The sign above my workshop says J. B. Fisher Restorer of Antiques and that’s what I am.
I’m not a solver of ancient problems, an expert in the complexities of inheritance and its consequent legalities, or a judge, with the lives of others hanging on my decisions. I’m none of those things and never wanted to be. Yet here I am with the future of a great house and all it contains dependent on what I choose to do today.
And it’s worse than that – all the hundreds of families employed by the owner of this stately home; all the local businesses who rely on supplying its needs; the educational and charitable projects supported by its Foundations; every single one of them will be affected by my actions in the coming hours.
I’ve done as much research as I’ve had time for and could cope with, such things not being among my strengths or skills, and now I’m going to set the situation out as clearly as I can, hoping it will help me to make up my mind.
I’ll name no real names (not even mine – J.B. Fisher indeed!) and these papers will be disposed of most carefully to ensure no harm can come to the innocent, and no grief to those who should remain innocent; but if you’re reading this, then probably, one way or another, everything has come into the open.
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You may call me Jem. I’m well known as an expert in the restoration of fine antique furniture. At the beginning of last month I had a call from Major S. at the Estate of Lord M. They had some work for me up at the big house, in particular an extremely valuable burea from the Regency period had suffered some water damage during the storm of the previous week when a window had blown in, and Lady M wanted me to look at it immediately.
Knowing that time is of the essence in such cases, I left all my other jobs and drove straight over. The Major handed me over to the Housekeeper, and asked me to report back to him once I had assessed the situation.
It didn’t take me long to see that the water had lifted some of the fine veneers and swollen the wood underneath. There were early signs of staining, and also loss of colour here and there. I made a first, rough list of the work to be done and asked the Housekeeper to fetch dust sheets and blankets while I went down to the Estate Office.
There was no question of the work not being done, it was only a case of sorting out the insurance for the bureau while it was in my hands. It had to come to me because in my premises furniture can be maintained at specific temperatures and humidity.
I’d deliberately driven over in my larger van, so an hour and a half later the Major and I were unloading the wrapped and boxed bureau and putting it into my secure inner workshop. Once I was alone I unfastened and removed the top and sides of the box, then peeled off the layers of blankets and dustsheets. I lifted off the last cloth very slowly and carefully in case a scrap of delicate veneer caught on the cloth and came away with it.
In the better light of the workshop I could see there was even more to be done than I’d thought, so I set to and made a second list and rang the Major with my final estimate of the cost. That list has ‘gone missing’.
I won’t bore you with all the ins and outs of the work I did in the next few days – there are plenty of books on Furniture Restoration in your local library – suffice it to say that it went well, and none of the damage was irreparable.
However, on the Thursday I began to tackle a piece of veneer which had started to lift at the lower edge, (I shall not say precisely where) when I suddenly realised it hadn’t been glued down in quite the usual way. As I took hold of the edge it lifted off in one piece, bringing the wood to which it was attached with it.
Behind it was a drawer, whose concealment I shall not describe, and within which lay three documents.
My first inclination was to repair the veneer, replace the whole block, and leave well alone. After all this was none of my business. But then I saw that the water had got into the drawer by the tiny hole left as the means of opening it, (a handle of any kind would have revealed the drawer’s presence) and I realised that I must lift out the papers in order to dry them properly.
Once I did that I could hardly avoid reading them.
The first document was a personal letter from the then Prime Minister to Lord M’s first Ducal ancestor, announcing his government’s decision to grant him lands and money for some unspecified services done for the nation during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. (And no, this was not the man you might at first imagine, he lived earlier – indeed it has me puzzled even now what it was he might have done!)
It was made quite clear that the house and estate which were to be created were not an outright gift, but would stand in some sense as a permanent loan. It was therefore to be passed on to the great man’s direct, legitimate male heirs. In other words the whole thing must be entailed in unbroken line from father to son. No unworthy cousins of any degree were going to get their greedy hands on it.
Should any future Duke fall into serious debt, disgrace the family name, or fail to produce the necessary male heir, the house, its entire contents and the whole estate would swiftly be returned to an ever-hungry Treasury!
I was both thunderstruck and confused, it seemed such a strange arrangement.
However, the second paper was even more of a shock.
. . . . .To be continued. . . . ??