Authors: Priscilla Masters
After two weeks I knew I must return home and run my shop again. Joanne had been selling steadily since I’d been away and I needed to replenish my stock. It is the constant juggle of an antiques dealer, the everlasting search for fine new pieces. I must not neglect my business.
On my last night Carmina grilled us some sardines and we sat on the balcony, watching the moonlight sparkle across the sea, drinking yet another bottle of Rioja Particular. I was thinking how very much I loved this place when my aunt cleared her throat and I waited for the inevitable judgement. ‘Susie,’ she said. ‘Please listen to me and don’t interrupt. Don’t be pig-headed and don’t be angry. I rang your Richard Oliver. I spoke to him and he came over here.’
‘So it was him,’ I said. ‘He was on the balcony, wasn’t he?’
She nodded and took my hand. ‘He had nothing to do with the theft of your jug and the break-in at your cottage. It was a wicked and cruel coincidence. Now I’ve met him I can’t believe you thought that of him. Even for
a moment. Susie,’ she said, ‘what were you thinking of? He’s perfectly charming. An absolutely lovely man and he’s quite bowled over by you.’
So she had been taken in by his charm too.
She was frowning at me. ‘I thought I’d always taught you to trust your instincts. I trust him. He wouldn’t do you any harm. He wouldn’t steal from you. What were you thinking of, child?’
It was the way she had always spoken to me, part mother, part friend.
I couldn’t believe that Richard’s influence had persuaded her to turn the table on me, making me feel defensive when I had presented all the arguments to her. I said nothing but stared at her mutinously, knowing she would interpret the look. She sipped her wine slowly, looking at me over the rim. Then she reached across and cradled my face with her hands. ‘You’re a daughter to me,’ she said. ‘You must go onwards into your life and face your future whatever it is but don’t misjudge him.’
And suddenly all my arguments seemed foolish and blown away in a puff of the sea breeze.
I had one last question. ‘Who took the jug then?’
She shook her head sadly. ‘I don’t know. You may never know. Some things are never explained but remain mysteries throughout our lives. You may never know the full story of the jug’s creation. Then again your friend David might have found something out from archives or church records. One day you may know the full story of the unfortunate people. But they are all dead and you are
alive and have your future in front of you. The theft of your jug and your accusation of Richard Oliver is one of those cruel twists of fate that can so easily send us hurtling down the wrong road in our lives.’
I watched her and knew she spoke of something in her own life.
For one second a shadow passed across her face, making it look sad and tired. Then she looked at me and brightened. ‘Oh Susie.’ She kissed my cheek. ‘It wasn’t Richard.’ She stood up. ‘I know that. And now,’ she said, rising, ‘it’s late.’ She yawned. ‘You’ve got an early start in the morning. Ramón will drive us to the airport.’ I studied her sunburnt face and felt overwhelmed by love of her. What would have happened if she had not stepped forward to become our guardian? Where would Sara and I have gone? To an orphanage? To be fostered? What would I ever do without her?
I stayed out late on the veranda for a while, alone. I thought and I made my choice. I picked one thread of my destiny and decided I would follow it through – to its end. Whatever.
I flew back to the UK the next day and the first thing I did was to pick up the phone and ring Richard.
He was around within half an hour. No slow Jenkins in the Rolls this time but Richard skidding to a halt outside in a small, black Mercedes. I heard his car door slam and opened my door to him still wondering. Then I read the expression in his eyes and I couldn’t think how I could ever have doubted him. ‘Susie,’ he said reproachfully. ‘How could you…?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said stiffly. ‘It seemed a logical conclusion. I was at your house while the jug was… Did the police…?’ I couldn’t finish.
A wry smile crossed his face. ‘I did have a visit,’ he said, humour warming his eyes, ‘but I don’t think they took the allegation that seriously. They didn’t take a lot of convincing.’ His lips twitched. ‘They didn’t even have a search warrant to search Hall o’th’Wood.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said again. Then I saw that he was laughing at me and I joined him.
‘It’s a shame about the jug though.’
He drew my face to his and brushed my lips with his own. ‘It’ll turn up again.’
‘I hope so.’
He hesitated. ‘In a way,’ he said tentatively, ‘I’m not sorry it’s gone. It was a tragic episode in our family history.’ Then he met my eyes. ‘It’s done its job,’ he said. ‘It brought us together.’
‘And nearly parted us too,’ I said.
