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In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 12983

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Stephen Foster sat in his office at No. 320 Wardour street, with half a dozen of the morning and afternoon papers scattered about his desk. It was two o'clock, but he had not gone out to lunch, and it had not occurred to him that the usual hour for it was past. Footsteps came down the length of the shop, and Victor Nevill opened the door. He closed it quickly behind him as he entered the room; his face expressed extreme agitation, and he looked like a man who has spent a sleepless night.

"You have seen them?" he exclaimed, pointing to the papers. "You have read the different accounts?"

"Yes, I have read them-that is all. They tell me nothing. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I bought a Telegraph at Gunnersbury station this morning, and saw the headlines."

"And I first heard of it at breakfast-I got up rather late. I opened the Globe and there it was, staring me in the eyes. It knocked my appetite, I can assure you. What do you make of it?"

"It's a mystery," replied Stephen Foster, "and I am all in the dark about it. Devilish unfortunate, I call it."

"Right you are! And it's more than that. You have seen the Globe?"

"Yes; here it is."

"Did you know that the picture was insured?"

"I judged that it was, but the fact was quite unimportant."

"The Mutual people won't regard it in that light."

"Hardly. Will you have a drink, my dear fellow? You are looking seedy."

A stiff brandy-and-soda pulled Victor Nevill together, and for nearly an hour the two men spoke in low and serious tones, occasionally referring to the heap of papers.

"Not the slightest clew," said Stephen Foster. "It is absurd to suspect Raper of collusion with the thieves-his only fault was carelessness. Leave the affair to the police. I shan't give it another thought."

"That's easier said than done," Nevill replied. He rose and put on his hat. "I must be off now. Oh, about the other matter-have you said anything further to your daughter?"

"Not a word."

"She still defies you?"

"She refuses to give the fellow up." Stephen Foster sighed. "The girl has lots of spirit."

"You won't let her have her own way?"

"Not if I can prevent it."

"Prevent it?" echoed Nevill, sneeringly. "What measures will you take?"

"I shall see the artist."

"Much good that will do," said Nevill. "Better begin by enforcing your authority over your daughter."

"I can't be harsh with her," Stephen Foster answered. "I am more inclined to pity than anger."

Under the circumstances, now that he knew how far matters had gone with the woman he loved and his rival, Victor Nevill was curiously unconcerned and unmoved, at least outwardly. It is true that he did not despair of success, strong as were the odds against him. There was a hard and evil expression on his face, which melted at times into a cunning smile of satisfaction, as he walked down Wardour street.

"I am on the right scent, and the game will soon be in my hands," he reflected. "In another week I ought to be able to put an effectual spoke in Jack Vernon's wheel. It will be a blow for Madge, but she will forget him presently, and then I will commence to play my cards. I won't fail-I'm determined to make her my wife. Shall I let Foster into the scheme? I think not. Better let things take their course, and keep him in ignorance of the fact that I had a hand in the revelation, if it comes off. I'm afraid it won't, though."

We must take the reader now to Ravenscourt Park, to the studio of Jack Vernon. Early in the afternoon, while Victor Nevill was closeted with Stephen Foster, the young artist was sitting at his easel. He had been working since breakfast on a landscape, a commission from one of his wealthy patrons. Things had gone unusually well with him lately. His picture was on the line at the Academy, it had been favorably reviewed, and he had received several offers for it. This indicated increased fame, with a larger income, and a luxurious little home for Madge.

"Will you have your lunch now, sir?" Alphonse called from the doorway of an inner room.

"Yes, you may fetch it," Jack replied. "I'm as hungry as a bear."

He usually took his second meal at an earlier hour, but to-day he had gone on working, deeply interested in his subject. He put aside his brush and palette, and seated himself at the table, on which Alphonse had placed a couple of chops, a bottle of Bass, and half a loaf of French bread. When he had finished, he lighted a cigarette and opened the Telegraph lazily. He had not looked at it before, and he uttered a cry of surprise as his eyes fell on the headlines announcing the theft of the Rembrandt. He perused the brief paragraph, and turned to his servant.

"Go out and buy me an afternoon paper," he said.

Alphonse departed, and, having the luck to encounter a newsboy in the street, he speedily returned with the latest edition of the Globe. It contained nothing more in substance than the earlier issues, but the full account of the mysterious robbery was there, a column long, and with keen interest Jack read every word of it over twice.

"It's a queer case," he said to himself, "and the sort of thing that doesn't often happen. The last sensation of the kind was the Gainsborough, years ago. What will the thieves do with their prize? They can't well dispose of it. It will be a waiting game. I daresay the watchman knows more than he cares to tell. And so the picture was insured-over-insured, too, for I don't believe it would have brought ten thousand pounds. That's rather an interesting fact. Now, if Lamb and Drummond were like some unscrupulous dealers that I know, instead of being beyond reproach, there would be reason to think-"

He did not finish the mental sentence, but tossed the paper aside, and rose suddenly to his feet.

"By Jove, I'll hang up the duplicate!" he muttered. "I was going to send it to Von Whele's executors, but it is worth keeping now, as a curiosity. It will be an attraction to the chaps who come to see me. I hope it won't get me into trouble. It is so deucedly like the original that I might be accused of stealing it from the premises of Lamb and Drummond."

