Chapter One: Heaven and Earth
I’ve always been the kind of person who runs toward disaster, not away from it. There was no reason to expect a crisis on that cool September morning in Surrey. I was on my daily walk and had stopped to study the wings of a silvery moth, poised on a curling leaf, when I heard a terrible shriek. It came from the direction of the building site and sounded like a wounded animal. In an instant I was running, holding up my skirt and petticoats, charging up the path like a bull.
The foundation for the cemetery chapel in Compton, my first commission, was to be inspected by the architect the following week. I can’t say it had been a smooth process, working with my foreman, Mr. Mosely, who was one of the villagers. The architect had been against my hiring him, but it was my decision. This was my project.
When I arrived at the scene, mud splattered on my clothes, panting, the villagers were standing in a circle, casting wary glances in my direction. On the ground, a boy was wailing. Two men were trying to hold him still. His eyes were shut tight as he screamed and writhed.
“What’s happened?” I shouted, pushing my way through the crowd to the boy.
“An accident!” someone yelled.
“Ladder fell on him,” said another. “He’ll be all right, ma’am.”
I moved in closer and knelt beside the boy, searching for a wound. There was blood on his leg. Looking at his face, I realised he was young, far too young to be working here. A jolt of fear went through me.
“What’s he doing here?” I said. No one answered. Then I touched his leg, and he cried out again. There was swelling. It was probably broken. “Has someone sent for the doctor?”
“I’ll go.” A young woman turned and ran toward the town centre.
I closed my eyes. This is my project. My responsibility. Eyes open, I stood up and spread my arms wide. “Everyone, stand back! Give him air! I need a clean cloth. Hurry now! Where’s Mr. Mosely?”
I unbuttoned my sleeves and pushed them up my arms. Everyone stared. I had strong arms, and my hands were red and rough. Not the hands of a lady, or the wife of the famous artist G. F. Watts. But I worked with my hands. I was an artist too.
My foreman stepped into the circle, a snarl on his face, braced for confrontation. I didn’t have time for him now. Someone in the group put a clean shirt in my hands. I applied pressure to the bleeding leg.
“All right, you heard the missus, on your way!” Mr. Mosely yelled at the villagers. He waved his arms, stomping around as if he were trying to scatter chickens. The men went back to work. The women and children disappeared—all except Rosemary, who stayed behind with her anxious stare and faded dress.
Holding the shirt to the boy’s leg, I also held my tongue. I’d speak with Mr Mosely later. What was this boy doing on the worksite? There would be all kinds of trouble if anyone found out he had been hurt here.
Then my assistant arrived and took off his coat to make a pillow for the boy’s head. He touched his forehead and murmured words of comfort in his deep voice. The boy settled, his breathing becoming slow and steady. Thomas had a way with both animals and people.
“You know this boy?” I asked him in a low voice.
“This is John Williams, ma’am.” Thomas turned toward the child, who was watching me through a parted curtain of dirty blond hair, his mouth hanging open. “John, this is Mrs Watts.”
“I know who she is.” His voice was surly, almost disrespectful. “I went to that class of hers with my Da.”
He said it with such disdain that I wanted to step away, but I braced myself. The boy was in pain.
“Forgive me, John,” I said. “I didn’t recognise you.”
Thomas gave the boy a familiar pat on the arm.
As we waited in silence for the doctor, I stood up again and looked at my dress. There was mud and blood on it. No use trying to wipe it off with my bare hands. I wasn’t wearing gloves, having left them behind at the house.
A gust of wind stirred the leaves around us, and John closed his eyes. He was trembling. Removing my shawl, I crouched beside him again, but then I hesitated. I wasn’t his mother. Trying to comfort him like this made me feel my own inexperience, and people were watching.
Thomas gently took the shawl from me and tucked it around John’s shoulders. “Thank you, ma’am,” came his mellow voice, more for John’s benefit than for mine.
