Resting her heavy basket on the balustrade at the top of the steps leading down to the street, Polly gazed back at the Pantiles. She had often painted the scene, the colonnaded row of small shops and coffee houses which led to the Chalybeate Spring at the far end, yet it was slightly different each time she looked at it. At this hour in the morning, the trunks of the leafless lime trees cast interesting diagonal shadows across the clay-tiled walkway that gave the esplanade its name.
It was still early. The stout dowagers and crabby, gout-ridden gentlemen who would later stroll, or roll in Bath chairs, along the fashionable promenade of the little spa town were doubtless yet abed.
Polly smiled at an abigail, out exercising her mistress's Skye terrier. The shaggy little dog stopped and sniffed the air as the appetizing aroma of the fresh loaf Polly had just bought reached it. The maid tugged on its leash. It trotted on with many a backward glance, its quivering nose raised to catch the last whiff of that heavenly smell.
On twigs and boughs and swelling leaf buds, dewdrops hung sparkling in the limpid sunshine of late March. Rainbow gleams of pure red and blue and green caught Polly's eye. How could she capture that diamondlike glitter on canvas? She frowned as she visualized the effect of adding tiny dots of colour--it would probably just look odd, but it was worth trying.
Lost in thought she hefted her basket and started down the steps, scarcely aware of the tall, shabby man who stood courteously at the bottom, waiting hat in hand for her to pass before he started up.
Like the branches, the steps were damp with dew. Halfway down, Polly's foot slipped and caught in the hem of her skirt. With a cry of dismay she let go of the basket and tumbled headlong.
Strong arms arrested her fall, steadied her, released her.
"I'm so sorry," she gasped, straightening her bonnet. "Thank you, sir." She looked up into a smiling face, rather long and thin, weather bronzed, topped by curling, light brown hair. His merry hazel eyes slanted in a fascinatingly exotic way, demanding to be painted.
"Am very glad to be of service, madame." Like his eyes, the stranger's voice was exotically foreign, with richly rolling 'r's.
Not French, Polly thought, despite the "madame." During her two years at school she had picked up a little French--in between as many art lessons as she was allowed to take--but that was ten years ago and more. Not that his accent mattered. His looks were what interested her. "Will you sit for me?" she asked eagerly.
"Pose." Before she could explain further, the abigail appeared at the top of the steps.
"Oh miss, are you all right? I heard you cry out."
"I tripped but this man saved me." Polly beamed up at her, grateful for her concern.
The woman eyed the stranger's ill-fitting, threadbare garments with suspicion. "D'you know him, miss? You want to be careful..."
With a yelp of glee, the terrier yanked the leash from her grasp, scampered down the steps, and pounced on Polly's loaf, lying in the gutter beside the overturned basket. Then it backed away with a surprised look, sneezing and shaking its head.
The foreigner obligingly bent down to grab the end of its leash. As he straightened, Polly saw his nostrils twitch. She became aware that the odour of fresh bread had been replaced by pungent fumes so familiar she had not noticed them.
"My turpentine!" Heedless of the damage to the sage green skirts of her kerseymere pelisse, she dropped to her knees on the cobbles.
The basket lay on its side, but only the loaf and one brown glass bottle had actually fallen out. Though the bottle was unbroken, its stopper had come out and its contents flowed in a thin stream to the gutter, where the bread was soaking it up. Polly quickly replaced the stopper, sat back on her heels, and laughed at the thought of the dog's horror when it bit into the bread.
The abigail had run down to retrieve her unhappy charge from the suspect stranger. "Well, I'm sure there's no knowing what some folks think is proper," she muttered with a disdainful sniff that set her coughing as she stalked away, towed by the terrier, who was only too anxious to depart.
Polly laughed again. The man grinned down at her, his slanting eyes crinkling at the corners. From below he looked even taller, and very thin. Not weak, though. She had firsthand experience of the strength of the muscles concealed by the shapeless, out-at-elbows, brown fustian jacket from which his bare wrists protruded.
He knelt beside her, righted the basket, and took the bottle from her. His hands were rough and calloused, with splitting nails, but scrupulously clean.
"Turpentine?" he said as he carefully stowed it among the other packages. "Skipidar. And 'pose' is pozirovat. Now I know what you meant by "sit."? With one hand under her elbow he helped her rise, then picked up the basket. "You are artist, I think."
"Yes. I should like to paint your portrait. Your face is interesting."
"Eyes are different, nyet? I have Tatar ancestor."
"In English you say Tartar. They are Mongol peoples who ruled Russia for many centuries.
"You are Russian?" At his affirmative nod, Polly dismissed the subject as unimportant. "Will you sit for me? Are you staying long in Tunbridge Wells?" The canvas knapsack he carried slung over his shoulder suggested that he was travelling.
"Was my intention to stay only long enough to earn meal," he said doubtfully.
"You are hungry? I can give you something to eat if you come home with me. Please come. It is not far, just a little way along Cumberland Walk."
