The Picture of Dorian Red

by Kadorienne

 

 

The castle was quiet now, at scarcely an hour before dawn. Even the slender black-clad figure creeping through the corridors was silent as a cat as it chose from the paintings on the ancient stone walls. Three canvases were taken down and rolled up, their gilt frames replaced empty.

At the end of the corridor was a narrow winding staircase. The thief moved up it, alert, exploring. The staircase had a thick layer of dust upon each step, as if it were seldom ascended.

On the top landing was a door with three locks.

The thief made short work of the locks, and presently the door swung silently open onto a musty, windowless room. The thief struck a match and its light revealed some mouse-nibbled furniture, a great deal more dust, and a curtain draped over part of the far wall.

A tug at a tasseled cord drew the curtain back to reveal a painting. A full-length portrait of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty, captured in oils at the fleeting age when puppy fat had fallen from his face to reveal the sharp planes beneath, but not a single sign of age had yet crept in to mar the perfection of his countenance.

The subject's beauty was downright hackneyed, in fact, endowed with every cliché of good looks: his golden hair curled, his eyes were modelled upon the summer sky, the peaches and cream in his complexion put the edible variety to shame. His high cheekbones and narrow pointed nose seemed chiseled from alabaster when contrasted with the fullness of his sensuous mouth and the toned muscle of his slender, shapely body.

The trite beauty would have made the painting saccharine, had it not been for the expression on the subject's face. One so lovely might well not be expected to have discovered that life is harsh, and yet the painted mien was somber. More than somber – anguished. That perfect mouth was twisted in pain, and above it, haunted eyes were limpid with eternally unshed tears. Their owner's shoulders stooped beneath the weight of many sins.

The thief studied the picture for several minutes, considering, before removing it, rolling it up, and leaving the musty room as it had been, the curtain in place.

***

It was the passions about whose origin we deceived ourselves that tyrannized most strongly over us.
~Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

***

Herr Abdecker pulled sharply on the reins of the respectable gray geldings that drew his superior's coach. The steady animals followed his command promptly, allowing them to narrowly miss the high-perch phaeton which had just careened into the road ahead of them and was now racing on, oblivious to the close escape. Drawing a shaky breath as his heart pounded, Abdecker stared after the little vehicle perched precariously atop four huge wheels. The driver seemed not in the slightest troubled by the violent swaying of the seat as the hooves of the white stallions harnessed to it thundered over the cobblestones. As the phaeton sped away, Abdecker caught a glimpse of fluttering scarlet ribbons and ostrich feathers adorning the horses' manes and bridles. They matched the ruffled silk waistcoat of the charioteer, the bit of silk which held his long yellow curls more or less at the back of his neck, and the gloves with which he confidently grasped the reins.

"Mein Gott," Abdecker muttered.

"What the devil was that?" a deep voice demanded from inside the coach.

"Beg pardon, sir," Abdecker said quickly. "That showy phaeton jumped in front of us suddenly."

"I saw it," the baritone returned impatiently. "I have no use for anyone who would drive a lunatic contraption like that. Only a frivolous narcissist would buy such a thing."

"Yes, sir," Herr Abdecker agreed. They continued to his superior's castle in silence. But when they reached the solid, imposing grey stone fortress known as Schloss Eberbach, Abdecker was dismayed to see the phaeton poised like a crimson butterfly before the front steps.

"Major," Herr Abdecker said faintly, "that phaeton again...."

The Major stepped out of the coach with his normal bored, almost insolent expression, looking no more irate than usual and scarcely sparing the phaeton so much as a derisive glance. Herr Abdecker meekly followed him up the stone steps.

The butler and housekeeper were waiting just inside, standing almost at attention. The butler inclined his head slightly. "Welcome home, sir. May I say that your timing is as always excellent?"

"A guest, I presume," the Major replied coolly.

"An English gentleman is here to view the Eberbach art collection. I have taken the liberty of showing him into the gallery."

The slightest twist of the Major's mouth was his sole comment on the "English gentleman". "Follow me, Herr Abdecker," he ordered briskly.

"Yes, sir."

A moment later they were in the Eberbach gallery, a long, sumptuous room with chandeliers nestled close to its vaulted ceiling. And standing with his back to them, quite at ease amid opulence accumulated by generations of Eberbachs, was the phaeton's scarlet-clad driver.

The Major's lips thinned with contempt. "Yes, he is the kind of man who would drive that... vehicle," he muttered, and strode past, Herr Abdecker on his heels. "Herr Abdecker, prepare the items on this list. All cultural heritages of the German nation. We shall loan them to the Chancellor to be studied."

