Author: brightknightie (Amy R.)
Beta-Readers: havocthecat and natmerc
Prompt: "Nick with historical figures… Nicholas has seen artistic revolutions come and go, and has his own perspective on the group of young people calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood."
Length: ~14,000 words
Summary: Janette visits Nick in 1857 London. With her comes everything he's trying to escape.
Warnings: Highlight to view: * Violence. Real historical figures. Gen with a Nick/Janette shadow. *
"True to Life"
a Forever Knight fanfiction
For disclaimers, credits and all that good stuff, please see the endnote. Because of LJ post size limits, this story comes in two posts (after the ficathon, I'll put it on my fansite in a single file).
that of absolute, uncompromising truth
in all that it does..." -- John Ruskin
London, England, January 1857
The ginger-haired young man on the stool snatched up his shirt to cover his bare torso. He blushed from forehead to shoulders.
As one, Nicholas Thomas and his students turned to follow the model's gaze to the back of the brightly gaslit room. Several men gasped; at least one choked back a laugh. Nick sighed. "Excuse me, gentlemen." Striding quickly past the tables, he took Janette's arm and directed her out the door she had just entered. Over his shoulder, Nick said, "Please resume your sketches. I'll return shortly."
In the empty foyer, Janette adjusted her heavy Indian shawl and smiled at him. "The carriage ride was shorter than I remembered. I thought I'd take advantage of my early arrival to see you in your element."
"Given warning, I could have arranged a respectable tour." Nick pointed at the sign tacked to the door behind them: 'Figure Drawing. Please, No Ladies!' The Working Men's College did not accept female students in any classes, of course, excepting some informal singing lessons, but exposure of the human form in mixed company was considered especially immodest. "As it is, I'll need to send an apology to the board."
"The boy has nothing I haven't seen before, Nicolas." Her blue eyes laughed at him.
"But I doubt any of them have seen someone like you seeing them before." Nick stepped back to take in Janette's always carefully choreographed appearance. It had been, what, a decade? Two? He let his eyes linger on each point her ensemble made, from the bonnet framing her thick black hair, to the boots peeking from her skirts when her crinoline swayed. Under her shawl, a fur-lined winter jacket accented her slim waist and set off her sensuous face. That the jacket and gown beneath were black showed that she had adopted a widow's pose again; that the trim was colored indicated that the mourning period was drawing to a close; and that the color was red hinted boldness just short of impropriety. Fashion's symbols did not help Nick read a woman he had known on and off for six centuries and still found mysterious, but they did illustrate the story she had chosen to tell the mortal world this time. He stepped against the buoyant dome of her skirts and brushed his thumb across the corner of her mouth. "May I?"
Janette pursed her lips, almost a kiss to his touch, but then pushed his arm away. "Isn't your class awaiting you? And who shall I be to you this time? As I said in my letter, I do want to batten on you rather than fussing with a hotel, if that doesn't disrupt your present identity -- much. Sister? Sister-in-law? Exquisitely bohémienne patroness?"
"Not sister," Nick answered quickly. A smile twitched across Janette's lips. "Cousins?"
"Cousin is satisfactory." She patted his hand. "The cab is waiting. Shall I meet you later at your house?"
"Oh, no." Nick leaned against the wall. Surely Paris was not so daring these days that she could have no idea what she had done? This generation had taken old games of ignorance and innocence to startling new heights. "You're staying right here until class ends at ten, so that you can apologize to poor Mr. White for embarrassing him. Otherwise, I'll never get any other students to volunteer, and we don't have a budget for professional models."
"Perhaps you can simply offer different motivations for volunteering." Janette raised her eyebrows.
Nick swallowed a laugh and tried again. "If it pleases you, Janette, would you consider making my life easier by expressing regret to my student?"
"There, was that difficult? Yes, of course. I'll stay; I'll soothe."
Nick pulled a few coins and a card out of his waistcoat pocket. "Here: have the cabman go ahead with your luggage. My tenants next door will take delivery. If you don't mind a walk on my arm? It's under a mile."
"It is cold, Nicolas." Janette pretended to consider. "Can we hunt on the way?"
"We should talk about that -- on the way." Nick knew that Janette would hunt to satisfy her hungers, for blood and beauty, terror and ecstasy. She hunted as he once had. But for almost three centuries, he had had to satisfy his conscience, too. That had grown harder than ever in this fast-paced modern world of trains and gaslights, the penny post and professional police. Janette's early arrival felt like an ambush, cracking together his carefully separate spheres of humanity and vampirism. "Look, there's a little library parlor on the ground floor. Will you wait for me there? And not hunt -- yet?"
Janette threw him a smile and licked her lips as she started down the stairs.
All eyes snapped to Nick at the sound of the classroom door. "Gentlemen, and Mr. White in particular," Nick nodded to the model, who had donned his shirt and buttoned it to the top, "please accept my apologies. The lady is my cousin, Madame Ducharme, visiting from Paris. She, uh--"
"She couldn't read the sign? It being in English?" a student guessed.
"No, she's entirely fluent," Nick admitted, regretfully letting the pat answer go. "I'm afraid that my cousin wished to . . . announce her arrival." Some students frowned, but more nodded or grinned. Nick took heart. "I'm sorry, and of course I'll inform the board of the incident. For the future, let's seat our model at this end of the room, and shift all the stools to the other side of the tables. That way, anyone walking in will first see only the back wall, not any of us taking a turn as model."
