The Back Gallery: An Excerpt from ‘A Veil Removed’

Coil Excerpts
Jul 30 · 6 min read

Fiction by Michelle Cox


Clive put down the telephone receiver he had just picked up and sighed. His mother had not been at breakfast, and he knew what he now had to do. He had behaved very badly to her last night, and he was anxious to apologize. “Mother,” he said, rising from where he sat behind his father’s desk. “I need to beg your pardon for last night. I . . . I wasn’t myself. I’m sorry for all those things I said. I was shamefully wrong, of course. Can you forgive me?”

Antonia merely stared at him, unmoving.

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“Mother, please,” he said.

“Very well, Clive,” she said crisply. “Let’s speak no more of it, but you hurt me very deeply. You’ve much to learn if you’re truly to be the ‘master’ here.”

“Mother, forget I said that,” he said with a groan. “I didn’t mean it.” “Well, you can come be master of the house just now upstairs. Your attention is required urgently in the gallery!”

Clive sighed. “Are you sure it’s not something Billings can sort out?” he asked tentatively. “It’s just that I’m rather busy going through Father’s things,” he said, gesturing at the stacks of papers in front of him. “As you asked me to.”

“No, Clive! It’s not something Billings can sort out. Would I be here if it was? Stop treating me like a child!”

Clive could tell by the lines on her face that she was very near some sort of hysterics and that he was treading on thin ice. He had seen her get this way with his father at times, and he had no wish to repeat last night’s folly.

“Very well. Of course I’ll come with you, Mother,” he said, stifling another groan. He made his way out from behind the desk and followed her across the room. As they climbed the staircase in silence, he wondered what it could possibly be. “Can’t you just tell me what the matter is?” he asked. “Why the mystery?”

“No, you have to see for yourself.”

The “back gallery” was more a long, low hallway than a room. It boasted an intricately coiffed plaster ceiling and walls done up in a rich red flock, upon which hung an extraordinary number of master works of art — another of Alcott’s passions — many of which had been pilfered from Linley Castle over the years. Antonia marched swiftly to the very end of the gallery.

“There!” she said, pointing furiously to one of the paintings.

Clive looked at the painting and could see nothing untoward. It was a work by a lesser known American impressionist, Joseph Raphael.

“Yes?” Clive asked, confused, peering at the painting carefully. “I don’t understand, Mother. It doesn’t appear to be damaged — ”

“It’s not damaged! It’s not supposed to be there! It’s the wrong one!”

“What do you mean, the wrong one?”

“The Levitan is supposed to be in that spot, but as you can see, it’s gone!”

Clive in truth did not know if this was correct, but he was inclined to believe her. His mind raced to the series of theft that had occurred in the last months at the hands of Jack Fletcher and even Henrietta’s brother, Eugene, but he did not think either of them responsible for a theft of this magnitude. His mind then jumped to a worse suspicion — hadn’t this Susan woman asked for a gift he remembered, his stomach roiling. But had his father really just lifted an exceptionally valuable painting from the wall and given it to her, or sold it and given her the money? Or had he needed the money himself? Clive wondered, thinking of the dangerously low balances in his father’s accounts.

“Do you think it was that awful chauffeur?” Antonia asked, her eyes blazing. “It must have been! Clive, I insist you call the police! That painting was worth thousands!”

“Yes, Mother, I’m aware of that. But somehow, I don’t think it was Fletcher . . . I think . . .” but Clive broke off there. Obviously, he could not elaborate on any theories that may involve his father’s mistress. “Let me investigate. Maybe there’s a simple explanation.”

“A simple explanation!” Antonia almost shouted. “I can’t imagine what that would be, Clive!”

“Perhaps a servant damaged it,” he suggested, “and they put a different one there until it could be repaired. Perhaps Billings took it into his mind to have it cleaned. It could be any number of things. It’s damned difficult to just up and steal a painting.”

Antonia did not respond but seemed perhaps to be considering Clive’s words; she stood staring at the imposter painting, clearly still distraught.

“Mother,” Clive said tentatively, “was everything all right between you and Father? You know, were you . . . how shall I put it? Was everything on the level, as it were?”

“What a singular question, Clive,” Antonia said sharply, turning to him. “Yes, of course everything was ‘on the level’ between us, if I understand you correctly. But what on earth does that have to do with this missing painting?”

“Forgive me, Mother, I . . . things just don’t make sense lately, is all. Father’s affairs seem not perfectly in order — ”

“Clive,” she said, exasperatedly. “I really must interject. You are positively driving yourself mad.” She said this last word as a bit of a hiss. “I acknowledge that you . . . you suffered in the war and that you were a bit . . . addled afterward. Anyone would be, of course, darling, after what you endured, but you must be strong now.” She sighed. “I know you think of yourself as the police detective, but all of that is behind you now,” she continued patronizingly. “I refuse to allow myself or your father’s memory, for that matter, to be subjugated to these . . . these mad theories of yours. There has been no foul play, and the sooner you recognize this, the sooner you will find some peace. I don’t mean to be beastly, darling, but you’re wrong in this. Quite wrong! You know you are. Please give this up, for all our sakes,” she urged. “If you must investigate something, investigate this painting!” she said, her irritation returning as she glanced back at the gallery wall.

Clive rubbed his brow wearily. Obviously she now thought him unbalanced. “Yes, Mother, of course you’re right,” he managed to get out through gritted teeth, resolving to watch what he said in front of her in future. “Let me ask Billings a few questions, and if I’m not satisfied with the answers he provides I will call in the police.”

“Do I have your word?”

“Yes, you have my word.”

MICHELLE COX holds a BA in English literature from Mundelein College, Chicago, and is the author of the award-winning Henrietta and Inspector Howard series, as well as the weekly Novel Notes of Local Lore, a blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. Cox lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and three children and is currently hard at work on the fifth book of this series. In her vast free time, she sits on the board of the prestigious Society of Midland Authors and is a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books.

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The Coil

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

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