come in.”
For a few years, after that, Thamyris did not sing, and then when he sang again, his voice was so very sublime, Mr Smith. There was a deepness in it, a crack, but not the crack of something hoarse or broken – it was a crack in the way a vein of core cracks open a wall, and shows in purest gold.
I always tried to take Thamyris as a bathing partner, when I could. He would sing as though serenading me, lean over the edge of his bath with his chin rested upon its edge, his eyes half-lidded, his fingers curving through the air reminiscent in the idle motions of a conductor’s baton.
“It is very easy to sing,” he once said to me, “looking upon such beauty as yours, Ganymede. Do you not find it easier to sculpt, when my song carries from the next room?”
“I do,” I told him, and it was true.
I hope you do not think I am reminiscing on these things for no reason, Mr Smith – merely that this is what I thought of when I was in the bath, when my eyes were closed, and I did not sleep. I would never sleep in my bathwater: I would not like to drown. You really must believe me on this point, because I thought for a moment, when I opened my eyes, that I was dreaming.
Staring up at the painted ceilings, and it seemed to me, for a moment or two, that over my head the clouds were moving very quickly overhead, as though they were flying above me. They parted and shifted as they moved, like real clouds, and yet, they were not real. Was this the view a bird glimpsed, when he took to the sky?
I was enraptured by it, my eyes wide and staring and quite awake, feeling as though I myself were in motion, as though my bath were carrying me elsewhere beneath the roll of these peach-pink skies, as though I were feeling Gaia herself rotate beneath my person, where I lay still.
Then, so soon as it started, it stopped, and the skies above me were still.
I took in a sharp breath, filling my lungs, which ached – I had not inhaled since first I stared up at that most bewitching view, and was dizzy, I know not from lack of breathing or from the false motion itself.
Leaning forward, closing my eyes a moment to steady my spinning head, I reached for the soap, and commenced the ablutions I had lain here for. I remembered, as I washed myself, the songs Thamyris would sing in the bath – old songs, worship songs, poetry put to music, and so often, he would splice together one song with another, as a child would sew one bear’s limbs onto another bear’s body, making a sort of beautiful chimera, where all the gods shared one thread of story, and wove themselves through a tapestry in it.
Here, safe in the salted warmth of my bathwater, the soap moving over my flesh, I thought of Thamyris’ rounded jaw, his glittering, mischievous eyes, his wide mouth, the width of his fine, well-moulded throat, the strength of the apple that showed in it. When he sang, if you looked very closely, you could see the quiver of his lip at any sustained note or another, and if you put out your hand and touched his throat, as I did many times, you could feel the very motion of the notes themselves, could feel his flesh quiver as any instrument does when making music, the same as you might touching the frame of a lyre, or the box of a guitar.
When I rose from my bath, I did so distractedly, picking up my towel and putting it about my shoulders, as though I were some manner of automaton, my actions dictated by my clockwork. I could not help but muse upon those rolling clouds, and in my mind, I fancied I still heard Thamyris’ song, though he was surely so very far away—
I was awake, and yet, it was some manner of reverie.
Perhaps that is why I did not realise I had been plunged into darkness, had been working underneath its occlusive blanket, until I opened the door to the bedroom, and felt assaulted by the soft glow of the oil lamp there.
I confess to you, Mr Smith, I cried out, falling back into the darkness of the bathroom, and then turned and stared about myself, at the high windows. It had been hours upon hours until a long sunset should set in, let alone until darkness should reign, and yet it seemed to be that the night outside was black as pitch.
When I drew my fingers through my bathwater, I felt that it was cold. When I checked the clock, midnight had come and gone.
Shivering and out-of-sorts, I drew on my night clothes and put myself to bed.
I do not recall the dreams I had that night, Mr Smith, but I feel they were uneasy.
On Saturday morning, the rain fell in very hard sheets, pounding against the roof as though it thought to break through, and having swaddled myself in a thick jumper with a shawl drawn about my shoulders, I moved into the studio, but despite the cool wind I had felt from the open window in the stairwell, the studio was quite warm, even though the fire was not yet lit.