Satisfied by the murmurs of agreement, Nick began making his way slowly across the room, looking at each man's work. He noticed anew how much warmer it was under the gaslights inside the brightly lit art classroom than out in the dim foyer, and rolled up his sleeves to suggest that it affected him as it did his students. Step by step, Nick was delighted to be able to compliment the shading by one man, the perspective of another, and some exquisite curling hair rendered by the cartwright who always seemed to arrive out of breath, hard pressed to make it to class on time from his workplace across the Thames. Nick wondered whether he could devote a whole lesson to hair soon.
"That's a very detailed eye you've drawn," Nick observed to one young man sweating directly under the gas lamps on the wall.
"Thank you, Mr. Thomas."
"It's taken Mr. White a yeoman's effort to hold his pose, given the disruption tonight." Nick put his hands behind his back. "So is it perhaps that the line you've drawn there -- above the eyelashes -- represents a fold of skin that you could see earlier, even though it's vanished now?"
"Oh," the young man hesitated, looking from his sketch to his model. White's downcast eyes left a smooth sweep from lashes to brow. "I don't recall. But all eyes-- that's where an eyelid curves over an eye, isn't it?"
Nick nodded. "You're right about the anatomy. But while the unseen informs us about the seen, if it's invisible to our eyes, it should go unrecorded by our pencils. Let the truth of the image reveal itself in what you really see yourself. Try not to cage it inside conventions of what other people have told you to see."
"You sound like Mr. Ruskin," the young man sighed.
"Thank you." Nick patted him on the back. Head of the College's three art classes and therefore Nick's superior, Ruskin taught the beginners himself. He was also the most renowned art critic in Europe -- and, in the sex scandal of the decade, the man whose wife had won an annulment for non-consummation. Nick respected the man's work, but privately admired the former Mrs. Ruskin's courage much more. "Don't worry! You have a noble head on your page, and this one line called my attention by differing from the rest of your careful observation. You're finding your way."
The next student at the table laughed. "You do sound like Mr. Ruskin, Mr. Thomas, explaining so. Now, Mr. Rossetti, as teaches watercolor, he'd've cried out, 'oh! get rid of that academic fribble!' as if it pained him to see, and then 'oh! keep this head forever!' as if he'd never laid eyes on anything so fine."
"Mr. Rossetti is enthusiastic," Nick agreed blandly. Finally reaching the far side of the room, he checked his pocket watch. "That's it for tonight, gentlemen. Good work! Again, my sincere apologies for the disturbance. I'll see you next Tuesday." As the model stepped off the stool, Nick spread his hands palms-up. "Mr. White, I cannot begin to say how sorry I am for any embarrassment my cousin caused, and I hope you do not take to heart what she brought on herself."
White blushed again. "I was startled, Mr. Thomas, that's all."
"We all were."
"From her widow's weeds, I trust her modesty isn't much impaired. No harm done." White gathered up his drawing instruments, coat and cap. "But you won't mind if I don't volunteer again?"
"It would be ideal if-- but no, I understand. Do you have a moment?" Nick pulled on his own coat, picked up his hat and stepped toward the door after the last of the students. "My cousin would like to apologize for her forwardness."
"Forgive me, Mr. Thomas, but I suspect that your cousin's forwardness is not something for which she likes to apologize."
Nick felt one side of his mouth twitch up.
When Nick had pulled a stake from Lacroix's chest in the Crimea, Lacroix had pledged to leave Nick to himself for a time. Janette had not been part of that bargain. If Lacroix had sent Janette to check up on him . . . It burned like sunlight, this doubt in how far to trust Janette with anything he wished kept from Lacroix. It did not even need to be a question of which side she would take, when Lacroix could wrest the very thoughts from their minds.
The former Mrs. Ruskin had fought her way to freedom and a second chance against all odds, armed only with her wits and the truth of her moral right. Nick took her victory as inspiration. Never more than now had Nick had plans that he was keeping from Lacroix.
Gaslit, though less brightly than the art rooms, the library parlor had full water buckets near the entrance in case of fire, in defense of the books lining the walls. Janette rose gracefully from a sofa, setting aside a volume.
"Madame Ducharme," Nick nodded. "May I present Mr. Charles White? He's one of the students in the figure drawing class that I've taken over for Mr. Dickinson this term. He earned high praise in Mr. Ruskin's introductory class, and is also pursuing algebra."
"Ma'am." White ducked his head and assayed a bow, winding his hands behind his back. "Mr. Thomas is leaving out that he's the one who introduced me here. I work for his butcher, you see."
"Are art and algebra of use in your employment?"
"Not directly, ma'am." White stood up straight. "But I like to think that they make me a better man."
"The goal of the College is not to make artists or scholars of working men, madam," said a gentleman as he entered, a tall, thin stick in a grey suit, with wispy brown hair unshaven down the sides of his face to his chin. "Though that's a happy side effect for a few with the talent and diligence. No, our ambition is to make the knowledge and appreciation of nature in all her glory available to all those who want it, and so to build happier, wiser lives now, and an ever more peaceful and progressive future."
"Mr. John Ruskin," Nick introduced him. "My cousin, Madame Ducharme."
Ruskin took and released her gloved hand with concise respectability. "My pleasure, madam. However, would I be correct in guessing that you were the unexpected guest in Mr. Thomas's class tonight?"
