The Artist: A surprising secret-driven historical suspense short story
An ad in the newspaper. A Civil War veteran in need. An artist companion. One of these things is not what it seems.
Miss Grant's sole purpose in life is to help Civil War veterans by painting portraits of them to reveal the beautiful souls beneath their injuries. She has met many exceptional men through answering their newspaper advertisements for a companion.
But the latest veteran, the beautiful Mr. Markham, is strange. He has no debilitating injuries, simply a long, deep scar on his face—nothing more. His isolation from society and his demands to be treated as an invalid defy belief. Why does he choose to suffer when he could enjoy a fulfilling life?
Something else is wrong with Mr. Markham. And by the time Miss Grant figures it out, it may be too late to escape.
The Artist is a surprising Civil War-era suspense story that will keep you guessing until the bitter end.
In the Dark Victoriana Collection, no one goes unscathed.
Release date: March 30, 2021
Print pages: 42
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The Artist: A surprising secret-driven historical suspense short story
Mary Grant’s journal, April 8, 1867
How does one paint the sweet smell of flowers on the wind, better than any perfume one can buy?
How does one paint the inside of heartbreak and sorrow, the truth of its depth and its impact?
We are lone beings trying to find togetherness in a society full of disparate ideas. We are a mistaken smudge of black paint on a perfectly vibrant horizon. But if we try hard enough, we can create something with texture and life, something far more beautiful. Something that will never be forgotten.
WANTED—Female companion to young war veteran. Must be good conversationalist, well-read, artistic, young. Must not be engaged or married. Room and board provided; servants always present. Send qualifications to Markham House, Roehanna Cliffs Overlook, Massachusetts.
The horse-drawn carriage stopped a short distance from Markham House with the excuse that, “I can’t see what kinda ground’s under them grasses. You gotta walk. I could carry your baggage for some extra coins—that’d be besides a few more coins for my effort, comin’ all the way out here in the middle of nowhere.” It hadn’t been a treat for her either. Perhaps it would have been smarter to spend the extra money for a stagecoach and a smoother ride. And a more polite driver.
Miss Grant alighted without any help, dragging her luggage after her and dropping it to the ground. She paid the small man and added the few coins for his effort but carried her things, including her bag of art supplies, herself. The walk would do her good after that rattling journey.
As the carriage pulled away, Miss Grant turned to face the house and breathed in the cold, hard wind that met her, whipping the fabric of her dress. The landscape was perfect for painting. A generous two-story house set back from a grassy cliff over the ocean, the wind ruffling the grasses playfully. Next to this cliff, with a great gap in between, was another cliff with beautiful, full trees that had deep-green leaves. The closer cliff looked quite bald in comparison to its neighbor, but both were attractive in their own ways. Miss Grant smiled at nature’s incredible ways and started for Markham House.
It was strange to see this immaculately kept house here; it looked like it was picked up from a well-to-do area and plopped here. And it was red. Of all the colors they could have chosen, red? Blue to match the oceanscape, green to honor the foliage, or even sandy brown to match the scant bit of beach below the cliff. Perhaps even white for the roiling sea foam. But red? It seemed deliberately out of place.
Miss Grant took another deep breath of fresh air and started her walk to the house where, she noticed, all the windows were closed.
The clock ticked loudly in the parlor as Miss Grant and Mr. Markham sat oddly silent, having just met. The servants had accepted her into the house with very little fuss, as if she had been there many times before and was just visiting again.
Miss Grant glanced furtively at Mr. Markham. He was young, as the ad said, but as a war veteran, the only injury she could see was a long, deeply indented scar that drew from his left ear straight across his cheek and angled to the bottom of his chin. When she had responded to veterans’ ads in the past, there had always been something more than scars. A missing limb, sometimes two, heart conditions, permanent shock. But a scar? Was that really all? If so, why had he felt the need to take out an ad for a companion? Surely he had plenty of friends, especially with such good looks—a perfectly straight nose, strong chin, well-balanced lips, and thick brown hair. The wealth she saw in his house was also in his handsome features. His scar didn’t mar anything but his skin.
But perhaps the problem was underneath it all, inside his soul. If that was the case, she could still try to help.
Pursing her lips, Miss Grant wondered why the silence felt commanding, thick. Discomfort overwhelmed the idea of speaking.
After a while, Mr. Markham inhaled audibly and said, “Would you like some refreshment before you settle in upstairs?” His voice was scratchy with exhaustion, as if it had been he who had traveled all this way just to be let down.
