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In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 10988

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

There was a counter-attraction in Pall Mall-a rival to Marlborough House, opposite which, ranged along the curb, a number of persons are usually waiting on the chance of seeing the Prince drive out. The rival establishment was the shop of Lamb and Drummond, picture dealers and engravers to Her Majesty. Since nine o'clock that morning, in the blazing May sunshine, there had been a little crowd before the plate glass window, behind which the firm had kindly exposed their latest prize to the public gaze. Newspaper men had been admitted to a private view of the picture, and for a couple of days previous the papers had contained paragraphs in reference to the coming exhibition. Rembrandts are by no means uncommon, nor do all command high prices; but this particular one, which Martin Von Whele had unearthed in Paris, was conceded to be the finest canvas that the master-artist's brush had produced.

It was the typical London crowd, very much mixed. Some regarded the picture with contemptuous indifference and walked away. Others admired the rich, strong coloring, the permanency of the pigments, and the powerful, ferocious head, either Russian or Polish, that seemed to fairly stand out from the old canvas. A few persons, who were keener critics, envied Lamb and Drummond for the bargain they had obtained at such a small figure.

Early in the afternoon Jack Vernon joined the group before the shop window; an interview with the editor of the Piccadilly Magazine had brought him to town, and, having read the papers, he had walked from the Strand over to Pall Mall. Memories of his Paris life, of the morning when he had trudged home in bitter disappointment to the Boulevard St. Germain and Diane, surged into his mind.

"It is the same picture that I copied at the Hotel Netherlands," he said to himself, "and it ought to sell for a lot of money. How well I recall those hours of drudgery, with old Von Whele looking over my shoulder and puffing the smoke of Dutch tobacco into my eyes! I was sorry to read of his death, and the sale of his collection. He was a good sort, if he was forgetful. By Jove, I've half a mind to box up my duplicate and send it to his executors. I wonder if they would settle the long-standing account."

Several hours later, when Jack had gone home and was hard at work in his studio, Victor Nevill sauntered down St. James street. He wore evening dress, and carried a light overcoat on his arm. He stopped at Lamb and Drummond's window for a few moments, and scrutinized the Rembrandt carelessly, but with a rather curious expression on his face. Then he looked at his watch-the time was half-past five-and cutting across into the park he walked briskly to St. James' Park station. The train that he wanted was announced, and when it came in he watched the row of carriages as they flashed by him. He entered a first-class smoker, and nodded to Stephen Foster. The two were not alone in the compartment, and during the ride of half an hour they exchanged only a few words, and gave close attention to their papers. But they had plenty to talk about after they got out at Gunnersbury, and their conversation was grave and serious as they walked slowly toward the river, by the long shady streets lined with villas.

Stephen Foster's house stood close to the lower end of Strand-on-the-Green. It was more than a century old, and was larger than it looked from the outside. It had the staid and comfortable stamp of the Georgian period, with its big square windows, and the unique fanlight over the door. Directly opposite the entrance, across the strip of paved quay, was a sort of a water-gate leading down to the sedgy shore of the Thames-a flight of stone steps, cut out of the masonry, from the foot of which it was possible to take boat at high tide. In the rear of the house was a walled garden, filled with flowers, shrubbery, and fruit trees.

Opening the door with his key, Stephen Foster led his guest into the drawing-room, where Madge was sitting with a book. She kissed her father, and gave a hand reluctantly to Nevill, whom she addressed as Mr. Royle. She resumed her reading, perched on a couch by the window, and Nevill stole numerous glances at her while he chatted with his host.

The curio-dealer dined early-he was always hungry when he came back from town-and dinner was announced at seven o'clock. It was a protracted ceremony, and the courses were well served and admirably cooked; the wine came from a carefully selected cellar, and was beyond reproach. Madge presided at the table, and joined in the conversation; but it evidently cost her an effort to be cheerful. After the dessert she rose.

"Will you and Mr. Royle excuse me, father?" she said. "I know you want to smoke."

"I hope you are not going to desert us, Miss Foster," Nevill replied. "Your company is preferable to the best cigar."

"We will go up stairs and smoke," said Stephen Foster. "Come, Royle; my daughter would rather play the piano."

The library, whither Nevill accompanied his host, was on the second floor front. It was a cozy room, trimmed with old oak, with furniture to match, lined with books and furnished with rare engravings and Persian rugs. Stephen Foster lighted the incandescent gas-lamp on the big table, drew the window curtains together, and closed the door. Then he unlocked a cabinet and brought out a box of Havanas, a siphon, a couple of glasses, and a bottle of whisky and one of Maraschino.

