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In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 6824

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

The paragraph in the Westminster Budget to which Victor Nevill referred was headed in large type, and ran as follows:

"This morning, at his palatial residence in Amsterdam, commenced the sale of the gallery of valuable paintings collected by the late Mr. Martin Von Whele, who died while on a visit to his coffee estate in Java. He left everything to his son, with the exception of the pictures, which, by the terms of his will, were to be disposed of in order to found a hospital in his native town. Mr. Von Whele was a keen and discriminating patron of art, a lover of both the ancient and the modern, and his vast wealth permitted him to indulge freely in his hobby. His collection was well known by repute throughout the civilized world. But the trustees of the estate seem to have committed a grave blunder-which will undoubtedly cause much complaint-in waiting until almost the last moment to announce the sale. But few bidders were present, and these had things pretty much their own way, apparently owing to the gross ignorance of the auctioneer. The gem of the gallery, the famous Rembrandt found and purchased in Paris some years ago by Mr. Von Whele, was knocked down for the ridiculous sum of £2,400. The lucky purchaser was Mr. Charles Drummond, of the firm of Lamb and Drummond, Pall Mall."

A remark that would not look well in print escaped Stephen Foster's lips as he threw the paper on his desk.

"A blunder?" he cried. "It was criminal! A rascally conspiracy, with Drummond at the bottom of it-British cunning against Dutch stupidity! I seldom miss anything in the papers, Nevill, and yet I never heard of Von Whele's death. I didn't get a hint of the sale."

"Nor I," replied Nevill. "It's a queer business. I thought the paragraph would interest you. The sale continues-do you think of running over to Amsterdam?"

"No; I shan't go. It's too late. By to-morrow a lot of dealers will have men on the spot, and the rest of the pictures will likely fetch full value. But £2,400 for the Rembrandt! Why, it's worth five times as much if it's worth a penny! There's a profit for you, Nevill. And I always coveted that picture. I had a sort of a hope that it would drop into my hands some day. I believe I spoke to you about it."

"You did," assented Nevill, "and I remembered that at once when I read of the sale. But I had another reason-one of my own-for calling your attention to the matter."

Stephen Foster apparently did not hear the latter remark.

"I saw the Rembrandt when I was in Amsterdam, two years ago," he said bitterly. "It was a splendid canvas-the colors were almost as fresh and bright as the day they were laid on. And as a character study it was a masterpiece second to none, and in my estimation superior to his 'Gilder,' which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It represented a Pole or a Russian, with a face of intense ferocity. His rank was shown by his rich cloak, the decorations on his furred hat, and by the gold-beaded mace held in his hand. Von Whele declared that the subject was John the Third, of Poland; but that was mere conjecture. And now Drummond has the picture, and it will soon be drawing crowds around the firm's window, I dare say. What a prize I have let slip through my fingers!"

"I want to ask you a question," Nevill started abruptly. "Suppose this Rembrandt, or any other painting of value and renown, should b

e stolen from a big dealer's shop. How could the thief dispose of it?"

"He would have little or no chance of doing so at once," was the reply, "unless he found some unscrupulous collector who was willing to buy it and hide it away. But in the course of a few years, when the affair had blown over, the picture could be sold for its full value, without any risk to the seller, if he was a smart man."

"Then, if you had this Rembrandt locked up in your safe, you would regard it as a sound and sure investment, to be realized on in the future?"

"Certainly. I should consider it as an equivalent for £10,000," Stephen Foster replied. "But there is not much of that sort of thing done-the ordinary burglar doesn't understand the game," he went on, carelessly. "And a good thing for the dealers, too. With my knowledge of the place, I could very easily remove a picture from Lamb and Drummond's store-room any night."

"Yes, you know the ground thoroughly. Would you like to make £10,000 at a single stroke, without risk?"

"I don't think I should hesitate long, if it was a sure thing," Stephen Foster replied, laughingly. "Nevill, what are you driving at?" he added with sudden earnestness.

"Wait a moment, and I'll explain."

Victor Nevill stepped to the door, listened briefly, and turned the key noiselessly in the lock. He drew a chair close to his companion and sat down.

"I am going to tell you a little story," he said. "It will interest you, if I am not mistaken."

It must have been a very important and mysterious communication, from the care with which Nevill told it, from the low and cautious tone in which he spoke. Stephen Foster listened with a blank expression that gradually changed to a look of amazement and satisfaction, of ill-concealed avarice. Then the two discussed the matter together, heedless of the passage of time, until the clock struck five.

"It certainly appears to be simple enough," said Stephen Foster, "but who will find out about-"

"You must do that," Nevill interrupted. "If I went, it might lead to awkward complications in the future."

"It's the worst part, and I confess I don't like it. But I'll take a night to think it over, and give you an answer to-morrow. It's an ugly undertaking-"

"But a safe one. If it comes off all right, I want £500 cash down, on account."

"It is not certain that it will come off at all," said Stephen Foster, as he rose. "Come in to-morrow afternoon. Oh, I believe I promised you some commission to-day."

"Yes; sixty pounds."

The check was written, and Nevill pocketed it with a nod. He put on his hat, moved to the door, and paused.

"By the by, there's a new thing on at the Frivolity-awfully good," he said. "Miss Foster might like to see it. We could make up a little party of three-"

"Thank you, but my daughter doesn't care for theatres. And, as you know, I spend my evenings at home."

"I don't blame you," Nevill replied, indifferently. "It's a snug and jolly crib you have down there by the river. And the fresh air does a fellow a lot of good. I feel like a new man when I come back to town after dining with you. One gets tired of clubs and restaurants."

"Come out when you like," said Stephen Foster, in a voice that lacked warmth and sincerity.

"That's kind of you," Nevill replied. "Good-night!"

A minute later he was walking thoughtfully down Wardour street.

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