Crucial Instances, by Edith Wharton

The Rembrandt

I

“You’re so artistic,” my cousin Eleanor Copt began.

Of all Eleanor’s exordiums it is the one I most dread. When she tells me I’m so clever I know this is merely the preamble to inviting me to meet the last literary obscurity of the moment: a trial to be evaded or endured, as circumstances dictate; whereas her calling me artistic fatally connotes the request to visit, in her company, some distressed gentlewoman whose future hangs on my valuation of her old Saxe or of her grandfather’s Marc Antonios. Time was when I attempted to resist these compulsions of Eleanor’s; but I soon learned that, short of actual flight, there was no refuge from her beneficent despotism. It is not always easy for the curator of a museum to abandon his post on the plea of escaping a pretty cousin’s importunities; and Eleanor, aware of my predicament, is none too magnanimous to take advantage of it. Magnanimity is, in fact, not in Eleanor’s line. The virtues, she once explained to me, are like bonnets: the very ones that look best on other people may not happen to suit one’s own particular style; and she added, with a slight deflection of metaphor, that none of the ready-made virtues ever had fitted her: they all pinched somewhere, and she’d given up trying to wear them.

Therefore when she said to me, “You’re so artistic.” emphasizing the conjunction with a tap of her dripping umbrella (Eleanor is out in all weathers: the elements are as powerless against her as man), I merely stipulated, “It’s not old Saxe again?”

She shook her head reassuringly. “A picture — a Rembrandt!”

“Good Lord! Why not a Leonardo?”

“Well” — she smiled — “that, of course, depends on you.”

“On me?”

“On your attribution. I dare say Mrs. Fontage would consent to the change — though she’s very conservative.”

A gleam of hope came to me and I pronounced: “One can’t judge of a picture in this weather.”

“Of course not. I’m coming for you to-morrow.”

“I’ve an engagement to-morrow.”

“I’ll come before or after your engagement.”

The afternoon paper lay at my elbow and I contrived a furtive consultation of the weather-report. It said “Rain to-morrow,” and I answered briskly: “All right, then; come at ten” — rapidly calculating that the clouds on which I counted might lift by noon.

My ingenuity failed of its due reward; for the heavens, as if in league with my cousin, emptied themselves before morning, and punctually at ten Eleanor and the sun appeared together in my office.

I hardly listened, as we descended the Museum steps and got into Eleanor’s hansom, to her vivid summing-up of the case. I guessed beforehand that the lady we were about to visit had lapsed by the most distressful degrees from opulence to a “hall-bedroom”; that her grandfather, if he had not been Minister to France, had signed the Declaration of Independence; that the Rembrandt was an heirloom, sole remnant of disbanded treasures; that for years its possessor had been unwilling to part with it, and that even now the question of its disposal must be approached with the most diplomatic obliquity.

Previous experience had taught me that all Eleanor’s “cases” presented a harrowing similarity of detail. No circumstance tending to excite the spectator’s sympathy and involve his action was omitted from the history of her beneficiaries; the lights and shades were indeed so skilfully adjusted that any impartial expression of opinion took on the hue of cruelty. I could have produced closetfuls of “heirlooms” in attestation of this fact; for it is one more mark of Eleanor’s competence that her friends usually pay the interest on her philanthropy. My one hope was that in this case the object, being a picture, might reasonably be rated beyond my means; and as our cab drew up before a blistered brown-stone door-step I formed the self-defensive resolve to place an extreme valuation on Mrs. Fontage’s Rembrandt. It is Eleanor’s fault if she is sometimes fought with her own weapons.

The house stood in one of those shabby provisional-looking New York streets that seem resignedly awaiting demolition. It was the kind of house that, in its high days, must have had a bow-window with a bronze in it. The bow-window had been replaced by a plumber’s devanture, and one might conceive the bronze to have gravitated to the limbo where Mexican onyx tables and bric-a-brac in buffalo-horn await the first signs of our next aesthetic reaction.

Eleanor swept me through a hall that smelled of poverty, up unlit stairs to a bare slit of a room. “And she must leave this in a month!” she whispered across her knock.

