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PLEBEIAN AND PRINCE
THE GENTLEMAN WAS NOT in the least bored who might have been and was seen on that wintry afternoon in Nineteen hundred, lounging with one shoulder to a wall of the dingy salesroom and idly thumbing a catalogue of effects about to be put up at auction; but his insouciance was so unaffected that the inevitable innocent bystander might have been pardoned for perceiving in him a pitiable victim of the utterest ennui.
In point of fact, he was privately relishing life with enviable gusto. In those days he could and did: being alive was the most satisfying pastime he could imagine, or cared to, who was a thundering success in his own conceit and in fact as well; since all the world for whose regard he cared a twopenny-bit admired, respected, and esteemed him in his public status, and admired, respected, and feared him in his private capacity, and paid him heavy tribute to boot.
More than that, he was young, still very young indeed, barely beyond the threshold of his chosen career. To his eagerly exploring eye the future unrolled itself in the likeness of an endless scroll illuminated with adventures all piquant, picturesque, and profitable. With the happy assurance of lucky young impudence he figured the world to himself as his oyster; and if his method of helping himself to the succulent contents of its stubborn shell might have been thought questionable (as unquestionably it was) he was no more conscious of a conscience to give him qualms than he was of pangs of indigestion. Whereas his digestive powers were superb .
This way of killing an empty afternoon, too, was much to his taste. The man adored auctions. To his mind a most delectable flavour of discreet scandal inhered in such collections of shabby properties from anonymous homes. Nothing so piqued his imagination as some well-worn piece of furniture—say an ancient escritoire with ink stains on its green baize writing-bed (dried life-blood of love letters long since dead!) and all its pigeon-holes and little drawers empty of everything but dust and the seductive smell of secrets; or a dressing-table whose bewildered mirror, to-day reflecting surroundings cold and strange, had once been quick and warm to the beauty of eyes brilliant with delight or blurred with tears; or perchance a bed .
And even aside from such stimuli to a lively and ingenious fancy, there was always the chance that one might pick up some priceless treasure at an auction sale, some rare work of art dim with desuetude and the disrespect of ignorance: jewellery of quaintest old-time artistry; a misprized bit of bronze; a book, it might be an overlooked copy of a first edition inscribed by some immortal author to a forgotten love; or even—if one were in rare luck—a picture, its pristine brilliance faded, the signature of the artist illegible beneath the grime of years, evidence of its origin perceptible only to the discerning eye—to such an eye, for instance, as Michael Lanyard boasted. For paintings were his passion.
Already, indeed, at this early age, he was by way of being something of a celebrity, in England and on the Continent, as a collector of the nicest discrimination.
And then he found unfailing human interest in the attendance attracted by auction sales; in the dealers, gentlemen generally of pronounced idiosyncrasies; in the auctioneers themselves, robust fellows, wielding a sort of rugged wit singular to their calling, masters of deep guile, endowed with intuitions which enabled them at a glance or from the mere intonation of a voice to discriminate between the serious-minded and those frivolous souls who bid without meaning to buy, but as a rule for nothing more than the curious satisfaction of being able to brag that they had been outbid.
But it was in the ranks of the general public that one found most amusement; seldom did a sale pass off undistinguished by at least one incident uniquely revealing or provocative. And for such moments Lanyard was always on the qui vive, but quietly, who knew that nothing so quickly stifles spontaneity as self-consciousness. So, if he studied his company closely, he was studious to do it covertly; as now, when he seemed altogether engrossed in the catalogue, whereas his gaze was freely roving.
Thus far to-day a mere handful of people other than dealers had drifted in to wait for the sale to begin—something for which the weather was largely to blame, for the day was dismal with a clammy drizzle settling from a low and leaden sky—and with a solitary exception these few were commonplace folk.
This one Lanyard had marked down midway across the room, in the foremost row of chairs beneath the salesman's pulpit: by his attire a person of fashion (though his taste might have been thought a trace florid) who carried himself with an air difficult of definition but distinctive enough in its way.
Whoever he was and what his quality, he was unmistakably somebody of consequence in his own reckoning, and sufficiently well-to-do to dress the part he chose to play in life. Certainly he had a conscientious tailor and a busy valet, both saturate with British tradition. Yet the man they served was no Englishman.
Aside from his clothing, everything about him had an exotic tang, though what precisely his racial antecedents might have been was rather a riddle; a habit so thoroughly European went oddly with the hints of Asiatic strain which one thought to detect in his lineaments. Nevertheless, it were difficult otherwise to account for the faintly indicated slant of those little black eyes, the blurred modelling of the nose, the high cheekbones, and the thin thatch of coarse black hair which was plastered down with abundant brilliantine above that mask of pallid features.