John opened his eyes for a moment, acknowledged me with a nod, then closed them again.
“Get moving! There’s work to do!” Mr. Mosely bellowed. That irritating voice of his—you could hear it a mile away.
I turned to see men stacking bricks onto the back of a wagon. Twenty men were working now, lifting, hauling, hammering, sawing. The site was a noisy place once more, the interruption a thing of the past.
Later, when the doctor arrived, he tipped his hat to me and set his bag down. His face emerged from bushy ginger sideburns. He had a bald head.
As he assessed the situation, I noticed the boy growing paler. A tinge of fear stirred in my chest. What if the injury was more serious than I thought? And where were his parents? They’d be furious when they found out this had happened. George would be too.
The doctor removed his coat and hat and handed them to Thomas. He took an amber-coloured bottle from his bag, uncorked it, and dampened a wad of cotton. Squatting down beside the boy, he leaned in and gently touched the wound. The boy’s teeth clenched in pain. Another howl.
I pulled back to give the doctor more room, and also because the boy’s cries made me uneasy. It was a relief to have the doctor here. He cleaned the wound and wrapped bandages around it. Next he set the leg with splints so it would not bend. When this was done, John sat up on his elbows, taking in his bandaged leg.
The doctor turned to Rosemary. “Are you his mother?”
“No, sir,” she said, taking a step back. She lowered her eyes. “His mother’s dead.”
“Where’s his father?”
Rosemary wrung her hands and gazed first at me, then at the doctor. “He died recently, but I look after John.”
There was a moment of silence as I tried to understand. I watched Rosemary’s face while the doctor spoke to her, telling her what to do. She must not touch the bandages or let them get dirty for two days, but after that she was to wash the wound carefully and bandage the leg again with a clean dressing. The splint had to stay on for six weeks.
He gave her fresh bandages, and Rosemary listened hard to every word—this woman who already had seven children of her own to care for.
“Keep him off his feet for eight weeks before he tries to walk again.”
Rosemary swallowed. “I’ll see to it,” she said, her voice steady and certain. “But…we can’t pay.” She glanced at me.
“I’ll take care of the bill,” I said. The doctor’s eyes flickered my way, and I lifted my chin. “Just send the bill to Limnerslease.”
He nodded, took his hat and coat from Thomas, picked up his bag, and sped away, no doubt eager to be gone.
Mr. Mosely, arms crossed, approached and stood nearby, watching me. Rosemary called two young workmen over. They set a blanket over the ladder, then picked up John Williams, placed him on top of it, and carried him off with Rosemary following behind.
I turned to Mr. Mosely. “We need to talk. Privately. Follow me.”
My dress was soiled, and my hair was coming loose. I must have looked a sight, but I descended the slope of the hill with as much dignity and authority as I could muster. Walking past the yew trees, my fists clenched, I heard Mr. Mosely’s steps close behind. My arm muscles stiffened. I had to take control of this situation.
When we were well away from the building site, I whirled around, kicking my skirt. Mr. Mosely stood before me, a short, dark man, powerfully built, with thick eyebrows and a sharp, square chin. His eyes glowed and he smiled like the devil himself, which stirred up my anger even more.
“What in the world are you smirking at?” I demanded. “You hired that boy!”
He glared at me, our eyes level. He was no longer smiling. For a moment his look was so menacing that I had to remind myself that I was his employer.
“He’ll be fine,” he snapped. “No harm done.”
“What are you talking about? There was harm done to John!”
“But it could have been much worse.”
“No use worrying about what might have been. There’s plenty to worry about as it is.”
I could hardly credit it: Mr. Mosely had just admitted that he was anxious about the project. Too late, I realised that I preferred the comfort of our old arguments, when he would not admit that anything was wrong. Nevertheless, I had to continue: “You’ve put things in danger here besides the boy. He’s under the legal age for working. I told you about the new law.”
