The Dinner Bell - Fred McGavran
“It’s a Karpe,” Harris Scintilton said, looking at the painting over Doris Lowry’s glass front bookcase.
Mid-fifties, elegant in a gray Brookes Brothers suit, white shirt and bright red bowtie, he looked more like a connoisseur savoring a new find than a lawyer planning the disposition of Miss Lowry’s estate. The living room, indeed the entire house, Scintilton supposed, was exactly as Miss Lowry’s father, rector of the largest Episcopal church in the city, had left it when he died six decades earlier and probably the same as when her grandfather, a bishop, had died in 1926, the year Doris turned two.
“Father always said it was a bass,” Miss Lowry said, leaning forward in her chair to peer at the painting.
Clad in a plaid worsted wool suit that looked like it had belonged to her mother, Doris Lowry was as diffident to her attorney as she was to her nephew and nieces. Harris turned back to the twenty-four inch by thirty-six inch painting.
Sitting barefoot beside a stream, a boy in a straw hat had hooked a fish, while in the background his mother was ringing the dinner bell to call him home. Just starting to turn his head, the boy was caught between duty and desire, a favorite theme of 19th century American painters. A large mouth bass was clearly visible running away with hook and bobber.
“I mean it’s by Tungsten Karpe,” the lawyer said, pointing at the signature in the lower right corner.
“Father never talked about the artist,” Doris said, as if surprised there could be anything her father had not told her.
Nodding his head, Scintilton returned to the settee where he had left his legal tablet. A recent issue of a prominent art magazine had featured an article by New York art critic d’Artagnan Fronde proclaiming Karpe as a giant of the Wabash River School. In the aftermath of the Civil War, these painters sought refuge from industrialism and emancipation in memories of an imagined childhood, where the only uncertainty was how to respond to the twin challenges of a call to dinner and a tug on the line. “At last an American Daubigny,” Fronde had concluded. Within months after it appeared, a Karpe country scene entitled “Following the Cows Home” brought $3 million at auction.
Now it was the lawyer, not the boy with the fishing pole, who was confronted with a dilemma. Occasionally he had acquired jewelry and other valuables from aging clients by persuading them it was better to barter with him for his fee than to leave them to be fought over by their heirs. The art world, however, had an unhealthy obsession with provenance; even the most rapacious dealer would demand that Harris prove his ownership by a paper trail. If Doris Lowry’s nieces and nephew ever discovered that he had acquired a painting worth millions for a few thousand dollars from a woman of questionable competence, they could make trouble. Nevertheless, he knew that in the New York art world dealers would pay a finder’s fee to someone who introduced them to an easy mark. If he handled the negotiations correctly, he could participate in any resale to another dealer and then on to the ultimate purchaser.
“We should have it appraised,” the lawyer said. “This could provide the leverage we need to get Dwight and his sisters’ attention.”
Miss Lowry’s nieces and nephew paid very little attention to their aunt except for occasional barbs at Scintilton to let him know what would happen if any of her money did not go to them.
“I was thinking more of Melissa and the girls,” Doris said.
Melissa, the youngest of her great nieces, had married in her twenties and quickly had two beautiful daughters, before her lawyer husband announced that he was “moving on” with his paralegal. After several years struggle to take care of the girls while working in the back office of a local stock broker, Melissa had moved to New York and enrolled as a divinity student at General Theological Seminary, the first Lowry in two generations to have even a passing interest in the church.
“Of course,” Scintilton said, anticipating a will contest that would greatly increase his fees from her estate.
“Do you have any idea what it could be worth, Harris?” the old lady asked, staring more intently at the Karpe than a devotee at an icon.
“A few hundred thousand dollars,” he said to prepare her for a low offer that would preserve a larger part of the profit for himself. “Of course we will have to use a professional appraiser, and that will incur a small fee.”
“Oh, Harris,” Doris exclaimed, clasping her hands as excitedly as if the lawyer had asked her to marry him. “That would solve all our problems.”
“Let’s keep this just between us for now,” the lawyer said. “We don’t want to raise hopes unnecessarily.”
“Who are you thinking of using as an appraiser?” the excited spinster asked.
“I was thinking of Horlach Spenser.”
* * *
Within an hour, Doris had called Melissa to confide their great good fortune.
“Aunt Doris, God has truly blessed you,” Melissa said.
