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The Vanishing Man

A Prequel to the Charles Lenox Series

Charles Finch

The Vanishing Man

READ THE FIRST FOUR CHAPTERS

 

CHAPTER ONE

Once a month or so, just to keep his hand in the game, Charles Lenox liked to go shopping with his friend Lady Jane Grey.

On this occasion it was a warm, beautiful, windy day in early June of 1853, quiet, the hour of late morning before the clerks filled the streets on their way to take lunch. The two friends were next-door neighbors on a small street called Hampden Lane, and he was waiting on her steps at precisely ten o’clock. At five past, she came out, smiling and apologizing.

They turned up Brook Street together and walked past the little string of streets that ran parallel to their own, talking.

“Why are you checking your watch every fifteen seconds?” she asked after they had gone about halfway.

“Oh! My apologies,” said Lenox. “I’ve an appointment at noon.” “I hope it’s with someone you’ve hired to teach you better manners.”

“The joke’s on you, because it’s with a duke.”

“The worst-mannered wretch I ever met was a duke,” Lady Jane said thoughtfully. As they crossed Binney Street, Lenox’s eyes stayed for an extra moment on a man painting an iron fence with a fresh coat of black paint, whistling happily to himself. “Which one is it?” she asked.

“Out of discretion I cannot say.” “I call that disagreeable.”

Lenox smiled. “It’s a case.”

She turned her gaze on him. It had been a long drought since his last case—more than a month. “Is it? I see.”

Though both considered themselves tenured veterans of London now, anyone observing them would have seen two very young people, as young and resilient as the summer day. Lenox was a tall, slender, straight-backed young bachelor of twenty-six, bearing a gentlemanly appearance, whatever Lady Jane said, with a courteous manner. He was dressed in a dark suit, hands often behind his back, with hazel eyes and a short hazel beard. There was something measuring and curious in his face. As for Lady Jane, she was five years his junior, a plain, pretty woman of twenty-one, but she had been married for fully a tenth of those living days, which gave her some shadowy right to matronly self-regard. It told in her posture, perhaps. She had soft, dark curling hair; today she wore a light blue dress, boots of a tan color just visible beneath its hem.

They had grown up in the same part of the countryside, though until he had moved to London, he had never considered her part of his own generation. By the time he’d noticed that she was, Lady Jane was already engaged.

They neared New Bond Street, where the shops began, as the church clocks chimed the quarter hour.

In truth it was not altogether customary that she went shopping quite so often as she did—in most households like Lady Jane’s, the task would have fallen to a maid—but it was one of the things that she liked, and Lenox liked it for that reason.

The meeting at noon was continually on his mind, even as they walked and spoke. Lenox was a private . . . well, what word had he settled on! Investigator? Detective? It was still a new endeavor. Three years could count as new, when the field was one of your own rough-and- ready invention, and when success had been tantalizingly close at moments but remained mostly elusive.

A duke might well bring it close enough to hold with two hands.

This intersection was vastly busier than their peaceful street. She stopped at the corner and looked at a list.

After she had been studying for a moment, he asked, “What do you need today?”

“Are you going to bother me with questions the whole time?” she said, trying to decipher, he could tell from many years of knowing her, her own handwriting.

“Yes.”

She looked at him and smiled. She pointed to the window next to which they were standing. It was a barber’s. “Shall we buy you some mustache grease?”

“Oh, no,” he said, looking at the sign that had inspired the question. “I make my own.”

“How economical.”

“Yes. Though it puts you in the way of quite a lot of bear hunting.”

“Very amusing, Charles. Let’s go to the greengrocer’s first.” He bowed. “Just as you please, my lady.”

They made their way carefully down New Bond Street, stopping in at every third or fourth shop. Jane was very canny, while Lenox shopped almost at random; at the confectioner, as she was remonstrating with Mr. Pearson over the price of an order of six dozen marzipan cakes she wanted for a garden party she was having, Lenox decided with little prompting to order a cake to be sent to Lady Wenborn, who had invited him to the country for August.

“That reminds me,” Jane said to the baker. “I have an odd request to make. Could I have an eggless cake from you? Vanilla. It’s for my husband’s aunt. I wrote down the recipe she gave me. She’s lord-terrified of eggs, I’m afraid.”

“Why on earth?” said the baker, so moved by this horrible information that he forgot himself.

“Can you think I have asked her, Mr. Pearson?”

