“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 through 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.