“If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.” Jane Austen
Sophia frowned at her aunt. Their conflict seemed to be constant at the moment. Whatever Sophia asked of her, the answer was always an emphatic ‘no’. So, it was no to a visit to the island of Murano in the company of other tourists, to watch glass being made; it was a no to the invitation to Count Albanolo’s party.
After frequent refusals, Sophia decided that she wouldn’t bother to ask any further. If there was something she wished to do, she would find another way to achieve it, a way that didn’t have to involve being accompanied by Aunt Matilda. She was frustrated that they had come to Venice, a place that was so full of energy and excitement, yet she had taken no part in anything.
Aunt Matilda sat opposite in serene ignorance of Sophia’s churning emotions, calmly drinking tea and eating a muffin. She was a lady of predictable and conservative habits, so that travelling by carriage and six, and living in the Palazzo seemed to offer enough novelty to satisfy her.
In the weeks they had been in Venice, they had only done a little shopping, and visited an artist’s studio.
The painter, Signor Zapetti, had worked hard to charm the old lady, and convince her that a portrait of her niece would be the very thing to take home to Sophia’s papa, as a lasting souvenir of their trip. So Sophia had dressed carefully, in a sumptuous blue gown trimmed with lace for the sitting, wearing her 18th birthday gift, a gold enamelled fob watch on a chain, her pride and joy. And unbeknown to Aunt, the artist had put another proposal to her, that she should occasionally model for him, and be an eye-catching addition to a Venetian palazzo wall.
Of course she had accepted, and took pleasure from the knowledge that she could model for the fresco because her aunt had turned down the invitation to the Villa Bellona and would never see the finished article. She had worked out how to attend the sittings without her chaperone, and was expecting to complete them that afternoon.
Her aunt yawned. ‘I must say, I believe this muffin is excellent. Ring the bell, my dear, and we’ll have another. Would you like another?’
‘No thank you Aunt.’
The bell sat a mere four feet from her aunt’s languid hand, but the suggestion that the lady might care to ring it for herself might have seemed impertinent. Instead, Sophia did her duty, and on the return to her seat, yawned too. It must be catching. She was beginning to think that there was little more excitement to be wrung from Venice, but then pulled herself up, mentally. What could she be thinking? Of course there was! She just needed to show a little more creativity, and all would be well. She had an advantage. It would not occur to Aunt Matilda that her niece would set out to deceive her.
At home in Amersham, Sophia probably never could, for life in the English provinces had been tame, she was kept close, and the neighbours knew every movement of everyone else in their circle. In Venice, however, anything was possible. She was an unknown foreigner who, in an evening mask, might remain completely disguised.
With a claim that she needed a lie-down, Sophia left her aunt in the salon, and without being seen by the servant, slipped out of the palazzo door into the side street. Then she rounded the corner to the artist’s studio. Once there, Signor Zapetti ushered her impatiently to the screen, behind which she quickly undressed. She stepped onto the dais for her pose. The afternoon sun glanced through the wide studio windows and touched the curves of Sophia’s figure. It gilded her bare leg, and inched up her thigh as the sitting progressed.
Thank goodness it was spring, she thought, and almost shivered at the memory of standing naked on the same spot two months earlier, while rain had flung itself at the windows outside. And in May, here she was, still trying to look as if she were Diana, Goddess of the Moon. However, she could only afford to spend an hour here without discovery. Signor Zapetti knew of her circumstances and seemed happy for his muse to be available, whenever she could.
From the platform, Sophia could see the great city below. Its startling beauty never failed to enchant her. The lagoon glittered, a sharp golden contrast to the soft, misty colours of the buildings, whose panorama of domes and spires gave the scene its familiar outline. It was different to her Amersham home, where life for its inhabitants was narrow and restricted. And then there was the climate.
Even in spring, the cold weather in the Chilterns could leave frost on the roofs of the cottages, huddled together along the road that ran between London and Aylesbury. So she had longed for a change of scenery and people. The move to Italy had seemed to be a capital idea. It was to be an adventure that would free her, at last, from her humdrum life in England.
‘Stay still, stupid girl,’ said the artist. Then he added, more kindly, ‘I am nearly finished. Give me five more minutes.’
She was familiar with such comments. Five minutes would turn into thirty, and until the light faded, she would have to remain like a statue. But today, she thought that she might be fortunate. The artist was finishing his preparation, and hoped to start at the Villa Bellona within days. The hour should be sufficient for the work, and then she could sneak back to the palazzo.
She tried to concentrate on her rôle as Diana the Huntress, holding an intricate bow in her left hand. Her right hand appeared to be drawn forward by a dog on a leather leash. The dog, for it was real rather than a prop, had already disgraced itself ten minutes earlier. Though it had since been patient, she thought that it must surely be flagging. She glanced down. It had closed its eyes.
Finally Signor Zapetti put down his charcoal. ‘There,’ he announced, ‘you begin to be immortalized. Now go!’
The drawing was the preliminary study for artwork that had been commissioned for a magnificent palace, the home of his patron. Sophia was to be the central figure of an allegorical painting representing Night, on the wall of Count Albanolo’s dining room. Her nakedness would be very appealing to the Count’s friends and neighbours, connoisseurs of the female form, whose tastes ran to the exotic and the sensual. Their hypocrisy about art was not lost on her, but she was a pragmatist and, in any case, relished the danger of the assignment.
The artist had his back to her as he examined the sketch, and he clearly expected her to leave without further conversation. So she prodded the dog awake with her bare toes. It yawned noisily and licked its lips, gazing at her in expectation. The painter wanted her to keep it out of his way, so drawing on her clothes behind a screen, she smoothed the creases in her robe, and guided the dog down the staircase into the courtyard. The creature, a brown and white gazelle hound, had been borrowed for the occasion and would soon be collected. It seemed happy to settle onto the tiled floor in a bright square of sunlight that blazed down from the open sky, warming the spot where it curled up.
She made her way quietly through the courtyard door to the bridge over the canal and from there to St. Mark’s Square, where the famous astrological clock was chiming the hour. She looked up at the carved figures who struck the bell, and longed for time to pass more quickly. It was the week before Ascension Day, and Sophia felt a little thrill of excitement about the approaching Festival di Sensa. The costume for her planned and secret attendance at the event had been carefully chosen. It would be eye-catching enough to be seen in the crowds that would gather along the canal banks to watch the rowing competitions. It was also appropriate for attendance at one of the lavish parties that followed, and to which she had been secretly invited by one of the painter’s clients.
She considered the outfit, newly finished and now hanging on the back of her chamber door, concealed beneath other clothes. The dark green bodice sparkled with gold lace, and the colours were echoed in the mask that she had chosen for the occasion. The ensemble looked much more expensive than it was. She had developed blisters on her fingers, having painstakingly made the gown from cast-off brocade curtains, using her skill and imagination.
She justified the work in her own mind by viewing it as an investment, part of an opportunity to go to the ball undetected, and perhaps even fulfil her dreams of social advancement. The artist’s payment for her modelling had barely paid for the trimmings, but now that the gown was finished, she would ensure that every moment that she wore it would make all the effort worthwhile.
For she had no desire to return to Amersham, without having profited from her time in this great city. That return would be when her aunt, a woman of considerable fortune, but narrow tastes, grew tired of their time in Venice. No, she pictured her return home as merely a visit, part of a triumphant progress through Buckinghamshire to visit her relations, before she returned to the imagined splendour of life in some country house or palazzo of her very own, with an aristocratic and adoring husband in tow. All she had to do was give her aunt the slip, and find the right man.
End of first chapter. Available on Kindle Unlimited.