“But he’s not underage. He’s nine.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“He’ll be nine in a month. He’s small for his age.”
There was no one left to prove John’s age. His parents were both dead.
“What happened to his father? I thought he was in my class last spring.”
“He was. Tom Williams died in May, of TB.”
This cut me. And it meant that Mr. Mosely was doing John a kindness.
“He’s been living with Rosemary then?”
“He’s been with various people in the village, but he’s got to start paying his way.”
“He’s…useful? Even though he’s small?”
“That he is. There are things he can do. Now, if you don’t mind, I have matters to attend to.”
All at once I felt tired. At forty-six I could sense the decline of my youth and vigour, and days like this made me feel older. “I’ll have food sent to Rosemary,” I said, and turned to walk away.
“She won’t take charity.”
I stopped and turned around again. We locked eyes, two stubborn mules.
“It’s only until he’s well again. He’s one of my workers.”
“One of my workers, you mean. He’s my responsibility.” Mr. Mosely folded his arms across his chest, standing against me like a mountain.
“I’ll see to this,” I said, with more force than I felt.
Heading back in the direction of the house, I was stiff with anger and humiliation. He’d won, and he knew it. He was the one in charge here, not I. We both knew I needed him.
A cock pheasant darted out from a bramble bush, racing across the road, and soon afterward a rabbit stopped, stared at me, and ran on. I crossed my arms, hugging my sides to keep warm, and stood on the path for a while, my thoughts drifting. The wind grew stronger. It was time to go home and face George.
I lowered my head against the current of cold air and walked down the trail, then up the hill toward Limnerslease. It was unpleasant without my shawl; my body felt the chill. On the next rise was the house, sitting smug and stately in the distance, a world apart from the village of Compton.
I wrapped my wounded pride around me. The accident was a shock, but it could have been much worse. All the same, it made everything I’d been trying to do—build this monument, create art with the villagers, not just for them—seem tenuous. It was supposed to be a grand social experiment, but perhaps too grand. My reputation was at stake here. My husband’s too. I must not fail.
The sound of calling geese floated down from above me. When I raised my head to watch the skein of birds moving across the sky, I was reminded of how small I was, how insignificant. I tried to let go of the tension in my neck and shoulders, stretching my fingers, reaching out on either side.
As I walked up the long dirt road, I thought about our house, which we’d called Limnerslease because “limners” was an old word meaning “artists” and we had leased the land from a friend. There it was on top of the hill. We made this, I told myself. Just three years ago there had been nothing here but a hill with trees around it. When our new neighbours walked us around the property, we had started to see it: the drawing room here, the garden there. A retreat from the noisy crowds of London and the stifling fog of winter. This would be where we could work uninterrupted. A place for us.
It was to be a country house, but half-timbered walls were too expensive, so we settled for a façade of oak boards between stucco. We designed a simple entrance, not grand, just a few steps up to an oak door set in an alcove. It had all started out small in scale and personal, but somehow the house had become enormous: a studio for George in front, two drawing rooms with large fireplaces, and of course a grand dining room for all the guests we would entertain from London. I had a studio now too, a place for my work. Guest rooms, servants’ quarters. It was not the intimate country cottage we’d first imagined.
Brushing the leaves from my skirt, I approached the front door. When I opened it, I found Mrs. Tarnauer standing in the hall. Her lips were a tight line across her face. She took in every detail of my ghastly appearance, no doubt entering further black marks in the book of my offences. She knew, of course, what had happened. Mrs Tarnauer always knew. Her spies were everywhere.
“Good morning, Mrs. Tarnauer. Where’s Mr. Watts?”
I was trying to act like the lady of the house, but we both knew it wasn’t so. She had been George’s housekeeper for fifteen years before I married him, and she still behaved as if nothing had changed since our marriage, nine years ago. Those half-lidded eyes, that fleshy neck wattle, like one of Darwin’s Galapagos tortoises. She always treated me like an interloper.
