The Picture of Unter Judd
Madam Jeen Snellflort’s gentlemen adventurers set themselves high standards. They understood that any wandering thug with a big stick could steal something. For them, the mark of a gentleman adventurer was that nobody could pin the crime on them. One of them, Bagwis, decided he would raise his game and would try to steal the picture of Unter Judd, the first chair of the Council of Sinecurists, without anybody realising the painting had gone.
The painting hang hung on the back wall of the Grand Sinecurists Dining Room. Indeed old Unter Judd had, metaphorically at least, stared down upon the acquisition of Lady Edan’s fan. Given that in his time Unter had been a pirate and condottieri it is even possible he approved of the whole episode.
Bagwis always posed as an artist. Although not really burly enough to be a sculptor, he was a prepossessing young man, tall with broad shoulders. At this time he had a neatly trimmed moustache; substantial enough to look like it was an intentional feature, but thankfully not so long that he was tempted to twirl the ends. He also sported a short cloak which barely covered the buttocks, and was given to flamboyant gestures with it. Hence nobody turned a hair when he attended the annual dinner of the ‘School of Althius,’ a painters’ dining club. The dinner was held in the Council of Sinecurists’ dining room. Whilst Bagwis was there he took the opportunity to study the picture. It had obviously been in place for several centuries, with age it had grown dark and really needed cleaning. He examined the frame
and took surreptitious measurements of the size of the whole thing.
For the next three weeks he haunted the junk shops of the city. He browsed the yards of those who do house clearances; he even examined the cheap prints they put up on the walls of a certain class of drinking establishment. Finally he found what he was after. He acquired, for dregs, a battered canvas in a very similar frame to that in the dining room. He also picked up one of the cheap colourised prints of the painting which had been strangely popular a generation or two before. He put the print into its ‘new’ frame and tenderly touched up the colours. His intent was to try and give the picture the freshness it might have had the day it was first painted.
Then with everything prepared he made his move. Walking with the casual assurance of a man who knows he has every right to be there, he returned to the Sinecurists’ dining room. Over his most workaday clothes he wore the long floppy tunic beloved of artists, sign-writers and those who sweep bird droppings from high ledges to sell to market gardeners. He entered the dining room pushing a handcart and set up a screen around the painting.
To be fair, the staff reacted promptly. He had barely got the screen up
before guards appeared. When the guards asked what he was doing, he merely took a cloth, dipped it in an appropriate solution, and gently rubbed the edge of the frame. Ten centuries of accumulated grime slowly fell away.
He turned to them. “I’ve been hired to clean it. It’s a delicate job and I
put the screens up to stop people stopping and staring and bothering me.”
The guards nodded wisely. Before one of them thought to ask whether he’d got
any written authority to be there, he asked,
“Could one of you chaps sit outside the screen and keep people away? I’ve even got a bottle of beer somewhere here.”
That has to be the guards’ dream. Oh to be legitimately paid to spend your working hours sitting in comfort, glaring at people to keep them away, and occasionally taking a mouthful of decent ale. It beats pacing darkened hallways on your own in the dark. So one of the guards sat happily with his back to the screen and glared at people, whilst our Bagwis silently unscrewed the original picture off the wall. Equally silently he replaced it with his new version, making sure that he even used the same screw holes. He then slipped the suddenly surplus painting into the false bottom of his handcart. Finally, to pad the time out and make it look as if he was working, he took his cloth and solvent and with immense care, cleaned the wooden panel the painting was fastened to. Finally, because he didn’t want people to feel he was rushing the job, he read quietly for a while before packing everything away.
As he took down the screens the guard stood up looked carefully at the
painting. “It’s come up nice.”
“Yes, it’s not difficult if you’re careful.”
It was some months later than somebody raised the issue of the painting. One of the Sinecurists who had some paintings he wanted cleaning remembered the excellent job somebody had done on old Unter Judd. So he dropped into the office of the Council Treasurer and asked who had done the work. The Treasurer promised to get back to him with a name.
He investigated and couldn’t find a copy of the bill they’d paid. He went through the year’s accounts and realised that even if they had been sent a bill which they’d subsequently lost, they’d never paid it.
At this point he went to check the picture. The work had obviously been done. Indeed he was impressed with the way that whoever had done it had done the panel as well, rather than merely restricting their work to the picture.
The Treasurer was now in something of a quandary. Obviously the work had been done, but there was no evidence the Council had asked for it to be done, and what is more there was no evidence that the bill had been paid. He thought briefly and decided to do nothing. If somebody came forward asking where their money had got to, he could be vaguely apologetic, see their paperwork and pay them if convinced. Up until that point he’d do nothing because there wasn’t really anything useful he could think of doing. Over the coming months a couple of people did comment to him in passing that the
painting did seem bright. He merely nodded sagely and explained that
apparently this was appropriate for the period.
By this time Madam Jeen Snellflort had not merely disposed of the painting to the agreed buyer, she’d collected the money and had added one of the better boarding houses on Ropewalk to the sanatorium’s growing property portfolio.
Rather than his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with one gripping adventure. A tale of adventure, duplicity and gentility.
Why does an otherwise respectable lady have a pair of sedan chair bearers hidden in her spare bedroom? Why was the middle aged usurer brandishing an axe? Can a gangster’s moll be accepted into polite society? Answer these questions and more as Tallis Steelyard ventures unwillingly into the seedy world of respectable ladies who love of sedan chair racing.