Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book I. A Chapter from the Youth of Monsieur Michael Lanyard
As Lanyard's cab swung away, the carriage wheeled in to take up the Princess Sofia and Lady Diantha Mainwaring. Observing this, Lanyard poked his stick through the little trap in the roof of the hansom and suggested that the driver pull up, climb down, adjust some imaginary fault with the harness and, when the carriage had passed, follow it with discretion.
Enchanted by sight of a half-sovereign in the palm of his fare, the cabby executed this manoeuvre to admiration; with the upshot that Lanyard got home half an hour later than he would have had he proceeded to his rooms direct, but with information of value to recompense him.
It wasn't his habit to lose time in those days of his youth. And lest his character be misconstrued (which would be deplorable) it may as well be stated now that he had not laid down upward of twenty thousand good golden guineas for a colourable Corot without having a tolerably clear notion of how he meant to reimburse himself if it should turn out that he had paid too dear for his whistle.
The hint imparted by his garrulous acquaintance of the auction room--to the effect that the Princess Sofia was famous, among other things, for the magnificence of her personal jewellery--had found a good home where it wasn't in danger of suffering for want of doting interest.
And now one knew where their owner lived, and in what state ...
Alighting at his own door, the adventurer surprised Prince Victor, morosely ambling by, in his vast fatuity no doubt imagining that his passage through Halfmoon Street would go unremarked in the dusk of that early winter evening. He wasn't at all pleased to find himself mistaken; and though Lanyard did his best with his blandest smile to make amends for having discomfited the prince by getting home later than he had promised to, his good-natured effort was repaid only by a spiteful scowl.
So he laughed aloud, and went indoors rejoicing.
An hour or so later the painting was delivered by a porter from the auction room. But Lanyard was in his bath at the time and postponed examining his doubtful prize till he had dressed for dinner. For, though it was his whim to dine in his rooms alone, and though he had no fixed plans for the evening, Lanyard was too thoroughly cosmopolitan not to do in Cockaigne as the Cockneys do.
Besides, in this uncertain life one never knows what the next hour will bring forth; whereas if one is in evening dress after six o'clock, one is armoured against every emergency.
At seven he sat down to the morbid sort of a meal one gets in London lodgings: a calm soup; a segment of vague fish smothered painlessly in a pale pink blanket of sauce; a cut from the joint, rare and lukewarm; potatoes boiled dead; sad sea-kale; nonconformist pudding; conservative biscuit, and radical cheese.
With the aid and abetment of a bottle of excellent Montrachet, however, one contrived to worry through.
Meanwhile, Lanyard inspected his recent purchase, which occupied a place of honour, propped up on the arms of the chair on his right.
It was seldom that Lanyard entertained a guest of such equivocal character. Wagging a reproving head--"My friend," he harangued the canvas, "you are lucky to have been sold. Sorry I can't say as much for myself."
It was really too bad it wasn't a bit better. It wasn't often that one encountered so genuine a counterfeit. The hand of an artist had painted it, but never the hand of Corot. Everything Corot was accustomed to put into his painting was there, except himself. The abode had been prepared in all respects as the master would have had it, but his spirit had not entered into it, it remained without life.
Still, Lanyard concluded, surveying his prize through the illusioning fumes of his cigar, while the waiter cleared away, it wasn't so bad after all, it wouldn't be in the end a total loss. He could afford to cart the thing back to Paris with him and give it room in his private gallery; and some day, doubtless, some rich American would pay a handsome price for it on the strength of its having found place in the collection of Michael Lanyard, even though it lacked the cachet of his guarantee.
But what the devil had made it so precious to the soi-disant Prince Victor and his charming wife?
But for a single circumstance Lanyard would have been tempted to believe he had been craftily rooked by an accomplished chevalier d'industrie and his female confederate; but too much and too real passion had been betrayed in the auction room to countenance that suspicion.
No: he hadn't been rigged; at least, not by design. Something more than its intrinsic value had rendered the canvas priceless in the esteem of those two, something had been at stake more than mere possession of what they might have believed to be a real Corot.