“He’s in his studio, ma’am.” She held her hands clasped together, as if in a continual state of prayer.
“He’s heard about the accident then?”
“I expect he has, ma’am. Word travels fast.”
I took a deep breath and shook my skirt again, shedding a few leaves on the carpet. “Please see that no one disturbs us.”
“Very good, ma’am.”
She turned away and walked toward the morning room at her usual regal pace. I wondered if I’d ever get used to her, or if I might someday persuade my husband to let her go. But I knew that Mrs Tarnauer had been around as long as the furniture and was just as likely to stay in this house.
In George’s studio the sunlight came streaming through the high windows. As I entered I saw him illuminated, and it startled me to see him this way, his white smock reflecting the light. He was concentrating on his painting. I stood there for a few moments before he turned toward me.
“Here you are at last,” he said, unsmiling. Disapproval in his voice.
I sighed. I should have changed my clothes first; he hated it when I was untidy. “I was seeing to the boy who was injured this morning…at the building site.”
George showed no surprise at this remark. “How is the child?” he asked.
“It was…an accident. A ladder fell on him. The doctor said his leg was broken and set it with splints. He’ll be all right in about eight weeks.”
George closed his eyes and set down his paintbrush. His bony spine was protruding from his smock. He looked his age today, seventy-eight.
“I told the doctor to send us the bill,” I continued, speaking to his back.
He sighed and gazed at the painting before him—another of his ethereal females. He called her Hope.
“Mr. Mosely tells me the boy is of legal age,” I added.
At last George pushed himself away from his easel and stood up. “You should have made sure of that from the start.”
“Yes, I should have.”
“It could have been much worse.” He began putting his things away, tossing a tube of Cerulean Blue into his paintbox a little too forcefully. I’d be blamed for this interruption. I could feel his anger building like a coming storm. “You haven’t changed your mind then, about this…this project of yours?” He threw the question over his shoulder, then turned to make sure that I’d heard him, that his words had found their mark.
“How can you say such a thing?” I asked. My voice cracked.
I caught the traces of a smile on his lips, but he didn’t reply. He continued putting his precious paints away, screwing on the tiny lids with assiduous care.
“It’s only a setback,” I said.
He closed his eyes, then shrugged. “It’s more than that.” He let out a long breath. “It’s a sign. This isn’t working. It’s all too much.”
“What do you mean? We talked about this. You said you’d support me. The project is still on schedule.”
“The project is falling apart!” he shouted, trembling with a rage that startled me. He was red in the face now, his eyes wide and wild.
Suddenly he pushed a pile of brushes from his table, and they crashed to the floor. All was still for a terrible moment. He took a step toward me, but I flinched, and this stopped him from coming any closer. His shoulders lowered, and he calmed himself before he spoke again.
“You can’t manage this business with all your other duties.”
So that’s what was upsetting him—the fear that I might become too busy to attend to him. “It’s going to be all right,” I began, but he interrupted.
“You don’t know what you’re doing. The villagers aren’t really behind this. It’s folly and conceit.”
Painfully I gathered my strength. I couldn’t give up now. It had taken so long to get here. “At first the villagers will do it because they need the money,” I said slowly, “but once they understand that it will enrich their lives, they’ll become more involved.”
George turned his back on me.
“This was an accident!” I pleaded. “It changes nothing. The idea is a sound one. We’ve already done so much work. I thought you believed in it.”
He shrugged, not meeting my eye. “We could change the plan,” he said, working his jaw as he sometimes did when he was ruminating. His hands were busy putting paints away. “Build a new studio for me…I need more room for the sculptures. We talked about that too, remember?”
My precious project was dissolving before my eyes. “What about the commission? We’ve promised the parish council a cemetery chapel for the village.”
He bent his head over his brush, wiping it with a cloth. “You could easily arrange that. The parish will commission someone else to build the chapel.”
