“GENUINE CONSTABLES” (1/2).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and the website is presently serialising its contents.]
The dining-room at the club was nearly empty. Charlie Dyson sat at his usual table in the alcove by the window, warming himself in the sunny optimism of the London correspondent of the Bradborough Post.
“I have bad news,” said Mr. Digby, as he took the chair opposite to him. “Charlie, you are a man of resource; I want your advice.”
“If it’s about those oil shares,” said his junior partner, “sell by all means. I’ve always said that it was throwing good money away to hold on.”
“The oil shares have nothing to do with it,” Mr. Digby answered. “I want to stop my portrait being painted.”
“That should be simple enough. Countermand the order and pay the man for what he has already done.”
“It’s not nearly as simple as that,” said Mr. Digby with a sigh. “It’s to be a presentation portrait. Go on with your lunch and I’ll tell you all about it. Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee. The matter is like this. Ever since I was chairman of the Watch Committee, I’ve been connected with the Police Institute in one capacity or another, and for the last ten years I’ve been president. I’ve enjoyed what little work I’ve done for them. I’ve always had an admiration for the police – their life is far harder than most people realize – but I never dreamed that they’d do a thing like this. I got a letter from the honorary secretary last week, saying that as a small token of the respect and esteem in which I am held, the committee of management had decided to present me with my portrait in oils.”
“It shows their appreciation at any rate,” said Charlie Dyson. “Who will they get to do it? I know one or two local men who would be glad of the job. The war has hit them badly, and they wouldn’t charge much.”
“It’s no use, Charlie. They have already chosen the artist. Fairservice is his name.”
“I’ve never heard of him.”
“Probably not. He is a detective-inspector in the force. I like the man himself. He is a kindly-natured fellow, who breeds canaries, and has taken up painting as a hobby. Landscape he considers his strong point. He cycles out on Saturday afternoons in summer and sketches picturesque cottages and ponds. There is generally a swan in the foreground, which he paints in later. In the long winter evenings,” Mr. Digby continued, “he paints chrysanthemums or daffodils on mirrors, which are afterwards made up into firescreens. He tells me that even as a small boy he had always longed to be an artist.”
“The prospect,” said Charlie, “certainly seems gloomy. But can’t you stop him? How far has he got?”
“No, I’m afraid it is too late. A month ago he asked me for my photograph. I must say at the time I was rather touched,” said Mr. Digby, with a rather bitter smile. “People don’t often ask me for my photograph, and the one I gave him must have been nearly ten years old. With that as a basis he has been hard at work ever since. Now he writes to me to ask for a couple of sittings, in order, he says, to get the flesh tints correct.”
Charlie Dyson laughed. “You’ll have to submit,” he said. “There’s nothing else for it. And after that adventure of yours with the Schalcken, when you made the rash determination to hang all your pictures, you can’t very well turn it with its face to the wall.”
“There’s the housekeeper’s room,” said Mr. Digby. “I believe there are one or two illuminated addresses there.”
“It wouldn’t be fair to the police. No, the only solution I can see is to present the portrait to the Police Institute. The thing is often done. The successful politician serves his country long and faithfully; the National Liberal Club or the Carlton, as the case may be, presents him with his portrait; and he presents the portrait to the Club. If he didn’t do that, his wife would worry him until her portrait was painted, so that the two would balance each other on either side of the fireplace. As it is, his portrait is hung in the smoking room of the club and saves unnecessary papering, and any number of prospective candidates have opportunities of seconding votes of thanks. I know all about art and politics.”
“It certainly is a way out of the difficulty,” said Mr. Digby, “though it’s rather hard on the Police Institute. There are one or two men there who really are interested in art. Sergeant Tolson, for example. I’ve shown him my pictures more than once. He usually is on duty at the Art Gallery and has splendid opportunities for improving his taste.”
“I think I know the man,” said Charlie. “He stands in the central lobby, where all the busts are, by the little turnstile where you leave your umbrellas.”
On the following Saturday afternoon Mr. Digby called on Detective-Inspector Fairservice in Back Mornington Street. The artist had expressed his willingness to wait on him at Ellesmere Terrace; but if it were really necessary to put in the flesh tints from life, Mr. Digby had decided that he would use the opportunity afforded him to visit a real detective at home. Fairservice welcomed him at the door. “Honoured to see you, sir,” he said. “It’s very good of you to have spared the time. If you’ll come into the parlour, I’ll get to work straight away. You won’t object, I hope, if I take off my coat. It may be a matter of temperament, but somehow I feel less restrained in my shirt-sleeves.”
Mr. Digby sat down in the armchair by the window. He forbore to look at the canvas on the easel; he had not the courage. The walls of the little parlour were hung with pictures, all, so the artist informed him, the work of his brush. Landscape predominated. Above the mantelpiece hung a large picture, representing Highland cattle in a mist. Mr. Digby particularly admired the mist and the way in which it had been so arranged as to avoid the necessity of delineating the animals’ legs, which he acknowledged must have been difficult to draw. He supposed that the same reason accounted for the winter scene above the harmonium in the corner, where a herd of sheep were being lost in the snow. “I rather think I’ve caught the atmosphere,” said Fairservice, as he followed his gaze, “but it cost me three tubes of Chinese white.”
As he painted, the detective talked. “There at least,” thought Mr. Digby, “the man is in his element.” He listened, fascinated, to one official reminiscence after another of the strange underworld of crime.
“Well, I think I’ve finished,” said Fairservice at last. “I’m not quite satisfied with the ears. Ears are always difficult; but I can touch them up later from Mrs. Fairservice’s. I needn’t detain you any longer, Mr. Digby. Would you like to look?”
“I should be most interested,” said Mr Digby, as he got up from his chair.
The result had surpassed his worst expectations. As he gazed on the flesh tints, a deep blush spread across his face. “It is an extraordinary likeness,” he said.
“I’m glad you think so. Personally, I’m not quite satisfied with the hands. Hands are always difficult, and that’s partly why I put your right hand inside your breast pocket. I took the liberty of introducing the mayoral chain of office, because the yellow of the gold keys up the colour scheme. You get it again in the spectacles, and in the frames of the pictures in the background. I wanted to have those in, knowing your interest in pictures. I think it’s legitimate symbolism.”
“Perfectly legitimate,” said Mr. Digby, “perfectly legitimate.”
“And now,” went on Fairservice, “I hope you won’t leave us without taking a cup of tea. My wife will be very disappointed if you don’t try her cakes.”
Mr. Digby stayed. He had a weakness for the Yorkshire tea-cake of the days before the war. If any one could make them now, he felt sure that it would be the wife of a detective-inspector of police. That she would be an excellent cook went without saying.
The tea was indeed a most successful affair. There were tea-cakes, parkin, and – Mr. Digby could scarcely believe his eyes – two large illegitimate muffins. “Mrs. Fairservice has a weakness for them,” said the detective-inspector, apologetically.
“And so have I,” said Mr. Digby.