I'm the only Marxist regularly reading Jeffrey Archer with pleasure.
In forty years Archer has written his share of potboilers of the international-Ludlum school: Shall We Tell the President? , The Eleventh Commandment , False Impression . And he has produced very readable historical sagas: Kane and Abel , The Prodigal Daughter , As the Crow Flies . One novel, The Fourth Estate , is an entertaining fictional retelling of the careers of Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch. And recently Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare has produced The Clifton Chronicles, a heptalogy covering one man's life.
The Archer novels I enjoy most are those about men beaten down by plots of villains, but who through grit and determination, intelligence, and by forging alliances, turn the tables and bite the biter. Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less  is the earliest of these; the latest is a re-telling of the Monte Cristo story, A Prisoner of Birth .
Many of Archer's short stories cover the same subject matter. In many ways I prefer his short fiction: it has the casual immediacy and telegraphic brevity of some of the shorter works of Stevenson, Conrad, Maugham, and Greene.
(Plus, I am a sucker for short fiction with a certain UK authorial tone of voice, whether it be Conan Doyle, Buchan, Yates, Christie, Sayers, M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Dennis Wheatley, or Geoffrey Household.)
Archer's 2000 collection of short fiction, To Cut a Long Story Short, contains a personal favorite: "The Endgame." I just finished reading it for the third time.
"The Endgame" tells the story of Cornelius Barrington: widower, retired, after a successful career as "an entrepreneur, a risk-taker, who had made his fortune mining in South Africa and Brazil." He and the other characters all live in the town of Chudley, Shropshire.
Over a chess game with his solicitor, Frank Vincent, Cornelius reveals his plan to turn the tables on family and employee who insist they would do anything for him.
‘Don’t you remember some weeks ago, sitting in that chair and advising me that the time had come for me to consider rewriting my will?’
‘Yes, I do,’ said Frank, ‘but that was only because in your present will virtually everything is left to Millie.’
‘I’m aware of that,’ said Cornelius, ‘but it nevertheless served to concentrate the mind. You see, I still rise at six o’clock every morning, but as I no longer have an office to go to, I spend many self-indulgent hours considering how to distribute my wealth now that Millie can no longer be the main beneficiary.’
Cornelius took another long puff of his cigar before continuing. ‘For the past month I have been considering those around me - my relatives, friends, acquaintances and employees - and I began to think about the way they have always treated me, which caused me to wonder which of them would show the same amount of devotion, attention and loyalty if I were not worth millions, but was in fact a penniless old man.’
‘I have a feeling I’m in check,’ said Frank, with a laugh.
‘No, no, my dear friend,’ said Cornelius. ‘You are absolved from any such doubts. Otherwise I would not be sharing these confidences with you.’
‘But are such thoughts not a little unfair on your immediate family, not to mention …’
‘You may be right, but I don’t wish to leave that to chance. I have therefore decided to find out the truth for myself, as I consider mere speculation to be unsatisfactory.’ Once again, Cornelius paused to take a puff of his cigar before continuing. ‘So indulge me for a moment while I tell you what I have in mind, for I confess that without your cooperation it will be impossible for me to carry out my little subterfuge. But first allow me to refill your glass.’ Cornelius rose from his chair, picked up his friend’s empty goblet and walked to the sideboard.
‘As I was saying,’ continued Cornelius, passing the refilled glass back to Frank, ‘I have recently been wondering how those around me would behave if I were penniless, and I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way to find out.’
Frank took a long gulp before enquiring, ‘What do you have in mind? A fake suicide perhaps?’
‘Not quite as dramatic as that,’ replied Cornelius. ‘But almost, because - ‘ he paused again ‘ - I intend to declare myself bankrupt.’ He stared through the haze of smoke, hoping to observe his friend’s immediate reaction. But, as so often in the past, the old solicitor remained inscrutable, not least because, although his friend had just made a bold move, he knew the game was far from over.
He pushed a pawn tentatively forward. ‘How do you intend to go about that?’ he asked.
‘Tomorrow morning,’ replied Cornelius, ‘I want you to write to the five people who have the greatest claim on my estate: my brother Hugh, his wife Elizabeth, their son Timothy, my sister Margaret, and finally my housekeeper Pauline.’
‘And what will be the import of this letter?’ asked Frank, trying not to sound too incredulous.
‘You will explain to all of them that, due to an unwise investment I made soon after my wife’s death, I now find myself in debt. In fact, without their help I may well be facing bankruptcy.’
‘But …’ protested Frank.
Cornelius raised a hand. ‘Hear me out,’ he pleaded, ‘because your role in this real-life game could prove crucial. Once you have convinced them that they can no longer expect anything from me, I intend to put the second phase of my plan into operation, which should prove conclusively whether they really care for me, or simply for the prospect of my wealth.’
‘I can’t wait to learn what you have in mind,’ said Frank.
Cornelius swirled the brandy round in his glass while he collected his thoughts.
‘As you are well aware, each of the five people I have named has at some time in the past asked me for a loan. I have never required anything in writing, as I have always considered the repayment of these debts to be a matter of trust. These loans range from PS100,000 to my brother Hugh to purchase the lease for his shop - which I understand is doing quite well - to my housekeeper Pauline, who borrowed PS500 for a deposit on a secondhand car. Even young Timothy needed PS1,000 to pay off his university loan, and as he seems to be progressing well in his chosen profession, it should not be too much to ask him - like all of the others - to repay his debt.’
‘And the second test?’ enquired Frank.
‘Since Millie’s death, each of them has performed some little service for me, which they have always insisted they enjoyed carrying out, rather than it being a chore. I’m about to find out if they are willing to do the same for a penniless old man.’
‘But how will you know …’ began Frank.
‘I think that will become obvious as the weeks go by. And in any case, there is a third test, which I believe will settle the matter.’
