Authors: Gillian Linscott
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To Jane Jakeman,
who chose a picture for Nell to steal.
The Dolefull Dance and Song of Death
Can you dance
The Shaking of the Sheets,
A dance that ev'ry one must do?
HE INSPECTOR LEANED FORWARD, PAINFULLY POLITE.
The constable prodded at a dead butterfly with the end of his pencil, not looking at us. It must have been dead for some days on the scratched table in this stuffy little room because its wing crumbled to dust as soon as the pencil touched it.
âWhat I don't entirely understandâ¦' the inspector said. He paused. âWhat I'm not entirely clear on, Miss Bray, was how you happened to find the body.'
âI opened the cabinet in the studio and it was there.'
Big black oak cabinet with the carvings of the murdered lady and the hanging man â not that I could see them in the dark, of course, but I could feel them in memory, knobbly and sharp under the fingers. Which wasn't relevant to what the police wanted. The butterfly had been a tortoiseshell, I think, or possibly a peacock. Hard to tell from the bright fragments that the constable was now stirring with his pencil. I looked up and met the inspector's eyes dishwater grey.
âSo how did you come to be in the studio in the middle of the night?'
A long silence while I tried to think of a way out. Unsuccessfully.
He prompted me, âDid Mr Venn know you were in his house?'
âSo you weren't staying as a guest?'
âNo. I'm down in the field with the rest of the camp.'
A little wince at that, as if somebody had slid a dirty plate into the dishwater. The presence of a camp of young socialists was another complication he could have done without.
âSo would you be kind enough to tell us what you were doing in Mr Venn's house in the middle of the night?'
I took a deep breath, not seeing any useful alternative to the truth.
âI was there to steal a picture.'
Y THE END OF IT ALL
, I'd got to know that picture very well. At the beginning, all I knew was its nationality.
âFrench,' Emmeline said, âso you're probably the best person to handle it.'
We were sitting in her cluttered little office at our headquarters in Clement's Inn, just off the Strand. It was less than a year since our organisation had moved its headquarters from Manchester to London and since then things had been moving too fast to get unpacked properly.
âNot unless it talks,' I said. âI speak the language, but I don't know anything about paintings.'
Emmeline disregarded that, as she tended to do with anything that got in the way of what she wanted. One of the secrets of her success.
âIt's by Boucher.'
She looked at me and I looked back at her. I know now that I should have sat up, looked excited and said, âYou don't mean
Boucher?' But the name only rang the faintest of bells. To be honest, paintings have never been an enthusiasm. A friend says that's because I never stand still long enough to look at them, which may be true. But it wasn't time to think about that, because she was giving me my instructions.
âProbate's been granted on Mrs Venn's will so there's nothing to prevent us sending somebody down to collect it. I think you should call in to Christie's first and arrange to take it straight to them for a valuation. The solicitor thinks it might be worth as much as a thousand pounds, and we certainly need the money.'
The young man at Christie's was at least as beautiful as the things they sold. His hair was as fair as thistledown in the sun, hands moving when he talked as if on currents of some warm invisible sea. When I said the word âBoucher' they wafted upwards above the tooled leather top of his desk, almost breaking the surface of his languid calm.
âYou're quite certain it's by Boucher? What do you know about its provenance?'
I wasn't certain of anything.
âIt was left to the Women's Social and Political Union by the late Mrs Philomena Venn. You've heard of her?'
He hadn't, of course. Not many people outside the movement had.
âShe was a pioneer,' I told him. âOne of the women who signed the suffrage petition back in 1866.'
I could see that meant little if anything to the elegant young man, but we'd liked and respected Philomena Venn. She was Irish by birth and had joined the formidable band of women who'd fought for the Vote a good part of the previous century, before some of us were born. They hadn't got what they wanted but, a generation ago, they'd achieved a great step forward in the shape of the Married Women's Property Act, which meant women had a right to keep their own money instead of handing it over to their husbands. The year before, in her late sixties and already ill, Philomena had come from her home in the Cotswolds to visit us at our new headquarters and give us her blessing, from one generation to the next. She was a little grey-haired woman in an old-fashioned bonnet and black lace gloves, frail with the heart disease that would kill her within a few months, but with lively eyes, a beautiful speaking voice and a surprisingly deep and wicked laugh. Because what happened in the next few weeks was the indirect result of decisions by the late Philomena Venn, I'd like to make it clear here and now that none of it was her fault. She made her provisions with generosity, good faith and â to some extent â in blissful ignorance and couldn't possibly have foreseen the mess we were going to make of her intentions.