I had prepared myself for the limp widow’s weed of a woman that one figures in such a setting; and confronted abruptly with Mrs. Fontage’s white-haired erectness I had the disconcerting sense that I was somehow in her presence at my own solicitation. I instinctively charged Eleanor with this reversal of the situation; but a moment later I saw it must be ascribed to a something about Mrs. Fontage that precluded the possibility of her asking any one a favor. It was not that she was of forbidding, or even majestic, demeanor; but that one guessed, under her aquiline prettiness, a dignity nervously on guard against the petty betrayal of her surroundings. The room was unconcealably poor: the little faded “relics,” the high-stocked ancestral silhouettes, the steel-engravings after Raphael and Correggio, grouped in a vain attempt to hide the most obvious stains on the wall-paper, served only to accentuate the contrast of a past evidently diversified by foreign travel and the enjoyment of the arts. Even Mrs. Fontage’s dress had the air of being a last expedient, the ultimate outcome of a much-taxed ingenuity in darning and turning. One felt that all the poor lady’s barriers were falling save that of her impregnable manner.

To this manner I found myself conveying my appreciation of being admitted to a view of the Rembrandt.

Mrs. Fontage’s smile took my homage for granted. “It is always,” she conceded, “a privilege to be in the presence of the great masters.” Her slim wrinkled hand waved me to a dusky canvas near the window.

“It’s so interesting, dear Mrs. Fontage,” I heard Eleanor exclaiming, “and my cousin will be able to tell you exactly — ” Eleanor, in my presence, always admits that she knows nothing about art; but she gives the impression that this is merely because she hasn’t had time to look into the matter — and has had me to do it for her.

Mrs. Fontage seated herself without speaking, as though fearful that a breath might disturb my communion with the masterpiece. I felt that she thought Eleanor’s reassuring ejaculations ill-timed; and in this I was of one mind with her; for the impossibility of telling her exactly what I thought of her Rembrandt had become clear to me at a glance.

My cousin’s vivacities began to languish and the silence seemed to shape itself into a receptacle for my verdict. I stepped back, affecting a more distant scrutiny; and as I did so my eye caught Mrs. Fontage’s profile. Her lids trembled slightly. I took refuge in the familiar expedient of asking the history of the picture, and she waved me brightly to a seat.

This was indeed a topic on which she could dilate. The Rembrandt, it appeared, had come into Mr. Fontage’s possession many years ago, while the young couple were on their wedding-tour, and under circumstances so romantic that she made no excuse for relating them in all their parenthetic fulness. The picture belonged to an old Belgian Countess of redundant quarterings, whom the extravagances of an ungovernable nephew had compelled to part with her possessions (in the most private manner) about the time of the Fontages’ arrival. By a really remarkable coincidence, it happened that their courier (an exceptionally intelligent and superior man) was an old servant of the Countess’s, and had thus been able to put them in the way of securing the Rembrandt under the very nose of an English Duke, whose agent had been sent to Brussels to negotiate for its purchase. Mrs. Fontage could not recall the Duke’s name, but he was a great collector and had a famous Highland castle, where somebody had been murdered, and which she herself had visited (by moonlight) when she had travelled in Scotland as a girl. The episode had in short been one of the most interesting “experiences” of a tour almost chromo-lithographic in vivacity of impression; and they had always meant to go back to Brussels for the sake of reliving so picturesque a moment. Circumstances (of which the narrator’s surroundings declared the nature) had persistently interfered with the projected return to Europe, and the picture had grown doubly valuable as representing the high-water mark of their artistic emotions. Mrs. Fontage’s moist eye caressed the canvas. “There is only,” she added with a perceptible effort, “one slight drawback: the picture is not signed. But for that the Countess, of course, would have sold it to a museum. All the connoisseurs who have seen it pronounce it an undoubted Rembrandt, in the artist’s best manner; but the museums” — she arched her brows in smiling recognition of a well-known weakness — “give the preference to signed examples — ”

Mrs. Fontage’s words evoked so touching a vision of the young tourists of fifty years ago, entrusting to an accomplished and versatile courier the direction of their helpless zeal for art, that I lost sight for a moment of the point at issue. The old Belgian Countess, the wealthy Duke with a feudal castle in Scotland, Mrs. Fontage’s own maiden pilgrimage to Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood, all the accessories of the naïf transaction, seemed a part of that vanished Europe to which our young race carried its indiscriminate ardors, its tender romantic credulity: the legendary castellated Europe of keepsakes, brigands and old masters, that compensated, by one such “experience” as Mrs. Fontage’s, for an after-life of aesthetic privation.