Frank stared across at his friend. ‘Is there any point in trying to talk you out of this crazy idea?’ he asked.
‘No, there is not,’ replied Cornelius without hesitation. ‘I am resolved in this matter, although I accept that I cannot make the first move, let alone bring it to a conclusion, without your cooperation.’
His nibs at work
Cornelius would make a fine Archer villain, were his goals not so charmingly small-minded.
The story then takes us through the day his relatives and housekeeper receive Frank's letters. Blood relations who swore they would do anything for Cornelius when he was rich do not fail to disappoint him.
First up is his brother Hugh, who runs a hardware store and home remodeling business:
‘A bankruptcy notice has already been served on me, so my very survival depends on how much I can raise in the short term.’ Cornelius paused. ‘I’m sorry to remind you of this, Hugh, but you will recall that some time ago I loaned you PS100,000. So I was rather hoping …’
‘But you know that every penny of that money has been sunk into the shop, and with High Street sales at an all-time low, I don’t think I could lay my hands on more than a few thousand at the moment.’
Cornelius thought he heard someone whispering the words ‘And no more’ in the background.
‘Yes, I can see the predicament you’re in,’ said Cornelius. ‘But anything you can do to help would be appreciated. When you’ve settled on a sum - ‘ he paused again ‘ - and naturally you’ll have to discuss with Elizabeth just how much you can spare - perhaps you could send a cheque direct to Frank Vincent’s office. He’s handling the whole messy business.’
‘The lawyers always seem to end up getting their cut, whether you win or lose.’
‘To be fair,’ said Cornelius, ‘Frank has waived his fee on this occasion. And while you’re on the phone, Hugh, the people you’re sending to refit the kitchen were due to start later this week. It’s even more important now that they complete the job as quickly as possible, because I’m putting the house on the market and a new kitchen will help me get a better price. I’m sure you understand.’
‘I’ll see what I can do to help,’ said Hugh, ‘but I may have to move that particular team onto another assignment. We’ve got a bit of a backlog at the moment.’
‘Oh? I thought you said money was a little tight right now,’ Cornelius said, stifling a chuckle.
‘It is,’ said Hugh, a little too quickly. ‘What I meant to say was that we’re all having to work overtime just to keep our heads above water.’
‘I think I understand,’ said Cornelius. ‘Still, I’m sure you’ll do everything you can to help, now you’re fully aware of my situation.’ He put the phone down and smiled.
Next comes Cornelius's sister, Margaret:
‘It was considerate of you to pop round so quickly in my hour of need, Margaret, but if you were hoping for a cup of tea, I’m afraid you’ll have to make it yourself.’
‘I didn’t come round for a cup of tea, as I suspect you know only too well, Cornelius. What I want to know is how you managed to fritter away your entire fortune.’ Before her brother could deliver some well-rehearsed lines from his script, she added, ‘You’ll have to sell the house, of course. I’ve always said that since Millie’s death it’s far too large for you. You can always take a bachelor flat in the village.’
‘Such decisions are no longer in my hands,’ said Cornelius, trying to sound helpless.
‘What are you talking about?’ demanded Margaret, rounding on him.
‘Just that the house and its contents have already been seized by the petitioners in bankruptcy. If I’m to avoid going bankrupt, we must hope that the house sells for a far higher price than the estate agents are predicting.’
‘Are you telling me there’s absolutely nothing left?’
‘Less than nothing would be more accurate,’ said Cornelius, sighing. ‘And once they’ve evicted me from The Willows, I’ll have nowhere to go.’ He tried to sound plaintive. ‘So I was rather hoping that you would allow me to take up the kind offer you made at Millie’s funeral and come and live with you.’
His sister turned away, so that Cornelius was unable to see the expression on her face.
‘That wouldn’t be convenient at the present time,’ she said without explanation. ‘And in any case, Hugh and Elizabeth have far more spare rooms in their house than I do.’
‘Quite so,’ said Cornelius. He coughed. ‘And the small loan I advanced you last year, Margaret - I’m sorry to raise the subject, but …’
‘What little money I have is carefully invested, and my brokers tell me that this is not a time to sell.’
‘But the allowance I’ve provided every month for the past twenty years - surely you have a little salted away?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ Margaret replied. ‘You must understand that being your sister has meant I am expected to maintain a certain standard of living, and now that I can no longer rely on my monthly allowance, I shall have to be even more careful with my meagre income.’
‘Of course you will, my dear,’ said Cornelius. ‘But any little contribution would help, if you felt able …’
‘I must be off,’ said Margaret, looking at her watch. ‘You’ve already made me late for the hairdresser.’
‘Just one more little request before you go, my dear,’ said Cornelius. ‘In the past you’ve always been kind enough to give me a lift into town whenever …’
‘I’ve always said, Cornelius, that you should have learned to drive years ago. If you had, you wouldn’t expect everyone to be at your beck and call night and day. I’ll see what I can do,’ she added as he opened the door for her.
‘Funny, I don’t recall you ever saying that. But then, perhaps my memory is going as well,’ he said as he followed his sister out onto the drive. He smiled. ‘New car, Margaret?’ he enquired innocently.
‘Yes,’ his sister replied tartly as he opened the door for her. Cornelius thought he detected a slight colouring in her cheeks. He chuckled to himself as she drove off. He was learning more about his family by the minute.
Pauline, the housekeeper, is made of sterner stuff:
‘Pauline,’ he said as she placed the tray on his desk, ‘did you receive a letter from my solicitor this morning?’
‘Yes, I did, sir,’ Pauline replied, ‘and of course I shall sell the car immediately, and repay your PS500.’ She paused before looking straight at him. ‘But I was just wondering, sir …’
‘Would it be possible for me to work it off in lieu? You see, I need a car to pick up my girls from school.’
For the first time since he had embarked on the enterprise, Cornelius felt guilty. But he knew that if he agreed to Pauline’s request, someone would find out, and the whole enterprise would be endangered.
