61. Portrait of a White Lie
Of course, she thought of Angus, and turned to him. That was the right thing to do; not only did he know the full background to the whole issue of the blue Spode teacup, but he had been actively involved in it. It was Angus who had removed the cup from Antonia’s flat, and that made him party to this unfortunate state of affairs; not that she would blame him for this in any way – he had merely acted on her instructions. She was not sure if she needed to reproach herself either – she had acted in good faith – but this absence of moral fault did not mean that she felt comfortable about the fact that she now had in her possession a teacup that did not belong to her. If one has in one’s possession an item which one knows belongs to another, then there is a clear obligation to return it to the rightful owner; holding on to it is theft.
As Domenica wrestled with the moral implications of her unfortunate discovery, Angus Lordie settled down to an afternoon of painting. He had been looking forward to a spell of peace, he thought, as the previous few days had been unsettling in the extreme. There had been the business over the puppies – although he was trying to put that out of his mind; of course the puppies would be all right, why would they not be? Then there had been Big Lou’s disclosure that she was sheltering the Pretender in her flat in Canonmills. That had been very disturbing, as Angus felt strongly protective of Big Lou. The Pretender, whoever he was, would almost certainly be a charlatan, determined to take maximum advantage of the kindness and hospitality of others. And Big Lou was kind to a fault; everybody knew that.
But what had unsettled Angus more than anything else was that curious meeting with Lard O’Connor in Glass and Thompson and the entrusting by Lard into his hands of the picture he had brought to show Matthew. The moment he had said goodbye to Lard, with a promise to telephone him once Matthew arrived home from his honeymoon, Angus had left Glass and Thompson and made his way back to his flat in Drummond Place, bearing the large, wrapped parcel in which the painting was concealed. If people knew what I was carrying, he thought, how surprised they would be. A portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn no less; but not just any Raeburn…
He met nobody in Abercromby Place or Nelson Street, but when he turned into Drummond Place itself, and was only a few hundred yards away from home, he bumped into Magnus Linklater.
Magnus was clearly in the mood for a chat. “Well, Angus,” said Magnus. “That’s an interesting-looking parcel you’ve got there. One of your own?”
Angus thought quickly. He would have loved to reveal to somebody else – anybody else – what he thought he had, but Magnus was a newspaper editor, and would it be a good idea to reveal to the world just yet that a Raeburn portrait of Burns had at last turned up? No, thought Angus, it would be premature. He could not be absolutely sure that this was Burns by Raeburn. He could not be absolutely sure even if this was anybody by Raeburn. There were plenty of Raeburn imitators, inferior artists who painted in the style of the master. Indeed, there were Russian factories, Angus believed, that would turn out a Raeburn today for a few hundred pounds. Could this, he wondered, be a Russian Raeburn?
He had to say something to Magnus, who was looking at him politely while at the same time glancing sideways at the painting. Angus noticed that the top of the wrapping had slipped and had revealed the upper edge of the frame.
“My own? Well, not really,” he replied vaguely. “Somebody else’s painting. I’m just… just looking after it for him.”
“Nice frame,” observed Magnus. “What’s the painting like? It’s not a MacTaggart, by any chance?” He pointed to a door behind them; they were standing directly outside the house once owned by Sir William MacTaggart.
Angus laughed. “No. Nothing like that. Nothing of any real consequence.” He felt himself blushing as he spoke; Angus, a direct speaker, had never found it easy to lie, and rarely did so.
“Well,” said Magnus. “It’s good to see Cyril. And how are Cyril’s puppies? I haven’t seen them in the gardens recently.”
Angus blushed again, more deeply this time. “I’m sure that they’re all right,” he said. “They’ve gone off to a good home.”
Magnus smiled. “Well, that’s good news,” he said. “I had been wondering how you would find homes for all of them. But you obviously did. And one can’t be too careful, apparently. I was reading the other day about somebody whose puppies were stolen and sold to a restaurant. Would you believe it?”
Angus swallowed hard. “That’s bad,” he said. His voice sounded distant.
“Oh well,” said Magnus. “I mustn’t linger. And you’ve got your Raeburn to get back to the studio.”
Angus gave a start. “Raeburn?”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s not that,” said Magnus. “But one might live in hope.”
Angus forced a laugh. “I wish I owned a Raeburn,” he said. He did not blush this time; he did not own a Raeburn, even if he happened to be carrying one. He did not own this portrait of Burns; that was the important point. Lard O’Connor owned it, or… perhaps somebody else.
He completed his journey to the flat and carried the painting carefully into his studio. Then, setting it down against a wall, he carefully slit the paper down one side and removed it. For a few minutes he did nothing other than stand in front of the painting, absorbing every detail: the well-kent face, with its finely sculpted, intelligent features; the dark hair; the prominent eyebrows; the white, pleated neck stock. And behind it the colours: the dark reds, the rich blacks against which Raeburn painted his sitters, although in this painting there was a table behind the sitter and on this table there was a large, decorated jardini`ere.
Angus dropped down to his knees and examined the jardini`ere at close quarters. He had seen a picture of it before somewhere; he was sure of that – somewhere, a jardini`ere, or a memory of a jardini`ere. He looked at Burns, and the poet stared back at him.
“Dear Rabbie,” he muttered. “We’re a parcel of rogues in a nation. I know that. But one day, maybe, that will all change. Maybe.”