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   Chapter 13 THE TEMPTER.

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 14299

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"Just as I suspected!" Jack exclaimed. "I knew I couldn't be mistaken. I have spotted the thief. The queer chap who bought my water-color sketches is the same who carried off the Rembrandt. How cleverly he worked his little game! But there my information stops, and I doubt if the police could make much out of it."

The letter, which he had crumpled excitedly in his hand after reading it, was written in French; freely translated it ran as follows:

"No. 15, BOULEVARD DE COURCELLES, PARIS.

"My Dear Jack-I was rejoiced to hear from you, after so long a silence, and it gave me sincere pleasure to look into the matter of which you spoke. But I fear that my answers must be in the negative. It is certain that no such individual as M. Felix Marchand lives in or near the Pare Monceaux, where I have numerous acquaintances; nor do I find the name in the directory of Paris. Moreover, he is unknown to the dealer, Cambon, on the Quai Voltaire, of whom I made inquiries. So the matter rests. I am pleased to learn of your prosperity. When shall I see you once more in Lutetia?

"With amiable sentiments I inscribe myself,

"Your old friend,

"CHARLES JACQUIN."

"I'll take the earliest opportunity of seeing Lamb and Drummond," Jack resolved. "The affair will interest them, and it may lead to something. But I shan't bother about it-I didn't value the picture very highly, and the thief almost deserves to keep it for his cleverness."

During the next three days, however, Jack was too busy to carry out his plan-at least in the mornings. Not for any consideration would he have sacrificed his afternoons, for then he met Madge in Regent's Park, and spent an hour or more with her, reckless of extortionate cab fares from Ravenscourt Park to the neighborhood of Portland Terrace. On the second night, dining in town, he met Victor Nevill, and had a long chat with him, the two going to a music-hall afterward. Jack was discreetly silent about his love affair, nor did he or Nevill refer to the little incident near Richmond Hill.

At the end of the week Jack's opportunity came. He had finished some work on which he had been employed for several days, and soon after breakfast, putting on a frock coat and a top hat he went off to town. He presented a card at Lamb and Drummond's, and the senior partner of the firm, who knew him well by reputation, invited him into his private office. On learning his visitor's errand, Mr. Lamb evinced a keen interest in the subject. He listened attentively to the story, and asked various questions.

"Here is the letter from my friend in Paris," Jack concluded. "You will understand its import. It shows conclusively that M. Marchand came to my studio under a false name, and leaves no room for doubt that it was he who stole my duplicate Rembrandt."

"I agree with you, Mr. Vernon. It is a puzzling affair, and I confess I don't know what to make of it. But it is exceedingly interesting, and I am very glad that you have confided in me. I think it will be best if we keep our knowledge strictly to ourselves for the present."

"By all means."

"I except the detectives who are working on the case."

"Yes, of course. They are the proper persons to utilize the information," assented Jack. "It should not be made public."

"I never knew that a copy of Von Whele's picture was in existence," said Mr. Lamb. "I need hardly ask if it is a faithful one."

"I am afraid it is," Jack replied, smiling. "I worked slowly and carefully, and though I was a bit of an amateur in those days, I was more than satisfied with the result. The pictures were of the same size; and I really don't think many persons could have distinguished the one from the other."

"Could you do that now, supposing that both were before you, framed alike, and that the duplicate was cunningly toned to look as old as the original?"

"I should not hesitate an instant," Jack replied, "because it happens that I took the precaution of making a slight mark in one corner of my canvas."

"Ah, that was a clever idea-very shrewd of you! It may be of the greatest importance in the future."

"You have not yet given me your opinion of the mysterious Frenchman," Jack went on. "Do you believe that he was concerned in both robberies?"

"Circumstances seem to point that way, Mr. Vernon, do they not? Your picture was certainly taken before mine?"

"It was, without doubt."

"Then, what object could the Frenchman have had in stealing the comparatively worthless duplicate, unless he counted on subsequently getting possession of the original?"

