WHEN Tommy Allnatt, the famous comedian, arrived at the studio of the equally famous painter, Alonzo Paradine, there was no sign of the lunch to which Tommy had been invited; in fact, there was no sign of anybody, not even a servant to answer the bell. Therefore, Tommy was pardonably annoyed.
None the less because the front door gave to a turn of the lock and Tommy found himself free to enter the studio proper. Just like Paradine to forget all about the lunch and give his domestic staff a holiday for the day.
Left to himself. London's leading low comedian—and the greatest practical joker since J. L. Toole—prowled about the studio where the immortal Paradine painted his pictures and entertained the salt of the earth.
But Tommy was not concerned with Paradine's greatness at the moment. He was torn between wolfish hunger and humorous irritability. None the less so because this was not the first time Paradine had played the same trick on his friends. Time he had a lesson. Time to teach him that his absentmindedness was not a paying game. Perhaps an epoch-making practical joke—
The idea shaped as Tommy sat eating caviare and biscuits looted from a Tudor buffet and washed down with a whisky and soda imbibed from a priceless goblet of Venetian glass. As the inner man swung to equilibrium the grin on Tommy's face broadened. The great idea was burgeoning like a flower.
"It would serve him right," he muttered. "Hang me if I don't do it!"
From a huge wardrobe in ebony and ivory inlay Tommy produced certain sartorial properties such as artists keep for their models. A wig and a beard and a pair of spectacles; a suit of rags, complete with rusty boots; and in these Tommy proceeded to array himself. An impromptu make-up completed the picture of honest poverty under a cloud of financial depression. Hastily gathering together half-a-dozen or so of canvasses from a corner of the studio, Tommy crept into the street until he reached the spot he had in mind, and there on a stretch of pavement in view of Chelsea's best and brightest, sat down to do business with all and sundry in search of masterpieces at jumble sale prices. Not that he would sell a single one, and thus, cover the great Paradine with confusion and ridicule.
For some time he had the cold, hard world to himself. In a harsh, commercial age, art seemed to be a drug on the market. Then presently there shuffled into sight a snuffy man whose beady eyes lighted on the array of pictures displayed on the pavement. The little man checked and for some moments stood contemplating the show with his head on one side, like a thrush gloating over a particularly fat snail.
"Dear me!" he piped. "Your own work? What?"
"And for sale, sir," Tommy said meekly.
"Very sad, very sad!" the little man declared. "Clever, very clever. Distinct touches of originality. The later French school. You have studied in Paris?"
"Never had a lesson in my life," Tommy said, truthfully.
"Amazing!" the little man cried. "Amazing! you haven't stolen those sketches by any chance?"
Tommy contrived a sad, disarming smile. The little man hopped around excitedly.
"I apologise!" he wheezed. "I am in a humble way a collector. But my means are limited, very limited. If you care to take fifteen shillings each for those—What, what?"
Tommy shuffled uneasily. The great joke was not developing according to plan. His scheme had been to sit there the best part of the afternoon peddling choice Paradines and being able to boast afterwards that he never secured an offer for one. It was imperative that he should hedge.
"Sir," he said, grandly, "I may be poor, but I have my pride. And the laborer is worthy of his hire. A fiver a head all round and call it a deal."
If Tommy was under the impression that this appreciation of stock would choke off the snuffy old gentleman he was speedily disillusioned. He merely smiled a crafty smile.
"My friend," he wheezed, "before you took up your stand here did it occur to you that a hawker's license was requisite—indeed, imperative?"
"Is that a fact, old bean?" Tommy asked, forgetting himself in face of this startling riposte. "Mean to say—"
"Quite," the little man chuckled. "Show me your license, or the policeman on point duty yonder—"
"All right," Tommy said recklessly. "Take the bally lot at your own price. A quid a piece. Come!"
The snuffy little man produced a roll of notes and counted out six of them into Tommy's shrinking palm. A few moments later the purchaser was rolling away in a taxi and Tommy was after him in another. There was a little delay in getting away, for the driver of the second cab shied openly at Tommy's rags until the sight of a Treasury note calmed his fears.
"I'm fly, gov'nor," he grinned. "Not the first time as I've 'ad a copper in disguise in my keb."
Exactly seventeen minutes later the first cab pulled up in front of a palatial mansion in Park-street, where the little man alighted, and let himself in with a latchkey.
"Well, I'm done!" Tommy groaned dismally.
* * * * *
It was well into the marrow of the afternoon when Tommy, divested of his rags, crept into the smoking room of his club and ordered a whisky and soda. He was grateful to find the room comparatively deserted, save for a group of three discussing art in the big bay window. The big boom of Lucius Farmiloe laying down the law came mistily to Tommy's ears. The great editor of 'Thought' holding his audience in thrall like the Ancient Mariner. It was a way that majestic art critic had.
"These amateur collectors are all alike," he said. "A man like Grimstein thinks he knows everything, because he possesses the money-making instinct. Oh, I grant you his collection of modern art is a fine one, but when those chaps come to rely on their own judgment—well, there!"