Perplexed, Lanyard took the picture in his hands--it was not too unwieldy, even in its frame--and examined it with nose so close to the painted surface that he seemed to be smelling it. Then he turned it over and scowled at its reverse. And shook a baffled head.
But when he tapped the face of the picture smartly with a finger-nail, he gave a slight start, passed a hand over it with the palm pressed flat, and suddenly assumed the humanly intelligent expression of a hunting-dog that has hit on a warm scent.
Strong fingers and a fruit knife quickly extracted the painting from its frame and loosened the canvas from its stretcher, proving that the latter held in fact two canvases instead of one. Between these had been secreted several sheets of notepaper of two kinds, stamped with two crests, all black with closely penned handwriting.
Lanyard gathered them into a sheaf and scanned them cursorily, even with distaste. True enough, it might be argued that he had bought and paid for the right to pry into the secrets they betrayed; but it was not a right he enjoyed exercising. A fairly thoroughgoing state of sophistication, together with some innate instincts of delicacy, worked to render him to a degree immune to such gratification as others might derive from being made privy to an exotic affair of the heart. Revelation of human weakness was no special treat to him. And if his eyebrows mounted as he read, if the corners of his mouth drew down, if once and again he uttered an "Oh! oh!" of shocked expostulation, he was (like most of us, incurably an actor in private as well as in public life) merely running through business which convention has designated as appropriate to such circumstances. At bottom he was being stimulated to thought more than to derision.
Putting the letters aside, he bowed his head upon a hand and reflected sagely that love was the very deuce.
He wondered if he could or ever would love or be loved so madly.
He rather hoped not ...
Here, if you please, was the scion of a reigning royal family risking as pretty a scandal as one could well imagine--and all for love! Given a few more days of life, and he would have jeopardized his right of succession and set half-a-dozen European chancelleries by the ears--and all for love! But for his untimely end, that poor, pretty creature would have joined her life to his, consummating at one stroke her freedom from the intolerable conditions of existence with Victor and a diplomatic convulsion which might only too easily have precipitated all Europe into a great war--and all for lawless love!
So once more in history Death had served well the interests of public morality.
After a year these letters alone survived ...
How they had survived, what hands had collected and secreted them, and for what purpose, intrigued the imagination no end. Lanyard inclined to credit Princess Sofia with the indiscretion of saving these souvenirs of a grande passion that had almost made history. There was the sentimental motive to account for such action, and another: the satisfaction of knowing she had concrete proof of her intention to treat Victor as he had treated her.
Then somehow the painting must have passed out of her possession; and in all likelihood she had made frantic and awkward efforts to regain it which had aroused the suspicions of Victor; with the sequel of that afternoon....
Lanyard's speculations were interrupted by the peremptory telephone. Without premonition he picked up the combination receiver and transmitter. But his memory was still so haunted by echoes of that delightful voice which he had heard in the auction room, he couldn't entertain any doubt that he heard it now.
"Are you there?" it said "Will you be good enough to put me through to Monsieur Lanyard?"
The inspiration to mischief was instantaneous: Lanyard replied promptly in accents as much unlike his own as he could manage:
"Sorry, ma'am; Mister Lanyard dined hout to-night. Would there be any message, ma'am?"
"Oh, how annoying!"
"Do you know when he will be home?"
"If this is the lidy 'e was expectin' to call this evenin'--"
"Yes?" the dulcet voice said, encouragingly.
"--Mister Lanyard sed as 'ow 'e might be quite lite, but 'e'd 'urry all 'e could, ma'am, and would the lidy please wite."
"Thank you so much."
Smiling, Lanyard replaced the receiver and rang for the waiter.
When that one answered, the adventurer was hatted and coated and opening his door.
"I'm called out," he said--"can't quite say when I'll be back. But I'm expecting a lady to call. Will you tell the doorman to show her into my rooms, please, and ask her to wait."