1865, 27 June, Mapledurham, Dagon Residence
“This way, Sir.”
I followed the stout, elderly lady up the polished mahogany staircase that led the way up from the entrance hall to the mansion’s second floor. The woman appeared to be somewhere around her 70’s. She wore a black ankle-length twill dress with long sleeves, a white apron, tied in a neat bow at the back and a matching white bonnet – all quite typical garments for maidservants these days. Such uniform clothes served as a sort of brand, like the ones on livestock. They distinguished the working class from their masters. I pitied the poor women. Somehow it didn’t seem fair to be constantly reminded that you were considered “lower class”. Then again, being treated as such in the first place wasn’t fair either.
We reached the top floor, turned right and walked down a long hallway to a huge closed double wooden door. The maid then pushed both wings open, revealing the interior of one of the most exquisite rooms I had ever laid my eyes on. It was a vast reception hall, bathed in the light, which came from a series of large glass terrace doors on the right-hand side. The centre of the room was occupied by a long rectangular table, where a display of perfectly polished silverware, plates and wine glasses, all carefully arranged on a dark blue table cloth, glimmered in the sunlight. Sunlight also deflected off the large crystal chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. The only other pieces of furniture were the chairs which were set around the table, a few sofa canapés upholstered with dark blue and white silk lampas and a couple of floor lamps. This made the hall seem even more spacious.
“Do you require anything, Sir?” inquired the maid, which brought me out of my stupor.
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine,” I smiled back in response.
This answer seemed to satisfy her, for she turned around and left without saying another word.
After spending a few more moments examining the magnificence that was before me, I began the painstaking task of setting up my trusty equipment. Although carrying the apparatus wasn’t too difficult of a job, unpacking it and setting the right adjustments was a tad bit tricky. First of all, the tripod had to be situated at a place with sufficient lighting and set at just the right height and angle. Then, I had to unfold the large, bulky bellows camera from the little wooden box that served as its carrying case and rest it carefully on top of the tripod. Afterwards I would adjust the baseboard to the desired focus of the photo. And of course, let’s not forget I also had to coat the glass plates with light sensitive chemicals before they were even ready to be set inside the plateholder at the back of the camera. On most occasions people would watch me perform all of this and bombard me with questions. That’s why I always made sure to come at least an hour in advance. Luckily, this time I was alone and the preparations could be done quickly.
After wandering across the huge hall for a couple of minutes, I finally picked a spot next to one of the windows. It was close to noon and such a beautiful sunny day that the light which came from outside would prove sufficient and I wouldn’t have to use a flash. This was a relief, because I was running low on flash powder as of lately. Besides, photos always seemed to turn out better when taken under natural light. The shadows were softer and the contrast between the black and the white wasn’t as intense.
I thought back to one of my earlier career disasters. I had just started out as a photographer and had got lucky enough to get hired by a man of very high stature, to take a portrait of his wife. This, of course, made all my colleagues in the area practically steam with fury. Apparently, the news that a novice like me had received an order of such importance was equal to a paradox in their minds. I didn’t let that put me off, though. In fact, I saw it as an opportunity to finally stand out. And stand out I did! As I got to actually taking the photo, I was so jittery with nerves that I inadvertently put too much flash powder onto the trough. The poor woman’s shriek as the mixture blew up still resonates in my mind. I can only guess what its magnitude must have been to manage to kill the sound of the explosion. As for the portrait - the end result was an undistinguished white blotch against a black background, which didn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to a human profile. As you can imagine, my employers were far from pleased.
By this time I had finished setting up the tripod and ducked under the hood to get a proper view. As I angled the camera a bit to the right, I spotted something at the far end of the room that made my heart stand still. I wasn’t alone anymore. There, right next to the door stood a young woman. She wore a long flowing white dress and her face was obscured by a fine gauze veil. I guessed she must be the bride. She started walking slowly in my direction. She moved around so silently and elegantly in her white gown, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed her presence, had I not unintentionally aimed my camera in her direction. I didn’t dare move an inch as she came nearer and nearer, and it wasn’t until a chocking sensation arose in my lungs that I realized I’d been holding my breath. I exhaled and inhaled carefully, afraid that even the slight sound of my breath would scare away this graceful vision. Luckily, the young lady seemed to be too engrossed in her own thoughts to notice my presence. And she might have stayed that way had it not been for my inborn clumsiness and fatal ability to attract bad luck. As she drew closer, I involuntarily moved backwards and stepped on a loose floor board, which produced a rather loud creak. In an instant, the girl shot a startled look in my direction. I silently cursed what was perhaps the only loose floorboard in the entire mansion.