"Go on—we'll buy it," a listener said wearily.
"Well, it's like this," Farmiloe went on, "Grimstein 'phoned me about three o'clock to give him a call as he had just got hold of a lot of early Paradines. Bought 'em from a marine store dealer or something like that. All rot, because there are no early Paradines knocking about. I ought to know."
"Course," Gregory of the 'Daily Messenger' agreed. "Paradine was invented and patented by you. Did you go?"
"What do you think? I knew what I was going to find, my boy. Forgeries. Still, if Grimstein was anxious to pay my fee as a professional expert, I was agreeable. So round to Park-street I went without delay."
Tommy Allnatt started. The words 'Park-street' struck on his ears like a bomb. Beyond a doubt Farmiloe was speaking of the snuffy little man who had brought the great joke tumbling in ruins about the comedian's head.
"Well, go on," Gregory said. "The plot intrigues me."
"So I went," Farmiloe resumed. "There were six of those things altogether and it didn't take me long to tell my man just what my opinion of the rubbish was."
"Then they weren't Paradines at all?"
"Naw," Farmiloe snarled in deep contempt. "Not altogether bad stuff and not devoid of feeling, but palpable forgeries. The old chap was mad with me because I refused to be bullied, and we paraded on terms of armed neutrality. Just as if Paradine ever painted a picture I couldn't trace, you chaps."
All of which was pleasant hearing for the unhappy Tommy. He sat there apparently absorbed in a paper whilst he was drinking in every word that the eminent critic was saying. The great Joke had not only fizzled out, but the aftermath promised to make Tommy a figure of fun for many a day to come. And suppose that Grimstein chose to appeal to Caesar himself, represented in this case by Paradine? If he did, what then? The whole story would trickle into the popular press—just the kind of thing the master of pungent paragraphs, one Hannibal Barr, would love to handle in one of his social columns.
And then, as fate would have it. Barr himself appeared just in time to gather what Farmiloe was saying.
"Let's have that all over again," he demanded.
Tommy smothered a groan. Unless some miracle happened, he could see himself the victim of every little street boy in London. But what could he do? Go to Paradine and make a clean breast of it and invoke his aid. But then he had always regarded Paradine as little better than a child in arms in worldly matters, which in point of fact, he was. Or perhaps Farmiloe himself would help. But he didn't want to go to that superior person with his patronising pomposity if there was any other way out. And he didn't want to be laughed at—it is the one thing your practical Joker all over the world most dreads.
Meanwhile the paragraphist was gleaning what promised to be a rich harvest of copy from Farmiloe's story. Tommy could almost see the pungent narrative in print.
"Mean to say the stuff was all junk?" Barr asked when at length Farmiloe had finished. "Impudent forgeries?"
"Looks like it," Farmiloe said. "Lots of that sort of thing going on. Traps to catch flats like Grimstein."
"But I thought he was a connoisseur, Farmiloe."
"My dear fellow, they an are. Or think so. But when they start out buying on their own without consulting experts like myself they usually come a cropper as Grimstein did today. He was infernally cocksure, but I think I shook him up a bit. If he gives out to the world that he has bought a lot of early Paradines on his own judgment and exhibits them, as he threatened to do, he is asking for it, my boy. Fancy trying to bluff me into agreeing that that junk is Paradine's work!"
Hannibal Barr's dry chuckle irritated Tommy to the verge of manslaughter. Here was a rich field for the paragraphist and one on which Tommy Allnatt would figure as leading character. Nothing else would be discussed in the club for months.
"Funny chap, Paradine," Barr remarked. "Thorpe of 'The Bacon,' was chasing him yesterday and ran him to earth in some poisonous eating house in Soho where he was entertaining a tramp in filthy rags. Picturesque, murderous-looking bloke, Thorpe said. Picked up in the gutter by Paradine who was mad to paint him on his native heath, so to speak. 'Pears that the chap lives in some sort of wood in Surrey and subsists on roots and mushrooms. So nothing would do but that Paradine must rush off at once and sketch the unsavory hermit outside his cave. Last thing Thorpe saw was the two setting out for the wilds."
"The deuce!" Farmiloe exclaimed. "I happen to know that Paradine had an appointment this very morning with no less a personage than the King of Asturia."
"In other words, a royal command, what?"
"You've said it. It's like this. About a week ago Paradine was down at Hurlingham watching the polo and made a sketch of the King in action. One of Paradine's best, I'm told, though I have not seen it as yet. The King happened to hear about it and asked to see the drawing. He was so pleased that he asked Paradine to finish it in pastel for another royal potentate as a birthday present and the great man was going to the studio this morning for a final look at the work."
"And Paradine clean forgot it," Barr grinned. "Make a topping story out of that, what?"
"You'd make a story out of your grandmother's coffin." said Farmiloe nastily. "Surely you'd never have the cheek—"
"'Fraid not," Barr sighed. "It doesn't pay to bring royalty into tabloid journalism—editors shy at it. And, anyway, King Pedro is a topping good sportsman. But I'd like to have seen him this morning being received by the kitchen maid with the information that Paradine was off indefinitely in company with a lousy tramp. Bet His Majesty was amused."