He nodded, his expression heavy. Then – just as suddenly – it lightened again. ‘Aren’t you going to invite me in?’
‘Yes – yes. Of course.’
I offered him coffee but he produced a bottle of wine. ‘Rioja,’ he said. ‘Particular. I bought it while I was in Majorca, seeing your aunt. She’s given me a taste for it. I hoped we might drink it together.’
I fished a corkscrew out of a kitchen drawer and returned with two wine glasses. He half-filled them both then held his glass up. ‘To us,’ he said, ‘and to your aunt. As you said. She’s a very remarkable woman. You were right and I’m glad I’ve met her.’ He smiled. ‘I only have your sister to brave and then I’ve met the family.’
I giggled, heady not from the wine but from his company.
We sat together on the sofa, drinking the wine, until he took my glass from me and set it with his on the hearth. He kissed me lightly on the cheek then searched my face. ‘So, Susie,’ he said. ‘Where do we go from here?’
Richard didn’t go home that night nor any night after
that. He rang Maria and muttered some excuse down the phone. I could hear her sceptical chuckles from the other side of the room. From then on we were barely apart except for our work.
We were married six months later, on a blustery October day, at the tiny, stone church in Horton. It was a small wedding with only fifty guests. My brother-in-law, John, gave me away. Sara’s daughter, Samantha, was my bridesmaid, in claret while I wore white, a fitted dress with a train and a long veil. Michael, Richard’s son, was his best man and we mumbled our responses in front of another stained-glass window, Christ crucified. As we walked outside the wind whipped my veil around my face and set my skirts dancing around my legs. Richard kissed me and told me again and again that he loved me and would always love me. We posed for pictures, beneath the lychgate, as Sara and my aunt threw confetti at us and we laughed together, the cold hardly touching us in our happiness.
It was a whirlwind romance but sometimes the first, full flush of love is the time to consolidate it.
They were still throwing confetti at us as we climbed into the back of the Rolls Royce. Even Jenkins threw a handful in before he too wished us happiness and closed the door to head the long cavalcade to the wedding reception at Hall o’th’Wood. The entire house was festooned with flowers and the scent of lilies was heavy in the air, mingled with the aroma of the log fires. There are photographs of us standing in front of the house but
the day was blustery and cold and we were glad to enter the hall, mount the stairs and pose in front of the stained-glass crusader. We kissed and had our pictures taken again and again.
For once Maria had accepted help with the food and it was set out on the long dining-room table, fresh salmon garnished with lemons, slices of beef, dishes of tiny potatoes, steaming vegetables. And, I noticed, with a smile, that Maria had not been able to resist adding a couple of dishes of olives.
The centrepiece was a three-tiered wedding cake with a porcelain bride and groom on the top, posing underneath an archway.
As the evening wore on I changed into a dress and jacket, Jenkins brought the car around and we slipped away to the airport to honeymoon in Vienna.
It was the perfect city for us, even in the rain, a city of romantics and aesthetes.
We spent evenings at the Grand Opera and coffee houses, attended concerts and museums and the puppet theatre. We watched the Viennese ballet perform Giselle and almost wept at her final descent into madness. We spent an evening spinning dizzily to Strauss at the Viennese Ball and even watched the Lippizaner horses at the Spanish Riding School.
So I fell deeper in love with Richard than I would have thought possible and, I believe, he with me. It was a magical, charmed two weeks.
A week after our wedding we visited the sad hunting lodge of Mayerling where, in 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf murdered Mary Vetsera before killing himself. Maybe it was the visit to a place where love had entwined itself so completely with tragedy which planted seeds in my brain, seeds of apprehension, seeds of a conviction that all this, like the love story of my parents, was too good to last. I do remember that in the huge hallway of Mayerling Richard and I clung to each other, affected by the doomed atmosphere of the place.
Had Rudolf not died it is possible the First World War would not have happened. All that tragedy down to one murder, one suicide. I mentioned this thought to Richard and he looked at me strangely. I thought briefly about the jug before tucking the moment away. I had already learnt to be selective in my memories.
But the climax was the last night. We had planned to dine quietly at our hotel on the Kaerntner Strasse but when we wandered outside we found a small gathering queuing up to listen to a young Japanese girl playing Chopin. The last piece she played that night was the haunting ‘Nocturne in E flat major’ and I listened, feeling tears of pure joy rolling down my face. I couldn’t believe that I was to spend my life at Hall o’th’Wood, with Richard. I turned to my husband and caught the same emotion mirrored in his face. His arm tightened around me. I rested my head on his shoulder and wanted this moment to remain with me for ever, throughout my entire life. ‘Don’t ever leave me, Susie,’ he murmured and
I shook my head and promised him that I never would.
