Joshua Pope was not expecting a visitor to call. It was an October evening in the year 1786, and as was his habit when circumstances permitted, he intended to pass the evening at his easel. He had donned his morocco slippers and Indian nightgown, and taken a light supper -- a slab of cold pie and a bottle of claret -- to his parlor in Saint Peter's Court.
Outside, an autumn tempest was roaring. A keen east wind howled through Saint Martin's Lane and the surrounding alleys and streets. Rain flailed roofs with such insistence it drowned the cries of streetwalkers, scavengers, and watchmen in this vicinity of London. The wind creaked the signboards on Slaughter's Coffee House, the Coach and Horses Inn, and outside the gilded showrooms of cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. The tempest picked debris from the gutter and threw it against the windows of the house once occupied by the eminent painter Francis Hayman; it dislodged slates from the roofs of the great architect James Paine and the renowned tenor John Beard as easily as those on a hovel. It penetrated to the very fabric of Joshua Pope's rooms, rattling doors and panes, guttering candles, blowing his papers about.
Thanking God for the comforts of a good supper and a plentiful supply of fuel, Joshua Pope rubbed his hands together, threw another log on the fire, and sat, with feet outstretched to the flames, to consume his repast. Half an hour later, feeling as lively as a bubble in a glass of champagne, he loosened the silk sash about his girth and strode to the back of the parlor, where he threw open the double doors that led to his painting room. Utterly satisfied at the prospect of passing a few uninterrupted nocturnal hours at what he enjoyed best, he put on his smock, selected a hog's hair brush and three medium-sized sable brushes from a pot, and picked up his palette, upon which paint had already been charged. He turned to his canvas -- a delightful composition, undoubtedly one of his best (but he always told himself this) -- and smiled contentedly. He was about to embark upon the sweetening -- the final stages of painting, when highlights and deepened shadows bring the composition to life. The prospect was enjoyable and he painted with a passion, filling in the background with broad sweeps, penciling detail, scratching, hatching, rubbing in oil, until he had achieved the desired effect.
He was still at his work at about eleven o'clock when, above the gale, he heard someone tapping at his parlor door. He dropped his sable brush in surprise. "Who's there?" he cried. He was expecting no one.
A clear female voice replied. "I come in search of Mr. Joshua Pope, the renowned painter of portraits. I believe you are that gentleman."
Joshua was both irked and intrigued by this announcement. If she wished to commission a portrait, could she not make an appointment like anyone else? If viewing his work was what she desired, she should visit on a Sunday and join the mob that, knowing of his fashionable status, arrived every week to gawp and pass nonsensical comment upon his latest masterpiece.
But then he couldn't help wondering how she had got here and why she had come at this time of night, in such inclement weather. In any event, he could not leave an interloper to wander his house. He would have to attend to her.
With no premonition of danger, Joshua put down his palette and picked up a candlestick. His visitor stood in the gloom of the landing: a lady of medium build, dressed from head to toe in black. Her clothes, though dull, were of fine quality -- kid gloves, skirts of sarcenet silk, cuffs of Brussels lace, all surmounted by a heavy velvet cloak. Being fastidious in his own dress, Joshua approved of fine costume, and his visitor's made him feel more kindly disposed toward her. He raised his candle to peer at her face. Her features were hidden from his scrutiny by the shadow cast by the hood of her cloak.
He waited for her to introduce herself, but when she said nothing, the flicker of annoyance he had felt earlier returned. "I do not know how you have arrived here, and I am not in the habit of receiving unsolicited calls at this late hour. But since you are here, you may as well come in and tell me who you are and what you want." Joshua gruffly gestured toward a chair positioned by a candelabrum in which half a dozen candles burned.
But the caller wanted none of it. She would not approach the light. She stood on the threshold, clutching her cloak as if Joshua might wrench it from her. Her eyes flitted about with the speed of a butterfly, scanning the walls as if she were looking for something she hoped would be there, or had heard of this room many times before and wished to reassure herself of the accuracy of every detail. Then, without so much as a by-your-leave, she walked through the parlor to the easel in the painting room and examined the work upon it. But although the portrait was one of which Joshua was exceedingly proud, her face signaled disappointment. She uttered no word of praise, nor did she offer any opinion.