Removing my shawl and smiling to myself, I picked up some of the sketches I had done on my journey here, and picked one at random – a quick sketch of an alleyway I had seen whilst passing through Birmingham, which I recall was curiously lit by the oil lamps hung in the streets though the day was still well-lit, though it had been difficult indeed to convey these things through the medium of chalk alone – to set aside beside my easel, that I could commence to remake it in oils.
I do like the rain, Mr Smith, when I am out in it – a curious thing for a fellow to say, I’m sure you think, but I have always thought so – and can feel its liquid kiss upon my brows, curling through my hair, sliding down the length of my throat and beneath my blouse, even when it is cold. There is something curiously pleasurable about it, but also something very private, as though one is sharing an intimate moment with the skies themselves, which have opened to greet you with their wet embrace.
It feels different, inside.
Watching the rain lash against the windows, hearing its thundering rhythm and seeing the wet streaks upon the glass, seeing too the gushing flows from the gutters and the roof tiles, I felt as separate from the rain as I do from the rest of the world at Mnemosyne’s Rest, which is more than quite a bit.
The thought disquieted me, and left me in a maudlin, unhappy mood, despite the fact that the paints in my studio are quite beautiful and very smooth with which to work, and I am very grateful for them.
I think that most young men, having left behind themselves the orphanage in which they had grown up, must be quite happy to get some measure of solitude, but since moving to my own small apartment, I have often missed the noise of someone else in my space. It is not that I do not have any pride in my own territory, nor that I lack a sort of personal identity, merely that I suppose I am one who thrives off the presence of other people, if not interaction with them. Does that measure as sense in your estimations, Mr Smith?
I think that I might be very happy to be somewhere and never speak to anybody, so long as I could see people passing to and fro, and know that they were there.
No, I lie to you Mr Smith, or at least make some hyperbole, for although I feel I hardly ever have anything interesting to say, I like to talk with people very much, but I do tell the truth, in that merely the presence of others is comforting to me. I don’t know that there is so slow or as painful a poison as loneliness: it envenoms the heart, the lungs, the very skin, that all of you aches for someone else’s presence.
I think, you know, that just as a man would die of hunger or thirst, that loneliness would kill him. Alone for too long, he would simply drop dead – even Sisyphus has the gods to watch over him, Mr Smith, and the presence of his great stone; even Prometheus has his birds.
At some point, my unhappy mood overcame me, and having painted a Birmingham alleyway, I washed my brushes – I am devout in the upkeep of my brushes, Mr Smith, and wash them as thoroughly as any man ought – and picked up my oil cloak and galoshes to go for a walk.
Oh, Mr Smith.
What relief came to me with the fall of rain upon my face.
Before I had even left the yard, the water falling had soaked me from crown to forehead, and the loose curls of my hair had been flattened down, that my hair hung in limp, soaking strands about my face. The water slid downward as though anxious to touch more of me, making a gutter of the little hollow that my spine formed in my neck and pouring down beneath my shirt collar; the bowl at the base of my throat soon overflowed with water, that it should splash against my collarbones and then drip lower, and even with my oil cloak loosely fastened upon my shoulders, and my shirt was soon stuck fast to my chest, soaked through.
It was cold, but not very cold – it was still a summer rain, after all – and at the gate, I took off my oil cloak and threw it over the fence pole, for it was really only weighing me down, and I didn’t need it to shield me.
I have often heard people remark, in hushed or panicked tones, that to walk in the rain will mean that you will soon and horribly die of pleurisy, but never yet have I really been ailed by any such illness. The only time in my life, Mr Smith – and I confess, my life has been quite short, but that cannot be used to discount all of my experiences, for I have not had the chance yet at a longer one – that I have really been very ill was when I was fifteen or so, and a small group of us got into the wine, and became quite insensible with it.