Unknown to her lawyer and even to Melissa’s parents, Doris had mortgaged the old house to finance her niece’s studies. Even that was not enough to live in Manhattan, so Melissa found a part time job as an administrative assistant at a hedge fund. There her enthusiasm for the gospel was challenged daily by the braggadocio and cynicism of some of the finest traders on Wall Street. She had her aunt’s fine features, softened into beauty by her struggle to be a mother for her children and to follow her faith, and just enough distance to make her attractive to men whose lives depended on setting a price for everything. When they were successful, they enjoyed posing beside her desk to regale the divinity student with tales of how they had outmaneuvered their counterparts; when they failed, they confided their desperation and fear as if she were their firm confessor.
“How do you know the right price to sell?” she asked a trader flush from having crushed the central bank of a developing country by short selling its currency.
“You have to know how much the other guy wants it,” the trader said.
After letting her daughters chatter with Doris for half an hour, Melissa finally broke off to fix dinner and finish a paper on St. Augustine. Frothy with delight, Doris decided to celebrate with a glass of sherry.
Two glasses of sherry plus the prospect of a windfall have a dramatic if predictable impact upon an eighty-seven year old brain. For more than six decades, Doris Lowry had striven by gifts, advice and admonishments to endear herself to her now deceased sister Lydia’s three children Dwight, Lydia Marie and Claire. Given their mother’s preference for vodka over them, the task did not appear impossible, except for Doris’ resemblance to her sister in appearance and personality. Both women were dark haired, thin and would have been considered attractive, except for strained and stern expressions like 19th century women sitting motionless for a full minute for their photographs to be taken. While Lydia displayed and neglected her children like a doll collection, Doris struggled to find the right gift or suffer from an endearing ailment that would make them love her.
A woman raised by Victorian parents cannot appreciate the amount of money it takes to purchase obeisance in the early 21st century. Instead of sharing their aunt’s excitement, Lydia Marie and Claire were frustrated to learn she was about to come into barely enough money for them to buy a new car or pay down their burgeoning home equity loans. Given Aunt Doris’ health, they might have to wait another decade even to see that.
“How nice, Aunt Doris,” Lydia Marie said, signaling her husband Ralph to pour her another glass of wine. “Maybe now you can have your hair done.”
“Ask Mr. Scintilton if you can borrow on the painting,” Claire suggested. “You won’t have to pay taxes until it’s actually sold.”
Doris mistook their comments for breathless excitement and called Dwight.
Unlike his sisters, who had married reasonably competent if not overly successful men, Dwight had to fend for himself after their father, a department store executive, suddenly died, leaving many debts to unexpected creditors. After graduating from college, he had spent several years teaching second grade to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. With the wind-down of the war, all he had was a teaching certificate, no prospects and no real interests. So he spent the next 40 years in a succession of marriages, real estate agencies and consulting firms, until he reached the edge of retirement barely able to keep up with the demands of his mid-fifties third wife, with only an inheritance from Doris to offer any hope. Due to what he termed “financial exhaustion” from educating the children of his first two marriages, he had been unable to do anything to help his daughter Melissa after her divorce.
“Horlach Spenser doesn’t know any more about appraising art than I do,” he said when his aunt shared with him her lawyer’s plan to monetize the painting. “Scintilton uses him because he gives low-ball appraisals to throw the IRS off the scent in big estates.”
“Claire said we must avoid taxes,” Doris agreed.
“Claire doesn’t know anything about the art world, either,” Dwight continued. “Let me see what I can do before you make any commitments.”
“Oh, Dwight, would you?” Doris said happily, delighted that for the first time since he entered his teens, Dwight had showed any interest in anything she said.
* * *
Dwight never said to his aunt more than he had to and impatiently assumed that she would keep Harris Scintilton and his appraiser at bay. All Miss Lowry could remember from her evening indulgence was that she should get her hair done, which she did, and that they would all soon be rich. So when Harris Scintilton called a few days later to ask if he could bring Horlach Spenser by to see “The Dinner Bell,” Doris readily agreed. And when Dwight called to say he was bringing around a man in the art business to look at the painting, she was so excited that she forgot that Scintilton and Spencer would be there at the same time.
The contrast between Horlach Spencer, bloated, panting, veins splayed across his nose and cheeks, dressed in a too-small blazer that emphasized his paunch and smelling of noon-time martinis, and Harris Scintilton was so great that even Doris noticed. Despite the lawyer’s signal to refuse, the appraiser had accepted Miss Lowry’s offer of something to drink, opting for sherry rather than afternoon tea.