The grayish pallor of the man, indeed, was startling, so that Lanyard for some time sought an adjective to suit it, and was content only when he hit on the word evil. Indeed, evil seemed the inevitable and only word; none other could possibly so well fit that strange personality.
His interest thus fixed, he awaited confidently what could hardly fail to come, a moment of self-betrayal.
That fell more quickly than he had hoped. Of a sudden the decent quiet of King Street, thus far accentuated rather than disturbed by the routine grind of hansoms and four-wheelers, was enlivened by spirited hoofs whose clatter stilled abruptly in front of the auction room.
Turning a speciously languid eye toward the weeping window, Lanyard had a partial view of a handsomely appointed private equipage, a pair of spanking bays, a liveried coachman on the box.
The carriage door slammed with a hollow clap; a footman furled an umbrella and climbed to his place beside the driver. As the vehicle drew away, one caught a glimpse of a crest upon the panel.
Two women entered the auction room.CHAPTER 2
THE PRINCESS SOFIA
THESE LADIES WERE YOUNG, neither much older than Lanyard, both were very much alive, openly betraying an infatuation with existence very like his own, and both were lovely enough to excuse the exquisite insolence of their young vitality.
As is frequently the case in such associations, since a pretty woman seldom courts comparison with another of her own colouring, one was dark, the other fair.
With the first, Lanyard was, like all London, on terms of visual acquaintance. The reigning beauty of the hour, her portrait was enjoying a vogue of its own in the public prints. Furthermore, Lady Diantha Mainwaring was moderately the talk of the town, in those prim, remotely ante-bellum days—thanks to high spirits and a whimsical tendency to flout the late Victorian proprieties; something which, however, had yet to lead her into any prank perilous to her good repute.
The other, a girl whose hair of golden bronze was well set off by Russian sables, Lanyard did not know at all; but he knew at sight that she was far too charming a creature to be neglected if ever opportunity offered to be presented to her. And though the first article of his creed proscribed women of such disastrous attractions as deadly dangerous to his kind, he chose without hesitation to forget all that, and at once began to cudgel his wits for a way to scrape acquaintance with the companion of Lady Diantha.
Their arrival created an interesting bustle, a buzz of comment, a craning of necks—flattery accepted by the young women with ostensible unconcern, a cliché of their caste. As they had entered in a humour keyed to the highest pitch of gaiety consistent with good breeding, so with more half-stifled laughter they settled into chairs well apart from all others but, as it happened, in a direct line between Lanyard and the man whose repellent cast of countenance had first taken his interest.
Thus it was that Lanyard, after eyeing the young women unobserved as long as he liked, lifted his glance to discover upon that face a look that amazed him.
It wasn't too much to say (he thought) that the man was transfigured by malevolence, so that he blazed with it, so that hatred fairly flowed, an invisible yet manifest current of poisoned fire, between him and the girl with the hair of burnished bronze.
All the evil in him seemed to be concentrated in that glare. And yet its object remained unconscious of it or, if at all sensitive, dissembled superbly. The man was apparently no more present to her perceptions than any other person there, except her companion.
Presently, becoming sensible of Lanyard's intrigued regard, the man looked up, caught him in a stare and, mortally affronted, rewarded him with a look of virulent enmity.
Not to be outdone, Lanyard gave a fleeting smile, a bare curving of lips together with an almost imperceptible narrowing of amused eyes—goading the other to the last stage of exasperation—then calmly ignored the fellow, returning indifferent attention to the progress of the sale.
Since nothing was being offered at the moment to draw a bid from him, he maintained a semblance of interest solely to cover his thoughts, meanwhile lending a civil ear to the garrulous tongue of a dealer of his acquaintance who, having edged nearer to indulge a failing for gossip, found a ready auditor. For when Lanyard began to heed the sense of the other's words, their subject was the companion of Lady Diantha Mainwaring.
" Princess Sofia Vassilyevski, you know, the Russian beauty."
Lanyard lifted his eyebrows the fraction of an inch, meaning to say he didn't know but at the same time didn't object to enlightenment.
"But you must have heard of her! For weeks all London has been talking about her jewels, her escapades, her unhappy marriage."
"Married?" Lanyard made a sympathetic mouth. "And so young! Quel dommage!"
"But separated from her husband."
"Ah!" Lanyard brightened up. "And who, may one ask, is the husband?"
"Why, he's here, too—over there in the front row—chap with the waxed moustache and putty-coloured face, staring at her now."
"Oh, that animal! And what right has he got to look like that?"
