It was this way. It seemed that old Yeardsley was an amateur artist and that this “Venus” was his masterpiece. He said so, and he ought to have known. Well, when Clarence married, he had given it to him, as a wedding present, and had hung it where it stood with his own hands. All right so far, what? But mark the sequel. Temperamental Clarence, being a professional artist and consequently some streets ahead of the dad at the game, saw flaws in the “Venus.” He couldn’t stand it at any price. He didn’t like the drawing. He didn’t like the expression of the face. He didn’t like the colouring. In fact, it made him feel quite ill to look at it. Yet, being devoted to his father and wanting to do anything rather than give him pain, he had not been able to bring himself to store the thing in the cellar, and the strain of confronting the picture three times a day had begun to tell on him to such an extent that Elizabeth felt something had to be done.
“Now you see,” she said.
“In a way,” I said. “But don’t you think it’s making rather heavy weather over a trifle?”
“Oh, can’t you understand? Look!” Her voice dropped as if she was in church, and she switched on another light. It shone on the picture next to old Yeardsley’s. “There!” she said. “Clarence painted that!”
She looked at me expectantly, as if she were waiting for me to swoon, or yell, or something. I took a steady look at Clarence’s effort. It was another Classical picture. It seemed to me very much like the other one.
Some sort of art criticism was evidently expected of me, so I made a dash at it.
“Er—’Venus’?” I said.
Mark you, Sherlock Holmes would have made the same mistake. On the evidence, I mean.
“No. ‘Jocund Spring,'” she snapped. She switched off the light. “I see you don’t understand even now. You never had any taste about pictures. When we used to go to the galleries together, you would far rather have been at your club.”
This was so absolutely true, that I had no remark to make. She came up to me, and put her hand on my arm.
“I’m sorry, Reggie. I didn’t mean to be cross. Only I do want to make you understand that Clarence is suffering. Suppose—suppose—well, let us take the case of a great musician. Suppose a great musician had to sit and listen to a cheap vulgar tune—the same tune—day after day, day after day, wouldn’t you expect his nerves to break! Well, it’s just like that with Clarence. Now you see?”
“But what? Surely I’ve put it plainly enough?”
“Yes. But what I mean is, where do I come in? What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to steal the ‘Venus.'”
I looked at her.
“You want me to——?”
“Steal it. Reggie!” Her eyes were shining with excitement. “Don’t you see? It’s Providence. When I asked you to come here, I had just got the idea. I knew I could rely on you. And then by a miracle this robbery of the Romney takes place at a house not two miles away. It removes the last chance of the poor old man suspecting anything and having his feelings hurt. Why, it’s the most wonderful compliment to him. Think! One night thieves steal a splendid Romney; the next the same gang take his ‘Venus.’ It will be the proudest moment of his life. Do it to-night, Reggie. I’ll give you a sharp knife. You simply cut the canvas out of the frame, and it’s done.”
“But one moment,” I said. “I’d be delighted to be of any use to you, but in a purely family affair like this, wouldn’t it be better—in fact, how about tackling old Bill on the subject?”
“I have asked Bill already. Yesterday. He refused.”
“But if I’m caught?”
“You can’t be. All you have to do is to take the picture, open one of the windows, leave it open, and go back to your room.”
It sounded simple enough.
“And as to the picture itself—when I’ve got it?”
“Burn it. I’ll see that you have a good fire in your room.”
She looked at me. She always did have the most wonderful eyes.
“Reggie,” she said; nothing more. Just “Reggie.”
She looked at me.
“Well, after all, if you see what I mean—The days that are no more, don’t you know. Auld Lang Syne, and all that sort of thing. You follow me?”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
I don’t know if you happen to be one of those Johnnies who are steeped in crime, and so forth, and think nothing of pinching diamond necklaces. If you’re not, you’ll understand that I felt a lot less keen on the job I’d taken on when I sat in my room, waiting to get busy, than I had done when I promised to tackle it in the dining-room. On paper it all seemed easy enough, but I couldn’t help feeling there was a catch somewhere, and I’ve never known time pass slower. The kick-off was scheduled for one o’clock in the morning, when the household might be expected to be pretty sound asleep, but at a quarter to I couldn’t stand it any longer. I lit the lantern I had taken from Bill’s bicycle, took a grip of my knife, and slunk downstairs.
