‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring …..
“What the fuck??!!!”
A loud bellow sounded somewhere in the Castle.
Dorian sat up in his bed, rudely awakened from a dream of young, handsome Renaissance sculptors and smooth marble forms.
“What the fuck?!!!” the loud voice shouted again.
Dorian swung his long legs out of the bed. The yelling was coming from the direction of his study, on the same floor as his bedroom but some distance away. Whoever was making all that noise had better lungs than most opera singers. He had some idea who it might be.
Pulling on his luxurious red satin dressing gown, Dorian went out into the long passageway that traversed the front of Castle Gloria’s south wing.
“M’lord?” A sleep-rumpled Bonham fell into step beside him. “Shall I wake up Jonesy and Beck?”
Bonham was wearing a hastily-donned nightshirt and carrying a cricket bat, which Dorian recognised as the school-days souvenir Bonham kept in a glass case beside his bookshelves.
“No, Bonham love; I think I know what might have happened.”
At the end of the passageway, the commotion in the study had become an agitated rumble, like the buzzing of giant bees disturbed in their hive. Dorian was sure he could hear more than one voice.
He stopped a pace away from the study door. Within, the voices squabbled on, muffled by the thick mahogany door between the intruders and the master of the house. He took a deep breath, stepped forward, and pulled the door open sharply.
Behind him, Bonham snapped the light on.
The intruders fell silent.
Dorian folded his arms in a school-masterly fashion, looking from one to the other. He recognised his intruders. Every one of them. He settled his stern gaze on the tall figure at the centre of the group.
“Good evening, Major,” he said. “Agent A. Agent B. Agent Z. You seem to have forgotten the importance of stealth when breaking into someone’s house in the middle of the night. What is the meaning of this?”
The expression of wide-eyed shock frozen on the Major’s face thawed and resolved into a furious glare. “I should be asking you the same question!” he snarled. “What’s the meaning of this?” – and he pointed furiously at the large painting hanging on the study wall.
“The Man in Purple?” Dorian glanced up at the portrait of Tyrian Persimmon, positioned where he could see it comfortably when seated at his desk.
“Yes. The Man in Fucking Purple. Bloody Pumpkin-Pants.” The Major’s knuckles whitened, as he tightened his grip on the item in his grasp – another painting, identical to the one on the wall.
Dorian looked from one painting to the other, then turned his gaze back to the Major’s face. He raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, to hell with it!” The Major dragged the painting he was holding across the carpet to lean it against the Earl’s desk. “You’ve been needling me about this bloody painting for years, Eroica. I’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve tried to get your covetous hands on it. So I decided to put a stop to it once and for all, and give you the bloody thing for Christmas. We were going to hang it up in your study and leave it there for you to find on Christmas morning. I thought that if you had the damned thing, you might leave me alone.”
Dorian’s stern expression softened into a radiant smile, as all pretense at playing Indignant Lord of the Manor melted away. “You were going to give me The Man in Purple? One of your ancestral treasures? Part of Germany’s cultural heritage? Oh, Major!” He clasped his hands over his heart.
“Well, that’s what I was going to do! But when we got here—!” The Major stabbed an angry finger in the direction of the painting on the wall. “What’s this? Did you get your resident forger to make you a copy to feed your daydreams?”
“Er— no, Major. Not exactly. I did get Jonesy to paint a replica for me, but that’s not it.” Dorian’s eyes flicked away from the Major’s. He even looked a little sheepish. “He didn’t paint it for me to look at; it was for you to look at.”
The Major’s jaw dropped. “What do you mean?”
“That’s the replica there.” Dorian pointed at the painting leaning against his desk. “We broke in to Schloss Eberbach a month ago, while you were on that mission in North Africa. We swapped the paintings over.” He gestured at the painting on the wall. “That is The Man in Purple. The original. From your family gallery. The one you brought with you is the copy.”
Bonham and the Alphabets exchanged nervous glances.
“You—!? You broke into the Schloss? You stole The Man in Purple?” The Major, incoherent with rage, clenched his fists.
“Well, yes, Major. I’m afraid I did.” Dorian smiled ruefully. “If I’d known you were going to give it to me, I wouldn’t have done it. I know how much it annoys you when the security system at the Schloss is shown to be so woefully inadequate. Although, of course, my boys are better than average at disabling security systems. The average thief wouldn’t stand a chance.”
For five seconds, tense silence reigned. Then, a grin blossomed on the Major’s face and he began to laugh.
Alarmed at this uncharacteristic response, Dorian stepped forward. “Major? Are you all right?”
The Major, still laughing, turned to his agents. “You lot! Out! Roly-Poly – out! Now. Go on, all of you.” He closed the door firmly after them, and turned to the Earl.
“Eroica, you are the most infuriating, devious bastard I have ever met in my life.” The laughter had died down but the Major was still smiling – one of his rare genuine smiles. “Scheming, conniving, underhanded, exasperating—” The Major shook his head. “The one thing you are not is inconsistent. I used to think you changed your mind on a whim and you’d be incapable of maintaining your focus on anything. I have to admit: I was wrong. You’ve been intent on stealing this damned painting ever since you first saw it, haven’t you? And you’ve finally done it.”
“When I truly want something, I make it my own. However long it takes.” Dorian smiled impishly. “So I can’t promise to leave you alone, Major.”
“H’mph. Well, you might as well keep the damn painting, since I was going to give it to you anyway. I’ll take the copy back to the Schloss and hang it in the family gallery again. It’ll keep my father happy when he comes to visit next time.”
Then, the Major did something he’d never done before. He placed both his hands on Dorian’s shoulders, and pulled him closer.
Dorian’s eyes widened, unsure what to expect – but he need not have worried.
“Since you already have possession of the thing I was going to give you for Christmas, I suppose I’ll have to find something else to give you instead.” And with those words, the Major placed a firm kiss on the Earl’s lips. “Merry Christmas. Dorian.”