Riled by her reticence and what he deemed a complacent air, Joshua's temper -- usually mild -- wore thin. He was accustomed to compliments upon the excellence of his work. If his eminent contemporaries Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough could discern the subtlety in his gradations of tone, the deftness of his detail, why did she not show admiration? He addressed her with the utmost correctness, but the speed with which he spoke belied his frustration. "Forgive me for not knowing whom I have the honor of receiving. May I repeat my earlier request. Perhaps, madam, you would be kind enough to make yourself known and explain your purpose."
She seemed to flinch a little at his directness. "I have heard you are a portrait painter of distinction," she ventured. "You have painted several of my acquaintances." Here she mentioned two or three names, some he dimly remembered from a decade or more ago. "I was curious to see your work -- perhaps with a view to a commission -- and to discover a little about the profession. I should like to see more. Tell me, what talent is needed to be a successful painter of faces? Do you observe more clearly than others? Are you more sensitive to character or better at perceiving what is true and what is sham?"
Joshua was an adept when it came to recognizing dissimulation. He often said that a portraitist's skill lay as much in reading faces as representing them. The lameness of her excuse was thus immediately apparent, and since the hour was late, he saw no reason to play along with her. "Why, madam," he said, "this is scarcely the hour for an exhibition. As to the second part of your question, the painter of faces doesn't see more clearly than any other man -- or woman, for that matter. Far from it. To become successful, as some say I have, the portrait painter must be expert at telling untruths. And now, forgive me, madam. I don't know by whose leave you have ventured here at this time of night, but since you refuse to introduce yourself or reveal your purpose, I must ask you to depart."
She gave a mirthless laugh and threw back her hood. "That is a fine way to treat a visitor. There, does this satisfy you?" she said.
She was a woman in her middle years, somewhat younger than he was. Her hair was streaked with gray and elegantly coiffed in a ringlet coiled over one shoulder. From an artist's perspective her countenance had many of the elements that constitute perfection. Her face was oval, her lips were full, her nose small and straight, her eyes wide-set and almond shaped. But her beauty was marred by a crosshatching of lines on her skin, haggard cheeks, dark circles beneath her eyes, which all bespoke years of tribulation. Undoubtedly she had suffered reversals of fortune. There was, too, a certain inflexibility in the set of her mouth and her unblinking stare.
He peered hard at those eyes. Surely he remembered their unusual form. Was she familiar? Had he met her before? He was certain now that he had; yet he could not place her. He shook his head. He had looked on so many faces it was little wonder that, at this time of night, after three glasses of claret, his recollections became confused.
"So you believe a painter of faces should be a liar? Is that what you mean?" she pressed, laughing again in a sharper tone. "Why, you must think me a fool to say so."
"Far from it, madam. I meant it with all my heart," he fairly barked at her. He was unaccustomed to being challenged, still less by a woman. Should he eject her now, or wait to hear her out?
She recoiled, as if his harsh tone offended her. "If that was so, every charlatan and trickster would be as famous as your namesake Sir Joshua Reynolds, the president of the Royal Academy," she murmured.
Joshua composed himself and managed to reply more civilly. "Ah, but there are other qualities required that most vagabonds do not possess. I term myself a 'phizmonger' -- a peddler of faces -- and do so with good reason."
"What reason is that?"
"Why, to be a phizmonger one must mirror fact, read souls, not to mention master one's medium -- oil or pastel or whatever one chooses. What I mean, dear lady, is that the painter of likenesses represents what he sees and yet does more. He encourages confidence, he is sympathetic, he interprets, softens. He shows his subjects what they are and what they would be."
As Joshua spoke these words, the absurdity of the situation struck him. It was nearly midnight. How ridiculous to be conversing with an uninvited stranger who refused to give her name or state her business. No sooner had this thought occurred than the woman approached directly, settling her penetrating gaze upon him, as if she sought to plunge to the depths of his soul. Her eyes, caught in the candlelight, were bluish gray, hard as gunmetal, yet flooded with an intensity that forced him to look away. As he did so he caught sight of her shadow on the wall. Her profile was monstrously distorted -- a brooding gargoyle's silhouette of misshapen features and wild, wiry hair, a form such as a nightmare might conjure.