"It sounds plausible," said Jack. "That's just my way of looking at it. The advantage would be-"

"That the thieves would have two pictures, equally valuable to them, to dispose of secretly," put in Mr. Lamb. "We may safely assume, then, that our enterprising burglars are in possession of a brace of Rembrandts. What they will do with them it is difficult to say. They will likely make no move at present, but it is possible that they will try to dispose of them in the Continental market or in America, in which case I have hopes that they will blunder into the hands of the police. Proper precautions have been taken both at home and abroad."

"Is there any clew yet?"

Mr. Lamb shook his head sadly.

"Not a ray of light has been thrown on the mystery," he replied, "though the best Scotland Yard men are at work. You may depend upon it that the insurance people, who stand to lose ten thousand pounds, will leave no stone unturned. As for Raper, our watchman, he has been discharged. Mr. Drummond and I are convinced that his story was true, but it was impossible to overlook his gross carelessness. We never knew that he was in the habit of going nightly to the public house in Crown Court."

"It's a wonder you were not robbed before," said Jack. "You have my address-will you let me know if anything occurs?"

"Certainly, Mr. Vernon. Must you be off? Good morning!"

Jack sauntered along Pall Mall, and turned up Regent street. At Piccadilly Circus he saw two men standing before the cigar shop on the corner. One was young and boyish looking. The other, a few years older, was of medium height and stout beyond proportion; he wore a tweed suit of a rather big check pattern, and the coat was buttoned over a scarlet waistcoat; the straw hat, gaudily beribboned, shaded a fat, jolly, half-comical face, of the type that readily inspires confidence. He was talking to his companion animatedly when he saw Jack approaching. With a boisterous exclamation of delight he rushed up to him and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Clare, old boy!" he cried.

"Jimmie Drexell!" Jack gasped in amazement. "Dear old chap, how awfully glad I am to see you!"

With genuine and heartfelt emotion they shook hands and looked into each other's eyes-these two who had not met for long years, since the rollicksome days of student life in Paris when they had been as intimate as brothers.

"You're fit as a king, my boy-not much changed," spluttered Drexell, with a strong American accent to his kindly, mellow voice. "I was going to look you up to-

day-only landed at Southampton yesterday-got beastly tired of New York-yearned for London and Paris-shan't go back for six months or a year, hanged if I do."

"I'm jolly glad to hear it, Jimmie."

"We'll see a lot of each other-eh, old man? So, you've stuck to the name of Vernon? I called you Clare, didn't I? Yes, I forgot. You told me you had taken the other name when you wrote a couple of years ago. I haven't heard from you since, except through the papers. You've made a hit, I understand. Doing well?"

"Rather! I've no cause to complain. And you, Jimmie? What's become of the art?"

"Chucked it, Jack-it was no go. I painted like a blooming Turk-hired a studio-filled it with jimcrackery-got the best-looking models-wore a velvet coat and grew long hair. But it was all useless. I earned twenty-five dollars in three years. I had a picture in a dealer's shop-his place burnt down-I made him fork over. Then a deceased relative left me $150,000-said I deserved it for working so hard in Paris. A good one, eh? I leased the studio to the Salvation Army, and here I am, a poor devil of an artist out of work."

Jack laughed heartily.

"Art never was much in your line," he said, "though I remember how you kept pegging away at it. And no one can be more pleased than myself to learn that you've dropped into a fortune. Stick to it, Jimmie."

"There will be another one some day, Jack-when this is gone. By the way, I met old Nevill last night-dined with him. And that reminds me-"

He turned to his companion, the fresh-faced boy, and introduced him to Jack as the Honorable Bertie Raven. The two shook hands cordially, and exchanged a few commonplace words.

"Come on; we've held up this corner long enough," exclaimed Drexell. "Let's go and lunch together somewhere. I'll leave it to you, Raven. Name your place."

"Prince's, then," was the prompt rejoinder.

As they walked along Piccadilly the Honorable Bertie was forced ahead by the narrowness of the pavement and the jostling crowds, and Drexell whispered at Jack's ear:

"A good sort, that young chap. I met him in New York a year ago. His next eldest brother, the Honorable George, is over there now. I believe he is going to marry a cousin of mine-a girl who will come into a pot of money when her governor dies."

