A daring daylight art theft from a crowded museum, a secret document centuries old, and a hidden treasure, these are the elements of the title story in this collection of tales by R. Austin Freeman. Though best known for his famous forensic sleuth, Dr. John Thorndyke, Freeman also on occasion wrote stories featuring other characters. In addition to „The Great Portrait Mystery”, this collection features four more of these tales which show a more whimsical and humorous side of the author, dealing in turn with a bewitched curate, thieves whose clever plans go adrift, a haunted lawyer, and a poor bricklayer on whom fortune smiles in a strange fashion. This collection of seven short stories includes two featuring Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, a fictional detective in a long series of novels and short stories by British author R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943).
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I. THE GREAT PORTRAIT MYSTERY
II. THE BRONZE PARROT
III. THE MISSING MORTGAGEE
IV. POWDER BLUE AND HAWTHORN
V. PERCIVAL BLAND’S PROXY
VI. THE ATTORNEY’S CONSCIENCE
VII. THE LUCK OF BARNABAS MUDGE
I. THE GREAT PORTRAIT MYSTERY
AS a collection of human oddments, the National Gallery on copying day surpasses even the Reading Room of the British Museum, and almost equals the House of Commons. The spectacle that it afforded was a source of perennial interest to Mr. Joseph Fittleworth, as were also the productions of the professional copyists, humorously described in official parlance as students. For Joseph Fittleworth was himself a painter, with a leaning to the methods of the past rather than to those of the future, a circumstance which accounted for his professional failure. Which illustrates the remarkable fact that in these days, when even indifferent Old Masters sell at famine prices, while the unsold work of contemporary genius grows mouldy in the studios, an artist’s only chance of popularity is to diverge as far as possible from the methods of those great men of the past whose productions are in such demand.
Hence it had happened that Fittleworth had accepted with avidity a not very lucrative supernumerary post at the National Gallery where he could, at least, have his being amidst the objects of his worship, which we may remark included an exceedingly comely young lady, who came regularly to the gallery to copy pictures, principally of the Flemish school.
On this particular Thursday morning Mr. Fittleworth walked slowly through the rooms, stopping now and again to look at the work of the copyists, and dropping an occasional word of judicious and valued criticism. He had made a tour of the greater part of the building and was about to turn back, when he bethought him of a rather interesting copy that he had seen in progress in a small, isolated room at the end of the British Galleries, and turned his steps thither. The room was approached by a short corridor in which a man was seated copying in water-colour a small Constable, and copying it so execrably that Fittleworth instinctively looked the other way and passed hurriedly to the room beyond. The work in progress here interested him exceedingly. The original was a portrait of James the Second by Sir Godfrey Kneller, and the copy was so perfect a reproduction that Fittleworth halted by the easel lost in admiration of the technical skill displayed. The artist, whose name appeared from an inscription on his colour box to be Guildford Dudley, was seated, looking at his picture and the original, as he deliberately mixed a number of tints on his palette.
“I see you haven’t begun work yet,” Fittleworth remarked.
The painter looked up at him, owlishly through a pair of very large, double focus spectacles, and shook his head, which was adorned by a tangled mass of very long, reddish hair.
“No,” he replied, “I am just having a preliminary look before starting.”
“Do you think your copy wants anything done to it at all?” asked Fittleworth. “It’s excellent as it stands, though just a trifle low in tone.”
“Not lower than the original, is it?” demanded the artist.
“No,” replied Fittleworth, “but it will be in a year or so, when the medium has darkened, and it’s a good deal lower than the original was when first painted.”
The painter reflected. “I’m inclined to think you’re right,” said he. “I ought to have kept it one or two degrees higher. But it isn’t too late,” he added, briskly. “A day’s work or so ought to bring it up to the proper key.”
Fittleworth was doubtful and rather sorry he had spoken. Raising the tone meant practically going over the entire picture afresh, which seemed a risky proceeding in the case of a finished, and highly successful, painting. He attempted gentle dissuasion, but, finding the painter resolved on the alteration, refrained from urging him further.
“I see,” said he, “that the glass is on the original. Wouldn’t you like to have it taken off?”
“Oh, no, thanks,” was the reply. “There’s no reflection in it from here.”
“The glass lets the tone down a little,” Fittleworth began; but there he paused, with his mouth slightly open, and the painter started and fell into a rigid posture, with his palette-knife poised motionless in mid-air. Astonishment was writ large on the faces of both men as they listened. And not without cause; for, clear and distinct, came the notes of a hautboy, playing a lively melody, and most evidently from somewhere within the sacred precincts of the building. Fittleworth remained for some seconds rigid as a statue, with his mouth open and his eyes fixed on those of the painter; but suddenly he recovered himself, and, without a word, darted from the room. Passing the water-colourist, who was looking over his shoulder and grinning, he entered the larger gallery, to find the easels deserted and the students trooping out of the door; and, following them, soon found himself in a momentarily-augmenting crowd of copyists, all surging towards the source of the music and all on the broad grin.
It was in the Venetian room that Fittleworth finally ran the musician to earth. There he found a dense crowd, collected round Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, and at its centre, a tall, thin man of grotesque and whimsical aspect, who wore a steeple-crowned felt hat and a long cloak, apparently quite oblivious of his audience. At the moment of Fittleworth’s arrival, he was giving a spirited and skilful rendering of the “Carnival de Venise” with somewhat florid variations, and meanwhile keeping a pensive eye fixed on the picture. Fittleworth, controlling his features as well as he could, pushed through the crowd and touched the stranger lightly on the shoulder.
“I am sorry,” said he, “to interrupt your really admirable performance, but I’m afraid we can’t allow it to continue here.”
The stranger rolled a solemn, and somewhat reproachful, eye towards the official, and pausing for a moment on a low note, sprang up an octave and opened a fresh suite of variations, of really surprising agility. Fittleworth smothered a grin and waited patiently until the bravura passage came to an end with a most astonishing flourish, when he once more entered his polite demurrer. The stranger removed the instrument from his mouth and, having waited for the applause to subside, turned gravely to Fittleworth.
“Do I understand,” said he, “that you object to music in this establishment?”
Fittleworth replied in the affirmative.
The stranger shook his head solemnly. “That,” said he, “seems to be an extraordinarily mistaken view. Surely you do not dispute the essential kinship of the fine arts?”
