‘This might well be the last game we play with this set,’ said Cornelius wistfully.
‘No, don’t worry yourself about that,’ said Frank. ‘They always allow you to keep a few personal items.’
‘Not when they’re worth a quarter of a million pounds,’ replied Cornelius.
‘I had no idea,’ said Frank, looking up.
‘Because you’re not the sort of man who has ever been interested in worldly goods. It’s a sixteenth-century Persian masterpiece, and it’s bound to cause considerable interest when it comes under the hammer.’
‘But surely you’ve found out all you need to know by now,’ said Frank. ‘Why carry on with the exercise when you could lose so much that’s dear to you?’
‘Because I still have to discover the truth.’
Frank sighed, stared down at the board and moved his queen’s knight. ‘Checkmate,’ he said. ‘It serves you right for not concentrating.’
Cornelius spent most of Friday morning in a private meeting with the managing director of Botts and Company, the local fine art and furniture auctioneers.
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 will need to have everything in our storeroom as soon as possible,’ said Mr Botts, ‘so there’s enough time to prepare a catalogue, while still allowing the customers to view on three consecutive days before the sale takes place.’
Cornelius nodded his agreement.
The auctioneer also recommended that a full page be taken in the Chudley Advertiser the following Wednesday, giving details of what was coming under the hammer, so they could reach those people they failed to contact by post.
Cornelius left Mr Botts a few minutes before midday, and on his way back to the bus stop dropped into the removal company. He handed over ￡100 in fives and tens, leaving the impression that it had taken him a few days to raise the cash.
While waiting for the bus, he couldn’t help noticing how few people bothered to say good morning, or even acknowledge him. Certainly no one crossed the road to pass the time of day.
Twenty men in three vans spent the next day loading and unloading as they travelled back and forth between The Willows and the auctioneers’ storeroom in the High Street. It was not until the early evening that the last stick of furniture had been removed from the house.
As he walked through the empty rooms, Cornelius was surprised to find himself thinking that, with one or two exceptions, he wasn’t going to miss many of his worldly possessions. He retired to the bedroom – the only room in the house that was still furnished – and continued to read the novel Elizabeth had recommended before his downfall.
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 slighdy bowed, ‘as you know, I have received a letter from Mr Vintcent, so I thought I ought to come to see you and explain that I simply don’t have ￡1,000 to my name, and therefore I’m unable to repay my debt at present.’