“Who’s there?” she demanded in a trembling voice.
“S-s-so sorry, Miss! I-I didn’t mean to… I didn’t…” I stuttered as I awkwardly struggled to get the piece of cloth off my head.
Finally, I managed to uncover myself and stood up, my face flushing with embarrassment.
“I didn’t mean to intrude. I was just trying to…” my voice trailed off. What had I been trying to do really? I could have easily revealed myself as soon as I had seen her come in. For some inexplicable reason, however, I had spied at her like the latest idiot instead.
“Trying to what?” she prompted, her testing gaze still fixed on me.
“I was setting up my equipment and… and… I didn’t hear you come in… and… I didn’t want to interrupt you…”
“So you decided to startle me instead?” she remarked and questioningly raised her eyebrows.
A long pause of silence followed, during which I made a mental note to myself to work on my prevarication skills. Finally, I cleared my throat, uttered some sort of apology and feeling there was nothing more I could do, headed to leave. I could sense her gaze glued on my back as I was pacing towards the exit, which appeared to be miles away. At long last, I reached the double wing door and had almost started to believe I’d managed to get away with it. Then, a voice ordered from behind me:
I froze. You’ve really done it this time! I thought to myself as I slowly turned around. I wondered just what type of reprimand I was in for. At best, I’d get away with simply being kicked out of the mansion. At worst, the young lady would make a huge fuss and I’d have to move and search for work in another area.
“What is your name?” she asked sternly.
I gulped nervously.
“Thomas. Thomas Lewison.”
“And what business, might I ask, do you have here, Mr Lewison?”
The odds didn’t seem to be in my favor. However, I carried on:
“They’ve hired me to photograph your wedding, Miss.”
For some reason these words only seemed to make things worse. The bride’s expression became stony and her lips tightened in an almost straight line. Instantly, all of my senses were on the alert and I was ready to make a speedy retreat when the need arose. But then, something unexpected happened. The bitter look on her face slowly faded away and her shoulders slumped. She closed her eyes and let out a mournful sigh.
“So… they want to commemorate it then...” she said in an almost inaudible voice.
All of the sudden, the girl turned her back on me and sauntered across to the nearest terrace door, where she stood in a trance, as if she had forgotten I was there altogether. I inched a bit closer. She was staring through the glass, which offered a view of the blooming Eden that was the Dagons garden below. There, a group of servants pranced up and down the alleys as they prepared the wedding altar. The construction was made of ornately carved wood, painted in white. Delicate white roses crept up the two supporting columns. The altar stood out against the lush garden vegetation with its numerous flowers of every colour, size and shape imaginable. It was truly a place of beauty. However, the bride observed all of this with a bleak expression. Despite the distance I could see her eyes behind the veil. They had this sort of wistful, gloomy appearance that projected loneliness and despair. None of these were emotions, one would typically expect from a girl, who was moments away from getting married. I couldn’t help but wonder what the cause for her sudden outbreak of despondency was. After some time had passed I began feeling uncomfortable standing there, like some sort of intruder and deliberately cleared my throat. This succeeded in bringing the young lady out of her trance, but she kept her gaze fixed on the scene below:
“Well, what are you standing there for? Get on with your work. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
I blinked a couple of times in confusion. A few minutes ago, I could have sworn she had been on the verge of biting my head off. Now, she seemed totally indifferent.
“My presence does not bother you then, Miss?”
“If they really have hired you, then my opinion is of little matter.”
She spoke out the word they with an obvious note of resentment. The helplessness and sorrow in her voice made me feel a pang of sympathy. I decided to change the subject.
