Martin Walker: The Caves of Perigord

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Martin Walker The Caves of Perigord
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    The Caves of Perigord
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Martin Walker

The Caves of Perigord


Time: The Present

Every interesting woman has a private smile, and Lydia Dean was startled by a brief, tantalizing glimpse of her own. Its reflection suddenly flashed on the glass covering a poster as she entered her cramped attic office, then it faded. She might almost have imagined it, and certainly there was no cause to smile. Determined not to show how much the interview with Justin had upset her, she closed the door firmly behind her and contemplated the imminent ruin of her empire. Yet for the first time that day, and despite the faint dismay at the prospect of unemployment, she felt her spirits lifting. It was a wry mood, inspired mainly by her sense of the ridiculous. Lydia never ceased to be amazed at the odd way her mind worked, the portentous phrases that suddenly popped into her thoughts. Empire? Ruin of Empire? She was simply facing the loss of a job that she did not much enjoy, although it allowed her to combine a career in art with a decent income.

It was a kind of empire, she mused, as she gazed at the map of the ancient world that hung on her wall. Her territory stretched from ancient Greece back to the dawn of time, from the plains of India to the Pillars of Hercules. From Hittites to Hammurabi, she had traveled it and researched it, and could read some of its dead languages. As a student she had dug into its archaeological sites, extracted shards of pottery from harsh earth, and even sacrificed her toothbrush to scrub them clean. And now, despite her new skill at fending off passes from politically connected Ministers of Culture who could barely spell the word, she was trying, and probably failing, to make a living from it.

Why on earth had she been so self-indulgent, so intellectually lazy when she first came back to England to go to graduate school? She chided herself, an internal and critical dialogue she was conducting more and more frequently. Art history was not a real subject, not like law or computing, or even business. Perhaps she should have concentrated on archaeology, she thought, until disagreeable memories surfaced of muddy campsites, a sore back, and amorous fellow-diggers who smelled rank. Certainly she should never have given up the research at the institute into the medieval art she really loved. Money was not everything. But the mortgage had to be paid each month. And today it had been made subtly clear that the auction house was unlikely to keep on paying her handsome salary as long as the market in her field remained so dismally, so unprofitably flat. Preclassical art meant everything before the Greeks and Romans. From Ancient Egypt to Babylon, Persepolis to the Holy Land, Lydia’s empire covered continents and millennia, and yet never managed to bring in the sales and commissions that even the most obscure Impressionist painter could command.

“You-or rather your field-hmmm-not looking too promising, I’m afraid,” the department head had mumbled over her modest list of proposals for the coming year. Like so many Englishmen, Justin spoke in irritating circumlocutions, as if grim news were best delivered impersonally. It wasn’t just her field, she knew; her employers also blamed her. She had been hired not simply to trawl the market and scoop off the best for her auction house, but to find and charm the sellers with the best collections and to recruit rich customers. She understood, without any of her employers being crassly un-English enough to say so, that her youth and looks had secured her the job. But she was also expected to create the kind of buzz in her field that generated publicity and profits, and here she was failing miserably. She could offer only a few museum sales, which meant low prices, one private collection of Sumerian artifacts, and another of what could well have been looted from Scythian grave mounds, which would spell trouble.

“You are not living up to our hopes, Lydia,” Justin had concluded, in that snooty way he had developed since she had declined his invitation to an intimate dinner. Justin, said the gossips in the ladies’ room, was a predatory man. Lydia found him oily and distrusted his shirts, invariably blue checks or stripes, with white collars and cuffs. She was now careful to ask after the health of his wife and children.

It had been an unsettling meeting, leaving her with the distinct prospect of unemployment before the end of the year. Lydia walked across to her desk, and absentmindedly gave her usual pat to the head of the soapstone Egyptian cat that she had bought in Cairo, an evident but charming Fifth Dynasty fake, and told herself she had a right to feel miserable. Her career had stalled. Her window was speckled with a London drizzle and the mean, gray light belied the first hesitant buds of the daffodils she had seen in the park that morning. So, gloomily leafing through sale catalogs and trying not to recall that her thirtieth birthday was only months away, Lydia thought about changing her career. Evening classes, perhaps another degree through the Open University; she might consider economics or law. She couldn’t afford to go back to law school in the States, even if she had wanted to. She wasn’t ready to go home, nor back to mother, who was embarrassingly short of money since Lydia’s father had died. And America had too many lawyers, anyway. The law here was different. Lawyers made money, and seemed always to be in demand. And David had been neither bored nor boring, and could even be quite amusing about his work as a patent lawyer. Firmly, she steered her mind away from that topic. Their relationship had been pleasant, but ultimately insufficient.

David was history. But then her career was facing a similar fate. So when reception rang to say they had a walk-in, she felt just the slightest flutter of hope. For her colleagues in paintings and furniture and jewelry, walk-ins were almost drudgery, constant interruptions to look at some battered family heirloom proffered by someone with a glint of avarice in the eye. Lydia hardly ever had walk-ins, and the handful she had seen were obvious fakes, offloaded on some gullible British soldier or sailor on leave in Cairo or Baghdad. The staff on the reception desk could usually tell at a glance but preferred to leave the official verdict to the experts like Lydia.

She walked down the stairs to the front hall-a tall, fit-looking man in a tweedy country suit and heavy brogues was being shown into the waiting room. His age seemed to be somewhat less than forty, but he dressed as if he were closer to sixty. The parcel he carried, carefully wrapped in brown paper and string, was obviously heavy but did not affect what Lydia suspected was a military stride. The tie was an anonymous heavy silk. His hair was short, his manner affable but brisk, and he smelled faintly of carbolic soap, a distinct improvement on Justin’s musky cologne. He put the parcel on the table, gave her a smile with an amused twinkle in the eyes, held out his hand, and said, “How do you do? My name is Manners. I have just inherited this from my father and want to know if it’s worth selling.”

Lydia knew the country well enough to recognize from his speech and his dress a member of England’s comfortable classes, old money and older schools. She shook his hand, introduced herself, and opened a drawer in the table to offer him a knife or a pair of scissors, but he was carefully unknotting the string. “I think it was an heirloom from the war,” he said. “India, the Middle East, that sort of place. That’s where my father served, mainly. He was a regular soldier, and retired to live quietly in Wiltshire for the past thirty years. This rock has been at home for as long as I can remember.”

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