Miss Grant nodded in one clear motion. “Yes, that would be nice.”
Mr. Markham rang a small bell on a little table next to him. The kindly but quiet maid, Mrs. Jones, who had received Miss Grant at the front door—“You may call me Jones, miss,” with an outdated curtsey—discreetly entered the room and closed the door behind her. She couldn’t have been older than forty with a pleasant look despite the lack of a smile on her face. She seemed to approach his chair with caution, bent slightly forward with her hands clasped in her lap, and she stopped where she could just barely see him. She leaned forward to look at him from the right, the side without the scar.
“Tea,” he said with unnecessary harsh authority.
“Yes, sir.” Jones didn’t look at Miss Grant. She simply left carefully and quietly.
What a strange place, Miss Grant thought. Silence settled in again with a consistency she could only describe as pudding-thick.
“Why ‘miss’?” Mr. Markham asked, the quiet so suddenly pierced that it startled Miss Grant.
“You have been married before but you aren’t anymore. I made inquiries about you after you wrote me.”
“Before or after you accepted me to come here?” Miss Grant asked quickly.
Miss Grant’s eyebrows rose sharply. Perhaps this was a big mistake. Perhaps she would get out of it in the morning.
“Shouldn’t you go by Mrs. Montgomery?” he pushed. “Why don’t you?”
She thought for a moment. “You still accepted my application.”
He glanced at her and grunted. “I need the company.”
“Why?” she asked immediately, feeling put out for coming here to help a man who, as far as she could see, didn’t need anything but a way out of his own insecurities.
He looked at her full-on, and the beauty of his face, even with a frown and a deep scar, was shocking. Her expression must have shown it.
“What a shame, that’s what you’re thinking,” he spat angrily. “He was so handsome, what a shame about his face. I don’t need pity. I need companionship.” He looked away, the frown deepening, and now all she could see was a miserable man and the scar that held control over him.
Miss Grant’s left hand tightened into a fist while her right trembled trying to do so.
“I would prefer that you avoid putting words in my mouth,” she said softly. After thinking about what might help for a moment, she continued, “I am a widow, as I’m sure you know—”
“And your husband survived the war.” The bitterness was shocking for a man with all his limbs and a sharp mind, a man with nothing actually wrong with him.
She was not about to continue. Clearly this was not someone she could trust by any means. But perhaps…
“Mr. Markham, I would like to paint you.” The authority in her voice was more of a command than a request. If he wouldn’t help himself, she would stay and try to force him out of his ridiculous behavior. What the servants must have gone through every day was an appalling thought. This man had to be brought out of his own self-pity.
The stillness that settled over the room was so painful, Miss Grant was afraid to cross her ankles for fear the subtle sound of her skirts rustling would be too startling.
“Paint me?” he said with disgust. “I thought you were joking when you mentioned that in your letter.”
“No, I really would like to,” she said. The door opened, and Jones carried in a tray of tea. Miss Grant glanced at the table between her chair and Mr. Markham’s, then stood and walked over to Jones, taking hold of the tray. Her right hand struggled to grip it well; her left hand supported it underneath. “Thank you, Jones, you may go now.”
Jones looked up at her, seemingly terrified of not completing her serving duty. “Oh miss, I couldn’t let you—”
“Go now, Jones, you old rag,” Mr. Markham said, much to Miss Grant’s unhappiness. “Now that you’ve got my guest doing your work. Go knit something.”
Miss Grant turned harshly and almost threw the service from the tray. But Jones’s hand on her arm stopped her from saying anything. Despite his treatment, when Miss Grant looked back into Jones’s eyes, she saw softness, and her mouth formed a tight-lipped smile. She saw an apology and thanks and something else. Jones was conveying in those worn brown eyes that no matter what Miss Grant did, it would not end well, but it was nice of her to try.
Miss Grant swallowed.
“Well, is nobody capable of putting down the tea?” Mr. Markham demanded, twisting to see them behind his chair.
Gathering herself quickly, Miss Grant turned and put down the service. “Impatience will not make anyone move faster,” she said. “If anything, it makes people drop things more often.”
“Don’t be a fool,” he said, facing forward in his chair again and slumping down.
He was really just an ill-mannered child, Miss Grant realized, and he needed to be treated with great helpings of patience and kindness. Although that hadn’t worked for—
The sound of the door closing drew Miss Grant’s attention. Jones was gone.