“Do you like photographs, Miss?”
She contemplated for a moment, then simply shrugged:
“I would not know. I’ve never had one taken before.”
By the sound of it, she didn’t seem very thrilled by the prospect either. In fact, she sounded rather reluctant, if not annoyed. Her profound disinterest towards my work took me aback. For the most part, people were practically bursting with curiosity as to how the whole process was carried out. They wanted to know what material the plates were made of and how they were prepared, exactly how the camera managed to transfer the image onto them, why the subject had to be still for up to half an hour until the image was finally exposed and so on and so forth. I already knew the answer to such questions by heart, but felt totally unprepared to deal with such listlessness. Both of us remained motionless for a few moments, before the bride broke the silence:
“Are you planning on just standing here and staring at me the whole time?”
I shook my head.
“Well then, go about your business and leave me alone.”
The firm tone of her voice indicated she’d had enough of me. I had already finished setting up my camera and could have just left the room to wait somewhere outside until all the people for the shoot had gathered and I was summoned to do my job. And that’s exactly what I should have done. Instead, I stayed rooted to the spot. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but there was something that kept me from leaving. Something that made me want to stay and find out more about the mystery behind this girl’s odd temper. Before having the time to realize the stupidity of what I was about to do, I heard myself asking:
“Forgive my curiosity, Miss, but why aren’t you excited for your wedding?”
I regretted my dreadful choice of words the moment they left my lips. Their effect was instant. The young lady faced me, her face red with rage.
“That is none of your business! What gives you the right to question me in such a manner? I swear, I’ve never witnessed such an act of insolence!” she shouted althewhile piercing me with her deadly gaze.
On some occasions even I couldn’t help but marvel at my own talent of getting myself into trouble. This was one of them.
“I didn’t mean to… you just look so sad… and … and… a celebration like this… and… and…” I stammered and backed away a few steps. I’d obviously messed up enough to get fired and figured I’d better leave on my own rather than wait for an official dismissal.
“I’ll just pack my things and leave,” I sighed and made my way towards where the camera stood. The bride observed me silently as I dismantled my equipment. I was in such a hurry to get out I dropped the tripod on the floor, twice, and nearly managed to break the lens of the camera as I hastily folded it back in its box container. After I had finished, I picked everything up and strode yet again towards the door. However, I’d barely managed to take a few steps forward, when the bride blocked my way.
“Why did you ask me, anyway?” she demanded, looking me straight into the eyes.
This little game of hers was beginning to get on my nerves. Couldn’t she just kick me out without further interrogation like a normal person? Or perhaps she wanted to first let me know exactly how she planned on ruining my already pitiful career? Maybe she would inform the press about my “act of insolence”. I could see the headlines now: “Scandal at Dagon Residence: Photographer gets sacked during wedding shoot for offending the bride” or perhaps: “Impudent photographer insults a nobleman’s bride with his arrogant behavior”. The thought made me fume with anger.
“Look, do you want me gone, or not?!?” I snapped at her.
“Would you finally just let me leave, for God’s sake?”
Her eyes widened in disbelief. Apparently, the harshness of my tone had taken her aback, but she didn’t move out of my way. Instead, she composed herself once more and answered sternly:
“Not before you answer my question!”
I gritted my teeth. That was it! I’d had just about enough of getting played around!
“Why did I ask? Oh, I don’t know, maybe because I’m an idiot, who doesn’t like to feign he’s blind!!! Lady, even a rock looks more cheerful than you!”
Silence followed. The girl was obviously left speechless and I carried on:
“Blame it on my simple upbringing, if you wish, but I cannot just go about my business and pretend not to notice when someone looks as distressed as you! Even more so, when it’s their wedding day.”
By the end of my speech, I was almost shouting. I didn’t usually give in to anger easily, but when I did, there was very little one could do to calm me down. After I was done letting off steam, I waited for the bride’s reaction. At first, she remained expressionless. Soon enough, though, my words began to sink in and her chin started quivering. Tears sprung into her eyes and in the end, she burst out sobbing. Any remnants of anger inside of me faded away immediately and were replaced by a profound feeling of guilt. I silently cursed my soft-heartedness and tried to comfort her.
