We hope you enjoy this extract from Rachel Hore’s A Place of Secrets.
How tiny and random are the events that shape our destiny.
By the time she left for the office the next morning, Jude had almost forgotten her dream. Waiting for the train at Greenwich station, the sudden wail of a toddler brought back fragments of her distress, but by the time she reached Bond Street these too were displaced by other, more mundane worries. She had no sense that something important was about to happen, something that on the face of it was quite insignificant.
It was Friday lunchtime in the Books and Manuscripts department of Beecham’s Auctioneers in Mayfair. She’d been sitting at her computer screen all morning, cataloging rare first editions of eighteenth-century poets for a forthcoming sale. A painstaking job, it meant describing the contents of each slim volume, noting its condition and recording any quirks or flourishes—a handwritten dedication, say, or scribbled annotations—that might tickle the interest of potential buyers. Annoying then, when anyone broke her concentration.
“Jude.” Inigo, who inhabited the next desk in their open-plan office, came over, clasping a mess of paper festooned with multicolored sticky-backed notes. “Proofs of the September catalog. Where do you want them?”
“Oh, thanks,” she murmured. “Give ’em here.” She dumped the pile on the already overflowing tray beside her computer, then started to type another sentence. Inigo didn’t take the hint.
“I really do think you should look at the Bloomsbury pages again,” he said in his most pompous tone. “I jotted down a couple of points, if you’d like to…?”
“Inigo—” she said, trying and failing to frame a polite way of saying “mind your own business.” The Bloomsbury Group first editions were her responsibility and she didn’t report to him in any way on them or on anything else. “Can we talk this afternoon? I must finish this.”
Inigo nodded and glided back to his desk where he started to get ready to go out. He slid his tweed jacket on over the matching waistcoat, tucked his fountain pen into the breast pocket, straightened his silk cravat and ran smoothing fingers across his schoolboy fair hair, his dapper figure as fussy as a dog with a flea.
“Going somewhere important, Inigo?” she remarked.
Looking pleased that she’d asked, he whispered, “I’m meeting Lord Madingsfield at Chez Gerard,” and tapped the side of his nose to indicate confidential business.
“Lord Madingsfield again?” she said, surprised. “Well, have fun.” She turned back to her keyboard. Inigo had been toadying up to this wealthy collector for months now. In her private opinion the wily old aristocrat was stringing him along.
“We’re in quite a delicate stage of negotiation, actually,” Inigo said.
Jude and Suri, the trainee cataloger who sat at the desk opposite, exchanged mock-impressed glances. Suri looked back quickly at her work, but Jude could see her shoulders quivering with suppressed mirth. Inigo took everything in life too seriously, but most of all, his place in it. Only when the lift arrived and swallowed him up did they give way to their laughter.
“I wonder what he’d say if he saw a video of himself,” Suri managed to say between giggles. She stood up to go out herself, adjusting the clasp in her glossy black hair and swinging her handbag onto her shoulder.
“He’d probably fall in love, poor boy,” Jude said as she typed. “Enjoy your lunch.”
“Can I get you anything?” Suri said. “I’m going past Clooney’s if you want a sandwich.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be OK,” replied Jude, smiling at her. “I’ll break the back of this copy, then maybe slip out myself.” When Suri had gone, she took a mouthful of mineral water from a bottle hidden under the desk. Lunch must be forgone. There was too much to do. Anyway, the waistband of her new trouser suit was too tight and she couldn’t risk the buttons popping off at dinner tonight.
She picked up a musty volume from one pile, studied it quickly and laid it down on another. Full calf—she wrote—rebacked with raised bands. Blind tooling to boards. A good clean copy of an important contemporary work.
The phone on Inigo’s desk began to shrill, piercing her concentration. Insistent, self-important, like its owner. She stared at it, willing it to stop. The caller would probably be a time waster: a quavery old dear hoping to make a mint out of her dog-eared Agatha Christie collection, or a know-it-all antiquarian bookseller demanding a personal audience. But it would ring eight times, then transfer to Suri’s phone and ring another eight before going to message … Snatching up her own phone she pressed a button.