‘I’m so sorry, Pauline, but I’ve been left with no choice.’
‘That’s exactly what the solicitor explained in his letter,’ Pauline said, fiddling with a piece of paper in the pocket of her pinafore. ‘Mind you, I never did go much on lawyers.’
This statement made Cornelius feel even more guilty, because he didn’t know a more trustworthy person than Frank Vintcent.
‘I’d better leave you now, sir, but I’ll pop back this evening just to make sure things don’t get too untidy. Would it be possible, sir … ?’
‘Possible … ?’ said Cornelius.
‘Could you give me a reference? I mean, you see, it’s not that easy for someone of my age to find a job.’
‘I’ll give you a reference that would get you a position at Buckingham Palace,’ said Cornelius. He immediately sat down at his desk and wrote a glowing homily on the service Pauline Croft had given for over two decades. He read it through, then handed it across to her. ‘Thank you, Pauline,’ he said, ‘for all you have done in the past for Daniel, Millie and, most of all, myself.’
‘My pleasure, sir,’ said Pauline.
Once she had closed the door behind her, Cornelius could only wonder if water wasn’t sometimes thicker than blood.
Cornelius has mentioned his late wife Millie earlier in the story when talking to his solicitor, Frank. We’ve had half a dozen people thrown at us in a few pages:
Cornelius Barrington: our "hero"
Frank Vincent, his solicitor
Hugh, his brother
Elizabeth, High's wife
Timothy, son of Hugh and Elizabeth
Margaret, his sister
Pauline, his housekeeper
The next day, Cornelius arranges for a moving and storage company to clean out every room in his house except the bedroom. He also prepares to have all his possessions auctioned.
Hugh's wife Elizabeth then pays him a visit:
....he heard the doorbell ring, he placed the letter on the kitchen table and walked out into the hall. He opened the front door to be greeted by Elizabeth, his brother’s wife. Her face was white, lined and drained, and Cornelius doubted if she had slept a great deal the previous night.
The moment Elizabeth had stepped into the house she began to pace around from room to room, almost as though she were checking to see that everything was still in place, as if she couldn’t accept the words she had read in the solicitor’s letter.
Any lingering doubts must have been dispelled when, a few minutes later, the local estate agent appeared on the doorstep, tape measure in hand, with a photographer by his side.
‘If Hugh was able to return even part of the hundred thousand I loaned him, that would be most helpful,’ Cornelius remarked to his sister-in-law as he followed her through the house.
It was some time before she spoke, despite the fact that she had had all night to consider her response.
‘It’s not quite that easy,’ she eventually replied. ‘You see, the loan was made to the company, and the shares are distributed among several people.’
Cornelius knew all three of the several people. ‘Then perhaps the time has come for you and Hugh to sell off some of your shares.’
‘And allow some stranger to take over the company, after all the work we’ve put into it over the years? No, we can’t afford to let that happen. In any case, Hugh asked Mr Vincent what the legal position was, and he confirmed that there was no obligation on our part to sell any of our shares.’
‘Have you considered that perhaps you have a moral obligation?’ asked Cornelius, turning to face his sister-in-law.
‘Cornelius,’ she said, avoiding his stare, ‘it has been your irresponsibility, not ours, that has been the cause of your downfall. Surely you wouldn’t expect your brother to sacrifice everything he’s worked for over the years, simply to place my family in the same perilous position in which you now find yourself ?’
Cornelius realised why Elizabeth hadn’t slept the previous night. She was not only acting as spokeswoman for Hugh, but was obviously making the decisions as well. Cornelius had always considered her to be the stronger-willed of the two, and he doubted if he would come face to face with his brother before an agreement had been reached.
‘But if there’s any other way we might help …’ Elizabeth added in a more gentle tone, as her hand rested on an ornate gold-leafed table in the drawing room.
‘Well, now you mention it,’ replied Cornelius, ‘I’m putting the house on the market in a couple of weeks’ time, and will be looking for …’
‘That soon?’ said Elizabeth. ‘And what’s going to happen to all the furniture?’
‘It will all have to be sold to help cover the debts. But, as I said …’
‘Hugh has always liked this table.’
‘Louis XIV,’ said Cornelius casually.
‘I wonder what it’s worth,’ Elizabeth mused, trying to make it sound as if it were of little consequence.
‘I have no idea,’ said Cornelius. ‘If I remember correctly, I paid around PS60,000 for it - but that was over ten years ago.’
‘And the chess set?’ Elizabeth asked, picking up one of the pieces.
‘It’s a worthless copy,’ Cornelius replied. ‘You could pick up a set just like it in any Arab bazaar for a couple of hundred pounds.’
‘Oh, I always thought …’ Elizabeth hesitated before replacing the piece on the wrong square. ‘Well, I must be off,’ she said, sounding as if her task had been completed. ‘We must try not to forget that I still have a business to run.’
Cornelius accompanied her as she began striding back down the long corridor in the direction of the front door. She walked straight by the portrait of her nephew Daniel. In the past she had always stopped to remark on how much she missed him.
‘I was wondering …’ began Cornelius as they walked out into the hall.
‘Yes?’ said Elizabeth.
‘Well, as I have to be out of here in a couple of weeks, I hoped it might be possible to move in with you. That is, until I find somewhere I can afford.’
‘If only you’d asked a week ago,’ said Elizabeth, without missing a beat. ‘But unfortunately we’ve just agreed to take in my mother, and the only other room is Timothy’s, and he comes home most weekends.’
‘Is that so?’ said Cornelius.
‘And the grandfather clock?’ asked Elizabeth, who still appeared to be on a shopping expedition.
‘Victorian - I purchased it from the Earl of Bute’s estate.’
‘No, I meant how much is it worth?’
‘Whatever someone is willing to pay for it,’ Cornelius replied as they reached the front door.
