A story of love and political intrigue, set against the backdrop of the English hunting shires and the streets of Victorian London and post-revolutionary Paris.
Will they, won’t they…
The uneasy relationship between Harriet Howard and Jem Mason ebbs and flows throughout the novel. In chapter twenty one of The Merest Loss another opportunity presents itself. Will they take it?
Chapter Twenty One
House of Cards
On the first day of August, the wealthy Parisians leave the town. Those lesser mortals left behind are the beneficiaries. In the early morning, a calm serenity pervades the parks and open spaces. By mid-morning gypsy children, in ragged clothes, sail makeshift, wooden boats across the lake in the Jardins du Luxembourg. The park keepers are taking their annual holidays and there is no-one to chase the children away. The new ‘pelouse interdite’ signs, so widely hated and thus ignored, are completely unenforced and impromptu picnics spring up here and there, as lunchtime approaches. Small groups grow to larger assemblies and the wine flagons are passed around. A crackle of activity creeps across the park. On past one o’clock, with the sun’s rays scorching the grass, the noise subsides. Solace is sought from the heat and the shady bases of the horse chestnut trees are encircled by reclining figures, sleeping off the effects of the food and alcohol. The occasional lurcher lies sprawled, legs twitching at the thought of a dream rabbit. Only the whispering whirr of the hummingbird hawk moths, flitting between the verbenas, seeps into the slumbering silence.
Harriet enters the gardens by the top gate, on the rue de Vaugirard. She looks left and right. She is well-practised. Her hair is pulled back into a black bonnet and her plain clothes give her the look of a teacher, or perhaps a lady’s companion. No-one gives her a second glance. She walks diagonally south and then turns east along the southern face of the Palais, to the eastern end of the gardens, breathing in the scent of the musk roses, as she goes.
Jem enters by the lower gate, at the meeting of the rue d’Assas and the rue Auguste Comte. His stride is long but halting as if he carries a weight in one shoe. He looks straight ahead. When he reaches the Medici fountain, he sits down on a bench and lights up a cheroot. He leans back, one arm resting along the back of the bench. He crosses his legs and blows out a series of smoke rings. Presently, one of the gypsy children scampers towards him and sits beside him, swinging his legs. They exchange a few words and Jem presses a coin into the boy’s hand. The boy looks at the coin and a beam breaks out across his face. A few more words pass between them and the boy skips away again. Jem finishes his cheroot and stamps it into the dust. He is on the move again. At the far end of the garden, below the fountain, is an orchard. A wooden building, in a beamed, Normandy style, festooned in wisteria, sits almost hidden. There are a few garden tools scattered about and a wheelbarrow, stacked against a wall. A pool of water, from a leaking water butt, spills along the edge of the path and a robin dots down and takes a long drink, ignoring Jem’s approach. Jem pushes at the door of the building and goes in. Harriet is already inside.
They meet like this often. It is not ideal, but it is a relationship of sorts. Sometimes she flies at him, ripping at his clothes, like an animal tearing at flesh. At other times she sits, looking down, waiting for him to come to her. He never knows what he will find. A lot goes unsaid. There is an unspoken rule between them that the lives they live when they are apart are not talked about. They live in the moment. But today there is a different charge in the air. Harriet senses it as soon as he comes in.
‘We cannot carry on like this,’ he says.
‘I cannot bear the dishonesty. I don’t want to be slinking about in the shadows.’
‘You know my situation very well. It is difficult. I am hopeful that things will resolve themselves soon. I don’t want to put you in danger. That is my first concern.’
‘I can look after myself.’
‘That is pride talking. I don’t doubt your bravery. But this danger cannot always be seen. It comes out of nowhere. It is driven by spite and fuelled by hatred.’
‘You are talking in riddles.’
‘I am sorry. Please trust me that we must remain covert for the time being. Nothing would please me more than to be open.’
‘I think we need some time to think things through. I don’t know where we are going. Do you?’
‘I am trying to hold us together in difficult circumstances. But I can’t do it on my own. Will you not meet me half way?’
The question hangs unanswered between them. Jem stares at her. He looks as if he might speak, but in the end, he kicks the door open and walks out, without a backward glance.
© Steven Neil
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The Merest Loss
by Steven Neil
‘A story of love and political intrigue, set against the backdrop of the English hunting shires and the streets of Victorian London and post-revolutionary Paris.
When Harriet Howard becomes Louis Napoleon’s mistress and financial backer and appears at his side in Paris in 1848, it is as if she has emerged from nowhere. How did the English daughter of a Norfolk boot-maker meet the future Emperor? Who is the mysterious Nicholas Sly and what is his hold over Harriet?
Can Harriet meet her obligations and return to her former life and the man she left behind? What is her involvement with British Government secret services? Can Harriet’s friend, jockey Tom Olliver, help her son Martin solve his own mystery: the identity of his father?’
Steven has a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics, a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the Open University and an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University. He has been a bookmaker’s clerk, bloodstock agent, racehorse breeder and management consultant amongst other professions in his varied career. He is married and lives in rural Northamptonshire, England. The Merest Loss is his debut novel.
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