A Less Than Civil Service: Part II

Which brings Mr Adam Adamant rather neatly into the studios of one Lucifer Box, portrait artist at large, on the brisk and bright afternoon of the next day. Adamant had, of course, visited Downing Street on several previous occasions, but had never given much thought to who lived at Number Nine – well, who does? He may well have blanched somewhat, on being shown in by an attractive young manservant, at the disreputable state the noble old pile had been reduced to, but his standards are such that it’s quite possible he did that at Number Ten as well. Box had even gone to the trouble of piling the used dishes and the near infinite abandoned snail-shells of paint tubes into an unobtrusive cupboard, so I really can’t imagine what Adamant was finding to complain about.

“Ah, Mr Adamant,” greeted the artist, fetchingly attired in a dove-grey suit, and peeping out rather prettily from behind a large canvas. “A pleasure to see you again. If you’d like to get undressed behind the screen, we can begin.”

Adamant froze where he stood. “I – I beg your pardon, sir?”

“Didn’t we agree that it was going to be a nude study?” said Lucifer, with an innocent expression that looked rather like he had borrowed it from someone else.

“No, sir, we did not,” Adamant said, in a voice like a sack of gravel.

“You don’t have any objections, surely?”

“Yes, sir, I most certainly do!”

Lucifer sighed. “I’m afraid that places shackles on my artistic integrity.”

“I’m afraid, sir, that I must confess to not giving a damn.”

Lucifer rolled his eyes, and pointed peremptorily with his pencil at a heavy oak chair which had been set up in the middle of the somewhat stained carpet. “Oh, very well then. Please make yourself comfortable.”

Adamant sat down, somewhat suspiciously, and sat in stoical silence as the artist pushed his various limbs into different positions, tilted his head to one side or the other, and fussed over the arrangement of his hair. (The artist did, however, eventually give up on trying to get his sitter’s walking-cane away from him. The sitter seemed peculiarly attached to it, for some reason.)

Only when he was entirely satisfied with his creation did Lucifer take his seat again, peer critically at his client, and then begin to sketch.

After five minutes of a silence so frosty it could have kept a good steak fresh for a fortnight, Lucifer did as all good portrait artists should, and pretended to be interested in his sitter.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen you at the gallery before, Mr Adamant. Do you frequently attend exhibitions?”

“I must admit, sir, that my tastes more usually run to the National Gallery or the Royal Academy.”

There was a short pause. “You wouldn’t be a fan of Holman Hunt’s, by any chance?”

“I am, as a matter of fact. When I was a child, my mother used to take me to see ‘The Light of the World’ as a particular treat.”

“I thought perhaps she might have done.”

The silence this time was, if possible, even more Arctic.

“Perhaps, sir, you would allow me to ask a question.”

The artist gave the verbal equivalent of a shrug. It’s an ability he inherited from his half-French mother, and only those of Gallic extraction have ever mastered it. “Well, it’s not the usual procedure, but we might as well give it a try.”

“I noted that there were a lot of foreign gentlemen at the auction yesterday. Is that entirely usual amongst your patrons?”

“Reasonably usual.”

“Foreign gentlemen with such deep pockets, however...”

“One must allow even the enterprising Prussian to have as much artistic sense as the next man,” Lucifer replied. “Providing that the next man isn’t a gentleman with your sense of taste and discernment, of course.”

“Perhaps, Mr Box, you recall the story of Demaratus and the wax tablets.”

Lucifer’s head peeked slowly around the edge of the canvas. “I beg your pardon?”

Adamant smiled a smile that was hardly charming at all. “Come now, sir. Surely you haven’t forgotten everything of your classical education.”

