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Title: Santa Anna
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1402651h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Oct 2014
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Santa Anna

by

Fred M. White

Cover Image

First published in Chambers's Journal, April 2, 1898
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014



A DECOROUS hush fell upon the auction-room. The excitement of the virtuoso is usually of a mildly genteel type; but there are exceptional moments, and the brief period preceding the fall of the hammer on the sale of the 'Santa Anna' was one of them.

By degrees the bidding had advanced, the stream of golden promise went on until a timid millionaire modestly perspiring in the background suggested ten thousand guineas. Mr Forrest looked up with gentle approbation.

'Ladies and gentlemen,' he murmured, 'the picture is now on sale.'

To the uninitiated this meant that the reserve-price had been reached. A little man with a remarkably dirty face bobbed up, snapped out' ten thousand five hundred,' and immediately fell to chewing his catalogue again. In a less sacred assembly they would have laughed at the seedy man with real estate secured in the lines of his features, but Mr Forrest bowed his thanks. The Semitic unit had come from Vienna on purpose to buy the 'Santa Anna,' and Forrest could have honoured his draft for half a million on sight—appearances go for so little where the virtuosi are concerned.

A well-known dealer advanced five hundred, and then the biddings dropped. Mr Forrest dropped into forensic art. The 'Santa Anna' had been propped up on a table before him—a canvas about six feet by four, and full of glowing colour. Mr Forrest tapped the frame with decorous familiarity.

'Need I enlarge upon this famous, this unique work?' he said. 'Need I recall to your recollection the fact that the purification of the saint was a subject specially selected for the brush of Leonardo da Vinci by Francis I. himself, and designed to hang in the palace of Chambord? It has been established clearly enough that immediately after showing this picture to his royal patron, the great artist expired suddenly in the king's arms. I think my last bid was eleven thousand.'

The millionaire hesitated. He regretted that his knowledge of pictures was so much less than his acquaintance with contangoes and futures. You can 'corner' diamonds and petroleum, but a picture trust is another thing. The Viennese dealer bobbed up again, suggested eleven thousand five hundred with the air of one who answers a conundrum, and ate another octavo page of his catalogue. As to the wealthy amateurs, they had dropped out of the hunt long ago.

Roscoe, of Hunt & Roscoe, the eminent dealers, edged a little nearer the rostrum—a slight, clean-shaven man, who looked more like a Chancery barrister than a buyer of pictures and armour. Both Hunt and Roscoe were young men, but both enjoyed excellent reputations. They were bold and successful. The Vienna gentleman scowled as he spotted a dangerous rival.

'Twelve thousand,' said Roscoe. The seedy one put a thousand on to that. Nineteen thousand was bid, and then Roscoe added one thousand more. His mien was calm and resolute, a crumpled telegram crushed in his hand gave him courage. With a patient sigh, Rosenthal of Vienna rose and went out. Like the philosopher he was, he swallowed his disappointment, and fell to counting up what his expenses would come to.

A ripple of applause followed, subdued applause as befitted the sacred place, and then the hammer came down with a snap. The 'Santa Anna' had been the last lot, and the audience filed out. They had something to talk of for some time to come, as such a red-letter day did not happen very frequently.

Quite coolly Roscoe pushed his way up to Forrest's desk. The latter nodded as one does to a familiar figure.

'You gave quite enough for it,' said Forrest. 'Still, I dare say an advertisement of that kind is worth a good bit.'

'Well, yes. It is certain to go the round of the papers, and I confidently look forward to seeing a few leading articles thereon to-morrow. All the same, I didn't buy the picture quite as a speculation.'

'Got a customer for it, eh?'

'I think so. But one never can be quite sure. That's the worst of our business. We want all our big profits if we have a thing like this on our hands for a year or so. Every week that canvas hangs up in our shop I calculate it costs us twenty pounds.'

Roscoe departed a little later with his treasure. A short time after the same was reposing on an easel in the private office of the two partners behind the handsome premises in Piccadilly.

Hunt stood contemplating the new purchase with an admixture of fright and pleasure. He was a nervous man with bold ideas, which were no sooner carried out than they filled him with dread.