“Calm down, please. Everything will be all right.”
I glanced at the wide-open door, horrified that any moment an alarmed maidservant, guest or even worse, the groom himself, might come running inside. Yet, no one showed up. I assumed everyone must be outside in the garden, taking care of the final preparations. In the meantime, the bride continued weeping. The mere sound tore through my very heart and soul, crushing me with shame. In an act of pure desperation, I rested my hands on her shoulders and stared her straight into the eyes.
“Miss, stop crying, I beg of you. I’m sorry I shouted at you. It wasn’t right of me. I’ll leave you alone. I’ll get out of here faster than a flying arrow and I promise you’ll never hear from me again, but you have to stop crying first.”
She must have heard me, for her sobs slowly began to subside until they were reduced to a soft whimper. Still holding her by the shoulders I gently led her to the nearest chair and helped her sit down. Her whole body was trembling like a dry leaf in the autumn wind. After making sure she had seated herself properly, I let go of her and turned to hurry away, but felt a slight tug. I looked back and realized, she had grabbed hold of the hem of my coat. I stared down at her in bemusement.
“Stay. Please,” she croaked weakly.
I expected her to say more, but she just kept holding on tight as if my coat were some sort of life raft. Not knowing what else to do, I stayed still and waited. After a while, she began to breathe normally again. Then she let go of the hem, slowly lifted up her veil and gazed up at me. I studied her face. Her eyes were puffy and red and if you looked up close you could notice narrow lines, where tears had washed away her face powder.
“How bad is it?”
Her voice sounded normal again, though it was still very soft.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, puzzled.
“My makeup. I suppose it’s all smudged.”
I cleared my throat.
“Um… just a little.”
She smiled back weakly and I felt as if a ton of weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
“You’re an awful liar, Thomas,” she said.
Now it was my turn to smile.
“Yes, I’ve been told that before.”
The young lady let out a deep sigh.
“A mirror would be quite handy at the moment. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law had any sort of mirror thrown out the mansion long ago. She believes they provoke vanity.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“How did you put on your makeup then?” I inquired.
“One of the maids did it for me. I don’t suppose you could photograph me, so I can see just how miserable I look?” she asked jokingly.
I shook my head and smiled apologetically.
“I guess I’ll just have to call one of the maids, then. Excuse me.”
The bride stood up and headed to leave. Suddenly, an idea flashed in my mind.
“Wait! I can draw you!”
She turned around and looked at me. Her eyes now sparkled with a completely new emotion-excitement.
“You can?” she asked with a hint of enthusiasm in her voice.
All of the sudden, I felt really stupid. Well, more stupid than usual, that is. Why on earth had I even said that? The only experience I had with drawing was what I’d managed to pick up a few years ago from an art student I used to share a room with for a couple of months. Henry was his name. He had told me I had a natural talent and had taught me some basic techniques. Since then I sometimes liked to sketch during my free time just for the fun of it, but that hardly meant I was any good.
“Well, I’m not a professional, but I’ve been told I have a feel for it. If you’d like to, I can give it a shot.”
I was hoping she would get discouraged and say no or simply laugh and tell me it was all a joke. Instead she nodded eagerly in response. Sweat began to build on my forehead. I desperately tried to think of a way to talk myself out of this and came up with a solution:
“But I have nothing to draw with. So, perhaps you’d better just go and call on a maid.”
The bride grinned.
“You just wait here and leave everything to me. I’ll be back soon.”
She then bolted out of the room, leaving me standing in utter confusion.
I’d been waiting for quite a while and was beginning to feel anxious, when the bride finally returned. Her makeup was as good as new and her face beamed with excitement. In her hands she carried a sketchbook and a big wooden box, which she handed to me. I opened the box and was stunned to find it full with all sorts of art supplies - colour pencils, chalk, water paints, brushes… Never before in my life had I seen such a huge arrangement in one place. I probably appeared quite baffled, because the bride laughed out loud.
