Book I. A Chapter from the Youth of Monsieur Michael Lanyard
I. Plebeian and Prince
 

The gentleman was not in the least bored who might have been and was seen on that wintry afternoon in Nineteen hundred, lounging with one shoulder to a wall of the dingy salesroom and idly thumbing a catalogue of effects about to be put up at auction; but his insouciance was so unaffected that the inevitable innocent bystander might have been pardoned for perceiving in him a pitiable victim of the utterest ennui.

In point of fact, he was privately relishing life with enviable gusto. In those days he could and did: being alive was the most satisfying pastime he could imagine, or cared to, who was a thundering success in his own conceit and in fact as well; since all the world for whose regard he cared a twopenny-bit admired, respected, and esteemed him in his public status, and admired, respected, and feared him in his private capacity, and paid him heavy tribute to boot.

More than that, he was young, still very young indeed, barely beyond the threshold of his chosen career. To his eagerly exploring eye the future unrolled itself in the likeness of an endless scroll illuminated with adventures all piquant, picturesque, and profitable. With the happy assurance of lucky young impudence he figured the world to himself as his oyster; and if his method of helping himself to the succulent contents of its stubborn shell might have been thought questionable (as unquestionably it was) he was no more conscious of a conscience to give him qualms than he was of pangs of indigestion. Whereas his digestive powers were superb....

This way of killing an empty afternoon, too, was much to his taste. The man adored auctions. To his mind a most delectable flavour of discreet scandal inhered in such collections of shabby properties from anonymous homes. Nothing so piqued his imagination as some well-worn piece of furniture--say an ancient escritoire with ink stains on its green baize writing-bed (dried life-blood of love letters long since dead!) and all its pigeon-holes and little drawers empty of everything but dust and the seductive smell of secrets; or a dressing-table whose bewildered mirror, to-day reflecting surroundings cold and strange, had once been quick and warm to the beauty of eyes brilliant with delight or blurred with tears; or perchance a bed....

And even aside from such stimuli to a lively and ingenious fancy, there was always the chance that one might pick up some priceless treasure at an auction sale, some rare work of art dim with desuetude and the disrespect of ignorance: jewellery of quaintest old-time artistry; a misprized bit of bronze; a book, it might be an overlooked copy of a first edition inscribed by some immortal author to a forgotten love; or even--if one were in rare luck--a picture, its pristine brilliance faded, the signature of the artist illegible beneath the grime of years, evidence of its origin perceptible only to the discerning eye--to such an eye, for instance, as Michael Lanyard boasted. For paintings were his passion.

Already, indeed, at this early age, he was by way of being something of a celebrity, in England and on the Continent, as a collector of the nicest discrimination.

And then he found unfailing human interest in the attendance attracted by auction sales; in the dealers, gentlemen generally of pronounced idiosyncrasies; in the auctioneers themselves, robust fellows, wielding a sort of rugged wit singular to their calling, masters of deep guile, endowed with intuitions which enabled them at a glance or from the mere intonation of a voice to discriminate between the serious-minded and those frivolous souls who bid without meaning to buy, but as a rule for nothing more than the curious satisfaction of being able to brag that they had been outbid.

But it was in the ranks of the general public that one found most amusement; seldom did a sale pass off undistinguished by at least one incident uniquely revealing or provocative. And for such moments Lanyard was always on the qui vive, but quietly, who knew that nothing so quickly stifles spontaneity as self-consciousness. So, if he studied his company closely, he was studious to do it covertly; as now, when he seemed altogether engrossed in the catalogue, whereas his gaze was freely roving.

Thus far to-day a mere handful of people other than dealers had drifted in to wait for the sale to begin--something for which the weather was largely to blame, for the day was dismal with a clammy drizzle settling from a low and leaden sky--and with a solitary exception these few were commonplace folk.

This one Lanyard had marked down midway across the room, in the foremost row of chairs beneath the salesman's pulpit: by his attire a person of fashion (though his taste might have been thought a trace florid) who carried himself with an air difficult of definition but distinctive enough in its way.

Whoever he was and what his quality, he was unmistakably somebody of consequence in his own reckoning, and sufficiently well-to-do to dress the part he chose to play in life. Certainly he had a conscientious tailor and a busy valet, both saturate with British tradition. Yet the man they served was no Englishman.

Aside from his clothing, everything about him had an exotic tang, though what precisely his racial antecedents might have been was rather a riddle; a habit so thoroughly European went oddly with the hints of Asiatic strain which one thought to detect in his lineaments. Nevertheless, it were difficult otherwise to account for the faintly indicated slant of those little black eyes, the blurred modelling of the nose, the high cheekbones, and the thin thatch of coarse black hair which was plastered down with abundant brilliantine above that mask of pallid features.

The grayish pallor of the man, indeed, was startling, so that Lanyard for some time sought an adjective to suit it, and was content only when he hit on the word evil. Indeed, evil seemed the inevitable and only word; none other could possibly so well fit that strange personality.

His interest thus fixed, he awaited confidently what could hardly fail to come, a moment of self-betrayal.

That fell more quickly than he had hoped. Of a sudden the decent quiet of King Street, thus far accentuated rather than disturbed by the routine grind of hansoms and four-wheelers, was enlivened by spirited hoofs whose clatter stilled abruptly in front of the auction room.

Turning a speciously languid eye toward the weeping window, Lanyard had a partial view of a handsomely appointed private equipage, a pair of spanking bays, a liveried coachman on the box.

The carriage door slammed with a hollow clap; a footman furled an umbrella and climbed to his place beside the driver. As the vehicle drew away, one caught a glimpse of a crest upon the panel.

Two women entered the auction room.