“Yes, this certainly is a Karpe,” he said, swaying gently before the glass front bookcase.
Miss Lowry, sitting beside Harris on the settee, clasped her hands in joy.
“Is it really worth hundreds of thousands of dollars?” she asked.
Spenser returned to the Bishop’s armchair and opened a leather covered folder containing his appraisal. Tungsten Karpe’s oeuvre was not large; he had been an illustrator for mail order catalogues until his 1887 Almanac Calendar featuring “The Dinner Bell” for August had become popular. Until Fronde’s article had appeared, however, Karpes had sold for between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars the few times a buyer could be found.
“The average price for a Karpe of this size is $100,000,” Horlach Spenser said, glancing at the attorney.
“I don’t understand,” Doris said, her features drooping into despair.
“The numbers don’t lie, Miss Lowry,” Horlach assured her. “I averaged every single sale from 1883 through last March.”
“Harris, what is he saying?” Miss Lowry said, nearly in tears.
“I’m sure we can find someone who will pay a very good price,” he reassured her. “$150,000 may not be out of the question.”
“After all I’ve told Dwight and the girls,” she said, tears running down her cheeks.
“Why don’t you just let me handle it, Doris,” the lawyer said.
“Oh, Harris, would you?” she said, relieved. “This means so much to all of us.”
The door bell rang, ending their reveries. Dabbing her eyes, Miss Lowry went into the front hall.
“Dwight! What a surprise,” Doris said, opening the door.
Her nephew, dressed like a dot com entrepreneur in jeans and sweater, kissed her cheek and walked past her into the hall, leaving d’Artagnan Fronde on the porch. Miss Lowry started. Elegantly slim, aristocratic and sallow, he was clad in black trousers and untucked black shirt with only a gold Cartier watch and huge gold earring to set off the darkness, like Satan displaying coals from hell to show its pains were overrated.
“Aunt Doris, meet d’Artagnan Fronde,” Dwight said over his shoulder.
“Madame,” Fronde said, kissing her hand.
“Looks like we got here just in time,” Dwight said, sighting Scintilton and Spencer in the living room.
The lawyer and his appraiser did not stand to greet them.
“And where, may I ask, is le tableau?” Fronde cried, entering the living room behind the awe-struck spinster.
“And where are your people from?” Miss Lowry asked, defaulting to the only pleasantry she had ever heard her mother use with a stranger.
“La France,” the critic said and gasped.
As carefully and passionately as a hermit called from his cave to reverence the relic of a saint, Fronde clasped his hands and bent toward the bookcase to stare at the painting.
“Madame, permittez moi,” he said under his breath and carefully removed the painting from the nail where it had hung for more than 100 years.
“As I thought!” he exclaimed, turning it around. “Framed by the artist.”
Blobs of the same paint that decorated the surface were splattered over the back of the frame.
“He must have dropped it on his palette,” Scintilton said sarcastically.
“Yes, this is “The Dinner Bell” that we all thought lost,” Fronde continued unfazed. “There has been no mention of it anywhere since a newspaper report that it was displayed at the Grand Army of the Republic convention in Indianapolis in 1892.”
“Grandfather was a member of the GAR,” Miss Lowry said proudly, turning to another glass front bookshelf. “I have his medals here.”
“What are you and Horlach Spencer doing here?” Dwight said to the attorney.
“Mr. Spenser has appraised the painting, Dwight,” his aunt said. “Harris thinks we can get a hundred fifty thousand dollars for it.”
D’Artagnan Fronde wrapped his arms around “The Dinner Bell” and turned away, as if he were protecting a child from a molester.
“This must not be,” he cried defiantly. “This work of art is worth at least $7 million.”
“See what I mean, Aunt Doris? I told you these guys would try to screw you.”
Doris Lowry collapsed into a Chippendale chair last recovered by her grandmother.
“Now just a minute,” Spenser said, waving his appraisal at Fronde. “Just who the hell does he think he is to be appraising anything around here?”
“I think we should drop back when Dwight and Mr. Fronde are prepared to be reasonable,” Scintilton said, standing.
Thirty years in the courtroom had taught him when to terminate an unsuccessful cross-examination. While Spencer stuffed his appraisal back into its leather case, the lawyer took his client’s hand.
“If only your happiness lasts,” he said in parting.
Like most lawyers, he was a very poor loser and had spent years and sometimes decades seeking revenge against anyone who had slighted or defied him. As he and Spencer walked to their cars, he asked for a copy of the appraisal.