“Is it insufficient?” she asked.
I blinked. Did she just say “insufficient”?
“No, Miss. This is more than enough.” I stared back at her. “But your makeup seems fine now,” I remarked.
She smiled and waved the statement aside.
“I know. Now, where do I sit?”
Apparently, she had taken the whole thing very seriously and there was no point in trying to wriggle out of it. After quickly surveying the room, I chose one of the sunlit sofa canapés by the terrace windows and gestured to it:
“There would be a nice spot.”
She nodded. While she positioned herself, I pulled up one of the chairs from around the table and set it in front of the canapé, with the backrest facing forward. That way, I could use the backrest as a makeshift easel. I sat down and carefully set the box of supplies on the ground to my right. I studied my subject for a few moments, before making my choice of materials. The sunlight coming from the terrace doors was soft and cast very subtle shadows on her delicate doll-like features. She had a diamond shaped face, a snub narrow nose and round blue eyes, framed with long thick eyelashes. Her lips were thin and the colour of cherry blossoms. There was no doubt about it – the job called for watercolours! I rummaged inside the box and found a set of paints in all the colours of the rainbow as well as a few brushes of different sizes.
For some reason, I only liked to draw in colour. Perhaps it was because in photography the images only came in black, white and shades of gray. That was one of the few things I disliked about my craft. Sometimes I secretly dreamt of a future where photographs could be created in the blink of an eye and would depict the world in its entire colourful splendor. That was pure nonsense, of course! A childish thought, but a marvelous one nonetheless.
Suddenly, I realized I was missing a key component - water. As if having read my thoughts, the girl stood up and walked over to the table. She picked up an ornate porcelain vase, removed the bouquet of white roses it held, then went back and handed me the vessel:
“You can use this.”
I nodded and she then took her place once again. I paused, took a deep breath and started drawing what would probably be my death sentence.
I began with the eyes. They were a beautiful deep clear blue like the mysterious depths of the sea. I was still trying to grasp the diversity of emotions I had seen them express in the past hour. It’s said that eyes are the window to the person’s soul and personally, I couldn’t agree more. I was so engrossed in my work that I nearly jumped out of my seat when the bride suddenly broke the silence:
“Tell me, Thomas, how did you end up getting hired to do this photo shoot?”
I stopped painting and thought of how to best answer her question. The truth was, even though I’d been working in the area for a couple of months now, customers were still hard to come by. Most towns already had their own photography studies and the competition was huge, especially on events such as funfairs. On a couple of occasions I’d even had to virtually fight over other colleagues for a customer. Moreover, generally not many people were willing to waste their money on a “lifelike black and white drawing”. So financially speaking, I’d been through some pretty tough times. However, even when I’d barely had enough money to get by, I’d stubbornly refused to take a single post-mortem photo. Also known as “memento mori”, these were photos of deceased people, who were posed and made to look as if they were still alive. The mere thought of it made a shiver run down my spine and evoked a profound feeling of revulsion in the very essence of my being. Ridiculously enough, though, this practice was now becoming a trend and many colleagues were making huge profits. Some of them even went as far as to advertise their work. I, on the other hand, would have gladly straggled the wretched madman who’d come up with the idea in the first place. Photography was supposed to be about capturing the beauty of life in all of its different aspects. A photographer was like an artist, whose palette consisted of emotions instead of paints. Perhaps that’s why I also liked to draw as well. The two things were very closely related.
In any event, getting hired was tough and getting hired to take a photo of a wealthy couple on their wedding day - nigh impossible. I’d only managed to get the job, because a good friend of mine was related to the groom’s mother and had managed to persuade the family of my competence. If it weren’t for him, I’d probably be traveling the streets of some godforsaken town right now, looking for the next potential customer.
“I got lucky,” was all I said in return.
The young lady probably sensed I wasn’t willing to say more on the subject and didn’t press further. The stillness that followed now felt odd and unnerving. At one point, I couldn’t stand the tension any longer and picked up the conversation:
“You already know my name, Miss, but what is yours, if you don’t mind me asking.”
