AND ONLY TO DECEIVE
The Viscount Ashton seemed an unlikely candidate to bring anyone much happiness, at least according to my standards. His fortune, moderate good looks, and impeccable manners guaranteed that hapless females would constantly fling themselves at him in the hope of winning his affection. They missed his defining characteristic, ensuring that he would never pay them more than the slightest polite attention. Philip was a hunter.
I mean this, of course, literally. Hunting possessed him. He spent as much time as his fortune would permit pursuing wild beasts. The dignified (although I would not choose to describe it as so) English hunt amused him, but he preferred big game, and passed much of his time stalking his quarry on the plains of Africa. He could be found in London only briefly, at the height of the Season, when he limited his prey to potential brides. The image he presented could be described as striking, I suppose. He played the part of daring adventurer well.
My encounter with the dashing Viscount began as such things typically do, at a soirée. As usual, I found the conversation boring and longed to return home to the novel that had engrossed me all morning. Philip differed little from other men I met, and I had no interest in continuing the acquaintance. No interest,
that is, until I decided to accept the inevitable and agree to marry.
My mother and I do not particularly enjoy one another’s company. From the day the Queen kissed me during my presentation at court in Buckingham Palace, I heard from Mother constant reminders that my looks would soon fade and that I had better catch a husband immediately. That I had refused several good offers continued to vex her, and I will not bore the reader with the details of these trivial events. Suffice it to say that I had little interest in marriage. I cannot claim this was due to lofty ideals of love or outrage at the submission demanded by many husbands of their wives. Frankly, I considered the proposition of matrimony immensely boring. Married women I knew did little more than bear children and order around their servants. Their time consumed by mundane details, the most excitement for which they could hope was some social event at which they could meet each other and complain about said children and servants.
I preferred my life at home. At least as a single woman, I had time to pursue my own interests, read voraciously, and travel when opportunity presented.
Did I marry Philip, then, because of his keen sense of adventure? Did I long to travel to darkest Africa with him? Hardly. I married him because he happened to propose at a moment when accepting him seemed a simple way out of an increasingly unbearable situation.
As the months following my debut progressed, my mother became more and more desperate, her dearest wish having always been to see me make a brilliant match before the end of my first Season. She lamented continually, making it nearly impossible to converse with her on any other topic. Any topic, that is, except
the proposals being accepted by the daughters of her friends. She began to point out the slightest wrinkles and imperfections on my face, bemoaning what she considered to be the beginning of the end of my wasted beauty. She cut my allowance, telling me I must learn to live on little if I were determined to be
a spinster. The final affront came one morning when she entered my room with a dressmaker’s tape. She wanted to measure my waist to see how quickly I was becoming old and fat. I could bear it no longer.
That same afternoon, Philip called and asked me to do him the honour of becoming his wife. This came as a complete surprise; I had rarely conversed with him, though we saw each other frequently at social gatherings. Having no interest in hunting or his superficial charm, I tended to avoid him. I did not realize that the hunter always prefers the quarry that is difficult to catch. He claimed to love me endlessly, and said all the pretty words we expect to hear on such an occasion. They meant little to me. Living with him could not be worse than continued subjection to my mother’s ranting. I accepted his proposal
The wedding took place as soon as my trousseau could be assembled; six months later, I found myself a widow. I had known my husband barely long enough for his name to stop sounding foreign on my lips. When I read the telegram, a feeling of relief and freedom swept through my body, causing me to tremble. The butler reached toward me, assuming I would faint. I never faint. Fainting is a result of affectation or too-tight stays; I will succumb to neither.
I felt little grief for the loss of Philip. I hardly knew him. As the astute reader will already have guessed, the hunter rarely has much interest in his quarry once it is caught, except as a trophy. After a brief wedding trip, my new husband returned to Africa, where he spent the months prior to his death hunting with his friends. We exchanged civil, impersonal letters. Then the prescribed period of mourning began.
I soon learned that, along with a large fortune, I now had at my disposal a London town house and Philip’s country manor, a place I had yet to see. This came as a great surprise to me. Although the estate was, of course, entailed, Philip’s family insisted that I did not need to find a new home. Because we had no children, Philip’s heir was his sister’s son. The boy, called Alexander, was three years old and quite comfortably ensconced in his parents’ home. He did not yet need to relocate to the family seat. For more than a year I had stayed in London, left for dead as all good widows are. Relief came unexpectedly in the
form of my husband’s friend, Colin Hargreaves.