I was restored to the present by Eleanor’s looking at her watch. The action mutely conveyed that something was expected of me. I risked the temporizing statement that the picture was very interesting; but Mrs. Fontage’s polite assent revealed the poverty of the expedient. Eleanor’s impatience overflowed.

“You would like my cousin to give you an idea of its value?” she suggested.

Mrs. Fontage grew more erect. “No one,” she corrected with great gentleness, “can know its value quite as well as I, who live with it — ”

We murmured our hasty concurrence.

“But it might be interesting to hear” — she addressed herself to me — “as a mere matter of curiosity — what estimate would be put on it from the purely commercial point of view — if such a term may be used in speaking of a work of art.”

I sounded a note of deprecation.

“Oh, I understand, of course,” she delicately anticipated me, “that that could never be your view, your personal view; but since occasions may arise — do arise — when it becomes necessary to — to put a price on the priceless, as it were — I have thought — Miss Copt has suggested — ”

“Some day,” Eleanor encouraged her, “you might feel that the picture ought to belong to some one who has more — more opportunity of showing it — letting it be seen by the public — for educational reasons — ”

“I have tried,” Mrs. Fontage admitted, “to see it in that light.”

The crucial moment was upon me. To escape the challenge of Mrs. Fontage’s brilliant composure I turned once more to the picture. If my courage needed reinforcement, the picture amply furnished it. Looking at that lamentable canvas seemed the surest way of gathering strength to denounce it; but behind me, all the while, I felt Mrs. Fontage’s shuddering pride drawn up in a final effort of self-defense. I hated myself for my sentimental perversion of the situation. Reason argued that it was more cruel to deceive Mrs. Fontage than to tell her the truth; but that merely proved the inferiority of reason to instinct in situations involving any concession to the emotions. Along with her faith in the Rembrandt I must destroy not only the whole fabric of Mrs. Fontage’s past, but even that lifelong habit of acquiescence in untested formulas that makes the best part of the average feminine strength. I guessed the episode of the picture to be inextricably interwoven with the traditions and convictions which served to veil Mrs. Fontage’s destitution not only from others but from herself. Viewed in that light the Rembrandt had perhaps been worth its purchase-money; and I regretted that works of art do not commonly sell on the merit of the moral support they may have rendered.

From this unavailing flight I was recalled by the sense that something must be done. To place a fictitious value on the picture was at best a provisional measure; while the brutal alternative of advising Mrs. Fontage to sell it for a hundred dollars at least afforded an opening to the charitably disposed purchaser. I intended, if other resources failed, to put myself forward in that light; but delicacy of course forbade my coupling my unflattering estimate of the Rembrandt with an immediate offer to buy it. All I could do was to inflict the wound: the healing unguent must be withheld for later application.

I turned to Mrs. Fontage, who sat motionless, her finely-lined cheeks touched with an expectant color, her eyes averted from the picture which was so evidently the one object they beheld.

“My dear madam — ” I began. Her vivid smile was like a light held up to dazzle me. It shrouded every alternative in darkness and I had the flurried sense of having lost my way among the intricacies of my contention. Of a sudden I felt the hopelessness of finding a crack in her impenetrable conviction. My words slipped from me like broken weapons. “The picture,” I faltered, “would of course be worth more if it were signed. As it is, I— I hardly think — on a conservative estimate — it can be valued at — at more — than — a thousand dollars, say — ”

My deflected argument ran on somewhat aimlessly till it found itself plunging full tilt against the barrier of Mrs. Fontage’s silence. She sat as impassive as though I had not spoken. Eleanor loosed a few fluttering words of congratulation and encouragement, but their flight was suddenly cut short. Mrs. Fontage had risen with a certain solemnity.

“I could never,” she said gently — her gentleness was adamantine — “under any circumstances whatever, consider, for a moment even, the possibility of parting with the picture at such a price.”

II

Within three weeks a tremulous note from Mrs. Fontage requested the favor of another visit. If the writing was tremulous, however, the writer’s tone was firm. She named her own day and hour, without the conventional reference to her visitor’s convenience.

