The Portrait
by Lesley-Anne McLeod
© 2008

To Clea it seemed as if the day's sitting would never end; she would have to abandon her planned calls, her afternoon would be spoilt. It was all very well for Hastings to require a new portrait of her--a depiction of her maturity, he said--for the Long Gallery. He enjoyed sitting for his portraits: the self-important one in which he wore his coronet and robes, the over-confident one in which he sat his massive hunter, and the piece-de-resistance, the portrait in which he posed, unconvincingly paternal, beside her while the  the children surrounded them.

Naturally, she understood the need for the portrait. All the family was portrayed in the Long Gallery, hung for posterity on the ancestral line. And of course, he would choose Thomas Lawrence, the foremost portrait painter in London and indeed all the world, to depict her. Nothing but the best would do for the family of the Earl of Caston. Bah!

A depiction of her maturity, Hastings had unwisely said. She had not spoken to him for two days after that bit of gaucherie. She examined herself in the pier glass that sat--unfortunately--directly opposite over the artist's shoulder between the windows. Was that a wrinkle, a crow's foot imprinted between her eyebrows? Good God, was her impatience, her edginess, writ so clearly on her face? She smoothed her expression, calming her exterior, though she could do nothing about her inner turmoil.

She twitched her bonnet's brim and subsided when Lawrence grumbled. He was full of his new knighthood and had chattered on as he painted until she had the headache. An hour long sitting had turned into two hours and he had the nerve to grumble at her.

She stared in the mirror again. How could she have ever thought that this hat was the perfect adjunct to this portrait? The brim was not wide enough, the flowers were decidedly de trop and the ribands just that wrong shade of mulberry for her complexion. She quite detested the bonnet now and a month ago it had been the newest and best of her admittedly large collection. Ah well, she would give it to her maid as soon as this dratted portrait was done.

How much longer? She wished she dared tap her foot. Didn't Lawrence know that she was busy? That she was so much in demand that she changed her gowns some four or five times a day in keeping with her many engagements?

There were two calls she simply had to make this afternoon alone. Lady M-- could not be ignored, and she had to see Mrs. W-- to scotch any gossip that might have arisen from last evening's little contretemps.

She should not have gone to that rout. But Hastings had thought it important, so many connections, so many politicians. He had nagged at her until she had attended--irritable and ill-tempered--in his company.

Her mood had led her to indiscretion, she would have to admit it. "Too many politicians" -- how could she have said that aloud, in the middle of Lady M--'s drawing room? And to Sally Jersey of all people who would repeat the story, including Clea's exasperation and annoyance, to all the world and embellish it.

She was not fit--not suited--to be a political wife. The first month after their marriage that had become apparent. Hastings' interests did not, never would, animate her. Why could he not be like other men, content with their estates, their hunting, their gambling. Then she would not have to be always on show, all righteousness and exemplary behaviour.

She glanced in the mirror; she was frowning again. And Lawrence was still grumbling. He should show a little respect, after all she was a countess. Perhaps she dared tell him how little she cared for his knighthood?

But no, that would cause another riot and rumpus. She had not the energy for it today, not if she was meeting Rupert later, she would need to look her best. As well as she could in this mulberry walking dress at least; she should never have worn it either for the portrait. The colour really was all wrong. And it was too much decorated. For a moment, she wished for the classical simplicity of the gowns of her youth. More and more ruffles and ruching and ribands were being added to the fashions every season. And waistlines were drifting to a more natural position. She could not like it.

Nor could she like the threat of Jeremy being sent home from Eton. For heaven's sake, the frogs in the stew had been a joke. Did the dons have no sense of humour anymore?

And then there was Fanny, nearly sixteen and talking of her come out. La, that she--Clea Ferriby--should be old enough to have a daughter that age. Mind, she had been very young at her marriage, and Rupert did not find any fault in her.

Rupert! Her eyes strayed to the ormolu clock on the mantelpiece. Four o'clock!

"Sir Thomas, I simply must fly. I thank you for this extended sitting, but I have a half dozen engagements that I cannot delay any longer." She gathered up her reticule and her parasol as she spoke. Thank heaven it was a warm autumn, no need for heavy wraps, no changing after the sitting at all. Perhaps the mulberry walking dress had not been such a mistake.

The artist bowed her out of the studio--she could have laughed at his long-suffering attitude--and his butler ushered her out of the house. Her footman, obedient to Clea's impatient gesture, followed her down the steps and onto the busy pavement.

Rupert would be waiting, and again she had been forced to be a hypocrite and a falsifier. Sir Thomas painted her face, thought her angelic and was--relatively--patient with her moods. Hastings knew her too well and was not at all patient with her foibles.

But it was his fault.

If he would forego his politics, her shortcomings could be overlooked as his were. For ten, twelve, years he had sought his pleasures elsewhere, and his peccadilloes were treated with amused tolerance. While hers--should they be found out--would crucify her and the children.

She could feel that frown gathering again between her brows.

Thank heaven for Rupert's discretion…at least, she hoped she could depend upon his discretion. Could one depend on any man's discretion?

"Do hurry!" she flung the words over her shoulder at her servant, feeling the frown intensify.