Miss Rayner patted my hand. ‘There now, Rose. Of course, you’re missing Rupert. We all are– he’s such a dear boy. But you mustn’t think that your life is over! My goodness, it’s just beginning! When you’re a year or two older, your mama and papa will find a tutor to teach you a foreign language and give you proper singing and piano lessons so that you become even more accomplished. Before you know it you’ll be seventeen and presented at Court and then, my word, won’t you have a wonderful time going to balls in pretty gowns and meeting dashing young gentlemen.’ Her eyes shone at the thought in a wholly generous manner.
I wondered if Miss Rayner had ever longed for balls and young gentlemen herself. Of course, that would never have been possible. Miss Rayner had been poor, with elderly parents, and when they both died she’d had to scrape a living as a governess. I wouldn’t want to swap places with her. How terrible having to cope with Algie every day! Clarrie can be difficult too, and Sebastian is challenging in his own demure way. And of course, I’m a trial nowadays, moping about the house and rebelling in my half-hearted fashion.
‘I’m sorry, Miss Rayner,’ I said. ‘I know I must seem very selfish and spoiled.’
‘Not at all, dear,’ she insisted sweetly. ‘You’re understandably lonely just now. The little ones are so much younger than you, and poor Beth isn’t really able to be a companion to you, even though you’re closer in age.’
‘I worry so about Beth, Miss Rayner,’ I confided.
‘I do too, ever so,’ she said. ‘I feel so inadequate, not being able to teach her anymore. But I simply couldn’t control the poor girl. Thank goodness she’s having proper expert care nowadays.’
‘I don’t consider Nurse Budd very proper at all, and I don’t think she’s an expert either,’ I said. ‘Anyone would think she was Florence Nightingale herself.’ I’d read about Miss Nightingale’s splendid work during the Crimean War. There was a woman who didn’t droop at home and fill her empty life with fancy frocks and balls!
‘Miss Rayner, do you think I have the makings of a pioneering nurse? Or maybe even a doctor?’
‘Oh goodness, dear, I’m not sure your mama would approve of that idea!’
‘Papa might agree – though he wants me to be an artist. I’m not sure I have the talent or the inclination though. I don’t think I’d enjoy being stuck in a studio doing portraits all day long, though it would be wonderful to paint like Lady Butler.’
‘And who is that, dear? One of your mama’s friends?’
‘No, no, she’s a true artist. Papa took me to see her magnificent painting in the Royal Academy. It was an incredibly large picture of soldiers on horses. It looked as if the horses were going to gallop right out of the painting and trample us! Lady Butler specializes in military battles. I’d love to do that. It would be so exciting!’ I cried.
‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea,’ said Miss Rayner.
‘It doesn’t sound suitable subject matter for a lady artist.’
I took no notice of her. She’s a dear, but she’s not very well-informed, especially when it comes to art. I spent the rest of the morning attempting to draw a soldier on a horse. It was a waste of time. I can’t draw convincing soldiers. I give them moustaches and broad shoulders, but they still look very girly. And I’m hopeless at horses. They have such strange legs for a start. It must be so confusing having four. How do they stop them cantering in different directions? I’m pretty sure the back legs have knees that go the wrong way, but I’m not sure how. Papa is right. I do need to sketch from real life.
So I asked Nurse if we could go to Hyde Park after the children had had their afternoon nap. ‘I want to go to Rotten Row and watch the people riding their horses. The children would love it and I could sketch,’ I explained.
‘You must be joking, Miss Rose. That’s much too far, especially for Miss Clarrie. I dare say Master Sebastian would find it a challenge too – that child has no stamina at all. And I’m the poor soul who would have to push Miss Phoebe all that way in the perambulator, and my bunions are playing up today,’ said Nurse.
‘I could push the perambulator – I don’t mind a bit. In fact, you don’t even need to come, Nursie darling. I’ll take charge of the children and you can put your feet up and have a nice rest. The walk will do Sebastian good – it might put some colour in his cheeks. If Clarrie tires, I can sit her on the end of the pram and give her a lift too. And we both know that Algie never, ever tires. He really needs more exercise, he’s getting very chubby,’ I said, trying my hardest to persuade her.
But she wouldn’t be persuaded. She insisted we had to go on our usual walk along the streets, through the rose gardens, round the pond and back again. I’ve been on that same walk thousands of times. I could find my way blindfolded.
So Nurse set off with the little ones and I stayed at home, hunched up on the window seat by the stairwell, sketchbook on my lap, pencils in my pocket. Papa was out, Mama was in her drawing room, Nurse Budd was upstairs with Beth. The servants were down in the basement. The house seemed very silent, the only sound the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall.
I listened to it, trying to time my breaths to the ticks. It seemed to be speaking to me. Set off! Run fast! Go now!
So I did! I didn’t even stop to put on a coat or hat. I simply clutched my sketchbook to my chest, walked across the patterned carpet of the hall, turned the handle of the front door and went out. I patted the heads of our stone lions for luck, first one, then the other. Then I set off.