I spent my afternoons in Philip’s walnut-panelled library, loving the feeling of being surrounded by books. Like the rest of the house, it was elegantly decorated, with a spectacular curved ceiling and the finest English Axminster carpets. Some previous Viscount had selected the furniture with as much of an eye for comfort as for appearance, making the room a place where one could relax with ease in the most luxurious surroundings. It was here that Mr. Hargreaves interrupted my reading on a warm summer day. He strode across the room and nodded at me as he reached for my hand, raising it gently to his lips.
“Odd to be in this room without him,” he said, glancing about. “Your husband and I planned all of our trips from here.” He sat on a large leather chair. “I’m dreadfully sorry, Lady Ashton. I shouldn’t speak of such painful things.” Devoid of sentimental attachment to my deceased mate, I felt distinctly uncomfortable
in the company of his closest friend.
“Never mind. Would you like some tea?” I reached for the bell.
“No, don’t trouble yourself. I am here on business.”
“Then perhaps you should see my solicitor.”
“I’ve just come from his office. You are aware, of course, of your husband’s love of Greece and the Aegean?” he asked, looking directly into my eyes.
“Greece?” I asked, not wanting to reveal more ignorance of my husband’s interests than absolutely necessary.
“As I’m sure you know, he spent months there every year. While he was ill in Africa...” Mr. Hargreaves paused, looking at me questioningly.
“Please go on.”
“He so looked forward to bringing you to Greece and showing you the villa. He asked me to be the one to tell you about it.”
“Of course he left it to you. It’s a magnificent place; sweeping views of the Aegean. You’ll love it. I think he intended to surprise you by bringing you next year.” He paused again. “When he was sick it was a subject to which he continually returned. ‘Kallista must go to the villa.’ I promised to arrange the
trip for you.”
“You must pardon my confusion,” I said, shaking my head. “Who is Kallista?” Mr. Hargreaves smiled.
“I believe that is what he called you in...” again the pause. “Private.” My eyebrows lifted in amazement.
“He never called me Kallista.” I didn’t mention that the form of address he used most frequently was, in fact, Lady Ashton, albeit in a somewhat ironic tone.
“It is how he always referred to you,” Mr. Hargreaves said quietly. “I assumed it was a pet name. Excuse my impertinence, but I believe he preferred it to Emily.” My stomach began to feel somewhat unsettled.
“I see. And the villa?”
“It’s on Santorini, one of the islands in the Aegean. I suggest you go in the spring, when the weather is fine, although Ashton always considered winter there a vast improvement from England.” He stood up and walked towards me. “I must apologize again; I can only imagine how difficult it is for you to be reminded
of him. Using his familiar name for you was thoughtless of me.”
“On the contrary, it doesn’t bother me at all,” I said, still not sure what to make of this habit of my husband’s. “For all I care, you may call me Kallista if you prefer it to Emily.” I looked directly at Mr. Hargreaves and smiled. He was quite handsome, his dark wavy hair tousled, contrasting with the perfect
elegance of both his clothing and manner. “That is, of course, should our acquaintance become familiar enough to merit the use of Christian names.”
“You are exactly as Ashton described you,” he said, flashing a smile. “I shall leave now. Your solicitor has all the papers concerning the villa. As I said, I promised your husband I would ensure that you see it. When you are ready to make the trip, I shall take care of all your arrangements.” I gave him my hand, which he kissed quickly. I watched from the window seat as he sauntered down the steps to the street and across Berkeley Square.
As always after meeting any of Philip’s family or friends I felt overwhelmed. I could not share their grief; I did not know the man. Yet here Colin Hargreaves stood and suggested that Philip actually talked about me. What on earth could he possibly have had to say? My mind reeled. Kallista? Greece? As far as I knew, Philip had few, if any, interests beyond hunting. I had little reason to doubt Mr. Hargreaves, who stood as best man at my wedding. He and Philip were friends from their early days at school and Philip always spoke highly of his integrity. Before I could think further on the subject the butler interrupted me again; my
parents awaited me in the drawing room.