"Oui, yes." Janette's smile dazzled Nick, even familiar as he was with this tactic. But when Ruskin only blinked owlishly at her expression, she turned it instead on White. He melted under her glow. "Please accept my apologies for my faux pas. It was inexcusable of me, and I pray only that you will not hold it against my cousin. My curiosity got the better of me."
White blushed again. "I have sisters and a wife. I believe I understand Mr. Thomas's position, ma'am. Please don't think any more of it."
"You're very kind." She squeezed his hand.
"Charming," Ruskin said, looking at a bookshelf. "Mr. Thomas, I in fact came to find you for another purpose entirely. You are aware, are you not, of our custom of each instructor periodically hosting his students at his home for refreshments and conversation, most often tea on a Saturday afternoon? I beg that you schedule your first such gathering -- very soon."
"I'm afraid I keep a bare bachelor establishment."
"Many of us do. Still -- tea, biscuits, and a tour of your studio should not tax you unduly, and may be a great benefit to your students. It is," Ruskin hesitated, "expected."
"Surely you will not pass up an opportunity to show off your paintings in company, Nicolas?"
Nick rubbed his temples. Janette knew perfectly well why he could not host an afternoon entertainment in his little terraced house. Sunlight. Food. Strangers too close to his secrets. She must also know how her question brought to mind evening parties that they had held together long ago, grand, swirling fêtes, often with fewer guests departing than had arrived. His conscience had not troubled him, then.
"Perhaps you could confer with Mr. Rossetti," Ruskin suggested. "It's past time he contributed to another such gathering himself." Ruskin nodded to Nick and White, bowed to Janette, and strode to the door.
Briefly, he turned back. "Mr. Thomas, I trust you'll notify the board as appropriate about tonight's misadventure? I expect no consequences, but in case of complaint--"
"Excellent. Good night."
"So that is the famous author and--" Janette murmured as Nick helped her don the heavy shawl she had left on the sofa.
"Shhh," Nick whispered against her hair. "Gossip later."
"Mr. White, I understand that we will be strolling to Nicolas's home in Great Russell Street. Does your route lie along ours?"
"Yes. But surely you'll take a cab, ma'am? It's late, and cold, and London, well -- for a lady at night, I mean."
"I'm confident I can keep my cousin safe." Nick handed Janette through the library door, her crinoline brushing her skirt against the doorframe on both sides. White followed. The order reversed at the building's door and, to Nick's dismay, it was White's arm that Janette took on the street. In retaliation, Nick dropped back a step to watch Janette's ankles exposed with every other step, as her skirts swayed like a ringing bell. "Besides, Mr. White, given her curiosity, I would be downright frightened to keep her penned up in a cab when she could be seeing London for practically the first time."
Janette ignored him.
White sallied, "Well, now, and isn't the cure for curiosity satisfaction?"
"Indeed! If I may ask, Mr. White, would you tell me more about how you know Nicolas? Does he often patronize your place of employment?"
"Oh, yes -- but I apologize. Mr. Thomas has a special arrangement, which includes his privacy."
Janette looked over her shoulder at Nick.
He shook his head slightly. No, neither White nor his employer knew what he was. Nick glanced around, and saw that there would be few passersby within hearing for the next block. "Mr. White, I think we'd better satisfy Madame Ducharme's curiosity on this. Please consider yourself free to confide my arrangement to her."
"Well, it's for his painting! You mustn't think it odd, ma'am; it's all natural and sensible, nothing gruesome at all. He wouldn't want rivals rifling away his choice techniques, how to mix Prussian Blue and thicken oils and such," the young man explained earnestly. "I deliver a covered, filtered pail of cattle blood to Mr. Thomas's servants' entrance, after our shop closes, three evenings a week. I was curious myself, and he generously showed me how you dry the blood to make flakes for mixing paint."
"Three pails of cattle blood a week, Nicolas?" Janette coughed delicately. "For your art?"
"Oh, and you can use it as a wood varnish, too!" White continued. "Everyone knows how blood stains, but we never think, oh, that's right useful, let's make a dye of it."
"I presume he told you about that Dutch door." Janette sighed.
"Painted with ox blood hundreds of years ago, and never in need of touching up to this very day?" White nodded. "My employer is always hinting to Mr. Thomas to publish a monograph about arts and crafts uses of animal blood -- to start a fashion, you know."
"And to sell more of what otherwise washes into the river."
"Well, yes!" White tugged politely at his cap and stepped aside. "Ma'am, Mr. Thomas, this is where I turn south."
Nick touched his own hat brim. "You'll bring the usual delivery tomorrow around sunset? Could you perhaps double it, if you happen to have the traffic?"
"Yes, I think so. Need to mix a new batch of Prussian Blue, eh?" White hesitated. "May I impose on you for a little bit, then, tomorrow, Mr. Thomas? About the College, not your paint ingredients, that is."
"Is something wrong with the class? You're doing very well!" Nick frowned at Janette. "I promise, I won't ask you to model again."
"No, it's --" White spread his hands. "Tomorrow, then?"
"Certainly." Nick extended his arm to Janette and resumed walking as his student's footsteps faded under the city's night sounds, traveling far on the cold air. Cabs and horses clattered on the streets, music wafted from some houses, shouts pierced from others, and the occasional warning bell or whistle reached out from the Thames. Almost all the people outside were clearly heading inside as fast as they could go. In doorways and alleys, the lowest of cast-off humanity shivered.
The trick was distinguishing the predators from their prey. Nick had staked his tattered honor on never again taking an innocent life, and Janette was not the only one who was hungry.
