Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book I. A Chapter from the Youth of Monsieur Michael Lanyard
III. Monsieur Quixote
The sale dragged monotonously. The paintings offered were mostly of mediocre value. The gathering was apathetic.
Lanyard bid in two or three sketches, more out of idleness than because he wanted them, and succeeded admirably in seeming ignorant of the existence of the Princess Sofia and the husband whose surface of a blackguard was so harmonious with his reputation.
In time, however, a change was presaged by an abrupt muting of that murmured conversation between the beautiful Russian and the almost equally beautiful Englishwoman. An inquisitive look discovered the princess sitting slightly forward and intently watching the auctioneer.
The pose of an animated, delightful child, hanging breathlessly upon the progress of some fascinating game: one's gaze lingered approvingly upon a bewitching profile with half-parted lips, saw that excitement was faintly colouring the cheeks beneath shadowy and enigmatic eyes, remarked the sweet spirit that poised that lovely head.
And then one looked farther, and saw the prince, like the princess, absorbed in the business at the auction block, his slack elegance of the raffish aristocrat forgotten, all his being tense with purpose, strung taut--as taut at least as that soft body, only half-masculine in mould and enervated by loose living, could ever be. One thought of a rather elderly and unfit snake, stirred by the sting of some long-buried passion out of the lassitude of years of slothful self-indulgence, poising to strike....
At the elbow of the auctioneer an attendant was placing on exhibition a landscape that was either an excellent example of the work of Corot or an imitation no less excellent. At that distance Lanyard felt inclined to dub it genuine, though he knew well that Europe was sown thick with spurious Corots, and would never have risked his judgment without closer inspection.
He was accordingly perplexed when, after a brief exhortation by the auctioneer, discreetly noncommittal as to the antecedents of the canvas--"attributed to Corot"--Prince Victor, who had been straining forward like a hound in leash, half rose in his eagerness to offer:
"One thousand guineas!"
The entire company stirred as one and sat up sharply. Even the auctioneer was momentarily stricken dumb. And for the first time the Princess Sofia acknowledged the presence of her husband, and got from him that look of white hatred with a sneer of triumph thrown in for good measure.
Though she affected indifference, Lanyard saw her slender body transiently shaken by a shudder, it might have been of dread. But she was quick to pull herself together, and the auctioneer had scarcely found his tongue--"One thousand guineas for this magnificent canvas attributed to Corot"--when her clear and youthful voice cut in:
"Two thousand guineas!"
This the prince capped with a monosyllable:
Stupefaction settled upon the audience. The auctioneer hesitated, blinked astonished eyes, framed unspoken phrases with halting lips. Prince Victor, again gave his wife the full value of his vindictive snarl. She would not see, but it was plain that she was cruelly dismayed, that it cost her an effort to rise to the topping bid:
"Thirty-five hundred guineas!"
"Four thousand I am offered ..."
The auctioneer faltered, a spasm of honesty shook him, he proceeded:
"It is only fair, ladies and gentlemen, that I should state that this canvas is not put up as an authentic Corot. It very possibly is such, in fact"--the seizure was passing swiftly--"it bears every evidence of having come from the brush of the master. But we cannot guarantee it. There is, however, a gentleman present who is amply qualified to pass upon the merits of this work. With his permission"--his eye sought Lanyard's--"I venture to request the opinion of Monsieur Michael Lanyard, the noted connoisseur!"
Lanyard detached a deprecating smile from the pages of his catalogue, but his contemplated response was cut short by Prince Victor.
"I am not aware," that one said, icily, "that the authenticity of this painting is a material question. Nor have I any need of the opinion of this gentleman, whatever his qualifications. I have bid four thousand guineas, and insist that the sale proceed. If there are no further bids, the canvas is mine."
The auctioneer shrugged, and offered Lanyard an apologetic bow. "I am sorry--" he began.
"Four thousand guineas!" snapped the prince.
Resigned, the auctioneer resumed:
"Four thousand guineas offered. Are there any more bids? Going--"
Beyond reasonable doubt the princess had spurred herself mercilessly to find sufficient courage to make this latest bid. Lanyard saw her in a rigour of despair, hoping against hope. Only too surely something in the picture, some association--heaven knew what!--was more precious to her, almost, than life, though she had gone already to the limit of her means and perhaps a bit beyond. If this bid failed, she was lost. Her anxiety was pitiful.
In the princess something snapped: she recoiled upon herself, sat crushed, head drooping, white-gloved hands working in her lap. One detected an appealing quiver on her lips, and noted, or imagined, a suspicious brightness beneath the long dark lashes that swiftly screened her eyes. Her young bosom moved convulsively. She was beaten, near to tears.
"Five thousand guineas ... going ... going ..."
The face of the prince was a mocking devil-mask in gray and black. Lanyard found himself loathing it. Impossible to stand idle and see the creature get the better of an unhappy girl ...
"Five thousand one hundred guineas!"
With his wits in a blur of amaze, Lanyard knew the echo of his own voice.