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I often wondered if it was right to be this closethis emotionally intimatewith my best friend's wife. No doubt Sarah wondered, too, though to her credit she'd never mentioned it. On the other hand, Lisette was, along with Ian Higginbotham, my closest business associate. In my absence, she ran Plumtree Press. Ours was a business relationship; it didn't matter that it was a male-female one. But it wouldn't do to make remarks about Bond and Moneypenny; their relationship depended upon distinctly sexual overtones, even if Bond resolutely failed to act upon them.
Shaking my head at the complexities of life, I resigned myself to the fact that it was time to ring Lord Chenies. I braced myself as I dialled his number. Conversation with his lordship was anything but easy, let alone pleasant.
"Who is it?" he answered, in the gruff, grating voice that so resembled that of the Prince of Wales. The man was a study in perpetual irritation, an impression accentuated by his failure to speak in full sentences.
"Alex Plumtree, m'lord."
A grunt. "Plumtree. Getting on famously with your chum Martyn Blakely. Fine job."
Good heavens! A compliment? From Lord Chenies? My old friend Martyn Blakely had recently been called as vicar of our church, Christ Church Chenies. Lord Chenies lived just through the gate from the church in the story-book fourteen-fireplace Chenies Manor. Evidently Martyn had made an excellent first impression.
"What do you want?" Lord Chenies demanded. Sadly, I reflected that most people probably called him to ask for somethingmost likely money.
I decided to meet bluntness in kind; no point beating about the bush. "I want to know if you'll let me publish Cleansing, m'lord, with a slipcased collector's edition of five hundred to precede the trade paperback printing." I named what I'd decided was a suitable figure for an advance, though it was ten times the largest I'd ever offered. Beads of sweat broke out on my upper lip at the thought of earning back that much money on a single book. Cleansing had jolly well better be a best-seller. . . .
Silence. Then, "Malcolm get on to you?"
Fortunately I'd had years of practise breaking his lordship's code. One simply supplied the first word of each sentence, and sometimes the second, for him.
"Argy-bargy last week. Didn't keep promises publishing Chapter One. Took it back. Never publish another work of mine in his life. Changed my will."
Embarrassed at being privy to the intricacies of his family life, I pondered what to say next. "So, er, contractually, there won't be a problem with Malcolm?"
"Damn well better not be. Told him we're through. Finished. Every sense of the word."
"Right. Well, then. Are you interested in my offer?"
"Good. Mind if I look in with the contracts on my way home tonight?" Startled, I realised I'd acquired his habit. "We'd like to move along fairly quickly. Do you have a copy of the manuscript?"
"'Course I do. Come for a drinkshow you some of my books. Sevenish." Then, before he replaced the receiver, I heard, "Ha! Young Plumtreemy publisher." Bang.
"Thank you very much, m'lord," I said to the dead telephone.
Three hours later I stood on his doorstep and rang his bell, glancing at my surroundings appreciatively. Chenies, I reflected, was the perfect rural village, virtually unchanged since the seventeenth century. Cottages surrounded Lord Chenies's manor house and the perfect Chiltern flint church nestled at the manor's gate. A world-renowned inn, the Bedford Arms, sat conveniently near, and the whole village was tucked safely within a wide border of fieldsdivided, of course, by hedges.
Lord Chenies had achieved notoriety lately for his stance on matters environmental as well as literary. Yesterday the familiar facade of Chenies Manor had adorned the local weekly newspaper accompanied by a story about Lord Chenies ripping out his hedges the day before it became illegal to do so. The Chorleywood Communicator had dutifully reported on the local chapter of hedgerow preservation vigilantes, known as Hedges in Transition (HIT), which had taken great offence at Lord Chenies's actions and painted him as the Great Satan. Helena Hotchkiss, a Chorleywood acquaintance of mine and national director of HITnot to mention the enormously politically correct founder of a rain-forest homeopathic pharmaceuticals firmhad written the venomous article herself. As I stared at the gaping trench where his hedges had been, his lordship opened the door.
"Damn bleeding hearts," he said, following my gaze.
