John Franklin, with whom I was at Oxford, invited me to stay with his people at Markhampton for the Markshire Hunt Ball'. He and his sister were arranging a small party for it, he said.
"I've never met your sister," I remarked. "What is she like?"
"She is a beauty," said John, seriously and simply.
I thought at the time that it was an odd, old-fashioned phrase, but it turned out to be strictly and literally true. Deborah Franklin was beautiful in the grand, classic manner. She didn't look in the least like a film star or a model. But looking at her you forgot everything. It was the sheer beauty of her face that took your breath away.
With looks like that, it would be asking too much to expect anything startling in the way of brains, and I found Deborah, a trifle dull. She was of course well aware of her extraordinary good looks, and was perfectly prepared to discuss them, just as a man seven feet high might talk about the advantages and inconveniences of being tall.
Most of our party were old friends of the Franklins, who took Deborah for granted as a local phenomenon, but among them was a newcomer a young man with a beard named Aubrey Melcombe, who had latelytaken charge of the local museum. As soon as he set eyes on Deborah he said:
"We have never met before, but your face, of course, is perfectly familiar."
Deborah had evidently heard that one before.
"I never give sitting to photographers," she said, "but people will snap me in the street. It's such a nuisance."
"Photographs!" said Aubrey. "I mean your portrait the one that was painted four hundred years ago. Has nobody ever told you that you are the living image of the Warbeck Titian?"
"I've never heard of the Warbeck Titian," said Deborah, "You shall judge for yourself," said Aubrey. "I'll send you a ticket for the opening of the exhibition."
Then he went off to dance with Rosamund Clegg, his assistant at the museum, who was said to be his fiance'e.
I did not care much' for Aubrey, or for his young woman, but I had to admit that they knew, their job when I came to the opening of the exhibition a few months later. They had gathered in treasures of every sort from all over the county and arranged them admirably. The jewel of the show was, of course, the great Titian. It had a wall to itself at the end of the room and I was looking at it when Deborah came in.
The likeness was fantastic. Lord Warbeck had never had his paintings cleaned, so that Titian's flesh tints were golden and carmine, in vivid contrast to Deborah's pink and white. But the face behind the glass might have been hev mirror image. By a happy chance she had chosen to wear a very plain black dress, which matched up well to the portrait's dark clothes. She stood there still and silent, staring at her centuries-old likeness. I wondered what she felt.
A pressman's camera flashed and clicked. First one visitor and then another noticed the resemblance and presently the rest of the gallery was deserted. Everyone was crowding round the Titian to stare from the painted face to the real one and back again. The only clear space was round Deborah herself. People were moving to get a good view of her profile, without losing sight of the Titian, which fortunately was in profile also. It must have been horribly embarrassing for Deborah, but she never seemed to notice them. She went on peering into the picture, for a very long time. Then she turned round and walked quickly out of the building. As she passed me I saw that she was crying a surprising display of emotion in one so calm.
About ten minutes later Aubrey discovered that a pair of Degas' statuettes was missing from a stand opposite the Titian. They were small objects and very valuable. The police were sent for and there was a considerable fuss, but nothing was found. I left as soon as I could and went to the Franklins. Deborah was in.
"Have you got the statuettes?" I asked.
She took them out of her handbag.
"How did you guess?"
"It seemed to me that your reception in front of the Titian was a performance," I explained. "It distracted attention from everything else in the room while the theft took place."
"Yes," said Deborah, "Aubrey arranged it very cleverly, didn't he? He thought of everything. He even helped me choose this dress to go with the one in the picture, you know."
"And the press photographer? Had he been laid on too?"
"Oh, yes. Aubrey arranged for someone to be there to photograph me. He thought it would help to collect a crowd."
Her coolness was astonishing. Even with the evidence of the statuettes in front of me I found it hard to believe that I was talking to a thief.
"It was a very clever scheme altogether," I said. "You and Aubrey must have put a lot of work into it. Ihad no idea that you were such friends."
There was a flush on her cheeks as she replied:
"Oh yes, I've been seeing a good deal of him lately.
Ever since the Hunt Ball, in fact."
After that there didn't seem to be much more to say.
"There's one thing I don't quite understand," I said finally. "People were surroundin'g you and staring at you up to the moment you left the gallery. How did Aubrey manage to pass the statuettes to you without anyone seeing?"
She rounded on me in a fury of surprise and indignation.
"Pass the statuettes to me?" she repeated. "Good God! Are you suggesting that I helped Aubrey to steal them?"
She looked like an angry goddess, and was about as charming.
"But but " I stammered. "But if you didn't who will?
"Rosamund, of course. Aubrey gave them to her while all was going on in front of the Titian. She simply put them in her bag and walked out. I'd only just gotthem back from her when you came in."
"Rosamund!" It was my turn to be surprised. "Then the whole thing was a put-up job between them?"
"Yes. They wanted to get married and hadn't any money, and she knew a dealer who would give a price for things like these with no questions asked and and there you are."
"Then how did you come into it?" I asked.
