Bound by limits dictated by society, Art Historian Nicolas Halstead lived a guarded life until a tempest in the form of Elenora Schwaab blew into his world. At first Nicolas can’t decide if the audacious American is simply mad or plotting blackmail for not only does she declare knowledge of his homosexuality, she offers him a marriage proposal.
After Ellie tells him of a previously unknown work of Leonardo da Vinci, a book of erotic love poems and sketches dedicated to the artist’s long-time lover Salai, Nicolas joins her in a race to save the book from destruction. Along the way they encounter Historian Luca Franco and discover a comfortable compatibility that comes to redefine their long-held notions of love. The trio embarks on an adventure of sensual discovery, intrigue, and danger. Little do they know Leonardo da Vinci’s book is far more than meets the eye.
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The clock below stairs chimed once, then twice. Miss Elenora Schwaab would arrive at any moment. Sure enough, the bell rang in the front hall and shortly after, I met the woman in my library where Mrs. Fletcher had deposited her.
In a color scheme that would have inspired Pierre-Auguste Renoir to fetch a blank canvas, she wore a cream-and-blue cotton confection accented by a blue-and-cream rose-bedecked bonnet, reticule, and parasol. Excitement shone brightly in eyes the pale turquoise-blue of a clear autumn sky. Ripping off her cream lace gloves, she jumped from her chair to thrust her hand at me. “Sir Nicolas! Thank you for receiving me on such short notice.”
Americans. Chuckling to myself, I bowed over her smaller hand. “Miss Schwaab, what a pleasure to see you again.” They had the oddest mannerisms. Not rude, exactly; rather forthright without the stodgier affectations of the Empire. On the whole, Americans reminded me of impressionist artists. The artists violated the rules of academic painting, and Americans violated the rules of conventionality. As a student of nuance, I very much liked it.
Mrs. Fletcher entered with the tea. Addressing my guest she said, “I wasn’t sure if you’d like lemon or milk, Miss, so I’ve set the tray with both.”
“Why, thank you ma’am.”
The housekeeper turned to me with a smile sparkling in her eyes. I could tell the sparkle came from being addressed formally when she considered herself only a housekeeper. She said, “And that bread is warm from the oven as you like it, and the butter’s fresh from the dairyman this morning. Is there anything else, Master Nicolas?”
“No dear, this is quite fine. Thank you.”
Alone now, I buttered my bread and addressed the lady busily adjusting her tea to taste. “So Miss Schwaab, you say you’ve a venture in mind…”
“Please, Sir Nicolas. Call me Ellie as all my friends do.”
I smiled at what she implied. I could certainly see us as friends. “Very well, how can I be of service, Ellie?” I took a bite and nearly choked at her next words.
“To be blunt Sir, I’m in need of a mandrake. I need you.”
My mind raced. The chit was declaring me homosexual. “I beg your pardon?”
She smiled a rather unsettling sentient smile. And in those pale intelligent eyes, I could see her thoughts forming like clouds before a rainstorm. In fact, I could almost smell the ozone in the burning machinery of her mind. When she spoke, her thoughts were perfectly ordered.
“I’m not one to beat around the bush, Sir Nicolas. Not being forthright wastes time, and time may very well be short. Last June, I overheard a rather intimate verbal exchange between you and another man. I didn’t see who he was exactly, but I did see you.”
I felt a hollow sensation in my chest. In it, I could hear the echo of my up-tempo heartbeat. “Miss Schwaab, I—”
She held up a hand to interrupt me. “Please, hear me out. I consider myself to be a progressive. You see, I don’t care what adults do behind closed doors. An individual’s nature and sexuality form the most intrinsic core of their person. And who are we to take issue with another’s nature? Only a fool would see one path to human intimacy. We are naked apes after all, and apes have no issue with homosexuality.”
I couldn’t fault her logic. “So, what do you propose Miss Schwaab? Blackmail?” Though my obvious concern wasn’t humorous in the least, she laughed merrily.
“Please, call me Ellie.”
“Ellie. I believe that was a reasonable question.”
The same smile was back and with it, sparkling eyes. “I want you to marry me.”
Completely dumbfounded, I just looked at her. “You can’t be serious Miss…”
“You can’t be serious, Ellie.”
Her laugh was filled with mirth. “Oh, but I am!”
