The Girl With the Persian Shawl
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by Elizabeth Mansfield
Description: An Arrogant Spinster, a Dashing Rake, and an Unsigned Painting The Girl With Persian Shawl was a strangely bewitching masterpiece that had hung in the Rendell household for generations. Kate Rendell graciously let the dashing Lord Ainsworth view the work, and was outraged when he dared to insinuate that the painting came into the family by nefarious means. She was unfazed that Lord Ainsworth left her estate believing she was little more than an arrogant spinster. But everything changed when she discovered that her beloved but flighty younger cousin was to be betrothed to--a rake!
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2002
eBookwise Release Date: November 2011
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [291 KB]
Reading time: 176-247 min.
* * * *
Mr. Josiah Crowell heaved a huge sigh. Although his position as business advisor of the Rendell estate made it inappropriate for him to display his emotions, this time he couldn't help it. Miss Kate was disputing his advice. Again.
He pushed his spectacles lower down on his nose and peered over them to examine his client more closely. What's the matter with the girl? he asked himself in annoyance.
Yet it had all started out so well. The drive from London yesterday, his companion on the journey, the night spent at the inn in Ipswitch, and even the weather--they'd all been extraordinarily pleasant. He'd arrived here at Rendell Hall this morning in the highest spirits. He'd convinced himself that there would be no difficulty with Miss Kate Rendell this time, for most of the matters that brought him were trivial. But here he was, right in the middle of a bumble-bath.
She stood across the room from the library table where he sat, her pointed chin tilted upward, her lips pressed tightly together, and her arms crossed over her chest in a stance that spoke loudly of her opposition. Perhaps he should have anticipated this difficulty. Kate Rendell was nothing if not decided. And when she made up her mind, there was little anyone could do to change it.
Her appearance was certainly appealing (soft, brown hair now carelessly piled atop her head, perfect oval face, patrician nose, and dark-brown eyes that seemed to hold secrets a man immediately yearned to unlock), so appealing, in fact, that Mr. Crowell did not like to think of her as stubborn. At this moment, however, he felt that no other word would do. Her father, the late Viscount, had never been headstrong, and her mother, Lady Isabel Rendell (who was at this moment sitting near the fire on the far side of the room, calmly stitching away at her embroidery), was always pleasant and agreeable. Yet--there was no doubt of it--their daughter was stubborn. Stubborn to the point of obstinacy.
He wondered, as he'd often done before, if that "decidedness" was the reason she was still unwed at the age of twenty-four. Stubbornness was not a quality that men found endearing. He himself thought her quite irksome when she grew obstinate, even though he was very fond of her at other times. And obstinate she was at this moment. After all, what he'd asked of her was not so very difficult. He only wanted her to speak to Lord Ainsworth, not necessarily to accede to his request.
Lady Isabel, as if she'd read his mind, spoke up at that moment. "I don't wish to interfere, Kate, my love, for you are the arbiter of our affairs, not I, but it does seem to me that Mr. Crowell is not asking so very much of you."
"Not asking much of me?" The tall young woman swung about and threw her mother an irritated glare. "How can you say that? He brought the interloper right into our home without so much as a by-your-leave!"
Josiah Crowell sighed again. "There wasn't time to inform you, Miss Kate. His lordship's letter reached my desk only two days ago. In it, he explained that he would be free to come to Suffolk only these two days. And since I had already planned to come out from London also, it seemed convenient--"
Kate Rendell stopped him with a wave of her hand. "Did it not strike you as an utterly ridiculous request, as well as a presumptuous one?"
"It did not seem so to me." He looked at her over his spectacles, his eyes pleading. "If I may be permitted read his letter to you ... ?"
Kate was about to cut him off again, but his helpless expression kept her from doing it. Mr. Crowell had been the business agent for the family for fifty years, and her father had been quite right when he spoke of him as both sensible and loyal. The agent did not deserve to be ill-treated. "Very well, read it if you must," she said grudgingly and threw herself into the nearest chair.