We flew back the next day and I became mistress of Hall o’th’Wood.
And the jug? Tucked away in the darkest recess of my mind. Possibly I would never see it again. But then maybe I would. Who could know? For now it had played its part in my destiny and would slip away. Maybe for ever.
For a period my life was charmed and privileged. I appreciate that more now although I was aware of it then. I loved living in the old house. I never tired of walking its corridors, staring at the portraits, discovering oddities and features even Richard was unaware of. But most of all I grew to love Richard even more as I got to know his character. He was always an enigma. I never quite reached his core – or – more truthfully there was always a part of him that was beyond anything I could understand – a room locked away like the secret of the jug. He was, in a way, a fairy tale husband, thoughtful, generous, exacting, deeply passionate. Our life together was very happy. We loved nothing more than simply sharing our lives, being together. It was all we wanted or needed. We were enough for each other.
Perhaps I was aware that the clock was ticking away steadily in the background.
I became very friendly with Michael, Richard’s son. He was, as Richard had mentioned on our first ‘date’, about my age and we became as close as brother and sister, sharing intimacies and secrets, even teasing each other. He had the same, strong family resemblance, the same basic face, clear, grey eyes, full lips, a classical straight nose. He was a couple of inches taller than Richard, still slim, with light brown hair and a certain merriment in his personality which was unlike my husband. I liked Michael very much but was aware that Richard had some extra quality. He was deeper and it was this depth which made me love him so very much.
When wandering the corridors of the old house did I ever catch the rustle of a silk skirt, hear a muffled scream, breathe in the acrid scent of fear, feel the chill touch of a dead hand? Perhaps. Was I aware of the story which lay behind its panelled walls and had led to that terrible face staring from the gallows? Did I sense dark secrets within its walls? A potential threat to our happiness? Again ‘perhaps’ but instinct warned me not to ask questions if I might be afraid of the answers.
My antiques business flourished so Bottle Kiln became even better known and a stopping point for dealers from all over the world. I spent days at salerooms, returning with more and more beautiful pieces and selling them easily. I was gaining a reputation for stocking the finest of antiques, the rarest of pottery, the most beautiful of
paintings and the oldest and most genuine furniture. A business like this snowballs so when a person does have a fine piece they are thinking of parting with, who else would they approach but Susanna Oliver of Bottle Kiln Antiques? I knew that living in such a house surrounded by so many authenticated pieces of art had increased my expertise and that was one reason why my ‘eye’ was well respected. My new home was as famous as my business to those who appreciated antiquity.
I had not forgotten my jug. Sometimes I dreamt about it, seeing it in the finest detail, and each time I woke after one of these visions I felt the stab of disappointment that my hands were empty and not holding the lovely piece. Whenever I entered a saleroom or visited another shop I would look around and wonder whether it would be sitting on a shelf or standing on some item of furniture but it remained elusive for now. It was somewhere else – hidden from me, with another owner, possibly not even still in the country. Sometimes for weeks I would forget about it; I had many other things to occupy my mind. But always, just when I thought it had been finally banished from my mind, I would fall asleep one night and hold it again in my hands and waken to the disappointment afresh.
But no business runs completely smoothly. I had a few hiccups. Early in the January of 1970, on a day muffled by swirls of freezing fog, a day when we expected no one in the shop, a blue Bedford van pulled up and a swarthy man of around thirty climbed out.
I opened the door to him. He was not someone I knew but a stranger.
He brought the damp chill of the fog trapped in his clothes so I felt the temperature of the shop drop a few degrees.
I quickly realised he was not a browser.
‘What can I do for you?’
He jerked his head towards his van. ‘I got a collection of Staffordshire wares in the back,’ he said. ‘It’s all
I pulled on my sheepskin coat and followed him outside.
He swung the van doors open and pulled the first of the boxes towards him, lifting the lid. He pulled out the first piece, unwrapping the newspaper with great care.
It was a model of Neptune, complete with sea creatures, multi-coloured shells and a trident. Instead of a flat base it was raised on four ‘feet’ and I knew this was an Obadiah Sherratt piece dating from the 1820s. My pulse rate quickened. I set it to one side.
