A Less Than Civil Service: Part I
When Eve upon the first of Men
The apple press’d with specious cant,
Oh! what a thousand pities then
That Adam was not Adamant!
- Thomas Hood, A Reflection.
* * *
“Might I ask where you made the gentleman’s acquaintance, sir?”
Adamant slipped his arms into the immaculate black sleeves of his immaculate black frock coat, and allowed his manservant to straighten imaginary creases and brush off imaginary dust as he straightened his perfect bow tie. I hope you’ll forgive my sarcasm, but some people are remarkably difficult to like.
“Hardly a gentleman, Lane,” he replied. “We were at school together, but no one would have accused Wittering of gentlemanly behaviour even then. And he hardly seems likely to have improved since going into trade.”
“I understand he is a patron of the arts however, sir.”
“He’s been known to throw the odd hundred pounds or so at an opera or a gallery,” said Adamant, straightening his cuffs and surveying his immaculate reflection critically. Or at least I suppose it was ‘critically’. Although knowing Adamant’s vanity, perhaps ‘smugly’ would be a more appropriate adverb. “He has all the artistic spirit of a troglodyte, however. He only patronises so many places in the hope something will stick.”
“Will you be requiring the use of my revolver, sir?” asked the gentleman’s personal gentleman. (No, not that sort of personal gentleman. No, not that sort of gentleman’s ‘gentleman’. Though I must admit, I’ve always found that particular phrase rather suspicious. Not to mention having had several rather enjoyable experiences with gentlemen’s ‘gentlemen’ as well as gentlemen’s personal gentlemen’s ‘gentlemen’. But I digress.)
“I think not,” said Adamant. “I can think of no threat with which old Wittering could possibly be involved which could require a more potent form of defence than this.” He picked up his walking stick, and twisted and pulled up the handle to reveal three inches of gleaming steel.
It should have looked like an affectation. It didn’t. Damn him.
While our hero makes his way to his mysterious rendezvous with his old school chum, I should probably take the opportunity to introduce him properly. Adam Llewellyn de Vere Adamant (yes, really) was six feet tall, slim, athletic, with jet black hair and a face more than somewhat reminiscent of a Medici Cardinal, all ascetic straight lines and blazing eyes. The sort of face that makes my fingers itch for charcoals and enormous sheets of creamy paper. Or perhaps the itching is just from resisting the urge to punch him in his hawk-like nose. One of the two.
The year was 1901, Good King Bertie had been on the throne nearly ten months, and Adam Adamant (yes, really) was one of His Majesty’s most devoted secret agents.
Or not so secret. After all, he had just received a desperate note from an old school chum, begging his help in a matter of national security. That might be a rather eccentric thing to send if one wasn’t aware that the recipient was a secret agent.
And now, having left our hero quite enough time to leave his Albany Street flat and make his way across London, let us rejoin him in a grubby and unregarded alley in Bloomsbury.
It was a freezing evening, I remember, so let’s imagine him pushing his immaculately gloved hands deep into his trouser pockets. Perhaps we can also imagine him touching the scuffed edges of the note he had received that morning from the unfortunate Wittering – unfortunate? Damn, getting ahead of myself again – the mysterious Wittering. He already had the terse message off by heart though, so there’s no need to imagine him pulling it out to refresh his memory: the cryptic suggestions of a national scandal, the unsociable hour and unprepossessing place for the meeting, and of course the shakily-written plea for help out of this ‘ghastly mess’, with the intimation that our singularly unoriginal correspondent was in fear of his life.
No, actually - thinking about it, Adamant would always keep a note folded up neatly in his pocket-book, not loose in his pocket, so you’d better scratch that last paragraph as artistic license.
He did, however, keep checking his pocket-watch, even though the sound of one of London’s innumerable church bells tolled him (ha!) the hour as it came and went, then the quarter, then the half. After half an hour had elapsed from the time of the (dis)appointment, he shut his pocket watch with a snap, pushed it crossly into his waistcoat pocket, and slashed at the importunate London fog with his cane.
It was then that he heard the footsteps. The fog was freezing and thick that night, and he wouldn’t have been able to see the other man until he was almost on top of him, peer as he might through the murk.