Fittleworth smiled evasively, and the stranger continued, amidst a murmur of encouraging giggles from the students:
“You will not deny, sir, that the different fine arts are but various modes of a general sense of beauty.”
Fittleworth was not denying anything; he only objected to the hautboy.
“Then,” the stranger persisted, unmoved, “you will admit that each of the modes of beauty is reinforced by exposition and illustration through the other modes. For my part,” he added finally, “I regard appropriate and sympathetic music as indispensable to the due appreciation of pictorial beauty,” and with this, he turned away and moved off through the gallery followed, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, by an attendant multitude.
Fittleworth was in somewhat of a dilemma. There was no explicit rule against the playing of musical instruments in the galleries and the act was not in itself unlawful; moreover, the stranger’s plea, though fantastic and absurd, was advanced so suavely and plausibly that it was difficult to deal with. He was still smilingly considering what it were best to do, when the stranger halted before Claude’s “Embarkation of St. Ursula” and forthwith began a plaintive rendering of “Partant pour la Syrie.” For awhile the humour of the situation was too much for Fittleworth, and the performance was nearly at an end before he had recovered himself sufficiently to renew his protests; but as the stranger moved away, he once more addressed him with polite, but urgent, remonstrance. The musician regarded him with reproachful surprise and again urged him to consider the intimate relation between the different modes of beauty, instancing the performances of Miss Maud Allen as a familiar and popular example; and even while Fittleworth was racking his brain for a suitable rejoinder, the stranger drew up abruptly before David’s portrait of Elisa Bonaparte, and fixing a fiery eye upon the picture, burst into the “Marseillaise.”
Fittleworth felt himself becoming hysterical as the students cheered and the stirring phrases of the warlike melody rang through the building. It was useless to protest. The stranger only frowned, and rolled a compelling eye that demanded silence. Bewildered attendants watched the performance from afar with horrified stares and the crowd grew from moment to moment. After a brief appreciation of Fragonard’s “Happy Mother” (to the air of “La Vierge a la Creche”), he moved on into the Dutch Gallery, and pausing before a picture of Van Ostade’s, struck up with surprising spirit and verve “The Dutchman’s Little Wee Dog”; which brought down the house and, incidentally, put a term to the performance. For at this point, to Fittleworth’s great relief, an irritable old lady, who was copying a Rembrandt, came forward and demanded how she could “be expected to work in this disgusting hubbub.” Fittleworth took the opportunity to point out to the musician that the galleries were at present filled with workers to whom his admirable performance, though delightful on a more seasonable occasion, was, just now, a distraction and a hindrance.
The stranger turned, and raised his steeple-crowned hat. “That,” said he, with a low bow to the old lady, “is an entirely different matter. If my presence is a source of disturbance, there is nothing for it but for me to wish you a very good morning.”
With this and another low bow, and an elaborate flourish of his hat, he turned, and adjusting the mouth piece of his instrument, walked away briskly towards the entrance hall, playing “The Girl I left behind me.”
It was some considerable time before the galleries settled down again. The students, gathered into groups, eagerly discussed the fantastic stranger, and Fittleworth, passing from one group to another, was assailed by innumerable questions. It was getting on for lunch time when he found himself once more in the neighbourhood of the isolated room where the portrait was in progress, and he noticed, as he passed through the corridor, that the water-colourist had already left. He found Mr. Dudley staring discontentedly through his great spectacles at the picture on his easel, and a single glance showed him that there was abundant cause for discontent.
“What do you think of it?” the painter asked, looking up doubtfully.
Fittleworth pursed up his lips. “I’m afraid,” said he, “you haven’t improved it. The tone is certainly higher but the likeness has suffered, and the whole thing looks coarse and patchy.”
Dudley gazed gloomily at the canvas and nodded. “I’m afraid you’re right,” said he. “I’ve mucked it up. That’s the plain truth.”
“You certainly haven’t improved it,” agreed Fittleworth, “and, if I might venture to advise, I would recommend you to clean off this morning’s work and consider the picture finished.”
The painter stood up and surveyed his work savagely. “You’re perfectly right,” said he, “and I’ll follow your advice.” He closed his folding-palette and began rapidly to pack up his materials, while Fittleworth stood, gazing regretfully at the spoiled painting. When he had packed his box and brush-case, Dudley proceeded to secure the canvas, which was very neatly arranged for safe transport, being fixed by catches to the bottom of a shallow box, the sliding lid of which served to protect the wet surface.
“Are you going to take it away with you?” Fittleworth asked, as the painter slid the lid into its groove and fixed on the carrying straps.
“Yes,” replied Dudley, “I will take it home and then I shan’t be tempted to tinker at it again when I’ve cleaned this mess off.”
Having closed and packed his easel, he picked up his heavy colour-box, his brush case and a leather bag, and Fittleworth, seeing him thus encumbered, politely offered to carry the box which contained the painting; and so they walked together to the entrance-hall, where Fittleworth delivered up the shallow box to its owner, wishing him luck in his efforts to obliterate the traces of the unfortunate morning’s work.
About eleven o’clock on the following forenoon, Fittleworth halted by the easel appertaining to Miss Katharine Hyde for a few minutes’ confidential chat. He did not often allow himself this luxury, for the two young people had agreed that their relations inside the building had better be kept on a business footing. But every rule has its exceptions, and besides, as Katharine had not been present on the previous morning, she had to be told about the musical stranger. Fittleworth was in the midst of a spirited narration of the incident, when one of the attendants approached with a mysterious air.
“Beg pardon, sir,” said he, “but there’s a Mr. Dudley has come to work at his picture and we can’t find it.”
Fittleworth frowned. “Dudley, Dudley,” he muttered, “isn’t that the–yes, of course.” And, as a red-haired person with large spectacles advanced in the wake of the attendant, he said, “Have you been asking for your picture, Mr. Dudley?” The artist replied that he had. “But, my dear sir,” laughed Fittleworth, “you took it away with you yesterday morning.”
The painter gazed at him with owlish surprise. “I wasn’t here yesterday morning,” said he.
Fittleworth stared at him, in silent astonishment, for a few moments. Then he exclaimed impatiently:
“Oh, nonsense, Mr. Dudley. You can’t have forgotten. You were working at the picture all the morning, and I helped you myself to carry it to the entrance hall.”
The painter shook his head. “I was working the whole of yesterday in the National Portrait Gallery. You must have helped some one else out with my picture.”
