The Mechanical Connoisseur by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: Literature

Dr. Leslie, the Coroner, was an old friend of ours with whom we had co-operated in several cases. When we reached his office we found Dr. Blythe there already, waiting for us.

“Have you found anything yet?” asked Dr. Blythe with what I felt was just a trace of professional pique at the fact that neither physician had been able to shed any light on the case so far.

“I can’t say–yet,” responded Craig, not noticing Blythe’s manner, as from the piece of tissue paper in which he had wrapped them he produced the broken bits of bottle.

Carefully he washed off the jagged pieces, as though perhaps some of the liquid the bottle had contained might have adhered to the glass.

“I suppose you have animals here for experiment?” he asked of Leslie.

The Coroner nodded.

“Chickens?” asked Craig with a broad smile at the double meaning.

“A Leghorn rooster,” returned Dr. Leslie with a laugh.

“Good–bring him on,” replied Craig briskly.

Quickly Kennedy shot a small quantity of the liquid he had obtained by washing the bits of glass into the veins of the white Leghorn. Then he released the rooster, flapping about.

In a corner chanticleer stood, preening his feathers and restoring his ruffled dignity, while we compared opinions.

“Look!” exclaimed Kennedy a few minutes later, when we had almost forgotten the rooster.

His bright red comb was now whitish. As we watched, a moment later it turned dark blue. Otherwise, however, he seemed unaffected.

“What is it?” I asked in amazement, turning to Craig.

“Ergot, I think,” he replied tersely. “At least that is one test for its presence.”

“Ergot!” repeated Dr. Leslie, reaching for a book on a shelf above him. Turning the pages hurriedly, he read, “There has been no experience in the separation of the constituents of ergot from the organs of the body. An attempt might be made by the Dragendorff process, but success is doubtful.”

“Dragendorff found it so, at any rate,” put in Dr. Blythe positively.

Running his fingers over the backs of the other books, Dr. Leslie selected another. “It is practically impossible,” he read, “to separate ergot from the tissues so as to identify it.”

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“Absolutely,” asserted Dr. Blythe quickly.

I looked from one physician to the other. Was this the “safe” poison at last?

Kennedy said nothing and I fell to wondering why, too, Dr. Blythe was so positive. Was it merely to vindicate his professional pride at the failure he and the Coroner had had so far with the case?

“I suppose you have no objection to my taking some of this sample of the contents of the organs of her body, have you?” asked Craig at length of Dr. Leslie.

“None in the world,” replied the Coroner.

Kennedy poured out some of the liquid into a bottle, corked it carefully, and we stood for a few moments longer chatting over the developments, or rather lack of developments of the case.

It was late when we returned to our apartment, but the following morning Kennedy was up long before I was. I knew enough of him, however, to know that I would find him at his laboratory breakfastless, and my deduction was correct.

It was not until the forenoon that Craig had completed the work he had set himself to do as he puzzled over something in the interminable litter of tubes and jars, bottles and beakers, reagents, solutions, and precipitates.

“I’m going to drop in at Jacot’s,” he announced finally, laying off his threadbare and acid-stained coat and pulling on the clothes more fitted for civilization.

Having no objection, but quite the contrary, I hastened to accompany him. Jacot’s was a well-known shop. It opened on Fifth Avenue, just a few feet below the sidewalk, and Jacot himself was a slim Frenchman, well preserved, faultlessly dressed.

“I am the agent of Mr. Morehouse, the Western mine-owner and connoisseur,” introduced Kennedy, as we entered the shop. “May I look around?”

“Certainement,–avec plaisir, M’sieur,” welcomed the suave dealer, with both hands interlocked. “In what is Mr. Morehouse most interested? In pictures? In furniture? In–“

“In almost anything that is rare and beautiful,” confided Craig, looking Jacot squarely in the eye and adding, “and not particular about the price if he wants a thing, either. But I–I am particular–about one thing.”

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Jacot looked up inquiringly.

“A rebate,” Kennedy went on insinuatingly, “a commission on the bill–you understand? The price is immaterial, but not my–er–commission. Comprenez-vous?”

“Parfaitement,” smiled the little Frenchman. “I can arrange all that. Trust me.”

We spent an hour, perhaps, wandering up and down the long aisles of the store, admiring, half purchasing, absorbing facts about this, that and the other thing that might captivate the fictitious Mr. Morehouse.

Not satisfied with what was displayed so temptingly in the front of the store, Kennedy wandered back of a partition apparently in search of some more choice treasures, before Jacot could stop him. He turned over a painting that had been placed with its face toward the wall, as if for protection. I recognized the subject with a start. It was Watteau’s Fete!

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Kennedy in well-feigned ecstasy, just as Jacot came up.

“Ah, but, M’sieur,” interposed the art dealer, “that is only a copy–and not for sale.”

“I believe my friend, Mr. Faber, has a copy,” ventured Craig.

“By a Miss Fleming?” asked Jacot quickly, apparently all interest now.

Kennedy shrugged his shoulders. Was Jacot hinting at something known in the trade?

“Might I photograph some of the things here to show Mr. Morehouse?” asked Craig a moment later. “I see several things in which I think he might be interested.”

“Surely,” answered Jacot, then, after consideration, in which his beady eye seemed to size up Kennedy, he added, sotto voce, craftily, “Would Mr. Morehouse be–er–interested in Watteau’s Fete?”

