A Taste for Nightshade

A Taste for Nightshade by Martine Bailey Read Free Book Online

Book: A Taste for Nightshade by Martine Bailey Read Free Book Online
Authors: Martine Bailey
it was wrong to succumb to sin, and we withstood the worst of the Devil’s temptations. Yet what did Anne and Jacob know of the fever of such pleasure? If they longed for each other as we did, how could they forever delay their marriage?
    One black day Father ordered me into his study and stood over me, crimson-faced, a vein like a worm burrowing at his temple.
    â€˜What is this?’ he roared. In his hand was a pencil portrait of John Francis, carelessly left beneath my bed. ‘Well?’
    â€˜It is a picture, Father.’
    â€˜That Rawdon lad. Think you have an admirer, do you?’ he mocked, in the voice of a stupid girl. ‘I’ll not have it! My daughter will not be thrown away on a Rawdon. He’s got a sniff of your prospects, that is all.’
    I stared mutely at the rug. It was the first time I had heard of my ‘prospects’, but knew better than to make a sound.
    â€˜You drew it?’
    I nodded, brimming with tears.
    â€˜Pitiful.’ He crumpled up the portrait in a ball and threw it in the corner. In anger, he pushed his huge flat hand against my shoulder. I stumbled backwards against the wall.
    At his growl of dismissal I ran up to my mother, who lay resting in her room with the curtains drawn, suffering from that mysterious affliction I fancied prevented her from bearing Father’s long-awaited son.
    â€˜What does he mean – my prospects?’ I whispered.
    She passed a bony hand across her eyes. ‘No pray, not all that, Grace. It will only agitate him. For my sake not a word, my dear.’
    Yet one small matter did cheer me: for all his scorn, my father had recognised John Francis at once, so my portraiture was not so pitiful.
    I know now that my father was frustrated in his occupation. If he had been born in different circumstances, he may have been a remarkable artist. From observing him, I grew to love the Schools of Florence, the Flemish Masters, and our fine English painters. His idol was the Italian engraver, Piranesi, and one evening, having just returned from the tavern, he beckoned me to look inside a vast leather binder. At first I saw only black cross-hatchings, then gradually pieced together gigantic dungeons strung with hanging stairways, coiling chains, and grotesque lightless lamps.
    â€˜The famed
Carceri
,’ he murmured. ‘The prisons of the mind that men try to impose upon us. A trap for our dreams. If we can only break out, child, the light is all about us.’
    I stared at the monstrous vision – more ghastly even than Beelzebub’s Castle in
The Pilgrim’s Progress
– of men dwarfed like ants on colossal stairs, of figures chained to walls beside spoke-wheeled apparatus. I backed away, but Father grasped my arm and said through beer-sour breath, ‘It is not a real prison. It is a fancy, a
capriccio
is the proper word.’ I took a step back to him and looked again. ‘A great artist has the courage to reveal the soul’s suffering. Not etch catch-penny advertisements, debasing everything he learned.’
    â€˜The prisons of the mind,’ I repeated softly, and thought my father had spoken some great truth, but what it was I didn’t yet understand.
    Later I recalled his words, and those dungeons of forgotten captives. Sometimes, what we believe is trapped in the metal mirror can quicken and jump out from the frame; our dreams can bite back as savagely as any mythical Hydra. At times it is wise to feel fear.

    By winter-time John Francis and I were sworn sweethearts, exchanging locks of hair, twisting together his fair strands with my darker brown. From John I learned our neighbours mistook my timid earnestness for pride, and envied my father’s wealth. Our talk turned to how men and women might live better lives, with dignity as man and wife. I suppose it was mostly youthful fervour, for we believed the world would soon be ours to inherit. Now I judge those innocent hours the happiest of

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