At the sound of the Major's voice, the phaeton-driving English madman turned at last. He was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. His wild ride had loosened most of his hair from its ribbon, but he'd made no attempt to restore it to order. The excessive ruffles of his snug waistcoat were in perfect alignment, however, and his snug white breeches were spotless. Even from across the room, Herr Abdecker caught a whiff of rose-scented perfume.

The golden-haired man smiled charmingly, though the smile missed its mark; the Major was disdaining his visitor in favor of his list. "So, you've come home. I've been so engrossed in the paintings that I didn't hear you." The charioteer inclined his head gracefully. "I am Dorian Red Gloria, Earl of Gloria. How do you do?"

The Major answered automatically, still not looking directly at the other man. "Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. I am the present head of the Eberbach family."

Undisturbed by the Major's inattention, the Englishman extended a gracious hand to him. "Lovely to meet you, my most honorable Graf von dem Eberbach."

The Major brusquely stalked past the Earl again, ignoring the proffered hand. "Just call me 'Major'," he tossed over his shoulder.

The Earl's pretty face hardened briefly at this affront, and to Abdecker's horror, he seized the Major's left arm and caught his right hand in a friendly clasp.

"It's very nice to meet you, Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach," the Englishman repeated firmly. His smile remained sunny and untroubled. The two men regarded each other in silence for a moment, taking each other's measure, while Abdecker held his breath and hoped they would continue to forget his presence.

The Major suffered his hand to be held for a moment, then withdrew it and held it suspended in the air, fingers spread, as if some unpleasant substance had been transferred to it.

"You–" the Major began, but cut himself off and turned away to sulkily light a cigarette.

"Pardon me," the Earl murmured, not looking especially penitent. Evidently having finished tormenting his host (for the time being), he turned back to the paintings that marched along the walls in discreetly-spaced ranks. His eyes flicked from the near ones he'd been inspecting a moment ago, to those so far off their subjects could barely be discerned from where the men stood near the main doors. "I'm not surprised this is considered one of the best collections in Germany," he said approvingly. "It's most impressive."

The Major shrugged. "It's not I who collected it." He indicated a murky still life of flowers and Abdecker carefully took it down.

"I like this painting especialy," the Earl continued, and Abdecker stole two glances, the first perfunctory, the second amazed, at the work in question. "It truly speaks to me," he added, slipping back into rapt contemplation. "Very beautiful." He lowered his gaze to the title inscribed at the bottom of the gilt frame. "'The Man in Purple'. Tyrian Persimmon – is he your ancestor? You bear a striking resemblance to him."

He did indeed. Abdecker might have assumed that the man in the portrait was the Major... except that he couldn't imagine the Major wearing purple. Or lace cuffs. Or ornate brocade of any description. When the Major was not in uniform, he wore spartan black or grey. His correct suits were as unadorned in their own way as a monk's cassock. It was disorienting to look at the painting and see the lavish garb on that familiar face and figure. Tyrian Persimmon's hair had been longer, though not by much, and had a slight curl to it that his descendant had probably frightened out of his own hair. The self-possessed gaze was familiar to Abdecker, but not the knowing half-smile... or the indefinable air of sensuality the man in the painting exuded.

Frowning slightly in concentration, the Major pointed out a landscape that Abdecker secretly thought was very dull, and Abdecker took it down to prop next to the still life.

"Major," the Earl prompted, turning from his perusal of the old portrait.

"Be quiet. I'm busy."

Again, for just a few seconds there was that hardening in the Earl's eyes before the sunny smile was back in place. "I want this painting," the Earl announced cheerfully.

That got the Major's attention. "What?!?" He surveyed the Englishman in outrage. "You must be joking! The Eberbach collection is a cultural inheritance of the nation. The Germans are a nation now."

Abdecker silently prayed that the Major would not deliver his lecture about Chancellor Bismarck and the German nation. Not now. Not again.

The Earl gave The Man In Purple another admiring look. "But I am completely fascinated by this painting. It's wonderful."

"I know its value," the Major snapped.

"So you understand it too?" The Earl shot an approving glance over his shoulder.

"I could buy a cannon with it." The Major smirked a bit, enjoying the Englishman's horrified reaction.

"A cannon," the Earl repeated in disbelief. "You would convert this beautiful work of art into a mass of iron?"

The Major continued to smirk.

