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 ￡1,000, 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.’
The second batch of letters, which Frank Vintcent 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 Vintcent 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.