“It’ll be cold before I can even stir in the sugar,” Mr. Markham growled.
“You shouldn’t be having sugar if you’re an invalid,” Miss Grant said, knowing full well he was no invalid. She remained standing and poured with her left hand from behind the table, like a servant.
“I didn’t mean literally, I was making a point,” Mr. Markham sneered. “And anyway, did my advertisement mention being an invalid? Of course not.”
Miss Grant moved around her chair and sat down, then handed Mr. Markham his tea. “Well if you aren’t an invalid, why put out an advertisement for a companion in the first place?” she asked. “It is clear to me that you’re set on considering yourself a poor broken thing—”
“I said I don’t want to be pitied!” he tried to interrupt, raising his voice.
“—but I have been a companion to men with no legs, men with no arms, men in such shock that they cannot move from their bed, and even men with only half a face left.” She paused. Her voice had grown harsher along the way. But perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing. “And you,” she looked him in the eye, “have a simple scar that doesn’t seem to hinder your mouth from demanding or complaining.”
Mr. Markham’s eyes bore outrage and his jaw lowered within his closed mouth, but he didn’t speak.
“You are a man obsessed with your own beauty, that is why you treat others so poorly. You are still in mourning for yourself, your looks. You’re trapped in your mind. It would do you good to visit men who left the war far worse than with a marred cheek. At least you still have a cheek.”
A shocked laugh burst from Mr. Markham’s mouth, and he covered it with his hand, his eyebrows forming a straight line in an attempt to become serious again. But she could see on his cheeks, where his hand didn’t cover them, that he was smiling despite himself. She sat back with her tea and smiled a small half-moon of pleasure with herself for finally saying what was on her mind. Her mother would have spent weeks tsk tsking her for that.
“You just can’t say things like that to me! To anyone!” Mr. Markham said, still on the verge of laughter but trying so very hard to be serious.
“But I did!” Miss Grant exclaimed, her eyes looking down at her tea. “And you’re laughing because you know them to be true somewhere inside yourself. You are laughing at your own absurdity and releasing what you’ve been holding in all this time.” She stirred her tea, although there was nothing added to it that required stirring. “Now drink up and we’ll say no more about it. For now.”
Mr. Markham’s eyes stayed on Miss Grant, but he did sit back, and there was a marked difference in the air between them. It was no longer thick with discomfort and doubt; respect had taken their place.
An hour later, Miss Grant unpacked her belongings upstairs in the guest room, which was surprisingly spacious with a round sitting area at the end, ringed with windows. “It’s a lovely view,” Jones had said after leading her there, not stepping foot inside as if there was a barrier preventing her, “and if you need help unpacking—”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Miss Grant had said, fixated on the beautiful view the windows provided.
Now, with almost all her clothes and underclothes unpacked, Miss Grant could wait not a moment a longer to set up her canvas. She took the stand from its bag and unfolded its legs, then used wing nuts to hold each leg where she wanted it. The easel was a convenient contraption one of her veterans, who had lost his foot to damage caused by a Minié ball, had made for her. Mr. Carver was his name. He liked making things and, much as his name suggested, even carving tiny wood figurines. She hadn’t had a travel stand for her canvas at the time, which had been a nuisance. She’d used anything she could to prop up her canvas, limiting where she was able to paint. Mr. Carver had been so kind. What was it he said when he’d presented the surprise to her? Something like, “It isn’t pretty, but now you won’t have to stay cooped up in some stuffy man’s house all day long.” Her dream had been to paint anywhere. Mr. Carver had made it possible.
Miss Grant sighed at the memory. Sometimes it was hard moving from place to place. She grew connected to many of the veterans she painted. But still, her purpose was to help as many as she could by giving them the opportunity to see themselves in a different light.
Checking that the legs of the easel were spread evenly so the canvas sat straight, Miss Grant placed it just so inside the sitting area of windows. Past the easel, she could see the grassy cliff and the choppy ocean beneath it. There were a few cliffs she could see from here, but this one nearest the house was the perfect place for Mr. Markham to sit for her. He would stand among the vibrant grass with a backdrop that included the deep-green trees on the next cliff and some of the ocean for perspective. And he would stand out beautifully as her subject. Everything was full of life, and soon he would be too.