Fittleworth started, and was sensible of a chill of vague alarm. The painter’s appearance was so remarkable that a mistake seemed impossible. And yet he began to have an uneasy feeling that this was not the same man. There was the same long, red hair and the same enormous spectacles, but the face was not quite that of the man whom he had talked to yesterday, and the voice and manner seemed appreciably different. And again, a vague and chilly terror clutched at his heart.
“Shall we go and look at the attendance book?” said he; and as the painter agreed with alacrity, they hurried away.
“Your name is Guildford Dudley, I think,” said Fittleworth, with his finger on the page that recorded yesterday’s attendances.
“Yes,” replied Dudley, “but that’s not my handwriting.”
Fittleworth reflected for a moment in a state bordering on panic.
“I’m afraid,” said he, “there’s something wrong; but we’d better run round to the Portrait Gallery and verify your statement.”
They hurried out together, and turning round into St. Martin’s Place, entered the Portrait Gallery, where a very brief investigation proved that Mr. Dudley had been engaged the whole of the previous day.
Fittleworth broke out into a cold sweat. It was evident that a fraud had been committed; and a most elaborate fraud for, among other matters, an attendance card must have been counterfeited. But what could be the object of that fraud? A copy, no matter how good, seemed hardly worth such deliberate and carefully-considered plans. Fittleworth and the painter looked at one another, and with the same horrible suspicion in both their minds they hurried away together to put it to the test.
As Fittleworth entered the small, isolated room where the counterfeit Dudley had been at work on the previous day, he drew a breath of relief; for there, at least, was the original, secure in its frame. But his relief was short-lived; for Dudley, who had followed him closely, strode up to the picture and, after a quick, critical glance, turned to him with raised eyebrows.
“That is my copy,” said he.
Fittleworth felt all his terror reviving, and yet this awful thing seemed impossible.
“How can it be?” he exclaimed. “You see that the canvas is quite uninjured and the frame is screwed to the wall.”
“I know nothing about that,” replied Dudley. “I only know that that’s my copy.”
Fittleworth directed an agonised stare through the glass, and as he looked more closely, he felt a growing suspicion that the painter was right. The brush work and even the surface of the original had been closely and cleverly imitated, but still–here Fittleworth turned sharply to an attendant, who had followed them into the room.
“Go and fetch a screwdriver,” said he, “and bring another man with you.”
The attendant hurried away and returned almost immediately accompanied by a workman, carrying a screwdriver. The frame of the picture, unlike some others in the gallery, was fitted with brass plates which were screwed to hard wood plugs let into the wall. By Fittleworth’s direction, the workman proceeded to unscrew one of the plates while his assistant grasped the picture frame. Fittleworth impatiently watched the screwdriver as it made about a dozen turns, when the man stopped and looked up at him.
“There’s something rummy about this screw, sir,” he remarked.
“It seems to turn all right,” said Fittleworth.
“Oh, it turns all right,” said the man, “but it don’t git no forrader. Let’s try another.”
He did so, but the second screw developed the same peculiar properties. And then a most remarkable thing happened. As the workman stepped back to direct a puzzled look at the screw-plates, his assistant must have pulled slightly at the frame for it began to separate visibly from the wall. The workman dropped his screwdriver and seized the frame which, with another pull, came away bodily, with the four screws loose in the plates.
Fittleworth uttered a cry of despair. A single glance at the back of the brand-new canvas put the fraud beyond all doubt, and another glance at the screws left little to be explained as to the methods adopted by the robber. To Dudley, however, who was unaware of the events of the previous day, the whole affair was a profound mystery.
“I don’t see how they managed it at all,” said he, “unless they got in in the night.”
“I’ll tell you about it presently,” said Fittleworth. “Meanwhile, if you will lend us your copy for a few days, we will put the frame back; and mind,” he added, addressing the attendants, “nothing is to be said about this at present.”
When the picture had been replaced and the men had gone away, Fittleworth gave the artist a brief account of the happenings of the previous day, to which Dudley listened thoughtfully.
“I see the general scheme,” said he, “but what I don’t understand is how that man managed to do it all in such a short time, and with people moving about the galleries, too.”
“I think that’s all clear enough,” said Fittleworth, “see, the actual exchange of the pictures need have taken less than a minute. Everything had been carefully prepared beforehand. The thieves must have come here on previous days with the dummy screws in their pockets, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to take out the screws one at a time and push the dummies in in their place. And as to loosening the canvas in the frame, two men could easily do that in a minute or two, when once the screws were removed, if they had a sentinel posted in the corridor. Comparatively few people come to this room, you know.”
“But that would need three men at least,” objected Dudley.
“Exactly,” replied Fittleworth, “and I think there were three men; the hautboy player was one; his business being to draw every one away from the scene of action, and I feel no doubt that the water-colourist was another; a sentinel posted in the corridor to keep watch while the third man made the exchange.”
“I see,” said Dudley; “and when he’d made the exchange he oiled out the original, rubbed on some colour and put in a few touches on the high lights.”
Fittleworth nodded. “Yes,” said he, “that is what he must have done; and it would have been fairly easy since the picture was in such good condition and there were no cracks to cover up.”
“Yes,” agreed Dudley. “It would, it would. But, all the same, he must have been a pretty fair colourist and uncommonly skilful with his brush.”
“Yes, he must,” agreed Fittleworth, “and that suggests a very important question: this man obviously knew you well, as is proved by the exactness with which he personated you. He also knew exactly what you were doing and has known for some time past, for this was evidently a premeditated scheme, most carefully thought out. Moreover, the personator was clearly a painter of some skill, and even allowing for his make-up must have resembled you somewhat in appearance. Now, Mr. Dudley, can you think of anyone to whom that description could apply?”
The painter reflected awhile, and Fittleworth added, somewhat abruptly: “Who commissioned this picture?”
“This copy,” replied Dudley, “and the one I was doing next door were commissioned by an American gentleman, named Strauss, who is staying at the Savoy.”
“What is Mr. Strauss like?” Fittleworth asked.
“He is a tall, lean man, somewhat like the portraits of Abraham Lincoln.”
“Ah,” murmured Fittleworth, recalling the hautboy player. “How did you come to make Mr. Strauss’ acquaintance?”