“Wittering?” he called quietly. Then, receiving no reply, and hearing the footsteps falter, “I would ask you to stop skulking in the gloom, sir. My store of patience for this evening is nearly exhausted.”
Still no reply, but the footsteps started again – a peculiarly hesitant cadence, though I’ll admit, if I was accosted in such a familiar way by a six-foot tall man in the depths of the London fog at midnight, I might well be a bit hesitant too. Adamant never seems to think about that sort of thing.
The figure at last loomed up out of the fog, and Adamant walked towards him, steps clicking smartly on the cobbles. “Is that you, Wittering? This is no hour of the night for lingering in darkened alleys. If your business is really as vital as you say – “
Adamant had no time to finish his rather testy sentence, as at that point the other man collapsed in his arms. If this were another sort of story I’d put in a swell of metaphorical violins to mark the moment, but it’s not – well, not yet, anyway – so I’ll leave them for later. You can insert a brooding and melodramatic brass chord if you feel like it, that’s far more appropriate.
Adamant’s old school chum hadn’t changed so very much since their school days, I fancy, although the revolver-bullet-sized hole between his shoulder blades which Adamant discovered when he put up a hand to steady him was probably new. Quite how the man managed to stagger so far in that condition is a bit of a mystery to me.
“Wittering – !” Adamant managed, before the dying man took a handful of his impeccably white shirt-front in one blood-stained paw.
“...stop...” he gasped, his voice a dreadful gurgling rattle, blood bubbling past his lips. “Devil...”
And, at that needlessly penny-dreadful moment, he expired.
Adamant looked at him a trifle blankly, as the unfortunate Wittering – there, now you see why he’s unfortunate? – slipped to the ground.
Then he knelt, checked briefly (and fruitlessly) for a pulse, and began to rifle the dead man’s pockets. Some small change, a fob-watch that much resembled a small silver turnip, and a handsome silver cigarette case were all quickly discarded, and I hope they went on to a happy retirement in a porn-brokers somewhere in Cheapside. (I’m sure there’s something wrong with the spelling there, but I’m damned if I know what.) It is my fond hope that the proceeds from them went towards feeding some lucky and enterprising urchin’s family for a month. The only things Adamant paused over were a small derringer, unfired, and an invitation to an auction at a small gallery in Soho, fished out from amongst the mess of business cards in his inner breast pocket.
He also sniffed the dead man’s greatcoat, but I tend to feel that where a gentleman gets his little pleasures is his own concern, so I’m not going to speculate on why he did so.
For those of you who are of a morbid turn of mind – it smelled of an unpleasant mixture of blood, cordite, and turpentine.
* * *
“Do you have an invitation?”
The scene, as the astute reader will have noticed, has changed – not entirely surprisingly, to that small gallery in Soho to which I have already alluded. I considered putting in the largely redundant scene in which Adamant expounded the deductive steps which had led him to attend the auction, but decided against it on grounds of boredom. It would also have had to feature Adamant’s valet again, who is a thoroughly unsatisfactory character for one’s memoirs, as he is unfortunately everything a valet ought to be. However, Mr Adamant tends to talk to his valet in much the same way other people talk to their pets or house-plants, and so his deductive processes are most frequently elucidated in this dull person’s company.
(For the curious, his thought process went something like this: 1. Wittering is a wholesale leather trader, with a side-interest in patronage of the arts. 2. It is unlikely that the wholesale leather trade has suddenly started sprouting secrets of national importance. 3. It is reasonably unlikely that the average flea-pit theatre or run-down gallery has either. 4. But the smell of turpentine on the deceased’s coat suggests he has recently been in close proximity to painters. 5. And why should a patron of the arts be at all concerned with the process of the art’s production, especially when that might lead to actually associating with artists, God forbid? 6. A quick check through the Illustrated London News for the last six months had revealed another two deaths connected with the same gallery whose card was in the deceased’s pocket. 6. Something is rotten in the state of Bloomsbury. It would be as well to follow up the only connection to the art world on the deceased’s person, viz. the auction invitation.)
(I could have expounded this in exhaustive detail, along with further snide remarks on Adamant’s wardrobe and domestic situation, but I’ll leave that sort of paid-by-the-word rubbish for the Dickenses of this world.)
