If you have not read A Crisis in Cyprus, this snippet may contain spoilers.
An Afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery
Elspeth Duff was seldom late and even on those rare occasions her tardiness resulted from a situation beyond her control. Yet today her delay was of her own making. She looked into the mirror but her focus was elsewhere. She had proceeded cautiously in her relationship with Richard because she could not trust her own feelings for him. In many ways he was the perfect gentleman and a tender suitor but did she want to bring him fully into her life? She pulled out one pair of earrings and then another, holding them up and then putting them down. Either would be appropriate for a quiet meal and an afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery. Together they had visited the gallery many times and lunched frequently in the area, but their affair had deepened after the crisis in Cypress, but it disturbed Elspeth because she could not resolve her need of him but its intrusion into her life.
She grabbed one of the pair of earrings and hastily inserted them. No sooner had she done this when her mobile, which was on her dressing table, rang cheerfully.
“Elspeth, are you all right?” Richard’s voice said.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Dickie. I’m just leaving now. I’ll see you in about fifteen minutes, traffic allowing.”
She felt awkward as she alit from the taxi, but seeing Richard took all her musings from her mind. He kissed her discreetly, although she wanted to throw her arms about him.
“Mmm,” she murmured contentedly.
They ate, talking as old friends, which they were, but not mentioning the physical closeness that now existed between them. They walked past St. Martin’s in the Field to the entrance of the museum, and he took her arm in his and whispered sweet nothings into her ear. She was filled with pleasure.
They showed their membership cards, as they were frequent visitors, and climbed the long staircase to the second floor.
“Let’s go see the Stuarts,” Elspeth said. “The Tudor room is always so crowded.”
They skirted the numerous tourists bunched in front of the portraits of Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, and Sir Francis Drake and found the Stuart gallery almost empty. They wandered among the seventeenth century dignitaries and found a bench in front of Queen Mary of Modena with her dog. Elspeth had always loved this portrait, which she felt gave the soft side to James II’s second wife and stepmother to Mary II and Queen Anne, despite her opulent dress, curly black wig, and Restoration Era cleavage.
They settled on a bench in front of the painting. Elspeth took Richard’s hand in hers.
“Dear Dicky, I love these afternoons together. I hope they don’t take you away from your work at the FCO.”
He smiled down at her. Looking around to see that no one was looking, he kissed her hair.
“I always make sure to plan an extra day when I come from Malta so that I can spend it with you, that is if you aren’t somewhere else in the world on Lord Kennington’s business.”
She swallowed, not knowing how to say what was in her mind. She had rehearsed the words, but now she became tongue tied. He put his other hand on top of hers and held her eyes. She cleared her throat.
“You’re shaking,” he said.
“What is it, my dearest?”
“Had you ever considered . . .” she started and then stopped.
He took his hand off hers and with two fingers traced the line of her jaw. He said nothing but his eyes were sparkling.
“. . . considered . . . spending more time with me when you are in London.” It wasn’t what she had planned to say exactly.
“I wish I could but between by duties in Ta’Xbiex and Brussels . . .”
“No, I didn’t mean more days, but rather more time during the days you are here. I wanted to ask if you would consider staying at my flat rather than at your club when you come here.” There she had said it!
This time he did not look round at the gallery before raising her hand and kissing it.
“Are you sure you want me?”
She felt herself blush.
“Yes, quite sure, no, very sure. If you wish, you can stay in the guestroom.”
“And you can move around freely,” she added. She felt things were going badly and she might have made him feel uncomfortable. She still was shy of their new intimacy.
“You could make it your own.” That wasn’t what she had in mind exactly but for the moment it would have to do.
“If you wish, we could try the next time I am here to see if it works out.”
“Oh, Dickie, I do wish.”
From his eyes, she could tell he was puzzled by her. She stiffened.
“Then let it be done,” he said with a great grin.
They wandered on into the Georgian rooms and, after that, the day assumed a kind of magic. She did not remember which pictures they looked at but only the warmth of his hand in hers and the fire in her heart. At least she had taken a first step.
Always cautious in his courtship with Elspeth, Richard did not understand completely what she was offering him. He was amazed at her difficulty finding words. a problem she rarely had. They had been intimate in Cyprus, but she always had pulled away emotionally afterwards. Now she was coming forward, but he knew she constantly set barriers between them and kept herself just out of his reach. At one moment, like this, she seemed to be asking him for more closeness and then she would draw back, offering the ‘guest room’ and not more. Why was she so frightened? Or did she need to cling on to her independence after the upset of her past relationships with Malcolm Buchanan and Alistair Craig? He never liked these previous alliances, he had told her so from the beginning, but he would never use her for his own ends, desert her or treat her badly. He felt like the use of a guest room rather than something more open was yet another perplexing way Elspeth expressed her ambivalence in their relationship. Twice in Cyprus he had asked her to marry him. Each time she had demurred but gave no reason. It was not that she did not love him, he was sure she did, but she could not give herself fully to him.
One more baby step, he said to himself, but felt his patience was being tried. He felt like he should grab her and shake her into a definite commitment. Instead he accepted her invitation and said he would be back in London in three weeks’ time.
A picture of Mary or Modena by Willem Wissing with her dog is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. It can be viewed on npg.org.uk.