Finding that impish gleam in her eye irritating in that moment, I set my plate aside. In my mind, this meeting could go one of two ways — she’d out me for a sodomite if I didn’t do as she asked, or I’d be saddled with an insane wife. While Parliament abolished the death penalty for deviants like me years before I was born, my truth wasn’t fodder for the masses. “You have me at a disadvantage, madam. What madness would spur you to make such an outlandish proposal?”
She set her cup down and leaned forward as a man might when sharing an inside stock tip. I found myself oddly attracted to her forthright and almost mannish American attitudes. Looking me square in the eye, she said, “You are an authority on Leonardo da Vinci, correct?”
“On his artworks, I am.”
“Then I assume you are familiar with Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno?”
I suppressed a smile at her halting Italian. Gian Giacomo Caprotti was da Vinci’s protégé. Affectionately called Salai or the little devil by the master himself, it was said when Leonardo painted nudes and phalluses, they were modeled by his young lover Salai. The most telling of these — the sketch called Angelo-Incarnato or Angel Incarnate, which depicts the little devil himself with a substantial erection. On the back, da Vinci wrote out his turbulent feelings for the young man in Greek: astrapen, bronten, and ceraunobolian. His metaphoric choices literally translated: lightning, storms, and thunderbolts. I nodded.
She smiled. “And I assume, although not in your field of expertise, you must also be aware of such erotic artworks as Japanese pillow books and the Kama Sutra. One chapter of which was so recently translated by your celebrated orientalist, what’s the fellow’s name?”
Field of expertise? I took her question to mean I was unaccustomed to erotic works depicting women. Beyond my proclivity and given profession, of course I knew of these ancient works of erotica. I named the man for her, “Sir Richard Francis Burton—”
She cut in, “Yes, that’s the man!”
“And yes, I am aware of such books.” It was obvious when her pretty smile widened that she could see she’d hooked me like a trout. In fact, I had the impression this woman had somehow studied me at length. Though my interest was piqued, I couldn’t fathom what she was driving at, nor could I see a connection between ancient Asian renderings and da Vinci’s longtime lover… let alone a connection to a proposal of marriage to me. “And what does Salai have to do with these works?”
She smiled that smile again and this time I was met with a sense of familiarity I couldn’t quite identify, like there was more to it than what was seen upon the surface. My focus redirected when she explained, “My father is in the American Consul, you see. And now with my elder sister Luise Marie wed to Jean-Paul, I’ve become my father’s hostess when he entertains here. I don’t mind it, though listening to men talk trade and commerce mostly bores me. Anyway, enough about that.” She waved her hand and shook her head, as if determined not to go off point. “The other night my sister and her husband joined us when we entertained an Italian merchant and his relation by marriage. The former, a Signore Ambrosini, deals in raw fibers such as cotton and jute from India and is seeking business relations in the New York textile industry. I found him a likeable man. The latter... well, there was just something not quite right about him. His name is Carlo Posateri. He…”
My mind could barely keep up with the twists and turns Miss Schwaab’s mind was wont to take. Then too, I was somewhat surprised that this conversation was being piloted by a woman at all. Women of my acquaintance steered clear of most sexual topics, though every one of them would perk if the focus of conversation leaned in that direction. Sifting through her rambling recount of that night, I learned this Signore Posateri hated all things homosexual in nature, including the works of the masters. Apparently the man took pride in influencing Pope Pius IX to castrate the statues in the Vatican for the homosexual thoughts they provoked. Out of sight out of mind, I’d say, or a gloss on the phrase Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: The man doth protest too much, methinks. In my experience, them that had the most to say against a thing often coveted that very thing. Her next words pulled me from my contemplation.
“To put it simply, I plan to steal it.”
I stared at her dumbly having not fully listened to what preceded that statement. Eyeing me suspiciously, her pretty bowed lips took on a frown when she reproached, “Oh fiddlesticks. You weren’t even listening. Have you no concept how important this work is to humanity?”
Chastened that her winding road of a tale had lulled my mind, I ate the crow. “Forgive me Miss… ” — her eyes narrowed, causing me to amend — “Ellie. My mind was lost on the man’s contribution to the Vatican’s defiled statues. Please, if you would, back up a bit and explain it again.”
