BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
The auctioneer looked pointedly at the man in the second row.
The auctioneer stared hard at the man in the second row and raised his gavel. But for one more bid from the man in the second row, Lot 147 was mine. I could almost smell the 150-year-old, thick linen paper, see the words hand-written in fading ink; touch them.
The man raised his wand.
On Tuesday night, 10 days ago, after a transatlantic flight had left me jet-lagged, I scarcely slept. I rose early the next morning, fog-brained and prepared to pass my sixty-fourth birthday as I had spent most birthdays during my adult life; alone and unremarked. I was, however, in a state of restlessness such as I had rarely experienced during an academic career spanning nearly four decades.
The reason for my agitation that Wednesday morning? It was because my destination lay with Sotheby’s New York auction house, a short distance from my Upper East Side hotel, but a world away from my Oxford College.
I admit that, although I held the Chair in English, by the exacting standards of the senior common room of my college my peers no longer revered me as an academic of any great distinction. Notwithstanding my appetite for, and expansive knowledge of 19th-century literature, a genre which I acknowledge has sadly fallen out of favour among the more recent crops of undergraduates, my colleagues now regarded me as only an adequate teacher. Few read my research papers. Fewer herald them as groundbreaking. The fashion in academic research has moved on, leaving me to flounder in its froth.
My tenure at Oxford had a visible horizon. Unless I made a grand statement as a benefactor to my College and my country in the scant years remaining before ‘Emeritus’ should be tacked on to “Professor”, my legacy would be consignment to the recycle bin of professional and academic oblivion. I had become irrelevant. What greater ignominy exists for an academic?
Clad in suit and tie, I walked, as is the English habit, at a brisk pace. By doing so, I hoped I would reduce the likelihood of bumping into my unlamented ex-wife who, after our divorce thirty years ago had decamped for New York, mercifully taking our whining, runny-nosed daughter with her. I picked up the pace and soon regretted not taking a taxi as I all but dissolved in the Turkish bath that is New York in August. As soon as Sotheby’s ten, climate-controlled storeys of glass and stone opened I lingered in their grand foyer for what seemed like an eternity, cooling beneath an air conditioning vent.
I presented my card to the curator of exhibits and asked to view the exhibit that interested me: a collection of letters from the English poet, Elizabeth Barrett, to her lover, Robert Browning more than a century and a half ago. These letters, from “The Portuguese” as Browning affectionately called her, were scheduled to go under the hammer that afternoon.
The curator took me to the collection housed in a glass-topped case next to which, and eyeing me with undisguised suspicion, stood a pillar-thick, uniformed security guard with a conspicuous, pearl-handled, semi-automatic sidearm holstered over his hip. The sight of the armed guard ramped up my blood pressure and anxiety levels to dangerous heights. The size of the man and his unconcealed weapon of mass destruction would have made front-page headlines in Oxford, but here no one seemed to bat an eyelid.
I adopted a mask of carefully assumed insouciance at the sight of those pages while I fought the hint of moisture welling in a corner of an eye. I pulled on white gloves. The curator nodded his permission and let me examine the exhibit, Lot 147 in Sotheby’s catalogue. I knew every word of each letter by heart. While I read them, a lump came to my throat and my palms sweated beneath the gloves. I directed a raised eyebrow at the curator.
“Our experts have authenticated the handwriting, Dr. Browning,” the curator said.
“I am familiar with the hand from original sources,” I said, “although I have only seen this collection of letters in reproduction. I am quite satisfied with their authorship and authenticity. And the reserve bid?” I blamed the air conditioning for the slight quaver in my voice. I tried to swallow. The Sahara wrapped my tongue and sandblasted my throat.
The curator quoted a figure from memory. In my mind, I converted the number from dollars to sterling and gave a noncommittal nod.
I turned away from the display case. I cast doubt aside and I reassured myself that, if successful in my bidding, the letters would represent my crowning achievement as an academic and a fitting exclamation point to my career. I had to have them. They were all that remained in this world that I desired. In a few hours those letters, the means to my end would be mine. I would then return them in triumph to their birthplace, there to hold, revere and cherish briefly before presenting them with all due and modest deference as a gift to a grateful nation.