"Aubrey said that if I posed in front of the Titian it would be wonderful publicity for the exhibition and,of course, I fell for it." She laughed. "I've only just remembered. When Aubrey wanted to make fun of me he used to say I'd make a wonderful cover girl. That's just what I was a cover girl for him and Rosamund."
She stood up and picked up the statuettes.
"These will have to go back to the gallery, I suppose," she said, "Can it be done without too much fuss? It's silly of me, I know, but I'd rather they didn't prosecute Aubrey."
I made sympathetic noises.
"It was Rosamund's idea in the first place," she went on. "I'm sure of that. Aubrey hasn't the wits to think of anything so clever."
"It was clever enough," I said. "But you saw through it at once. How was that?"
"I'm not clever," she said. "But that old dark picture with the glass on it made a perfect mirror. Aubrey told me to stand in front of it, so I did. But I'm not interested in art, you know. I was looking at myself.And of course I couldn't help seeing what was happening just behind me..."
Purcell was a small, fussy' man; red cheeks and a tight melonlike stomach. Large glasses so magnified his eyes as to give him the appearance of a wise and kind owl.
He owned a pet shop. He sold cats and dogs and monkeys; he dealt in fish food and bird seed, prescribed remedies for ailing canaries, on his shelves there were long rows of cages. He considered himself something of a professional man.
There was a constant stir of life in his shop. The customers who came in said:
"Aren't they cute'! Look at that little monkey! They're sweet."
And Mr. Purcell himself would smile and rub his hands and nod his head.
Each morning, when the routine of opening his shop was completed, it was the proprietor's custom to perch on a high stool, behind the counter, unfold his morning paper, and digest the day's news.
It was a raw, wintry day. Wind gusted against the high, plateglass windows. Having completed his usual tasks, Mr. Purceil again mounted the high stool and unfolded his morning paper. He adjusted his glasses, aad glanced at the day's headlines.
There was a bell over the door that rang whenever a customer entered. This morning, however, for the first time Mr. Purcell could recall, it failed to ring. Simply he glanced up, and there was the stranger, standing just inside the door, as if he had materialized out of thin air.
The storekeeper slid off his stool. From the first instant he knew instinctively, that the man hated him; but out of habit he rubbed his hands, smiled and nodded.
"Good morning," he beamed. "What can I do for you?"
The man's shiny shoes squeaked forward. His suit was cheap, ill-fitting, but obviously new. Ignoring Purcell for the moment, he looked around the shadowy shop.
"A nasty morning," volunteered the shopkeeper. He clasped both hands across his melonlike stomach, and smiled importantly. Now what was it you wanted?"
The man stared closely at Purcell, as though just now aware of his presence. He said, "I want something in a cage."
"Something in a cage?" Mr. Purcell was a bit confused. "You mean some sort of pet?"
"I mean what I said!" snapped' the man. "Something in a cage. Something alive that's in a cage."
"I see," hastened the storekeeper, not at all certain that he did. "Now let me think. A white rat, perhaps? I have some very nice white rats."
"No!" said the xnan. "Not rats. Something with wings. Something that flies."
"A bird!" exclaimed Mr. Purcell.
"A bird's all right." The customer pointed suddenly to a cage which contained two snowy birds. "Doves? How much for those?"
"Five-fifty," came the prompt answer. "And a very reasonable price. They are a fine pair."
"Five-fifty?" The man was obviously disappointed. He produced a five-dollar bill. "I'1 like to have those birds. But this is all I've got. Just five dollars."
Mentally, Mr. Purcell made a quick calculation, which told him that at a fifty cent reduction he could still reap a tidy profit. He smiled kindly "My dear man, if you want them that badly, you can certainly have them for five dollars."
"I'll take them." He laid his five dollars on the counter. Mr. Purcell unhooked the cage, and handed it to his customer. "That noise!" The man said suddenly. "Doesn't it get on your nerves?"
"Noise? What noise?" Mr. Purcell looked surprised. He could hear nothing unusual.
"Listen." The staring eyes came closer. "How long d'you think it took me to make that five dollars?"
The merchant wanted to order him out of the shop. But oddly enough, he couldn't. He heard himself asking, "Why why, how long did it take you?"
The other laughed. "Ten years! At hard labour. Ten years to earn five dollars. Fifty cents a year."
It was best, Purcell decided, to humor him. "My, my! Ten years. That's certainly a long time. Now"
"They give you five dollars," laughed the man, "and a cheap suit, and tell you not to get caught again."
The man swung around, and stalked abruptly from the store.
Purcell sighed with sudden relief. He walked to the window and stared out. Just outside, his peculiar customer had stopped. He was holding the cage shoulder-high, staring at his purchase. Then, opening the cage, he reached inside and drew out one of the doves.He tossed it into the air. He drew out the second and tossed it after the first. They rose like balls and were lost in the smoky gray of the wintry city. For an instant the liberator's silent gaze watched them. Then he dropped the cage and walked away.
The merchant was perplexed. So desperately had the man desired the doves that he had let him have them at a reduced price. And immediately he had turned them loose. "Now why," Mr. Purcell muttered, "did he do that?" He felt vaguely insulted.