‘Don’t forget to let me know, Cornelius, if there’s anything I can do to help.’
‘How kind of you, Elizabeth,’ he said, opening the door to find the estate agent hammering a stake into the ground with a sign on it declaring FOR SALE. Cornelius smiled, because it was the only thing that morning that had stopped Elizabeth in her tracks.
Here again the note the mention of "her nephew Daniel." A portrait of Daniel hangs in Cornelius's house.
Cornelius then prepares to have all his worldly goods auctioned-off.
Mr. Botts had already agreed that the sale could take place in a fortnight’s time. He had often repeated that he would have preferred a longer period to prepare the catalogue and send out an extensive mailing for such a fine collection, but at least he showed some sympathy for the position Mr Barrington found himself in. Over the years, Lloyd’s of London, death duties and impending bankruptcy had proved the auctioneer’s best friends.
We then get to meet nephew Timothy, who is starting out in business in a nearby city.
The following morning he only had one call, from his nephew Timothy, to say he was up for the weekend, and wondered if Uncle Cornelius could find time to see him.
‘Time is the one thing I still have plenty of’ replied Cornelius.
‘Then why don’t I drop round this afternoon?’ said Timothy. ‘Shall we say four o’clock?’
‘I’m sorry I can’t offer you a cup of tea,’ said Cornelius, ‘but I finished the last packet this morning, and as I’m probably leaving the house next week …’
‘It’s not important,’ said Timothy, who was unable to mask his distress at finding the house stripped of his uncle’s possessions.
‘Let’s go up to the bedroom. It’s the only room that still has any furniture in it - and most of that will be gone by next week.’
‘I had no idea they’d taken everything away. Even the picture of Daniel,’ Timothy said as he passed an oblong patch of a lighter shade of cream than the rest of the wall.
‘And my chess set,’ sighed Cornelius. ‘But I can’t complain. I’ve had a good life.’ He began to climb the stairs to the bedroom.
Cornelius sat in the only chair while Timothy perched on the end of the bed. The old man studied his nephew more closely. He had grown into a fine young man. An open face, with clear brown eyes that served to reveal, to anyone who didn’t already know, that he had been adopted. He must have been twenty-seven or twenty-eight - about the same age Daniel would have been if he were still alive. Cornelius had always had a soft spot for his nephew, and had imagined that his affection was reciprocated. He wondered if he was about to be disillusioned once again.
Timothy appeared nervous, shuffling uneasily from foot to foot as he perched on the end of the bed. ‘Uncle Cornelius,’ he began, his head slightly bowed, ‘as you know, I have received a letter from Mr Vincent, so I thought I ought to come to see you and explain that I simply don’t have PS1,000 to my name, and therefore I’m unable to repay my debt at present.’
Cornelius was disappointed. He had hoped that just one of the family …
‘However,’ the young man continued, removing a long, thin envelope from an inside pocket of his jacket, ‘on my twenty-first birthday my father presented me with shares of 1 per cent of the company, which I think must be worth at least PS1,000, so I wondered if you would consider taking them in exchange for my debt - that is, until I can afford to buy them back.’
Cornelius felt guilty for having doubted his nephew even for a moment. He wanted to apologise, but knew he couldn’t if the house of cards was to remain in place for a few more days. He took the widow’s mite and thanked Timothy.
‘I am aware just how much of a sacrifice this must be for you,’ said Cornelius, ‘remembering how many times you have told me in the past of your ambition to take over the company when your father eventually retires, and your dreams of expanding into areas he has refused even to contemplate.’
‘I don’t think he’ll ever retire,’ said Timothy, with a sigh. ‘But I was hoping that after all the experience I’ve gained working in London he might take me seriously as a candidate for manager when Mr Leonard retires at the end of the year.’
‘I fear your chances won’t be advanced when he learns that you’ve handed over 1 per cent of the company to your bankrupt uncle.’
‘My problems can hardly be compared with the ones you are facing, Uncle. I’m only sorry I can’t hand over the cash right now. Before I leave, is there anything else I can do for you?’
‘Yes, there is, Timothy,’ said Cornelius, returning to the script. ‘Your mother recommended a novel, which I’ve been enjoying, but my old eyes seem to tire earlier and earlier, and I wondered if you’d be kind enough to read a few pages to me. I’ve marked the place I’ve reached.’
‘I can remember you reading to me when I was a child,’ said Timothy. ‘Just William and Swallows and Amazons,’ he added as he took the proffered book.
Timothy must have read about twenty pages when he suddenly stopped and looked up.
‘There’s a bus ticket at page 450. Shall I leave it there, Uncle?’
‘Yes, please do,’ said Cornelius. ‘I put it there to remind me of something.’ He paused. ‘Forgive me, but I’m feeling a little tired.’
Timothy rose and said, ‘I’ll come back soon and finish off the last few pages.’
‘No need to bother yourself, I’ll be able to manage that.’
‘Oh, I think I’d better, Uncle, otherwise I’ll never find out which one of them becomes Prime Minister.’
It's a charming scene, capped with Archer winking at us when he references his characters enjoying one of his own novels.
Archer's next scene sets the stage for the big auction climax:
The second batch of letters, which Frank Vincent sent out on the following Friday, caused another flurry of phone calls.
‘I’m not sure I fully understand what it means,’ said Margaret, in her first communication with her brother since calling round to see him a fortnight before.
‘It means exactly what it says, my dear,’ said Cornelius calmly. ‘All my worldly goods are to come under the hammer, but I am allowing those I consider near and dear to me to select one item that, for sentimental or personal reasons, they would like to see remain in the family. They will then be able to bid for them at the auction next Friday.’
‘But we could all be outbid and end up with nothing,’ said Margaret.
‘No, my dear,’ said Cornelius, trying not to sound exasperated. ‘The public auction will be held in the afternoon. The selected pieces will be auctioned separately in the morning, with only the family and close friends present. The instructions couldn’t be clearer.’