Recovering a bit of his aplomb, the Earl let his gaze move pointedly over the German's uniform. "I suppose you and I have completely different value systems," he said with an acid smile.

"Of course! I'm not a dissipated aristocrat with too much time and money."

Abdecker wondered if he could get away with sneaking out until the noblemen were done flaying each other alive.

"You are a model officer, I'd say," the Earl agreed in a supercilious tone, managing to somehow lounge comfortably in an antique inlaid chair that had been designed for people who sat like veritable ramrods. "That uniform in this awful heat, and you aren't even sweating!"

"Heat and cold are a matter of discipline," the Major informed him.

"Indeed."

"I would never wear a piece of red silk frippery," the Major added with a sideways look at the Earl's attire.

The Englishman propped his chin in one graceful hand and gave the Major a different kind of smile. Admiring. Knowing.

Inviting.

And when the Earl spoke again, his voice was soft and purring.

"I also like military uniforms, in a way," he breathed. "They make me think of an abstinent beauty of a man... of the passion hidden inside...." He let his eyes roam up and down the Major's tall, muscled body, evaluating, savoring. Herr Abdecker contemplated jumping out the window. "It has a certain erotic beauty that makes one want to strip off the uniform that's worn so neatly."

The Major's face turned very white and his eyes widened in shocked comprehension. "You are–" He broke off without uttering the word. Drew a fortifying breath. Stood up straighter. "I have no wish for you to strip off my uniform," he bit off.

The Earl fluttered his lashes. "Don't worry. I don't care for a man who's like wire rope."

"I don't care what kind of taste you might have... but I dislike what I dislike!" The Major glared at the intruder.

"And I like what I like. And I always get what I like." He stood and smiled at The Man In Purple again. "I like this painting."

"Halt!" The Major was in a towering rage now. "Everything here is mine, and I will never give anything to a man like you! Not for a thousand million marks! NEVER!"

The Earl smiled composedly. "My principle is to get what I like, no matter who the owner is... and to get it cheaply, as well." He indicated the ancestral portrait with a glance. "This painting is worthless to you. It's a pearl before a boar."

The two men's gazes locked and held. For a very long time. Abdecker did not move a muscle.

"I hate you very much," the Major said at last, his tone almost gentle. "Now, get out."

The Earl strolled to the door. "The sentiment is mutual, Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. Good day."

The Major slammed the door behind the departing Earl with such force that several paintings fell from their hooks and a large vase was dislodged from its perch on the mantelpiece, colliding forcibly with Abdecker's head.

"IDIOT!"

"He's gone, sir," Abdecker tried to reassure him.

"Open all the windows! Clear the air. It's nauseating!"

Abdecker didn't actually detect any lingering scent of roses, but wise men never argued with the Major. He hurried to obey while his superior's inflamed ranting reached new heights.

"Uniforms are erotic? Pearls before a boar?! That – that Schwuchtel*!" He pointed to The Man In Purple. "Bring this to the Chancellor as well."

"But by this list–" Abdecker protested feebly.

"He might come back while I'm gone! I wouldn't give that man so much as a matchstick!"

Abdecker tried not to reflect upon how much his superior looked and sounded like a small boy after a schoolyard brawl. He preferred his head firmly attached to his shoulders.

***

"But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain."
~Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

***

When the Major tromped into his study the following morning, his crew of aides, secretaries, and couriers looked even more nervous than usual. The army of a nation which was, for the moment, at peace had little to do aside from occasional practice maneuvers and border patrols, and when there were none of those to occupy the Major, his staff suffered from his restlessness. He skewered Herr Bechtel, the poor unfortunate whom cruel fate had placed nearest him, with an emerald glare.

"Well?"

"Er... Major...."

"WHAT HAPPENED?"

Herr Bechtel managed to swallow. "The – the paintings from the Eberbach collection... that you sent to Chancellor Bismarck...."

The Major glowered.

"They were seized by highwaymen," Bechtel squeaked.

The silence stretched and grew intolerable. Then:

"FIND THAT DAMNED ENGLISH SCHWUCHTEL!"

But though they searched diligently and without pause for the next week, there was no trace of the Earl of Gloria in Bonn or its environs.

***

"If Dorian wishes it, of course you must stay. Dorian's whims are laws to everybody, except himself."
~Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

***

When the Earl of Gloria and his travelling companions returned to Castle Gloria a few weeks after relieving the Major's subordinates of The Man In Purple, they were greeted by a shamefaced Bonham. The Earl had left his home seat under Bonham's stewardship for the duration of his jaunt to the Continent, although of course he'd had a handful of his eccentric fellow-employees to lend a hand where needed. Accordingly, the responsibility for delivering bad news fell upon his stocky shoulders.