“He introduced himself to me a month or so ago, when I was copying at the Luxembourg; in fact,” added Dudley, with a sudden flash of reminiscence, “it was he who suggested that excellent box to protect one’s work. He had one made for a copy that I did in Paris, and he provided me with two more for these two copies.”
Fittleworth reflected profoundly. The modus operandi of this clever fraud was becoming more and more obvious. Clearly, it would be necessary to make inquiries about Mr. Strauss, and meanwhile, the Director of the Gallery would have to be told about the catastrophe; a horrible duty, to the execution of which Fittleworth braced himself with a sinking heart and with a suspicion that his official days were numbered.
An unwonted air of depression brooded that evening over the modest apartments of Miss Katharine Hyde, for Fittleworth had just recounted, in minute detail, and a hushed, funereal voice, the appalling history of the robbery.
“It’s a hideous affair,” he groaned, in conclusion. “The Director took it very well, considering all things, but, of course, I shall have to go.”
“Did he say so?” asked Katharine.
“No, but you know the sort of howl that will be raised when the thing becomes known. It’ll be frightfully uncomfortable for him, and the least I can do is to take the full blame, seeing that I actually carried the picture out. I shall have to offer to resign and he’ll have to accept my resignation. What I shall do or a livelihood after that, the Lord only knows.”
“It’s dreadful for you,” said Katharine, “with all your talents and accomplishments, too.”
“It is hard,” agreed Fittleworth; “just as there seemed a chance of our being able to marry after all these years. I suppose I ought to release you, Katie, now that our prospects seem hopeless.”
“Why?” she asked simply. “I shouldn’t want anyone else, you know; and as to my freedom, well, I’m free to be a spinster now if you don’t marry me. But we won’t give up hope. Perhaps the picture will be found, after all, and then you won’t have to resign. Is it a very valuable picture?
“It’s worse than that,” said Fittleworth. “It was a loan, and I should say of priceless value to the owners for sentimental reasons.”
Katharine looked interested, and being anxious to divert her lover from the subject of their personal misfortunes, asked for more particulars.
“The picture has quite an interesting history,” said Fittleworth. “It was painted by Kneller in 1688, and the story goes that the king was actually sitting to the painter when a messenger arrived with the news that the Prince of Orange had landed in Torbay. The portrait was intended as a gift to Samuel Pepys to whom the king was greatly attached, and in spite of the agitation that the bad tidings naturally produced, he commanded Kneller to proceed and get the portrait finished so that his old friend and loyal servant should not be disappointed.”
“And did Pepys get the picture?” Katharine asked.
“Yes; and what’s more, it remains in the possession of the family to this day, or, at least, it did until it was stolen. So you see, apart from its intrinsic value as a painting, it has this especial value to the family. I had sooner those brutes had stolen almost any other picture in the gallery, even the Raphael Madonna.”
“Is there no clue whatever to the identity of the thief?” Katharine asked.
“There was one clue,” Fittleworth replied, “but it has broken off short; an American gentleman, named Strauss, who commissioned the portrait. We looked him up at the Savoy, but he has disappeared, and nothing whatever is known as to whence he came or whither he has gone. He was undoubtedly one of the robbers, but he seems to have vanished into thin air.”
“Oh, well,” said Katherine, “I daresay the police will soon catch him and he’ll be sure to have taken care of the picture;” and with this hopeful prognosis, the subject was dismissed, at least from speech, though in the minds of both the young people the missing picture remained as a sombre background to all other thought.
As he walked to the gallery on the following morning, Fittleworth considered, for the hundredth time, the most prudent form of procedure. Should he write an official letter tendering his resignation, or should he adopt the less final and deadly plan of offering verbally to resign? He was undecided when he turned in at the gate and began to ascend the steps; but he reached a decision as he reached the third step from the top, at the very moment when he collided with a commissionaire who was also ascending in company with a brown paper parcel. He would resign, in the first place, at any rate, by word of mouth and see how they took it.
And having formed this decision, he proceeded without further delay to put it in execution.
The Director and the Keeper had apparently talked the matter over, anticipating this course of action. “Well, Fittleworth,” said the former, “the matter doesn’t rest with me. If it did, I should say–Who’s this from, Jenkins?” The question was addressed to an attendant who had just brought in a brown paper parcel, addressed by name to the Director.
“Don’t know, Sir John,” was the reply. “A commissionaire brought it. He said there was no answer and he’s gone.”
The Director nodded, and as the man went out he scrutinised the parcel critically and examined the typewritten address label. “If the matter rested entirely with me,” he resumed, “I should say–er–now, what the deuce can this be?” He turned the flattish, oblong parcel, over and over, and finally, picking up the office penknife, applied its edge abstractedly to the string. “I should say,” he repeated–“if the matter rested with me, that is, which, of course, it doesn’t, that–it’s a box. I haven’t ordered any box. I wonder what the deuce–” Here he pulled the paper fairly open and Fittleworth uttered a cry of astonishment.
“What is it, Fittleworth?” Sir John asked; to which the former made no reply, but leaning across the table, quickly pulled out the sliding lid of the box. And then there fell on the room the silence of utter amazement, for, from the shallow box, there looked out composedly the familiar features of James the Second.
“Well,” Sir John exclaimed, at length, “this is the most astonishing affair of all. I suppose it’s all right,” he added suspiciously, unclamping the picture and lifting it out of the box. “They’re such uncommonly artful dodgers; still, I think there’s no doubt this is the genuine original. But why on earth have they returned it, after taking all that trouble to steal it?”
The three men pored over the canvas, searching suspiciously for any sign of change or substitution. But there was none. The surface of the painting was unaltered and apparently none the worse for its recent vicissitudes.
“They seem to have handled it carefully,” Mr. Barnard remarked. “No one would dream that it had been covered up with fresh paint.”
“No,” agreed Sir John; “it hasn’t left a trace. They must have used a slow-drying oil and cleaned it off immediately. But,” he added, turning the picture over, “they had the canvas off the stretcher. Do you notice?” He held the picture towards the other two, who eyed it narrowly.
“It seems to me, Sir John,” said Fittleworth, after running his eye round the edge of the canvas, “that it’s only been off at one end. The tacks at the top and the upper part of the sides don’t seem to have been disturbed.”
The Director looked at the picture once more. “You’re quite right, Fittleworth,” said he. “The canvas has been off the stretcher at the lower end only; and what’s more, the bottom bar of the stretcher has been removed and replaced by a fresh piece. Do you see that? The piece that has been inserted is old wood but it’s different from the other three, and you can clearly make out the fresh surface that has been left in cutting the tenons. It is a very astonishing thing. What do you make of it, Barnard?”