'It's a heap of money,' he murmured.

'Can't be helped,' Roscoe replied. 'It was a game of brag with Rosenthal, and for once in a way I got the better of him. Besides, we shall have all the kudos of the purchase, and make a good profit into the bargain.'

'And if the South African doesn't come up to the scratch?'

'What a fellow you are!' Roscoe exclaimed with some pardonable irritation. 'Haven't I got the telegram in my pocket?'

Hunt was fain to admit this comforting evidence. That was the worst of having a partner with a sluggish liver, Roscoe thought.

'It would have been absolutely criminal to have lost such a glorious chance,' the latter continued. 'Read the thing again.'

So saying, the speaker took from his pocket the pink paper upon which post-office telegrams are transcribed, and flattened out the crumpled sheet. It bore the Southampton mark and ran thus:


'JUST LANDED FROM CARY CASTLE. SEEN ADVERTISEMENT OF FORREST'S SALE. CAN'T GET UP TO-DAY. BUY SANTA ANNA FOR ME. OPEN COMMISSION.— BARON BRANTANO.'


The telegram was addressed to one Moss, a picture-dealer in a small way who occupied a sandwich of a shop next to the palatial establishment of Hunt & Roscoe—indeed the latter emporium had once formed part of their premises. A careless telegraph-boy had placed the message in the hands of Roscoe himself and had hurried out whistling. Without noting the address, Roscoe had torn open the envelope and mastered the contents.

Then he saw that the message was intended for Moss. Nevertheless he did not immediately deliver the same. He stood pondering, and the longer he pondered, the brighter did the scheme for the aggrandisement of the firm glitter before him.

There would be a row, of course. But the telegraph-boy would assuredly be prepared to swear if necessary that the message had been delivered at the proper address. He would do this for his own sake, and would be doing Hunt & Roscoe a good turn at the same time.

The commission on the purchase of the 'Santa Anna' would be a small affair. To buy it out and out, and sell the same to the South African magnate would be quite another matter. Hunt shared this opinion.

'Nobody can touch us,' he said. 'If that pinchbeck Baron requires the picture he will have to pay through the nose for it. Only we had better be careful that we are going to deal with the genuine Simon Pure. Let's send round to Lloyds for a list of passengers on the Cary Castle.

Information from Lloyds proved to be quite satisfactory, and again this was confirmed by a paragraph in the Standard, to the effect that amongst the passengers landed from the Cary Castle was Baron Brantano.

It is needless to remark that the Baron had loomed large on the public eye of late. Some day a book will be written upon the materialisation of the modern millionaire. He comes, like the Baron, mistily and vaguely, then suddenly he becomes a being crystallised in newspaper paragraphs. He has gold and silver mines, he has 'cornered' all the diamonds in the universe; he has given £100,000 for a picture. Then he fades away, and a new plutocrat occupies his place. But when and where he comes, he always finds a place in the public confidence.

Thus Baron Brantano. So far as any one could tell, he was an adventurous Englishman who had served the king of the Belgians on the Congo, hence the title. After that he had devoted himself to the millionaire business with distinct success—perhaps because it is the only profession not overcrowded.

'Good,' Roscoe exclaimed, 'we shall make £5000 out of this. You notice that Moss was to have had an open commission. Nobody will have the least suspicion of us. Therefore we buy the picture at any cost, and then we can offer it privately to the Baron. Of course his game is to make a present of the same to the National Gallery with a view to establishing a position in society. What a slice of luck!'

The millionaire came ostentatiously to the 'Hôtel Métropole' a day or two later, and the evening papers fell down and worshipped him. A few days passed, but no sign came from the Baron, and Moss appeared to be as friendly as usual. Could it be possible that the Baron had changed his mind?

'Hadn't you better go and see him?' Hunt suggested.

'Don't be an ass,' snapped Roscoe. 'How can I go and see him? I couldn't show him Moss's telegram, could I?'

'I don't see why you shouldn't,' Hunt replied. 'I have been making a few inquiries, and I find that Brantano has been buying pictures. Why not call upon him, and ask him to come and look at the Santa Anna?'