"Hem... me lord..." he began awkwardly as the Earl swept in.

The nervous tone caught the Earl's attention. He gave his lieutenant his full attention, lifting his perfectly groomed brows.

Bonham quailed under the inquiring look. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

"Let me know when you're ready to discuss it," the Earl suggested, moving past him to the stairway with nonchalance.

"We've been robbed, me lord," the other man blurted.

The Earl froze. The other returning team members gaped. Their master slowly turned.

"Robbed?"

Bonham started to sweat.

"I, Eroica, the greatest thief England has ever known... robbed?"

Bonham nodded meekly.

"When? What did they take?"

"Twenty-two days ago. Three paintings from the west gallery, me lord."

Eroica turned on his heel and strode toward the west wing of Castle Gloria. "And what have you been able to learn?" he asked Bonham, who was running to keep up with the Earl's long-legged strides. Several of the others trailed after them.

"Not a bloody thing, me lord," Bonham admitted, shamefaced. "We've gone all the usual routes. Nary a sign."

The next hour had to be spent inspecting the west gallery and the three empty frames. "Did you ask Miss Darrieux if she knows anything?"

"The lady thief's abroad, me lord," Bonham replied. "Her housekeeper said she and the mister were in France."

The Earl looked at his. "Do you know when she'll be back?"

"Seems their plans were a bit vague, me lord."

"Drat. Well. Renew your inquiries among our fraternity. Has anything turned up from the fences?"

"Not a thing. But we're watching them."

Eroica repaired to his private sitting room to mull over the audacious theft. It was impossible for paintings of that quality to simply disappear; no one knew that better than he.

A shame Amanda was away. She would have been of invaluable assistance in tracing his paintings. They'd met at a masque the previous Season. She had been costumed as Gwynevere, he as Anne de Joyeuse, Admiral of France, in a dress covered with five hundred and sixty pearls.

In truth, it had been the strapping young baron escorting her who caught the Earl's attention at first. But his sly attempts at flirtation had fallen upon barren soil, and he'd subsequently discovered that for once, the lady accompanying his interest of the moment was the more intriguing of the pair.

She was the only thief Eroica had ever met whose abilities could compare to his. They had promptly entered into friendly rivalry, each attempting to outdo the other in feats of thievery. In fact, it had been Amanda who had challenged him to steal from that ferocious German with ties to the Iron Chancellor. The portrait of Tyrian had quite lived up to her description.

With so much to think over, the Earl was too preoccupied to want to bother with his latest conquest when the youth burst into the room, interrupting his brandy-aided reverie. The Earl had been lounging in his turquoise smoking-jacket and contemplating The Man In Purple and two of the other gems from the Eberbach collection. One was a ballerina – by Jacob Seisenegger, he was certain of it. The works had been temporarily hung in this room until he was ready to consider selling or ransoming them. It seemed unlikely that a ransom would be forthcoming from that stubborn German, but he understood the Major's father was still alive; the senior von dem Eberbach might value the family heirlooms more than a point of pride. And more than a cannon.

"Lord Gloria!" The joyful cry broke into the Earl's thoughts. He looked at the door with a trace of irritation. He should have given orders that he was not to be disturbed.

"Hello, Caesar," he replied, bored. He endured the lad's rapturous embrace without setting down his brandy. "Don't get me wrinkled, love."

The coolness of his tone reached even Caesar. He moved back, wounded. He licked his lips before speaking, a habit that had lost its charm for the Earl a rendezvous or two earlier.

Caesar was quite lovely, perhaps as lovely as Eroica himself, and innocent as a newborn. He had responded to the Earl's first advances with hysterics. But the more the prey resists, the higher the pleasure of the hunt. Especially when the prey is a beautiful creature. When Eroica had whisked him off to his castle, the lad's friends had come after him, and Eroica had playfully ordered his bookkeeper to kill them. The silly boy had actually believed that he was in earnest and had pleaded on his knees for his friends' lives, promising to do anything the Earl wished in exchange for their safety. A bit histrionic, but rather sweet just the same. Eroica had taken him at his word, though Caesar's ability to keep the promise had been rather hampered by his habit of fainting at heated moments.

Still, with the handy excuse of his friends' supposed peril, Caesar had taken to the pleasures of the flesh with alacrity, and his infatuation with his seducer was now as complete as his panic had once been.

"Why didn't you write to me while I was gone?"