I unwrapped the second – another beautiful thing – this time a Martha Gunn toby jug, the woman sitting, proudly bearing the three plumes of the Prince of Wales – a tribute to the bathing attendant who had been brave enough (it was reputed) to throw His Majesty, the Prince Regent or ‘Prinnie’, into the sea at Brighton.
I looked at the man with new respect. He was eyeing me very carefully, taking stock, measuring me up. As I was him.
He had spoken the truth. The pieces I was pulling from the boxes were top-quality Staffordshire. Valuable and desirable.
‘Dave,’ he said. ‘My name’s Dave Weston. I got more than forty pieces here. All of them as good as these.’
I could see Joanne watching me through the shop window and studied the man’s face. There was something shifty about him. Something here which did not quite hang together.
‘How much are you looking for for the entire lot?’
‘Two thousand,’ he said.
This worked out low – fifty pounds apiece.
It is a well-known scam to display the only good pieces of a collection and lure the dealer to bid blind, trusting them all to be of equally fine quality. Maybe that was his trick.
‘I’ll have to see every single piece unpacked in my shop to even consider bidding for them,’ I said, watching his face for signs of disappointment but he agreed readily.
Together we shifted the boxes into the showroom of Bottle Kiln and Joanne and I and Dave Weston started to unwrap them. Soon we were surrounded by a sea of pottery.
I immediately realised I had misjudged Weston. His scam was not to mislead me about the quality of the purchase. Every piece was unusual, rare, in good condition and genuine. As I unwrapped the pottery I revised my opinion. Now this put me in even more of a dilemma. I wanted the collection. Badly. All dealers chase
after the same pieces and I could make a good profit from these. I knew it. But there was still something wrong.
I thought and quickly realised I’d inadvertently put my finger on it. This was a collection. I glanced again at the van driver.
‘Where did these come from?’
‘A private collector, Mrs Oliver.’
I didn’t need to ask how he’d known about me. I spent a lot of money advertising Bottle Kiln Antiques and anyone in the trade would have known that I paid cash for good Staffordshire.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I need to know the collector’s name.’
Weston’s eyes flickered. ‘Look, ‘he said. ‘The collector doesn’t want you to know his name.’ He grinned. ‘Inland Revenue. Understand?’
He had a Bristol drawl.
I chewed my lip. It is hard, as an antiques dealer, to remain perfectly on the right side of the law and I had bought pieces before when the vendor wanted cash and to sell anonymously. But this was too big and too valuable a collection. Besides I did not know this man. I’d never seen him before. He wasn’t a regular caller.
I also realised that he was being evasive.
I didn’t trust him; but I wanted these pieces. A dealer’s dilemma.
Joanne bustled off to make some coffee. She knew the format.
‘Sit down,’ I invited.
‘I still need to know where the pieces come from.’
‘Lancaster,’ he said, ‘at least – just outside.’
‘I’d like to buy your collection,’ I said, ‘but I really need to know a bit more about them.’
‘Nineteen hundred,’ he said quickly. ‘I’ll take nineteen hundred.’
I waited. Nothing flushes out a suspect story as fast as silence. Liars can’t stand it. ‘It belonged to an old guy, see,’ he said, waving his palms around. ‘He’s died and his son don’t want to pay death duties on his old man’s collection.’
‘Understandable,’ I sympathised.
Weston’s eyes met mine and wavered. He wanted that cash just as much as I wanted his goods.
And now he changed his story. ‘Actually,’ he said, leaning forward conspiratorially, ‘it’s a collector who has fallen on hard times and needs cash quickly. Really quickly. He owes a very nasty set of people money and they’ve threatened him. He suggested I came to you, knowing you’d have the readies.’ He grinned.
Every time he trotted out a story I was well aware that it could be the truth and just as aware that it could be a lie. The law is that stolen goods, which is what my nose was sniffing out, belong to the rightful owner. I have known many antiques dealers watch the police clear their displays with no chance of recompense. You can try and catch your vendor to demand redress but they are notoriously elusive.
And as I have already said, with antiques, provenance is all.
I looked again at the van driver and decided to stall.
‘Can you leave the collection with me overnight?’ I asked. ‘I need to do a little research into one or two figures which I’m unfamiliar with. If I decide to buy I’ll have the cash ready for you at ten tomorrow morning.’
Weston’s eyes gleamed. He was sensing the ‘readies’ in his hot little hand. He argued a bit but the pull of the money was always going to win.