But something else stuck and held at the question of what she was doing here, now, reviving the vampire's hunt in his gut, just when Nick had hit upon the trail of his human heart's desire.
"Your standards of hospitality have deteriorated abominably," Janette spoke too quietly for mortal ears, "if you think you're going to serve me a pail of cow blood tomorrow. Or ever."
"It's filtered cow blood," Nick teased. "And I serve it in blue and white china cups."
Janette gave him a withering glare, but quickly relented. "So where shall we go? Hunting must be much easier in the summer, when the pleasure gardens are open, even with the long daylight. Perhaps a theater?"
Nick steered them around the corner of Bloomsbury Square onto Great Russell Street. They were still passing residences, but the buildings divided into flats gave way now to grander houses. Streetlamps illuminated their way in the most civilized fashion. In a few blocks, they would reach the sprawling construction expanding the British Museum, and a few blocks past the original museum, his home.
"You aren't going to insist on the docks again, are you, Nicolas?" Janette pouted. "If you must be fastidious about the motivations of your supper, then I wish to be fastidious about the scent of mine."
Suddenly drenched by memories, Nick stopped under a streetlamp and stared into Janette's eyes. So many times he had fed on human vermin who had dared to attack her. How often had he truly rescued her, and how often had he unwittingly used her as bait -- or had she used herself? He wasn't sure. Nick brushed a stray lock of hair back against her bonnet. "I'm sorry."
He shook his head. He led her into the air and across the city. They alit on a roof six stories above Leicester Square, and Janette gaped at the illuminated minarets reaching over a hundred feet into the sky.
"May I present the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art?" Nick swept out his arm as if he had conjured it for her, this testament to human progress. "The largest organ in the capitol. A fountain spouting over ninety feet. Lecture halls. Heat from a warming battery. Even an ascending carriage. I hear that the owner is on the verge of bankruptcy, but I guarantee it smells better than the docks."
"Incroyable! Is it too late to enter?" Janette looked over the balustrade and down the Moorish façade to the coaches and cabs awaiting an exodus from the evening's final presentation. "I want to ride in the ascending carriage."
They flew to a discreet side portico. Paying full price preemptively answered any questions about entering so close to closing. Nick had been many times before, so he led Janette straight to the white cage, three stories high, with the rising room inside. He whispered a reminder not to eat the device's operator. She wrinkled her nose and handed Nick her shawl. Then she smiled brilliantly at the conductor, asking how his levers moved the famous safety elevator. The machine whirred and clanked over his reply.
Nick took a seat by the fountain to wait. Tipping his head, he looked up past the ornate galleries to the windowed dome, and the starry sky beyond. A very few people looked down from the various balconies; most would be in the lecture hall at this hour. Janette had been right that it was easier to hunt in the summer. But Janette had been wrong that he consciously hunted by the docks, or anywhere, anymore. When he came upon the guilty -- robbers, murderers, betrayers -- Nick did not hesitate to enjoy that blood to the last drop. But he had stopped searching it out as a matter of course. The world was changing. So was he.
Nick thought about his fellow archaeological enthusiasts at the Ethnological Society of London, feuding over whether humanity was all one species, or each race a species unto itself. He could not tell them how he knew that all human blood was exactly the same -- or how he envied all its possessors.
Did he dare he tell Janette his new dream? To not only behave less like the monster Lacroix had made him, but someday, somehow, to be a monster no more?
The geysering fountain faded in Nick's ears, until it was the thunder above Hans's laboratory in Geneva. Nick relived their experiments with the vampirism reversal treatments, the serum injections and electrical catalysts, the optimism and anticipation. His brilliant young doctor friend had bubbled with enthusiasm, treating Nick as a brother and winning his trust.
Then Nick relived the tragic death of Hans's fiancée. Her loss had cracked his sanity. Nick had stayed with him until . . .
"How long ago?" Janette laid her hand on Nick's shoulder to draw him back to the present. "And was I there?" The lecture had let out. Some gentlemen and ladies stood about chatting, either awaiting servants to fetch them, or still making their way to the cloakrooms to retrieve their coats and wraps.
"You've fed." Her flushed cheeks and languid smile drew Nick's eyes. He swallowed, and stood to drape the shawl she had left with him around her shoulders. "Where?"
"The ladies cloakroom," Janette murmured, playing with his coat's buttons. "A closet. I take back what I said about your hospitality, Nicolas. Delicious, perfumed, mmmmm. Now we just need to take care of you. There's no reason to think it should be discovered until--"
A shriek pierced the fountain's splashing. All chatter silenced.
Nick took Janette's elbow and steered her toward the exit.
Behind them, a woman screamed, "Murder! Someone get a constable!" Another voice broke into sobs. Screams, gasps and exclamations exploded all around. A few people rushed toward the cry, offering aid; others fled away; most stood still, looking at each other with dismay.
Nick pushed on. If they could just get outside before--
"Everyone stay calm, and stay right where you are." The voice of authority boomed from a wide, mustached man who had been escorting three ladies out of the lecture hall. He stepped up on the ticket-taker's bench in front of the door. "Lucky I was here. I'm an inspector with Scotland Yard."
"At least it's winter," Janette mused as Nick carried her third load of luggage upstairs to the guest bedroom. "Can you imagine if we had tried to fit that in before a summer sunrise?"
"I seem to recall that's happened from time to time, too." Nick set the stack of hatboxes on her trunks. "Barcelona, for example."