‘And are we able to see the pieces before the auction takes place?’
‘Yes, Margaret,’ said her brother, as if addressing a backward child. ‘As Mr Vincent stated clearly in his letter, “Viewing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., before the sale on Friday at eleven o’clock”.’
‘But we can only select one piece?’
‘Yes,’ repeated Cornelius, ‘that is all the petitioner in bankruptcy would allow. But you’ll be pleased to know that the portrait of Daniel, which you have commented on so many times in the past, will be among the lots available for your consideration.’
‘Yes, I do like it,’ said Margaret. She hesitated for a moment. ‘But will the Turner also be up for sale?’
‘It certainly will,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’m being forced to sell everything.’
‘Have you any idea what Hugh and Elizabeth are after?’
‘No, I haven’t, but if you want to find out, why don’t you ask them?’ he replied mischievously, aware that they scarcely exchanged a word from one year’s end to the next.
The second call came only moments after he had put the phone down on his sister.
‘At last,’ said a peremptory voice, as if it were somehow Cornelius’s fault that others might also wish to speak to him.
‘Good morning, Elizabeth,’ said Cornelius, immediately recognising the voice. ‘How nice to hear from you.’
‘It’s about the letter I received this morning.’
‘Yes, I thought it might be,’ said Cornelius.
‘It’s just, well, I wanted to confirm the value of the table - the Louis XIV piece - and, while I’m on the line, the grandfather clock that used to belong to the Earl of Bute.’
‘If you go to the auction house, Elizabeth, they will give you a catalogue, which tells you the high and low estimate for every item in the sale.’
‘I see,’ said Elizabeth. She remained silent for some time. ‘I don’t suppose you know if Margaret will be bidding for either of those pieces?’
‘I have no idea,’ replied Cornelius. ‘But it was Margaret who was blocking the line when you were trying to get through, and she asked me a similar question, so I suggest you give her a call’ Another long silence. ‘By the way, Elizabeth, you do realise that you can only bid for one item?’
‘Yes, it says as much in the letter,’ replied his sister-in-law tartly.
‘I only ask because I always thought Hugh was interested in the chess set.’
‘Oh no, I don’t think so,’ said Elizabeth. Cornelius wasn’t in any doubt who would be doing the bidding on behalf of that family on Friday morning.
‘Well, good luck,’ said Cornelius. ‘And don’t forget the 15 per cent commission,’ he added as he put the phone down.
Timothy wrote the following day to say he was hoping to attend the auction, as he wanted to pick up a little memento of The Willows and his uncle and aunt.
Pauline, however, told Cornelius as she tidied up the bedroom that she had no intention of going to the auction.
Why not?’ he asked.
‘Because I’d be sure to make a fool of myself and bid for something I couldn’t afford.’
‘Very wise,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’ve fallen into that trap once or twice myself. But did you have your eye on anything in particular?’
‘Yes, I did, but my savings would never stretch to it.’
‘Oh, you can never be sure with auctions,’ said Cornelius. ‘If no one else joins in the bidding, sometimes you can make a killing.’
The observation, ‘And don’t forget the 15 per cent commission,’ will find resonance later.
The auction scene itself is a long and meticulously rendered set-piece, where Margaret and Elizabeth struggle to salvage some of the wealth Cornelius has accumulated.
Margaret successfully bids PS10,000 on a watercolor by William Turner of Oxford, after Elizabeth bids up the price.
Timothy bids on Cornelius's prize chess set, but pulls back when the price gets too high.
Pauline successfully bids on the portrait of Daniel.
Elizabeth, with husband Hugh in tow, successfully bids PS110,000 on a Louis XIV table, circa 1712.
But it is the long scene the following morning where Archer is at his finest: digging like surgeon into the money-misery of Cornelius's victims.
Cornelius was in the bathroom when the phone rang at 7.30 the following morning. Obviously someone had been lying awake wondering what was the earliest moment they could possibly disturb him.
‘Is that you, Cornelius?’
‘Yes,’ he replied, yawning noisily. ‘Who’s this?’ he added, knowing only too well.
‘It’s Elizabeth. I’m sorry to call you so early, but I need to see you urgently.’
‘Of course, my dear,’ Cornelius replied, ‘why don’t you join me for tea this afternoon?’
‘Oh no, it can’t wait until then. I have to see you this morning. Could I come round at nine?’
‘I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but I already have an appointment at nine.’ He paused. ‘But I could fit you in at ten for half an hour, then I won’t be late for my meeting with Mr Botts at eleven.’
‘I could give you a lift into town if that would help,’ suggested Elizabeth.
‘That’s extremely kind of you, my dear,’ said Cornelius, ‘but I’ve got used to taking the bus, and in any case I wouldn’t want to impose on you. Look forward to seeing you at ten.’ He put the phone down.
Cornelius was still in the bath when the phone rang a second time. He wallowed in the warm water until the ringing had ceased. He knew it was Margaret, and he was sure she would call back within minutes.
He hadn’t finished drying himself before the phone rang again. He walked slowly to the bedroom, picked up the receiver by his bed and said, ‘Good morning Margaret.’
‘Good morning, Cornelius,’ she said, sounding surprised. Recovering quickly, she added, ‘I need to see you urgently.’
‘Oh? What’s the problem?’ asked Cornelius, well aware exactly what the problem was.
‘I can’t possibly discuss such a delicate matter over the phone, but I could be with you by ten.’
‘I’m afraid I’ve already agreed to see Elizabeth at ten. It seems that she also has an urgent matter she needs to discuss with me. Why don’t you come round at eleven?’
‘Perhaps it would be better if I came over immediately,’ said Margaret, sounding flustered.
‘No, I’m afraid eleven is the earliest I can fit you in, my dear. So it’s eleven or afternoon tea. Which would suit you best?’
