“Hold on, there!” came a sharp challenge from the stairs behind and below me. “What are you doing? And what’s that picture doing?”
I started so that I almost lost my footing and fell upon the speaker—one of the Museum guards. He was a slight old fellow and his thin hair was gray, but he advanced upon me with all the righteous, angry pluck of a beefy policeman. His attitude surprised and nettled me.
“I was going to ask somebody that same question,” I told him as austerely as I could manage. “What about this picture? I thought there was a Böcklin hanging here.”
The guard relaxed his forbidding attitude at first sound of my voice. “Oh, I beg your pardon, sir. I thought you were somebody else—the man who brought that thing.” He nodded at the picture, and the hostile glare came back into his eyes. “It so happened that he talked to me first, then to the curator. Said it was art—great art—and the Museum must have it.” He lifted his shoulders, in a shrug or a shudder. “Personally, I think it’s plain beastly.”
So it was, I grew aware as I looked at it again. “And the Museum has accepted it at last?” I prompted.
He shook his head. “Oh, no, sir. An hour ago he was at the back door, with that nasty daub there under his arm. I heard part of the argument. He got insulting, and he was told to clear out and take his picture with him. But he must have got in here somehow, and hung it himself.” Walking close to the painting, as gingerly as though he expected the pink dancers to leap out at him, he pointed to the lower edge of the frame. “If it was a real Museum piece, we’d have a plate right there, with the name of the painter and the title.”
I, too, came close. There was no plate, just as the guard had said. But in the lower left-hand corner of the canvas were sprawling capitals, pale paint on the dark, spelling out the word GOLGOTHA. Beneath these, in small, barely readable script:
I sold my soul that I might paint a living picture.
No signature or other clue to the artist’s identity.
The guard had discovered a great framed rectangle against the wall to one side. “Here’s the picture he took down,” he informed me, highly relieved. “Help me put it back, will you, sir? And do you suppose,” here he grew almost wistful, “that we could get rid of this other thing before someone finds I let the crazy fool slip past me?”
I took one edge of The Isle of the Dead and lifted it to help him hang it once more.
“Tell you what,” I offered on sudden impulse; “I’ll take this Golgotha piece home with me, if you like.”
“Would you do that?” he almost yelled out in his joy at the suggestion. “Would you, to oblige me?”
“To oblige myself,” I returned. “I need another picture at my place.”
And the upshot of it was, he smuggled me and the unwanted painting out of the Museum. Never mind how. I have done quite enough as it is to jeopardize his job and my own welcome up there.
It was not until I had paid off my taxi…