Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire. He has authored numerous books, including, recently, The Hacker.
But the pearls were not meant to be the property of Robert Marsh. It appeared to the auctioneer that a war was about to be fought between the Rotterdam cartel who represented the Fifth Maharajah, and Rodolfo Lopez. He gloated as the Dutchmen clearly exchanged prearranged signals. But who was in charge, and how high would they go? Sydney Aubrey-Osborne had seen bidding like this before, and he had hoped for a sale price of £20,000. Now he knew from experience that if he skilfully moved the crowd and bidding he might get £25,000 or even £27,000. He gave a signal to Lord Sohensogh, polishing his monocle, showing nine fingers. Sohensogh raised his paddle with a tentative look: he had never in his history entered a bid of such a denomination, and its magnitude was both thrilling and petrifying to him.
‘Nineteen thousand pounds,’ he cried, trembling. The room reacted again as if fireworks had exploded, and the normally sedate audience dithered wildly among themselves eager to hear the incredible sums about to be named.
Marsh heaved a sigh of relief, twisting around to see who had bested his inadvertent bid, as Lord Sohensogh settled back into his seat. Aha, Marsh suddenly thought, this must be the gentleman who took the Wickham Library from me. He nodded at Lord Sohensogh, and the elderly man, caught off guard, nodded courteously back, thinking he was being engaged in a flirtation.
‘Nineteen thousand pounds, do I hear twenty?’ Sydney Aubrey-Osborne asked, in as slow and low a voice as he could muster. Here was the sale price he had sought, and he knew that if the pearls were to go for a higher sum he needed to ease the buyers upward. Now would occur a gap, while the bidders considered the numbers they were about to propose, and in that gap a man whom only Aubrey-Osborne saw slipped from between the curtains at the corner of the room far at the rear, and like a dark shadow clinging to the back wall, knelt down and behind the shoulder of Rodolfo López. There appeared to be a brief, whispered exchange, after which the dark figure cloaked in black left as discretely he entered. It briefly registered in Sydney’s mind that the dark-cloaked figure resembled the notorious Capt Blackpool, but he could not be sure. All of this only took seconds, for one of the gentlemen from Rotterdam by then raised his paddle and said, ‘Nineteen-five.’
‘Nineteen-five, do I hear twenty?’ Sydney Aubrey-Osborne urged. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, for these magnificent strands of pearls do I hear twenty thousand?’
The agent for Rodolfo López, the man from the New World, raised his paddle. ‘Twenty-one,’ he said in a bored voice. Once again the Scottish gentleman twisted his head around to get a better view of the bidder at the back. And now an event occurred which made Sydney Aubrey-Osborne’s heart sink, for Lopez himself abruptly rose and left the auction gallery as quickly as he had arrived. Had the war been lost so swiftly? This exit did not escape the two members of the Rotterdam cartel at the back of the seating, and one immediately raised his paddle and called out ‘Twenty-two thousand!’
In the last half-minute the auctioneer’s emotions had swung back and forth, and now he decided a most remarkable stroke of luck had descended on him. It was abundantly clear that an attempt was being made to restore the pearls to India to the royal house of Jaipur. In a rush of excitement at his deduction, Aubrey-Osborne removed his monocle, polished it, and deliberately placed it back in his eye, resting his right index finger against his cheek, looking towards Lord Sohensogh. The elderly confederate raised his paddle and called out ‘Twenty-three thousand!’ in a quivering voice.
From the back of the room one of the Rotterdam cartel raised his paddle. ‘Twenty-three five!’ he said.
Sydney Aubrey-Osborne experienced a moment of panic. If the agent for Señor López, the gentleman from the New World, had dropped out of the bidding—for he had not joined in since his client had so hurriedly departed the gallery—then how much more was the Rotterdam cartel prepared to pay? Fair warning had not yet been called, the pearls were still in play. Let us see, he decided resolutely, to what ends of the earth young Jaipur is prepared to go to recapture the strands.
‘Twenty-three thousand five-hundred pounds! Do I hear twenty-four?’ He removed his monocle one more time, polished it, and repeated the signal to Lord Sohensogh. The elderly confederate regarded him with consternation, but raised his paddle, albeit hesitantly. ‘Twenty-four thousand pounds, thank you!’ Aubrey-Osborne shouted.
Sir Robert Marsh squared his shoulders in spite of being obstructed by the ear trumpet and the oversize lady, twisted his body about and fixed his concentration on Lord Sohensogh. It perplexed Lord Sohensogh why the mutton-chopped man seated two rows forward kept looking at him, so he averted his glance with some irritation, occupied in anxious ruminations over the possibility of losing out on the chamber pot ornamented with Hindu motifs. Perhaps, he considered, he was getting too old for the pressure of auctions, and needed a long holiday at Bath, where he could take the curative waters in peace. He suspected that no buyer would go beyond such an astronomical sum for the pearl strands, his mouth tightened and eyes narrowed as disappointment overtook him. A sour taste rose up into his throat. Sydney Aubrey-Osborne reluctantly engaged the same emotion, shifting his glance among the three bidders from the Rotterdam cartel.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, López’s agent re-entered the bidding, calling, ‘Twenty-five thousand pounds.’