“Blimey,” he said. Then amended himself to say, “Blimey, my lady.

She raised her eyebrows. “I know. Imagine being married to her.”

“I couldn’t,” said Pearson fervently, which was true for several different reasons.

Lenox was just about to interject that he knew the lady in question, a larger person, and that he would stand on his head if she had ever refused a dessert in her life. But as he was about to speak, Jane shot him a look, and he knew to keep mum.

In the street again, after they’d gone, she explained that she had read a recipe for an eggless cake from Germany and wanted to try it, but didn’t dare insult the baker.

“You could have made it at home.”

“No—no. He has the lightest hand in London, Mr. Pearson,” she said with reverence. “Speaking of tact, how is Lancelot?”

He made an irritated face at her, and she laughed. Lancelot was a young cousin of his who was on half-term from Eton and was in the city for two weeks of what his family had optimistically called seasoning. “I would prefer not to discuss it.”

“Does he still want to come with you on a case?” “Ha! Desperately.”

“Has he gotten you with the peashooter again?”

“I’m busy looking at cheese; please give me some peace.”

They ordered their cheese and left, proceeding past the cobblers, then the book stall—BACK IN STOCK, EXCLUSIVELY IN ALL OF LONDON, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN! a sign declared excitedly—before arriving at the dressmaker. Here Lady Jane went inside alone to have a word, as Lenox skulked outside, feeling like a schoolboy and meditating on the upcoming meeting.

The Duke of Dorset!

He thought of the title with a tightening in his stomach, and then of the letter that contained the entirety of his knowledge of the case thus far: His Grace has discovered that a possession upon which he places high value is missing. He would appreciate your advice upon its potential recovery.

He checked his watch and saw that it was ten past eleven. They were near the end of their ramble, and he felt a quick flicker of melancholy. When he was with Lady Jane, he could forget himself. Just at the moment this was a welcome oblivion.

If Lenox’s first year in London after moving down from Oxford had been characterized by his tenacious, mostly fruitless search for work as a detective, a profession that didn’t really exist, the subsequent eighteen months had been more complex and difficult. In part it was still to do with the scorn his profession drew from his peers, as they steadily advanced in their fields—and in part it was to do with the lonely feeling that all around him his friends were marrying, having children even, while he was still by himself.

Most of all, of course, it was to do with the death of his father. At first he had borne up under this misfortune well, he thought—fathers were supposed to die before their children, after all, and he knew any number of friends who had been orphaned long ago. But recently, especially in the last six months, his grief had shown itself in odd, unexpected ways. He found himself losing minutes at a time on train platforms and in gardens, thinking; he found himself dreaming of his childhood.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that they had never been especially close. He had loved and revered his father, Lenox, but his truer friendship had always been with his mother. Had he assumed there would be time, later on in life, for their relationship to grow? His father had been only sixty at the time he died; for his second son, it had been, surprisingly, not as if some venerable building in London disappeared, which was what he had always imagined—Parliament, for instance—but as if London itself had disappeared.

This past year he felt the loss more keenly with each month, not less, and he was sure that was unnatural. For the first time in his life, he woke each morning with a sense of dejection—a sense that, well, here was another day to be gotten through—rather than happiness. He was not sure he could endure it much longer.

CHAPTER TWO

Of all people, Lady Jane perhaps sensed her friend’s state of mind most perceptively. When she came out of the dressmaker’s, a look that was difficult to read passed across her face, as if she could read his thoughts.

“Everything acceptable?” he asked cheerfully. “Yes, they’re still making dresses.”

He smiled at the joke, and they resumed their stroll.

A few shops down the long boulevard, they passed the optician. “I really would like a barometer above anything,” Lenox said longingly, pausing before a beautiful brass one in the optician’s window. “Ah, well.”

“What a waste of money it would be,” she said.

“They say it is good to have friends who support one’s interests,” Lenox murmured, studying the barometer.

“You are dead in the center of the largest city on earth. When was the last time you even saw a ship?”

“Ha! There you’re going to feel foolish, because I see them nearly every day on the Thames.”

“From a cab.” She pulled his arm. “Let’s go, you can’t be late to your duke.”