He forced himself to meet the woman's eye. In her glare he now saw an almost tangible hunger, but for what, he did not know. Dreadful thoughts flashed through his brain. What manner of person comes calling in the dead of night but one of evil intent? He had willingly let this unknown woman into his sanctum. He had enabled her to perpetrate any dreadful deed she chose.
Joshua shuddered and turned to the window. Not a light showed. The sky was dense and starless, the storm audible yet invisible. Pressing his nails deep into the palms of his hands, he told himself he was foolish to have taken fright. What reason had he to fear a mere woman? Not even the woman herself, but her shadow. He had allowed himself to be alarmed by no more than a chimera.
Yet even as he did so a talon of pain gripped his temples. The truth was that something in that distorted profile brought to mind another shadow, one he had seen two decades ago, one that had nearly blighted his life, although until that moment he believed it forgotten. It was that memory more than the woman herself that had set trepidation coursing through his veins like a swig of brandy.
"And was 'softening the truth' what you did when you painted the marriage portrait?" she said quietly.
He turned slowly back and raised his eyes to hers. "I am in my fifty-fourth year. I have been a painter for thirty of them and during that time painted many a marriage portrait. Of which one do you speak?" he asked, though he feared he already knew the answer.
"Herbert Bentnick's." Her voice had dropped to a mere whisper -- so soft that when she said this name, Joshua hoped he had misheard. But there was no mistake, for she repeated it again, more defiantly. "That is right: I said Herbert Bentnick."
He had expected this; still, her confirmation set his heart racing. His temples began to pound with such intensity his head might explode. He looked at her more closely. He must recognize her. Why else was she here? "I know I should remember you. Perhaps you are a relative of that family. Is that why you have come?"
She said nothing. Then, just as she seemed on the brink of answering, she wheeled wordlessly away.
Silence settled between them, a taut hush that seemed to Joshua infinitely more unsettling than any demanding look or menacing gesture. He longed for her to break it; he craved a speech or tirade, something that would explain her intention no matter how dreadful it was.
But the only sounds were the creaks and sighs of the storm-buffeted building. Inside, silence, interminable silence, dragged on. Joshua stared at his visitor's immobile back, willing her to turn round. He wanted to shout out, "Speak openly or for God's sake go now and leave me in peace!" But some instinct held him back and made him mute. He knew that unless he waited she would gain an advantage and he might never discover what had brought her.
At length, after what seemed an eternity had passed, she turned back to address him. "The reason I have come, Mr. Pope, is to show you something." She rummaged in the folds of her cloak.
Joshua started at the sudden movement. Was she about to extract a weapon and assault him? For safety's sake he edged toward the fire and positioned himself close to the poker. But his suspicion was groundless, for the article she took out was nothing more fearsome than a shagreen box.
She opened it. Couched in gray silk was an emerald necklace, one he had not seen for twenty years. The stones were just as he recalled them: a dozen or more, baguette-cut and set in gold links, with a single ruby at the center. Flashes of verdigris, orpiment, and Prussian blue sparkled in the candlelight. He felt sick to the heart to see it. The form of this necklace was as disturbing as ever. It had nearly cost him his life.
"I have come, Mr. Pope, to offer this in return for your cooperation."
Joshua did not regard himself as an avaricious man, yet in that instant he forgot his earlier unease and gasped at the offer. The jewels must be worth close on a thousand guineas -- more, perhaps. What could he tell her that made his information so valuable? "Does the jewel belong to you?" he said coolly.
"As you see, it is in my possession. I offer it to you as proof of my intimate involvement with Mr. Bentnick, as well as a generous form of payment."
"That is not the same. How do I know you are entitled to the jewel? You might have stolen it. After all, it wouldn't be the first time it has been misappropriated."
"I will prove to you I am no thief once you have told me what I wish to know."
"What can I say to you that is so precious as to warrant a jewel of this caliber in payment?"
"I wish to hear your version of the events surrounding the painting of the portrait. What happened then has had a profound impact upon my life. Moreover, I want to know what became of the portrait. No one has seen it in the last twenty years."