"Oh, yes. Well, thank you for getting us to the front of the inquisitor's line this time." Janette leaned against the vanity table and peeled off her gloves. She had already folded her shawl. "So you really keep no servants at all?"
"More privacy this way. Safer all around."
"But who cleans? And changes linens, and -- do they really believe you cook for yourself?"
"My tenant comes in twice a week to tidy and take my laundry. Her husband picks up any odd jobs I have." Nick checked that the drapes and shutters were still as secure as he had made them the night before. The small room was not particularly feminine, with heavy carved furniture and dark green paint, but he had stocked it with every little thing he could remember Janette liking, in the scant days he'd had since her letter arrived. "Mister Nicholas Thomas is an eccentric gentleman, Janette, a revolutionary artist and an enthusiast of progressive causes, who spends half his time in the manuscript rooms at the British Museum. No one expects him to behave normally."
"I think I've seen the fellow before." Janette met Nick's eyes. "Eccentric, but respectable, steadfast, generous -- and lonely. Confused between the past and the present."
"Mister Thomas. Doubting Thomas." She set her gloves on the vanity table, then untied her bonnet and set it next to them. "What do you doubt this time, Nicolas? Things have been good for a long while. You've kept your balance between your mortal pets and your vampire family. Haven't you?"
Nick let his eyes slide from her face to the mirror behind her. Her question was too close to one Lacroix might ask. Might direct her to ask. "Why are you here, Janette?"
"What, longing to see you is not enough?" She sighed. "No, I have business in London, of course. There was a mistake with the property of a . . . deceased friend." A familiar, far-away look took her years and miles from Nick's house on Great Russell Street. He respected her memories, waiting silently. Eventually, Janette shook her head. "Why do you think I stayed out of England so long?"
Nick pulled her into a hug. "I'm sorry." And he was, both for her loss of her friend, and for his automatic assumption that whenever her life intersected his, hers would revolve around him. Of course she had her own life as much as he did. And as little. He released her and stepped back. "What property was mistaken?"
"Some daguerreotypes that should have come to me went to her son. I shall buy them." Janette did not meet his eyes.
She crossed her arms. "That's not enough, either?"
"Yes -- no -- never mind." Nick looked around the room one more time and headed to the door. If something were missing, surely Janette would tell him. "I have some letters to write and post before dawn. If you need anything, I'll be downstairs at my desk." He hesitated. "My studio is off limits to my tenants -- they think it's because of the paintings in progress, but really it's where I keep blood. The rack in front actually is for mixing colors and thickening oils, but behind it are jars I've cut with alcohol. They last weeks. If you want any--"
Janette stared. "Nicolas, we are in fact speaking of cow blood, is that right? As a regular part of your diet?"
"Yes." He had not felt embarrassed about it until Janette put it like that. He lifted his chin.
"Is there a famine in progress? A plague? No, no, I was going to invite you to spend the day with me, but you've completely spoiled the mood. Cow blood! Gracious." She shooed him out with one hand while covering a yawn with the other. "I will see you tonight. Close the door behind you."
Nick could feel the corners of his mouth quirk up as he complied. Janette had that effect, when she wanted.
Following his routine, he checked the custom-made shutters and drapes on all the windows in the house, spiraling down through the bedrooms and dressing rooms to the kitchen, finally settling in his studio, for which he had knocked out the wall between the old drawing room and dining room. An upright piano and a work table backed the walls in the middle. He had a desk and bookshelves at the end near the street, and his easels and art supplies faced the window into his back garden. This window, he kept open to the last possible moment each morning, as the sun crept around the other sides of the house.
The market for nightscapes was tiny, but among collectors of that genre, Nick's work had a certain vogue. He did not have to draw on his "blood money" for this house, this life -- and it was a good life, one of his best. Facing the window reminded him to be grateful for what he had, even as it flaunted what his condition denied him.
Racing against the sunrise, Nick wrote to the board of the Working Men's College apologizing for Janette's ploy, and to his fellow art teacher, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, asking whether he might stop by for a chat about Ruskin's "afternoon tea." Blotting and addressing the letters, Nick stepped out his covered servant's entrance and handed them and some coins to one of the neighborhood boys who had learned that a dawn dash to the Post Office for the peculiar artist was a profitable start to the day. The miracle of the post would deliver them by noon, likely earlier.
Nick closed the door, sealed the window into the just-lightening back garden, and stared a bit at his current canvas before shutting off the gas and going to bed with one of his jars of cattle blood. If tonight was any indication of how Janette's visit was going to go, he would need all the sleep and strength he could get.
Nick pulled himself out of bed well before sunset. His body protested the short winter day, but his nightmares would have woken him at any time of year. He had not seen the woman whom Janette had killed at the Panopticon, but in his dreams, she had accused him, faceless and voiceless and righteous.
Nick shaved and dressed, thinking he would get in a review of his latest museum notes before Janette came down, but he found her already in his studio, with the gas already lit.
"Don't even mention this swill." Barefoot in her dressing gown and holding one of his blue-and-white china cups and a matching saucer, she looked at a finished canvas she had pulled out from behind several others against the wall. "But do tell me about this painting. Why a self-portrait?"
"It's a beginner's task," Nick shrugged.
"You're hardly a beginner."
