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«Published: 1897 Categorie(s): Fiction, Mystery & Detective Source: About Allen: Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen ...»

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They were most unsympathetic. "It is no doubt Colonel Clay," said the official whom we saw; "but you seem to have little just ground of complaint against him. As far as I can see, messieurs, there is not much to choose between you. Y Monsieur le Chevalier, desired to buy diamonds ou, at the price of paste. Y madame, feared you had bought ou, paste at the price of diamonds. Y ou, monsieur the secretary, tried to get the stones from an unsuspecting person for half their value. He took you all in, that brave Colonel Caoutchouc—it was diamond cut diamond."

Which was true, no doubt, but by no means consoling.

We returned to the Grand Hotel. Charles was fuming with indignation. "This is really too much," he exclaimed. "What an audacious rascal! But he will never again take me in, my dear Sey. I only hope he'll try it on. I should love to catch him. I'd know him another time, I'm sure, in spite of his disguises. It's absurd my being tricked twice running like this. But never again while I live! Never again, I declare to you!" "Jamais de la vie!" a courier in the hall close by murmured responsive. We stood under the verandah of the Grand Hotel, in the big glass courtyard. And I verily believe that courier was really Colonel Clay himself in one of his disguises.

But perhaps we were beginning to suspect him everywhere.

Chapter

THE EPISODE OF THE OLD

MASTER

Like most South Africans, Sir Charles Vandrift is anything but sedentary. He hates sitting down. He must always "trek." He cannot live without moving about freely. Six weeks in Mayfair at a time is as much as he can stand.

Then he must run away incontinently for rest and change to Scotland, Homburg, Monte Carlo, Biarritz. "I won't be a limpet on the rock," he says. Thus it came to pass that in the early autumn we found ourselves stopping at the Métropole at Brighton. We were the accustomed nice little family party—Sir Charles and Amelia, myself and Isabel, with the suite as usual.

On the first Sunday morning after our arrival we strolled out, Charles and I—I regret to say during the hours allotted for Divine service—on to the King's Road, to get a whiff of fresh air, and a glimpse of the waves that were churning the Channel. The two ladies (with their bonnets) had gone to church; but Sir Charles had risen late, fatigued from the week's toil, while I myself was suffering from a matutinal headache, which I attributed to the close air in the billiardroom overnight, combined, perhaps, with the insidious effect of a brand of soda-water to which I was little accustomed; I had used it to dilute my evening whisky. We were to meet our wives afterwards at the church parade— an institution to which I believe both Amelia and Isabel attach even greater importance than to the sermon which precedes it.

We sat down on a glass seat. Charles gazed inquiringly up and down the King's Road, on the look-out for a boy with Sunday papers. At last one passed. "Observer," my brother-in-law called out laconically.

"Ain't got none," the boy answered, brandishing his bundle in our faces. "'Ave a Referee or a Pink 'Un?" Charles, however, is not a Refereader, while as to the Pink 'Un, he considers it unsuitable for public perusal on Sunday morning. It may be read indoors, but in the open air its blush betrays it. So he shook his head, and muttered, "If you pass an Observer, send him on here at once to me."

A polite stranger who sat close to us turned round with a pleasant smile. "Would you allow me to offer you one?" he said, drawing a copy from his pocket. "I fancy I bought the last. There's a run on them to-day, you see. Important news this morning from the Transvaal."

Charles raised his eyebrows, and accepted it, as I thought, just a trifle grumpily. So, to remove the false impression his surliness might produce on so benevolent a mind, I entered into conversation with the polite stranger.

He was a man of middle age, and medium height, with a cultivated air, and a pair of gold pince-nez; his eyes were sharp; his voice was refined; he dropped into talk before long about distinguished people just then in Brighton. It was clear at once that he was hand in glove with many of the very best kind. We compared notes as to Nice, Rome, Florence, Cairo. Our new acquaintance had scores of friends in common with us, it seemed; indeed, our circles so largely coincided, that I wondered we had never happened till then to knock up against one another.

"And Sir Charles Vandrift, the great African millionaire," he said at last, "do you know anything of him? I'm told he's at present down here at the Métropole."

I waved my hand towards the person in question.

"This is Sir Charles Vandrift," I answered, with proprietary pride; "and I am his brother-in-law, Mr. Seymour Wentworth."

"Oh, indeed!" the stranger answered, with a curious air of drawing in his horns. I wondered whether he had just been going to pretend he knew Sir Charles, or whether perchance he was on the point of saying something highly uncomplimentary, and was glad to have escaped it.