They proceeded down New Bond, talking of this and that. It seemed Lady Jane had a kind word for every person they passed, and it occurred to Lenox that just as he had been struggling to find his feet in his profession, she had perhaps felt something like an impostor in her first years in London—in the very earliest days of her grand marriage, to an earl’s first son. Perhaps this was why she shopped for herself, if it gave her a sense of intimacy with their leafy, occasionally intimidating London neighborhood, making of it a community.

Like him, she belonged, from the first, to a small place, a village. Now she had made a small place here, in the biggest place. A village of its own.

They spent some discussing the duke. A duke, after all! The whole of the United Kingdom, in its population of thirty million, possessed just twenty-eight such creatures. The least of them was a figure of overpowering consequence. Yet even among them there were finer gradients, and the man Lenox was shortly to see held one of the three or four greatest dukedoms.

It went so, with the nobility:

In the highest rank were the dukes, first in the land beneath the royal family. Not only that, but in their innermost souls not a few dukes and duchesses would have pointed to their lineage (the title of “duke” had come into existence in 1337) and claimed a greater stake in the leadership of Britain than the come-lately family currently chattering around the throne in German accents.

Next came the marquesses, thirty-five of these, and their wives, the marchionesses. Then earls—and there it became complicated, because the title of “earl” was nearly oldest of all, originating as long ago as the year 600, historians said, when each shire of England had a jarl (Norse for “noble warrior”), which was the reason that in England each earl was still entitled to a small crown: a coronet.

Many earls in England (including Lady Jane’s father, Lord Houghton) would not have admitted for a second to being beneath a duke. In practical terms, too, there were old earldoms of immensely greater importance, to those who parsed these things, than the newer dukedoms.

On top of all that, their wives were called countesses, because nobody had ever thought to name them earlesses—which had struck many schoolboys learning these facts as very stupid indeed.

Thereafter it got greatly simpler. Viscounts were next, nearly a hundred of these, common as church mice, the poor devils, and some of them just as poor. Finally came barons, last rank in the peerage. “And there you’ll be, at the very top of the heap,” said Jane.

“I doubt he’ll make me a duke there on the spot,” Lenox said. “Probably just a baron or something.”

“I do wonder what he wants. A possession upon which he places high value. I only hope it’s not his lucky kilt, or something equally stupid.”

Lady Jane laughed. “And the laundress has lost it, yes. I could see that being the calamity, I’m afraid.”

Lenox himself held none of these titles. Just to confuse things, there was still one title left, and it was here he entered the picture: Baronets were called “sir,” as Lenox’s older brother, Sir Edmund, had now been in the eighteen months since their father’s death.

A knight was also called “sir,” but his children couldn’t inherit the title. It belonged to a sole person and died with him, a great writer, say, or artist, or dear intimate of the Queen’s ninth-favorite cousin.

All of these gentry taken together with their families numbered not more than ten thousand, but Lenox, as the second son even of a very old, landed, and honored baronetcy, was as far down the slopes of the mountain of aristocracy from the Duke of Dorset as the thirty-millionth Briton, drunk in a ditch, was from Lenox himself.

It was an absurd system. Almost nobody believed in it as more than a matter of chance, except for the very old aunts and uncles who kept the genealogies. Yet all of them also, somehow, believed in it implicitly. Strange to be an Englishman.

At last they reached the turn of New Bond Street, where they saw the most dignified shop in the whole row, housed inside a handsome stone building with purple wisteria climbing its face. This was the leecher’s—the best leecher in town, people generally agreed, where they boxed the living leeches in white boxes bound with blue ribbon, as if they were marzipan cakes themselves.

Despite this enticement, they passed over the leecher’s in favor of their own favorite shop, which was just around the corner, behind a short porch made of plain unsanded boards. Over the door it said nothing but BERGSON in plain white stenciled lettering.

They pushed the door open and saw Bergson himself in a chair behind a broad counter, looking infernally grumpy and making absolutely no movement to rise and greet them. A duke or an earl or a murderer or anyone on God’s green earth could walk in and his reaction would be exactly the same.

He was a silent old Swede, Bergson, who had spent most of his life in America and then, for reasons known only to himself, come to London and set up an exact replica of the shop he had once owned in the Wisconsin territory.

An exact replica, truly exact, which meant that there were items of no conceivable use to a Londoner, like two-hundred-pound bags of cornmeal (enough to last a long cabin-winter, but in lesser demand here), mixed with those of delightful novelty and tireless fascination.

“Look!” said Jane, handling a necklace with a large polished turquoise at the end of two rubbed-leather ropes. “These are the fashion right now.”