It was a shipment of Mr Zagre’s, you see. Every year, in late spring, he would come by to make his donations to the orphanage – he being one of our orphanage’s primary sponsors – and he would often toss out various things at the young children – marbles, sticks, dolls, little toys – but never really stop to speak with any of them. Once we were old enough, about fourteen or so, Mr Zagre would actually greet us in the hallways, as though we had grown enough in his estimation to be worth greeting.
Well, for the benefit of the others who would visit in the course of the year, Mr Zagre would always bring wine. He would bring a great many bottles, to be added to the cellar, but from his own vineyard, he would always bring a few great, huge barrels of wine.
That wine, Mr Smith, was not the sort you might be used to from a bottle – it was thicker than blood, and very, very strong. It is, I can assure you, not the sort of thing that ought be drunk without some heavy act of dilution, which is exactly what we boys did not do before commencing to drink it.
Consider the scene, Mr Smith: myself, Thamyris, and two twin boys I have never known incredibly well, but for one or two occasional encounters, Chryseos and Argyreos, all four of us so drunk we hardly knew our own hands and feet, let alone our names, lolling about with a bowl of wine half-drunk between us. We had intended to drink only enough to be tipsy, and then rush from the cellars elsewhere, that we might enjoy the fruit of our thievery without meeting the scrutiny of our schoolmasters, only that, as I have said, this sort of wine was meant to be heavily diluted.
Not a one of us could move for the drink, and when Mr Zagre came down into cellar, he surveyed the scene, and then laughed his loud, jolly laugh, and declared us to be forgiven – Mr Zagre is a man quite consumed with the spirit of forgiveness – and first picked up the twins, throwing them over his two great shoulders, before picking up Thamyris and I by the scruffs of our necks, as though we were little more than errant pups, all four of us.
He hauled us up the stairs, and tossed us one by one into our beds, laughing when we groaned for the way the wine all but sloshed dark within us, making us sea-sick from within.
Mr Zagre’s forgiveness counted for very little when he woke us up the next morning, speaking quite loudly and laughing uproariously, splitting our heads open with every guffaw. He never told Carystus what we had done, though, nor Telamon either.
He gave us cold compresses for each of us to put over our painfully hungover brows, and I recall for some hours that morning, he sat on the end of my bed with my feet resting against his great thigh, smoking a pipe and blowing out so smoke so dark it stopped being black, and started being blue instead.
With four of us hung over, and the rest of the boys merely drunk, we all sat about and listened to him talk – Mr Zagre talked very freely about this and that and everything in-between, but I cannot recall anything specific. He was that sort of conversational partner – not that I really matched him that day, nor joined the dialogue – who makes you feel quite at-ease, but not necessarily through saying anything of substance. He just talks, and even with a painful volume in it, it soothes.
Funny that I speak of Mr Zagre or Teleamon, or the Asimis, or Mr Lier, or that I would speak of any of our sponsors, as though they must be strangers to you, but surely you must have met one of them. Almost every one of them came to my little exhibition after I graduated the Academy, and said how pleased they were that I had come to make such beautiful things, that their charity had perhaps, in some small way, spurred me in that direction.
They were the pantheon we rather worshiped, growing up, you know, Mr Smith.
Perhaps that is why it was quite so overwhelming to have them come along to me, and praise my art, and kiss my cheeks, like devotion the wrong way around. I think that my art is quite pleasant to look at, but nothing to make me deserving of all that.
Consumed as I was by this reverie, I plodded along quite happily beneath the fall of the rain. Its weight and its wetness comforted me in a way a blanket or a compress could not, and beneath the open, grey skies, I walked the path that led farther north, keeping away from the cliff edge even as I looked down at the sea below.
I had walked beneath a copse of trees, and felt the coolness to be found underneath their shade, where was staved off what little sun could be found that day, when a man walking the other way up the path gasped in horror at the sight of me, and grabbed me by the shoulder. Unexpected as this was, I allowed myself to be grabbed and manhandled beneath his umbrella, which was gold and wide-brimmed.