Mr. Crowell sifted through the papers in front of him and pulled out the document in question. " 'My dear Mr. Crowell,' " he read aloud, " 'I am writing to you in regard to a painting for which I have been searching for several years. Though unsigned, it was painted more than one hundred years ago by my grandfather, John Gerard, Earl of Ainsworth, who was considered a gifted artist. The painting disappeared from our estate during the upheaval caused by the Young Pretender's march south from Scotland in 1745. My agents inform me that a painting, called Girl with Persian Shawl, owned by the estate of the Viscount Rendell, seems to match the description of the missing Ainsworth work. I would very much appreciate your obtaining permission for me to call at Rendell Hall to see the painting sometime this week, when I plan to be in town.' "
Crowell removed his spectacles and rubbed his nose. "The gentleman adds in a post script," he said, keeping a wary eye on his client, "that, should your painting turn out to be the missing work, he is willing to recompense you in the sum of 500 pounds."
"Indeed!" Kate responded in a voice of ice. "How good of him!"
"It is, I believe, a more than generous offer for an unknown artist's work. A very generous offer, I assure you. Why, I've heard of a Rowlandson that went for half that price."
Kate rose from her chair in slow dignity, like an offended goddess. "I have no interest in the gentleman's 'generosity.' The painting is not for sale. The very suggestion that it does not belong to us--that it may have been acquired by dealings with looters or smugglers--is insulting!"
"But my dear," murmured her mother, pausing to wet the end of a piece of yarn with her tongue and thread her needle, "it didn't seem to me that the letter accuses us of haying acquired the painting illegally."
"The suggestion is implicit in his reference to his painting's 'disappearance' in the upheaval of war. Let's make short work of this, Mr. Crowell. Go and tell the man to take himself off."
Crowell fingered his neckcloth nervously. "Would you not consider telling him yourself, my dear? He seemed very sure that his informants had found the right artwork. I don't mink I can be as convincing as you in dismissing his reasoning."
"Good God, man, you needn't reason with him at all!" Kate snapped. "Just tell him to go!"
"But he's come all the way from London--"
"I don't care if he's come from Timbuktu! I won't--"
"Come now, Kate," scolded her mother mildly, "I see no reason for you to raise a dust. The poor man has been cooling his heels in the drawing room for half an hour, and none of us has even thought to offer him so much as a cup of tea. You know that I dislike to interfere with your decisions, but, really, someone must go to him."
Kate's imperious posture wilted. Her mother's gentle reprimand made her ashamed of her own short temper. "You're right, Mama," she said with a defeated sigh. "Very well, I'll see to him. But in future, Mr. Crowell," she added on her way to the door, "I hope you'll refrain from inviting visitors to our premises whose object is to denude us of our precious artifacts."
As she strode down the hall to the drawing room, Kate seethed. Lord Ainsworth, she thought, must be a crafty old codger to have arranged a visit like this without warning. He probably knew that what he was asking was worse than presumptuous! What business had he to question the rightful ownership of anything under this roof?
On the threshold of the drawing room, she paused to calm herself and, without making her presence known, eyed the man who stood in the center of the room, his back to her. The tilt of his head and the manner in which his hands were clasped behind his back suggested that he was completely absorbed in studying the painting over the fireplace. Kate took a moment to study it, too.
She'd never really liked the work, despite the fact that the family had always considered it the finest painting in their collection. It was a portrait of a great-great-aunt, Kate had been told. The girl in the painting was undoubtedly beautiful, and the shawl that was draped from her left shoulder to hang in luxurious splendor over her right arm--a heavy but lustrous dark-blue twilled silk, with imaginatively ornate silver, green, and rust-colored leaves subtly interwoven throughout--made a dramatic contrast to the soft white gown she was wearing. It was undeniably a magnificent painting. But Kate had always been put off by the look of arrogance in the girl herself. Something about the haughty tilt of her head, the supercilious expression of her mouth, and the dark, hooded eyes looking out at her viewers with a sidelong glance, as if she were challenging their right to stare at her--all this made Kate dislike her. Nevertheless, she would never consider giving up the painting. It was a family treasure, and so it would remain. "She is quite lovely, isn't she?" she asked aloud.
"Yes, very," the man said without turning. "Except for--" Then, shaking himself from his reverie, he turned round.
The first sight of him startled her. Lord Ainsworth was younger than she'd imagined, certainly not past thirty, startlingly light-eyed, and--though she was reluctant to admit it--quite prepossessing in spite of his dark hair slightly receding from his forehead. "Except for what?" she couldn't resist asking.