“It’s not going to do us much good now,” Horlach said, opening the case to hand the document to him.
“Let’s not be so sure,” Harris Scintilton replied. “Do you have it in electronic form?”
“I know some other people who should see it.”
* * *
Anticipating a windfall is always more certain than receiving it. After depositing d’Artagnan Fronde at the airport and picking up several cartons of wine at a drive through, Dwight called his sisters on his cell and returned to his aunt’s house to celebrate. The prospect of a third of $7 million was enough to bring them panting with their husbands, just as the pizza Dwight had ordered arrived. While Aunt Doris stared at a glistening slice of “Supreme” with pepperoni, sausage, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and bacon bits, Dwight recounted how he had single handedly defeated Harris Scintilton and saved the family fortune.
“I don’t know what I’d do with all that money,” Doris said.
“We’ll bring in another lawyer to prepare a plan of distribution,” Dwight said, patting Doris’s immobile hand. “Did you know that you can give each of us $20,000 a year without incurring a gift tax?”
“Don’t forget me and Jimmy,” added Lydia Marie’s husband Ralph, winking at Clair’s husband. “The gift tax thing works for spouses, too.”
“What about Melissa’s mother?” Doris asked.
“She’s not family anymore,” snapped Lydia Marie.
“Father never earned $20,000 a year his entire life,” Doris said.
“He had an inheritance, too,” Claire said. “The Bishop married money.”
“And don’t forget the kids, Aunt Doris,” Lydia Marie added. “Every one of them could use $20,000.”
“Melissa can use some help,” Doris agreed.
“Isn’t it time you stopped favoring her?” Lydia Claire said. “After all, you do have other great nieces and nephews.”
“I’m her father,” Dwight said. “Melissa’s getting along fine.”
“How long would it take giving everyone $20,000 a year to give it all away?” Claire asked, turning to Dwight.
Dwight worked the calculator on his phone.
“About 30 years.”
“I can’t possibly live that long,” Doris exclaimed.
“What we mean is you need a new estate plan,” Lydia Marie and Claire said together.
“I’ll talk with Mr. Scintilton. He’s revising my will now.”
“No!” they all exclaimed. “Anyone but Harris Scintilton.”
Doris Lowry sat quietly for a moment before making up her mind.
“Alright, then,” she said in a tone they had not heard in her before. “I’ll ask Melissa what she thinks.”
“Melissa will put the family first,” her father said as firmly as if he believed it.
* * *
Melissa and the girls arrived at her great aunt’s house the same afternoon d’Artagnan Fronde was to return with a check for the painting. To Melissa’s surprise, her father and aunts were waiting for them. She barely had time to greet Doris before her father and his sisters overwhelmed the children with more interest than they had ever shown for them.
“This is a very special day for all of us,” Dwight said, reaching for his granddaughters.
Surprised, they retreated to Melanie on the settee.
“Now which of you is Becky and which is Stephanie?” Lydia Marie asked the 5 and 7 year olds, fixing them with a painted grin.
The girls huddled closer to their mother.
“You’ve come at such an exciting time,” Claire said. “I wonder if Mr. Fronde was on the same plane.”
“Mr. Fronde?” Melissa repeated.
“The man who’s buying Aunt Doris’ painting,” Lydia Marie explained, giving up on the frightened children. “I thought that was why you’re here.”
“Do you think something has happened to Mr. Fronde?” Claire said to her sister.
“How was the flight, Melissa?” Dwight asked to reestablish some rapport with the woman who could direct $40,000 a year tax free to him and his wife and help secure him a slice of Doris’ estate.
“The strangest thing happened while we were boarding,” Melissa replied. “When they called first class, two men went up to a man and put handcuffs on him.”
“How awful!” Lydia Marie exclaimed.
“They had FBI badges,” Melissa continued. “We were all afraid it was a terrorist.”
“What did he look like?” Dwight said.
“He was dressed entirely in black and had the largest gold watch and earring I have ever seen on a man.”
“My God,” her father explained. “It couldn’t be Fronde.”
“My God!” his sisters exclaimed.
“I can check the news on my phone,” Dwight said, taking his iPhone out of his pants pocket.
He fiddled with the device for a moment.
“Would you girls like some milk and cookies?” Doris asked Becky and Stephanie.
They leapt up to follow her to the kitchen.
“Not too much,” Melissa called after them. “We had snacks on the plane.”