He crossed the studio, knelt down by the couch and pulled the drapery aside, and drew out the half-dozen of bulging portfolios; they had not been disturbed since the visit of his French customer, M. Felix Marchand. He opened the one in which he knew he had seen the Rembrandt on that occasion, but

he failed to find it, though he turned over the sketches singly. He examined them again, with increasing wonder, and then went carefully through the other portfolios. The search was fruitless. The copy of Martin Von Whele's Rembrandt was gone!

"What can it mean?" thought Jack. "I distinctly remember putting the canvas back in the biggest portfolio-I could swear to that. I have not touched them since. Yet the picture is gone-missing-stolen. Yes, stolen! What else? By Jove, it's a queer coincidence that both the original and the copy should disappear simultaneously!"

He struck a match and looked beneath the couch; there was nothing there. He ransacked about the studio for a few minutes, and then summoned his servant.

"Was there a stranger here at any time during the last two weeks?" he asked; "any person whom you did not know?"

Alphonse shook his head decidedly.

"There was no one, monsieur. I am certain of that."

"And my friends-"

"On such occasions as monsieur's friends called while he was out, I was in the studio as long as they remained."

"Yes, of course. When did you sweep under this couch?"

"About three weeks ago, monsieur," was the hesitating reply.

"No less than that?"

"No less, monsieur."

Jack was satisfied. There was no room for suspicion, he told himself. The man's word was to be relied upon. But by what agency, then, had the canvas disappeared? How could a thief break into the studio without leaving some trace of his visit, in the shape of a broken window or a forced lock? There had been plenty of opportunities, it is true-nights when Alphonse had been at home and Jack in town.

"Has monsieur lost something?"

"Yes, a large painting has been stolen," Jack replied.

He went to the door and examined the lock from the outside, by the aid of matches, though with no hope of finding anything. But a surprising and ominous discovery rewarded him at once. In and around the key-hole, sticking to it, were some minute fragments of wax.

"By Jove, I have it!" cried Jack. "Here is the clew! Look, Alphonse! The scoundrel, whoever he was, took an impression in wax on his first visit. He had a key made from it, came back later at night, and stole the picture. It was a cunning piece of work."

"Monsieur is right," said Alphonse. "A thief has robbed him. You suspect nobody?"

"Not a soul," replied Jack.

Though the shreds of wax showed how the studio had been entered, he was no nearer the solution of the mystery than before. He excepted the few trustworthy friends-only three or four-who knew that he had the duplicate Rembrandt.

"And even in Paris there were not many who knew that I painted the thing," he thought. "I painted it at the Hotel Netherlands, and when Von Whele went home and left it on my hands, I locked the canvas up in an old chest. No, I can't suspect any of my friends, past or present. But then who-By Jove! I have overlooked one point! The man who stole the picture knew just where it was kept, and he went straight to it. Otherwise he would have rummaged the studio, and disarranged things badly before he found what he wanted."

A light flashed on Jack-a light of inspiration, of certainty and conviction. He remembered the visit of M. Felix Marchand, that he had commented on the painting, and had seen it restored to its place in the portfolio. Beyond doubt the mysterious Frenchman was the thief. Armed with his craftily-won knowledge, provided with a duplicate key to the studio, he had easily and safely accomplished his purpose. At what hour, and on what night, it was impossible to say. Probably a day or two after his first visit in the guise of a buyer.

"Monsieur must not take his loss too much to heart," said Alphonse, with well-meant sympathy. "If he informs the police-"

"I prefer to have nothing to do with the police, thank you. You may go, Alphonse. I shall dine in town, as usual."

When Alphonse had departed, Jack threw a sheet over the canvas on his easel, put on a smoking jacket, lighted his pipe, and stretched himself in an easy chair, to think about the startling discovery he had made.

The mystery presented many difficult points for his consideration. The rogue's sole aim was to get that particular painting, and he had taken nothing else, though he might have walked off with his pockets filled with valuable articles. He probably expected that the robbery would not be discovered for a long time.

But what was his object in stealing the Rembrandt? What did he hope to do with a copy of so well-known a work of art? Was there any connection between this crime and the one committed last night on the premises of the Pall Mall dealers? That was extremely unlikely. It was beyond question that Lamb and Drummond had had the original painting in their possession, and that daring burglars had taken it.

"I could see light in the matter," Jack reflected, "if the fellow had visited my place after hearing of the robbery at Lamb and Drummond's. In that case, his scheme would have been to get the duplicate canvas-granted that he knew of its existence and whereabouts-and trade it off for the original. But he could not have known until early this morning, and he did not come then. I was sleeping here, and would have heard him. No, my picture must have been taken at least a week or ten days ago."

Jack smoked two more pipes, and the dark-brown Latakia tobacco from Oriental shores, stealing insidiously to his brain, brought him an idea.

"It is chimeric and improbable," he concluded, "but it is the most likely theory I have struck yet. Was my Frenchman the same chap who robbed Lamb and Drummond? Did he or his confederates steal both paintings, knowing them to be as like as two peas, with the intention of disposing of each as the original, and thus killing two birds with one stone? By Jove, I believe I've hit it! But, no, it is unlikely. Can I be right? I'll reserve my opinion, anyway, until I have written to Paris to ascertain if there is such a person as M. Felix Marchand, of the Pare Monceaux. If there is not, then I will interview Lamb and Drummond, and confide the whole story to them."

He decided to write the letter at once, but before he could reach his desk there was a sharp rap on the door. He opened it, and saw a tall, well-dressed gentleman, with a tawny beard and mustache, who bowed coldly and silently, and held out a card. Jack took it and read the name. His visitor was Stephen Foster.

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