"Except for a certain arrogance in her expression." He took a step toward her and smiled. "Miss Rendell, I take it?" he asked as he made his bow. "How do you do, ma'am? I'm Harry Gerard."
"Lord Ainsworth," she said with strict formality, returning his bow but not offering her hand.
Aware of the slight, his own smile faded. "I hope my observation about the girl in the shawl didn't offend you."
"No, it didn't. I expected it of you."
"Yes. It is good strategy, is it not, to belittle a work which you really desire to purchase?"
It was an offensive remark, but the only indication Lord Ainsworth gave of taking offense was a slight lift to his left eyebrow. "I don't belittle it at all," he said gently. "The girl's expression in no way detracts from the superb artistry of the work." He turned again to the painting. "I'm sorry that it isn't--"
"For sale? And so you should be, for I will never part with it."
He heard the ice in her voice and looked back at her, the left eyebrow rising higher. "Excuse me, Miss Rendell, but you needn't--"
"I must say, my lord," she cut in with an impatient toss of her head, "that I don't understand the cause of your visit here. In fact, I cannot imagine how you came to have any information about this painting at all. I can only assume that your agents bribed one of my staff to give them details of the possessions in this house."
"Not so, I assure you," the gentleman said, the tone of his denial not only lacking in hostility but actually pleasant. "The painting is listed in the Compendium Pictorial, you see, and the description there, though admittedly inadequate, made me believe--"
"Be that as it may," Kate interrupted impatiently, "there is no question at all that the work belongs to the Rendell estate. Though it is unsigned, there is evidence that it was painted early last century by Sir Anthony Van Dyke when he came to England."
"I don't doubt--"
"I assume you will argue that a painter of Van Dyke's acclaim would not be so remiss as to leave a work unsigned, and that, therefore, nothing on the painting can attest to its origins--"
"Miss Rendell, I make no such--"
"--nevertheless," Kate went on as if he hadn't spoken, "there is good and sufficient evidence in the family records to prove its origin."
"Miss Rendell, I have not the slightest--"
"The household accounts of the year 1625," she proceeded grandly, "show a payment of ninety pounds for a portrait of my great-great-aunt, Matilda Rendell Quigley, to a certain A.V.D."
"I'm quite sure you're--"
"And even the most suspicious connoisseur would agree that the confluence of the year Van Dyke was painting portraits in this country with the initials in the records is proof enough even to convince a court of law."
"My dear lady, a lawsuit was never consid--
"As far as I'm concerned, however, it doesn't matter who painted the portrait, or when. It has hung here in this drawing room all my life. I'm accustomed to seeing it there, I would not part with it if I were offered ten times the amount you mentioned in your letter."
"Don't even think of offering more, my lord! I would not part with it for any--"
"Miss Rendell, enough!" The gentleman, laughing, put up his hands as if to protect himself from further onslaught. "Let me insert a word, please!"
Kate, startled by so unaccustomed an interruption, could only gasp, "What--?"
"I've been trying to tell you that you needn't prove anything to me. This is not the painting I've been looking for."
She blinked in astonishment. "It is not--?"
"No. My great-grandfather's style of painting was, I suspect, not nearly so skilled. The painting I'm looking for is probably softer, with less contrast between light and shadow. And the subject, I'm told, is fair-haired, not dark. I saw at once that this is not the right painting. I waited only to apologize to you for my intrusion. Now that I've done so, I have only to thank you and take my leave." He bowed and walked swiftly to the door.
Kate, realizing with a shock that she'd let loose a tirade over nothing, felt her cheeks grow hot in humiliation. She'd made an utter fool of herself!
At the door, he turned back to face her again. "I only wish to add, ma'am," he said, an unmistakable gleam of amusement in his eyes, "that even if I'd had any doubts of the ownership of that painting, seeing you would have dispelled them. The face of the girl in the shawl shows a remarkable resemblance to your own. Good day, ma'am." And he was gone.
Kate gaped after him, her emotions in a turmoil. Why, the dastard had insulted her! He as good as called her arrogant! "The face shows a remarkable resemblance to your own,' indeed! That blasted bounder! And then he'd run off like a craven, without waiting a moment for her reply. It was infuriating! She wished more than anything to have come back at him with a sharp rejoinder. Especially if she could have thought of one.