Adam Adamant smiled, graciously, and proffered the square of pasteboard. I could add that he was once again frightfully overdressed, but that would be childish of me.
The smile rather dropped off his face when he was waved inside and he actually got a look at the paintings on display. Adamant has a quite extensive knowledge of art, but any sense of artistic taste he may have stops at about 1860. I know for a fact that he has been almost reduced to tears by ‘Beata Beatrix’, but I’d hesitate to elicit his approval even over the saucier end of Alma-Tadama’s Roman bathing scenes. (And there are some quite saucy ends amongst them. I’ve made reasonably close acquaintance of the models for a few of them – all in the name of art, of course.)
This particularly exhibition was rather more saucy than that. I’m not entirely sure what Adamant thought he’d be seeing at an exhibition entitled ‘Grotesque’, the invitations to which had distinctly Beardsley-esque tendencies in their motifs. I can tell you with certainty, however, that his narrow lips pursed themselves into a very thin line, and his rather lovely hazel eyes got that sort of hunted quality about them which one more usually associates with a doe on sighting the hunter’s shotgun.
He carefully positioned himself in front of the (comparatively) least offensive of the paintings – a rather fine illustration to the Tannhäuser legend, if you must know, and I’m nearly certain that Adamant wouldn’t have found it such a safe bet if he’d taken time to look at some of what Venus’ courtiers were actually doing (– well, assuming he’d recognise what they were doing, anyway) – and under cover of studying it began to scrutinise everybody in the room.
There certainly wasn’t a lack of suspicious characters to choose from, but he made a conscious effort to allow for this being a Bohemian sort of place, and so not wearing spats didn’t necessarily make one an anarchist. His gaze soon settled on several foreign-looking gentlemen with heavy moustaches and unnecessarily secretive mufflers, and on the one man in the room whose impeccable clothing perhaps outdid even his own. This last was a slim, devilishly handsome fellow, with raven-black hair that had a slight crisp curl to it and was allowed to grow quite immodestly long, and eyes like blue steel.
“You seem to be very taken with this painting, sir.”
Adamant’s eyes darted back, but he was already lowering his head in the most polite of bows – a reflex reaction to the presence of an unknown woman which would have done credit to those wretched dogs in Russia which the scientific press keeps insisting are interesting.
“I – would hardly say taken with it, Madam,” he replied, with a rather crooked but charming smile. “I was brought to this gallery under the apparently false impression that I would be looking at art. But you, Madam – surely this is hardly the sort of place for a lady of your evident good character and breeding?”
The lady was indeed fairly evidently of good character and breeding. She had a face like a Burne-Jones angel, hair like threads of fine copper pinned up neatly and unostentatiously, and her bosom, though I am prepared to bet a sight to make old Beardsley himself hang up his sketch-book in disgust at his amateurism, was decorously constrained behind a high-necked green dress. She blushed, fetchingly.
“I fear I was rather brought here under false pretences too,” she confided. “I’m studying painting at the Slade at present, and one of my tutors gave me the invitation, but I’m afraid he didn’t tell me just what would be displayed.”
“Madam, if you find it distressing, I assure you that it would be no trouble to summon you a cab – “
“That is very kind of you, sir, but I shall be quite all right,” she said, looking shyly down at her gloved hands. “I shall make every effort simply not to look at the walls.”
Adamant, charmed, smiled at the daintily down-turned head. “Might I ask your name, Madam?”
“My name is Laetitia Allenson,” she replied. “And yours, sir?”
“I am Adam Adamant.”
She looked up, eyes widening and rosy lips parting prettily. “The famous adventurer?”
“The same,” he said, and gently took and kissed her hand. “And your servant, Madam.”
Now, it may be that I am a particularly suspicious fellow, but I open it to my astute readership to decide whether that exchange seemed entirely innocent or not. I, for my part, find it difficult to believe that such dear wilting flowers as this still exist in our age of excess and debauch, and even more difficult to believe that they maintain their dear, wilting status in the bracing atmosphere of the Slade. I, however, am not Adam Adamant, who apparently saw nothing in the least suspicious about his new acquaintance’s demeanour, and indeed was warmed and melted by it like butter left too long in the sun.
