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   Chapter 20 AT A NIGHT CLUB.

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 11835

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Victor Nevill called for his uncle at nine o'clock the next morning-it was not often he rose so early-and after breakfasting together the two went on to Lamb and Drummond's. Sir Lucius carried the unlucky picture under his arm, and he thumped the Pall Mall flagstones viciously with his stick; he walked like a reluctant martyr going to the stake.

Mr. Lamb had just arrived, and he led his visitors to his private office. He listened with amazement and rapt interest to the story they had come to tell him, which he did not once interrupt. When the canvas was unrolled and spread on the table he bent over it eagerly, then drew back and shook his head slightly.

"I was not aware of the robbery until my nephew informed me last night," explained Sir Lucius. "I have lost no time in restoring what I believe to be your property. It is an unfortunate affair, and a most disagreeable one to me, apart from any money considerations. But it affords me much gratification, sir, to be the means of-"

"I am by no means certain, Sir Lucius," Mr. Lamb interrupted, "that this is my picture."

"There could not be two of them!" gasped Sir Lucius.

"As a matter of fact, there are two," was the reply. "It is a curious affair, Sir Lucius, but I can speedily make it clear to you."

Very concisely and briefly Mr. Lamb told all that he knew about the duplicate Rembrandt, giving the gist of his interview months before with Jack Vernon.

"Then you mean to say that this is the duplicate?" asked Nevill.

"No; I can't say that."

Sir Lucius brightened suddenly. The loss of his prize was a heavy blow, but it would be far worse, he told himself, if he had been tricked into buying a false copy. He hated to think of such a thing-it was a wound to his pride, an insult to his judgment.

"I have reason to believe that the duplicate was a splendid replica of the original, otherwise it would not have been worth the trouble of stealing," Mr. Lamb went on. "Mr. Vernon assured me of that. So, under the circumstances, I cannot be positive which picture lies here before us. My eyesight is a little bad, and I prefer not to trust to it. Mr. Drummond might recognize the canvas, but he is out of town. I am disposed to doubt, however, that this is the original Rembrandt."

"You think it is more likely to be the duplicate?" inquired Sir Lucius.

"I do."

Sir Lucius swelled out with indignation, and his cheerfulness vanished.

"I am sorry to hear that" he said. "I can scarcely believe that I have been imposed upon. I am somewhat of an authority on old masters, Mr. Lamb."

The dealer smiled faintly; he had known Sir Lucius in a business way for a number of years.

"The price you paid-eleven hundred pounds-favors my theory," he replied. "Your Munich Jew, whom I happen to know by repute, is a very clever scoundrel. It is most unlikely that he would have parted with a real Rembrandt for such a sum. But I will gladly refund you the amount if this proves to be the original."

"I don't want the money," growled Sir Lucius. "I dare say you are right, sir; and if so, it is not to my discredit that I have been taken in by such a perfect copy. Gad, it would have deceived Rembrandt himself! But the question still remains to be settled. How can that be done, and as quickly as possible?"

"Mr. Vernon, the artist, is the only person who can do that. He put a private mark on the duplicate-"

"Vernon-John Vernon?" interrupted Sir Lucius. "Surely, Victor, I have heard you mention that name?"

"Quite right, uncle," said Nevill. He made the admission promptly, foreseeing that a denial might have awkward consequences in the future. "I know Jack Vernon well," he added. "He is an old friend. But I am sorry to inform you that he is not in England at present."

This was false, for Nevill had noted in the morning paper that Jack was one of the passengers by the P. and O. steamship Ismaila, which had docked on the previous day. Mr. Lamb, it appeared, was not aware of the fact.

"Your nephew is correct, Sir Lucius," he said. "Mr. Vernon has been in India for some months, acting as special war artist for the Universe. But he is expected home very shortly-in the course of a week, I believe."

"I shall not be here then," said Sir Lucius. "I am to leave London to-day. What would you suggest?"

"Allow the canvas to remain in my hands-I will take the best of care of it," replied Mr. Lamb. "I will write to you as soon as Mr. Vernon returns, and will arrange that you shall meet him here."

"Very well, sir," assented Sir Lucius. "Let the matter rest at that. When I hear from you I will run up to town."

He still hoped to learn that he had bought the original picture, and he would have preferred an immediate solution of the question. He was in a dejected mood when he left the shop with his nephew, but he cheered up under the influence of a good lunch and a pint of port, and he was in fairly good spirits when he took an afternoon train from Victoria to his stately Sussex home.

"Hang the Rembrandt!" he said at parting. "I don't care how it turns out. Run down for a few days at the end of the month, Victor-I can give you some good shooting."

Glancing over a paper that evening, Mr. Lamb read of Jack Vernon's return. But to find him proved to be a different matter, and at the end of a week he was still unsuccessful. Then, meeting Victor Nevill on Regent street, he induced him to join in the search for the missing artist. The commission by no means pleased Nevill, but he did not see his way to refuse.