‘Eleven,’ said Margaret without hesitation.
‘I thought it might,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’ll look forward to seeing you then,’ he added before replacing the receiver.
When Cornelius had finished dressing, he went down to the kitchen for breakfast. A bowl of cornflakes, a copy of the local paper and an unstamped envelope were awaiting him, although there was no sign of Pauline.
He poured himself a cup of tea, tore open the envelope and extracted a cheque made out to him for PS500. He sighed. Pauline must have sold her car.
He began to turn the pages of the Saturday supplement, stopping when he reached ‘Houses for Sale’. When the phone rang for the third time that morning, he had no idea who it might be.
‘Good morning, Mr Barrington,’ said a cheerful voice. ‘It’s Bruce from the estate agents. I thought I’d give you a call to let you know we’ve had an offer for The Willows that is in excess of the asking price.’
‘Well done,’ said Cornelius.
‘Thank you, sir,’ said the agent, with more respect in his voice than Cornelius had heard from anyone for weeks, ‘but I think we should hold on for a little longer. I’m confident I can squeeze some more out of them. If I do, my advice would be to accept the offer and ask for a 10 per cent deposit.’
‘That sounds like good advice to me,’ said Cornelius. ‘And once they’ve signed the contract, I’ll need you to find me a new house.’
‘What sort of thing are you looking for, Mr Barrington?’
‘I want something about half the size of The Willows, with perhaps a couple of acres, and I’d like to remain in the immediate area.’
‘That shouldn’t be too hard, sir. We have one or two excellent houses on our books at the moment, so I’m sure we’ll be able to accommodate you.’
‘Thank you,’ said Cornelius, delighted to have spoken to someone who had begun the day well.
He was chuckling over an item on the front page of the local paper when the doorbell rang. He checked his watch. It was still a few minutes to ten, so it couldn’t be Elizabeth. When he opened the front door he was greeted by a man in a green uniform, holding a clipboard in one hand and a parcel in the other.
‘Sign here,’ was all the courier said, handing over a biro.
Cornelius scrawled his signature across the bottom of the form. He would have asked who had sent the parcel if he had not been distracted by a car coming up the drive.
‘Thank you,’ he said. He left the package in the hall and walked down the steps to welcome Elizabeth.
When the car drew up outside the front door, Cornelius was surprised to find Hugh seated in the passenger seat.
‘It was kind of you to see us at such short notice,’ said Elizabeth, who looked as if she had spent another sleepless night.
‘Good morning, Hugh,’ said Cornelius, who suspected his brother had been kept awake all night. ‘Please come through to the kitchen - I’m afraid it’s the only room in the house that’s warm.’
As he led them down the long corridor, Elizabeth stopped in front of the portrait of Daniel. ‘I’m so glad to see it back in its rightful place,’ she said. Hugh nodded his agreement.
Cornelius stared at the portrait, which he hadn’t seen since the auction. ‘Yes, back in its rightful place,’ he said, before taking them through to the kitchen. ‘Now, what brings you both to The Willows on a Saturday morning?’ he asked as he filled the kettle.
‘It’s about the Louis XIV table,’ said Elizabeth diffidently.
‘Yes, I shall miss it,’ said Cornelius. ‘But it was a fine gesture on your part, Hugh,’ he added.
‘A fine gesture …’ repeated Hugh.
‘Yes. I assumed it was your way of returning my hundred thousand,’ said Cornelius. Turning to Elizabeth, he said, ‘How I misjudged you, Elizabeth. I suspect it was your idea all along.’
Elizabeth and Hugh just stared at each other, then both began speaking at once.
‘But we didn’t …’ said Hugh.
‘We were rather hoping …’ said Elizabeth. Then they both fell silent.
‘Tell him the truth,’ said Hugh firmly.
‘Oh?’ said Cornelius. ‘Have I misunderstood what took place at the auction yesterday morning?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid you have,’ said Elizabeth, any remaining colour draining from her cheeks. ‘You see, the truth of the matter is that the whole thing got out of control, and I carried on bidding for longer than I should have done.’ She paused. ‘I’d never been to an auction before, and when I failed to get the grandfather clock, and then saw Margaret pick up the Turner so cheaply, I’m afraid I made a bit of a fool of myself.’
‘Well, you can always put it back up for sale,’ said Cornelius with mock sadness. ‘It’s a fine piece, and sure to retain its value.’
‘We’ve already looked into that,’ said Elizabeth. ‘But Mr Botts says there won’t be another furniture auction for at least three months, and the terms of the sale were clearly printed in the catalogue: settlement within seven days.’
‘But I’m sure that if you were to leave the piece with him …’
‘Yes, he suggested that,’ said Hugh. ‘But we didn’t realise that the auctioneers add 15 per cent to the sale price, so the real bill is for PS126,500. And what’s worse, if we put it up for sale again they also retain 15 per cent of the price that’s bid, so we would end up losing over thirty thousand.’
‘Yes, that’s the way auctioneers make their money,’ said Cornelius with a sigh.
‘But we don’t have thirty thousand, let alone 126,500,’ cried Elizabeth.
Cornelius slowly poured himself another cup of tea, pretending to be deep in thought. ‘Umm,’ he finally offered. ‘What puzzles me is how you think I could help, bearing in mind my current financial predicament.’
‘We thought that as the auction had raised nearly a million pounds …’ began Elizabeth.
‘Far higher than was estimated,’ chipped in Hugh.
‘We hoped you might tell Mr Botts you’d decided to keep the piece; and of course we would confirm that that was acceptable to us.’
‘I’m sure you would,’ said Cornelius, ‘but that still doesn’t solve the problem of owing the auctioneer PS16,500, and a possible further loss if it fails to reach PS110,000 in three months’ time.’
Neither Elizabeth nor Hugh spoke.