Never in my life had I attended an auction, but how difficult could it be? At two o’clock I took a seat near the back of the salesroom, waiting through the bidding on a dozen or so lots of no interest to me. At last, my lot came up for sale. Wondering who else might bid for Lot 147, I studied the dozen or so buyers remaining in the room. How much would it cost to reign triumphant, to walk away with my prize, with all that mattered to me in my life? All I knew for certain was that, within minutes, I would find out.
The auction started with a flurry of bids, none approaching the reserve, but which, as a catechumen, I could only speculate were intended to induce excitement and drive up the final price. While I listened, I kept my numbered wand in sweating fingers by my side, ready.
The bidding slowed as the offers increased. At “Going once,” I raised my wand nervously for the first time. I had not realized that I had been holding my breath for some seconds until I exhaled noisily when the auctioneer acknowledged me. This was not as difficult as I had feared. Bidding quickly came down to two; a man in the second row, and me. By now the bids exceeded the reserve quoted by the curator yet still, the numbers rose relentlessly.
I could think of no one in Academe who had either the money or my desire to acquire the original letters of a Victorian poet. Could it be a Government Institution? A museum? A crackpot? I had no answer. The man in the second row would not turn his head.
Perspiration dribbled down my back. My clammy shirt stuck to my suit jacket even as I sat bolt upright in my chair. The third time that “Going once,” rang out it dawned on me that the other bidder wanted those precious letters as much as I and was, perhaps, prepared to do whatever it took to win the bidding war. I reached my absolute upper limit only to hear it topped. I raised my bid, praying that I would be able to mortgage my cottage or squeeze a larger line of credit from the bank. If the bank refused, I would pledge whatever it took; my life’s savings, everything I owned, to cover the difference, even though it would mean a retirement of penury and private tutoring.
The devil on my shoulder whispered in my ear. “This is your last chance. You’re out of options. Everything you’ve ever worked for, everything you crave is locked up in those letters. You deserve it. England will thank you.”
I hurled caution to the mat, took a deep breath and made my final bid. It was all I had, all I could borrow. I had to acquire those letters, no matter the cost, to serve my vainglorious ambition and further my last chance for recognition by my college. Gratitude, perhaps adulation in the press and a bauble presented by Her Majesty would be mine. Ignoble aims indeed, and I plead guilty, but obsession takes no prisoners.
If I had to swallow defeat, I would make the man in the second row pay dearly for his victory. If my plan backfired and mine was the final, reckless, unanswered bid, I would have gained a pyrrhic victory. Dishonour, certainly, would follow as I should almost certainly have to renege on my financial obligation to the auction house. The end of my tenure loomed, early retirement in disgrace beckoned. Without my good name, what purpose could my life serve other than as a cautionary tale?
I fought the urge to bite a fingernail or move my lips for fear the auctioneer might take either for a bid. I abandoned reason and passed through Dante’s hopeless gate of no return. Emboldened by the great canard of our age, the belief that I could make it happen if only I desired it enough, twice more I upped my bid, only to hear it topped each time at the raise of the gavel.
“Going twice.” The auctioneer looked at me. I shook my head.
“Sold,” the auctioneer called out in an authoritative voice. “Now, turning to Lot 148 . . .”
With a leaden heart, I sagged in my seat, hung my head, and swallowed the gall of defeat.
Sick to my stomach, and sick in my heart, I returned to my hotel, packed hurriedly and took a taxi to JFK for a stand-by night flight home. A British Airways tourist class meal tasted of ashes. I toasted Socrates and, like him, swallowed my hemlock, a cheap Argentine Malbec.
In a blue funk across the Atlantic, I tried to count my few blessings. I granted grudgingly that I still owned my cottage outside Oxford, mortgage-free. The line of credit I could use for a small indulgence, a trip abroad perhaps, somewhere to drown my sorrows in gin and anonymity. I still had my health, my integrity, my tenure and my pension. My trip to America, the shame of personal failure to achieve my greatest ambition would now remain my deepest secret. I vowed to take it to my grave with, Remembered Only for His Mediocrity, carved upon my headstone.
Mid-morning the next day, I arrived bleary-eyed at the Oxford station car park. I perked up a little when I saw that, thanks to the ubiquitous CCTV cameras, my Rover still stood where I had parked it, complete with its wheels and hubcaps. The dark cloud that gathered over my head the moment I left the auction room, however, refused to lift.