My legs lost their strength, and I collapsed on a stool. Did he think I could just give it up, my first commission? “We talked about this!” I said again, trying to control my voice.
For once his deafness wasn’t the problem. My voice had become constricted with bitter disappointment. I stood up and tried to come closer to him, but he waved me away like a buzzing fly.
“Let me be! I need to clean this up.” He shoved his table away, and a tube of paint rolled off. “People will start to talk,” he exclaimed, “and it will be my reputation that suffers!”
I took a deep breath. “The village needs this project.”
“It does not!” he yelled, slamming down his fist, straining his voice. “The village has been here long before you and will continue long after you. This is only your vanity!”
It took several moments for me to compose myself. “It was just an accident, George. Accidents happen. Even to you.”
His face clouded. He narrowed his eyes, and I realised too late that in my anger I had said something cruel. He knew exactly which “accident” I was referring to.
“I’m sorry, George,” I said, feeling keen regret.
He turned away from me, and I knew I’d ruined any chance of smoothing things over today. He drew his smock over his head and threw it to the floor. Then he picked up his cane and left the room, studiously avoiding me.
Once he was gone, I went to the front drawing room and leaned on a windowsill for support. The skies were darkening now, the room growing dim. Storm clouds were coming in from the west. Moments later, raindrops fell gently on the glass, growing gradually louder and heavier until they became rolling waves of rain. I could still see the cornfields below the house, specks of red corn poppies nodding wildly in the wind.
We’d never argued like this before. It made me see that, after all this time, I was still simply his paintbrush cleaner, his secretary, his diary keeper.
The grandfather clock ticked, and the sound comforted me. Twenty-three years I’d known George. The better part of my life. Surely I was here for a reason.
The light continued to fade from the room as I stared out the window. Elizabeth entered and offered to bring me tea. When I sat down on the green velvet chair, I noticed a book of poetry on the side table. A slim volume with worn corners. I picked it up, and it felt good in my hands, familiar and reassuring, like an old friend. The poems were by a woman named Watson. I opened the book to my favourite:
The spring sun shows me your shadow,
The spring wind bears me your breath,
You are mine for a passing moment,
But I am yours to the death.
In the privacy of my mind, I allowed myself to think of him, the man who was not my husband.
Can a female artist in love with two male artists stay true to her own vision? What if it’s 1896 and your husband is G. F. Watts, one of the most celebrated artists in England? And what if the other artist is William Morris?
When I first discovered the Watts Chapel in Compton, Surrey, and the astonishing work of Mary Watts, I knew I had to learn more. I’m both an artist and a writer, and I wondered how a complicated creative relationship might work in Victorian England, and what similarities connected those times to our own. After three years of researching, reading her diaries, and visiting her home and the chapel, I came to believe that something happened to Mary Watts after William Morris died in 1896. She was a woman of great determination, an early feminist and social reformer as well as an artist whose training in art was hard-won in 1870. But after the death of Morris, her life changed. She turned her attention exclusively to promoting her husband’s career, writing a three-volume biography of him, and establishing the Watts Gallery, which focused on his work. Why did the woman responsible for England’s finest example of Art Nouveau suddenly stop her career and promote only her husband’s legacy for almost forty years, until the day she died in 1938?
I want more people to know about Mary Watts and see her work. This novel weaves hidden possibilities into real events, suggesting a relationship with Morris that could only have existed in secret, one that might have inspired and yet complicated her remarkable life.
Axel Forrester has an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and an MFA in Fine Arts from California State University Long Beach. She has been writing general fiction, women’s fiction, and historical fiction for approximately twelve years. One of her unpublished historical novels, Swan Diaries, was recently longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize. Her short story “Life Lessons” was published in The Saturday Evening Post’s Best American Fiction of 2015 with an honorable mention. She is both an American and a British citizen, living near Hastings, in the UK.
Embark, Issue 18, April 2023