“I find that a Ming bowl is like a woman’s breast,” Sir Lyndon Mather said to Ian Mackenzie, who held the bowl in question between his fingertips. “The swelling curve, the creamy pallor. Don’t you agree?”
Ian couldn’t think of a woman who would be flattered to have her breast compared to a bowl, so he didn’t bother to nod.
The delicate vessel was from the early Ming period, the porcelain barely flushed with green, the sides so thin Ian could see light through them. Three gray-green dragons chased one another across the outside, and four chrysanthemums seemed to float across the bottom.
The little vessel might just cup a small rounded breast, but that was as far as Ian was willing to go. “One thousand guineas,” he said.
Mather’s smile turned sickly. “Now, my lord, I thought we were friends.”
Ian wondered where Mather had got that idea. “The bowl is worth one thousand guineas.” He fingered the slightly chipped rim, the base worn from centuries of handling. Mather looked taken aback, blue eyes glittering in his overly handsome face.
“I paid fifteen hundred for it. Explain yourself.” There was nothing to explain. Ian’s rapidly calculating mind had taken in every asset and flaw in ten seconds flat.
If Mather couldn’t tell the value of his pieces, he had no business collecting porcelain. There were at least five fakes in the glass case on the other side of Mather’s collection room, and Ian wagered Mather had no idea. Ian put his nose to the glaze, liking the clean scent that had survived the heavy cigar smoke of Mather’s house. The bowl was genuine, it was beautiful, and he wanted it. “At least give me what I paid for it,” Mather said in a panicked voice. “The man told me I had it at a bargain.” “One thousand guineas,” Ian repeated.
“Damn it, man, I’m getting married.”
Ian recalled the announcement in the Times—verbatim, because he recalled everything verbatim: Sir Lyndon Mather of St. Aubrey’s, Suffolk, announces his betrothal to Mrs. Thomas Ackertey, a widow. The wedding to be held on the twenty-seventh of June of this year in St. Aubrey’s at ten o’clock in the morning.
“My felicitations,” Ian said.
“I wish to buy my beloved a gift with what I get for the bowl.”
Ian kept his gaze on the vessel. “Why not give her the bowl itself?”
Mather’s hearty laugh filled the room. “My dear fellow, women don’t know the first thing about porcelain. She’ll want a carriage and a matched team and a string of servants to carry all the fripperies she buys. I’ll give her that. She’s a fine-looking woman, daughter of some froggie aristo, for all she’s long in the tooth and a widow.”
Ian didn’t answer. He touched the tip of his tongue to the bowl, reflecting that it was far better than ten carriages with matched teams. Any woman who didn’t see the poetry in it was a fool.
Mather wrinkled his nose as Ian tasted the bowl, but Ian had learned to test the genuineness of the glaze that way. Mather wouldn’t be able to tell a genuine glaze if someone painted him with it.
“She’s got a bloody fortune of her own,” Mather went on, “inherited from that Barrington woman, a rich old lady who didn’t keep her opinions to herself. Mrs. Ackerley, her quiet companion, copped the lot.”
Then why is she marrying you? Ian turned the bowl over in his hands as he speculated, but if Mrs. Ackerley wanted to make her bed with Lyndon Mather, she could lie in it. Of course, she might find the bed a little crowded. Mather kept a secret house for his mistress and several other women to cater to his needs, which he loved to boast about to Ian’s brothers. I’m as decadent as yoit lot, he was trying to say. But in Ian’s opinion, Mather understood pleasures of the flesh about as well as he understood Ming porcelain. “Bet you’re surprised a dedicated bachelor like myself is for the chop, eh?” Mather went on. “If you’re wondering whether I’m giving up my bit of the other, the answer is no. You are welcome to come ‘round and join in anytime, you know. I’ve extended the invitation to you, and your brothers as well.” Ian had met Mather’s ladies, vacant-eyed women willing to put up with Mather’s proclivities for the money he gave them.
Mather reached for a cigar. “I say, we’re at Covent Garden Opera tonight. Come meet my fiancee. I’d like your opinion. Everyone knows you have as exquisite taste in females as you do in porcelain.” He chuckled.
Ian didn’t answer. He had to rescue the bowl from this philistine. “One thousand guineas.”
“You’re a hard man, Mackenzie.”
“One thousand guineas, and I’ll see you at the opera.”
“Oh, very well, though you’re ruining me.”
He’d ruined himself. “Your widow has a fortune. You’ll recover.”
Mather laughed, his handsome face lighting. Ian had seen women of every age blush or flutter fans when Mather smiled. Mather was the master of the double life. “True, and she’s lovely to boot. I’m a lucky man.”
Mather rang for his butler and Ian’s valet, Curry. Curry produced a wooden box lined with straw, into which Ian carefully placed the dragon bowl.
Ian hated to cover up such beauty. He touched it one last time, his gaze fixed on it until Curry broke his concentration by placing the lid on the box.
He looked up to find that Mather had ordered the butler to pour brandy. Ian accepted a glass and sat down in front of the bankbook Curry had placed on Mather’s desk for him. Ian set aside the brandy and dipped his pen in the ink. He bent down to write and caught sight of the droplet of black ink hanging on the nib in a perfect, round sphere. He stared at the droplet, something inside him singing at the perfection of the ball of ink, the glistening viscosity that held it suspended from the nib. The sphere was perfect, shining, a wonder.
He wished he could savor its perfection forever, but he knew that in a second it would fall from the pen and be lost. If his brother Mac could paint something this exquisite, this beautiful, Ian would treasure it.
He had no idea how long he’d sat there studying the droplet of ink until he heard Mather say, “Damnation, he really is mad, isn’t he?”
The droplet fell down, ‘down, down to splash on the page, gone to its death in a splatter of black ink. “I’ll write it out for you, then, m’lord?”
Ian looked into the homely face of his manservant, a young Cockney who’d spent his boyhood pickpocketing his way across London.