“‘New York art critic arrested for fraud,’” Dwight read. “The U.S. Attorney says he bought up a bunch of Karpe paintings cheap, wrote an article to pump up the price, and sold them for millions. They claim he’s in collusion with an art dealer to buy up Karpes through middlemen and resell them for millions more.”
“Isn’t Aunt Doris’ painting a Karpe?” Melissa asked, going to the book case to examine it.
“Couldn’t they have waited another day?” cried Lydia Marie.
Aunt Doris reentered the room with the girls carrying a silver tray with a plate of cookies, several glasses and a pitcher of milk.
“Pass the cookies to everyone,” she said to the girls.
No one except their mother took one, and the milk was untouched.
“So it’s worthless,” Claire said, looking angrily at the painting.
“I wonder if we could still get something for it from Harris Scintilton,” Lydia Marie said hopefully.
“Oh, my God,” said Dwight, still staring at his iPhone.
“What now?” Claire said.
“The US Attorney credits appraiser Horlach Spenser with exposing the fraud. Listen to this. ‘While appraising a Karpe, Spenser noticed that nearly all extant Karpes had been bought for no more than a few thousand dollars during the 18 months before Fronde’s article on Karpe was published. After the article appeared, the price rose into the millions.’”
“Isn’t there anything we can do?” pleaded Lydia Marie.
“Won’t anyone have some milk and cookies?” Doris asked.
The hand holding the pitcher trembled over a glass.
“I think it’s time we went home and gave you some time with Melissa and her girls,” Dwight said, turning off his phone and standing.
They were gone in minutes without even trying to peck the girl’s cheeks on the way out. Doris handed a glass of milk to each of the girls, set down the pitcher and began to cry.
“Oh, Melissa, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have raised your hopes. There will be barely enough left after I sell the house for me to move into the Episcopal Retirement Home. And I thought we were all going to be rich.”
“It’s still a beautiful painting, Aunt Doris,” Melissa said, taking her hand. “You can hang it over the book case there just as it’s always been.”
“I don’t want to see it again,” the old lady sobbed. “You take it.”
“Why’s Aunt Doris crying?” Stephanie asked just before the doorbell rang.
Melissa got up. Harris Scintilton was at the door.
“It’s not a good time,” Melissa said after he introduced himself.
“I have some very good news I think your aunt will want to hear,” the lawyer said.
He followed Melissa back to the living room.
“I have another offer for the Karpe,” Harris said. “It’s much better than the last.”
“But it’s all a fraud,” Doris said angrily. “I don’t want any part of it.”
“The market has a mind of its own,” Harris explained, taking the Bishop’s armchair. “Once an artist becomes collectible, he stays collectible as long as there are buyers.”
“Like momentum investing,” Melissa said, moving the cookies away from her daughters.
“Want a nice way to put it, Melissa,” the lawyer agreed, as happy to be understood by an attractive young woman as the traders at the hedge fund. “No one can afford the prices to go down: not the buyers, or the dealers, or the critics.”
Melissa felt the same mixture of revulsion for the act and agony for the speaker’s soul as when the young traders bragged about transactions that defiled and impoverished millions for the sake of their year-end bonuses.
“What are you saying?” Doris said.
“I can get you $3 million for the painting. The only condition is that the buyer must remain anonymous.”
Doris looked at her niece. Melissa looked at her children.
“I had never thought of the art market as being a Ponzi scheme, Mr. Scintilton, where we’re sure to profit as long as we’re not the last in line,” she finally said in the same tone as when she denied a trader’s stumbling request to go out with him.
“That’s it exactly.”
“No,” she said. “This has gone on long enough. We’re not selling.”
“Melissa, it just isn’t fair to throw the whole family under the wheels just because the market offends your morals,” he countered.
“$3 million is enough tear the family apart but not enough to save it, Mr. Scintilton.”
“Get out,” Doris Lowry said to him. “Just go away.”
The lawyer was stunned.
“I have the check for $3 million.”
“It’s time for you to go,” Melissa said.
Her daughters, who had never heard her use that tone, looked back and forth between their mother and the lawyer. Harris Scintilton finally stood up.
“You have my number,” he said. “I’ll hold the check in my office safe.”
“Goodbye,” Doris Lowry and her niece said together.
* * *
“It isn’t so bad not having $3 million,” Melissa said to her aunt the next day. “We’re together, we’re healthy and we have each other.”
