Today's Reading

The cocoa failed to do its job. Margot did not sleep. Violet never stirred in the berth above her; she was unmoved by doubt. It was Margot who mourned. Was she hopelessly out of date? Was Violet right to dismiss them all? Had they been an entire generation of useless women?

Jennie was a contradiction and a puzzle—but weren't most complex people? At least she had been true to herself, Margot thought. Wasn't there an enviable freedom in that?

Violet wouldn't agree, of course. Scarred by the Great War, her generation considered their parents shallow. But Jennie had known tragedy. She had suffered loss. Chosen it, time and again, over simple happiness, in fact. How had she managed her grief? Gotten out of bed each morning to charm the world? Kept her secrets safe? Margot had no idea. But without a Jennie Churchill, would a Violet Asquith ever have been possible?

Margot's berth swayed. Images flickered through her mind. Jennie on horseback at Sandringham. Arguing politics with Arthur Balfour, in the dining room at Connaught Place. Chopin unreeling from her disciplined fingers. Leaning forward in the Speaker's Gallery, her gaze fixed on Randolph as he rose to speak.

Jennie spiraling through a ballroom with Kinsky.

God, Kinsky.

He was the only one, Margot thought, who'd ever really known her.

Tell me, Count, Margot demanded. Was it worth all the love and anguish? Give me the answers, for myself as much as Violet.

Where would Kinsky come down, on the value of Jennie's life?

Was Lady Randolph Churchill, née Jennie Jerome of New York, one of the world's most brilliant creatures—or merely frivolous?

Tragic—or indomitable?

An inspired mother, or an indifferent one?

A creature of genius and purpose, or a butterfly who squandered her talent?

Courageous? Unique? Or nothing more than a follower? An equal of the men she seduced?

Or . . . simply a whore?

Margot lay sleepless in her swaying berth. The answers mattered as much to her peace as they might to history. While the train shunted north and her memories unreeled, she urgently sifted the evidence.

Singapore, 1894

She found the Malay tattoo artist with his ivory and steel knives, his ink intended to brand the skin, set up under an awning near the entrance to the docks. She watched him, fascinated, as he bent over the arm of a British sailor. But it was impolite to stare, even here, on the far side of the world. She walked on. She had so little time for exercise.

Late that afternoon, the Malay met her gaze unsmilingly as she strolled past, returning to the ship. He was alone now, his customers drinking in the sailors' bars. There was no one to see her if she stepped into his tent.

Was it an affront to such a man, for a woman to ask for his art?

Impulsively, she held out her left forearm. "How much?"

He shook his head. "The lady will swoon."

"I have borne two children. I will not swoon."

He hesitated, glanced beyond her as though searching for the man who must have her in his keeping. There was no one. The artist lifted his shoulders slightly.

"These do not wash off. You understand?"

"I understand." She slipped under the silk awning and seated herself on his leather stool. "I am embarked on a very long journey. Of the soul, as much as the body. There has been too much pain—inside of me, if you understand."

She rejected crosses and hearts, flowers and wings. He showed her drawings of snakes, in rings and figure eights, the serpents' mouths devouring their tails—sinister, capricious, exquisite. Why did these images enthrall her?

"This one," she decided, and gave him her wrist.

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