The gallery transformed into a sea of heads turning right and left, punctuated by the rustling of papers and furious scratchings of the newspapermen at the back. ‘Twenty-five, an excellent tribute to Lady Goberslieves’ memory!’ Sydney Aubrey-Osborne chirped, as a glowing, satisfied countenance came over him. He observed that the three men from the Rotterdam cartel now began to look nervously at each other, and he poignantly concluded that they had surely reached their upper limit. All necks now craned to see who the smooth voice belonged to in the back row, he who had just bid £25,000. From the three points in the gallery the Rotterdam cartel exchanged eye and hand signals with diminishing discretion, obviously reconsidering the amount they had been deputized to spend. From the rear of the gallery the agent for Rodolfo López sat coolly, confident that the bidding would now draw to a close.
Sydney Aubrey-Osborne did not abide by gambling, but he felt certain an opportunity had presented itself. He removed the monocle, repeated his signal, and Lord Sohensogh, nearly choking, called out, ‘Twenty-six?’
‘Twenty-six thousand pounds from my lord,’ Sydney Aubrey-Osborne repeated. ‘Do I hear twenty-seven thousand pounds for this one-of-a-kind-masterpiece, rich in history, and dedicated to the well-being of children?’
More signals were exchanged among the Rotterdam cartel, and one of the men in back spoke up. ‘Twenty-six five,’ he breathed, raising his paddle. The auctioneer nodded, but he knew that the bidding could not proceed much longer. All the manœuvrings indicated Rotterdam was faltering at their upper limit. Now he would need to see how badly the gentleman from the New World wanted the pearls. At £26,500 the pearls had exceeded their fair market value. Any higher bids would be pure extravagance. Curtain up on the last act, Sydney Aubrey-Osborne thought. Actors to their positions!
‘No king, no queen, no prince possesses strands of pearls such as these,’ he urged them. ‘There is but one set, and you see it here before you. An object fashioned with this uniqueness and elegance comes available only once in a lifetime, and you have heard of the incredible historical events that surround it. Who can resist their temptation? They are magnificent, enigmatic, the stuff of legend. Twenty-six thousand five hundred pounds has been bid. Do I hear twenty-seven?’
With barely a nod, Vittorio’s agent acceded.
‘Twenty-seven thousand pounds has been bid!’ Sydney announced. He stared at Lord Sohensogh, indicating that no bid was to be made. The elderly confederate relaxed his shoulders and settled back into his seat, dreaming of his Hindu chamber pot, greatly relieved to be out of the foray. ‘Once in a lifetime!’ Sydney nearly shouted, as heads turned and necks craned, anxious to catch the jockeying.
A final exchange of looks between the Rotterdam cartel, and incredible silence in the room. Catalogues rustled, someone coughed softly, a strange and suspenseful air surrounded those present. Then, the third gentleman from the Rotterdam cartel, who had heretofore remained silently from his post midway down on the centre aisle, raised his paddle tentatively. ‘Twenty-seven thousand five hundred pounds,’ he said with a certain finality in his singsong accent.
Sydney Aubrey-Osborne felt a rush of exhilaration and his cheeks flushed red with the sensation. ‘A truly regal offer!’ He said, glowing. ‘An offer of £27,500 honours these pearls! Do I hear twenty-eight?’
Vittorio’s agent consulted his watch. He surveyed the room right to left in a gesture of near-impatience. He tensed his mouth, looked directly at the auctioneer and raised his paddle. ‘Thirty thousand pounds,’ he stated in a matter-of-fact way. Let’s be done with this!
Pandemonium! A sea of turning heads and bodies, a flurry of journalistic scribblings, a maelstrom of exclamations. Sir Robert Marsh nearly stood up in his seat, trying to see who had bid £30,000. Sydney Aubrey-Osborne’s monocle popped out of his eye, and he felt a shortness of breath.
‘I call fair warning,’ he said urgently. ‘Thirty thousand pounds, going once, going twice’—the inevitable pause—‘going three times! Then, sold! For thirty thousand pounds!’ And the gavel fell. Unknown to everyone, even to the auctioneer, Vittorio Rosetti had purchased the Pearls of Jaipur. The newsmen scrambled over each other to reach the door as the green velvet curtains billowed out behind them, and the crowd applauded in an uncharacteristic and boisterous manner, leaping to their feet, inquisitive to see who had won the bidding for the pearls. But to no avail. The agent for the gentleman from the New World had already slipped away through a side exit, on the heels of the newspapermen.