‘OK,’ he said grumpily and finally he left the shop and drove off. I watched him go then put two of the best figures up on the shelf and looked carefully over them with an ultraviolet light. It didn’t surprise me to find a name. I rang the police.
They returned my call an hour later and confirmed what I had suspected – the goods were stolen – the result of an armed robbery in not Lancaster but Leicestershire. The next morning they staked out the shop, their squad cars out of sight, and waited for the van to pull on to my car park, pulled Dave Weston in for questioning and confiscated the entire collection. I watched them carry the boxes out ruefully. I’d probably never get the chance to buy such a good, entire collection again. Collections of this uniform quality were rare, and even when the owners die are more often left to museums than put in the local saleroom.
There were three results from this: I was well aware that I had made myself an enemy. Weston was sentenced
to three years – it had been a violent robbery – but he would soon be out and I could be a target.
The second result was that after the vicious assault, the owner decided he no longer wanted his collection and so I did finally get to buy all the pieces, though not for two thousand.
The third result was that I had now made the acquaintance of Detective Inspector Robert Stallwood, of the Staffordshire Police, stolen goods, Fine Art department. I asked him to look into the theft of my jug three years ago and to see if there had been any reported sightings.
It was a month or so later that I made one of my ‘discoveries’ at Hall o’th’Wood. During a particularly vicious bout of flu I spent a couple of days in bed. On my marriage I had moved into Richard’s room and we slept in his carved-oak four-poster. It was a huge thing with thick balusters at each corner, a carved wooden ceiling and heavy, embroidered drapes. Halfway through a dreary afternoon I felt suddenly awake and lay, still aching in every joint, staring up at the carving over my head. The panels were plain – except for one which had been carved with a name. Rebekah Grindall, I read.
It had been done amateurishly. By her?
I realised then that I had never done anything about finding out the provenance of the jug which had led me here. David had promised to look into it for me. But David had proved an unexpected casualty of my
marriage. He had met Richard once – when he had walked into my shop a month after my return from Majorca and subsequent engagement. When I had introduced Richard to him David had shaken hands stiffly, made some excuse and walked out. I had not seen him since. He no longer came to my shop at all and on the two occasions when I had visited the museum hoping to see him he had been ‘out’ or ‘busy’ and I knew when I had gained a husband I had lost a friend. I missed our easy chats and his fount of knowledge but it was a small price to pay for my new, charmed life. Because of our estrangement David had never had the chance to tell me what, if anything, he had found out about my jug. But now, stimulated by my discovery of Rebekah Grindall’s name carved into the roof of our bed, I was burning with a need to find out more of the secrets of Hall o’th’Wood. I made a decision then that as soon as I was back on my feet one of the first things I would do would be to call on David at the museum.
One of the other changes that had happened since my marriage was that I had rented out my cottage in Horton to a young couple who enjoyed living in the Staffordshire Moorlands village as much as I had. They had asked me to sell Horton Cottage to them but I had resisted. It was a superstition of mine that one day I would have to leave Hall o’th’Wood and return there. In that way living at Hall o’th’Wood always seemed an interlude, a beautiful dream from which I would, one day, waken.
July was hot that year and we spent a couple of weeks at the Casa Rosada with my aunt, swimming, sailing or simply lazing on the terraces, reading paperbacks through the day and finding tiny restaurants and cafés in the nearby towns in the evenings. Richard enjoyed being at our island hideaway almost as much as his own home and I loved to watch him truly relax in the sunshine. He loved my aunt too and they would exchange friendly banter – often centred around one of her more modernistic paintings. He appreciated her art as well as the fact that she had been kind to her orphaned niece and given me the childhood, as he said, which had formed the woman. Richard was a romantic and could be quite silver-tongued. But it was sincerely said and meant. He was a man of frequent, thoughtful gifts and a courtesy that marked out his character. But he was also prone to long, brooding silences when he retreated into this secret place where I could not follow. And occasionally displays of bad temper, as I had witnessed on our first meeting. But in those weeks in Majorca, away with my aunt, his silences were shorter and less frequent and I felt the ghosts of the past were banished in the bright, hot sunshine. I had noticed, with amusement, that my aunt had fallen under his spell and I occasionally found her sketching his face, glancing frequently at him then down on her pad, to mark out the straight nose, the fine eyes, the full sensuality of his mouth which I could not look at without wanting to brush it with my own. Perhaps it was through her that I came to appreciate the beauty of his
features. She called him her Michelangelo’s David.