Lenox looked at it doubtfully, then at the stone-faced Bergson. Some people said he had lost his whole family to a fever, others that that he had left America when Wisconsin became a state five years ago, because he had murdered another man over a plot of land once and could not survive a land with laws.

Lenox suspected him simply of being shrewd; it was one of the most popular shops in London, its stock replenished just often enough to be endlessly fascinating.

Bergson was not telling—he barely deigned to speak to his customers—but he did halfheartedly sell Charles and Jane a variety of items: bars of pine soap, bags of sifted brown sugar, rough lumps of silver, a woven fishing creel that Lenox thought he would give his brother, Edmund. Lady Jane bought a handsome leather cap for her husband, who was due back from India with his troops in August. Lenox considered a tinderbox before buying Lancelot an arrowhead, silvered with mica.

“See, you do like having Lancelot,” said Lady Jane as they left. “In fact I do not, but I love Eustacia very dearly.” This was Lancelot’s mother, Lenox’s first cousin. “As for Lancelot, he’ll slit my neck with this arrowhead tonight.”

She mulled this over. “Better than the tinderbox, then, all things considered, since our houses are side by side. Look, it’s eleven forty, Charles. You had better go and see about your duke.”

CHAPTER THREE

He arrived at Dorset House twenty minutes later, taking off his hat in the doorway and listening very attentively to Theodore Ward, the duke’s private secretary, who was leading him inside.

“Just to clarify once more, our expectation, His Grace’s expectation, is that we may trust in your absolute discretion, Lenox. Really, your absolute—well, you understand. You do, don’t you?”

“I’m scarcely liable to change my answer the ninth time you ask, Theo.”

Ward’s brow darkened, and for just an instant they were two boys on the cricket pitch at school, arguing over whose turn it was to bowl. “I say, Charlie, it really is the most highly—”

Lenox held up a hand. “You have my word. My absolute word. My rock-solid bottom-of-the-ocean heaven-swear-it word. Honestly. I’m grateful you thought of me.”

Ward was mollified. “Good. It’s only—I don’t think I have ever even seen the duke perturbed.”

“I understand.”

He did. In his work, Lenox had seen people of all stations who were experiencing the most frantic moments of their lives. Having encountered wrongdoing or violence, none of them, from scullery maid to stiff-chinned major, could stay unchanged.

“Just wait here a moment, then, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Lenox smiled. “I could live here comfortably enough for a while if you like.”

The secretary followed Lenox’s gaze across the enormous entryway. They had just come in from the noisy streets of London, but the cavernous silence made it just like stepping into a house deep in the countryside: the vast checkerboard marble floor, the curling staircase, the high arched ceiling, a mahogany settle with the proportions of a dinghy.

“Yes, it’s something rather else, isn’t it?” said Ward.

“They would have slept thirty of us on that stairwell at Harrow.” Ward laughed. “They did cram us in. At any rate, just stay here.

Find a chair if you like.” He gestured toward a row of twelve of them. “Have a gander at the paintings. I’ll be back when I’ve made sure His Grace would like to see you now.”

Ward left, and Lenox looked around the hall.

He had seen paintings before—most of them, in his limited experience, seemed to be of streams, cows, or fine personages, and these were no exception—so instead he turned back to the entrance through which they had just come.

On either side of the heavy front door was a large vertical window. He stood close to one and looked out at the Thames, which glimmered gold under the summer sun.

He was in what some people reckoned London’s most beautiful house. It was a white marble citadel built four hundred years before, sitting not all that much more than a thousand yards or so west of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. The Thames faced its front door, and Buckingham Palace was a five-minute walk from its back one.

Standing there, he was perhaps just conscious of a slight fraudulence in himself. He had dressed in too warm a gray wool suit and a somber maroon tie—serious clothes, to indicate his seriousness, though perhaps you might have seen, in his sober face, a trace of self-doubt. He was only twenty-six. And while he was passionately interested in this work, the number of serious crimes he had investigated could still be counted on one hand.

After perhaps five minutes, Ward returned, and Lenox strode back to the center of the entrance hall. He was shorter and sturdier than Lenox, Ward—a boxer in the deepest places of his heart—and there was no levity left in his manner.

“Just this way,” he said. “His Grace will see you at the place of the—in his private study. His real private study.”

“Is there a made-up one?” Lenox asked in a quiet voice, because now they were proceeding up the stairwell.