* * *

For thirteen days Sir Lucius Chesney had been back at Priory Court, happy among his horses and dogs, his short-horns and orchids; his pictures rested temporarily under a cloud, and he was rarely to be found in the spacious gallery. In London, Victor Nevill enjoyed life with as much zest as his conscience would permit; Madge Foster dragged thro

ugh weary days and duller evenings at Strand-on-the-Green; and the editor of the Illustrated Universe wondered what had become of his bright young war-artist since the one brief visit to the office.

At two o'clock on a drizzling, foggy morning a policeman, walking up the Charing Cross Road, paused for a moment to listen to some remote strains of music that came indistinctly from a distance; then he shrugged his shoulders and went on-it was no business of his. The sounds that attracted the policeman's attention had their source in a cross street to the left-in one of those evil institutions known as a "night club," which it seems impossible to eradicate from the fast life of West End London.

It was a typical scene; there were many like it that night. The house had two street doors, and behind the inner one, which was fitted with a small grating and kept locked, squatted a vigilant keeper, equally ready to open to a member or deny admittance to any one who had no business there. On the first floor, up the dingy stairs, were two apartments. The outer and smaller room had a bar at one side, presided over by a bright, golden-haired young lady in very conspicuous evening dress, whose powers of repartee afforded much amusement to her customers. These were, many of them, in more or less advanced stages of intoxication, and they comprised sporting men, persons from various unfashionable walks of life, clerks who wanted to soar like eagles, and a few swell young men who had dropped in to be amused. A sprinkling of women must be added.

Both apartments were hung with engravings and French prints and decorated with tawdry curtains, and in the larger of the two dancing was going on. Here the crowd was denser and of the same heterogeneous kind. It was a festival of high jinks-a sway of riotous, unbridled merriment. A performer at the piano, with a bottle of beer within easy reach, rapped out the inspiriting chords of a popular melody. Couples glided over the polished floor, some lightly, some galloping, and all reckless of colliding with the onlookers. There was a touch of the risque in the dancing, suggesting the Moulin Rouge of a Casino de Paris carnival. Occasionally, during a lull, songs were sung by music-hall artistes of past celebrity, who were now glad of the chance to earn a few shillings before an uncritical audience. The atmosphere was charged with the scent of rouge and powder, brandy and stale sherry. Coarse jest and laughter, ringing on the night, mocked at go-to-bed London.

Two young men leaned against the wall of the dancing-room, close to the door, both smoking cigars. They wore evening dress, considerably rumpled, and their attitudes were careless. The elder of the two was Tony Mostyn, a clever but dissipated artist of the decadent school, who steered his life by the rule of indulgence and worked as little as possible.

"It's rather dull," he said; "eh, old chap?"

"It gives one a bad taste," his companion replied. "I don't see why you brought me here."

The second speaker was Jack Vernon. He looked bored and weary, but his cheeks were flushed and his eyes sparkled; the women who glanced pertly at him as they swung by inspired him merely with disgust. He had come to the club with Mostyn, after a dozen turns at the Alhambra, followed by a prolonged theater supper. He had drunk more than was good for him during the course of the evening, but the effects had about worn off.

The story of the past two weeks-since Jack's return from India-was a sad one. He tried his best to drown the bitter memories of Madge, of what he had lost. He cut loose from Jimmie and other old friends, took lodgings in an out-of-the-way quarter, and turned night into day. He had plenty of money, and he had not been near the office of the Universe. He found boon companions among the wildest acquaintances of his Paris days, including Tony Mostyn and his set. But a fortnight had dispelled the glamour, and life looked blacker to him than it had ever looked before. Courage and manhood were at a low ebb. He laughed recklessly as he wondered what the end would be.

"Let us go and get a drink," he said to his companion.

As he spoke a tumult broke out at the far end of the room. Scuffling feet and men's angry voices mingled with cries of protest and women's shrill screams. Then followed a heavy fall, a groan, and a rush of people. The music had stopped and the dancers were still.

"There's been a row," exclaimed Mostyn. "It's bad for the club."

Idle curiosity led Jack to the spot, and Mostyn accompanied him. They elbowed their way through, and saw a flashily-dressed man with blue-black cheeks and a curling black mustache lying on the floor. He was bleeding from an ugly wound on the forehead, where he had been struck by a bottle. His assailant had slipped away, scared, and was being smuggled out of the room and down stairs by his friends.

"What a shame!" ejaculated a terrified woman.

"It's no fair fighting," added another.

"Shut up, all of you!" angrily cried a harsh-voiced man-clearly one in authority-as he elbowed his way to the front. "Do you want to bring the police down on us?"

The warning had a prompt effect, and comparative silence ensued. The injured man tried to rise, but his potations had weakened him more than the loss of blood.

"Where's the bloke what hit me?" he feebly demanded.

His maudlin speech and woe-begone manner roused Jack's sympathy. He knelt down beside him, and made a brief examination.

"It's nothing serious-the bottle glanced off," he said. "Fetch water and a sponge, and I'll soon stop the bleeding. Who has a bit of plaster?"

No sponge was to be had, but a basin of water was quickly produced. Jack tore his handkerchief in two and wet part of it. He was about to begin operations when a hand tapped him on the shoulder and a familiar voice pronounced his name.

* * *

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