“What is it you’re doing?” my captor demanded, horrified, and placed his fingers, which were quite warm, against my brow. He was handsome, somewhat taller than myself, with a thick beard and brightly coloured eyes the colour of woad. Startled and perplexed, I stared up at him dumbly, my lips parted, even as he slid his hand lower, cupping my cheek. His hand was tremendously warm, although I had not really been suffering from the cold, and its pressure was pleasant against my skin: the hand was smooth and uncalloused, the skin very soft. “Are you mute?” he asked: his voice was kinder now, more softly-spoken.
“No,” I said. “Merely that a man does not know what to say, when he is accosted by strangers in a wood.”
“Accosted?” he repeated, incensed, and I watched the nostrils of his tapered nose flare, indignation showing in them as much as it did in his eyes. “I have done no such thing – what are you doing, wandering the cliffs, soaked to the skin?”
“Sir, I am walking,” I said, and twisted my shoulder out of his grasp, leaning away from the cup of his hand. “I fail to see how it is any business of yours.”
“It will be, when you are taken ill with pneumonia, and it is I called to facilitate your care,” he retorted, and placing one hand upon my waist, he turned me bodily the other direction, pushing me to walk alongside him. As we moved, he shrugged off his coat, and ignoring my many protests, he hung it about my shoulders. “Who are you?”
“I am staying at Mnemosyne’s Rest,” I said, and he pulled his hands back quite quickly from where they had been settled on my back, leaving his coat wrapped around me. It was horribly heavy, and so wet as I was, it felt like a strange weight on my back.
“Ah,” he said. “You are Mr Cavendish.”
“Yes,” I said. “Mr Smith sent word of me?”
“I know no Mr Smith,” he said, “but I know that a guest is staying at Mnemosyne’s Rest – an artist. For all your flights of fancy, you know, you really oughtn’t walk so in the rain. You will surely catch your death of it.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “I can hardly even catch a ball without two weeks’ prior notice in writing.”
He stared at me for a moment, and I know not whether he was more disgusted by my attempt at humour or the sodden state of my clothes and person, but finally he said, in the harried tone of a man eager to change the subject – not for a moment, Mr Smith, had we ceased our promenade back the way I had come – “I am Ischys Darren. I am Heatherton’s general practitioner.”
“Oh,” I said, “were you recently called upon to assist Mr Samuel Thornwell? He took ill with a fever upon our journey here, and had to linger at the Stone Post.”
The doctor’s brow furrowed, and he shook his head. “No,” he said slowly. “But if a fellow of yours has contracted a fever so recently, that is all the more reason you ought not be cavorting in the rain, young man.”
“Young man?” I repeated, titillated. “Doctor, you cannot be so many years my senior.”
“You could have fooled me,” said he. “Anyone older than a child would know better than to splash in the cold and wet.”
I resented very much to be spoken to this way, and to be so led upon the path like an obstinate mule, but I lacked the wherewithal to argue, and being as he had been the only man I had spoken to in Heatherton but for the bartender Silenus, I thought it would be foolish to spurn conversation from him, and allowed him to guide me home.
My oil cloak, when we stepped inside, had been taken from where I had thrown it over the fencepost, and instead hung from the hook beside the door, all but as though I had left it there before I had gone out.
“Hullo?” called the doctor out into the house. “Hullo?”
“They won’t come,” I said. “I never see them.”
He looked at me as though he didn’t quite believe me, and I shrugged off his coat – you must forgive me my petulance, Mr Smith, but I felt quite rudely interrupted – and walked into the parlour, where a fire had been lit already, and towels had been set on a frame beside it, the better to warm them.
But a few days at Mnemosyne’s Rest have spoiled me, for I was quite pleased but not wholly surprised, and I stripped off my wet clothes and exchanged them for the towels, holding one loose about myself, held in place by my elbows, as with the other I towelled off my hair.
I dropped both towels, then, and stood before the fire, letting it kiss my skin and pick up the tread where the rain had been forced to stop, and for a few moments stood like so, basking in the heat of the fire.