“I endeavoured to do that long before leaving school,” said the artist, waving an elegant hand negligently. “Well, except for a few selected paragraphs of Ovid. And Catullus, of course. Perhaps you’re a fan of Catullus too, Mr Adamant? Do you recall those wonderful opening lines – pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo – such directness, such vigour of expression! Or perhaps that one wasn’t included in the edition you read – “

I feel reasonably confident that Adamant was one quotation away from developing a angry tic; though it must be admitted that his cheek was as pale and his eye as steady as ever. “I was referring to the story in Herodotus, whereby a secret message was sent by Demaratus to his native Sparta by scraping away the wax on a pair of waxed tablets, writing the message on the bare wood beneath, and then pouring a fresh layer of wax on top to conceal it.”

“I can’t say I recall the story. I may have been reading Catullus at the time.”

Adamant would not be shaken. “I remember wondering when I was younger why Demaratus didn’t take the extra precaution of writing a false message on top of the wax, so that he wouldn’t appear suspicious by sending a blank wax tablet halfway across the world.”

“What a fascinating youngster you must have been.”

“It almost makes me glad that someone seems to have taken my thoughts to heart and improved upon Demaratus’ process.”

“Is that so?”

“Indeed, sir. I must admit that when I scraped away the layer of oil paint on that filthy piece I purchased from you yesterday, and discovered something which looks very much to me like a detailed plan of the Prime Minister’s residence, I was in the first place almost pleased that you had come up with such a simple yet intelligent method of selling your country.”

The soft rhythmic brushes of Lucifer’s pencil ceased, and for a moment there was silence. Then the artist sighed, and resumed his sketching.

“It’s truly heartbreaking to know that, no matter how beautiful the painting you’ve crafted, some spike-helmeted oaf is going to take a pot of paint-thinner and a razor to it before the month is out. I had rather hoped that the one in your hands at least would be safe from such an indignity. It was such an expressive piece, too...”

Adamant’s hands clutched the hilt of his cane convulsively, and his voice sounds like something small and angry had lodged in his throat. “I have just accused you of treason, sir!” he snapped. “How you can bear to go on calmly sketching– “

Lucifer’s hand appeared over the top of the canvas, flourishing a pencil airily. “To paraphrase my old friend Oscar – I couldn’t possibly sketch in an agitated manner. The charcoal-dust would get on my cuffs.”

Adamant stood up, and with one blow of his stick knocked the legs out from underneath the easel. It toppled over with the most unnecessarily dramatic crash.

Lucifer regarded it levelly for a second, and then looked up at Adamant from under his long, sooty lashes. “Perhaps we ought to began with your telling me how much you think you know. That would be traditional, I think.”

“If you insist,” said Adamant. “I know that you have somehow gained access to state secrets of considerable magnitude. A plan of the Prime Minister’s home could be gleaned simply from your privileged position in this house, but I am very much inclined to link your circle with several other mysterious leakages to the Prussians at the level of national security over the past few months. I know that you are the leader and probably founder of a circle of artists of dubious merit – “

“Now, wait a moment – “

“- who operate out of a dubiously meritorious gallery in Soho. This circle facilitates the transfer of these leaked state secrets out of the country by transferring them to canvas, and painting over them with their own works. The paintings so earmarked for the foreign market can be recognised by the satanic symbolism which marks them out – depictions of the Adversary, the number of the Beast, and so forth.” He smiled, mirthlessly. “I have no doubt that it was your own name which suggested the secret sign. That at least would suit your ego.”

“As a matter of fact, my name was merely a happy coincidence – “

“Percival Wittering, meanwhile, is only one of those who have fallen foul of your despicable organisation in the last few months. I have no doubt that his sense of greed initially lured him into facilitating the sale of your paintings abroad, and that when eventually his conscience began to plague him and he turned to me for aid, you killed him to shut his mouth.” Adamant, who had been imitating the action of the tiger by stalking from one side of the room to the other (and probably lashing his tail and growling, if one could but have known it), rounded on the artist, who was still sitting meekly behind the remains of his easel. “He died with the cursed clue on his lips, sir, and the injunction to hunt you down. He may have been a weak man, but he at least was not an evil one!”

Box raised a quizzical brow. “Bravo. Is that all?”