* * *

Nine o'clock at night, and a room in Beak street, Regent street; a back apartment looking into a dingy court, furnished with a sort of tawdry, depressing luxury, and lighted by a pair of candles. A richly dressed woman who had once been extremely handsome, and still retained more than a trace of her charms, half reclined on a couch; a fluffy mass of coppery-red hair had escaped from under her hat, and shaded her large eyes; shame and confusion, mingled with angry defiance, deepened the artificial blush on her cheeks.

Victor Nevill stood in the middle of the floor, confronting her with a faint, mocking smile at his lips. He had not taken the trouble to remove his hat. He wore evening dress, with a light cloak over it, and he twirled a stick carelessly between his gloved fingers.

"So it is really you!" he said.

"If you came to sneer at me, go!" the woman answered spitefully. "You have your revenge. How did you find me?"

"It was not easy, but I persevered-"

"Why?"

"For a purpose. I will tell you presently. And do not think that I came to sneer. I am sorry for you-grieved to find you struggling in the vortex of London." He looked about the room, which, indeed, told a plain story. "You were intended for better things," he added. "Where is Count Nordhoff?"

"He left me-three years ago."

"I wouldn't mind betting that you cleaned him out, and then heartlessly turned him adrift."

"You are insolent!"

"And I dare say you have had plenty of others since. What has become of the Jew?"

The woman's eyes flashed like a tiger's.

"I wish I had him here now!" she cried. "He deserted me-broke a hundred promises. I have not seen him for a week."

"You are suffering heavily for the past."

"For the past!" the woman echoed dully. "Victor," she said with a sudden change of voice, "you loved me once-"

"Yes, once. But you crushed that love-killed it forever. No stage sentiment, please. Understand that, plainly."

The brief hope died out of the woman's eyes, and was replaced by a gleam of hatred. She looked at the man furiously.

"There is no need to fly into a passion," said Nevill. "We can at least be friends. I cherish no ill-feeling-I pity you sincerely. And yet you are still beautiful enough to turn some men's heads. How are you off for money?"

The woman opened a purse and dashed a handful of silver to the floor.

"That is my all!" she cried, hoarsely.

"Then you must find a way out of your difficulties. I am going to have a serious talk with you."

Nevill drew a chair up to the couch, and his first words roused the woman's interest. He spoke for ten minutes or more, now in whispers, now with a rising inflection; now persuasively, now with well-feigned indignation and scorn. The effect which his argument had on his companion was shown by the swift changes that passed over her face; she interrupted him frequently, asking questions and making comments. At the end the woman rustled her silken skirts disdainfully, and rose to her feet.

"Why do you suggest this, Victor?" she demanded. "Where do you come in?"

Nevill seemed slightly disconcerted.

"I am foolish enough to feel an interest in a person I once cared for," he replied. "I want to save you from ruin that is inevitable if you continue in your present course."

"It is kind of you, Victor Nevill," the woman answered sneeringly. "He has a personal motive," she thought. "What can it be?"

"The thing is so simple, so natural," said Nevill, "that I wonder you hesitate. Of course you will fall in with it."

"Suppose I refuse?"

"I can't credit you with such madness."

"But what if-" She leaned toward him and whispered a short sentence in his ear. His face turned the color of ashes, and he clutched her wrist so tightly that she winced with pain.

"It is a lie!" he cried, brutally. "By heavens, if I believed-"

The woman laughed-a laugh that was not pleasant to hear.

"Fool! do you think I would tell you if it was true?" she said. "I was only jesting."

"It is not a subject to jest about," Nevill answered stiffly. "I came here to do you a good turn, and-"

"You had better have kept away. You are a fiend-you are a Satan himself! Why do you tempt me? Do you think that I have no conscience, no shame left? I am bad enough, Victor Nevill, but by the memory of the past-of what I threw away-I can't stoop so low as to-"

"Your heroics are out of place," he interrupted. "Go to the devil your own way, if you like."

"You shall have an answer to-morrow-to-morrow! Give me time to think about it."

The woman sank down on the couch again; her over-wrought nerves gave way, and burying her face in the cushions she sobbed hysterically. Nevill looked at her for a moment. Then he put a couple of sovereigns on the table and quietly left the room.

* * *

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