Miss Grant had slept surprisingly well in her new accommodation. The bed was far better than any she could remember sleeping in. Even her excitement about painting such a beautiful natural landscape could not keep her awake after her journey and her dealings with Mr. Markham. He had quickly gone back to his rough and rueful self. It only took being outside her presence for a short time before he fell back into his rude language and treatment. It was as if each time she joined him again for a meal or socializing in the parlor, she had to try to access his inner personality again, the one that hid behind the scar. It was…difficult.
And as for not being an invalid, he certainly ate like one. Plain whiting for dinner last night; gruel for breakfast this morning, and she couldn’t tell whether that was simply a holdover from his days in the war or whether it was due to his insistence on being fed like an invalid; and now for lunch, unseasoned mutton broth with turnips and rice in it. She sipped weak tea alongside her broth, having turned down the opportunity to try what Mr. Markham was drinking: tea with an egg broken into it, or if she used his preferred name for it that made it sound slightly less grotesque, a mulled egg. At least she had dried fruit to look forward to later. Lord help me.
Yesterday she had experienced suet milk, a bizarre concoction of mutton-flavored sugared milk. Still, she would have been happy to continue trying these dishes made for invalids, some plain and some strange, if only to share the experience with Mr. Markham. But she was less obliged when the man sitting across from her was most certainly not an invalid and was more often bad tempered than not.
There had been almost no conversation at all during meals, and when Miss Grant tried to start Mr. Markham talking, he quickly shut down any topic she chose with no response at all or deliberate silence before a “Mmm.” Time not spent in the dining room was far easier. What was it about eating, or perhaps the dining room, that caused him to stop speaking?
“I mentioned painting you the other day,” Miss Grant tried. She watched Mr. Markham carefully as she waited for any sign that he’d heard her. His cheeks colored, interrupted only by the deep scar. “I have already picked a beautiful area very close to the house where you could pose for me.”
He glanced up at her so briefly she barely saw the brown of his eyes. She wondered if the look in them used to be haughty or warm or anything other than bitter and annoyed.
“I don’t go outside much.”
Miss Grant took a long, deep breath.
“And you can stop sounding so irritated all the time,” he said, now looking at her sharply. “You’re supposed to be a companion. That’s synonymous with pleasant.”
Jones came in from the kitchen and stood at the side, waiting wordlessly to see if they wanted anything more.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any chocolates, would you?” Miss Grant asked pointedly.
Mr. Markham’s eyebrows raised and his head tilted. Jones’s mouth twitched a smile that vanished in a practiced way.
“If I shall be here for some time, I think I should have something pleasurable to aid the experience.”
Mr. Markham’s chair scraped back on the wood floor and he dropped his hands into his lap. “Something pleasurable for you?”
“I understand completely, miss,” Jones said, her smiling eyes meeting Miss Grant’s. “I’ll order some for you, and in the meantime, I’ll bring you some of mine.”
Mr. Markham’s mouth dropped open at her as she fled the room.
“And no baking chocolate, Jones, sweet chocolate!” Miss Grant called louder than necessary.
“How can you eat that?” Mr. Markham said, his voice high. “It’s gritty. I thought perhaps after the war it would be better made, but it turned out—”
“After the war, hmm?” Miss Grant asked, the corners of her lips drawing up. “So you’ve been eating chocolate? You force me to eat plain fish and gruel, and yet—”
“I don’t like its texture,” Mr. Markham tried to say over her, lifting his head as if sitting taller than his companion would override her.
“—you also eat more enjoyable and normal things, just not with your companion?”
Mr. Markham turned his head to look out the window, and Miss Grant’s smile took over her face. He stood up and turned around to face the side-board behind him, and Miss Grant heard him pull out a drawer. When he faced her again, out of his hands and onto the table spilled cloth-wrapped squares that clunked onto the table. He pointed at them. “Baking chocolate,” he said, trying to hold back a smile. “For chocolate custards. Just sometimes.”
Miss Grant’s eyes lit up. “Would tonight be sometimes?”
Mr. Markham shrugged shyly. “I suppose after the dinner you’ll have to eat tonight, you deserve some sort of reward.” His face angled down, but his eyes looked up at her.
She smiled and put her hand flat on the table in front of her as if to touch his, which were shoved in his pockets like a small boy. “I agree.”
“I’ll tell the kitchen,” Mr. Markham said, starting to walk away from the table, but then he stopped and scowled. “I hate to make old Jonesy smile though.”
Mr. Markham stood on the grassy cliff toward the edge, his hands in his jacket pockets, pulling his jacket closed in front of him. The sun was beginning to set behind him, and the shades of orange-red, pink, and blue were vivid.