Mr. Barnard could make nothing of it and said so. “The whole thing is a complete mystery to me,” said he. “They may have damaged the old stretcher bar and had to replace it; but I don’t see why they wanted to unfasten the canvas at all.”
“Neither do I,” said Sir John, “but the main thing is that we’ve got the picture back uninjured, and, that being so, perhaps you would like to reconsider your resignation, Fittleworth.”
“I don’t think I will, Sir John,” replied the latter. “The affair is known to several people and there’s bound to be some sort of inquiry.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” rejoined the Director. “At any rate, we will hear what the Trustees say. Of course, if the matter rested with me–but it doesn’t; so, for the time being, I must accept your resignation.”
IT was perhaps fortunate that Saturday is a public day at most galleries, and so, an off-day for copyists; for in any case there would have been no work on this disastrous morning for Miss Katharine. Within a few minutes of Fittleworth’s arrival at the Gallery, she had taken up a position at the foot of the Nelson Column to await the promised report on the course of events. Fittleworth, on leaving the Director’s room, made straight for the trysting place, and was received with a bright smile and a small, outstretched hand, as they turned away together towards Whitehall.
“Well,” asked Kate, “what has happened?”
“I’ve offered to resign,” replied Fittleworth.
“And of course Sir John scouted the idea?” said Katharine.
“Oh, did he?” exclaimed Fittleworth. “Not at all. He did say that if the matter rested with him, he’d–”
“I don’t quite know, but the great news is that the picture has come back.”
“Oh, good!” exclaimed Katharine. “But, if it has come back, why on earth should you resign?”
“You’ll see if I tell you how it came back;” and here Fittleworth described the mysterious return of the picture and the still more mysterious change of the stretcher bar.
“But I still don’t see why you’re resigning,” Katharine persisted.
“Then,” said Fittleworth, “I’ll explain. You see, Sir John and Barnard are concerned with the picture, qua picture, and from that point of view, a stretcher-bar is just a stretcher-bar and nothing else. But there’s one point that they’ve overlooked–at least, I think they have. This was not only a picture: it was a family relic.”
“But what has that to do with it?” asked Katharine.
“That question, my dear girl, is best answered by another. What did those men want with the old stretcher-bar?
“Well, what did they?”
“I don’t know,” replied Fittleworth; “but as soon, as I saw that the bar had been changed, I realised that there was something more in this robbery than met the eye. Consider the facts, Katie. First you will see that these men were not common thieves, for they have not only returned the property, but have obviously been most careful not to injure it; which is quite unlike a criminal, who is usually perfectly regardless of the amount of damage he does. In the second place, you will notice that these men wanted the bottom stretcher-bar of the canvas, and wanted it so badly that they were willing to go to great trouble and expense to get it. Next, you will see that these are men of very superior intelligence. One of them is quite a skilful painter, and another an expert musician, and one of them, at least, is a person of great ingenuity. And now, consider the picture itself. It was painted for the King when the Revolution had actually begun and was to be given into the custody of a man who was the King’s trusty friend, who was a man of unswerving loyalty, of infallible judgment and discretion, and who was so perfect a man of the world that he was practically certain not to be involved in any of the troubles that were to follow. What does this suggest to you?”
“It doesn’t suggest anything,” she replied, with a vague little shake of the head. “What does it suggest to you?”
“Well,” he replied, “you will agree that for a small and precious object, the stretcher-bar of a valuable picture would furnish an ideal hiding-place; and seeing that three men who are obviously not fools have gone to immense trouble to get possession of this bar, I am inclined to assume that it had been used for that purpose.”
“Really, Joe!” exclaimed Katharine, “what a delightfully romantic idea! And how Machiavellian of you to have thought of it! Shall we turn into the Park for a little while?”
Fittleworth assented, and as they had now reached the gates of the Horse Guards, they passed through, furtively watched by the gaudy sentinel, who stood, like some gorgeous tropical bird, keeping guard over the tunnel-like entry. The two lovers walked soberly across the great gravel expanse, and it was not until they had passed through the small gate into the Park, that they took up the thread of their talk. It was Katharine who spoke first.
“Have you made any sort of guess as to what it was that was hidden in that bar?”
“No, I haven’t,” replied Fittleworth; “and it’s no use guessing. But this much I think is plain: those men must have had some pretty definite information, and as they couldn’t have got it from the picture, they must have got it from somewhere else; and the question is, where else could they have got it?
“Could some one have told them?” Katharine suggested.
“No, certainly not, for if anyone had known of the hiding-place, the hidden object would have been removed long ago. The only possible conclusion seems to be that a written record of the hiding-place exists and has been overlooked.”
“I see,” said Katharine. “You mean among some of the old family papers.”
“Possibly,” said Fittleworth, “but I think not. You see that, wherever the record is, these men have obtained access to it. Now, they can hardly be members of the family, for if they had been, they could have abstracted the stretcher-bar when the picture was in the private collection instead of waiting until it was in a public gallery. So that it seems to follow that the record that they have seen, is in some place which is accessible to the public. And if it is accessible to the public, why, you see, Katie dear, that it must be accessible to us.”
“Yes,” agreed Katharine. “I suppose it must; ii we only knew where to look for it. But perhaps my Machiavellian Joseph has thought of that, too.”
“I haven’t had much time to think about it at all,” replied Fittleworth; “but there is one likely place that occurs to me, and probably much the most likely: my old college.”
“Yes, Magdalene. That was Pepys’s college, you know, and he bequeathed to it, not only the famous Diary, but a large number of manuscript memoirs on naval and political affairs, as well as prints and collections of ancient paintings. It is highly probable that the document of which we are assuming the existence is among the papers in the Pepysian library; but if it is, there is one little difficulty which will have to be got over.”
“What is that?
“Why, you remember that the prudent and secretive Samuel had a way of writing his private memoranda in shorthand, which he evidently used for security rather than brevity; and that being so, we may be pretty certain that our hypothetical document would be in shorthand, too. That is rather a serious difficulty, though I fancy that the system that he used was not a very complicated one. I must find out what Rich’s system is like.”
Katharine clapped her hands. “Rich’s!” she exclaimed. “How delightful! Have you forgotten that I am an expert in Rich’s shorthand?”