âYes, your movement.' Christie's young man made it sound as if it were happening in some faraway country. âThe Women's Social and Political Union, I think you said.'
âOr the Suffragettes, as the
prefers to call us.'
The hands had sunk down again and were resting lightly on his desk like things in a rock pool.
âAnd Mrs Venn told you she was leaving you a Boucher?' He was frankly sceptical now.
âShe didn't mention the artist's name. She thought our office needed cheering up and said she'd leave us a picture in her will. She died back in the spring and her solicitor got in touch soon afterwards.'
âWhere is the picture now?'
âAt her house in the Cotswolds. Her husband's still alive. I'm going down to collect it from him in the next day or two.'
âHer husband beingâ¦?'
âMr Oliver Venn.'
His expression changed, which surprised me. All I knew about Mrs Venn's husband was that he was a committee member of the Fabian Society and the young man at Christie's hardly seemed the type to know about socialist groups, even tame ones like the Fabians.
âI think I may have heard about Mr Venn. Is he an art collector?'
From sceptical, he'd turned interested again. I told him I had no idea. I was already tired of the picture question and wanted to get it over.
âSo shall I bring it in to you for a valuation?'
âBy all means, but I should warn you, as we always warn our clients, not to set your hopes too high. It's always sad to have to disappoint people.'
I didn't tell him, as I suppose I should have, that our movement was used to being disappointed â and over a much more important thing than pictures. I let him show me out and went to consult a railway timetable.
HE VENNS' HOME WAS ON THE
Oxfordshire edge of the Cotswolds, near the Gloucestershire border. Two days later, sitting in the train from Paddington as it left the flatlands around Oxford and started its easy climb up the low hills, I was enjoying what amounted to a day off. It was late August, harvest time, with gangs of men out in fields that were half stubble, half standing wheat. One gang was using a steam reaper and the white vapour mingled with straw dust, turning the air to a golden haze. Although the leaves hadn't started their change to autumn colours there was a hardened, almost metallic green about the hedges and copses that goes with the end of summer.
It was the first time I'd been out in the country since spring. It had been a more than usually busy year for us, with the move to London and a new Liberal government that must be made to see sense, and I'd had my living to earn as well. I'm a freelance translator and the present job on hand was translating catalogues and other sales material into German for a Birmingham bicycle manufacturer. It paid quite well â or would do when they got round to handing over the fee â but working out the German for gear ratios and brake block specification tolerances was uphill work. So a simple day trip to the Cotswolds to pick up a picture was as good as a rest cure.
Two days before I'd sent a reply-paid telegram to Mr Oliver Venn, asking when it would be convenient to collect the picture, and had received a lunch invitation by return. Another exchange of telegrams fixed the train I'd travel by and the assurance that the Venns' gig would be at the small railway halt that served the village to meet me. With luck, and if lunch didn't drag on too long, I might get the picture back to London in time to take it to Christie's before they closed for the evening. By taxi, not bus, we'd decided. Philomena Venn's legacy deserved that at least, even though I'd passed on the young man's warning about being prepared for disappointment. I had to kick my heels waiting for a connection at Chipping Norton Junction then travelled a few stops along the local line. The halt was no more than a wooden platform with a corrugated iron shelter, some empty milk churns, a rack for bicycles. The gig was waiting for me in the yard as promised, a smart little Lawton with the wheel spokes picked out in yellow, a strawberry roan between the shafts and a bowler-hatted groom in the driving seat. He got down to help me in â not that I needed it, but it was an occasion for ladylike manners â and we bowled along uphill between more harvest fields, trailing a light brown plume of dust behind us from the dry earth road.
âThat's it, miss.'
The groom pointed with his whip to a gem of a manor house, set above a stubble field and just below a wood. It was built of the local limestone that glowed gold as if generating its own light, possibly Elizabethan, with a lot of narrow windows glinting in the sun and a cheerfully disorderly roofline of gables and tall chimneypots. Although it wasn't large as manor houses go it still looked a grand place for a veteran suffrage campaigner and her Fabian husband. I reminded myself not to be prejudiced. There were people who managed to combine wealth and socialism. Logically perhaps there should be more credit given to them than to poor socialists, since they had more to lose. I couldn't bring myself to be quite as logical as that but wouldn't think less of Philomena Venn because she'd lived in a beautiful place.