She seemed to contemplate whether or not to actually tell me, but finally answered:
Marina. It was a beautiful name. The sound of it brought back memories of the years I had spent with my uncle on his boat out in the North sea. For a brief moment, I recalled the warmth of the sun on my skin, the calming rocking motion of the boat, the scent of the salty breeze and the splashing sound of the waves.
By this time I’d finished painting her nose, mouth and the general contours of her face. Now, it was time for the hair. This posed a bit of a challenge. Her black wavy tresses were put up in a bun, which was surrounded by a small coronet of white roses. I assumed the flowers were used to somehow hide whatever supported the lace bridal veil, which swept down to the height her elbows. A few loose locks framed her face.
“It means “from the sea,” she continued.
I gave her a confused look.
“My name,” she explained. “My dad was a fisherman. He used to say the sea and I were his two biggest treasures.”
This confession surprised me. Having seen the mansion’s display of wealth, I’d immediately assumed Marina was of blue blood.
“And your mother?”
She looked down and frowned. The question seemed to make her uneasy.
“I never knew her. She left my father and me shortly after my birth.”
After this we seemed to have reached a mutual agreement to keep silent, for none of us uttered a single word until the painting was finished. As the brush edged across the surface of the paper, creating the curves of the young girl’s chin and neck, I caught myself imagining myself caressing her. Startled, I pushed the image out of my mind and made an effort to concentrate on finishing my work as fast as possible. Soon enough, it was done. I examined it for a while and after a brief moment of hesitation, took a black pencil from the wooden box and signed my name on the bottom right corner. I was about to turn the sketchbook around for her to see when a man’s voice sounded from behind me:
I turned around and saw a man standing at the room entrance. He was dressed in lavender trousers, a blue frock coat with a white rose favor in its lapel and a white waistcoat underneath. He appeared to be somewhere about my age, fair haired and with a strong, athletic build. However, unlike me, who for some reason couldn’t stand having facial hair, he had both side-whiskers and a moustache! Judging by the attire, he was Mr Dagon – the groom.
“Do I have the pleasure of knowing who you are, Sir?” he asked in a cool commanding tone.
The sound of his voice shook me out of my stupor and I swiftly rose up from the chair as if stung by a bee, which made it turn over and fall down with a crash. Mr Dagon frowned. So much for making a good first impression.
“My name is Thomas Lewison, Sir,” I responded as calmly as I could.
The man surveyed me with suspicion.
“What business do you have here?”
His voice was cold, almost hostile. I swallowed hard.
“I was called upon to photograph your wedding, Sir.”
In an instant, the groom’s expression transformed altogether. A smirk formed on his lips.
“Aaaah yes, the photographer!”
He walked up to me and shook my hand with such vigor it felt as if he wanted to tear it off.
“Please excuse my rudeness, but with everything going around these past few days, your appointment had completely popped out of my head.”
His sudden change in behavior left me feeling uneasy. Any previous signs of enmity seemed to have vanished and were replaced by a friendly, open demeanor. I’d met such people before and preferred to keep my distance with them. However, that wasn’t possible under the given circumstances, so I tried my best not to let my misgiving show.
“Don’t worry, Sir. I’d probably forget how to speak if it were my wedding day,” I replied, forcing a smile.
Mr Dagon roared with laughter and padded me on the back as if I had just told the funniest joke imaginable. He then turned to Marina. She was sitting still on the canapé sofa, silently surveying this undoubtedly peculiar series of events.
“You look stunning, my dear,” he remarked, drawing closer.
She lowered her head. The groom kneeled before her, gently lifted her chin with his hand and looked into her eyes. She avoided his gaze.
“Darling, why the sad face? This is our special day! Is something wrong? Do you lack something?”
“No, Richard. Everything is fine,” she whispered so softly I barely managed to hear her.
“I know what will cheer you up,” announced the groom. He pulled out a tiny box from one of his coat’s pockets and gave it to her.
“For you, my dear.”
Marina took the box in her hands and lifted the lid. Her eyes widened. She then pulled out a pair of deep blue sapphire earrings that glittered in the sunlight.