She took a breath. I was struck by the curious glint of sympathy shining in her pale blue eyes and the faint blush that signaled ire or embarrassment. Unacquainted with her as I was, I stabbed in the dark and took the blush for the latter. My thought was proved right when she said sincerely, “I know I ramble when my head is so full of details, and I apologize. I really do. But please, bear with me if you will.”
“You’ll have my undivided attention, I assure you.”
Ellie brightened and launched into it again. “Alright then. Signore Posateri boasted of his measures to rid the world of artworks created by the greatest artists of the Renaissance. Jean-Paul got him to admit he buys them from private collections and destroys them, you see. When asked about pieces that were not purchasable, he said he ‘has his methods,’ which I take to mean he steals them or has thieves in his employ, the sanctimonious cur... ” Her words trailed off.
I stared at her expectantly.
Exhaling sharply in what could only be annoyance, she continued, “At this very moment in Venice, somewhere in his palazzo, he has in his possession a previously undiscovered book written and illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci’s own hand.”
Of all the things I thought she’d say, that was not one of them. “Oh?”
She nodded. “Yes, created by da Vinci for Salai. It’s a book of love, Sir Nicolas — a pillow book that managed to remain hidden for four hundred years!”
Knowing the mind and desire of the artist like I did, I could almost see this book. “Such a thing is entirely possible.”
My words brought about her effervescent smile. She asked, “Wasn’t Salai with him a long time?”
“At least twenty-five years. Salai inherited many of da Vinci’s works. How did you come upon this information? Surely they didn’t discuss this topic in your presence?”
She dug through her reticule and scoffed, “As if they would. No, when I left the men to their brandy last night, I stood just outside the door adjusting the strap on my shoe under the pretense I’d lost a button, you see. I chanced to hear Signore Posateri speaking of this book.” Pulling a folded paper from her bag, she read, “And I quote, ‘Although unsigned, in breadth and scope, there is no question this was Leonardo da Vinci’s book. It is clearly the work of a sodomite. The disgusting words of his twisted affection made more foul by the accompanying sketches.’ Galling, his hatred.”
Needing more to fully comprehend, I urged, “Go on. What else did you overhear?”
“In the conversation that followed I could tell Signore Ambrosini was put aback by his companion’s rabid fanaticism. Then I heard Jean-Paul ask him what he intended to do with it.” She read from her notes, “He said, ‘After I study it to better know the minds of these repugnant artists, I will burn it with the rest, of course.’”
She met my eyes, her fair cheeks flushed in her pique. For reasons unclear, John Opie’s oil painting of Boadicea Haranguing the Britons came to mind. She said, “Burn it! Can you just imagine the loss, Sir Nicolas? Jean-Paul was beside himself over the idea; he even offered to buy it. But the man said he’d never sell it at any cost.”
After I study it… The man’s words confirmed my earlier opinion. Signore Posateri was himself a homosexual — if not in deed, then certainly in desire. I nodded, “I agree. It would be terrible loss.”
“That is why I have plans to steal it.”
I stared at her and she suddenly laughed. “Oh you think me mad, don’t you? You do. I can see it in your eyes!” She leaned forward and looked at me with interest, as if she half expected me to admit that I did indeed question her stability. How quickly she went from John Opie’s warrior queen to James Tissot’s Young Woman in a Boat. The astute little imp made me smile despite myself. “I admit I do. And where exactly do I fit into this insanity?”
“I’ve come here because time is of the essence. Signore Posateri will be leaving for Venice at the end of the week. And if we leave tomorrow, the day after, at the latest—”
“I still don’t see my presence in this scheme of yours.”
Ellie sighed. Her earlier words about wasting time came back to me. I wasn’t trying to be obtuse but for the life of me I just didn’t see it. I asked her to explain how she figured I fit her plan.
She said, “You have your influence, being an Earl and all. You’re in the House of Lords. We can use your academic standing and income to save these precious artworks from being destroyed by this fanatic, for surely he is in possession of more than one. You know Leonardo da Vinci’s works. You’ll know at a glance if Signore Posateri is correct in his assumption that this is indeed Salai’s pillow book.” When I didn’t comment she added, “Look, I know you barely know me, but I know you, and I’m completely alright with it.”
“Alright with it?”