He shrugged his shoulders. "I come then. Is no hurry, after all. Instead of washing dishes or sweeping floor, I sit for food like dog."
"Good dog!" In truth, Polly found the laughter in his eyes as attractive as their shape. "Let us go. I can come back tomorrow to have the turpentine bottle refilled."
"Is not necessary to buy bread?"
"Bread? Oh yes, I forgot. What a nuisance." She reached for the basket.
"Is too heavy," said the stranger firmly. "I carry."
"Clever dog," she said, then paused to watch two pigeons which flew down and landed near the loaf. One started busily foraging for crumbs. The other scuttled around its unconcerned mate, bowing and cooing, its neck feathers fluffed up in an iridescent ruff of purple and green. Like shot silk, Polly noted, and equally difficult to paint.
The Russian was offering his arm. For all his vagabond appearance he had gentlemanly instincts, she thought, laying her hand on the coarse-woven sleeve as they turned towards the steps. His English was excellent, too. She knew little about Russia, but she had had a vague impression that the peasants there were even less educated than the average English labourer.
Papa would have known. He had sailed the world's oceans for thirty years, rising from midshipman to captain, before succumbing to yellow fever in the Spice Islands. On his infrequent visits home he had told tales of a hundred lands, likely including Russia, but to Polly they had always seemed like fairytales, not solid information about real places. They were all mixed up in her head.
The bakery was in the center of the arcade. Three doors beyond it a sign announced "Bookseller--J. W. Irving--Printseller," the shop where Polly bought supplies for her painting.
"Since we are here, I might as well go in for the turpentine after all," she said, taking a shilling from her reticule. "Will you buy the bread? I daresay you had best get two loaves." She gave him the coin and went on.
As she waited for Mr. Irving to fill her bottle, it crossed her mind that the Russian now had the wherewithal to buy himself a good meal without the need of tedious posing. The basket would fetch a few pence and the art supplies it contained, if he found a buyer, were worth at least a half guinea. She sighed. Mama would say she was foolishly trusting, but she could not bring herself to go about suspecting everyone she met of harbouring wicked intentions.
No one with such smiling eyes could possibly turn out to be a rogue. She was not at all surprised to find him waiting outside for her, the loaves sticking out of the basket and the change from the shilling ready in his hand.
The clink of the pennies dropping into her reticule was drowned by the chime of the clock on the church of King Charles the Martyr, striking the half hour.
"It's later than I thought," Polly said, undisturbed. "Mama will wonder where I am. Poor Mama must always have something to worry about."
She herself was not given to anxiety, her only concern at present being that the Russian might not stay long. Wasting no time, she began to plan the portrait as she led him past the theatre and the church, then turned into Cumberland Walk.
The man striding at her side along the high-hedged footpath did not interrupt her musing, though he wondered about its subject. She seemed quite unaware of the impropriety of taking a stranger home with her. Unless, perhaps, she was perfectly aware; perhaps she was looking for a lover?
He frowned at the thought. His experience of England was limited and did not encompass female artists. Certainly she looked respectable, her clothes plain and serviceable, not at all inviting. Her figure was another matter, definitely inviting for the brief moment he had held her in his arms. The memory brought a twinge of desire.
Dunyashka was long ago and very far away.
Though past her first youth, a year or two younger than himself, the Englishwoman was pretty enough, her face round, with pointed chin and straight little nose. Beneath the unfashionable bonnet was a hint of fair hair; her generous mouth was made for kissing--but her eyes, so dark blue as to verge on violet, had held no hint of flirtatiousness. On the contrary, when he first saw her descending the steps they had been focussed on some inner vision. He had seen her momentarily alarmed when she fell, then eager at the prospect of painting him, then amused, yet on the whole it was her serenity that impressed him.
He stole a glance at her sideways. At present the inner vision held sway. She seemed utterly untroubled by the possibility that her mother might object to her bringing home a ragged stranger.
At the least, this encounter should prove interesting.
She stopped at a wooden gate in the hedge. He read the words "The Crow's Nest" carved in the upper crosspiece.
"Here we are." She opened the gate.
The walled garden beyond was a manifestation of solid respectability. A brick path wound uphill between neat rows of cabbages and Brussels sprouts, daffodils and crocus blooming beneath a pair of fruit trees, a strip of close-clipped lawn with colourful flowerbeds on either side. A delicate fragrance wafted to meet them as they climbed the slope towards the narrow terrace house at the top.
"Wallflowers," she said, taking a deep breath of the scented air. "Cream and yellow and orange and scarlet and crimson. I have tried painting them, but on canvas the hues are startling, even clashing."
"Better in reality than in picture, like beautiful woman." He infused his tone with warm admiration.
Most females would have justifiably accepted his words as a compliment. She appeared to regard it as a philosophical statement.
"Sometimes I wonder whether a picture can ever be more than a poor substitute for reality," she responded thoughtfully. "It may serve as a reminder, or to point out some aspect--but you will not care to hear me rattle on about my favourite subject when you are hungry! You shall eat at once."