“I believe it is enough. And now, sir...” Adamant picked up a foil that was propped up against the statue of a naked nymph in a corner, and threw it to the artist, who caught it with a rather unmanly yelp. Then he stripped off his frock-coat, and hung it neatly over the back of the chair he had been occupying. “Your family has not been without distinction in the service of this country. In deference to that past service, I will give you the option of ending this business now, in honourable combat, rather than leaving it to the hangman’s noose.”

He drew his own sword from its camouflaged sheath, and swished it with intent.

Lucifer jumped a clear two feet backwards from a sitting start. “Adamant, I use this thing as a drawing aid! I’m really no sort of fencer - ”

“I assure you, sir, that in a matter of this importance, no amount of ability would be sufficient to deflect me from my duty,” said Adamant, all grim eyes and tight lips. “At least this way your fate will be mercifully quick. En garde!”

I shan’t attempt to do justice to Adamant’s fencing technique. For one, it was a good deal too – well, good – for the average layman to even recognise half the things he was doing. For another, even if I had recognised them, they’d make awfully boring reading for everyone else. There’s only so many times you can read ‘lunge, deflect, riposte, repeat’ before it starts getting wearing. And I refuse to stoop to that ‘flashing torrent of steely death’ nonsense, even if that is, in fact, what it felt like.

Lucifer Box, meanwhile, was attempting to keep up a running commentary, while fending off the blows as well as he could – which admittedly wasn’t very – and dodging around various piles of sketches and items of furniture in a – rather more successful – attempt to keep at least a sword’s length away at any given moment.

“Look, Adamant, you’ve got the wrong end of the sword – damn – stick – about this whole business – “

“Are you claiming that you weren’t responsible for Wittering’s death?”

Lucifer paused for half a second, a rather foolish error which meant he had to duck the whizzing path of Adamant’s sword rather precipitately. “Well, no, I wouldn’t go quite that far – “

“Or that you haven’t been passing on concealed information to our country’s enemies?”

“Well, all right, there have been a few – “

“Or that you are not, in fact, a blackguard, ruffian, and rake, with proclivities of the most diabolical kind?”

“When you say ‘proclivities’ – “

The artist tripped over the fallen easel, and fell base over apex. Adamant, meanwhile, inserted the point of his sword neatly between Box’s hand and his foil’s hilt, and sent it flying in the graceful arc of a swallow into a far corner. Then the aforementioned point swung back unerringly to rest over Lucifer’s heart.

Adamant curled his still rather attractive upper lip in derision. “You are without doubt one of the most despicable rogues with whom I have ever had the misfortune to cross swords.”

Lucifer smiled that smile which would quite reasonably have earned him the nickname of the Devil, even if there had not been other, rather more obvious reasons. “Then I fear you’ve led a sadly sheltered life.”

“If that’s meant I have been less exposed to base scoundrels like you, sir, I should thank God for my sheltered life every day.”

The artist rolled his rather lovely eyes. “Look, don’t you think it’s time we stopped this whole ridiculous business?”

“You should not believe for one moment that I won’t kill you,” said Adamant coolly, looking down the length of his blade at the recumbent man. “I killed my first man at the age of seventeen. I am no stranger to bloodshed, and in the cause of my country’s safety, I will not flinch from shedding yours.”

“Yes, yes, all very commendable I’m sure.”

Adamant pressed the point of the sword a fraction harder against the artist’s chest, and a button on Box’s shirt came away with the neat snick of cut threads.

“Do not think to trifle with me, sir. I am a servant of the crown.”

Lucifer smiled his devil’s smile again. “As am I, sir. As am I.”

Which brings us to the first-act closer of our little morality play, and means I can lapse comfortably back into the first person after all that omniscient third-person nonsense. It’s a narrative experiment I can’t say I think I’ll be trying again. A story is much more difficult to tell when you’re trying to keep a secret from your devoted readership, and the secret is about yourself.

