A young woman adjusted the veil of her hat to make sure it covered her face. She watched as the item she’d been waiting so long to possess was introduced. It was a portrait of a woman, the frame’s gold leaf peeling with age. The woman in the painting was seated in an armchair, its royal blue a dramatic contrast to her crimson dress, the thick fabric of the dress even more vivid next to her olive complexion and dark hair. But it was the remarkable expression she wore that made the painting so special. Her almost-black eyes pierced the viewer with their gaze.
The veiled young woman at the back of the room narrowed her own eyes. She’d been caught up in the thrill of the auction house just from watching others bid in a flurry around her. She took a deep breath as the auctioneer brought in the final piece from the estate.
‘You may not recognize this next oil-based picture, but that only adds to the aura of intrigue surrounding its story. Painted in the early 1500s, this portrait of an unknown Spanish lady was said to have been stolen sometime around 1515 from a ship docked in Spain. How the late Mr Hewett came to add this piece to his prestigious collection we don’t know, but what we do know is that he had a discerning eye and we’re starting the bidding at forty dollars.’ The auctioneer winked from his spot on the stage at the chuckling audience below him.
The young woman raised her gloved hand, hoping to catch his eye.
‘Yes, the young lady at the back,’ he boomed. ‘That’ll be forty to you, miss.’
An older man up front lifted his walking stick in so slight a motion that it would never have caught anyone’s atten- tion had they not been looking for it, but the auctioneer’s experienced eye took note. He barked out his next price, looking to the young lady at the back to see if she’d rise to the challenge. He saw her nod at him once and raised the price accordingly.
His eyes snapped back and forth, left and right, trying to keep track of the flying bids. The action was only between the man with the walking stick in the leftmost seat of the first row and the mysterious woman at the back. No one else appeared to be interested. As the auctioneer thundered another price, the man turned around, hoping to see who was bidding against him. Though a room full of people stared back at him, the woman at the back was not one of them. She’d hidden behind a pillar when she caught sight of his head turning. Having no choice, the man raised the price again. The auctioneer’s eyes widened. At last the whirlwind stopped, the man’s final bid hanging in the air.
‘Going once,’ the auctioneer announced as he looked to the woman at the back to see if she would bid again. ‘Going twice ...’ The woman shook her head once in a small gesture. ‘Sold!’ he declared as his gavel hit the block.
The man with the walking stick ambled up to a table at the side of the stage, along with the rest of the day’s winners. All save one of the unsuccessful bidders slowly filed out of the room. The gentleman left his address with the clerk, adding strict instructions to come through the servants’ entrance when delivering the painting. He strolled up the aisle between rows of now-empty chairs. Without knowing it, the man passed the young woman he’d just been bidding against and started his walk home.
The young woman was still seated in the same position she’d been in when the auctioneer was on the stage. She lifted her head in a cool manner, pulling the large brim of her hat down, and watched the man exit the auction house through the double doors before rising and following him out.
Always remaining no more than a few steps behind her quarry, the young woman took great care in concealing the sound of her footsteps. She followed him, turning familiar corners until they came to an opulent city house. It was one of those unmissable buildings with an elegant flight of steps leading up to a grand doorway, and she knew that the door itself only hinted at the impressive magnificence of the interior. Concealed in shadows, the young woman watched the elderly gentleman slowly climb the stairs. The front door was swung open by the butler, who came rushing out to help his master up the last couple of steps.
Light from the open door illuminated a single tear that slipped down the side of the woman’s face, a tear that betrayed her momentary weakness. But as quickly as the door was opened, it soon swung closed again, and the woman was left in near darkness. A face in an upper window watched as her hand flew up to wipe the tear away, replacing it with a small smile on her thin lips. A low laugh escaped her then, lit only by the dim glow of the street lamps, whose flickering gas-flames cast a false sense of warmth upon the curious scene.