Home > The Portrait

The Portrait
Author: Joan Wolf

Prologue


Isabel stood next to her horse, the reins held firmly in her hand. “Don’t be nervous,” her father said to her in the French language that was their native tongue. “This is just another ride with Alonzo. You’ve done it a hundred times. Pretend this is just another performance in Le Cirque Equestre and you’ll be fine.”

The big white horse Isabel was holding nodded his head as if in agreement with Pierre Besson, owner of the circus. Isabel and Alonzo had worked together for three years and the rumors of their excellence had reached Britain. Their reputation, and that of the entire Cirque Equestre, had been so impressive that Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre in London, the premiere horse circus in the world, had invited Pierre’s company to perform at their arena. Tonight would be their first performance.

The Bessons had been impressed by Astley’s spectacular show. A traveling circus such as the Cirque Equestre could never compete with what was staged in Astley’s huge amphitheater. The number of riders, the number of horses, the costumes, the scenery…it would be impossible for a circus that traveled from town to town to equal such extravagance.

Isabel said, “Everything in this show has been so exciting, Papa. Perhaps the audience will find us boring.”

“Nonsense,” Pierre returned stoutly. “They will love you.”

The props for the previous scene had been cleared away and it was Isabel’s turn. She was the last act on the program and her ride had been advertised all over London. The orchestra, which was placed below a stunning arch that overlooked the ring, began to play her music. Alonzo heard it and his ears flicked back and forth.

It was time. Isabel allowed her father to give her a leg up into the saddle. As soon as she took up the reins she could feel Alonzo’s anticipation. He was a magnificent gray Andalusian stallion, and he loved his job. She patted his muscular neck, took up a contact, and horse and rider made their entrance. The buzz of the crowd quieted as they turned their attention to the ring.

Pierre stood in the entryway and watched as his daughter advanced to the center of the large arena. Alonzo’s trot was so incredibly light that he appeared almost weightless. Horse and rider came to a perfect halt, and Pierre sent up a prayer to the lord that this English audience would appreciate the beauty they were about to witness.

Isabel and Alonzo had a bond Pierre had never before seen between rider and horse. When she was on his back, it was as if they were one creature, not two. By the time Isabel had reached sixteen she had proved to be such a talented rider that one of the riding masters from Saumur, the French national riding school, had seen fit to teach her and Alonzo. This was something that had never happened before, and would probably never happen again. If she had been a boy, they would certainly have invited her into the school.

She was dressed today in fawn-colored breeches, a tailored black coat and high black riding boots. Her dark hair lay against the back of her coat in a long plait. Her white-gloved hands were slightly raised, and it seemed as if her body and leg position never changed. Pierre watched with swelling pride as girl and horse went through their program: from passage to extended trot, to piaffe, to half pass, to piaffe again, to canter to canter pirouette, back to half pass and then to canter changes of lead on every stride. The music that accompanied them enhanced every change in speed and gait. Alonzo, a solidly built horse, seemed to float across the ground.

The amphitheater was silent. Even the children, and there were always children at Astley’s, were quiet. When Isabel cantered to the center of the ring and halted, giving Alonzo a hearty pat on his neck, a great roar came from the crowd. A shiver of pride ran up and down Pierre’s back as he watched his daughter take Alonzo around the perimeter of the floor, waving at the crowd as she passed by. Alonzo walked along with his neck stretched out in front of him, blowing contentedly through his nostrils. He had been brilliant, and he knew it.

Father and daughter retired to bed that evening with a mixture of exultation and relief. They were thrilled that the English audience had been able to appreciate Alonzo’s excellence. Neither of them knew that Isabel’s appearance at Astley’s would have a much further reaching effect than either of them had ever dreamed.

 

 

Chapter One


Two weeks after my first performance at Astley’s, a be-wigged footman garbed in magnificent blue and silver livery appeared at the door of the hotel room where Papa and I were staying. “Monsieur Besson?” the vision inquired, bowing.

“Oui,” Papa said.

I got up from the sofa and went to stand behind Papa. What on earth could this footman want with us?

He handed Papa an envelope and bowed again. “From the Earl of Camden, Monsieur. I am to wait for a reply.”

“What is it?” Papa asked.

“I have a message for you from the Earl of Camden,” the footman repeated. “I will await your reply.”

“Come in,” said Papa, and he moved away from the door so the footman could enter. I stood close as he opened the folded page of the letter. There was an engraved crest on the top of the stationery page.

Papa folded the paper again and stared into space, saying nothing.

“Papa!” I couldn’t contain my curiosity. “What does it say?”

“The Earl of Camden has invited us to his London house. He will send a carriage for us tomorrow at eleven o’clock.”

I stared at my father. “Do you know the Earl of Camden, Papa?”

“No.”

“Then why is he inviting us to his house?”

“I have no idea, Isabel.”

There was a strained look on my father’s face.

“Perhaps he saw Alonzo’s performance and wants to ask about his training?”

Some of the strain left Papa’s face. “That may be true. These English are such terrible riders. They sit on their horses’ haunches and stick their legs out in front of them.” He clicked his tongue and shook his head. “I don’t know how their cavalry ever managed to keep their horses under control; the poor creatures must have been miserable with all that weight bearing down on their kidneys.”

“They need a riding school like Saumur.”

“They need to find instructors to teach at such a riding school.”

We seemed to have got off the topic of the invitation. I said, “We should accept this invitation, Papa. An earl is a powerful man. We cannot afford to alienate such a person.”

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