My first impulse was to turn the note over to Eleanor. I had acquitted myself of my share in the ungrateful business of coming to Mrs. Fontage’s aid, and if, as her letter denoted, she had now yielded to the closer pressure of need, the business of finding a purchaser for the Rembrandt might well be left to my cousin’s ingenuity. But here conscience put in the uncomfortable reminder that it was I who, in putting a price on the picture, had raised the real obstacle in the way of Mrs. Fontage’s rescue. No one would give a thousand dollars for the Rembrandt; but to tell Mrs. Fontage so had become as unthinkable as murder. I had, in fact, on returning from my first inspection of the picture, refrained from imparting to Eleanor my opinion of its value. Eleanor is porous, and I knew that sooner or later the unnecessary truth would exude through the loose texture of her dissimulation. Not infrequently she thus creates the misery she alleviates; and I have sometimes suspected her of paining people in order that she might be sorry for them. I had, at all events, cut off retreat in Eleanor’s direction; and the remaining alternative carried me straight to Mrs. Fontage.

She received me with the same commanding sweetness. The room was even barer than before — I believe the carpet was gone — but her manner built up about her a palace to which I was welcomed with high state; and it was as a mere incident of the ceremony that I was presently made aware of her decision to sell the Rembrandt. My previous unsuccess in planning how to deal with Mrs. Fontage had warned me to leave my farther course to chance; and I listened to her explanation with complete detachment. She had resolved to travel for her health; her doctor advised it, and as her absence might be indefinitely prolonged she had reluctantly decided to part with the picture in order to avoid the expense of storage and insurance. Her voice drooped at the admission, and she hurried on, detailing the vague itinerary of a journey that was to combine long-promised visits to impatient friends with various “interesting opportunities” less definitely specified. The poor lady’s skill in rearing a screen of verbiage about her enforced avowal had distracted me from my own share in the situation, and it was with dismay that I suddenly caught the drift of her assumptions. She expected me to buy the Rembrandt for the Museum; she had taken my previous valuation as a tentative bid, and when I came to my senses she was in the act of accepting my offer.

Had I had a thousand dollars of my own to dispose of, the bargain would have been concluded on the spot; but I was in the impossible position of being materially unable to buy the picture and morally unable to tell her that it was not worth acquiring for the Museum.

I dashed into the first evasion in sight. I had no authority, I explained, to purchase pictures for the Museum without the consent of the committee.

Mrs. Fontage coped for a moment in silence with the incredible fact that I had rejected her offer; then she ventured, with a kind of pale precipitation: “But I understood — Miss Copt tells me that you practically decide such matters for the committee.” I could guess what the effort had cost her.

“My cousin is given to generalizations. My opinion may have some weight with the committee — ”

“Well, then — ” she timidly prompted.

“For that very reason I can’t buy the picture.”

She said, with a drooping note, “I don’t understand.”

“Yet you told me,” I reminded her, “that you knew museums didn’t buy unsigned pictures.”

“Not for what they are worth! Every one knows that. But I— I understood — the price you named — ” Her pride shuddered back from the abasement. “It’s a misunderstanding then,” she faltered.

To avoid looking at her, I glanced desperately at the Rembrandt. Could I—? But reason rejected the possibility. Even if the committee had been blind — and they all were but Crozier — I simply shouldn’t have dared to do it. I stood up, feeling that to cut the matter short was the only alleviation within reach.

Mrs. Fontage had summoned her indomitable smile; but its brilliancy dropped, as I opened the door, like a candle blown out by a draught.

“If there’s any one else — if you knew any one who would care to see the picture, I should be most happy — ” She kept her eyes on me, and I saw that, in her case, it hurt less than to look at the Rembrandt. “I shall have to leave here, you know,” she panted, “if nobody cares to have it — ”

III

That evening at my club I had just succeeded in losing sight of Mrs. Fontage in the fumes of an excellent cigar, when a voice at my elbow evoked her harassing image.

“I want to talk to you,” the speaker said, “about Mrs. Fontage’s Rembrandt.”

“There isn’t any,” I was about to growl; but looking up I recognized the confiding countenance of Mr. Jefferson Rose.

Mr. Rose was known to me chiefly as a young man suffused with a vague enthusiasm for Virtue and my cousin Eleanor.