By this time, however, Charles laid down the paper and chimed into our conversation. I could see at once from his mollified tone that the news from the Transvaal was favourable to his operations in Cloetedorp Golcondas. He was therefore in a friendly and affable temper. His whole manner changed at once. He grew polite in return to the polite stranger. Besides, we knew the man moved in the best society; he had acquaintances whom Amelia was most anxious to secure for her "At Homes" in Mayfair— young Faith, the novelist, and Sir Richard Montrose, the great Arctic traveller. As for the painters, it was clear that he was sworn friends with the whole lot of them. He dined with Academicians, and gave weekly breakfasts to the members of the Institute. Now, Amelia is particularly desirous that her salon should not be considered too exclusively financial and political in character: with a solid basis of M.P.'s and millionaires, she loves a delicate undercurrent of literature, art, and the musical glasses. Our new acquaintance was extremely communicative: "Knows his place in society, Sey," Sir Charles said to me afterwards, "and is therefore not afraid of talking freely, as so many people are who have doubts about their position." We exchanged cards before we rose. Our new friend's name turned out to be Dr. Edward Polperro.





"In practice here?" I inquired, though his garb belied it.

"Oh, not medical," he answered. "I am an LL.D. don't you know. I interest myself in art, and buy to some extent for the National Gallery."

The very man for Amelia's "At Homes"! Sir Charles snapped at him instantly. "I've brought my four-in-hand down here with me," he said, in his best friendly manner, "and we think of tooling over to-morrow to Lewes. If you'd care to take a seat I'm sure Lady Vandrift would be charmed to see you."

"You're very kind," the Doctor said, "on so casual an introduction. I'm sure I shall be delighted."

"We start from the Métropole at ten-thirty," Charles went on.

"I shall be there. Good morning!" And, with a satisfied smile, he rose and left us, nodding.

We returned to the lawn, to Amelia and Isabel. Our new friend passed us once or twice. Charles stopped him and introduced him. He was walking with two ladies, most elegantly dressed in rather peculiar artistic dresses. Amelia was taken at first sight by his manner. "One could see at a glance," she said, "he was a person of culture and of real distinction. I wonder whether he could bring the P.R.A. to my Parliamentary 'At Home' on Wednesday fortnight?" Next day, at ten-thirty, we started on our drive. Our team has been considered the best in Sussex. Charles is an excellent, though somewhat anxious—or, might I say better, somewhat careful?—whip. He finds the management of two leaders and two wheelers fills his hands for the moment, both literally and figuratively, leaving very little time for general conversation. Lady Belleisle of Beacon bloomed beside him on the box (her bloom is perennial, and applied by her maid); Dr. Polperro occupied the seat just behind with myself and Amelia. The Doctor talked most of the time to Lady Vandrift: his discourse was of picture-galleries, which Amelia detests, but in which she thinks it incumbent upon her, as Sir Charles's wife, to affect now and then a cultivated interest. Noblesse oblige; and the walls of Castle Seldon, our place in Ross-shire, are almost covered now with Leaders and with Orchardsons. This result was first arrived at by a singular accident. Sir Charles wanted a leader—for his coach, you understand—and told an artistic friend so. The artistic friend brought him a Leader next week with a capital L; and Sir Charles was so taken aback that he felt ashamed to confess the error. So he was turned unawares into a patron of painting.

Dr. Polperro, in spite of his too pronouncedly artistic talk, proved on closer view a most agreeable companion. He diversified his art cleverly with anecdotes and scandals; he told us exactly which famous painters had married their cooks, and which had only married their models; and otherwise showed himself a most diverting talker. Among other things, however, he happened to mention once that he had recently discovered a genuine Rembrandt—a quite undoubted Rembrandt, which had remained for years in the keeping of a certain obscure Dutch family. It had always been allowed to be a masterpiece of the painter, but it had seldom been seen for the last half-century save by a few intimate acquaintances. It was a portrait of one Maria Vanrenen of Haarlem, and he had bought it of her descendants at Gouda, in Holland.

I saw Charles prick up his ears, though he took no open notice. This Maria Vanrenen, as it happened, was a remote collateral ancestress of the Vandrifts, before they emigrated to the Cape in 1780; and the existence of the portrait, though not its whereabouts, was well known in the family. Isabel had often mentioned it. If it was to be had at anything like a reasonable price, it would be a splendid thing for the boys (Sir Charles, I ought to say, has two sons at Eton) to possess an undoubted portrait of an ancestress by Rembrandt.

Dr. Polperro talked a good deal after that about this valuable find. He had tried to sell it at first to the National Gallery; but though the Directors admired the work immensely, and admitted its genuineness, they regretted that the funds at their disposal this year did not permit them to acquire so important a canvas at a proper figure. South Kensington again was too poor; but the Doctor was in treaty at present with the Louvre and with Berlin. Still, it was a pity a fine work of art like that, once brought into the country, should be allowed to go out of it. Some patriotic patron of the fine arts ought to buy it for his own house, or else munificently present it to the nation.