"Sit down, and h

elp yourself," he said. "Or is it too early for a stimulant?"

Nevill did not reply; he was listening to the low strains of music from the floor beneath, where Madge was at the piano, singing an old English ballad. He hesitated for a moment, and dropped into an easy chair. Stephen Foster drew his own chair closer and leaned forward.

"We are quite alone," he said, "and there is no danger of being overheard or disturbed. You intimated that you had something particular to say to me. What is it? Does it concern our little-"

"No; we discussed that after we left the train. It is quite a different matter."

Nevill's usual self-possession seemed to have deserted him, and as he went on with his revelation he spoke in jerky sentences, with some confusion and embarrassment.

"That's all there is about it," he wound up, aggressively.

"All?" cried Stephen Foster.

He got up and walked nervously to the window. Then he turned back and confronted Nevill; there was a look on his face that was not pleasant to see, as if he had aged suddenly.

"Is this a jest, or are you serious?" he demanded, coldly. "Do I understand that you love my daughter?-that you wish to marry her?"

"I have told you so plainly. You must have known that I loved her-you cannot have been blind to that fact all this time."

"I have been worse than blind, Nevill, I fear. Have you spoken to Madge?"

"No; I never had a chance."

"Do you consider yourself a suitable husband for her?"

"Why not?" Nevill asked; he was cool and composed now. "If you are good enough to be her father, am I not worthy to be her husband?"

"Don't say that," Stephen Foster answered. "You are insolent-you forget to whom you are speaking. Whatever our relations have been and are, whatever sort of man I am at my desk or my ledgers, I am another person at home. Sneer if you like, it is true. I love my daughter-the child of my dead wife. She does not know what I do in town-you are aware of that-and God forbid that she ever does learn. I want to keep her in ignorance-to guard her young life and secure her future happiness. And you want to marry her!"

"I do," replied Nevill, trying to speak pleasantly.

"How will you explain the deception-the fact that you have been coming here under a false name?"

"I will get around that all right. It was your suggestion, you remember, not mine, that I should take the name of Royle. Look here, Foster, I know there is some reason in what you say-I respect your motives. But you misunderstand and misjudge me. I love the girl with all my heart, with a true, pure and lasting affection. I might choose a wife in higher places, but Madge has enslaved me with her sweet face and charming disposition. As for our relations-you know what poverty drove me to. Given a secure income, and I should never have stooped to dishonor. The need of money stifled the best that was in my nature. It is not too late to reform, though. I don't mean now, but when I come into my uncle's fortune, which is a sure thing. Then, I promise you, I will be as straight as you could wish your daughter's husband to be. Believe me, I am sincere. No man could offer Madge a deeper affection."

There was no doubt that Victor Nevill spoke the truth, for once in his life; he loved Madge with a passion that dominated him, and he knew his own unworthiness. Stephen Foster paced the floor with a haggard face, with knitted brows.

"It is impossible," he said to himself. "I would rather see her married to some poor but honest clerk." He lighted a cigar and bit it savagely. "What if I refuse?" he added aloud.

A dangerous light flashed in Nevill's eyes.

"I won't give her up," he replied; and in the words there was a hidden menace which Stephen Foster understood.

"Give her up?" he echoed. "You have not won her yet."

"I know that, but I hope to succeed."

"What do you expect me to do?"

"All in your power. Give me a fair show."

"The girl shan't be bullied or browbeaten-I won't force her into such a step against her wishes. If she marries you, it will be of her own free will."

"That's fair enough. But I want an open field. You must keep other admirers away from the girl, and there isn't any time to lose about it. It may be too late now-"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that Madge has improved her acquaintance with the chap who pulled her out of the river a couple of weeks ago."

"Impossible, Nevill!"

"It is perfectly true. And do you know who the man is? It is none other than Jack Vernon, the artist."

"By heavens, Jack Vernon! The same who-"

"Yes, the same. I did not tell you before."

"And I did not dream of it. I wrote a letter of gratitude to the fellow, and told Madge to get his address from the landlord of the Black Bull-I did not know it myself, else-"

"I was afraid you might have some scruples. It is too late for that now."

"It was like your cursed cunning," exclaimed Stephen Foster. "Yes, I should have hesitated. But are you certain that Madge has seen the fellow since?"

"Certain? Why, I passed them in George street, Richmond, last evening, as I was driving to the Star and Garter. They were together in a trap, going toward Kew. That is the reason I determined to speak to you to-night."

Stephen Foster rose and hurried toward the door; his face was pale with anger and alarm.

"Stop!" cried Nevill. "What are you going to do?"

"Sit still," was the hoarse reply. "I'll tell you when I return."

* * *

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