“I never knew,” said Fittleworth.
“Oh, but I’m sure that I told you. It was when I used to copy drawings and manuscripts at the British Museum that I got a commission to make a facsimile of a volume written in Rich’s shorthand. Of course, it was necessary to know something about the system or I should have got the characters wrong, so I learnt it up from an old handbook, and by the time I had done my task I had become rather skilful. It’s really quite simple, you know, as compared with modern systems like Pitman’s.”
Fittleworth regarded Katharine with admiring surprise. “What a clever little lady it is!” he remarked, “and how opportunely clever, too! Do you think it would take you long to teach me?”
“But what is it that you propose to do?” she asked.
“I propose to go down to Magdalene, and go through all the Pepys papers of the Revolution period, keeping an especially sharp look-out for any written in short hand. There are not likely to be many of these, for poor old Pepys’s eyesight became so bad that he had to give up keeping a shorthand diary after 1670.”
Katharine reflected earnestly, and as they took possession of an empty seat in a secluded path, she wrapped her hand coaxingly around his arm.
“I’m going to make a rather bold proposition, Joe. Of course you can learn Rich’s shorthand without any difficulty. But it would take some time and a good deal of trouble, whereas I already know it and have had quite a lot of experience in copying and reading the characters. Now, why shouldn’t you take me with you to Cambridge and let me decipher the shorthand papers?”
Fittleworth took a critical survey of the toe of his boot, and reflected on the personal peculiarities of a a mythical female of the name of Grundy; and Katharine, stealing a cautious glance at him, deciphered a cryptogram that was easier than Rich’s.
“Maggie Flinders would put me up, I know,” she said a propos of the decipherment. “She’s a something at Newnham, and we’re quite old friends.”
Fittleworth’s face cleared. “That gets rid of one difficulty,” said he, “and the other difficulty I must get over as best I can.”
“You mean the expense that the inquiry will involve?” said Katharine.
“Yes. You see, I have no doubt that something of considerable value has been stolen, and stolen through my thick-headedness; and if that something can be recovered, it’s my duty to get it back if I spend my last halfpenny in doing it.”
“Yes,” said Katharine. “I quite agree with you, excepting as to the thick-headedness, which is all nonsense; for of course the Director himself would have been taken in if he’d been in your place. So I’m going to make another proposition. I am just as keen on your getting this thing back as you are; in fact, your credit is my credit. Now, I have a little capital put by for a contingency that doesn’t seem likely to arise just at present, and I should like to invest some of it in our joint undertaking.”
It is needless to say that Fittleworth objected violently. It is equally needless to say that Katharine trampled on his objections with scorn, and that when they rose from the seat, the inevitable thing had happened. As the poet expresses it: “Man has his will but Woman has her way.” The joint expedition to Cambridge was an accepted fact.
THE services of Miss Flinders were not required after all. An old friend of Fittleworth’s, a tutor and fellow of the college, who had married and settled down in Cambridge, had accommodation in his house for a pair of industriously studious turtledoves, and was even willing to provide them with a small study in which to carry out their researches.
So, Mrs. Grundy being thus appeased on extremely advantageous terms, the doves aforesaid took up their abode in the residence of Mr. Arthur Winton, M.A., and the permission of the Master of the College that of the Curator of the Pepysian Library having been applied for and obtained, the great investigation began.
It was a Tuesday morning, bright and sunny, when Fittleworth set forth on his quest. He carried with him, in addition to a quarto notebook, a half-plate camera of wooden construction, the property of Mr. Winton, who was an expert photographer and who had made the excellent suggestion that any likely documents should be photographed in order that they might be studied quietly at home and facsimile copies retained permanently for subsequent reference. So Fittleworth went forth with the camera in his hand and bright hope in his heart, picturing himself already restoring to its unconscious owner that (presumably precious) object of unknown nature, the very existence of which was unsuspected by anyone but himself. It would be a great achievement. His credit would be thereby completely restored and he must infallibly be reinstated in his not very lucrative office.
The first cool draught which blew upon his enthusiasm came from the material placed at his disposal. It was a colossal mass. Apart from the prints, drawings, maps and collections of poetry, none of which could be entirely disregarded–for even the poems might contain a concealed hint–there was an enormous bulk of miscellaneous papers, all of which must be gone through before any could be rejected. And, as he gazed at the collection with growing dismay, he realised for the first time the extraordinary vagueness of his quest. What was it, after all, that he was looking for? The question admitted only of the most ambiguous answer. He had but two fixed points; the Revolution and the portrait by Kneller. Of the connection between them he was totally ignorant, and so might easily miss the clue even if it were under his very eyes.
The famous Diary he dismissed after a brief glance of fond curiosity, for its last sad entry of May the 3rd 1669, was long before the stormy days when the catholic obstinacy of James brought its inevitable catastrophe. Other dated papers, too, could be set aside; but when all that was possible in this way had been done, the residue that remained to be studied was still appalling in its bulk. The first day was entirely taken up by a preliminary inspection, of which the chief result was profound discouragement. There followed a fortnight of close and strenuous labour, involving the minute study of countless documents on every possible subject, with fruitless efforts to extract from them some information bearing even indirectly on the picture. Day after day did he return to Katharine with the same dismal report of utter failure; and though his spirits revived under the influence of her bright hopefulness, yet as the the job ran on and the joint capital dwindled, so did his optimism grow less. It was a bigger undertaking than he had bargained for. The mass of material and the formalities accompanying the examination of precious relics involved an expenditure of time and labour that was quite beyond his calculations.
And there was another discouraging element, of which for the present he said nothing to Katharine. As the days passed without a hint of any clue, a horrible suspicion began to creep into his mind. Suppose the whole thing was a delusion! That the substitution of the stretcher-bar was due merely to some chance accident, and that he was searching for something that had no existence save in his own imagination. Then all this labour and time and ill-spared money were utterly thrown away. It was a dreadful thought; and as it came to him again and again at increasingly frequent intervals, his heart sank and the future grew dark and hopeless.