Roscoe pondered a moment. Something would have to be done shortly. After all, there could be nothing suspicious in carrying out Hunt's suggestion. If the Baron had forgotten the incident it might recall the same to his memory. Perhaps Moss might have faded from his mind. Then, when he knew where the picture was, he would naturally trouble no more about Moss, who thus might never even know that a telegram had been sent him.

'On the whole, I think I'll go,' said Roscoe.

Without further delay he proceeded to put his intention into effect. Roscoe was fortunately enabled to see the millionaire after a wait of not more than half-an-hour, which, under the circumstances, was quite cordial.

Brantano was English beyond a doubt. He was quite a young man, stout of figure and guileless of air. He was almost clean shaven, with a prominent thin nose and a firm yet receding chin. The hair on the temples was somewhat thin and grizzled, and there were countless wrinkles round the keen, beady eyes. The Baron's hand was slightly shaky; he was quick and nervous.

'I don't remember your name, Mr Roscoe,' he said. 'But if your business is pressing, I can spare you ten minutes or so.'

Roscoe plunged at once into the subject. He noted with satisfaction that the Baron smiled when the 'Santa Anna' was mentioned. Clearly there was no mistake about the matter.

'It is a magnificent picture,' Roscoe concluded.

'A magnificent picture truly,' echoed the capitalist. 'I am no great judge, but I fell in love with it directly.'

'You have seen it before, then?'

'Never till I landed in England this week.'

'But there must be some mistake here,' Roscoe suggested. 'Did you not land from the Cary Castle on Monday week?'

'Certainly I did. And I remained in Southampton till Wednesday.'

Roscoe looked puzzled, as well he might.

'Then I fail to understand how you could have seen the picture,' he said, 'considering that on the Tuesday we purchased the picture from Forrest's people, and that it has not been out of our possession ever since. The telegram'——

Roscoe checked himself. He had been on the point of making a dangerous admission. The Baron smiled in an indulgent manner.

'Then there must be two "Santa Annas,"' he said. 'Mine came from Lord Maplehurst.'

'And ours came from Lord Maplehurst as well,' Roscoe burst in. 'There is some extraordinary mistake here. Perhaps I had better hear your story, Baron.'

'With pleasure. As you may not be aware, I am a Roman Catholic. It has always been a great idea of mine to send the Pope a fitting present on his birthday. By chance I heard the history of the "Santa Anna" from Lord Maplehurst's brother, Mr James Maplehurst, whom I know very well in Kimberley. I offered £20,000 for the picture, and it was refused. Lord Maplehurst called upon me on the morning following my arrival in England, much to my surprise, with the picture. It had been offered for sale the day before, and fetched just the sum I had offered, at which price it was bought in. Would I give another £1000? I would and did, in Bank of Bechuanaland notes, and the picture was mine. Moreover, as his lordship was going abroad, he offered to see the picture safe to the Vatican for me, and I consented. These things always come to those who know how to wait, Mr Roscoe.'

A cold perspiration stiffened Roscoe's spine. Could it be possible that he had been made the victim of a heartless swindle? Could Forrest'——but that was absurd. That the Baron was telling the truth from his point of view was patent. But still the picture which had been offered for sale remained in Roscoe's possession.

'Then you did not commission any one to buy the picture for you by telegram or otherwise?' Roscoe gasped.

'Certainly not. And I have neither written a letter nor despatched a telegram since I have been here. Perhaps it would be as well, Mr Roscoe, if you were to describe your picture.'

Roscoe proceeded to do so. The Baron followed with fluttering interest.

'Beyond question one of these pictures is a forgery,' he said. 'All the same, as I got mine direct from the owner, I feel safe. If you like I will treat this interview as private, so as to give you an opportunity of consulting the police. Depend upon it, secrecy will be all in your favour.'

'The very thing I was about to suggest,' Roscoe cried, 'and I beg to thank you for your kind consideration. I will lay the matter before the authorities at once, and take their opinion upon it.'

Roscoe departed for Piccadilly in a state of mind easier imagined than described. Some instinct told him that theirs was the copy of the 'Santa Anna.' The pecuniary loss could be tided over, but the loss of prestige and reputation would be a most serious one from a business point of view.