You will think it very rude of me, but in that moment, I quite forgot the doctor, until I heard him clear his throat.
Turning to regard him, I sighed softly as I felt the fire warm my back instead, and the doctor stared at me. His gaze dropped from my face, and looked over my body, trailing down my chest and lower still.
I have never had a great shame of my naked body – in the orphanage, nakedness was as common to us as breathing, and when we competed with one another, we would do so without clothes to hold us back. Whether it was to wrestle, to play with some manner of ball, or throw javelins, or haul rope between us, or anything else, we would do so without a stitch on us.
It wasn’t until I became a young man and went to the Royal Academy that I become more aware of other people’s shame – I modelled for quite a few of my fellow students, unbothered by it where they quite shuddered at the thought of another seeing them in so much as shirt sleeves. There is such a curious shame that Christians have about their bodies, although they think themselves made in the image of that God. Do you not find that so, Mr Smith?
Perhaps you are a Christian: I hope I do not offend.
In any case, Ischys is not one, but looked at me in the way that Christians do, seeming to be sort of overwhelmed by me.
“Are you the artist, Mr Cavendish,” said the doctor lowly, in a sort of wavering, filmy voice, “or the art?”
“The artist,” I said, perplexed.
“In that case,” he said, “you should be clothed. It is one thing for art to go uncovered, Mr Cavendish: it is another for its artist.”
“You seem very at-home telling another man what it is he should be doing,” I said. “But I have already come inside at your behest, Doctor, and put my wet clothes aside, and towelled myself dry, and am drying further even now, before the flame.”
After a moment’s consternation, the doctor laughed, and after a moment’s pause, exhaled, bowing forward but a head from his waist, and said, “I suppose if this is the best I can hope for, Mr Cavendish, I shall accept it.”
My opponent having relented, my own stubbornness faded like the morning dew, and I took up my banyan from the hook in the parlour, (although I confess, I had thought I had left it in my bedroom) and pulled it on.
You must think me very petulant indeed, Mr Smith, but while I have never been a man greatly opposed to taking direction, there is something quite infuriating about a stranger rather suddenly taking you by the arm and propelling you to where he thinks you ought be, rather than where you had been going.
Now, the doctor smiled at me.
“Tea?” I asked, somewhat curtly, and the doctor’s lips parted in surprise, but he did nod his head.
“It’s very good of you,” he said quietly, and when I put the kettle over the fire, I felt his gaze on me, as though I were some matter of medical curiosity he could not wrap his head about. “You wander in the rain often?”
“Only once since I have been here,” I said, “but often in London, yes. It is only rain, Doctor Darren – there is no poison in it.”
“There need be no poison,” he said, “hypothermia shall be your body poisoning itself.”
“What rot,” said I, and he clucked his tongue, shaking his head. “You have been Heatherton’s doctor for very long?”
“No,” he said. “I have been here but three years come next spring – I was walking out to Mr Asimi’s house.”
It was an uncommon name. Wholly uncommon. “Oipheus Asimi?”
“Yes,” the doctor said softly. “You know him?”
“I’ve only met him once,” I said. “But his wife, Kori, she has always been a very kind patron of mine. She bought me my first set of paints, and she wrote a letter of recommendation when I applied to the Royal Academy. I didn’t know they lived here.”
“Oh, they don’t,” the doctor said immediately, waving one hand. “The house is theirs, but their son, Plutus, he commands it for the most part. I was seeing to his sister, Honey – she’s been ill, these past few weeks. You’ve met them?”
I shook my head, even as I took the kettle up and began to pour two mugs of tea. At my invitation, Ischys sank down into his seat, and when I put the mug of tea into his hands, he cupped it gently between his palms.
“Ours is a modest community,” Ischys said quietly. “But you’ve been at school so long, I really don’t know that you’ve really experienced it as it is. Most people from orphanage’s or children’s homes like the ones we did take up a craft somewhat less isolated than you have. You are an artist?”