By now Joshua's earlier fear had dissipated, to be eclipsed by curiosity. He spoke frankly. "During the course of my career I have of necessity stayed in many homes, and unwittingly become involved with numerous surprising and strange adventures. Of all these, the Bentnick affair is one that still troubles me the most to remember. I have never spoken of it to anyone, although I confess that often when I lie awake in my bed and hear the rain flogging at the window, or when I walk in a beautiful garden and pass a cascade or a hothouse or a grotto, I remember those sad and singular events."
"Then you accept my proposal, Mr. Pope?"
He pondered awhile. "Yes and no. I will not tell you what I know, for the tale is too long and involved and my memory is not good at this time of night. I will write you an objective account. Return to my rooms one month from today and I will hand it to you." He paused for a moment before adding, "One more condition: I do not desire the necklace in payment. With all I know of its history, nothing on earth would induce me to take it."
She scowled. "What, then, do you require?"
"Merely to know who you are and how you came by the jewel and why you require this information."
Her eyes half closed, her mouth contracted to a thin line. She stepped forward until she was no more than a couple of paces from Joshua. Displeasure emanated from every fiber of her being. He half expected her to scream or fly at him like some demented creature in the madhouse. Yet now that he knew the nature of her requirements, he had no difficulty in facing her.
Perhaps she realized this change, for she dropped her head, as if conceding to his will, and he fancied that, through the thin fabric of her dress, he saw her shoulders shake. "Very well," she said, in a voice so low he had to strain to hear it. "If those are your terms, and you have not discovered the answer when I return, then I can do little but agree to them."
Joshua bowed, maintaining a solemn expression. "I shall expect you thirty days from this evening. Until then, madam, I bid you good night."
With this, he ushered her down the stairs to his front door. He watched her step into her carriage, which immediately sped away into the gloom. Joshua bolted the door behind him. He had no more appetite for work. The visitor had disturbed his concentration. He snuffed the candles in the painting room and made his way to his bedchamber. But even there, with the rhythmic breath of his sleeping wife to soothe him, he found no peace. His mind was awhirl with reminiscence, and he passed a fitful night.
Copyright © 2003, 2005 by Janet Gleeson
The Serpent in the Garden
It is the summer of 1765. The renowned and exquisitely dressed portrait painter Joshua Pope accepts a commission to paint the wedding portrait of Herbert Bentnick and his fiancée, Sabine Mercer, to whom Bentnick has become engaged less than a year after the death of his first wife. Joshua has barely begun the portrait when a man's body is found in the conservatory. A few days later, Sabine's emerald necklace disappears, and Bentnick accuses Joshua of theft. The painter is suddenly fighting not only for his reputation but for his life. With a sure understanding of period detail and character, Janet Gleeson creates a richly nuanced tale of greed and revenge that plays out in the refined landscapes and dark streets of eighteenth-century London.
- Simon & Schuster |
- 352 pages |
- ISBN 9780743260053 |
- February 2005
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Reading Group Guide
THE SERPENT IN THE GARDEN
1. What genre is The Serpent in the Garden? To what does the title refer?
2. Who is narrating? How does this narrative style keep the mystery going?
3. In what place and time does the action occur? Starting on the first page, consider how Gleeson reveals the book's society and time frame. What are the social classes of the main characters? Share some examples of how the author establishes these with her language, tone, and cadence.
4. Describe each of the book's central characters and briefly discuss them. What are they like? What do their names -- Pope, Bentnick, Sabine, Cobb, Miss Lambton, Granger, Crackman, Hoare, Mercier -- reveal about them? What other writers use names as definers? Why do they do so?
5. Think about the locales and homes described in The Serpent in the Garden. What do these houses tell us about their occupants? For example, what do an indoor arboretum and a pinery tell us about their owners? How about Joshua's rented rooms?
6. What is revealed about Joshua Pope in the opening chapter? Why does the author emphasize his attire? Discuss Miss Quick's later remark to Joshua, "I wonder if our preoccupation with dress is not just a means to deflect attention from deeper worries....Costume permits masquerade -- you have only to visit the playhouse to see the truth of it." Who might be masquerading in this story? In general, do you agree see more