Becky and Stephanie were lying on the floor looking at a fascinating article on lighter than air machines in Aunt Doris’ 1912 Collier’s Encyclopedia.
“We can sell the house and help you move into the Retirement Home this summer as soon as I pass my General Ordination Exams. You have enough to get started, and they won’t make you move if you run out of money.”
“That’s what I’m so afraid of,” Doris said.
“And I’ll be earning enough that you won’t have to support us any longer,” Melissa continued. “I’ll be ordained a deacon in June. Did I tell you that Mr. Spears has asked me to be his curate at The Downtown Church of Our Savior?”
“That was my father’s church,” Doris exclaimed. “Oh, Melissa, I’m so happy for you.”
Someone knocked on the door.
“I hope it isn’t Harris Scintilton again,” Melissa said as she went into the hall.
“I hope not, too,” said Doris.
Melissa opened the door, and a black-haired man with beautifully a trimmed beard and moustache, wearing a suit of gray Italian wool so fine it looked as if she would leave fingerprints if she touched it, faced her. He had the most sensitive features she had ever seen, and the deep set brown eyes of a mystic or a life insurance salesman.
“Is this the residence of Miss Doris Lowry?” he asked in an accent she could not place.
“Then you must be her niece Melissa.”
His expression was friendly and questioning, as if something very important to him depended on the answer.
“I am Har’shun,” he said, smiling as if he had located a lost friend and offering her his hand. “May I come in? We have something very important to discuss.”
“Do you know a Mr. Har’shun?” Melissa called to her aunt.
“Of course I do,” Doris replied.
Har’shun followed Melissa into the living room, bringing with him the smell of sandalwood, frankincense and a hint that the world held more risks and delights than the editors of Collier’s had ever imagined. The girls looked up in wonder.
“There were Howards at Exeter when father was a student,” Doris said. “Now which branch of the family are you?”
“Miss Lowry,” he said, ignoring her confusion and bowing. “My card.”
Doris Lowry had not seen such manners since being singled out for special attention by the dancing master at Cotillion Club in 1936. Melissa took the card from her. It was printed in gold and introduced the bearer in English and Arabic as Ibrahim bin Har’shun of the Embassy of Bahrain.
“I think there has been a mistake,” she began.
“Please be seated, Mr. Har’shun,” Doris said.
He waited for Melissa to be seated on the edge of the settee beside the girls before taking the Bishop’s armchair. Becky and Stephanie stared at him as if he had stepped out of the television set to offer them a ride to the stars.
“And what is your position with the Embassy?” Melissa asked.
“Artistic advisor to His Majesty.”
“And you are here because?” she continued.
“Mr. Scintilton told me that his negotiations with you did not go well,” Har’shun said, lowering his head as if he had suffered a personal rebuff.
“He gave you Aunt Doris’ name and address?” Melissa demanded.
“He gave me nothing,” he replied sorrowfully, as if it were a terrible crime to be associated with Harris Scintilton. “To set the offering price for the painting and his own fee, however, he did show me Mr. Horlach Spencer’s report. It had your aunt’s name and address at the top.”
“He offered me $3 million,” Doris said, glancing at Melissa and the girls.
“He promised me he could obtain it for $3 million,” Har’shun said with a slight shrug, and then he smiled. “Mr. Scintilton is as dangerous to his clients as to his adversaries.”
“What do you want, Mr. Har’shun?” Melissa said.
“The painting,” he said. “May I see it?”
Doris pointed to “The Dinner Bell.” Har’shun arose and stepped as reverently to the bookcase as if he were approaching royalty.
“Remarkable,” he said, leaning over the bookcase to examine the brush work. “We must have it.”
“We are not ready to sell,” Melissa said, carefully choosing every word.
“I am not talking $3 million,” he said. “I am talking $13 million.”
The room was silent. Finally Becky said, “Mother, what’s happening?”
“We’re negotiating,” Melissa said, taking her hand.
“Only His Majesty’s Modern Contemporary Art Museum in Bahrain can give this masterpiece the exposure it deserves, Miss Lowry.”
“Isn’t that the museum shaped like an Arab dhow?” Melissa asked.
“You are speaking of The Dubai Museum of Contemporary Art,” Har’shun said in the tone he would use to describe a seaside T-shirt shop. “In the Gulf, we call it ‘the dhow without a cargo.’”
‘Why is that?” wondered Doris.