All the time Charles said nothing. But I could feel him cogitating. He even looked behind him once, near a difficult corner (while the guard was actually engaged in tootling his horn to let passers-by know that the coach was coming), and gave Amelia a warning glance to say nothing committing, which had at once the requisite effect of sealing her mouth for the moment. It is a very unusual thing for Charles to look back while driving. I gathered from his doing so that he was inordinately anxious to possess this Rembrandt.

When we arrived at Lewes we put up our horses at the inn, and Charles ordered a lunch on his wonted scale of princely magnificence. Meanwhile we wandered, two and two, about the town and castle. I annexed Lady Belleisle, who is at least amusing. Charles drew me aside before starting. "Look here, Sey," he said, "we must be very careful. This man, Polperro, is a chance acquaintance. There's nothing an astute rogue can take one in over more easily than an Old Master. If the Rembrandt is genuine I ought to have it; if it really represents Maria Vanrenen, it's a duty I owe to the boys to buy it. But I've been done twice lately, and I won't be done a third time. We must go to work cautiously."

"Y are right," I answered. "No more seers and ou curates!" "If this man's an impostor," Charles went on—"and in spite of what he says about the National Gallery and so forth, we know nothing of him—the story he tells is just the sort of one such a fellow would trump up in a moment to deceive me. He could easily learn who I was—I'm a wellknown figure; he knew I was in Brighton, and he may have been sitting on that glass seat on Sunday on purpose to entrap me."

"He introduced your name," I said, "and the moment he found out who I was he plunged into talk with me."

"Y es," Charles continued. "He may have learned about the portrait of Maria Vanrenen, which my grandmother always said was preserved at Gouda; and, indeed, I myself have often mentioned it, as you doubtless remember. If so, what more natural, say, for a rogue than to begin talking about the portrait in that innocent way to Amelia? If he wants a Rembrandt, I believe they can be turned out to order to any amount in Birmingham. The moral of all which is, it behoves us to be careful."

"Right you are," I answered; "and I am keeping my eye upon him."

We drove back by another road, overshadowed by beech-trees in autumnal gold. It was a delightful excursion.

Dr. Polperro's heart was elated by lunch and the excellent dry Monopole. He talked amazingly. I never heard a man with a greater or more varied flow of anecdote. He had been everywhere and knew all about everybody. Amelia booked him at once for her "At Home" on Wednesday week, and he promised to introduce her to several artistic and literary celebrities.

That evening, however, about half-past seven, Charles and I strolled out together on the King's Road for a blow before dinner. We dine at eight. The air was delicious. We passed a small new hotel, very smart and exclusive, with a big bow window. There, in evening dress, lights burning and blind up, sat our friend, Dr. Polperro, with a lady facing him, young, graceful, and pretty. A bottle of champagne stood open before him. He was helping himself plentifully to hot-house grapes, and full of good humour. It was clear he and the lady were occupied in the intense enjoyment of some capital joke; for they looked queerly at one another, and burst now and again into merry peals of laughter.

I drew back. So did Sir Charles. One idea passed at once through both our minds. I murmured, "Colonel Clay!" He answered, "and Madame Picardet!" They were not in the least like the Reverend Richard and Mrs. Brabazon. But that clinched the matter. Nor did I see a sign of the aquiline nose of the Mexican Seer. Still, I had learnt by then to discount appearances. If these were indeed the famous sharper and his wife or accomplice, we must be very careful. We were forewarned this time.

Supposing he had the audacity to try a third trick of the sort upon us we had him under our thumbs. Only, we must take steps to prevent his dexterously slipping through our fingers.

"He can wriggle like an eel," said the Commissary at Nice. We both recalled those words, and laid our plans deep to prevent the man's wriggling away from us on this third occasion.

"I tell you what it is, Sey," my brother-in-law said, with impressive slowness. "This time we must deliberately lay ourselves out to be swindled. We must propose of our own accord to buy the picture, making him guarantee it in writing as a genuine Rembrandt, and taking care to tie him down by most stringent conditions. But we must seem at the same time to be unsuspicious and innocent as babes; we must swallow whole whatever lies he tells us; pay his price —nominally—by cheque for the portrait; and then, arrest him the moment the bargain is complete, with the proofs of his guilt then and there upon him. Of course, what he'll try to do will be to vanish into thin air at once, as he did at Nice and Paris; but, this time, we'll have the police in waiting and everything ready. We'll avoid precipitancy, but we'll avoid delay too. We must hold our hands off till he's actually accepted and pocketed the money; and then, we must nab him instantly, and walk him off to the local Bow Street.

That's my plan of campaign. Meanwhile, we should appear all trustful innocence and confiding guilelessness."



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