And so, my dear hypothetical readers, let me introduce myself, for the benefit of those of you so slow as not to have guessed. My name is Lucifer Box; I am, contrary to early indications, the hero of this story (well, one of them, anyway); and although you may now be beginning to suspect that some of the glowing descriptions of my person in the above paragraphs are not entirely objective, I can provide excellent references corroborating them in every point. I might also add that all the details (well, almost all) of the previous section were vouched for by Mr Adamant himself, and he is a quite infuriatingly honest man.

My memoirs will one day no doubt become a classic of literature, but since I’m not entirely convinced that the last section came off quite right, I might just write this story off as a bad job and have a little fun with it. All true, I assure you – but perhaps a little spicier than I might allow myself in pages for publication. It’ll be something to read over on those long, lonely winter nights.

I left our hero – one of our heroes – being pinned to the floor by our hero – the other of our heroes – and not in as pleasant a way as I’m sure your mind’s already picturing. For me, it was more than a little embarrassing; but after all, Adamant was an irritatingly good swordsman – as well as being somewhat charming (when he put his mind to it) and quite devastatingly good looking. A lesser person might have felt intimidated.

Of course, at that precise moment Adamant was gaping like a devastatingly good looking codfish, which always makes suave self-confidence come a lot more naturally.

I smiled, and pushed the point of his sword aside with my finger. “Would you mind pointing that somewhere else before it goes off?”

It swung back, as though it were magnetised and my heart was the pole. (My, doesn’t that sound romantic?) I resigned myself to just settling my various limbs into a rather more fetching position, and looked up at him with my most appealing expression. I am tolerably confident that it would have had any Dowager Duchess you wish to name eating out of my pale-and-interesting palm.

Adamant seemed largely oblivious.

“What do you mean, sir?” he asked, when he appeared to have had enough of gaping for the moment.

“I mean that I, too, am in the employ of His Majesty’s Government.”

“But that is impossible, quite impossible!”

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to take my word as a gentleman on that matter,” I murmured. “As I’m sure you’re aware, there are many forms of service to King and Country which rather frown on carrying identifying papers.” The sword point stayed steady, but when I sprawled back a little more decadently (and, coincidentally, put another two inches of space between its nasty little point and my sadly abused shirtfront) it didn’t follow me down. “Believe me, sir – although I have not been a crown agent for long, HMG furnishes me with a useful occupation, a necessary income, a chance to serve my country, and action and adventure beyond the dreams of Ryder Haggard. I have no intention of a change in career at the present time.”

“If you were an agent of His Majesty’s Government, Mr Box, I would have known it.”

I considered for a moment how to put the answer without causing offence, and then decided just to go ahead and cause it. “Perhaps you’ve heard of the concept of a secret agent, Mr Adamant? Inasmuch as that the point of them is that no one knows who they are? There are times and places where a famous adventurer with a sword-stick is the appropriate response – “

“And times and places for a revolver bullet in the back in a dark alley?”

“...ah. You wouldn’t still be holding a grudge over that old school chum of yours, would you?” I could see by his expression that he was, and I groaned, pitiably. “You can’t be – not over that idiot Wittering! He was a wart on the body politic, you know. Not to mention that he laid claim to artistic taste, yet I have seen him with my own eyes wearing an orange silk cravat.”

“You gave him a death more appropriate to a dog, sir!”

“Would it have made things any better for him if I’d shot him in the front?” I asked, rather pragmatically. I refrained from adding that, in the great scheme of things, from his perspective, it was only a pity he’d been awake.

“Why did you kill him?”

I began to twirl one of my dark curls around my finger, absently. It’s a nervous habit when I’m held at sword-point. “You were half right when you said it was because he was going to tell you everything, actually. I’ve spent six months working my way into this little operation, and no sooner had I finally managed to worm my way into a position where I could start to sow a little creative disorder, than the Wittering idiot decides he’s had enough and hares off to tell his sob-story to un-secret agent and noted adventurer Adam Adamant.”

“And why, pray tell, would you wish the business to be kept from me, if you are indeed a loyal servant of the Crown like myself?” he asked.