One glance at his glossy exterior conveyed the assurance that his morals were as immaculate as his complexion and his linen. Goodness exuded from his moist eye, his liquid voice, the warm damp pressure of his trustful hand. He had always struck me as one of the most uncomplicated organisms I had ever met. His ideas were as simple and inconsecutive as the propositions in a primer, and he spoke slowly, with a kind of uniformity of emphasis that made his words stand out like the raised type for the blind. An obvious incapacity for abstract conceptions made him peculiarly susceptible to the magic of generalization, and one felt he would have been at the mercy of any Cause that spelled itself with a capital letter. It was hard to explain how, with such a superabundance of merit, he managed to be a good fellow: I can only say that he performed the astonishing feat as naturally as he supported an invalid mother and two sisters on the slender salary of a banker’s clerk. He sat down beside me with an air of bright expectancy.

“It’s a remarkable picture, isn’t it?” he said.

“You’ve seen it?”

“I’ve been so fortunate. Miss Copt was kind enough to get Mrs. Fontage’s permission; we went this afternoon.” I inwardly wished that Eleanor had selected another victim; unless indeed the visit were part of a plan whereby some third person, better equipped for the cultivation of delusions, was to be made to think the Rembrandt remarkable. Knowing the limitations of Mr. Rose’s resources I began to wonder if he had any rich aunts.

“And her buying it in that way, too,” he went on with his limpid smile, “from that old Countess in Brussels, makes it all the more interesting, doesn’t it? Miss Copt tells me it’s very seldom old pictures can be traced back for more than a generation. I suppose the fact of Mrs. Fontage’s knowing its history must add a good deal to its value?”

Uncertain as to his drift, I said: “In her eyes it certainly appears to.”

Implications are lost on Mr. Rose, who glowingly continued: “That’s the reason why I wanted to talk to you about it — to consult you. Miss Copt tells me you value it at a thousand dollars.”

There was no denying this, and I grunted a reluctant assent.

“Of course,” he went on earnestly, “your valuation is based on the fact that the picture isn’t signed — Mrs. Fontage explained that; and it does make a difference, certainly. But the thing is — if the picture’s really good — ought one to take advantage —? I mean — one can see that Mrs. Fontage is in a tight place, and I wouldn’t for the world — ”

My astonished stare arrested him.

You wouldn’t —?”

“I mean — you see, it’s just this way”; he coughed and blushed: “I can’t give more than a thousand dollars myself — it’s as big a sum as I can manage to scrape together — but before I make the offer I want to be sure I’m not standing in the way of her getting more money.”

My astonishment lapsed to dismay. “You’re going to buy the picture for a thousand dollars?”

His blush deepened. “Why, yes. It sounds rather absurd, I suppose. It isn’t much in my line, of course. I can see the picture’s very beautiful, but I’m no judge — it isn’t the kind of thing, naturally, that I could afford to go in for; but in this case I’m very glad to do what I can; the circumstances are so distressing; and knowing what you think of the picture I feel it’s a pretty safe investment — ”

“I don’t think!” I blurted out.

“You —?”

“I don’t think the picture’s worth a thousand dollars; I don’t think it’s worth ten cents; I simply lied about it, that’s all.”

Mr. Rose looked as frightened as though I had charged him with the offense.

“Hang it, man, can’t you see how it happened? I saw the poor woman’s pride and happiness hung on her faith in that picture. I tried to make her understand that it was worthless — but she wouldn’t; I tried to tell her so — but I couldn’t. I behaved like a maudlin ass, but you shan’t pay for my infernal bungling — you mustn’t buy the picture!”

Mr. Rose sat silent, tapping one glossy boot-tip with another. Suddenly he turned on me a glance of stored intelligence. “But you know,” he said good-humoredly, “I rather think I must.”

“You haven’t — already?”

“Oh, no; the offer’s not made.”

“Well, then — ”

His look gathered a brighter significance.

“But if the picture’s worth nothing, nobody will buy it — ”

I groaned.

“Except,” he continued, “some fellow like me, who doesn’t know anything. I think it’s lovely, you know; I mean to hang it in my mother’s sitting-room.” He rose and clasped my hand in his adhesive pressure. “I’m awfully obliged to you for telling me this; but perhaps you won’t mind my asking you not to mention our talk to Miss Copt? It might bother her, you know, to think the picture isn’t exactly up to the mark; and it won’t make a rap of difference to me.”