“There is a public private study, where he takes large meetings,” Ward replied, equally quietly.

“I see.”

And he was a duke, after all. Even Jane, whom very little impressed, the daughter of an earl, some distant day destined to be the wife of one when her husband’s father died, had given him a second look when he said the name Dorset. Aside from a handful of people—the Queen, Prince Albert, the old heroic red-faced Duke of Wellington, still just alive—there weren’t many more powerful inhabitants of England.

Lenox tried to think of any others. The Archbishop of Canterbury? Probably not. If you took the whole power of Oxford University it might compete with the duke’s.

But not with his wealth.

Theodore Ward (a well-born commoner, son of a squire, which is to say a sort of untitled baronet, and grandnephew of a marquess, bound someday for Parliament in all likelihood—hence this prestigious post) was highly conscious of all this, it was clear. He led Lenox down a red- carpeted hallway of Dorset House as carefully as if they were bound for an execution.

When they reached the duke’s study, he tapped gently upon the door. “Your Grace?”

“Come in,” a voice called after a moment.

Lenox wondered, briefly, whether there had really been any crime at all. A duke seemed a prime candidate for a cry-wolf. In they went, however.

“Charles Lenox, Your Grace,” said Theo, bowing slightly.

His Grace looked up from behind his desk. His face was impassive.

“Good afternoon, Your Grace,” said Lenox. “Come in,” Dorset said. “You may sit.”

It was a spectacular little room. One wall was entirely covered in windows, which overlooked the river and the bankside. Two others were taken up with bookshelves, which held innumerable small treasures; in his peripheral vision Lenox could see a scored and battered Anglo-Saxon broadsword laid along a velvet runner.

The final of the room’s four walls, directly behind Dorset’s immaculate French desk, was the scene of the crime.

Lenox and Ward sat in two ebony chairs, upholstered in pale green, facing the duke.

“Ward tells me you have set up as a private sort of police officer.”

“Well—after a fashion, Your Grace, yes, I suppose that’s correct.”

The duke studied him. “He also tells me you are trustworthy.” There was no point in modesty here. “Yes, Your Grace.”

The duke paused once again. He was thin, aged about fifty-five, Lenox would have said, and wore a navy suit with a gray waistcoat, like a schoolboy. He had trim gray hair, firmly set blue-gray eyes, and a mustache. He held a gold pen in one hand.

There was something ethereal in his lined face, as if a lifetime of holding his position had somehow insubstantiated him individually, his personality absorbed partially into his station. And his expression was the expression of a man who has heard the word “yes” many, many times in his life, and expected to hear it many more still, yet who was also trained to the strictest self-discipline. It was the expression of a man with dozens and dozens of servants whose existence was dedicated to him and of whose individual existences he was only vaguely aware.

“I knew your father in Parliament, before his death.”

Here was a wound. But Lenox was a stoic, like all of his class, and only said, “Did you, Your Grace,” without a question mark.

“He was a man of principle.”

“He certainly was that, Your Grace.”

“Yes, I liked him very much. I dislike it when the ministries are out of the House of Lords, but I would have been happy to see him in a cabinet.”

“He declined several posts, I know, Your Grace.”

The duke barked a laugh, as if Lenox would have to dig much deeper to surprise him. “Yes, I know.”

“My apologies, Your Grace. Of course you do.”

Dorset gave him one final, appraising look, as if he were a horse up for a prize at a county fair, then nodded. “You had better leave us, then, Theo,” he said.

CHAPTER FOUR

When the private secretary had left, the Duke rose and walked to a discreet stand of variously shaped crystal decanters. “A whisky?” he said.

Lenox’s father’s guideline flashed through his mind: Upon a first meeting, always accept the offer of a drink from a man lower in rank than yourself, never from a man higher in rank than yourself.

“Thank you, no, Your Grace,” Lenox said, still sitting.

“As you like it.” The duke stoppered the bottle he had opened. He turned back to Lenox. “How do you generally proceed in matters of this kind, then?”

“Ward told me very little.”

The duke strode back to the desk. “Good. He knows very little.” “Given that, Your Grace, perhaps it would be best if you began at the start and told me as much as you could.”

The duke stared at him. Lenox expected some further cavil or hesitation, but instead, after a moment, he launched directly into his story. Once he had taken a decision, he moved forward without reservations, apparently. Lenox stowed that away as a potentially valuable piece of knowledge.

