“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!”
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.