The fellow is, as I have said, quite devastatingly handsome, but I sometimes suspect he was dropped on his head once too often as a baby.
“If you are sufficiently well-acquainted with the artistic circle in Town, madam, perhaps I might ask if you could tell me who that gentleman is?” asked Adamant, indicating with a discreet nod of his head our handsome friend of a few paragraphs back.
She followed the direction of his nod, and her blue eyes grew dark. “I don’t believe he is a gentleman,” she said, severely. “I’ve heard the most terrible stories about him – from several of the girls at the school – “ She blushed, again. “I’m sure you understand what I mean.”
“Entirely, Miss Allenson,” said Adamant, and his voice was as hard as his name.
“He’s a painter – he’s been in Town for a couple of years, making a name for himself. I believe he’s exhibiting several paintings here today, though I haven’t looked closely enough to know which. His name is Lucifer Box.”
Adamant took a sharp breath. “Lucifer, you say? A rather ill-omened name...”
“I assure you, he lives down to it. Some of things I’ve heard about him would do credit to the Devil himself – “ She broke off again, and put her hand over her mouth in a gesture of horror. “Forgive me – I didn’t mean to get so carried away.”
“Believe me, madam, I hold it to be nothing but a credit that you should be so exercised on the question of your friends’ honour,” he reassured her.
“It isn’t only my friends’ honour that’s at stake though,” she said, earnestly, and leaning forward so she could look up most appealingly into his face. “If only it were! But I – I’ve heard that – that he may even be endangering our country!”
“What do you mean, Miss Allenson?”
“I – I have no proof to speak of,” she said slowly. “Otherwise I would most certainly go to the police. I have only the word of certain of my friends, who were – persuaded by Mr Box to act against their better judgements. I – I’m afraid that he may somehow have gained access to state secrets of enormous importance, and is planning to use them somehow for his own sordid gain!”
Adamant looked down into her enormous, beseeching eyes, and once again failed to notice anything suspicious in this sudden outburst. I don’t know, perhaps attractive young women shared sob-stories of spying and state secrets with him every day, and therefore he found nothing odd in it.
He reached out, and placed his gloved hand onto hers in the most gentlemanly and chivalrous of gestures. “Have no fear, Madam. You did right in confiding in me. I shall not rest until this devil has been brought to justice.”
“Oh, thank you!” the beauty whispered fervently. “From the moment I saw you, I knew I could confide in you! Oh, Mr Adamant – please, do not abandon me!”
“Never, Madam,” he replied, with equal fervour. Or at least as fervent as it is possible to be through two layers of gloves and while each of the participants in the aforementioned fervour is wearing at least three layers of clothing. Of course, that’s as fervent as Adamant ever is with members of the fair sex, so I suppose I shouldn’t mock the poor fellow too much for it.
Actually, that is rather a reason to mock him for it, isn’t it?
“Ladies and gentlemen!” called a rather seedy-looking gentleman in an ill-fitting three-piece suit, who happened to be the owner of the gallery. “Ladies and gentlemen, the auction is about to begin, if you would care to proceed into the adjoining room.”
“Is it entirely usual for an auction to be held of new works in the gallery itself, madam?” Adamant asked, offering his arm as the crowd began to percolate through into the auction room. “I was under the impression that new works tend to be sold under a fixed price tag.”
“It is somewhat unusual, yes,” she replied, laying her hand daintily on his. “But this is such an unconventional business...!”
“You are quite right there, Miss Allenson,” he murmured, glancing around. “There are several people here who I would hardly class as the average artistic patrons.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, all wide-eyes and pre-Raphaelite tresses, but before he could answer, the various worthies had taken their various seats and the auction had begun.
I’m not sure quite how Adamant managed to make anything of it, considering he was too scandalised to actually look at the paintings; but by some occult means he began to realise that some paintings seem to be attracting an amount of attention and (more importantly) cold, hard cash that their quality could not possibly have warranted. This attention came, oddly (though perhaps somewhat predictably), from the suspicious gentlemen with Prussian moustaches.