Hunt took the matter far better than his colleague had expected. Men who suffer with a liver are apt to see trouble looming everywhere, but when it does come they understand how to take it with philosophic resignation.

'It's no use beating about the bush,' he said. 'Some of us are the victims of a vile conspiracy. The fact that the Baron sent no telegram on that clay proves it. We simply can't go and make any fuss with the police at present, for the simple reason that we shall be bound to admit using a telegram belonging to somebody else.'

'Do you suppose it was a bona fide telegram?' Roscoe suggested.

'That's a very good idea of yours,' said Hunt. 'We will suppose that the telegram was a clever forgery, and that the lad who delivered it had been dressed for the part by the actual swindler. You'd know the boy again?'

'Certainly I should. He was a very smart lad, I noticed.'

'And he came from the Circus office. Go there and lodge a bogus complaint against one of the boys, and ask to see them all.'

Roscoe departed at once. The business took a long time; but finally he returned with the information that every messenger employed in the Circus office had been brought before him, and that not one of them tallied in any way with the lad who had delivered the fatal missive.

'That is exactly what I expected,' Hunt said. 'We may make up our minds now that the telegram was a forgery, a fact we can easily prove by submitting it to an expert. Let's have the big magnifying-glass on the flimsy.'

A minute examination of the telegram disclosed the fact that an old message had been soaked out by acids, and a new one substituted.

'You can't read anything,' said Hunt, 'but under the word "open" in the forgery, the heavy pencil of the operator has scored "cash" in the original. The rascals could take out the letters, but not the lines of the word "cash" cut into the flimsy. You may depend upon it this trap has been deliberately laid for us, the wire being addressed to Moss being most ingenious. The pseudo telegraph boy would never have made the mistake of going to the wrong shop.'

Roscoe was bound to admit the lucidity of this argument.

'The next thing,' he replied, 'is to make quite sure that we have been duped. Let us get the picture from the safe. Once we are sure of our ground we will proceed to unravel the mystery—if we can.'

The 'Santa Anna' was anxiously examined. A forgery it might have been; but it was a desperately clever one. At the end of half-an-hour the two critics were still as undecided as ever.

'I can't tell what to make of it,' Roscoe remarked. 'Everything points to a forgery, and yet with that wonderful colouring before my eyes, I am bound to doubt it. Such pigments don't exist nowadays. What shall we do?'

Hunt squinted at a splash of vivid vermilion and coquetted with a smear of azure artistically applied, and said:

'What we ought to have done before. Send for Manders.'

Manders came in due course: a handsome man, a fair Van Dyck, so to speak; a Charles I. with a tendency towards whisky and unholy hours. But for these weaknesses and an ingrained contempt for popular taste, a man capable of being head of the profession. Too lazy to originate, and too proud for order work, he had become a prince of copyists.

'Well, what's the matter?' he asked. 'Can I teach you anything?'

This is not the way for artists to address dealers of repute; but as the dealers allowed it to pass, the reader may. Roscoe explained partially. He also incidentally observed that the colours in the picture were wonderful.

'Can't be done nowadays,' he concluded oracularly.

'Can't it?' said Manders; 'much you know about it. I've been studying colours for years. And I've got back the old trick of the pigments. I could do you a Raphael or an Angelo that could deceive the artist himself. Why, only a few months ago I made a copy of this same "Santa Anna," and Maplehurst couldn't tell the difference. Not a bad idea when you are hard up, keep your picture and pawn it at the same time.'

The partners exchanged glances. Here was a discovery, here was the outstart, so to speak, of another-aristocratic scandal.

Hunt was the first to recover himself. He led Manders gently to the spot where the cause of all the strife stood in a good light. Manders nodded at it as one does to an old acquaintance.

'Is this the picture you bought at Forrest's?' he asked.

'The same,' Roscoe gasped. 'Is it the genuine picture or a'——

He could get no further. Manders coolly rolled a cigarette and lighted it before he replied, not without malice.

'The copy,' he said. 'I'll prove it to you if you like.'


THE END

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