Once again, I considered the most tactful way of phrasing my answer for all of half a second, before giving up. “Because you have a tendency to stab first and ask questions later, if at all?” I hazarded.

“Whereas you, I suppose, ask the questions first, then shoot people in the back when they’ve given you the answers.”

“Exactly!” His sour expression did not alter one iota. I sighed, and ran a thoughtful finger a few inches up and down the edge of the blade. “Percival Wittering was a louse, and I can’t regret having killed him. I know for a fact that he was directly responsible for the death of one young artist who wouldn’t play their dirty little game. The only reason he was going to turn King’s Evidence was because the game was getting a little too hot for him. He didn’t have a moral bone in his body.”

Adamant frowned, and I could see that one had struck home. I stretched, indolently, then winced as I noticed the mess that had been made of my shirt. It seemed only reasonable to remove the cravat and the stiff collar, and undo the few buttons which ran between the neck and the mutilated spot. Adamant’s eyes followed my hands with the sort of intensity usually associated with cats at mouse-holes.

I may, perhaps, have smirked.

“I’ve only just got to the point where I can really do some good in this little game,” I went on, twirling the stiff circlet of my collar twice around my finger before chucking it into a murky corner. “If that last batch of paintings does its work, then I might even be able to round up most of the spy ring within the week. I couldn’t let you just blunder into my little operation, and I thought the easiest way to stop that would be to deal with Wittering before he started sobbing on your shoulder.”

The sword-point wavered, fractionally.

I shrugged, and nodded towards the entrance hall. “Look, if you still doubt my credentials, perhaps you would go and ask the gentleman next door to vouch for me? I’ve met with him once or twice in the course of my work, I’m sure he’d put in a good word.”

Adamant hesitated an instant longer, before slowly sheathing the blade in his stick. I was, not unnaturally, rather relieved – though I have to admit, there was a part of me that sighed a little ruefully. I have been accused of being something of a thrill-seeker, and there is something undeniably thrilling about being loomed over by a tall, dark and handsome man in an impeccably cut suit who is holding one at the point of a phallic-metaphor.

I’m not much of a fencer, as I’ve mentioned, but I do like the imagery.

“You’re too kind, sir,” I murmured. “I would have been greatly saddened if I’d been forced to kill you after such a brief acquaintance.”

It was only then that Adamant noticed the little derringer that I’d removed from the concealed holster underneath my waistcoat at the back, and had had trained on him from somewhere around the region of my hip for the last few minutes.

(What? Didn’t you notice that either? Perhaps you, gentle reader, like Mr Adamant, should spend less time gawking at my languid form, my general state of dishabillé, and the few inches of pale skin showing through the gaping hole in my shirt, and more time observing what my roving hands are doing.)

To his credit, all Adamant did was smile, albeit in a rather crooked way. “Touché, sir,” he said. “Though a gun is hardly the weapon of a gentleman.”

“I thought we’d already established my lack of credentials there?” I drawled, stowing the little weapon back in its place again.

“Which school did you attend?”

I looked up at him, narrowly. “Harrow.”

“I might have known it.”

“Eton?”

“Naturally.” He gave another thin-lipped smile. “I think, then, that in the absence of your word as a gentleman, I may be forced to stretch a point and take your word as a Harrovian.”

“I was expelled, you know.”

“Somehow that fails to surprise me.”

“By the way,” I said, propping myself up on my elbows, “could I ask what put you onto me?”

“Your much-touted efficiency with regard to Wittering was somewhat less than perfect. He managed to reach me, and said the word ‘devil’ with his dying breath.”

“How tediously melodramatic!”

“He also had a card in his pocket which brought me to the gallery. From there, the coincidence of your name and the high-prices being paid for your paintings led me to you.”

He had begun to pace, and I took every advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the sight of his athletic figure in motion. It’s much easier to appreciate when you’re not in imminent danger of being lunged to death. “So it wasn’t that dear Miss Allenson had been throwing the golden apples of discord in your midst?”