The first thing I did on getting to the dining-room was to open the window. I had half a mind to smash it, so as to give an extra bit of local colour to the affair, but decided not to on account of the noise. I had put my lantern on the table, and was just reaching out for it, when something happened. What it was for the moment I couldn’t have said. It might have been an explosion of some sort or an earthquake. Some solid object caught me a frightful whack on the chin. Sparks and things occurred inside my head and the next thing I remember is feeling something wet and cold splash into my face, and hearing a voice that sounded like old Bill’s say, “Feeling better now?”
I sat up. The lights were on, and I was on the floor, with old Bill kneeling beside me with a soda siphon.
“What happened?” I said.
“I’m awfully sorry, old man,” he said. “I hadn’t a notion it was you. I came in here, and saw a lantern on the table, and the window open and a chap with a knife in his hand, so I didn’t stop to make inquiries. I just let go at his jaw for all I was worth. What on earth do you think you’re doing? Were you walking in your sleep?”
“It was Elizabeth,” I said. “Why, you know all about it. She said she had told you.”
“You don’t mean——”
“The picture. You refused to take it on, so she asked me.”
“Reggie, old man,” he said. “I’ll never believe what they say about repentance again. It’s a fool’s trick and upsets everything. If I hadn’t repented, and thought it was rather rough on Elizabeth not to do a little thing like that for her, and come down here to do it after all, you wouldn’t have stopped that sleep-producer with your chin. I’m sorry.”
“Me, too,” I said, giving my head another shake to make certain it was still on.
“Are you feeling better now?”
“Better than I was. But that’s not saying much.”
“Would you like some more soda-water? No? Well, how about getting this job finished and going to bed? And let’s be quick about it too. You made a noise like a ton of bricks when you went down just now, and it’s on the cards some of the servants may have heard. Toss you who carves.”
“Tails it is,” he said, uncovering the coin. “Up you get. I’ll hold the light. Don’t spike yourself on that sword of yours.”
It was as easy a job as Elizabeth had said. Just four quick cuts, and the thing came out of its frame like an oyster. I rolled it up. Old Bill had put the lantern on the floor and was at the sideboard, collecting whisky, soda, and glasses.
“We’ve got a long evening before us,” he said. “You can’t burn a picture of that size in one chunk. You’d set the chimney on fire. Let’s do the thing comfortably. Clarence can’t grudge us the stuff. We’ve done him a bit of good this trip. To-morrow’ll be the maddest, merriest day of Clarence’s glad New Year. On we go.”
We went up to my room, and sat smoking and yarning away and sipping our drinks, and every now and then cutting a slice off the picture and shoving it in the fire till it was all gone. And what with the cosiness of it and the cheerful blaze, and the comfortable feeling of doing good by stealth, I don’t know when I’ve had a jollier time since the days when we used to brew in my study at school.
We had just put the last slice on when Bill sat up suddenly, and gripped my arm.
“I heard something,” he said.
I listened, and, by Jove, I heard something, too. My room was just over the dining-room, and the sound came up to us quite distinctly. Stealthy footsteps, by George! And then a chair falling over.
“There’s somebody in the dining-room,” I whispered.
There’s a certain type of chap who takes a pleasure in positively chivvying trouble. Old Bill’s like that. If I had been alone, it would have taken me about three seconds to persuade myself that I hadn’t really heard anything after all. I’m a peaceful sort of cove, and believe in living and letting live, and so forth. To old Bill, however, a visit from burglars was pure jam. He was out of his chair in one jump.
“Come on,” he said. “Bring the poker.”
I brought the tongs as well. I felt like it. Old Bill collared the knife. We crept downstairs.
“We’ll fling the door open and make a rush,” said Bill.
“Supposing they shoot, old scout?”
“Burglars never shoot,” said Bill.
Which was comforting provided the burglars knew it.
Old Bill took a grip of the handle, turned it quickly, and in he went. And then we pulled up sharp, staring.
The room was in darkness except for a feeble splash of light at the near end. Standing on a chair in front of Clarence’s “Jocund Spring,” holding a candle in one hand and reaching up with a knife in the other, was old Mr. Yeardsley, in bedroom slippers and a grey dressing-gown. He had made a final cut just as we rushed in. Turning at the sound, he stopped, and he and the chair and the candle and the picture came down in a heap together. The candle went out.