I’d been out by myself before. Occasionally Papa sends me to post a letter in the scarlet pillar box at the end of the road. I lead such a restricted life that even that tiny trip is an adventure. Trekking to Hyde Park unaccompanied seemed like a trip up the Amazon.
At first I walked very fast, but when I turned the corner I started running. I held my arms out as if I were flying, intoxicated with this new freedom. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to escape the dark confines of the house. Why ever hadn’t I done this before? I could slip out by myself any afternoon!
When I reached Kensington High Street I calmed down a little because a few ladies were staring at me, and one fierce soul in black bombazine caught hold of me and asked if I was running away from my nurse.
‘I am too old to have a nurse,’ I said, and wriggled away from her.
After that I walked more decorously, not wanting to draw further attention. I enjoyed looking in the shop windows, though I didn’t care for any of the clothes on display. I hate the way lady’s costumes are so rigid. If I stay as thin and flat as I am now, perhaps I won’t need to wear a corset and all those other hideous underpinnings. I’ll wear a loose dress of some beautiful soft patterned silk – maybe a kimono? Papa very much admires Oriental art and has a fine set of Japanese prints in his studio.
Perhaps, if I sketch assiduously every day, I can become a great lady artist and have my own studio. When I’m painting I will wear a voluminous smock and wipe my brushes on it as I fancy. Papa is frequently paint- stained, and his hands are either rainbow coloured with chalk or black with charcoal. Perhaps that’s why Mama cringes when he puts his arms around her.
I walked on and, at long, long last, reached Hyde Park. I flopped down beside Rotten Row and started drawing men on horseback. I couldn’t be bothered with the fine ladies because they looked so lopsided riding side-saddle, and no lady ever fought in a military battle anyway, as far as I was aware.
I sketched brown horses, black horses and grey horses – magnificent sleek beasts which looked like a different species to the milkman’s old nag or the coalman’s massive carthorse. I learned how their necks arched and which way their knees bent. And yet they still didn’t look right.
I tried hard, but eventually I had to give up. Besides, I soon grew very cold and cramped sitting on the damp grass. I wasn’t too sure of the time either. I had to get back or there might be trouble when I returned home.
There was trouble. Apparently I’d been missing for a full hour after Nurse and the children arrived back from their afternoon stroll. Time for the servants to scour the house for me, for Nurse to tell Mama, and for Maggie to be sent off to fetch a policeman because they thought I might have been kidnapped!
I stood squirming in the drawing room while Mama lectured me. She spoke lying down, a scented handkerchief on her forehead, because my disappearance had given her another sick headache.
‘Shame on you, Miss Rose,’ said Edie. ‘How could you be so thoughtless! Your poor mama’s been beside herself.’
‘I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to worry you so. I simply thought I’d take a little stroll by myself,’ I said.
She reacted as if I’d taken it into my head to march around Kensington like Lady Godiva, clothed only in my hair.
‘You must surely understand that children of thirteen do not wander around London by themselves!’
‘Rupert does, quite often,’ I retorted. ‘Don’t you remember the day he spent his pocket money on a cab to Buckingham Palace so that he could see the soldiers in their scarlet uniform?’
‘I do indeed, the little scamp!’ said Mama, shaking her head fondly. Rupert can do no wrong in her eyes. ‘Rupert is a young man with a very independent spirit. He is able to look after himself. Boys aren’t subject to the sort of dangers girls are. There are all sorts of evil men who prey upon young girls!’
She hissed the last sentence dramatically, as if she believed a thousand crazed cut-throats lurked in the sleepy streets of Kensington, ready to attack any young girl who came skipping past. I smirked at the idea, which infuriated her.
‘How dare you snigger like that, you insolent girl! You seem to think you know best!’
I felt I did know better than Mama, but I knew it would be fatal to say so. I stayed silent, staring at my feet. My white satin indoor shoes looked a little worse for wear after their long walk. I thought of the thrilling fairy story of the red shoes. Perhaps I would never remove my white satin shoes now. They would take me further and further away, until I’d danced the length and breadth of Britain, and I’d end up dying of exhaustion climbing a Scottish mountain or tumbling down some Welsh waterfall. (My geography was too hazy to name specific places.)
‘Rose! Don’t ignore me!’ Mama said sharply. ‘Where did you go? Tell me at once!’
‘I went to Hyde Park,’ I said flatly.
‘Don’t lie to me,’ Mama warned.
‘I did, Mama, truly. You can ask Nurse. I begged her to take us there, but she said it was too far for the little ones.’
‘Of course it is. So why did you want to go to Hyde Park? Children go to Kensington Gardens,’ said Mama.
‘I didn’t want to look at children. I see enough of them at home. I wanted to go and look at the riders in Rotten Row.’
‘You’re interested in riding?’ Mama asked. She sounded a little less hostile. ‘Well, why on earth didn’t you say so before?’