“Is that how you’re going to pose?” Miss Grant called to him over the wind.
“Shall I show you how?” Miss Grant asked.
Mr. Markham turned around and faced the sunset.
She sighed. He was falling into another of his dark moods. It was hard to understand what triggered them when he had been in good humor only a few minutes ago. She strode over to him and stood at a slight distance, watching the sunset with him.
“It is a beautiful place to live,” she said gently.
His slight nod told her he’d heard her.
“It will be a beautiful painting,” she tried.
He stared off, his eyes moving as if watching something. “It was sometime this month I was to be married,” he said, his voice hoarse.
Miss Grant watched him, waiting for more.
“The wedding was to be here, on this cliff, and we would have lived in Markham House. It’s been in my family forever. Now there will be no more Markhams.”
Miss Grant pressed her lips together, unsure what would be the best thing to say. This on top of his experiences in the war? No wonder he wanted a companion. What a terribly sorrowful time for him.
“I wish I could leave, but I c-can’t.” Suddenly Mr. Markham broke down in sobs, tears streaming, his hands digging deeper into his jacket pockets as his face contorted in agony. Miss Grant had seen this kind of thing before, pain finally letting loose. “I wasn’t… Her family…”
Knowing Mr. Markham such a short time, she certainly couldn’t touch him, no matter how much it felt as if she should. Miss Grant looked at the broken man before her, a man whose hurt she’d understood as simple vanity. There was so much more.
“Her family…” Miss Grant tried to help him continue.
“I was not what they wanted for their daughter anymore,” he forced out. Tears dropped from his chin to the grassy ground. “I came back different. Well, like all soldiers!” he shouted. He looked down. “It is ugly, war. It’s nothing like they prepare you for. It is something that even when you leave, it never leaves you.” He paused, and Miss Grant waited patiently. “When I returned, I found myself unable to look people in the eye. I didn’t want to deal with other people anymore, I only wanted to be with family, no one else. My fiancée and my own family. No more parties, no more dinners. Just home. They told me…” Tears welled in Mr. Markham’s eyes and his face contorted again. “They told me it was not the war that had changed me. They told me no one else was like me, that no one else came back different. They told me it was my face.”
“Who is they?”
“Her parents,” he whispered. “They told me it was what I saw in the mirror that had changed me. It was…” He absently touched his scar. “I didn’t fit anymore because of my face, and they said I knew it and I had changed because of it. They said I’d become withdrawn because my face no longer fit in with the rest, and they wouldn’t let me damage their daughter’s reputation. They wouldn’t let her fall out of society because of my problems. I had noticed Sophia’s eyes avoided me since I returned. I had thought perhaps she’d fallen in love with someone else. Her parents told me it was my scar, my ruined face. It was hard to look at, they said. Ugly.”
“What?” Miss Grant breathed. “But it’s only—”
“Superficial,” he finished for her. “That’s what I said too. But even when I tried to force myself to go out, slowly I got fewer and fewer invitations to people’s homes, people I’d considered friends, and even family friends.” He looked at her, his eyes red and his face wet. “I am more than skin deep,” he said. “But nobody will see it.”
Miss Grant could stand it no longer. She took a small handkerchief from her side slit pocket and dabbed at Mr. Markham’s face. It was such a beautiful face.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“You are far from alone in the way you changed after the war,” Miss Grant said as she dabbed at the other side of his face. “It is harder to accept in those kinds of circles, I’m sure, because their lives revolve around frivolity. They don’t know the truth of the human spirit and what it takes to survive.”
Mr. Markham held her wrist steady before the handkerchief touched his scar. “But you understand.” He let go, staring into her eyes as he allowed her to dry the scar as well.
“I understand,” she said, barely audible.
The sky had darkened, the orange and pink gone now. It was a deepening blue, the kind that allowed just enough light to see and enough darkness to hide the truth.
“Perhaps we should go in now,” Mr. Markham said. He turned toward the house, lit by an oil lamp on either side of the door, and held out his hand as if there were only room for one of them to pass. Miss Grant pocketed the wet handkerchief and walked by, her mind weighed down by all she had learned and Mr. Markham’s sudden vulnerability. She felt his hand on her lower back as he walked beside her, looking ahead and keeping his hand firmly on her. An indefinable combination of closeness and fear overwhelmed her; closeness for this sudden show of warmth, and fear for how very inappropriate his touch was. Her back trembled with discomfort under his touch. He simply pressed harder.
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