“It’s about a painting,” Dorset said. “So I had guessed, Your Grace.”

The duke looked at him sharply. “How is that, Mr. Lenox?” “The one piece of information I had from Ward was that you were missing a possession you valued.” Lenox nodded to the wall behind the duke. “There are normally eight paintings on your wall, four on each side of you. At the moment there are seven. The empty space is conspicuous.”

“Very well—but for all you know it’s been taken away for cleaning, and what’s missing is a string of diamonds.”

Lenox shook his head. “No, Your Grace. One of the two nails upon which the painting was hanging is ripped halfway out, the other is gone, and there is a fresh wound in the wood where it was. You can see raw wood under the varnish.”

The duke turned back to look once again. “So you can.”

“Not even your most careless footman would handle a painting from your study that way. Or the wall’s paneling.”

The duke looked at him, neither impressed (as perhaps Lenox had hoped he would be) nor displeased.

“This is your trade, then,” he said curiously. “Observation.”

“It is, Your Grace.” Lenox hated that word, “trade,” but of course it was his trade. Still, he couldn’t help but add, “I believe that one must take money in exchange for services or goods for work to be properly considered a trade, if one wished to be technical, however.”

Dorset looked surprised. He pulled a gold case, engraved with his coat of arms and clasped with a ruby, from his waistcoat pocket. He drew a small cigar from it and closed the case again. “You don’t take money?”

“No, Your Grace.”

“I see. You are a hobbyist.”

“No, Your Grace. My practices are quite professional. But I am—”

He hesitated. How to explain it, quite?

But the duke understood. “No, I see.” He lit the cigar from a safety match struck against his lampstand. “Be that all as it may—you are correct that it is a painting that has been stolen. You may also wish to know that I want to know who took it very badly.”

“Naturally, Your Grace.” “No, not naturally.” “Excuse me?”

Who, I said. I only care about the who of the thing. The painting itself is of little consequence to me.”

Lenox nodded. “I see. You’re quite correct that that’s unusual.

May I ask if the painting is”—he gestured at the seven still on the wall— “also a portrait?”

“It is. A portrait of my great-grandfather, the fourteenth duke.” “I would imagine that you might value it in that case.”

Dorset shook his head. “He had his portrait painted oftener than most. We have about a dozen more scattered here and there. One is hanging in my club, where I see it every day, and another in the Lords.”

Lenox squinted at the paintings. There was something wrong about them, though he couldn’t yet put his finger on what.

He returned his attention to the duke. “Perhaps you are worried about your safety, then?”

“I am not,” said Dorset firmly. “New locks have been installed on the windows and door of the study, and the staff is on alert. Listen here, however. What were you looking at? Just now, behind me?”

What had he been looking at? He stared at the paintings again. Then he realized: One of them was wrong.

From left to right the pictures might have been numbered one through eight. With, as Lenox had said, four on either side of the duke’s desk. The missing one would have been numbered six in the sequence.

The first, all the way to the left, hung closest to the large window overlooking the Thames. Lenox’s inexpert eye guessed that it dated roughly to Elizabethan times. Going left to right, the paintings grew one by one slightly more modern, concluding with what he felt sure was the current duke’s own father.

But one of the paintings was wrong.

“I take it that these are other of your predecessors, Your Grace,” he said, pointing to the four paintings on the left.

“They are, yes. Dukes of Dorset.”

Then Lenox’s eyes looked past the duke and to the right side of the room, where the missing painting had hung. “And the last two are, as well—like the missing one.”

“Yes.”

“The farthest to the right, next to the whisky you very kindly offered me from the bookcase”—the one that Lenox had numbered eighth in his own mind—“being, I would hazard, of your own father.”

“Yes,” said the duke again.

“But that one.” Lenox pointed to the painting just over the duke’s left shoulder. Number five. Just next to the missing painting, number six. “That one is very different, Your Grace.”

“Different.”

“The other six, I can see, are all almost exactly the same in size. This is half as large. It is also darker, and it is less—I suppose the sitter looks less distinguished than your other ancestors. Forgive me for saying so, Your Grace.”

The duke looked faintly amused for a moment, and then more serious. He gazed at Lenox for a long time. He seemed suddenly uneasy.