"I wanted to learn the new style. It was a place to start." He came up behind her and looked down at his face in oils, the colors luminous over a white ground. The hair was not as blond as his memory of his mortal family suggested it should be, and the blue eyes lacked the depths that fond observers had claimed to find, but it had been exactly what he had seen in the mirror. From the loose button on his favorite blue waistcoat through each volume and curio on the shelf behind him, every element was picked out with equal attention, demanding equal scrutiny. Meticulous fidelity, selecting nothing, rejecting nothing. "This was after the sensation broke at the Royal Academy in, what, '50? Millais and Hunt -- and I suppose Rossetti, too. It was astonishing."
"The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?" Janette's tone mocked faintly. The press and establishment had been brutal to the group at first, as they always were to artistic innovations. That stain lingered on the name even when it had lifted from the art.
"They weren't rebelling against Raphael, you know. They were rebelling against the Royal Academy, which had calcified the old masters into a dead language, taught by rote like the multiplication tables. And then here were these upstart boys, painting ideas. New ideas! For the first time since Dürer and Van Eyck, almost. Turner and Géricault, excepted, of course."
"Of course." Janette's tolerant smile introduced Nick to the possibility that she might have no idea who any of these people were. She asked, "And so you picked up your brushes again, and became one of them?"
"Not exactly." Nick got out another cup and filled it for himself. "They were so young when they broke out that I looked like part of the generation that should have been their teachers, but had failed to offer anything to guide their genius. I trail along in their wake."
"So for the style." Janette crossed her arms and turned around to face him. "But is a portrait of you . . . unsafe, Nicolas?"
"Are you thinking of your portrait by Leonardo? It's securely put away." Nick frowned and took another sip from his cup. "Oh, you mean, safe for maintaining our secrets. Claiming family resemblance has always worked before, hasn't it?"
"And yet this new style, this painstaking truth in brushstrokes, will it be harder to dismiss as the years go by?"
Puzzled, Nick offered, "If it bothers you, I'll scrape the canvas and paint over it."
A bell rang from the servant's entrance. When Nick looked at Janette, she inclined her head in permission, and he left her behind as he went to open the door. He supposed that Janette's concern about future deniability could be a compliment to the achievement of his self-portrait, but he was more inclined to believe that something here in the present was driving her strange unease.
"Here you go, Mr. Thomas. Two pails, as asked." White stepped through and set them on the kitchen floor. "How's your cousin?"
"Tired after her travels, I think." Nick counted out the coins. Fatigue was not what was bothering Janette, he thought, but perhaps it was the loss of her mortal friend. It was not something she risked often, caring like that. "Have a good evening."
White coughed and took off his cap. "Actually, Mr. Thomas, do you have a moment?"
"Oh, yes," Nick remembered. "You wanted to talk about the College. Please," Nick grabbed a chair from one corner of the kitchen, found a stool in another, and pulled them up next to the broad worktable between the door and the unlit stove.
"Thanks." White hesitantly took the chair offered. "It's this way, Mr. Thomas. The weekly art and algebra classes are wonderful, and my wife and I, we do just find the money for the fees, so please don't misunderstand."
"This is between two members of the College." Nick meant between two equals, one of the ideals of the school: man to man, not working man to gentleman.
"My wife, bless her, is proud of my work from the art classes, and she has in fact sold some of my studies around the parish."
Nick's smile stretched out wide. He felt pleased and proud as a teacher, and nostalgic for the first time someone had purchased something he had created as an artist. "Congratulations!"
"Thank you. It's really something, isn't it?" White let himself grin for just a second. "Now, I'm not letting my head swell. She's something wonderful for persuading, and our neighbors are keen on pictures of what they recognize. The thing is that Mr. Rossetti heard, and he stopped me on the stair, very kindly, to congratulate me, but when he found I was going to algebra, he was almost angry. He wondered why I was wasting my time, in my employment and now in studying maths, when I could have a life in art. His words, Mr. Thomas. 'A life in art.'"
"Mr. Rossetti claims to think that all men should be painters. Of course, what would we eat without farmers, and wear without tailors? How would we make Prussian Blue paint without butchers?"
White nodded. "So I went to Mr. Ruskin, and put it before him. He said to hold fast to my employment and put my ambitions there. He said that study is to strengthen the mind, first, not material circumstances. He didn't want to give me false hopes."
"Few painters make a living at their art," Nick admitted slowly, "and you have your wife to think of. But it would be a pity if you stopped thinking of art -- or algebra -- altogether, Mr. White."
"Do you think that there's a way to have it all? That is, for . . . a man like me?"
"It's a challenge for every man, I think." Flattered and appalled that White had brought this to him, Nick wished he could refer it to someone wiser and better -- perhaps the saintly Rev. Dr. Maurice, founder of the College. He took a deep breath and let it out, trying to separate what he had learned from what that learning had cost him. "It's been my experience that people do have to make choices, and you want to be careful what you choose. But that's not the same as -- as giving up something you know to be good and true now, because of a question of hope or fear tomorrow."
Nick looked at the door to the rest of his house, thinking of Janette. "It sounds as if Mr. Ruskin has advised caution in service to responsibility, and Mr. Rossetti daring on the altar of art. If I may, I suggest that the best judge of your skills and potential may be your wife, who made those sales. Your choices . . . are hers as well. Have you discussed this with her?"
"Not yet. I wanted to know where I stood before I put it to her. Could I be good enough, Mr. Thomas? I never thought of it before Mr. Rossetti spoke, but since then, it's like -- a part of my heart that I didn't know was there."
Nick ran back though White's work in his mind, his progress and creativity. "You're still a beginner," Nick cautioned, and White's expression tightened. "But if your diligence and luck match your potential, I would say -- yes, you could make it." Nick stood and offered his hand. Over a firm clasp, Nick said, "Now go talk to your wife."