The Earl merely shrugged.

Caesar's eyes widened plaintively. "I wrote you every day, and you didn't send so much as a line in return!" He fell to his knees, clutching the Earl's hand. "My lord – how have I offended you? What have I done? I'll do anything to atone – crawl on my belly, eat dust – only let me do it at your feet!"

Eroica glanced heavenward. The boy was so excitable! "Go ahead and do all that if you like, love, but do excuse me from the spectacle. I've got some very pressing matters to attend to–"

"My lord! Have you forgotten all the things you said to me? You quoted Catullus and Propetius – you said that I was a masterpiece nature had created, and that you were adding me to your collection – you said you wished to own all of the beautiful things in the world–"

"Did I? How clever of me."

Tears welled up in Caesar's enormous blue eyes. The Earl admired the effect. He preferred men who resembled himself in coloring and build. Perhaps it was some sort of narcissism.

"My lord!" Caesar was obviously working up to a round of hysterics. Blast. Perhaps throwing some cold water on him would help. The Earl would have preferred the lad to faint – it was far easier to contend with than all this noise. "When you first brought me here, the mere danger gave me a sense of delight. I remember what you said to me on that wonderful evening when we first dined together, about the search for beauty being the real secret of life. Have you no heart?"

"Of course I have, love." He looked pale, and proud, and indifferent. "A nice big one, with plenty of room for lovely lads like you. Now, if you'll excuse me...."

A great deal more in the way of persuasion was required, to counter tears and lamentations, but after another quarter of an hour Caesar was prevailed upon to go, albeit with the utmost reluctance. Scenes! Eroica hated scenes. They were so... unaesthetic. A pity lovers were not as easily gotten rid of as paintings, once they no longer amused.

The Earl resumed sipping his brandy and gazing at his newest acquisitions. He had never been much for study, but he vaguely recalled something in the Gloria family history about Tyrian – it had been he who ruined the first Earl of Gloria, driving him to piracy and eventually to privateering and an Earldom for services rendered to the Crown. What with the ancestral connection and all, it seemed only right that Tyrian's portrait should belong to the Earl of Gloria. Besides, it was beautiful. Both as a work of art, and as an example of masculine beauty.

The Earl smiled at the painting. Tyrian's handsomeness was wasted on his green-eyed descendant. A cold, joyless man. But what Eroica wouldn't have given to meet Tyrian himself...!

It was late when the Earl at last decided to retire. His was a nocturnal household, but his staff were all abed by the time he left his sitting-room. He put his hand on the door to his bedroom, but rather than opening it, he paused to consider, then turned to prowl back to the west gallery. His footsteps echoed in the silent castle.

The Earl of Gloria had many vices, foremost among them his penchant for pretty young men. At various stages of his life, he had indulged in gambling, opium, absinthe, and large quantities of simple old-fashioned alcohol. Aside from the young men, he had tired of each vice within a few months and dropped it without a pang. But there was one pursuit of his which was not exactly a vice, but which had an addictive hold on him which he was never able to resist for long, try as he might. Now, on his first night home after an absence of over a month, he could not hold out against the pull of his one secret compulsion.

Alone, he quietly climbed the winding staircase at the end of the west gallery. He could have picked the locks without difficulty, but he had the keys in his pocket; he had known, earlier, that he would be coming to this room tonight, even though he had not quite formed the thought in his mind.

Inside, he stood inhaling the room's stale odor for several minutes, gazing at the closed curtain, before crossing to draw it aside and view his portrait.

Which was missing.

Dorian stared at the spot where his portrait was supposed to be until well past dawn, frightened for the first time since it had been painted.

***

"You know yourself, Harry, how independent I am by nature. I have always been my own master; had at least always been so, till I met Dorian Gray. Then--but I don't know how to explain it to you. Something seemed to tell me that I was on the verge of a terrible crisis in my life. I had a strange feeling that fate had in store for me exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows. I grew afraid and turned to quit the room. It was not conscience that made me do so: it was a sort of cowardice. I take no credit to myself for trying to escape."
~Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

***

"Major?" Herr Bechtel peeked timidly into his superior's study. "There's someone here to see you."

The Major did not raise his head from the stack of reports at which he was glaring, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes. "Who?"

"A... a Fraulein Darrieux, Major."

The Major's emerald eyes widened in alarm as he went through his meager inventory of female acquaintances. The name was unfamiliar, which led to the natural suspicion that it was another marital trap laid by his father.