A hollow groan rumbled in Tommy's throat. It had come to him with stunning force that a picture he had sold to the snuffy old gentleman was one showing a handsome, manly figure in polo kit, A gentle dew bespangled Tommy's brow.
* * * * *
It was a good half-hour later before Tommy contrived to get Farmiloe into a quiet corner with a view to enlisting the powerful aid of the distinguished critic in saving the stricken field. But would the arbiter of art do it?
On the whole Tommy thought that he would. The greatest practical joker of his time was rarely at a loss to escape the dire consequences of a miscarried jape, and now that things were at their blackest. Tommy began to see his way.
"Well, of all the infernal cheek!" Farmiloe cried when at length the tale was told. "What the deuce—"
"Just a rag," Tommy went on hastily. "Besides, I was a bit biffed at being done out of my lunch. So I decided to give Paradine a lesson. My idea was to sit on the pavement trying to sell genuine Paradines at break up prices, if you get me. But never expectin' to sell one. See the joke? Set the clubs laughin' like blazes for months, eh?"
"Rotten bad taste," Farmiloe sniffed. "I must decline to interfere. If it hadn't been for the King of Asturia, perhaps I might... You are not seriously suggesting that I should go to Grimstein and bully those drawings out of him?"
"Well, something like that," Tommy grinned.
The maker of reputations shook his head vigorously.
"Forget it," he snapped. "With a name like mine, my dear Allnatt, with the great British public depending—"
"I'm not the British public," Tommy smiled, "but a poor devil of a comedian in a deuced tight place. And doesn't it strike you, pompous ass, that you are as deep in the soup as I am. If not, then let me enlighten you."
"Is this a threat?" Farmiloe demanded.
"Something like it, old bird. You are a great man in your own line and thousands of would-be-intellectuals sit at your feet and eat the literary oysters peddled monthly by your Review. From your edict one may judge that Paradine has the half nelson on John, and Orpen on the mat for the count. And, yet with all your wonderful flair and intuition for genius, you scoffed at a set of genuine Paradines when Grimstein showed them to you."
"What precisely do you mean?" Farmiloe stammered.
"Well, haven't I proved it? You, who can feel a Paradine in the dark actually handled a batch of his work in Grimstein's Park-street house and laughed them to scorn. Lord, if I wasn't a kind-hearted bloke, I could bust your wonderful critical reputation sky high in 24 hours."
Farmiloe winced, he saw the red light plainly now.
"What sort of a critic do you call yourself?" Tommy went on pushing his advantage home. "Granted, you made Paradine, but only to spite Inigo Chrome. One of the finest bits of logrolling ever put across the public. And with all your intimate knowledge of the great man's work, you fail to recognise it when it is actually shoved under your nose. What will your disciples say when they discover that fact?"
Tommy was feeling on firm ground now. He was the brilliant general who sees defeat turned to victory.
"But surely," Farmiloe stammered, "you wouldn't—"
"Oh, wouldn't I," Tommy cried viciously. "I don't propose to be laughed out of London if I can help it. If that is to be my fate then you will share it, old scout."
Farmiloe was beginning to see the point of the argument. Tommy lost no time in ramming it home.
"You laughed in old Grimstein's face. You insulted his judgment and touched his pocket. Then you came here to boast about it. Before Hannibal Barr, mind. London's premier paragraph gossip. If only he realises the real truth! My boy, you will never hear the last of it unless you manage to bluff Grimstein and get hold of those pictures before Paradine gets back to his studio. Make Grimstein realise that he has been had by some practical joker who laid a plant to catch him. Say that you have been making exhaustive inquiries, and, by a lucky chance, hit on the authors of the jape. Say you forced the truth out of the rascals and managed to get the money paid for the sketches back. If you fail to do that, then we are both up to our necks in it. And here's the notes Grimstein gave me this morning."
"You think it would work?" the unhappy Farmiloe gulped.
"Of course," Tommy said. "You have been a bluffer all your life, and it will come easy. Pose as the saviour of Grimstein's reputation as a judge of paintings. Condole with him, kiss him if you like. But, for heaven's sake, get those pictures back. And get them back now."
Farmiloe was moved at last.
"You little blighter," he snarled, speaking, for once, like an ordinary human being. "You little blighter, this stunt of yours has landed me in a nice mess. Not that I am entirely blameless in the matter."
"Blameless!" Tommy laughed. "Hoist with your own petard, as Bill Shakespeare says. Now get on with it."
"At once," Farmiloe said, quite meekly. "Stay here till I get back. Hi, waiter, call me up a taxi."
* * * * *
An hour later Farmiloe was back in the club with a bulky parcel under his arm, and, without a word, dragged Tommy into his waiting taxi and thence to Paradine's studio. And that was how a great scandal was averted, and Tommy Allnatt's face saved.