Adamant began to circle the paintings in his catalogue:
The Serpent in the Garden.
The Number of the Beast..
And, curiously, every painting by Lucifer Box.
The last picture by this charmingly-named Bohemian had now been placed on the display stand – a delicate study of a largely unclad figure of the female persuasion with a snake draped around her neck, who was peeking back at the viewer from over her left shoulder. The scarfed and moustachioed gentlemen were evidently preparing themselves for the final attempts on their copious pockets. Then Adamant stirred himself.
“Three thousand pounds,” he called out, although it looked rather like the words were choking him.
The room had been quiet for some time – well, it’s an auction, you don’t want to go making excessive noise or you’ll discover in no time that you’ve purchased a complete set of lithographs of notable Venetian courtesans of the seventeenth century, and then where would you be? – but it suddenly appeared to mean it. The previous Lucifer had gone for a mere two thousand – mere! And worth every penny for the brush-work alone, I assure you – and there was no question that for an opening bid, this was sensational.
“A – most generous bid, sir,” managed the auctioneer after a moment. “Do I hear three thousand one hundred from anyone, gentlemen?”
A rather non-committal mutter was heard from near the front.
“Three thousand two hundred,” Adam responded, promptly, although he looked increasingly bad-tempered.
“Three thousand two hundred, thank you sir. Do I hear three hundred?”
I must admit, I was halfway tempted to put in a bid myself, just to see if I could intensify that fascinatingly pinched expression on his face a little more. As it turned out though, I didn’t have to.
“Three thousand five hundred,” said one of the suspicious men, in a rather thick German accent. I fear he sounded rather dispirited though.
And – oh frabjous day! – the pinched expression turned up a notch. I wanted to draw him more badly than ever.
“Four thousand pounds,” he choked out.
Needless to say, there were no more bids after that, despite some truly vicious-looking whispered negotiation amongst our Prussian friends. The auction finished soon afterwards, and the people began to disperse.
Adamant sat, looking stern and rather scandalised, with his hands resting on the handle of his sword-stick, becoming increasingly aware that he was being scrutinised. He turned his head, sharply, and met the focused blue gaze of that celebrated artist (whom he was now fortunate enough to have patronised), Lucifer Box.
“Pardon me,” said that notable, with a smile which scientific tests have show was approximately four times as charming as anything Mr Adamant could muster. “I was absorbed in your profile. Have you ever considered sitting for a portrait?”
“I have already sat for several, sir,” said Adam, standing up stiffly.
“Oh, not like I’ll paint it, I’m sure.”
“I believe that.”
The artist put out one long, elegant white hand. “Lucifer Box.”
Adamant took it as though it were some particularly noisome reptile. “I am Adam Adamant.”
“Really...” murmured the artist, raising one perfect eyebrow, and holding on to Our Hero’s hand for a rather longer time than Our Hero found entirely comfortable. “What an...unusual name.”
(For ‘unusual’, please read ‘bloody ridiculous.’)
“You haven’t heard of me, sir?”
Lucifer shrugged. “Should I have?”
Adamant’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps not.” He removed his hand discreetly but firmly from the gentleman’s grip.
“I should thank you for your most generous bid on my painting today,” said Lucifer. “It is always a pleasure to meet a man who knows true art when he sees it.”
“Indeed,” said Adamant, his lips pursing puritanically. “I like to think that I do indeed know true art – if and when I see it.”
“Touché,” said the artist, but so softly Adamant did not appear to notice.
“Perhaps you are right, Mr Box,” Adamant went on. “It may well be time for me to have a new portrait painted. Would you perhaps have time in your no doubt fraught schedule to book me in for a sitting?”
“I would be only too glad,” the artist returned. “Your nose by itself would be worth a sitting – having the rest of your face attached to it can only add to my pleasure.”
Adamant’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps we could say – tomorrow? At ten? If that would not be too soon for you.”
“Best to make it two,” said Lucifer. “I’m afraid it takes a much better offer than that to get me up before midday.”
“I meant providing the date would not be too soon, Mr Box.”
The painter smiled the smile of Lucifer. “My dear sir, I am an artist. What on earth else could I possibly be doing?”
* * *