IV

Mr. Rose left me to a sleepless night. The next morning my resolve was formed, and it carried me straight to Mrs. Fontage’s. She answered my knock by stepping out on the landing, and as she shut the door behind her I caught a glimpse of her devastated interior. She mentioned, with a careful avoidance of the note of pathos on which our last conversation had closed, that she was preparing to leave that afternoon; and the trunks obstructing the threshold showed that her preparations were nearly complete. They were, I felt certain, the same trunks that, strapped behind a rattling vettura, had accompanied the bride and groom on that memorable voyage of discovery of which the booty had till recently adorned her walls; and there was a dim consolation in the thought that those early “finds” in coral and Swiss wood-carving, in lava and alabaster, still lay behind the worn locks, in the security of worthlessness.

Mrs. Fontage, on the landing, among her strapped and corded treasures, maintained the same air of stability that made it impossible, even under such conditions, to regard her flight as anything less dignified than a departure. It was the moral support of what she tacitly assumed that enabled me to set forth with proper deliberation the object of my visit; and she received my announcement with an absence of surprise that struck me as the very flower of tact. Under cover of these mutual assumptions the transaction was rapidly concluded; and it was not till the canvas passed into my hands that, as though the physical contact had unnerved her, Mrs. Fontage suddenly faltered. “It’s the giving it up — ” she stammered, disguising herself to the last; and I hastened away from the collapse of her splendid effrontery.

I need hardly point out that I had acted impulsively, and that reaction from the most honorable impulses is sometimes attended by moral perturbation. My motives had indeed been mixed enough to justify some uneasiness, but this was allayed by the instinctive feeling that it is more venial to defraud an institution than a man. Since Mrs. Fontage had to be kept from starving by means not wholly defensible, it was better that the obligation should be borne by a rich institution than an impecunious youth. I doubt, in fact, if my scruples would have survived a night’s sleep, had they not been complicated by some uncertainty as to my own future. It was true that, subject to the purely formal assent of the committee, I had full power to buy for the Museum, and that the one member of the committee likely to dispute my decision was opportunely travelling in Europe; but the picture once in place I must face the risk of any expert criticism to which chance might expose it. I dismissed this contingency for future study, stored the Rembrandt in the cellar of the Museum, and thanked heaven that Crozier was abroad.

Six months later he strolled into my office. I had just concluded, under conditions of exceptional difficulty, and on terms unexpectedly benign, the purchase of the great Bartley Reynolds; and this circumstance, by relegating the matter of the Rembrandt to a lower stratum of consciousness, enabled me to welcome Crozier with unmixed pleasure. My security was enhanced by his appearance. His smile was charged with amiable reminiscences, and I inferred that his trip had put him in the humor to approve of everything, or at least to ignore what fell short of his approval. I had therefore no uneasiness in accepting his invitation to dine that evening. It is always pleasant to dine with Crozier and never more so than when he is just back from Europe. His conversation gives even the food a flavor of the Café Anglais.

The repast was delightful, and it was not till we had finished a Camembert which he must have brought over with him, that my host said, in a tone of after-dinner perfunctoriness: “I see you’ve picked up a picture or two since I left.”

I assented. “The Bartley Reynolds seemed too good an opportunity to miss, especially as the French government was after it. I think we got it cheap — ”

Connu, connu” said Crozier pleasantly. “I know all about the Reynolds. It was the biggest kind of a haul and I congratulate you. Best stroke of business we’ve done yet. But tell me about the other picture — the Rembrandt.”

“I never said it was a Rembrandt.” I could hardly have said why, but I felt distinctly annoyed with Crozier.

“Of course not. There’s ‘Rembrandt’ on the frame, but I saw you’d modified it to ‘Dutch School’; I apologize.” He paused, but I offered no explanation. “What about it?” he went on. “Where did you pick it up?” As he leaned to the flame of the cigar-lighter his face seemed ruddy with enjoyment.

“I got it for a song,” I said.

“A thousand, I think?”

“Have you seen it?” I asked abruptly.

“Went over the place this afternoon and found it in the cellar. Why hasn’t it been hung, by the way?”

I paused a moment. “I’m waiting — ”

“To —?”

“To have it varnished.”

“Ah!” He leaned back and poured himself a second glass of Chartreuse. The smile he confided to its golden depths provoked me to challenge him with —

“What do you think of it?”