There was no good answer to that greeting; I remained silent. I'd been in the manor house often before, but didn't recall it being so spartan. The air was chilly, and I saw that his lordship wore a heavy woollen cardigan over another jumper. I followed him over threadbare carpeting and into the room where I could tell he lived, the library. We did have something in common beyond a mutual listing in the electoral roll of Christ Church Chenies: I lived in my library as well.
"Scotch. Neat," he said, deciding my drink.
"Thanks very much," I said, setting down my briefcase. I decided to leave my coat on.
"Ever seen a polyglot Bible?" He crossed to the bookshelves with his own drink.
"Not in the flesh," I said. "Only facsimiles in"
"Look at this," he interrupted, not caring one jot what I'd seen. What he was passing into my hands stunned me. I put down my tumbler of whisky and took from him one of the great treasures of printing, one of the eight volumes of the Biblia Sacra printed by Christophe Plantin of Antwerp from 1569 to 1572. There on the same page were the Hebrew, Chaldaic, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin languages in one of the most beautiful specimens of ecclesiastical literature ever printed.
"Good heavens, m'lord," I breathed. "I never knew you collected."
"Value my privacy."
No sooner had I begun to enjoy the smooth vellum in my hands than he brought over another volume and abruptly removed the Plantin. I felt my eyes widen. This was one of the most coveted books in the world: the Doves Bible. It had been printed by the founder of Doves Press, a man named Cobden-Sanderson. His reputation as one of the finest printers and binders lives on. The Doves Bible was printed in five large quarto volumes, published during the years 1903 to 1905. Quickly, before Lord Chenies could take it from me, I turned to the first chapter of Genesis. There it was, the trademark of Cobden-Sanderson's printing genius: a huge IN THE BEGINNING, stretching across the entire page, with the red initial capital I stretching right down to the bottom of the page. Nothing so profoundly elegant had been printed before or since.
In awe of the treasures this gruff lord of the manor possessed, I sat mutely, appreciating the parade of typographic and publishing history he passed through my hands. One of the most astonishing things about his collection was its indication of a love for fine printing. He had some of the finest print specimens in the world. There were The Four Gospels from The Golden Cockerel Press in 1931; the Ashendene Dante, 1909; and, most incredible of all, the Mainz Psalter by Fust and Schöfferthe audacious pair who'd snatched Gutenberg's press from him as repayment for debt.
Dazed, I watched Lord Chenies replace the volumes on his shelves. I thought I heard him say, "Kept the flame burning for another generation," as he slid them into place. Then I understood, and for a moment even felt a pang of affection for the man. These booksand keeping them carefully preservedwere the elderly lord's way of preserving the faith. As lord of the manor, perhaps he still felt a certain responsibility in that respectthough all that had changed since his boyhood.
But then I felt my stomach twist as he began to pace before his bookshelves, systematically reviling all of the foreigners whose names graced his shelves. "Bloody Krauts," he said, referring to Fust and Schöffer, and their famous associate, Gutenberg. "To think they printed the first Bible. And the blasted Frogs. . . between them, they're plotting to take over the whole of Britain. Damn near succeeding, too, with this EU fiasco. Fought this war fifty years ago; here we are again. Making Roman Catholicism the pan-European religion, too. . . fought that war five hundred years ago. . . . And England doesn't even know there's a war on."
Mentally I plugged my ears, not wanting to hear it. But he went on and on, until finally he got round to the Americans. "Bleeding Yanks. . ."
"My lord, you know I'm half Yank myself." So were Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan, I added privately. "But I'll still publish your book if you'll let me."
He looked at me, scowled. "Yes, remember now. . . pater rather stepped out of line there, what?"
I prided myself on not revealing my emotions. Calmly I reached for my briefcase, opened it on my lap, and took out contracts and a pen. I placed them next to my untouched drink on the table, and his lordship signed them. I put my name to them as he finished, leaving one copy with him. Reaching for the thin manuscript box he'd brought to the table, I placed it and the other contracts in my briefcase.
"Specifications for the book in there," his lordship barked. "None of this soy ink, now, and weed paper. One reason Malcolm lost my contract; didn't comply with instructions."
"Thank you," I said, civilly enough, and stood.
"All right, young man. Long line of blue-blooded Plumtrees before you," Chenies said, walking me to his door. "Touch of Colonial blood won't do too much damage. Would've helped if your father had managed a title, though." Slam.
I should have torn up the contracts there and then.