“My dear, you really must keep the curtains drawn in the front of the house,” my mother scolded, true to her new mission of attempting to re-establish dominance over me.
“Philip has been dead for more than a year and a half, mother. I can hardly live without natural light indefinitely.”
“Prince Albert left this life nearly thirty years ago and our Queen still respects his memory. You would do well to follow her example.” My mother, quite possibly Queen Victoria’s staunchest supporter, looked critically around the room. “I know Philip was a bit eccentric, but now that he’s gone you surely could update this room. It is as if it is only partially furnished.”
Philip had no taste for the cluttered excess favoured in current home décor and had furnished his house accordingly. After our wedding, he was delighted to learn that I shared his opinion on the subject. He obligingly removed several of the larger mounted animal heads from the public rooms, and I agreed to leave the remainder of the house untouched.
“In one breath you tell her to mourn the man, in the next to change his house. Really, Catherine, I think you should leave the child alone.” My father, whom I had always considered a silent ally, smiled at me reassuringly. “I don’t like to be unpleasant, but it is insupportable to me that she should have to be in
mourning longer than she knew Ashton.” My mother gasped.
“I will pretend that I never heard you say that. You must think of her future; she’s young and very rich, not to mention the daughter of an Earl. After a suitable period of mourning she will be able to make an excellent marriage.” She looked at me. “I have already heard your name mentioned by the mothers of some
of the most eligible peers.”
“I’d rather not lose my money to the upkeep of someone else’s family estate,” I said with a sigh. “Besides, why should I marry again? I rather like widowhood.” My father laughed until his eyes caught my mother’s withering glare.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course it’s much too soon to think of such things. Your heart is still breaking.” My mother rang the bell. “You need some tea.” I suffered through a cup of the over-sweetened beverage she forced on me and avoided any conversation that might prolong their stay. At last, I bid my parents farewell, cringing as my mother ordered the butler to have the drapes on the front windows closed. Davis, a consummate professional, gave her a reassuring nod but did nothing without first consulting his mistress; I instructed him to leave them open.
“Very good milady. I must inform you that I’ve had to let one of the footmen go. A parlour maid, entering the library to dust, saw him rifling through the Viscount’s desk. It does not appear that anything was stolen, but I wanted to apprise you of the situation.”
“When did this happen?”
“Yesterday afternoon, milady. The maid was reluctant to come forward.”
“I’m glad she did. Thank you for handling it, Davis. I shall check the contents of the desk myself,” I said, knowing full well that I had no idea what ought to be in it.
I returned to the library, where, after a cursory glance through the unremarkable contents of the desk, I started searching the shelves for books about Greece and found volume upon volume: histories and classical literature in both the ancient language and translation. Until now I had assumed these were vestiges of Philip’s studies at Eton and Cambridge. I flipped through several of them, unsure of what I wanted to find. Frustrated with my complete lack of direction, I picked up a guide to the British Museum. The book fell open to a page that held a carefully folded note written in a hand I did not recognize. “Your present course of action has placed you in grave danger.” The page it marked described a vase on which there was a painting of the great hero, Achilles, killing the queen of the Amazons. Grave danger, indeed.
I examined the note closely. The paper was very heavy, the type that an artist might use in his sketchbook, but it bore no indication of the identity of either sender or recipient. Very odd to find it moments after learning of the actions of my former footman. I sighed, unsure of what to do. After reading it again, I placed it in Philip’s desk drawer and turned my attention to the book from which it had fallen. Soon, I found myself engrossed in descriptions of the Museum’s magnificent artefacts, and summoned my carriage; I wanted to see them myself.
I had not mentioned Greece or the villa to my parents, and smiled as I approached Great Russell Street, wondering what my mother would think if I were to hole up in Santorini for the rest of my years. How long would I have to wear half-mourning there? I fluffed my black striped skirts and entered the Museum,
immediately asking if someone could show me the Greek Antiquities. A wealthy widow quickly learns that great institutions long for her money; knowing this, I anticipated a thorough and enjoyable tour.