At last he spoke. “But that painting is not the one that’s missing.” “No,” said Lenox. Then he added, “My instinct at the scene of a crime is always to look for what seems off. The painting merely seemed off to me. We needn’t discuss it if you prefer.”

“No. It is quite bound up in why you are here. But it is—well, I was unwilling to call in Scotland Yard, or indeed even the private constabulary of the House of Lords, for a reason. The matter is too serious. And it has to do with exactly this painting, the fifth.”

So he thought of it as the fifth, too, and the stolen one as the sixth, perhaps. “I am very curious, Your Grace.”

The duke leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs with the whisper of very expensive cloth. “Very well. Today is Wednesday, as you know.”

“Yes.”

“On Monday, that is June first, the Duchess and I had planned to depart for Ireland. I have a house on Lough Leane. My son, however, who was to travel with us, fell ill that day with a fever. Out of an excess of caution—he is my only son and my heir—we delayed the date of our proposed departure to yesterday, Tuesday. He refuses to see a doctor, the stubborn fool.”

“Yesterday being the second.”

The duke smiled. “Your least striking deduction thus far, Mr. Lenox.”

Lenox took a notebook from his pocket. “I apologize. I am simply trying to establish the timeline in my mind. If I could take notes?”

“If you wish.” The duke went on, his straight, slender body standing over the chair, one hand resting on it, as if he himself were posing for a portrait. “It was then, the second, yesterday morning, that I came into my study. It was just before seven o’clock. The painting was gone.”

“Did you come in for any specific reason? A noise?” asked the young detective.

“No. I generally breakfast alone here, answering letters.” “What did you do when you saw the sixth painting in the row was missing?”

The duke again smiled enigmatically. “Looked at the fifth, and gave a sigh of relief.”

“And then, Your Grace?”

“Rang the bell, and quickly questioned every servant I could find.

None of them had seen or heard anything. My manservant, Craig, has questioned them all at greater length, and confirmed the same.”

Lenox nodded, pondering this. “When was the last time you had been in the room?”

“Late the previous evening.”

“And needless to say, everything was in order then.” “Yes, quite.”

“Was anyone from the household here after you, Your Grace?” “Only Craig. He is a Scotsman who has been with me thirty years. Before that he was in the army. He tells me that the room was in perfect order when he left it.”

“Why did he come in, Your Grace?”

“He came in to tidy, as he does every night.”

“Was there any sign of how the thief might have gained access to the room?”

“Nothing could have been clearer. The door was locked when I came in here yesterday morning, and the thief left a window open when he left.”

Lenox looked over at the windows, which were locked now, with thin curtains tied away from them to either side.

“Did the missing painting have any value?”

“I think it probably the least valuable painting on the wall,” said the duke, with an odd sort of satisfaction. “Even if it were not stolen but freely sold by its owner, myself, its worth would not exceed fifteen or twenty pounds at auction.”

“Is that all?”

“If more, only because its sitter is a Duke of Dorset, perhaps. Its painter has been forgotten. Next to it, you see, is a Joshua Reynolds of my grandfather, which would obviously be a different matter.” Even Lenox knew that every great collector would bid on a Reynolds that came to auction. “Nor was my great-grandfather—who was in the sixth portrait, the missing one—a great political leader, like his own father. Or mine. He was a quiet man.”

Both of those men had served in the cabinet of Parliament with relatively little distinction, Lenox knew, though evidently that was not an opinion shared in this proud household, where they were remembered as Ciceros of the Embankment.

His eyes returned to the much smaller, smoky painting. Number five.

It was in a wood frame, not gilt like the others, and its sitter wore a plain dark shirt, open at the neck. He had a small gold earring, in the fashion of the 1810s. But the painting looked a bit older than that to Lenox’s (deeply untrained) eye. He held a delicate flower by its stem, though his gaze was directed at the viewer.

There was an intelligent watchfulness to him. In the empty space next to him on the canvas were a few lines of cursive writing, as you sometimes saw in old French pictures of Christ or his mother.

“Who is this, then?” Lenox asked nodding toward the painting. Dorset smiled, at last. “There you ask to know something that Ward does not know—that, if I am not mistaken, three people on earth know. I suppose you think I may rely upon you to be the fourth.”

“I will certainly keep it a secret, Your Grace.”

He was lying. He would tell Graham—of course. But the duke didn’t need to know that.

“Very well,” Dorset said. “That is the only existing oil painting from life of the writer William Shakespeare.”

 

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