“What on earth?” said Bill.
I felt the same. I picked up the candle and lit it, and then a most fearful thing happened. The old man picked himself up, and suddenly collapsed into a chair and began to cry like a child. Of course, I could see it was only the Artistic Temperament, but still, believe me, it was devilish unpleasant. I looked at old Bill. Old Bill looked at me. We shut the door quick, and after that we didn’t know what to do. I saw Bill look at the sideboard, and I knew what he was looking for. But we had taken the siphon upstairs, and his ideas of first-aid stopped short at squirting soda-water. We just waited, and presently old Yeardsley switched off, sat up, and began talking with a rush.
“Clarence, my boy, I was tempted. It was that burglary at Dryden Park. It tempted me. It made it all so simple. I knew you would put it down to the same gang, Clarence, my boy. I——”
It seemed to dawn upon him at this point that Clarence was not among those present.
“Clarence?” he said hesitatingly.
“He’s in bed,” I said.
“In bed! Then he doesn’t know? Even now—Young men, I throw myself on your mercy. Don’t be hard on me. Listen.” He grabbed at Bill, who sidestepped. “I can explain everything—everything.”
He gave a gulp.
“You are not artists, you two young men, but I will try to make you understand, make you realise what this picture means to me. I was two years painting it. It is my child. I watched it grow. I loved it. It was part of my life. Nothing would have induced me to sell it. And then Clarence married, and in a mad moment I gave my treasure to him. You cannot understand, you two young men, what agonies I suffered. The thing was done. It was irrevocable. I saw how Clarence valued the picture. I knew that I could never bring myself to ask him for it back. And yet I was lost without it. What could I do? Till this evening I could see no hope. Then came this story of the theft of the Romney from a house quite close to this, and I saw my way. Clarence would never suspect. He would put the robbery down to the same band of criminals who stole the Romney. Once the idea had come, I could not drive it out. I fought against it, but to no avail. At last I yielded, and crept down here to carry out my plan. You found me.” He grabbed again, at me this time, and got me by the arm. He had a grip like a lobster. “Young man,” he said, “you would not betray me? You would not tell Clarence?”
I was feeling most frightfully sorry for the poor old chap by this time, don’t you know, but I thought it would be kindest to give it him straight instead of breaking it by degrees.
“I won’t say a word to Clarence, Mr. Yeardsley,” I said. “I quite understand your feelings. The Artistic Temperament, and all that sort of thing. I mean—what? I know. But I’m afraid—Well, look!”
I went to the door and switched on the electric light, and there, staring him in the face, were the two empty frames. He stood goggling at them in silence. Then he gave a sort of wheezy grunt.
“The gang! The burglars! They have been here, and they have taken Clarence’s picture!” He paused. “It might have been mine! My Venus!” he whispered It was getting most fearfully painful, you know, but he had to know the truth.
“I’m awfully sorry, you know,” I said. “But it was.”
He started, poor old chap.
“Eh? What do you mean?”
“They did take your Venus.”
“But I have it here.”
I shook my head.
“That’s Clarence’s ‘Jocund Spring,'” I said.
He jumped at it and straightened it out.
“What! What are you talking about? Do you think I don’t know my own picture—my child—my Venus. See! My own signature in the corner. Can you read, boy? Look: ‘Matthew Yeardsley.’ This is my picture!”
And—well, by Jove, it was, don’t you know!
Well, we got him off to bed, him and his infernal Venus, and we settled down to take a steady look at the position of affairs. Bill said it was my fault for getting hold of the wrong picture, and I said it was Bill’s fault for fetching me such a crack on the jaw that I couldn’t be expected to see what I was getting hold of, and then there was a pretty massive silence for a bit.
“Reggie,” said Bill at last, “how exactly do you feel about facing Clarence and Elizabeth at breakfast?”
“Old scout,” I said. “I was thinking much the same myself.”
“Reggie,” said Bill, “I happen to know there’s a milk-train leaving Midford at three-fifteen. It isn’t what you’d call a flier. It gets to London at about half-past nine. Well—er—in the circumstances, how about it?”