White put on his cap with a firm nod. "I'll see you at class, Mr. Thomas."
Janette was no longer in his studio when Nick sat down at his desk with his correspondence. He supposed she had gone to dress.
There was no answer from the board among his letters, but he had not expected one; if they had something to say as a group -- besides a hearty laugh at him, well-deserved -- it would take over a week. He had a friendly note from Rossetti inviting him to stop by this evening at seven-thirty, if he could make it; Nick checked the wall clock and was grateful for the long winter night. There was plenty of time.
Under a letter from his banker proposing a new investment, one from a colleague at the Ethnological Society with news from the Assyrian expedition, and two tickets he had subscribed to for the first public exhibition devoted to Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Nick found a thin packet from Germany. He looked up sharply, as if Janette might have appeared without his notice, then carefully slit open and unfolded the letter.
My dear Sir,
I received your reply with great satisfaction. I had not supposed that the misunderstanding I left behind me in England would permit me the attention of serious scholarship. Your informed interest in my expertise in the occult sciences makes me eager to pursue the investigation you suggest, but you must understand that I am not in a financial position to further my research at this time.
As an earnest of my sincerity, I enclose fair copies of two relevant articles for which I have as yet been unable to find a publisher. I would be most happy to learn your thoughts on the subjects.
George Spense, Esquire
One article was titled, "On the Post-Mortem Restoration of Electrical Function to the Heart." The other, "Regarding the Scientific Basis of Certain Balkan Myths Usually Dismissed as Supernatural." Looking around again, Nick folded up the sheets and tucked them into his waistcoat's inner pocket. Nick had been seeking someone to resume Hans's work for years; he hoped that in this so-called "Resurrection Doctor," he had found his man at last.
But right now, he needed to head down to the river to meet Rossetti.
Intending to say goodbye to Janette for the evening, Nick looked in her bedroom, her dressing room, and his bedroom, before thinking of the bathroom. He found a small piece of paper stuck in the doorframe; unfolded, it said, 'Figure Bathing. Please, No Gentlemen!'
Nick knocked anyway, and entered after a moment when there was no answer. "Are we even, now?"
"I'm still ahead on points, but you're catching up." Janette leaned forward in the tub and her dark hair floated on the clear water. "Hot and cold taps. Impressive."
"In a few years, everyone will have them. London is a very hygienic city."
Janette raised her eyebrows. "The river is a sewer, Nicolas, and the air is yellow."
"It's a city." He raised and dropped one shoulder. "I'm on my way out for the night. Do you need anything?"
"No, thank you. I wrote to my friend's son from Paris. I'll take a cab over tonight, and if all goes well, I'll have nothing better to do come dawn than show you my purchase and convince you to abandon this cow blood affectation. I admit it's convenient, but it can't be good for your health, Nicolas." She sat up and raised her arms to wind her wet hair on top of her head. "What are you up to?"
Enjoying the view, Nick silently admitted that Janette was so far ahead on points that he would never, ever catch up. "I'm meeting with a fellow teacher about that afternoon tea you did not help me get out of hosting, and then I'll be at the museum until they close. I'll end up back here, painting. If that sounds dull, tomorrow night I have tickets for us to a new art exhibition at the Panopticon, with paintings by those people whose names you didn't know."
She splashed at him; the water fell short. "What do you look for at the museum? Things to paint?"
"Sometimes." Mostly, he tried to pick up the trail of Hans's inspiration. If there had indeed been vampires throughout history, as Lacroix claimed, then surely he and Hans were not the first to imagine an antidote, a counter-curse, a cure.
"I like when you paint me." Janette had turned pensive again. "But I don't like there to be many pictures of me around."
Nick knew better than to pry into Janette's affairs; when she was ready, she would tell him what was bothering her. He kissed her damp forehead, then pulled the door shut behind him.
"Oh! Nick!" Rossetti exclaimed, feeling at his purple waistcoat pocket for his watch. "Is it that time already?"
Just reaching the stairs of Chatham Place, the last house by Blackfriars Bridge, Nick had been surprised when the door had opened and Rossetti and a slender young woman stepped out. In the moonlight, she was as fair as Rossetti was dark, and with a glance at her abundant red hair, Nick recognized Elizabeth Siddal from several of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's most acclaimed paintings.
"Your note said half-seven, Gabriel." Nick removed his hat and nodded toward Miss Siddal, preparing to compliment her work as the model for Millais's unforgettable Ophelia, but she dropped her eyes with the barest hint of a curtsey, and hurried down the stairs. To Nick's chagrin, Rossetti did not introduce her, so there was nothing Nick could, in politeness, say as she went by.
"Come in, come in," Rossetti invited heartily. "You want to talk about Ruskin's tea scheme, of course." He ushered Nick into a large parlor, with a balcony projecting from the back, over the river. The exposed mudbanks smelled putrid to Nick's vampiric senses; he hoped that they hit human noses less painfully. "I've taken a turn before, and it's not much bother, really. Nerve yourself to let people see your paintings in progress, or put them away in a closet, and it's all delightful conversation and roasted chestnuts. Can I get you something to drink?"
"No, I'm fine, thank you." Nick took the chair Rossetti indicated and looked up at the huge feathered fan on the wall above them. "I'm not much of a host these days, myself. Mr. Ruskin suggested that you might be interested in sharing the task."