“Because it is empty,” he laughed. “They had to borrow from all over the world to have anything in it for the opening. Can you believe it? Twenty-seven galleries and no permanent collection! No, Miss Lowry, the finest museum of contemporary art in our part of the world is that which His Majesty the King of Bahrain is building.”
“Zaha Hadid is the architect, isn’t she?” Melissa asked to show she understood.
“Yes, and His Majesty has already dedicated one wing to what he calls, ‘Precursors to the Modern.’ Thanks to you, Tungsten Karpe will finally be seen as a great impetus to modernism.”
Melissa smiled as if swept up in Har’shun’s vision of “The Dinner Bell” hanging on the blinding white wall of a museum in a kingdom where representations of the human form had been considered blasphemy only a few years earlier.
“With this painting, we will have the finest collection of Karpes in the world,” Har’shun continued, thinking he had charmed the two women.
“Even after what happened to poor Mr. Fronde?” Doris asked.
“A little intrigue always helps the legend of a painter,” he reassured her.
Melissa nodded encouragement, as if excited and intrigued by his success.
“I was able to take advantage of a temporary downturn in the market,” Har’shun continued softly, as if making them partners. “We now have the other eleven paintings in his magnificent 1887 Almanac Calendar series.”
“You know, Aunt Doris, I’ve changed my mind,” Melissa said. “I think we ought to sell.”
“That is a lot of money,” her aunt agreed.
Har’shun clasped his hands, as delighted as a proselytizer with new converts.
“But not enough,” Melissa said, turning to Har’shun. “I was thinking $30 million.”
“I said $13 million,” Har’shun said, his features distorted by surprise and the realization, too late, that he had given away how badly he needed the painting.
“And I said 30,” Melissa said firmly.
“That is beyond my authority.”
“But not beyond what the King of Bahrain will pay to complete the finest collection of Karpes in the world.”
Ibrahim bin Har’shun was sweating through his suit.
“Do you think the other king, the one with the museum shaped like a ship, would be interested?” Doris Lowry asked, finally understanding what was happening.
“Miss Lowry,” he said. “This is impossible.”
“Think of it as an act of largesse,” Melissa said, fixing him with the professional smile she used to discourage the traders from bantering about sex in front of her.
“I must make a call.”
“We can wait.”
Har’shun took out his cell and went into the hall. They could hear him pleading in Arabic interrupted by a long period of silence.
“Someone is calling Bahrain,” Melissa said, winking at her aunt..
“What’s happening, Mommy?” Stephanie asked.
“We are being sure that Aunt Doris is well provided for.”
Har’shun returned, smiling, and took Doris’ hand.
“Miss Lowry, we have an agreement.”
* * *
“How did you know he would pay that much?” Doris asked as soon as he was gone.
“I learned more than I thought at my job,” Melissa replied. “But I never wanted to use it.”
“Why not, dear? You’re so good at it.”
“Because I was caught between acting in a way that can be so hurtful and something I had to do for you and for a lot of other people, too.”
“Do you mean for the family?”
“We can’t keep that money just for the family, Aunt Doris. We have to give it away so it can help the people who don’t have anything.”
“And your father, and Lydia Marie and Claire, and their children?”
“We’ll set aside enough for you and leave what’s left to the family in equal shares,” Melissa said and smiled. “There won’t be enough for them to fight about.”
Doris looked at Becky and Stephanie, who were playing hide and seek between the living and dining rooms.
“The girls?” Doris said softly.
“There will be enough. Don’t worry.”
Doris looked at the woman she used to think of as a little girl playing dress up and wondered where the strength had come from. Then she remembered her father, who had been so strong that she was terrified of every doing anything to displease him.
“All my life I’ve been caught between what I thought Father wanted me to be and what I am,” she said. “That’s over now. I’m free.”
“What a beautiful way of looking at it,” Melissa said. “I’ll ask Mr. Spears who we should use to write your new will.”
“Not Mr. Scintilton,” Doris said.
“No, not Mr. Scintilton.”
FRED McGAVRAN is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. In 2010 he was ordained a deacon in The Diocese of Southern Ohio, where he serves as Assistant Chaplain at Episcopal Retirement Homes. The Ohio Arts Council awarded him a $10,000 Individual Achievement Award for The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser, a story that appeared in Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award winning collection of short stories, and his adventure novel The Arminius Codex: The Hunt for the Last Roman Eagle just appeared on Amazon Kindle. For more information and links to stories, please see www.fredmcgavran.com.