My heart almost stopped beating. Were we really on the right track at last?

Jacot leaned over confidentially to Kennedy and added, “Why not sell as an original, not this, but another copy–a–a–what you call it?–a fake?”

I understood. Kennedy, having invited crooked dealing by his remark about the rake-off, was being approached about another crooked deal.

“A fake Watteau?” he asked, appearing to meet Jacot halfway.

Jacot nodded. “Why not? You know the same Botticelli belongs to collectors in Philadelphia and Boston; that is, each has a picture and if one is genuine the other must be a fake. Possibly the artist painted the same picture twice. Why, M’sieur, there are Rubens, Hals, Van Dycks, Rembrandts galore in this country that hang also at the same time abroad.” Jacot smiled. “Did you never hear of a picture with a dual personality?”

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Kennedy seemed to consider the idea. “I’ll think it over,” he remarked finally, as we prepared to leave, “and let you know when I come back to snap some of the things for my principal.”

“Well–of all brazen crooks!” I sputtered when we had gained Fifth Avenue.

Kennedy shook his head. “We can’t be sure of anything in this game. Does it occur to you that he might perhaps think he was playing us for suckers, after all?”

My mind worked rapidly. “And that that picture of Faber’s is the real original, after all?” I asked. “You mean that somehow a copy by Miss Fleming has come really to Jacot with instructions to palm it off on some gullible buyer?”

“Frankly, Walter,” he said, as we walked along, “I don’t know what to think. You know even the greatest experts sometimes disagree over questions like this. Well, Walter, art is long and time is fleeting. If we are ever to settle where that real Watteau is, we shall have to resort to science, I think.”

That afternoon after a trip up to the laboratory, where Craig secured a peculiar and cumbersome photographic outfit, we at last found ourselves around at Faber’s private gallery. Faber was out, but, true to his promise, he had left word with his man, who admitted us.

Kennedy set to work immediately, before the painting, placing an instrument which certainly was not like a regular camera. I was further astonished, moreover, when Craig set up something back of the canvas, which he moved away from the wall. As nearly as I could make it out it consisted of a glass bulb of curious shape. A moment later he attached the bulb to a wire that connected with a little rheostat or resistance coil and thence, in turn, to an electric-light socket.

He switched on the electric current and the apparatus behind the picture began to sputter. I could not see very well what it was, but it looked as if the bulb was suffused with a peculiar, yellowish-green light, divided into two hemispheres of different shades. The pungent odor of ozone from the electric discharge filled the room.

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While Kennedy was working, I had noticed a little leather party box lying on a table, as though it had been forgotten. It was not just the thing one would expect in Faber’s rooms and I looked at it more closely. On it were the initials “R. T.” Had Rita Tourville visited him?

Craig had scarcely finished and was packing up his apparatus when we heard a noise outside. A second later, Faber himself entered, with Rita, evidently looking for something.

“Oh, yes, Rita,–here it is. Why, Kennedy–how are you? Did you get your photograph?”

Kennedy replied that he had, and thanked him.

It was easy to see Rita’s pleasure at being with the young connoisseur, but at the sight of Craig I fancied for a moment that I saw a flash of that passionate resentment which had caused me to find a resemblance between the expression of her face and that of De Montespan in the painting, a hint at what she would do or dare to protect the object of her affections.

We departed shortly, leaving Rita and Faber deep in the discussion of some art topic.

It was not until late in the afternoon that we were able to revisit Jacot’s. He received us cordially, but Craig, by a whispered word or two, was able to postpone the answer to the clever proposal which might have been a trap prepared for us.

Craig, with a regular camera which he had brought also, set to work snapping pictures and objects of art with reckless profusion, moving them about to get a better light and otherwise consuming time.

At last came the opportunity he had been awaiting, when Jacot had a customer in the front of the store. Quickly he set up the peculiar apparatus which he had used at Faber’s before the copy of the Watteau in the rear of the shop, switched on the electricity, and amid the suppressed sputtering duplicated the work I had seen him do before.

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As he was packing the apparatus up, I happened to glance toward the front of the store. There were Leila and Jacot in earnest conversation. I whispered to Kennedy, and, a moment later, she caught sight of me, appeared not to recognize me, and left.

Jacot sauntered back to us, I thought, concealing his haste.

Before he could speak, Kennedy asked, “Who was that woman?”

He had finished packing up the apparatus and even if Jacot had heard something that caused him to change his mind, it was now too late to stop Kennedy.

“Why,” hastened Jacot, apparently frank, “that is the maid of the Miss Fleming, the artist who has just died. She has come to me to see whether I can get her a position with another artist.”

“I thought I recognized her,” remarked Kennedy. “I remember when I saw her once before that she had on a wedding ring. Doesn’t her husband support her?”

Jacot shrugged his shoulders. “She is looking for another position–that is all I know,” he said simply.

Kennedy picked up his apparatus.

“You will think over my proposition?” asked Jacot, as we left.

“And let you know in a day or two,” nodded Kennedy.

As we walked up Fifth Avenue, I confess to have felt all at sea. Who had the real masterpiece? Was it Faber, or Jacot, or was it someone else? If Rita had warned Faber against us, and Leila had warned Jacot, which had copy and which original? Or were they both copies and had the original been hidden? Had it been stolen for money or had some fiend with a knowledge of this mysterious ergot stolen it simply for love of art, stopping not even at murder to get it?

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