“Yes,” I said. “I am a sculptor, but I paint some, too.”
“I have a sculpture of yours in my office in Heatherton,” said Ischys. “A gift, from my own patron. It is a bunch of grapes, only this big, and Mr Cavendish, if I might praise your work, I never knew fruit could be wrought so very delicately in marble. One would think they were real if only the colour were still in them.”
“Your patron is Hepius Apollon,” I said quietly. “He counselled you to go to medical school?”
“I sprained my ankle once, when I was a little boy, and he was visiting us – he set it for me.”
“Your patron sponsored you to study art?”
“He does now,” I said. “But my position in London was a scholarship. And— and I don’t believe I ever had a patron when I was still a boy. I think that everyone was very kind to me, with regards to art supplies. I never especially well with letters or numbers or anything else, but I can do this.”
You must know, Mr Smith, that most children in orphanages like the one I hailed from are often sponsored, in some particularity, by one of our trustees. Quite a lot of the trustees rather doted on me, I think, but never—
I think that I was popular. It is difficult to say. I am not very interesting, Mr Smith, and it never seemed to me that anyone was of a mind to pretend that I was for the sake of listening to me speak – but every trustee was always so kind to me, no matter that I didn’t seem to be all that special to them.
“And your patron now is?”
“I know no Smith.”
“John Smith?” He regarded me a moment, setting his mug down on the table before him, his brow very deeply furrowed in thought, and I watched the way he idly stroked his fingers through his beard. “He is not— he is not one of us, I take it?”
“One of our trustees, I mean.”
“Oh,” I said. “I surely don’t know.”
The doctor seemed frustrated, somehow, for reasons I could not say, but he nodded his head and stood to his feet, and thanked me for my hospitality before he left. He bade me, too, visit his surgery in Heatherton, and told me where his office was located, and advised me – very firmly – that I oughtn’t go into the rain again.
I hope you will forgive me, Mr Smith, all that I have written of Saturday, only that Sunday was quite dreadfully disinteresting to anyone except myself, for I spent a great deal of it basking in the sun shining through the studio windows and painting in turns. Monday was much the same – I waited most impatiently for my marble, often painting and walking this way and that, but as much as I twitched my curtains to peer out of the window, I found no sign of it.
And yet, Mr Smith, it is Tuesday now – it is just past noon, and I have eaten my lunch. (It was a sandwich, if this interests you.)
I have spent my day thus far contemplating, and what I have been contemplating is the great, huge piece of marble that dominates the studio. Mr Smith, this marble slab is thrice my height, and perhaps eight feet by eight by twenty in its dimensions. I have scarcely ever in all my life had an occasion to look at such a huge piece of marble, and oh, Mr Smith, it shall take me years, decades, to cut away what lies between my hands and the beautiful art beneath – I shall mine for it, Mr Smith, as though the face of Hyperion’s wife were precious ore.
I shudder to think how much it must have cost you – and please, do not think that I forget the other marble pieces, too, the smaller slabs and bricks piled neatly in the storage room, that I might carve them.
I know you told me you would never write, but I confess, I searched many times over for some manner of note or letter accompanying the delivery – I know not how the drivers managed to come up so silently as not to wake me, when surely so many oxen must have helped drive this parcel forward, let alone to bring it all inside, before I woke with the sunrise. I searched for word from you as a young girl might search for a love letter – you must think me so ridiculous, but it is merely that I have never been given a gift so audacious and so tremendous as this one: materials, yes, but such faith in my abilities, why…
The marble is as yet cold under my hands, Mr Smith, but I shall breathe life into it yet.
Yours, all but fizzing with the passion of future creation,
(P.S. You must forgive me if I write you too often, or too little, or if I speak too much, or the opposite. I have never written anybody letters before, and never in my life has anyone permitted me to talk so much at length. I hope I do not bore you. I should hate very much to bore a man who brings me such joy.
Thank you, Mr Smith.)