Adamant stopped pacing, and my head fell backwards, despairingly. (And, coincidentally, revealing rather a lot of my rather fine and very pale neck. But that’s neither here nor there.)

“My dear Adamant, Miss Allenson is the human equivalent of a upas tree, and she is in this business up to her admittedly very pretty neck.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Upas tree. You know – the ones that kill everything that grows under them – “

“I am quite aware of what a upas tree is,” he snapped. “I am not so well aware of what they have to do with a most charming and decorous young lady – “

“Charming she may be,” I conceded. “She may even be decorous. She’s certainly decorative. But she’s also one of the finest brains behind the whole smuggling operation, and I fear her more than any man on God’s earth.”

“That is impossible, sir,” he said coldly. “I spoke with Miss Allenson at some length. She informed me of your infamous behaviour with regard to certain of the other female members of the Slade school of art – “

“And you think that’s enough reason for her to try to convince you I’m the leader of a traitorous spy-ring?” I asked, more than a little sceptically.

“A slight to a woman’s honour, sir, is never a trivial matter.”

“Oh, come on – “

“Would you deny that you behaved like a scoundrel and a blackguard towards young ladies of her acquaintance?”

“Well – yes, not to put too fine a point on it,” I said. “I’ll admit, I’ve probably been...rather more closely associated with some young ladies of her acquaintance than you’ve been with – well, anyone since you left boarding-school, I’d imagine – “ I ignored the snarl, and pressed on blithely. “But I never made any promises I didn’t keep. I never claimed to be offering more than I was. I’ve always tried to conduct my affairs as honestly as possible.”

Well, it’s almost true. At any rate it seemed like the most plausible tactic for getting out of this without getting my collar inserted into my person, studs and all.

“Your dear Miss Allenson,” I went on piously, “can have no possible grudge against me on the part of aggrieved girl friends. If she wanted you to suspect me, then you have to see that it’s because she recognised I was a potential threat to her little smuggling operation, and wanted me out of the way!”

“But why would she want to direct me to attack you?” asked Adamant, frowning. “She certainly knew of my position as an agent of the Crown. Why would she point me towards you, when ten minutes’ conversation with you would show that you were a government agent too, and working against the foreign powers in question, not for them?”

“Well, I can think of two possibilities,” I offered. “Firstly, that she and her circle think I’m only a nasty little interloper, trying to horn in on a very profitable little racket, and haven’t recognised me as a government agent at all.”

“And secondly?”

“That you’ve got such a reputation for stabbing first, asking questions later, that she thought ten minutes’ conversation with me would be an outside possibility,” I said, meekly enough.

Adamant’s eyes narrowed.

“I cannot believe that a young lady of such evident breeding would be mixed up in such a villainous plot as this,” he pronounced in the most unshakeable of tones. “Even if her actions in directing my attention towards you were not entirely innocent, I am sure that they were the result of blackmail, or fear for herself or some loved one.”

I sat up a little at that. “Good Lord,” I breathed. “You actually believe that, don’t you?”

“Assuredly I do, sir.”

“My God...”

“I fail to understand – “

“Letty Allenson has all the brains and nerve of any ten men on earth, and just because she’s a pretty girl is no reason to trust her further than you could throw her!”

“I find your attitude deeply distasteful.”

“And I find it deeply distasteful that you should take the word of that little baggage over mine, purely to satisfy your own personal prejudices about the purity of womankind.”

“Will you stand up, sir, or are you planning to loll around on the floor all day?”

I gave that question the consideration it deserved. Lolling around is, after all, one of my favourite activities. “I’m not going to stand up if you’re only going to knock me down again.”

“I assure you, I have no intention of knocking you down – “

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“- at this present moment.”

“What a reassuring person you are.”

He didn’t offer me a hand up, the scoundrel.

“Well?” I asked, brushing dust off the seat of my trousers. “Now what are you going to do with me?”

He smiled his tight, thin-lipped smile. “Now, sir, you are going to take me to your superiors.”

* * *

Part III