That suspicion was heightened when the lady entered. She was of marriageable age, and Klaus supposed that she was pretty – at least, her features were even and properly proportioned, and she carried herself in the manner of a woman accustomed to admiration. A page followed two respectful paces behind her, carrying a rolled canvas wrapped in oilcloth.

Wait a minute....

Without preamble, the Major charged over to the servant, snatched the canvas out of the startled boy's hands, and unrolled it, letting the oilcloth fall to the floor.

But it was not anything from the Eberbach collection, only a charming pastoral scene of a fair young shepherd lad stripped to bathe in a stream.

The Major realized he was staring at the horrifying image and tossed it at the servant, who caught it and rolled it neatly.

"What's the meaning of this, bringing indecent pictures into my office?" he demanded of the lady.

"Major Eberbach, I presume," she replied. Her expression was formal, but her dark eyes danced with laughter. "I am Miss Amanda Darrieux." Her accent seemed to waver between French and English.

Had it not been for that laughter, he would have reverted to courtesy. But one did not mock a von dem Eberbach. "My time is valuable," he snapped. "State your business and get out."

Sparkling eyes widened, and a little smile that uncomfortably recalled that English Schwuchtel played over her lips. She drew in a breath and let her posture shift, in order to discreetly increase the prominence of her bosom. "Are you really in such a hurry to see me go?" she inquired sweetly.

Gut Gott. She was flirting with him. The Major stood at attention and set his jaw to endure her blandishments.

She studied him for a minute, the corners of her mouth twitching, before dropping the flirtation completely and adopting a businesslike tone. "I understand that you were robbed not long ago, Herr Major."

"And you represent that wretched thief." The Major glowered. Just like such a fop to employ a woman in his schemes. Probably hoped to utilize her feminine charms where his own were ineffective.

"Certainly not. I am here to help you regain your rightful property." She gestured to the canvas the servant was holding. "This painting belongs to the Earl of Gloria. I... borrowed it from him, along with three others. I believe he'll be sufficiently eager to see them again that he'll make no objections to trading them for your own paintings."

"I will never give anything to that verdammt thief!" the Major barked.

The lady considered this for a moment, then nodded to the servant and turned to go. "A pity. I am certain he would have liked to get his portrait back...."

"Halt!" The Major's dark brows were drawn together now. He stared at Amanda, who'd arched hers. "A portrait of the Earl?"

"Yes."

She seemed to be very amused by something, but the Major wasn't going to bother trying to imagine what went on in the head of a woman who kept such dubious company. She was clearly a thief herself, but he would deal with that at a later date. He'd had an idea – an idea about how he might avenge the insult to his honor.

"And what is it you want in return for the Earl's paintings?" he growled.

She smiled disarmingly. "A reasonable sum. And to be there when you return them to him."

"Why should you want that?"

This time her smile was not that of a simpering Earl, but of a wolf about to sink its teeth into lunch. "I never can resist a good spectacle."

Humph.

***

"People like you the wilful sunbeams of life don't commit crimes, Dorian."
~Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

***

The Earl reread the letter for the third time with a pounding heart. Of all the people in the world to have gotten their hands on his precious portrait, the wire rope had to be the worst possible.

Eroica valued getting things more than keeping them. Most of the paintings he stole, he sold a few months later. His lovers seldom lasted even that long. He had been known to impulsively give away entire hauls – after all, he could always steal them again later. But the one possession he could never, never part with was his portrait. The portrait contained his soul.

How it had happened he did not know, but ever since the portrait had been painted, it had taken the brunt of all of his romantic adventures. All the pleasures of love were his; all the dependence, loneliness and remorse were absorbed by the painting.

He looked regretfully at The Man In Purple. He was not ready to part with it. But he would do anything to be reunited with his own portrait.

***

But it appeared to Dorian Gray that the true nature of the senses had never been understood, and that they had remained savage and animal merely because the world had sought to starve them into submission or to kill them by pain, instead of aiming at making them elements of a new spirituality, of which a fine instinct for beauty was to be the dominant characteristic.
~Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

***

There had been a time, during her second century, when Amanda had believed that Immortality was going to become dull eventually, and she had come up with all sorts of ways to pass the decades.

Then she had learned that people who lived for centuries had amusements that mortals did not.

Running into old friends, for one thing. Being Queen Gwynevere at that masque had been quite agreeable; she had found no shortage of Lancelots. But at one point, there was a sudden exodus of errant knights. She looked in the direction of their new quest, and there was a young man with beautiful long golden hair in perfect curls, an Apollo rather than a Cupid, followed by a bunch of gorgeous men as though he were a monarch.

