“GENUINE CONSTABLES” (2/2).
[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Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction.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.]
A month later he was sitting again at Charlie Dyson’s table at the club.
“It’s over at last,” he said. “The presentation was made last night. The picture is to be hung in the hall, immediately opposite the door. It’s awful.”
“Tell me all about it,” said Charlie. “I suppose the occasion was an orgie of speechmaking?”
“They were all very kind,” Mr. Digby went on, “extraordinarily kind. Inspector Bramwell made the presentation. He said that there had been a divergence of opinion as to the form the presentation should take; but as they gazed on the striking likeness that stood so beautifully framed on the easel before them, they would all admit that not only had they chosen the right means, but that they had chosen, too, the right artist. The applause, Charlie, was deafening. He said that the portrait combined the fidelity of a photograph with the mellowed colouring of an old master. In particular, he admired the flesh tints.”
“And what did you say?”
“I made a really good speech. I told them that I had always had the interests of the Police Institute at heart. It’s true, Charlie; they are a magnificent body of men. Then I made a little joke, which went down very well, on the advantages a detective enjoys when he takes up portrait painting; and, following your advice – we had arranged the matter beforehand – I presented the picture to the Institute. A large number of votes of thanks were proposed and seconded, and I promised to buy them a new billiard table.”
“Misplaced generosity,” said Charlie. “They should learn to respect the cloth. But did you feel no qualms in handing back your picture to the Institute?”
“Of course I did. I even went so far as to confess my real feelings to Sergeant Tolson, with whom I walked part of the way home. That man has a real appreciation of art. I knew that he saw my difficulty and sympathized with it. The matter is settled now, however, far more happily than I dared to hope. But if there was to be a fire in the Police Institute, and if it could be confined to the hall, I admit that I should be the last to ring up the fire-station.”
There was of course no fire, no cleansing, consuming flame. But the portrait of Mr. Digby was not to remain a perpetual memorial. Two months after the date of the presentation it was stolen. The caretaker, entering the hall of the Police Institute, found an empty frame. The canvas had been carefully cut away. At the time the incident created quite a sensation. There was a touch of piquancy about this invasion of the home of law and order which the evening papers were not slow to realize. The members of the Institute took the matter very seriously. They had been laughed at; their dignity had been insulted. Many opinions were held as to the motives that prompted the theft, the most popular being that it was the work of a local working-men’s Conservative Club, whose application for the renewal of a beer and spirit license had been successfully opposed by the police. Much sympathy was expressed for Detective-Inspector Fairservice. Even Mr. Digby felt that he ought to offer a few words of condolence, though he was held back by the fear that he might be asked to sit for a second portrait. On that point he was reassured by Sergeant Tolson. “You’ve nothing to fear, sir,” he said, “nothing to fear at all. I was talking to Fairservice only last night in the billiard room at the Institute. He tells me he could never catch the inspiration again. “That’s the difference,” he said, “between me and a photographer.” He means well, Fairservice; and I’ve no complaints against him as an officer; but between you and me, Mr. Digby, he takes his art just a little too seriously. He’s made the best of his opportunities, but he’s never made a study of the classical.”
The new billiard table which Mr. Digby had promised to the Police Institute arrived just before Christmas. The makers apologized for the delay in the execution of the order. They explained that owing to the war they were exceptionally busy in supplying Young Men’s Christian Association huts, and hoped that the national character of this work would be deemed a sufficient excuse. The table was officially presented to the Institute on Christmas Eve, when Constable Radlett, of the Yorborough police, played an exhibition game with Sergeant Sutcliffe. Mr. Digby, on one of the corner couches, sipped black coffee and looked across the tobacco-clouded room with a glance of kindly benevolence. “A fine body of men,” he said to himself, “a very fine body of men.” The game finished, the honorary secretary rose to his feet and called for order. Mr. Digby felt restless; all eyes were turned on him; he felt instinctively that there were to be more speeches. At the same time the folding doors at the end of the room were thrown open and four constables entered, carrying a small table. In the middle of the table was a large object, covered with a cloth, flanked on either side by the pots of aspidistras, which for years had struggled for existence in the uncongenial atmosphere of the smoking-room.
The honorary secretary cleared his throat.
“Mr. Digby,” he said, “has already heard to-night of our appreciation of his magnificent gift, a gift which I hope will long be used, though I would like to urge on members the necessity of not cutting the cloth. But the proceedings of to-night are not yet over. We, too, have our presentation to make. Not very long ago Mr. Digby was pleased to accept and subsequently to hand over to the institution for which he has done so much, his portrait in oils, the work of Detective-Inspector Fairservice, whose name is not unknown in circles of art. By an act of what I can only describe as gross and unprovoked vandalism – (the statement was received with prolonged applause) – that picture is no more. The artist has laid down his brush, but the sculptor has taken up his chisel; and to-night I have the very great pleasure of presenting to Mr. Digby his bust in marble by Sergeant Tolson. Sergeant Tolson has had unique facilities for studying the work of the great classical masters. He himself is an exponent of the plastic art, and I think you will all agree – Jones, you can take off the sheet – that he has caught Mr. Digby’s features, all things being considered, remarkably well. The committee of the Institute feel that, in accepting Mr. Digby’s portrait, they were in a way responsible for its loss. In handing to him this handsome bust, they hope that he will have a pleasing memento of himself and of our esteem for him, and that this beautiful example of the sculptor’s art will grace his drawing-room for many years to come.”
The applause was deafening. By a dexterous movement on the part of police-constable Jones the sheet was removed, carrying with it one of the aspidistras. Mr. Digby raised his eyes across the blue cloud of tobacco smoke. He caught sight of Sergeant Tolson, whose gaze immediately fell. To the right of Sergeant Tolson he saw the bust. It was of white marble, highly polished. For the first time in his life Mr. Digby regretted the fact that he was bald. His sight was rather dim, but as far as he could make out, the shoulders of the bust appeared to be loosely draped in some sort of Roman toga. He remembered Sergeant Tolson’s opportunities of studying classic art.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “there are some occasions on which words are totally inadequate. I receive your gift in the spirit in which it is given. It shall be placed in my drawing-room, and whenever I see it I shall think of you.”
There had been a time when Mr. Digby had seriously thought that the little drawing-room in Ellesmere Terrace might be in daily use. He had even ordered his drawing-room furniture. But that was nearly twenty years ago. And when that night he switched on the electric light before going upstairs to bed, he saw it as it had always been, shrouded and uninhabited, waiting a spring-cleaning that would never come.