They had reached the house. Following her up the three steps to the back door he took her elbow. She glanced back at him over her shoulder, laughing, and said "I do not make a practice of falling down stairs, you know."
"But I make practice of assisting pretty girls on stairs." This time she could not mistake his meaning. She gave him a dubious look and turned away to open the door.
From a narrow, dark corridor they stepped into a cosy kitchen hung with gleaming copper pans and plaited strings of onions. He set the basket on the well-scrubbed table.
The woman standing in the doorway, dressed in black bombazine, was small and angular and scandalised.
"Polly, who is this? Whatever can you be thinking of to bring a strange man home with you! Who is he?"
He performed his most elegant bow. "Allow me to present self, madame. I am Nikolai Mikhailovich Volkov." Remembering the trouble the English always had with Russian names, he added "Or Kolya, is more easy."
"A foreigner!" Her voice rose to a horrified squeak.
"Kolya is from Russia, Mama. He saved me from a nasty fall. I might have broken my leg."
"My limb," she amended. "I brought him home because I want to paint him."
"That is not reason enough to be taking in vagabonds off the street. Give him a half crown and send him on his way."
Her daughter ignored this sage advice. She turned to Kolya. "I never thought to tell you my name. I am Mary Howard, known to my family as Polly, as you heard, and this is my mother, Mrs. Howard."
Again he bowed. He wondered what she would say if he addressed her as Polly. She might not even notice, but her mother certainly would. When she called him Kolya, she made plain her opinion of his low status--English custom was no different from Russian in that regard. Looking down at his clothes, his splitting boots and calloused hands, he could not blame her.
Polly was so nearly a Russian name--Polya, for Pelageya, his oldest sister's little girl's name. He would address her as Miss Howard, but he would think of her as Polly.
"Kolya is hungry, Mama. What can we give him to eat?"
To his amusement, the appeal to practicality calmed the older woman. She began to unload the basket while Polly took off her bonnet, revealing neat braids piled in honey-blonde coils.
"Polly, you are not wearing your cap and your pelisse is soiled. It looks as if you have been kneeling in the street! What will people think? And where are the eggs I asked you to buy? There is nothing under the bread but your oddments."
"Eggs? I knew there was something else. How lucky that I did not buy them. They would have broken when I fell." She took a sketch pad and a piece of charcoal from the pile on the table, sat down, and began to draw.
"You will have to make do with cheese, Kolya, and there is some oxtail soup I can heat for you. Sit down, sit down. Cut yourself some bread."
"Thank you, madame, you are very kind."
Mrs. Howard heaved a long-suffering sigh. "It is a waste of breath to argue with my daughter." She bustled off to the larder.
Kolya took a seat at the table. "You are drawing me already, Miss Howard? You wish that I sit very still?"
"No, not yet. I find that portraits have more life if I do a number of unposed sketches of my subject first. Pray go ahead and eat and when you are done, if you do not object, I should be glad to hear how you come to be in England."
"Yes, indeed," seconded Mrs. Howard, looking at him askance as she set a cheese and a dish of cold meat before him. Her suspicion was unabated, though it had no apparent effect on the extent of her hospitality. "I trust you have no objection to explaining what you are doing so far from home, young man."
Polly laughed. "Really, Mama, no one would guess you were married to a sailor," she said affectionately. "Do you suppose Papa had to submit to interrogation every time he set foot on a foreign shore?"
"Are you a sailor?" she demanded.
"No, madame, but I was a soldier."
"And the Russians were our allies," Polly pointed out. "Did you fight Napoleon, Kolya?"
"At Borodino and at Waterloo."
"At Waterloo?" For the first time, Mrs. Howard looked on him with something approaching approval. "Take more bread, Kolya. Your soup will be ready in a trice."
As he ate, he wondered just how much to tell the Howards. It was his opportunity to raise himself in Polly's estimation, yet it seemed likely that they would simply dismiss his story as a tall tale, as unwarrantable boasting. He did not want to figure in her eyes as a braggart.
The beginning of his flight had been dramatic enough, before it dwindled into a struggle for existence. He recalled the warning in the night, the mad dash across the snowy plain in his troika, until the lead horse foundered. Riding bareback he had crossed the Polish frontier just ahead of his pursuers. Though most of Poland had been forcibly incorporated into Russia in 1814, he had friends there more than willing to thwart the tsar by hiding him.
Yes, it would make a good story, if he chose to tell it.
The decision was postponed. He had just finished eating the rich, meaty soup when a mob-capped head appeared around the door. "Carter's brung the packing cases, madam. Where d'you want 'em set?"
"There's the china in the dining room, Ella, and linen upstairs, and all sorts of bits and pieces in the parlour, besides the kitchen goods. Oh, and Miss Polly's things in the attic. Did he bring the special boxes for her paintings?"
"Yes'm, I asked." The maid nodded, greying curls bobbing.
"I had best come and direct him myself. Polly, you cannot possibly start on a portrait now. There is far too much to be done."
"Botheration!" said Miss Howard. "I quite forgot."