However, it was not his costume or even his beauty which caught her attention. It was his familiarity: she recognized Luminous at once. And she knew by now that such striking resemblances were seldom mere accidents or heredity. This man, whatever his name at the moment, was Luminous Benedict. Although he almost certainly didn't know it.

She had quickly orchestrated a formal introduction to Luminous's current self, who name turned out to be Dorian Red. Unfortunately, it was instantly plain that a repeat of their previous encounter a few centuries earlier was not to be hoped for; he had bowed correctly over her hand and promptly turned his gaze to her escort.

And given the Earl's current reputation, it was just as well. Amanda's heart was not easily captured, but even so, dallying with a compulsive heartbreaker was unwise. The Earl went through young men like a hot knife through butter, leaving them besotted, grief-stricken, and alone.

His preferences, and his callous treatment of the lads who fell in love with him, were well known. Less widely known was his actual profession. He had ended his previous life as an occasionally-sanctioned pirate, a privateer only in the estimation of those inclined to be charitable. And in this one, he had taken early to a life of unabashed crime. As their acquaintance progressed, Amanda's respect for his thieving skills grew. He might even be as talented as she. He was certainly impressive for a man who'd had only one lifetime in which to hone his abilities.

And even as she was testing his mettle against her own, she was making inquiries about the descendants of Tyrian Persimmon. Apparently, Eroica hadn't met his former nemesis' present self yet, but these things were inevitable; it was simply a matter of time. And since it hadn't happened yet, giving Fate a nudge was bound to be amusing.

Amanda's memory had not deceived her. Tyrian had indeed managed to marry into the Eberbach branch of the Hapsburgs – just how he had done so was not to be too closely examined. The man had been vicious. There was nothing he would not stoop to. No one could call Amanda a coward, but she had given that shark a wide berth.

And his current self, while considerably less cruel, was no less dangerous. And was impervious to one of the chief weapons at Amanda's disposal. The current inclinations of the former enemies, along with the one's deliberate denial and the other's cavalier indulgence, raised a host of interesting complications. Their reunion was bound to be explosive.

Amanda loved fireworks.

***

"It is better not to be different from one's fellows. The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play. If they know nothing of victory, they are at least spared the knowledge of defeat. They live as we all should live undisturbed, indifferent, and without disquiet. They neither bring ruin upon others, nor ever receive it from alien hands. Your rank and wealth, Harry; my brains, such as they are my art, whatever it may be worth; Dorian Gray's good looks we shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly."
~Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

***

With the help of the Darrieux woman, the Major made the Earl's paintings as safe as anything could possibly be from a master thief. She, after all, knew best about that. And when the Earl replied to his letter – on rose-scented paper, naturally, and with a rose seal in foppish contrast to his own respectable boar passant – he agreed to all the Major's terms. All of the Eberbach paintings in return for his bloody portrait. The Major would keep the others as compensation for the insult to his honor. The Earl was to come for his portrait alone. And the exchange was to be made at Schloss Eberbach in broad daylight.

A few nights before their scheduled meeting, there was a break-in attempt at Schloss Eberbach. Without Fraulein Darrieux's complicity, the thieves would probably have succeeded, but the precautions she had prescribed foiled Eroica's efforts – the would-be burglars escaped, but the Major didn't doubt their identity.

"It's odd," Amanda remarked as they waited for the Earl. "I could have sworn that portrait's expression wasn't quite so sad when I first... acquired it. And I thought the tears hadn't fallen." One glistening drop had just reached the top of the painted cheekbone.

"Humph." The Major cast a glare at the portrait before throwing a cloth over it. "Idiotic. Why would anyone have himself painted crying? Some foppish fad, no doubt."

Amanda only half-smiled in reply.

And so at high noon on the appointed day, a petulant mauve-clad Earl carrying three rolled canvases was admitted to the library of Schloss Eberbach, where Amanda, the Major and Herr Abdecker awaited him.

The Earl scarcely spared a glance for the dueling pistol the Major leveled at him. His attention was riveted on the woman.

"You! You stole my portrait!"

She nodded, composed. "Mmm hmm."

"You thieving French bitch!" the Earl hissed.

"I told you, I'm not French," she retorted.

"Show me the paintings," the Major cut in.

With a pouting glance at both of them, the Earl unrolled the canvases one by one. The Major examined them suspiciously, but they seemed all right.

"Where is my portrait?" the Englishman demanded, for all the world as if he were the injured party.