She reached across the distance between us to briefly place a small warm hand over mine in a comfortable gesture which I recognized as sincerity. I had an idea of what she meant, but needed clarification. It wouldn’t do to guess wrongly. “You’re referring to my particular predilection?”
I rubbed the point between my eyes.
She asked, “As a friend, may I leave your title aside and call you Nicolas?” At my nod she continued. “Nicolas, I’m no fool. For all that I’m a progressive woman: I live in a man’s world. And while society may change in the future, I’m hindered in the here and now. It would be difficult to travel on my own, and certainly tracking down homoerotic artworks would be next to impossible for a woman. I wouldn’t even know how to ask about them; trained proficient I’m not. Were we to marry, I see advantage for the both of us outside this venture.”
“Yes, you’ll be free to love who you will without society casting rude speculations your way. And aside from my being free to be who I am, I’ll benefit by a social standing that will allow me to affect change from within society.”
I considered her a moment. Miss Elenora Schwaab was an extremely pleasant-looking young woman with her wise blue eyes and cinnamon hair. She was fit and fashionable, and without a doubt a highly-educated and intelligent person. Her ready humor and matter-of-factness were also quite appealing. Yes, I could see myself enjoying this woman’s companionship if nothing else.
Running down a list of potential advantages of marrying someone not shocked or repulsed by my nature, I surprised myself by finding her proposal no less than brilliant. Many marriages started with far less. Still, there was one bit that must be addressed. It had always been my understanding that one day I’d be pressed to marry and sire children. When one inherits the title of Earl, especially a Halstead Earl, there are responsibilities one must naturally live up to. But until that hourglass ran out, I considered myself free to love and enjoy whom I would. To be fair she’d have to be told. “I must tell you that I have obligations to my title and estate. These obligations would necessitate my producing an heir in the future.”
My wording was met by a brief frown. I could see she hadn’t considered such an intimacy between us were we to marry as she proposed. This was confirmed by her next words. “But wouldn’t that be imposs… that is to say… I mean… oh fiddlesticks. But you don’t enjoy women that way.”
Summoning my straight-faced composure, I said, “We British are nothing if not dutiful. Perhaps with the lights off.” Her expression priceless, I laughed. “I’m teasing you, my dear. Actually, I’ve never attempted to make love to a woman. And truth be told, I don’t see that happening for a good many years yet.”
Something akin to relief shown in her eyes, suggesting if she had say in the matter it would be a long ways into the far-distant future. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it but didn’t have too much time to contemplate my curious reaction to her relief, for next she blurted, “Then lights on or off, we’ll cross that bridge as it comes. Let’s marry straightaway.”
My earlier opinion fortified. The unflappable Ellie Schwaab, late of America, was indeed bold-as-brass. There was no denying this outrageous proposition made sense. For one, it negated the need for an awkward conversation with a future wife, for surely Ellie was one of a kind. I’d be, as she said, Free to love whom I will. I found myself liking the idea very much. If nothing else it would stop the parade of marriageable young women thrust my way at every social gathering. I nodded. “It does make good sense doesn’t it?”
“It does, and I assure you I’ve come to this opinion from every angle.” She gave me a brilliant smile and laid her hand back on mine. This time she left it there. I covered it with my own. And that’s exactly how Grannie found us when she walked into the room.
“You’ve obviously something to tell me, Nicolas,” my grandmother said without preamble, an unmistakable glint of joy in her albescent eyes.
Rising, I brought Ellie to stand beside me, hooking her arm in mine in what I hoped would be a convincing display of affection. I said, “Grannie, may I introduce my fiancée, Miss Elenora Schwaab, daughter of Mitchel Schwaab, the American Consul to her Majesty. Ellie, may I introduce you to Countess Lady Augusta Halstead, my grandmother.”
Her hand thrust forward in that very American gesture and had my grandmother bubbling with charmed delight. To my surprise, Ellie not only had a fair working knowledge of me, she knew about my family. When my Grannie incorrectly deduced our love began at Lady Margaret Eastlake’s garden party a year ago, neither of us dissuaded her. The cover was brilliant, and I was once more taken with Ellie’s quick intelligence. In short order I’d become quite fond of her. This might work out well after all.
Somewhat surprised to see an expression that was at once both delighted and relieved, I met Grannie’s eyes over my recently acquired fiancé’s head and winked at her. I could almost see the visions of babies forming above the dear old woman’s very large hat.