“The Rembrandt?” He lifted his eyes from the glass. “Just what you do.”

“It isn’t a Rembrandt.”

“I apologize again. You call it, I believe, a picture of the same period?”

“I’m uncertain of the period.”

“H’m.” He glanced appreciatively along his cigar. “What are you certain of?”

“That it’s a damned bad picture,” I said savagely.

He nodded. “Just so. That’s all we wanted to know.”

We?”

“We — I— the committee, in short. You see, my dear fellow, if you hadn’t been certain it was a damned bad picture our position would have been a little awkward. As it is, my remaining duty — I ought to explain that in this matter I’m acting for the committee — is as simple as it’s agreeable.”

“I’ll be hanged,” I burst out, “if I understand one word you’re saying!”

He fixed me with a kind of cruel joyousness. “You will — you will,” he assured me; “at least you’ll begin to, when you hear that I’ve seen Miss Copt.”

“Miss Copt?”

“And that she has told me under what conditions the picture was bought.”

“She doesn’t know anything about the conditions! That is,” I added, hastening to restrict the assertion, “she doesn’t know my opinion of the picture.” I thirsted for five minutes with Eleanor.

“Are you quite sure?” Crozier took me up. “Mr. Jefferson Rose does.”

“Ah — I see.”

“I thought you would,” he reminded me. “As soon as I’d laid eyes on the Rembrandt — I beg your pardon! — I saw that it — well, required some explanation.”

“You might have come to me.”

“I meant to; but I happened to meet Miss Copt, whose encyclopædic information has often before been of service to me. I always go to Miss Copt when I want to look up anything; and I found she knew all about the Rembrandt.”

All?”

“Precisely. The knowledge was in fact causing her sleepless nights. Mr. Rose, who was suffering from the same form of insomnia, had taken her into his confidence, and she — ultimately — took me into hers.”

“Of course!”

“I must ask you to do your cousin justice. She didn’t speak till it became evident to her uncommonly quick perceptions that your buying the picture on its merits would have been infinitely worse for — for everybody — than your diverting a small portion of the Museum’s funds to philanthropic uses. Then she told me the moving incident of Mr. Rose. Good fellow, Rose. And the old lady’s case was desperate. Somebody had to buy that picture.” I moved uneasily in my seat “Wait a moment, will you? I haven’t finished my cigar. There’s a little head of Il Fiammingo’s that you haven’t seen, by the way; I picked it up the other day in Parma. We’ll go in and have a look at it presently. But meanwhile what I want to say is that I’ve been charged — in the most informal way — to express to you the committee’s appreciation of your admirable promptness and energy in capturing the Bartley Reynolds. We shouldn’t have got it at all if you hadn’t been uncommonly wide-awake, and to get it at such a price is a double triumph. We’d have thought nothing of a few more thousands — ”

“I don’t see,” I impatiently interposed, “that, as far as I’m concerned, that alters the case.”

“The case —?”

“Of Mrs. Fontage’s Rembrandt. I bought the picture because, as you say, the situation was desperate, and I couldn’t raise a thousand myself. What I did was of course indefensible; but the money shall be refunded tomorrow — ”

Crozier raised a protesting hand. “Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking ex cathedra. The money’s been refunded already. The fact is, the Museum has sold the Rembrandt.”

I stared at him wildly. “Sold it? To whom?”

“Why — to the committee. — Hold on a bit, please. — Won’t you take another cigar? Then perhaps I can finish what I’ve got to say. — Why, my dear fellow, the committee’s under an obligation to you — that’s the way we look at it. I’ve investigated Mrs. Fontage’s case, and — well, the picture had to be bought. She’s eating meat now, I believe, for the first time in a year. And they’d have turned her out into the street that very day, your cousin tells me. Something had to be done at once, and you’ve simply given a number of well-to-do and self-indulgent gentlemen the opportunity of performing, at very small individual expense, a meritorious action in the nick of time. That’s the first thing I’ve got to thank you for. And then — you’ll remember, please, that I have the floor — that I’m still speaking for the committee — and secondly, as a slight recognition of your services in securing the Bartley Reynolds at a very much lower figure than we were prepared to pay, we beg you — the committee begs you — to accept the gift of Mrs. Fontage’s Rembrandt. Now we’ll go in and look at that little head. . . . ”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30