‘Do you have anything you could sell to help raise the money?’ Cornelius eventually asked.
‘Only our house, and that already has a large mortgage on it,’ said Elizabeth.
‘But what about your shares in the company? If you sold them, I’m sure they would more than cover the cost.’
‘But who would want to buy them,’ asked Hugh, ‘when we’re only just breaking even?’
‘I would,’ said Cornelius.
Both of them looked surprised. ‘And in exchange for your shares,’ Cornelius continued, ‘I would release you from your debt to me, and also settle any embarrassment with Mr Botts.’
Elizabeth began to protest, but Hugh asked, ‘Is there any alternative?’
‘Not that I can think of,’ said Cornelius.
‘Then I don’t see that we’re left with much choice,’ said Hugh, turning to his wife.
‘But what about all those years we’ve put into the company?’ wailed Elizabeth.
‘The shop hasn’t been showing a worthwhile profit for some time, Elizabeth, and you know it. If we don’t accept Cornelius’s offer, we could be paying off the debt for the rest of our lives.’
Elizabeth remained unusually silent.
‘Well, that seems to be settled,’ said Cornelius. ‘Why don’t you just pop round and have a word with my solicitor? He’ll see that everything is in order.’
‘And will you sort out Mr Botts?’ asked Elizabeth.
‘The moment you’ve signed over the shares, I’ll deal with the problem of Mr Botts. I’m confident we can have everything settled by the end of the week.’
Hugh bowed his head.
‘And I think it might be wise,’ continued Cornelius - they both looked up and stared apprehensively at him - ‘if Hugh were to remain on the board of the company as Chairman, with the appropriate remuneration.’
‘Thank you,’ said Hugh, shaking hands with his brother. ‘That’s generous of you in the circumstances.’ As they returned down the corridor Cornelius stared at the portrait of his son once again.
‘Have you managed to find somewhere to live?’ asked Elizabeth.
‘It looks as if that won’t be a problem after all, thank you, Elizabeth. I’ve had an offer for The Willows far in excess of the price I’d anticipated, and what with the windfall from the auction, I’ll be able to pay off all my creditors, leaving me with a comfortable sum over.’
‘Then why do you need our shares?’ asked Elizabeth, swinging back to face him.
‘For the same reason you wanted my Louis XIV table, my dear,’ said Cornelius as he opened the front door to show them out. ‘Goodbye Hugh,’ he added as Elizabeth got into the car.
Cornelius would have returned to the house, but he spotted Margaret coming up the drive in her new car, so he stood and waited for her. When she brought the little Audi to a halt, Cornelius opened the car door to allow her to step out.
‘Good morning, Margaret,’ he said as he accompanied her up the steps and into the house. ‘How nice to see you back at The Willows. I can’t remember when you were last here.’
‘I’ve made a dreadful mistake,’ his sister admitted, long before they had reached the kitchen.
Cornelius refilled the kettle and waited for her to tell him something he already knew.
‘I won’t beat about the bush, Cornelius. You see, I had no idea there were two Turners.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Cornelius matter-of-factly. ‘Joseph Mallord William Turner, arguably the finest painter ever to hail from these shores, and William Turner of Oxford, no relation, and although painting at roughly the same period, certainly not in the same league as the master.’
‘But I didn’t realise that …’ Margaret repeated. ‘So I ended up paying far too much for the wrong Turner - not helped by my sister-in-law’s antics,’ she added.
‘Yes, I was fascinated to read in the morning paper that you’ve got yourself into the Guinness Book of Records for having paid a record price for the artist.’
‘A record I could have done without,’ said Margaret. ‘I was rather hoping you might feel able to have a word with Mr Botts, and …’
‘And what … ?’ asked Cornelius innocently, as he poured his sister a cup of tea.
‘Explain to him that it was all a terrible mistake.’
‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible, my dear. You see, once the hammer has come down, the sale is completed. That’s the law of the land.’
‘Perhaps you could help me out by paying for the picture,’ Margaret suggested. ‘After all, the papers are saying you made nearly a million pounds from the auction alone.’
‘But I have so many other commitments to consider,’ said Cornelius with a sigh. ‘Don’t forget that once The Willows is sold, I will have to find somewhere else to live.’
‘But you could always come and stay with me …’
‘That’s the second such offer I’ve had this morning,’ said Cornelius, ‘and as I explained to Elizabeth, after being turned down by both of you earlier, I have had to make alternative arrangements.’
‘Then I’m ruined,’ said Margaret dramatically, ‘because I don’t have PS10,000, not to mention the 15 per cent. Something else I didn’t know about. You see, I’d hoped to make a small profit by putting the painting back up for sale at Christie’s.’
The truth at last, thought Cornelius. Or perhaps half the truth.
‘Cornelius, you’ve always been the clever one in the family,’ Margaret said, with tears welling up in her eyes. ‘Surely you can think of a way out of this dilemma.’
Cornelius paced around the kitchen as if in deep thought, his sister watching his every step. Eventually he came to a halt in front of her. ‘I do believe I may have a solution.’
‘What is it?’ cried Margaret. ‘I’ll agree to anything.’
‘Anything,’ she repeated.
‘Good, then I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’ll pay for the picture in exchange for your new car.’
Margaret remained speechless for some time. ‘But the car cost me PS12,000,’ she said finally.
‘Possibly, but you wouldn’t get more than eight thousand for it second-hand.’
‘But then how would I get around?’
‘Try the bus,’ said Cornelius. ‘I can recommend it. Once you’ve mastered the timetable it changes your whole life.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘In fact, you could start right now; there’s one due in about ten minutes.’
‘But …’ said Margaret as Cornelius stretched out his open hand. Then, letting out a long sigh, she opened her handbag and passed the car keys over to her brother.