The Major nodded at the nervous Abdecker, who pulled the sheet from the painting and moved well out of the way.

The Earl turned to regard the painting. He seemed unable to move. He gazed at it like one transfixed.

He was too intent upon devouring his own image with his eyes to notice the Major aiming his pistol. But his slim form did jerk when the shot rang out.

"You didn't tell me you were going to do that!" Amanda cried angrily as the Earl reeled.

The Major holstered his pistol smugly. "Just making a point."

"That portrait is a beautiful work of art! Just because you don't care for its subject is no reason to go putting bulletholes in it," she informed him.

Dorian swayed slightly, his hand pressed to his flesh heart as he stared at the smoking hole right through his image's painted one. His eyes were still entranced, his lips slightly parted.

"Take your bloody picture and get out," the Major ordered. "And never muck around near me again."

Slowly, Dorian turned to look at the Major. And fixed an even more enthralled gaze on him than he had upon the painting.

"What?" the Major barked, bridling under Dorian's stare. "Quit looking at me like that!"

Dorian pressed his lips together and lowered his gaze demurely, only to raise it again. This time it smouldered. The Major looked alarmed.

"Are you sure there's nothing else I can do for you, Major?" Dorian cooed.

Everyone stared at him.

Perhaps this wasn't my best idea ever, Amanda thought, without much remorse.

The Major blanched. For the first time Abdecker could recall, his superior was at a loss for words.

"I think a rose vine and a wire rope is a rather sadistically wonderful combination. Surely my skills could be useful in the course of diplomacy," Dorian continued, still raptly drinking in the sight of the Major.

"Are you insane?" the Major sputtered. "You're a crook and a foreigner and a Schwuchtel! How could I trust you with a mission?"

"Didn't you offer this exchange because you trusted me, Major?"

The Major glanced first at Amanda, then at Herr Abdecker, with the air of desperately seeking an oasis of sanity in a world abruptly gone mad. "Verdammt! Trying to make me feel indebted, are you?"

Dorian coyly twined a finger through a golden curl. "No. Even if I were, you wouldn't be, would you? Still, I... I'd like to make sure you stay in one piece." Dorian smiled adoringly at the Major, half-hiding the smile behind gracefully curving fingers.

The increasingly edgy German snapped, "What's so funny!? What are you so happy about!?"

Dorian fluttered his lashes. "If I told you you'd get mad again."

"More foppish drivel," the Major said in horror. "Take that blasted painting and get the hell out."

"Keep it," Dorian offered graciously. "To remember me by."

"I don't want to remember you!" the Major roared. "If you leave it here, I'll burn it to ashes!"

The unwarranted adoration was suddenly wiped from Dorian's face, leaving behind an equally undue desolation. "Go ahead," he said sadly. "It doesn't matter what happens to the portrait now."

The Major cast another look at the other two, a look that inquired if there were any reason left in the world. "Get out, with that idiotic painting or without it, and never show up again, you hear me, Schwuchtel?"

Dorian released a sigh that seemed to issue from the depths of his soul. "I'll get out. But we will meet again, Major," he promised. His eyes brimmed over as he turned to leave. He departed: without another word, and without the portrait.

"Why didn't you tell me he was a lunatic?" the Major demanded of Amanda.

Amanda was staring bemused at the door through which Dorian had left. "I didn't know. Not this much of one, at least. I don't know what got into him."

Quiet fell.

At length, the Major went to scowl out the window. "Herr Abdecker."

Even though his superior's tone was quite calm, Abdecker jumped. "Sir?"

"Take that portrait and put it in the attic."

"Yes, sir." Abdecker hurried to obey, hoping the Englishwoman would not comment on the Major's decision not to burn the painting. That would inevitably cause another outburst, and Abdecker had really had enough for one day. Maybe the Major was right about the English. Well, of course, the Major was right about everything.

Abdecker stepped to the portrait. His hands froze in the act of reaching for it.

"Mein Gott!"

The other two whirled at his exclamation, and a moment later the Major shoved him aside to get a closer look at the portrait.

The picture of Dorian Red, which ten minutes earlier had depicted an expression of tragedy and anguish, now was of a carefree, cheerful young man, completely devoid of remorse and loneliness. The tears and the shadows beneath the eyes were gone, and the formerly twisted mouth now smiled sunnily above the hole in the figure's heart.

And Amanda understood that Eroica's heart had been penetrated at last.

 

 

 

 

 

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*Schwuchtel: German for "faggot".

 

Eroica