“Books and Manuscripts. Hello?”
“Inigo Selbourne, please,” came a plummy male voice.
“I’m afraid he’s at lunch,” Jude said, and in case the caller assumed she was Inigo’s secretary, which happened dispiritingly often, she added, “I’m Jude Gower, another valuer. Can I give him a message?”
“If you would. My name’s Wickham. I’m telephoning from Starbrough Hall in Norfolk.”
Jude felt a frisson of interest. Norfolk was home turf. Where on earth was Starbrough Hall, though? She leaned closer into the phone.
“I’ve a collection of eighteenth-century books I want him to look at,” Mr. Wickham went on. “I’ve been assured by a friend that they’re likely to have significant value.”
Jude flipped to a fresh page on her notepad and wrote “Starbrough Hall” at the top in neat capitals, then stared at the words, trying to understand why they tugged at her memory. She didn’t think she’d ever been to Starbrough Hall, but for some reason a picture of her grandmother rose in her mind.
“Does Inigo have your number, Mr. Wickham?”
“No.” When he recited it the local code was familiar. The same as her sister’s, in fact. That was it. Starbrough Hall was part of the big estate where Gran had lived as a child. She wrote down the phone number and doodled a jagged star shape round it.
If she finished the call and passed the message on to Inigo, she’d have done her job. But the name Starbrough meant something to her, and she was intrigued. On the other hand, the material he wanted to sell might prove of little interest to Beecham’s. “Mr. Wickham,” she asked, “What sort of books are they? It’s only that the eighteenth century is my particular period.”
“Is it?” Wickham said. “Well, perhaps I should be dealing with you instead of Mr. Selbourne.”
She opened her mouth to say that Inigo was perfectly competent to deal with the collection, and found she didn’t want to. It was a conundrum. Robert Wickham had asked specifically for Inigo. Jude would be furious if Inigo took work from her—and Suri told her that he had done that once despite her name being recommended by another client. Still, she didn’t want to sink to his level. It was ridiculous, really, that they played this constant game of comeuppance. The head of department, Klaus Vanderbilt, was always banging on about how they should work together to wrest business from the other big auction houses. In fact she had a lot of respect for Inigo’s professional abilities; it was his constant pushiness that irritated her. She could never quite relax with him in the office.
“Do you know Inigo Selbourne?” she asked Robert Wickham. “I mean, was he recommended to you?”
“No, never heard of the man until a moment ago. Your switchboard suggested him.”
So she wasn’t muscling in on something that was rightly Inigo’s.
“Well in that case,” she told Wickham, with a shameful sense of triumph, “I’ll deal with the matter, if you like.”
“I’m happy with that. The collection belonged to an ancestor of mine, Anthony Wickham. He was something of an amateur stargazer, and most of the books relate to his hobby. I’d like you to value them with a view to possible placement for sale.”
“An astronomer, was he? That’s interesting.” Jude was scribbling down details. Scientific tomes, particularly from the eighteenth century—the Age of Discovery—were a lively area at the moment. She could think of two or three dealers who would want to know more.
“There are several first editions among them, so I’m told. And I should mention the manuscripts,” Wickham went on. “His charts and observation records. Can’t make head or tail of them myself. My mother is more familiar with the material. Anyway, I expect you’ll be able to tell straight away once you’re down here.”
“How many books are we talking about? I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could bring them to the office?” she asked.
“Oh heavens, no. There are a couple of hundred or more. And the papers, well, they’re very delicate. Look, if it’s a nuisance, I can always call Sotheby’s. I was thinking of doing so anyway. It’s just that my friend said to try you first.”
“No, don’t worry, I’ll come down,” she said hastily. “I thought it worth asking, that’s all.”
“We have some of his instruments, as well. Bits of telescope. And a whatnot … One of those spherical models of the solar system.”
“An orrery, you mean?” This whole thing was beginning to soun…