Sir Robert stood up along with everyone else, but confronted by the mass of bobbing, undulating heads, and jostled by those attempting to escape the crowded aisles he finally gave up, and sat back down, smouldering, while he waited for the room to empty. Eventually the gallery returned to the state he first found, absent of everyone except himself. The only evidence that an auction had transpired was the unruly arrangement of the rows, scraps of paper and discarded paddles on the floor and seats. Absently he picked up a catalogue and placed it in his pocket. There was a stillness to the room contrasting the incredible excitement at the end of the bidding. Marsh sat, in a state of perplexity, trying to put together the pieces: Who was the buyer? What was the explanation for the conduct of the effete man two rows behind him who had participated almost until the end, dropped out, and then—in what appeared to be great jubilation—left the room. Which bidder had taken the Wickham Library? And what of the man in back who successfully acquired the pearls: why had he disappeared so suddenly? Marsh considered the puzzle and decided to confront the auctioneer face-to-face. He resolutely rose, and after numerous inquiries was directed to an anteroom, where in a state of numbness and exhaustion, he waited for Mr Aubrey-Osborne.
It took some time before Sydney Aubrey-Osborne could see him, for much paperwork concerned with the auction remained. Finally, Sir Robert Marsh was escorted into the inner office, where he was invited to sit down. He looked at the chalk-skinned man with the monocle, who seemed much less intimidating in person than he did while facing the crowd standing on a riser in front of a podium.
‘May I help you?’ the little man asked.
‘The pearls!’ Marsh blurted out. ‘Who bought the pearls?’
‘You wish to enter a higher offer should the sale not be concluded?’
‘Absolutely not,’ Marsh said. ‘I need to know who bought the pearls.’
‘An agent,’ Sydney Aubrey-Osborne answered disinterestedly, while slightly suspicious. A letter from Capt Blackpool had warned him the Scottish gentleman might approach him about just this matter.
‘For whom?’ Marsh demanded.
‘A foreign gentleman,’ Aubrey-Osborne said. ‘Through an agent. That is all I know.’
‘Surely you can tell me more. A country, a company, an address,’ he insisted.
‘I noted that you made an offer early on. But you did not stay with the bidding. Do you still have an interest in the pearls, should this offer be unconsummated?’
‘No,’ Marsh replied absently. ‘Not in them. I was interested in the buyer.’
‘Ahem, then. You will please excuse me. There is much business left to be conducted around the sale, and I can neither furnish you more information nor lend you another moment. I am sincerely sorry I cannot help, but I must ask you to take your leave.’
‘I beg you, sir, to tell me the name of the agent who purchased the pearls. This is a matter of honour. You do not know the lengths that I will go to discover his identity.’
Unknown to Marsh, the auctioneer’s complicity had been long arranged by the agent of Vittorio Rosetti. Though Sydney was unaware of the depth of Vittorio’s plan, the tantalizing secrecy and mystery which surrounded the foreign gentleman was enough for the auctioneer, who thrived on exactly this kind of intrigue. Having sworn his cooperation, he had been charged to reveal the agent’s identity—but only after feigning that he was much compromised. Aubrey-Osborne reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a single ivory-coloured card. This he passed across the desk face-down. ‘You are a persuasive gentleman,’ he began. ‘And I rely on your honour to uphold the privacy of our interaction. Here is the name of the agent, but if you do approach him I implore you to forget it was I who gave this to you. Ours is a business of incredible confidence and discretion, and if it came to anyone’s attention that I had betrayed their anonymity the consequences for me would be serious. If I am ever named as your source I will deny it. And now, good day, sir.’ The elderly auctioneer looked first to the door, then back to the papers on his desktop, so Marsh rose and let himself out of the tiny office wordlessly, armed with the ivory card, and much befuddled. After the door closed, Sydney Aubrey-Osborne gave off with a delicious giggle, and returned to his invoices and bills of lading, much gratified to have played his part in the enigmatic scheme.
On the front steps of the auction house Marsh encountered his agent, Camberwell.
‘My lord, I hope that the auction proceeded to your satisfaction, and that you found the information you sought.’
‘I did not,’ Marsh grumbled. ‘As a matter of fact I am all the more perplexed about this mysterious buyer from the New World who stole my library from me.’
‘Perhaps a bit of lunch would make your lordship more pleasantly disposed. After all, you have been inside the galley many hours, and you had a long and spirited walk beforehand.’
‘I think not. I have no appetite now, and I am much vexed by the turn of circumstances. Good day to you!’
He left Camberwell on the steps, which gave the bookseller much relief, in that he no longer needed to entertain the surly Scot. Camberwell scurried away towards his offices, dreaming of warmth, making sure not to look back, lest he be caught by Marsh on a second thought. Steak and kidney pie for lunch, he thought. That will be just fine!
