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|Page 81 of 111|
"Suppose we take coffee in the smoking-room?" he said.
The populous smoking-room was the one part of the club where talking with a natural loudness was not a crime. Mr. Oxford found a corner fairly free from midgets, and they established themselves in it, and liqueurs and cigars accompanied the coffee. You could actually see midgets laughing outright in the mist of smoke; the chatter narrowly escaped being a din; and at intervals a diminutive boy entered and bawled the name of a midget at the top of his voice, Priam was suddenly electrified, and Mr. Oxford, very alert, noticed the electrification.
Mr. Oxford drank his coffee somewhat quickly, and then he leaned forward a little over the table, and put his moon-like face nearer to Priam's, and arranged his legs in a truly comfortable position beneath the table, and expelled a large quantity of smoke from his cigar. It was clearly the preliminary to a scene of confidence, the approach to the crisis to which he had for several hours been leading up.
Priam's heart trembled.
"What is your opinion, _maitre_," he asked, "of the ultimate value of Farll's pictures?"
Priam was in misery. Mr. Oxford's manner was deferential, amiable and expectant. But Priam did not know what to say. He only knew what he would do if he could have found the courage to do it: run away, recklessly, unceremoniously, out of that club.
"I--I don't know," said Priam, visibly whitening.
"Because I've bought a goodish few Farlls in my time," Mr. Oxford continued, "and I must say I've sold them well. I've only got that one left that I showed you this morning, and I've been wondering whether I should stick to it and wait for a possible further rise, or sell it at once."
"How much can you sell it for?" Priam mumbled.
"I don't mind telling you," said Mr. Oxford, "that I fancy I could sell it for a couple of thousand. It's rather small, but it's one of the finest in existence."
"I should sell it," said Priam, scarcely audible.
"You would? Well, perhaps you're right. It's a question, in my mind, whether some other painter may not turn up one of these days who would do that sort of thing even better than Farll did it. I could imagine the possibility of a really clever man coming along and imitating Farll so well that only people like yourself, _maitre_, and perhaps me, could tell the difference. It's just the kind of work that might be brilliantly imitated, if the imitator was clever enough, don't you think?"
"But what do you mean?" asked Priam, perspiring in his back.
"Well," said Mr. Oxford vaguely, "one never knows. The style might be imitated, and the market flooded with canvases practically as good as Farll's. Nobody might find it out for quite a long time, and then there might be confusion in the public mind, followed by a sharp fall in prices. And the beauty of it is that the public wouldn't really be any the worse. Because an imitation that no one can distinguish from the original is naturally as good as the original. You take me? There's certainly a tremendous chance for a man who could seize it, and that's why I'm inclined to accept your advice and sell my one remaining Farll."