Mad For Love

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Chapter 1

London, Early Spring 1790

Marie Chantal Amélie du Blois never felt more French than when she was in London. Something about her seemed to mark her as different, as if the nightmare of their flight from Paris were painted across her face instead of the polite English smile she tried to give the world. As if her full French mouth were incapable of a sufficiently stiff upper lip.

But despite this deformity of character, she would continue to try to stiffen her lip, continue to wear English clothes and buy English bread while she shopped in English markets—she would become English through sheer dint of will.

Because she loved London.

She loved everything about the damp, down-at-her-heels city. Papa often said that London was dull in comparison to Paris, with all its fashion and art, but Mignon, as Papa called her, liked dull. She liked safe. And London’s shabby pavements, leafy squares, and tidy shops felt entirely safe.

“Good morning, Miss Blois.” Mrs. Parkhurst, from the house next door, nodded cordially as Mignon came along the uneven pavement.

Soho Square wasn’t the most fashionable district of London, or the richest. But it would do very nicely. Because it was pretty, and green, and nothing bad could ever happen here, so far away, across the water from Paris, where bad things seemed to be happening daily.

Madame.” Mignon curtsied and shifted her market basket to the other hip. “How do you fare this fine morning?”

“Tolerably well,” Mrs. Parkhurst nodded her billowing English bonnet. “You are to be congratulated. I saw your father, earlier. He seemed very well pleased by the auction of his art at Mr. Christie’s.”

“Auction?” Mignon felt her stiffened upper lip fall slack. This was the first she had heard of an auction.

“Very pleased, he was.” Mrs. Parkhurst was nodding in her genial way. “So nice to see him so pleased and well, after all your troubles.”

Their ‘troubles’ had been broadcast about the square like poppy seeds by Papa. In his version of the truth, they had left France under the most horrific of circumstances. True, there was great turmoil and unrest in that country, especially for aristocrats, even disgraced youngest sons of disinherited younger sons—in Paris the slightest whiff of aristocratic forbearers had been enough to incite a mob. But the plain truth was, she and Papa had managed to escape before the worst of the violence had found them. Because her papa, bless him, was a scoundrel, and scoundrels had a nose for such things.

“Thank you kindly, Madame.” Mignon made the lady a graceful curtsy. “I am glad the weather continues fine for your walk. Good day.”

The old woman nodded regally, pleased that she had been the one to bring Mignon the news, and made her way onward while Mignon bounded up the shallow step of Number 30, through the unlocked door—Papa may have said London was boring, but he gloried in the fact that in Soho Square, he could leave his door unlocked—and into the neat, neoclassical foyer. “Good afternoon, Henri. Is my father at home?”

Their major domo took her wide-brimmed straw hat and York tan gloves. “In his chambers, Mademoiselle,” he said in his heavily accented English. “Do you care for tea?”

“No, thank you, Henri. I will go straight up.” Mignon picked up the skirts of her walking dress, and mounted the stair to the top floor where her father kept his rooms, including a secret studio reached only by a hidden passage through Papa’s enormous armoire.

“Papa?” She stepped into his glass-roofed atelier, hidden from view of the street, at the back of the roof.

“Mignon!” he called with his usual Gallic enthusiasm. “Hello, my darling.”

“Papa.” She tried to make her greeting stern. Still, he was her papa, and force of habit made her kiss him on both cheeks in the French manner. “Papa, it becomes necessary for us to have to have a long, serious talk.”

“Aha!” His smile was sly and gleeful. “You heard of my triumph.”

“It is all over the street, Papa. You should not talk of money to such people as Mrs. Parkhurst—it’s not done. She will put it about that we are vulgar.”

“Pah! We are French,” he countered, dismissing all notions of English propriety. “We can never be vulgar. Oh, my angel, I wish I had thought to take you. It was a triumph, the sale. I could have sold a score of Vermeers on the very spot, had I put them up for auction.”

“Papa,” she made her voice chiding. “One Vermeer is more than enough. Papa, you must stop.”

He winced, closing his eyes the way he always did when he didn’t want to listen. “Move out of my light.” He waved her over to a chair. “I must finish this work while the heat of success lends me genius.”

A peek at his canvas revealed him putting the finishing details on another oil, a portrait of a lace be-decked cavalier, painted in the Dutch style—another forgery, no matter the style.

“Papa, it is too soon!”

“Never fear, my child. This long lost masterpiece from the Blois collection will not be for sale for many, many years. I will hang it in the salon, and then perhaps, in good time, some rich-as-Croesus English lord may persuade me to part with it.”

“Papa.” Mignon heaved out a resigned sigh. “You are such a scoundrel.”

Her papa was entirely unrepentant. “Thank you, my child.”

He went back to his work, while she tried to think of a new argument to sway him from his crooked path. Which was highly unlikely, because none of her arguments had ever made the slightest impression upon her Papa.

“There.” He put down the brushes. “It is done.” He turned the easel to present her the canvas.

Mignon turned her own critical eye to the piece. “Hals?”

“Aha! Yes, very good, my dear. Yes, I doubt even Frans Hals himself would be able to tell the different between his Cavalier and mine.”

“One can only assume the reason he does not do so is because he is dead,” Mignon muttered before she tried a different approach. “You know, Papa, this boastfulness is entirely unbecoming.” She busied herself tidying up the perpetual mess of the atelier—Papa never let Henri in to clean. “Someday, you are not going to be able to contain your terrible pride.” She picked up a particularly dirty plate.

“Ahh, non!” He snatched the plate back. “My dirt. Careful.” He stored the tea saucer carefully in a cabinet. “That is not ordinary dirt. It is Hals dirt. Dutch dirt. I have cultivated it from the backs of these ancient canvases.” He picked up one of the small oil paintings ‘liberated’ from Papa’s cousin, the comte’s hotel in Paris—one amongst the few such small paintings they had been able to conceal and bring to London just as the revolution began.

Because scoundrels like her papa were always able to smell the stink of trouble on the wind far better than honest men like her dear dead cousin.

“I have to scrape it off, you see”—he demonstrated his technique by taking a stiff brush to the back of the canvas—“and mix it with my pigments and oils from Holland for the Dutch masters. I use the Masaccio”—he gestured to a tiny, jewel-like Madonna and Child—“for my Italian paintings, so all their scholars and experts cannot possibly tell the difference. Haha!” He could not contain his glee at the thought. “Science is nothing compared to art!”

And art was nothing compared to commerce. And commerce did not like to be duped—it would get resentful. “Papa, you cannot go on producing an infinite supply of Hals and Vermeers.”

He waved away her concern. “True, there are others just as deserving of my genius. But think, my darling—in his lifetime, Vermeer was always poor and in debt, while I, in loving homage to his great genius, have bought myself this house, and live in style! You like living in such style, don’t you?”

She liked living quietly, which was almost impossible with her papa. “Papa, that is not the point. I keep telling you, when you sell a forged masterpiece, it is a crime.”

“But I don’t sell them to poor people. I sell them to rich aristocrats, and they get something for their trouble—they get great art! I give them taste! I help them become the great men they want to be seen as by giving them this art, this caché.”

“It is a public service then, is it?”

Papa was immune to sarcasm. “They should give me a knighthood.”

“They are more like to give you a swim in the Channel. And then where will you be? Having a very one-sided conversation with Madame Guillotine.”

“Pah.” He shrugged such negative thoughts off. “Then we will go to America. I’m told the Americans are in great need of art, and in even greater need of taste.”