“This is my first wedding gift,” he declared. “And there are plenty more to come.”
I gazed at the earrings, awestruck. They must have cost a fortune! Even one of them might have easily been worth more money than I would make in my entire lifetime. Marina appeared to be just as shocked.
“Richard… you really shouldn’t have…”
“Nonsense!” the man proclaimed. His eyes flashed with intensity. “You are to become my wife and as such deserve only the very best! Now please, do me the honor of seeing you wear my gift.”
Silently, Marina put on the earrings and looked at her future husband.
“They match your eyes,” he observed.
And indeed the jewels matched the colour of her eyes. However, their glitter was just the opposite of the deep sorrowful darkness that her gaze projected. In that moment, I somehow knew Marina didn’t love Richard. The way she looked at him, her gestures, the tone of her voice - they all lacked any hint of affection. This was one of the two realizations I made that day that would change my life forever.
Mr Dagon didn’t seem to notice these hint of remoteness or he simply didn’t care. Either way, he appeared to be in top spirits.
“I shall go check on the preparations at the wedding altar. Do you wish to join me?” he asked his betrothed.
Marina simply shook her head. Richard stood up and faced me once again.
“I forgot to mention. There has been a change in plan, Mr Lewison. We’ve decided that the family photograph will take place after the ceremony so I’m afraid you’ll have to transport your camera to the wedding altar to commemorate the vows first.”
“As you wish, Sir,” I nodded.
Satisfied with my answer, he left the room. Marina and I stood in silence for a while, before I finally came to my senses and remembered the painting. I’d been holding the sketchbook in my right hand all this time. Luckily, the groom had either not noticed it or had chosen to ignore it. I turned to the bride and handed her the portrait.
“It’s not sapphire, but I hope it’ll bring you joy.”
She carefully studied the image and pursed her lips. I took that as a bad sign and began to apologize:
“I told you I was no good, Miss. If you don’t fancy it, I completely under-”
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. She lifted her gaze and I could see tears welling up in her eyes. I was completely dumbfounded.
“You like it?”
“Like it?” she chuckled. “I love it! You might not be a good liar, Thomas, but you’re definitely an extraordinary artist.”
She stared at the painting once more and sighed. “I wish I had talent like yours. Alas, drawing and painting are not activities seen fit for someone of my stature.”
While she observed my work with a distant expression, I decided it was time I started making my way towards the garden. As I headed to leave, Marina called out from behind:
I turned around.
“I’d like you to have this.”
She stood and held up the box of art supplies.
“Miss, I couldn’t…” I began, but she interrupted me.
“Please, take it. It used to be my father’s. He wasn’t a very talented painter, but he was a very passionate one. I’m sure he would have wanted it to be in the hands of someone, who could make use of it.”
“But Miss, I’m no artist,” I protested “In fact, I hardly draw at all, apart from an odd sketch now and then.”
“If that is just a sketch ... ” she pointed to the portrait that lay on top of the sofa canapé “ ... then I cannot even imagine how amazing a fully finished painting would look.”
I tried to refuse a few more times, but she wouldn’t give up. Finally, I decided it was best not to risk offending her and accepted the box.
“Thank you, Miss,” I said.
“No, Thomas, thank you,” she replied, beaming with gratitude. “Thank you for everything. And please, call me Marina.”
I turned around and hurried out of the room. As I strode along the hallway, I noticed my heart was racing and my lungs felt as if they were being filled with helium. I nearly leapt down the stairs, taking two at a time. All the while the funny sensation in my chest persisted. It was as if I had fallen into some sort of trance. Everything felt distant and strangely indistinct. The parson’s deep booming voice as the vows were exchanged, guests clapping and laughing as the couple kissed, wine-filled glasses clattering against one another as Richard shouted a toast: “To my wife, Marina!” It all felt like a dream. This otherworldly sensation haunted me during the whole ceremony, after I left the residence and was still present when I went to bed that night. I lay there, sleepless, and each time I closed my eyes, the image of Marina’s portrait would surface in my mind. That’s when I made the second realization. I was in love. Inexplicably and hopelessly in love.