Rossetti sat and crossed his ankles. "I'm afraid I'm not exactly flush with tin at the moment. Not to suggest that it's an expensive undertaking, but you know how it is."
"I'm happy to cover the expense."
"Oh! Well, that's different then." Rossetti's smile was self-deprecating. "I'd be glad to take your funds and turn up on your doorstep with coffee and biscuits from a little place I know, stand as your second in shaking hands and what-not. I never pegged you for bashful, though, Nick, I must say."
"It's not that. I was hoping you might be willing to hold the gathering here." Nick watched Rossetti's eyes. If he could base the event away from his own home, he could easily contrive a reason for not arriving until sunset. No danger from the sun, no danger to his secrets. "Gabriel, my cousin's visiting, and she--"
"I heard about your stunner of a cousin!" Rossetti laughed. "I understand, believe me, but," he looked around his home, "no, it just won't do. I've had a few bachelor bashes recently, and I really can't again so soon, not even our so-serious, so-dignified students. The British mind at work on the British mug, eh?"
"Would you mind telling me about the time you hosted your students?"
"Yeah, of course. Oh, wait. I told you half-seven? Ouch! Come on, walk with me to Red Lion Square. Tonight's my teaching night." Rossetti grabbed a coat, hat and scarf, turned off the gas lights, and rushed Nick to the street, where, despite his having invited Nick for a walk, he quickly got them both into a cab. According to Rossetti, having one's students visit was like holding class, except no one painted, or it was like having friends over, except no one smoked or drank.
"I had understood that the goal of these visits was to further the fellowship and equality of College members, and sometimes to give students sight of another mode of living."
"Good golly, that sounds Ruskinian! You mean that Christian Socialist stuff? Well, yeah, I suppose. I mean, it's not like I object or anything." Rossetti held the door as they stepped down from the cab, and then patted his pockets. "Nick, can you spare the tin for the driver?"
Shaking his head slightly, Nick got out some coins. Rossetti intercepted them, and handed most to the cabman. With a few steps and a flourish, he presented the remainder to an old woman begging near the school's entrance. "With my friend's compliments, madam. Please spend it on something very beautiful and completely unnecessary."
Touching his hat to Nick, Rossetti bounded up the stairs, fifteen minutes late for his class. Before the door entirely closed behind him, he swung around and stuck his head back out. "I'll tell everyone you'll be holding your studio tea this Saturday afternoon, shall I? Send out some notes, tack it up on the board. How's three?"
"Five!" Nick blurted. Sunset was at half-four. The door closed behind Rossetti. Nick could only hope he had been heard.
"He wouldn't sell!" Janette announced indignantly as she strode into Nick's studio shortly before dawn.
Nick made one more stroke on the moonlit oak tree he was painting, just as it looked through his window, and began cleaning his brush. "I'm surprised you didn't mesmerize him into making them a gift, if you want them that much."
"I tried." Janette sank moodily into the one spare chair, straight-backed and cushionless; the studio had not been designed for guests. Nick wondered how she managed her crinoline against the unyielding furniture. "The boy didn't seem to be a resister, but no suggestion took. And then he-- never mind. What matters is, he still has my daguerreotypes."
Nick got up to pour Janette a cup of the cow blood he had been drinking. She wrinkled her nose at him, but sipped it anyway. He left the jar on the table next to her. "In that case," he added, "I'm a little surprised he's still alive."
"I might have drained him in spite of his mother's memory, if it weren't for the letters."
"Letters?" Nick asked, carefully not looking at the drawer where he had hidden his correspondence with Spense and others who had information that might someday lead to the reversal of his vampirism.
"He has my letters to him from Paris, asserting my claim to the daguerreotypes. They're filed away somewhere, not out where I could get them, and with my name on the witness list at the Panopticon last night, that would be just a bit too tidy for any inspector to miss, don't you think? No, I have to get my letters away from him before . . . anything else."
Nick closed the window, shutters and drapes. He turned around and leaned against the wall by the sealed window. "What's on the daguerreotypes, Janette?"
"I don’t know what you mean." She poured herself more cow blood.
"You're in them, of course." Her pensive preoccupation with paintings of her, and of him, told him that much. "The process was only invented, what, twenty years ago? You can still play down the fact that you haven't aged. No, it's something more."
Janette crossed her legs; the crinoline wriggled. "Do you have any idea how detailed daguerreotypes are, Nicolas?"
"I've seen some." The silver and black images were amazing, but limited. "They're like dead things next to the life in a skilled painting."
"Your precious true-to-nature painters have nothing on that contraption but color! It's as real as life or death, and I am now given to understand that the images will last forever, unfaded, unless the glass is broken and the gas escapes. Forever. The machine was a new toy; how was I to know?"
"What's on the pictures, Janette?" Nick let his voice go low and quiet, a style of threat he had picked up from Lacroix long ago. He didn't mean to use it on Janette, but she was beginning to scare him, with the one thing that frightened vampires more than sun or stake or fire.
She dropped her eyes.
"Blast it, Janette! What's on those pictures?"
"This." Her fangs dropped and her eyes gilded. "We wanted to know whether a vampire could be captured by a daguerreotype. Well, guess what? She can."
Nick sank down against the wall and rested his arms on his knees. He would do everything he could to protect Janette. He supposed it took hubris to hope he could do anything at all.
If the Enforcers were not yet on the way, it was only because the sun was up.
To be concluded in the second post…
( True to Life, Part Two )