As I waited for what I hoped would be a knowledgeable guide I looked around the hall wondering why I hadn’t visited the Museum in so long. My father had taken me periodically when I was a girl, but once my education transferred to the hands of my mother and a legion of tutors I was limited to pursuing those things considered essential by society matrons. Consequently, I became fluent in French and Italian and able to speak passably in German. I could sing and play the pianoforte, though not well. In the visual arts, I excelled in drawing, though never moved to watercolours, preferring the feel of pencils to that of the
artist’s brushes. Embroidery, etiquette and household management became second nature, but my mother did not want me to receive anything that could be construed as a classical education. A good wife, she believed, should not think too much for herself. Before I could mull further on the shortcomings of my
schooling, a distinguished-looking middle-aged gentleman interrupted my reverie.
“Lady Ashton, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am Alexander Murray, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities. My colleagues inform me that you are interested in viewing our collection.” I gave him my hand and murmured something appropriate. “Please allow me to express my condolences on the death of your excellent husband. He visited us frequently; the entire department was shocked to learn of his demise. We are immeasurably grateful for the artefacts he donated to us during his lifetime. I presume you would like to see those pieces first?”
I hardly knew what to say. I had never known Philip to set foot in the Museum, but realized that fact in itself to be meaningless. Clearly, I knew even less about the man than I suspected. As Mr. Murray led me through gallery after gallery, my thoughts divided between my husband and the wondrous objects I
viewed. Philip had given the Museum several stunning Greek vases. One in particular struck me: a large vase showing three women standing before a young man who held an apple.
“That is a calyx-krater, so called because the shape of the handles brings to mind a flower’s calyx.” Mr. Murray told me. “It would have been used in Antiquity as a vessel in which one would mix water with wine. I believe it was Lord Ashton’s favourite. He had a difficult time parting with it, but felt strongly that it belonged where others could study it. It is a fine example of red-figure vase painting.”
“The detail is exquisite,” I exclaimed, leaning closer to the object. “Even the eyelashes are visible on the man’s profile.”
“The red-figure technique allows for more realism than black-figure because the details are painted onto the unglazed figures. This artist is known for his attention to such things. Note how he shows individual strands of hair and the way he has shaded the folds of fabric on each cloak.”
“There is something in it that brings to mind the Parthenon friezes.”
“A keen observation, Lady Ashton. The style is very similar to those figures found at the Parthenon. This vase painter is credited with being the most classical of all his colleagues.”
“Who was he?”
“I’m afraid we do not know his name, but his work is recognized on hundreds of vases.”
“No. Black-figure and white-ground lekythoi, too. If you’ll come this way, I’ll show you one of the lekythoi; they are the ones for which he is best known.” I did not respond immediately to Mr. Murray but continued to examine the piece before me.
“Look how graceful his hand is holding the apple. Who do the figures represent?” I asked. Mr. Murray moved closer to the case.
“Those are the goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite. They have just attended a wedding ruined by Eris, or Discord. Furious not to have been invited to the celebration, she determined to cause a scene and dropped a golden apple among the guests.”
“They argued over who would keep the gold?”
“In a sense, yes. ‘Tê kallistê’ ‘to the fairest’ was engraved on the apple. The goddesses each argued that she was the most beautiful and should have the apple. Zeus realized no judgment would be acceptable to all three, and decided it would be best to stay out of the mix.”
“Wise,” I smiled.
“He gave the task of choosing who would receive the apple to Paris, an unfortunate shepherd.” He pointed to one of the figures on the vase.
“Who did he choose?”
“I’m afraid he found Aphrodite most irresistible, especially when she promised that he would have for a wife the most beautiful of all mortal women.”
“Hera and Athena were not pleased, I imagine.”
“Far from it; they were his sworn enemies from that day forward.”
“And Paris’s wife?”
“A lovely girl called Helen, unfortunately already married to the King of Sparta, Menelaus. With Aphrodite’s help, Paris convinced Helen to leave Menelaus and come with him to Troy, giving rise, of course, to the great Trojan War.”
I remained silent for a moment, certain that I should know more of this story than I did and resolved to read about it that very evening. Something Mr. Murray said had caught my attention, and I had to inquire further.
“Could you tell me again what was written on the apple?”
“‘Tê kallistê. Kallista in Greek means ‘most beautiful’.”
And thus I learned that Philip considered me beautiful. I blushed uncontrollably and allowed Mr. Murray to continue his tour, although I must confess that my attention to his thoughtful commentary was less than it ought to have been.