The buzz of the scandalmonger grew more confidential: "They say he's never forgiven her for leaving him—though the Lord knows she had every reason, if half they tell is true. They say he's mad about her still, gives her no rest, follows her everywhere, is all the time begging her to return to him—"
"But who the deuce is the beast?" Lanyard interrupted, impatiently. "You know, I don't like his face."
"Prince Victor," the whisper pursued with relish—"by-blow, they say, of a Russian grand duke and a Manchu princess—half Russian, half Chinese, all devil!"
Without looking, Lanyard felt that Prince Victor's stare had again shifted from the women, and that the mongrel son of the alleged grand duke was aware he had become a subject of comment. So the eminent collector of works of art elected to dismiss the subject with a negligent lift of one shoulder.
"Ah, well! Daresay he can't help his ugly make-up. All the same, he's spoiling my afternoon. Be a good fellow, do, and put him out."
The Briton chuckled a deprecating chuckle; meaning to say, he hoped Lanyard was spoofing; but since one couldn't be sure, one's only wise course was to play safe.
"Really, Monsieur Lanyard! I'm afraid one couldn't quite do that, you know!"CHAPTER 3
THE SALE DRAGGED MONOTONOUSLY. The paintings offered were mostly of mediocre value. The gathering was apathetic.
Lanyard bid in two or three sketches, more out of idleness than because he wanted them, and succeeded admirably in seeming ignorant of the existence of the Princess Sofia and the husband whose surface of a blackguard was so harmonious with his reputation.
In time, however, a change was presaged by an abrupt muting of that murmured conversation between the beautiful Russian and the almost equally beautiful Englishwoman. An inquisitive look discovered the princess sitting slightly forward and intently watching the auctioneer.
The pose of an animated, delightful child, hanging breathlessly upon the progress of some fascinating game: one's gaze lingered approvingly upon a bewitching profile with half-parted lips, saw that excitement was faintly colouring the cheeks beneath shadowy and enigmatic eyes, remarked the sweet spirit that poised that lovely head.
And then one looked farther, and saw the prince, like the princess, absorbed in the business at the auction block, his slack elegance of the raffish aristocrat forgotten, all his being tense with purpose, strung taut—as taut at least as that soft body, only half-masculine in mould and enervated by loose living, could ever be. One thought of a rather elderly and unfit snake, stirred by the sting of some long-buried passion out of the lassitude of years of slothful self-indulgence, poising to strike .
At the elbow of the auctioneer an attendant was placing on exhibition a landscape that was either an excellent example of the work of Corot or an imitation no less excellent. At that distance Lanyard felt inclined to dub it genuine, though he knew well that Europe was sown thick with spurious Corots, and would never have risked his judgment without closer inspection.
He was accordingly perplexed when, after a brief exhortation by the auctioneer, discreetly noncommittal as to the antecedents of the canvas—"attributed to Corot"—Prince Victor, who had been straining forward like a hound in leash, half rose in his eagerness to offer:
"One thousand guineas!"
The entire company stirred as one and sat up sharply. Even the auctioneer was momentarily stricken dumb. And for the first time the Princess Sofia acknowledged the presence of her husband, and got from him that look of white hatred with a sneer of triumph thrown in for good measure.
Though she affected indifference, Lanyard saw her slender body transiently shaken by a shudder, it might have been of dread. But she was quick to pull herself together, and the auctioneer had scarcely found his tongue—"One thousand guineas for this magnificent canvas attributed to Corot"—when her clear and youthful voice cut in:
"Two thousand guineas!"
This the prince capped with a monosyllable:
Stupefaction settled upon the audience. The auctioneer hesitated, blinked astonished eyes, framed unspoken phrases with halting lips. Prince Victor again gave his wife the full value of his vindictive snarl. She would not see, but it was plain that she was cruelly dismayed, that it cost her an effort to rise to the topping bid:
"Thirty-five hundred guineas!"
"Four thousand I am offered "
The auctioneer faltered, a spasm of honesty shook him, he proceeded:
"It is only fair, ladies and gentlemen, that I should state that this canvas is not put up as an authentic Corot. It very possibly is such, in fact"—the seizure was passing swiftly—"it bears every evidence of having come from the brush of the master. But we cannot guarantee it. There is, however, a gentleman present who is amply qualified to pass upon the merits of this work. With his permission"—his eye sought Lanyard's—"I venture to request the opinion of Monsieur Michael Lanyard, the noted connoisseur!"
Lanyard detached a deprecating smile from the pages of his catalogue, but his contemplated response was cut short by Prince Victor.
Excerpted from Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance. Copyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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