‘Lot 34, what am I bid, gentlemen, what am I bid? Very nice piece of classicism here, highly sought after, a sound investment – wide-sweeping vistas, possibly crumbling a little at the edges, but plenty of wear left in it yet, never mind the quality shall we say, feel the breadth, ha,ha, – what am I bid? Thank you sir, you won’t regret it – any more? Come, gentlemen, a wide range of assets here, own in-built infrastructure, huge returns, no effort required; well, very little, anyway, minimal maintenance necessary as free service is included – won’t let you down, – unless you turn a little tyrannical, eh? Ha,ha, sorry – what am I bid? My, but we are all eager, aren’t we – hardly surprising: the elegance, opulence, the sheer size and scale are unequalled. A growing concern, constantly expanding, new annexes all the time… Admittedly not the original Greek version, but as is often pointed out, a fair copy nonetheless, I think we are all agreed – thank you, sir – any more? And going, going, – GONE! Sold to the gentleman in the toga at the back there: one Roman Empire to …Senator Didius – Julianus, wasn’t it?’
No, it probably wasn’t quite like that, but tempting to imagine even so. Old Marcus Aurelius got into the habit of auctioning goods to get out of debt, and with a rather generous commodity in slaves and unwed females, auctions were the norm. Still, to end up auctioning a whole Empire. That takes some seriously bad housekeeping. But then, by 193 A.D., things were perhaps getting a little crumbly around the edges: conspiracies, messy murders and war have a way of leaving moth holes in the furniture, so to speak. The result was the Praetorian Guard who, having relieved Emperor Pertinax of his position (and life), offered the Empire up for auction – and Julianus rose to the bait.
Auctions can be such emotive things. Drama, comedy, tragedy – it is an extension of theatre, filled with emotion and excitement, tension and hypocrisy, plots and paranoia, acts of pernicity coupled with acts of generosity. Witness the dramatic candle auction in Moonfleet, or the pathos of Dobbin secretly buying Amelia’s harpsichord in Vanity Fair. In the case of the Empire, it did at least kick some of the provincial commanders into action, and Severus marched on Rome to pull it back into shape. The Praetorians were sent into the corner for being such naughty schoolboys, and poor old Julianus was executed. Let that be a warning to greedy bidders: you never know what you might be buying into. Which leads me neatly (or probably not) onto the opening scene of the second Julia Warren Mystery (Of Soul Sincere) where a house with a past is auctioned off to the highest bidder: in this case, another politician. He too, didn’t know what he was buying into …
A catalogue of household furniture, one piano-forte, a capital eight-day clock, plate, silver, ornamental china, a few pictures and drawings and numerous curious articles, the property of the late Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq, deceased; which will be sold by auction by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Friday the 10th, and Saturday the 11th of June, 1791, at eleven o’clock, on the premises, at Bower House, South Lambeth, by order of the executors.
Bower House, an elegant building completed in 1762, property of Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq. deceased, will be sold by auction, also by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Monday the 13th of June, 1791, on the premises, by order of the executors. …
‘GONE!’ The auctioneer’s gavel lands heavily, with a resounding bang! and the auctioneer wipes at his perspiring face with a piece of cambric. A last minute bid. No one had challenged. The bid had stayed. One of their more favoured clients, too. Henry Paglar Esq. Member of Parliament. No question of Queer Street with HIM—money fairly pouring out of his pockets in musical fountains. The auctioneer bows, smiles, extends his hand towards the register. The auction house clerk scurries across, hair tied back in a knot, with limp cravat and worn coat two sizes too large for him, holding quill and inkpot.
The auctioneer bows again. Henry Paglar Esq. (Member of Parliament) leans over the book, holding out his hand for the quill. It is dipped in the ink for him, and proffered with due reverence. He takes it and scratches his name in the ledger. The deed is done. There are bills of exchange and terms and contracts to be drawn up; the executors are even at this moment in the house, through there, dear sir, preparing the papers. The Member of Parliament is escorted to the next room and the business is concluded.
Only a few members of the audience remain to act as chorus to the whole scene; the rumour that sped through the air moments before hovers yet around them.
‘But is it true then? And that gentleman has gone and bought it even so?’
‘I would not live in such a place, not if you was to pay me for it—why, even just standing here, in full light of day, makes me shiver.’
‘And where was it they found him?’
‘Up the stairs, hanging, from the stairwell.’
‘Was it… was it murder then?’
‘No,’ and here the voices lower still more. ‘By his own hand, they say…’
A short pause. Then: ‘Shall we go and see?’
Almost on tiptoe, the little group wanders out into the hallway, to gaze with ghoulish relish up at the sun-filled stairway and landing.
‘Aye,’ murmurs one of them at last, ‘he’ll not rest easy, that one.’
‘Well, I do not know about such things,’ blusters one of the party, sticking his chest out, ‘but I should say the Honourable Member made a sharp bargain, and if he ain’t concerned about suicides and unquiet graves, why then, he is welcome to it. And I, for one, say well done for catching a bargain before it can wriggle away.’ With that, he declared himself ready to partake of a pint of ale and a pork pie at the White Horse down the road, and set his hat firmly upon his head.”
(Opening from ‘Of Soul Sincere’)
It is odd. I wouldn’t have made the comparison, but for stumbling upon this historical footnote re Ancient Rome, yet in a way, the thread is similar. The House is bought, and becomes the nucleus for the same family all through the rest of the 18th century, the whole of the 19th century, to reach the year 1928 – when Julia arrives on its doorstep, to begin unravelling its secrets. In the same way that the Empire was sold, bought, and stayed with the same family, enduring the usual untidy asides of plots, murder and strife. Well, that’s families for you. Another coincidence: two of the female members of the Severus line were called Julia. Disconcertingly, both ruthless poisoners and political intriguers by all accounts.
I have a pet wish to set a whole series of stories in and around an auction house; most likely in the 18th century – they somehow belong there. It was when the big auction houses took off: Christies, followed by Sothebys, and perhaps some not so big, such as Cardew and Penn…
It is summer, 1928.
When invited by her publisher to assist a well-respected M.P. write his memoirs, Julia Warren is at first reluctant to concentrate on anything other than her next novel; however, circumstances(involving among other things unexpected plumbing) conspire to change her mind and she finds herself at once guest and employee at the great man’s rather bohemian household.
Almost immediately she encounters memories from the past, of a rather unsettling nature …
Of Soul Sincere, coming April 2 2016, published by Grey Cells Press