‘Thank you,’ said Cornelius. ‘Now I mustn’t hold you up any longer, or you’ll miss the bus, and there won’t be another one along for thirty minutes.’ He led his sister out of the kitchen and down the corridor. He smiled as he opened the door for her.
‘And don’t forget to pick up the picture from Mr Botts, my dear,’ he said. ‘It will look wonderful over the fireplace in your drawing room, and will bring back so many happy memories of our times together.’
Margaret didn’t comment as she turned to walk off down the long drive.
Cornelius closed the door and was about to go to his study and call Frank to brief him on what had taken place that morning when he thought he heard a noise coming from the kitchen. He changed direction and headed back down the corridor. He walked into the kitchen, went over to the sink, bent down and kissed Pauline on the cheek.
‘Good morning, Pauline,’ he said.
‘What’s that for?’ she asked, her hands immersed in soapy water.
‘For bringing my son back home.’
‘It’s only on loan. If you don’t behave yourself, it goes straight back to my place.’
Cornelius smiled. ‘That reminds me - I’d like to take you up on your original offer.’
‘What are you talking about, Mr Barrington?’
‘You told me that you’d rather work off the debt than have to sell your car.’ He removed her cheque from an inside pocket. ‘I know just how many hours you’ve worked here over the past month,’ he said, tearing the cheque in half, ‘so let’s call it quits.’
‘That’s very kind of you, Mr Barrington, but I only wish you’d told me that before I sold the car.’
‘That’s not a problem, Pauline, because I find myself the proud owner of a new car.’
‘But how?’ asked Pauline as she began to dry her hands.
‘It was an unexpected gift from my sister,’ Cornelius said, without further explanation.
‘But you don’t drive, Mr Barrington.’
‘I know. So I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’ll swap it for the picture of Daniel.’
‘But that’s not a fair exchange, Mr Barrington. I only paid PS50 for the picture, and the car must be worth far more.’
‘Then you’ll also have to agree to drive me into town from time to time.’
‘Does that mean I’ve got my old job back?’
‘Yes - if you’re willing to give up your new one.’
‘I don’t have a new one,’ said Pauline with a sigh. ‘They found someone a lot younger than me the day before I was due to begin.’
Cornelius threw his arms around her.
‘And we’ll have less of that for a start, Mr Barrington.’
Cornelius took a pace back. ‘Of course you can have your old job back, and with a rise in salary.’
‘Whatever you consider is appropriate, Mr Barrington. After all, the labourer is worthy of his hire.’
Cornelius somehow stopped himself from laughing.
Not J.M.W. Turner
The interaction with Pauline that ends the scene is Archer at his most self-congratulatory, but the dialogue is no less satisfying for all that. What I appreciated keenly is the little observational aside Cornelius makes about the realtor he speaks with on the phone, that he is "delighted to have spoken to someone who had begun the day well."
With tables turned on Margaret, Elizabeth, and long-suffering Hugh, there is only nephew Timothy left.
‘I’m only sorry that my funds didn’t stretch to buying you the chess set, Uncle Cornelius.’
‘If only your mother and aunt had shown the same restraint …’
....Timothy arrived at The Willows a few minutes after eight the following evening. Pauline immediately put him to work peeling potatoes.
‘How are your mother and father?’ asked Cornelius, probing to discover how much the boy knew.
‘They seem fine, thank you Uncle. By the way, my father’s offered me the job of shop manager. I begin on the first of next month.’
‘Congratulations,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’m delighted. When did he make the offer?’
‘Some time last week,’ replied Timothy.
‘Is it important?’ asked Timothy.
‘I think it might be,’ replied Cornelius, without explanation.
The young man remained silent for some time, before he finally said, ‘Yes, it was Saturday evening, after I’d seen you.’ He paused. ‘I’m not sure Mum’s all that happy about it. I meant to write and let you know, but as I was coming back for the auction, I thought I’d tell you in person. But then I didn’t get a chance to speak to you.’
‘So he offered you the job before the auction took place?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Timothy. ‘Nearly a week before.’ Once again, the young man looked quizzically at his uncle, but still no explanation was forthcoming.
Pauline placed a plate of roast beef in front of each of them as Timothy began to reveal his plans for the company’s future.
‘Mind you, although Dad will remain as Chairman,’ he said, ‘he’s promised not to interfere too much. I was wondering, Uncle Cornelius, now that you own 1 per cent of the company, whether you would be willing to join the board?’
Cornelius looked first surprised, then delighted, then doubtful.
‘I could do with your experience,’ added Timothy, ‘if I’m to go ahead with my expansion plans.’
‘I’m not sure your father would consider it a good idea to have me on the board,’ said Cornelius, with a wry smile.
‘I can’t think why not,’ said Timothy. ‘After all, it was his idea in the first place.’
Cornelius remained silent for some time. He hadn’t expected to go on learning more about the players after the game was officially over.
‘I think the time has come for us to go upstairs and find out if it’s Simon Kerslake or Raymond Gould who becomes Prime Minister,’ he eventually said.
Timothy waited until his uncle had poured himself a large brandy and lit a cigar - his first for a month - before he started to read.
He became so engrossed in the story that he didn’t look up again until he had turned the last page, where he found an envelope sellotaped to the inside of the book’s cover. It was addressed to ‘Mr Timothy Barrington’.
‘What’s this?’ he asked.
Cornelius would have told him, but he had fallen asleep.
The story ends with Pauline in a new car, Timothy with a business of his own, Margaret and Elizabeth chastened, and Cornelius enjoying new appreciation for the love and subtlety of his brother Hugh.
I have taxed the patience of the reader looking for a snippet review of a short story with copious quotations. But with Archer, tone of voice is the source of strength and authority. His dramaturgy, too, can best be expressed by letting the scenes play out from beginning to end.
Archer's short fiction is well worth the time for readers who may not feel comfortable spending time on one of his novels.
A text file of the story can be found here.
An adequate audio reading of the story can be found here.