Ten days passed in that same funk before the crunch of a vehicle’s tires on the gravel driveway in front of my cottage interrupted my Saturday morning fight with my antique Hoover. Surprised by this intrusion into my domestic chores, I watched a man slide from the driver’s seat of a UPS van. He rang the doorbell and through the drawing-room lace curtain I saw him drum his fingers on a package and tap his foot on the doorstep.
“Package for Mr. Rushden-Browning,” he announced when I opened the door. “That you?” Without waiting for a reply he handed me a flat package. “Sign here.” He thrust a hand-held device and an electronic pen at me.
I signed where indicated and shut the door without a word. I examined the New York postmark, the paperwork taped to the front and rear of the cardboard, and the Customs declaration: Personal papers. No commercial value.
I knew no one in New York but my ex-wife and had only visited the city that one time. Probably, I decided, something I’d left behind in my haste to escape the hotel. With a shrug, I tossed the package onto an armchair and resumed my Hoovering.
When I had completed my domestic chores for the week, I returned to the flat package, pulled the tab and removed the polythene-wrapped contents. I was sure my heart was about to stop. In my hands lay Lot 147, the complete collection of letters from Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, my great-great-grandparents. A single sheet of paper, a hand-written letter, fell to the floor. I picked it up and read it:
For years I have wanted to reconnect with you and to make up in some small way for ignoring you for so long.
Mother did not speak kindly of you, especially in the early years after your divorce, and I am sure there is another side to the story. After all, she did not approve of either of my husbands, and we have not been in touch since my second wedding. I ought not to pass judgement on her, but it is hard not to.
I know how much you wanted these letters from EB to RB so I bought them for you at auction today. As you can see from the address at the top of this letter, Curt, my second husband, and I live in the Hamptons. I doubt that Curt will miss the money! If he kicks up a fuss, I will tell him it was for a good cause and thank him for his generosity.
I nearly did not get the letters as some idiot with more money than brains kept upping the ante way over what I was told they were worth, but I had instructed my agent on no account to let them fall into enemy hands. Sotheby’s naturally demanded a certified cheque for the amount of the sale, plus the buyer’s commission before releasing the letters; hence the delay in getting them to you.
I remember you saying when I was a girl that these letters belonged in England. Well, they’re yours now. I hope you enjoy them. Perhaps you could offer them on permanent loan to your college. They really should not be held in private hands any longer but made available for all to see and read. And perhaps you will show me what all the fuss is about when I am in England in October.
I’ve missed you all these years. Please say you will let me stay a short while. I promise not to sniff or whine.
I don’t deny that my chest ached as I choked back a catch in my throat. Then, unable to bear the pain a moment longer I sank to my knees, covered my face with my hands, and wept. Once my emotions had run their course I composed myself, donned white gloves and read each precious word of each sentence of each letter.
When I reached the last letter, written from her father’s London house on Wimpole Street on the 18th of August 1846, I closed my eyes. Three weeks later, she and Robert defied her father and eloped to Italy. I knew the words by heart. They tumbled from her heart like a spring bursting from a mountainside and flowed from her pen across the page. The words of her love for Robert entwined like a Celtic knot with her poetry that became her most famous work, Sonnet XLIII.
The lump in the throat that I knew in the New York auction room returned. I gazed at the page of elegant handwriting resting like thistledown in my hands. For uncountable minutes I stared empty-eyed into the gathering dusk before I returned to the last few words:
… How do I love thee? I love thee with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, smiles, and tears of all my life and, if God chooses, I shall but love thee better after death. ’Tis said. If this present does not suit, then I know of no other for I have laid bare to thee all that is in my heart.
I remain, my dearest Robert,
After almost a century in exile, the letters from Elizabeth to Robert had returned home.
“Thank you, Rosemary, with all my heart,” I murmured.
For hours, I wrestled with indecision, debating. Dusk deepened into night. I gathered my frayed and brittle emotions, stuffed their tasselled ends deep inside me where I would let no one find them, and poured a glass of Amontillado. I raised it to my lips and hesitated. It could wait, I decided. I had a task more pressing waiting for completion. I put the glass down, untasted.
I picked up the phone on my desk and drummed my fingers on the desktop while I listened to the ringing at the other end. At last, the familiar voice of the Master of my college answered.
I took a deep breath. As I had at Sotheby’s, I stood once more at the watershed. This time there would be no turning back.
“Master,” I said, scarcely able to suppress the quaver in my voice. “I have something beyond price which I should like to offer anonymously to the College, to be on permanent loan during my lifetime, and as a bequest upon my death.”