It was on the fifteenth day that the first faint ray of hope pierced the gloom of his growing despair. On that day, amidst a collection of unclassified papers, he lit on something that at least invited inquiry. The find consisted of three small sheets of paper, evidently torn from a pocket memorandum book, each about four inches by two and a half, and all covered with microscopic writing in a strange, crabbed character which Fittleworth immediately recognised as some kind of shorthand. There was nothing to indicate the date, and, on applying to the librarian, Fittleworth was informed that nothing was known about the little papers excepting that they had belonged to Pepys, and were almost certainly in his handwriting. The script on them had never been deciphered, although several persons–one quite recently–had examined them; and the librarian was of opinion that they were never likely to be, as the writing was so small und so excessively shaky and badly written that it appeared to be practically undecipherable.
The librarian’s report was, on the face of it, discouraging. But to Fittleworth the very illegibility of the writing gave it an added interest, hinting, as it did, at a late period when the use of the shorthand had become difficult. At his request the Diary was produced for comparison of the style of handwriting; and, on comparing the first of the six volumes with the List, it was evident that there was a change in the character of the script, though even the last entry, where Pepys records the failure of his eyesight, was much clearer and better written than the microscopic scrawl on these three loose leaves. Which was highly satisfactory, provided only that the illegibility was not so complete as to render decipherment utterly impossible.
Having applied for and obtained permission to photograph the three leaves–each of which had writing on one side only–Fittleworth exposed three plates, and then, suspending his labours for the day, set forth homeward full of excitement and revived hope.
He was, just approaching the house when Katharine overtook him and, judging by his early return that something had happened, asked eagerly: “Have you got it, Joe?”
Fittleworth smiled. “I’ve got some sort of document in shorthand,” he replied.
“Do you think it says anything about the picture?” asked Katharine. “But there,” she added, with a laugh, “my excitement is making me talk nonsense. Of course, I’ve got to find out what it says.”
“Yes,” said Fittleworth, “you have; and I wish you joy of the job. It’s a fearful scrawl; so bad that nobody has been able to decipher it yet. The librarian tells me,” he added, with a knowing glance at her, “that only three months ago, an American scholar, who had obtained permission to go through the collection, spent more than a week trying to decipher it with the aid of a watchmaker’s lens and had to give it up after all. So you see, my dear, that you have a very pretty little task before you.”
Katharine looked at him thoughtfully. “That doesn’t sound very encouraging,” she said; and then, after a pause, during which she reflected profoundly, with her usually smooth forehead furrowed by cogitative wrinkles, she looked up suddenly. “I suppose, Joe, he didn’t make anything of it after all.”
Fittleworth laughed genially. “I was waiting for that,” said he. “You are thinking that the American scholar may be a gentleman of musical tastes. I expect you are right and I hope you are, as that would prove that we are really on the track of our friends; but we shall be able to judge better when you have given us a sample of your skill. We shall be rather up a tree if you’re not able to decipher the thing.”
The latter contingency Katharine declined to entertain, and the pair, resisting the attractions of tea, made straight for Mr. Winton’s dark-room. The three plates were developed without a hitch, and while two were drying in the rack, the third was taken to the window for inspection.
“Well,” said Fittleworth, as Katharine stood at lie window, holding out the wet negative towards the sky, “what do you think of it?”
For some seconds Katharine made no reply, but continued to gaze at the crabbed lines on the black background with a frown that gradually deepened.
“It’s very small writing,” she replied, at length, “and frightfully indistinct.”
“Yes, I was afraid it was,” said Fittleworth; “but can you make out anything of the–er–purport, or–er–or, what it’s about, in fact?”
There was a brief pause; then Katharine, looking him tragically in the eyes, exclaimed:
“My dear Joe, I can’t make out a single word. It’s absolute scribble.”
There was another pause, at the end of which Fittleworth murmured the single and highly irrelevant word, “Moses!”
The impatience of the investigators would not allow them to wait for the natural drying of the negatives One after another, the plates were plunged into methylated spirit, and when dry, printed off rapidly on glossy bromide paper; and with the prints before her on a table by the study window, the agonised Katharine fell to work with Fittleworth’s pocket lens and a most portentous frown.
Five minutes passed. Fittleworth moved stealthily, but uneasily, about the room on tiptoe, now forcing himself to sit on the edge of a chair, and now forced by his excitement to rise and tiptoe across to another. At length, unable to contain himself any longer, he asked in a hushed voice: “Is it very awful stuff, Katie?”
Katharine laid down the lens and looked round at him despairingly.
“It’s perfectly frightful, Joe,” she exclaimed. “I simply can’t make anything of it.”
“Perhaps it isn’t Rich’s shorthand at all,” suggested Fittleworth.
“Oh, yes it is. I can see that much and I’ve made out a ‘with’ and two ‘the’s,’ but the rest of it looks like mere scribble.”
Fittleworth sprang from the chair on which he had been seated nearly ten seconds. “Oh, come,” said he; “if you can make out that much, you can make out the rest. Only we shall have to go to work systematically. The best way will be to mark each word as you decipher it and write it down on a piece of paper. That’s the best of working from a photograph which it doesn’t matter about spoiling.”
“I don’t quite see what you mean,” said Katharine.
“The method I suggest is this,” he replied. “First mark the three photographs A, B and C. Then, number the lines of each and prepare three sheets of paper lettered and numbered in the same way. Then, when you decipher a word, say on photograph A line 6, write it down on the sheet marked A, on the sixth line and the proper part of that line; and so on. Could I help you?”
Katharine thought that he could, and accordingly, he drew a chair to the table and proceeded to prepare three sheets of paper in the way he had suggested and to mark the photographs.
There is something about a really methodical procedure, that inspires confidence. Of this Katharine was immediately sensible, and when the two “the’s” and the “with” had been set down in their proper places, she felt that a beginning had really been made and returned to her task with renewed spirit.
“There’s a ‘his,’” she announced presently, “at the end of line 1, page B, and the first word of the next line is a longish one ending in ‘ty.’”
“It isn’t ‘Majesty,’ I suppose,” suggested Fittleworth.
“Yes, of course it is,” exclaimed Katharine, “and the next word is ‘wt,’ followed by two short words ending in ‘ll.’”
“White Hall?” queried Fittleworth; and White Hall it turned out to be on further examination. The next proceeding was to search for a recurrence of these words with the result that “His Majesty” occurred six times in all, and “‘White Hall” twice.
“Now try the words adjoining ‘His Majesty,’” Fittleworth suggested. “Take the one on page B. We’ve got ‘His Majesty at White Hall.’ Now, what is before that?”
“There’s a ‘me’ and then ‘attack’ or ‘attach.’”