It took Robert Marsh an unusually long time on foot to get to the address written on the ivory card. The elegant mansion stood a great distance from the auctioneer’s, and the light rain which had begun in the morning had by then turned to occasional windblown showers. Marsh sought shelter several times during his trek, and when he finally stumbled onto the mansion’s high porch and shook the accumulated dampness off his tweed cape under the portico he trembled with impatience. He pounded furiously on the door, rang the bell, pounded some more, with no response. The house was dark and the curtains were all pulled. Marsh could not see in any windows, and a high metal gate and thick hedges prevented him from accessing the rest of the grounds. He returned to the porch, pounded again uselessly until he came to his senses, consulted his watch. He found himself damnably late, realizing that to appear at the Cringley Arms on the appointed hour for his rendezvous with Grace he would need to run for the better part of the way. This extremely worrisome fact caused Sir Robert to calculate as best as he could just how long he would need to proceed on foot before hailing a hackney cab, a prospect he did not relish. Instead, he decided, Grace would need to content herself with waiting, as he had often waited for her. He sincerely hoped that he would find some of her blasted coal aflame in the brazier after his inordinately long passage back to the hotel.
Somewhere between feelings of fury and defeat he stalked back across town. He found himself angered at investing the time and money to come to London in the first place. He had hoped to mollify Grace, but now he was in no mood to see any good in the impulsive visit. There was no point in staying another day. The taxidermist, the House of Lords would amuse him no more. He made the decision that they would depart that very night, and not waste any more time in the frantic, expensive atmosphere of London. A cold, icy rain now fell steadily, but he would not afford himself the luxury of a cab, which he considered inordinate. Hunched underneath his coat, avoiding the murky puddles, dodging the sea of pedestrians and traffic, he went over and over the events of the auction, but the recollections further frustrated him. He had failed to discover the buyer, let alone get a look at any face. He had a name, an address, but a deserted mansion. And the memory of the loathsome man with the ear trumpet and the powdered fat woman fed his anger. He now realized that he had not left the auction house soon enough. Had he waited outside and observed each person leaving he would be in possession of a stronger lead. Had he sat in the back of the room rather than the front, he could have seen much more of the activity. For the duration of his walk he clenched and unclenched his fists, his fury growing, and his anger made him forget the ice cold temperature and the driving rain.
When Robert Marsh finally caught sight of the Cringley Arms ahead he had only the thought of a hot cup of tea in his mind, and he did not wish to be occupied with any of Grace’s irrelevancies. While his hope was that she did not worry about his lateness he also rehearsed in his mind the speech he would give her, that he was much vexed and wished to sit quietly, whilst she completed the packing for their early return to Marshmoor. My dear, he meant to say to her, our business in London is complete. We will leave immediately.
He hoped that when he encountered Grace at the hotel he did not find her victimized yet again by some incredible extravagance, having purchased a worthless bauble or sweet, and he regretted giving her access to extra money before he left. He was oblivious to many things, not the least of which was a phantom figure, an operative of Captain Harry Blackpool’s, who had shadowed his every move through the wintry cold, from the auction to the mansion and back to the doorstep of the Cringley Arms, and now took up a post across the lane, awaiting his next move.
Inside, Marsh was greeted by the enthusiastic but ineffective Simon, who immediately produced the threadbare whisk broom, but Marsh waved him away without a word. Wearily, he climbed the stairs to the third floor, where he fumbled with his key in the tiny and dim corridor.
‘Grace!’ he called, expecting her to open the door for him, but there was no answer. Perhaps she had over-tired herself, and was napping. When he finally was able to open the door to the room he found it empty, cold, still. The room presented itself in the same condition as when he had left it: his things were laid out on the bureau top, the bed had been straightened and not been slept in, the tea crockery from the morning still remained, untouched. The fire was cold in the grate, and not even the few remaining pieces of coal had been used, which gratified him. Marsh paused and consulted his watch. He was certain that he had told her to be in the room an hour earlier. Darkness was falling, so he lit a candle, becoming concerned for her safety. Marsh was struck in a vague way by the desolation and melancholy of the room. He hung his cape on a flimsy hook on the side of the armoire, took a few moments to light the brazier, and then considered the hour. He surveyed the room once more, and casually opened the armoire door, quickly coming to the realization that Grace’s belongings were gone. He pulled open the bureau drawers, and sure enough all that remained were his objects. There was nothing of hers left in the room. Then he noted on the top of the bureau something which he had not seen when he first entered the room. It rested against the chipped pitcher next to the wash basin: a single sheet of paper, folded over, with ‘Robert’ written on the outside. Bringing the note closer to the candle light he sat down on the end of the bed, unfolded the paper and began to read.
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