“‘Me attack His Majesty,’” murmured Fittleworth. “That doesn’t sound right. Could it be ‘attend’?”
“Yes, I believe it is, and then the word before it must be ‘bidding.’ We’re getting on splendidly. Let us try the ‘His Majestys’ on page A. Line 5 seems to begin: ‘As to its’ something, ‘His Majesty has’ something, ‘his’–now, what has His Majesty done? Oh, I see, ‘written.’ ‘His Majesty has written his–”
“Instructions,” suggested Fittleworth.
“No, nor wishes, nor–oh, I see ‘commands,’ and the next words are ‘in full in a’ something, ‘which he’ something ‘to me in a small’ something ‘box.’ Now, let us see if we can fill in that sentence. ‘As to its’ something, ‘His Majesty has written his commands’; now, as to his what? It seems to begin with a ‘d’.”
“Destiny?” suggested Fittleworth, and as Katharine shook her head he proposed “destruction,” “deposition,” and finally, “disposition.”
“No, it’s not ‘disposition.’ It’s ‘disposal.’ ‘As to its disposal His Majesty has written his commands in full in a paper which he’–something ‘to me in a small’ something ‘box which he–’”
“Gave, sent, presented, showed, exhibited…”
“‘Delivered,’ that’s it. ‘Delivered to me in a small’ something ‘box.’”
“Wooden, ivory, leather, silver–”
“Gold,” announced Katharine triumphantly, “‘a small, gold box’; and the sentence runs on: ‘the said box being’ something ‘with His Majesty’s’ something, something, ‘and this box he bid me put by in some safe and ‘–it looks like ‘secret place.’ I’m getting to read it much more easily now. Let us go hack to that ‘box.’ ‘With His Majesty’s’ something seal,’ I think.”
“Private seal, perhaps.”
“Yes, of course. Then it reads: ‘The said box being sealed with His Majesty’s private seal and this box he bid me put by in some safe and secret place.’ This is splendid, Joe. We shall make it out yet and you can see already that we’re on the right track.”
“Yes; and we can see how those other gentlemen got on the track. But as you seem to be getting more used to the writing, wouldn’t it be as well now to try to begin at the beginning and go straight on?”
“Perhaps it would. But the question is, which is the beginning?”
“The best way to solve that difficulty would be to work out the first line of each page. Don’t you think so, Katie?
“Yes, of course; and I’ll begin with page A. Now, the first line seems to read: ‘bids me to carry ‘–no, it isn’t ‘carry’; I think it’s ‘convey’–‘convey it to Sir’–Andrew, I think–‘Sir Andrew Hyde–’”
At this point Katharine laid down the lens and turned to gaze at Fittleworth with a very curious expression of surprise and bewilderment.
“A namesake of yours, Katie,” he remarked; “an ancestor, perhaps.”
“Yes, Joe, that’s just it. Only, in that case it would be ‘Sir Andreas.’” She scrutinised the paper again through the lens and at length exclaimed triumphantly, “and it is ‘Andreas.’ Let us see how it goes on: ‘To Sir Andreas Hyde, a cousin of my Lord Clarendon’–yes, that is the man–‘who is to deposit it in some secure place in one of his houses in Kent.’ I wonder if he means the picture!”
“We shall see presently,” said Fittleworth; “but meanwhile it is evident that this is not the first page. Just have a look at page C.”
Katharine transferred her attention, as well as her excitement would permit, to the latter page; but after a prolonged examination she shook her head.
“This isn’t the first,” she said, “for the top line begins with the words: ‘had concluded the business.’ Then page B must be the first. Let us try that.” She brought the lens to bear on the opening words of page B, but after a brief inspection she sat up with an exclamation of disappointment.
“Oh, Joe, how tantalising! This isn’t the first either! There’s a page missing. You will have to go back to the library and see if you can find it.”
“That’s rather a facer,” said Fittleworth; “but I think, Katie dear, we’d better work out what we’ve got as these pages will have to be deciphered in any case, and then we shall be able to judge how much is missing. Let us have the first line of page B.”
With a dejected air Katharine picked up the lens and resumed her task, slowly reading out, with many a halt to puzzle over a difficult word, the contents of page B.
“…to me a messenger bidding me attend His Majesty at White Hall. Whereupon I set forth and found the King in the Matted Gallery, talking with divers officers and noblemen. When I had kissed his hand he spoke to me openly on the affairs of the navy, but presently, making an occasion to carry me to his closet, did there open the matter concerning which he had sent for me. It appeareth that he hath caught some rumours of certain noblemen and bishops–even the Archbishop as he do think–having invited the Prince of Orange; which he did condemn as most fowle, unhandsome and treasonable. Now, recalling the misfortunes of his brother the late King and their royal father, he would make some provision lest he should be driven into exile, which God forbid. Here upon he spake very graciously of our long friendship and was pleased to mention most handsomely my faithful service and judgement in the service of the navy, and then he did come to the matter in hand. First he spake of Sir William Pepys who did bring his ship the ‘James and Mary’…”
That was the end of page B, and, as Katharine eagerly to scan the already deciphered first the other two pages, her eyes filled.
“Oh! Joe dear!” she exclaimed in an agonised voice, “what an awful disappointment! Don’t you see? It doesn’t run on at all. These are only odd leaves.”
“M’yes,” said Fittleworth. “It does look rather a take in. Still, we’d better go on. And as page C seems to refer to the conclusion of the business, whatever it was, we may as well take A next. Keep up your courage, little woman. I may be able to find the missing pages at the library. Now, what has page A got to say?”
Once more Katharine addressed herself to her task, wiping her eyes as a preliminary measure; and slowly and with many a halt to wrestle with an almost undecipherable word, the crabbed scrawl was translated into good, legible longhand.
“…bids me to convey it to Sir Andreas Hide, a cousin of my Lord Clarendon, who is to deposit it in some secure place in one of his houses in Kent. As to its disposal, His Majesty hath written his commands in full in a paper which he delivered to me in a small golde box, the said box being sealed with His Majesty’s private seale, and this box he bid me put by in some safe and secret place, and to speake of the matter to none, not even Sir Andreas himselfe, until after His Majesty’s death and that of the Prince of Wales (if God should spare me so long) unless, in my discretion it should seeme goode to do so. Also that I do make some provision for the delivery of the said paper in the event of my own death.
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