SECRETS OF THE CHOCOLATE HOUSE
Found Things (Volume 2)
New York Times bestselling author Paula Brackston’s The Little Shop of Found Things was called “a page-turner that will no doubt leave readers eager for future series installments” (Publishers Weekly). Now, Brackston returns to the Found Things series with its sequel, Secrets of the Chocolate House.
After her adventures in the seventeenth century, Xanthe does her best to settle back into the rhythm of life in Marlborough. She tells herself she must forget about Samuel and leave him in the past where he belongs. With the help of her new friends,
New York Times bestselling author Paula Brackston’s The Little Shop of Found Things was called “a page-turner that will no doubt leave readers eager for future series installments” (Publishers Weekly). Now, Brackston returns to the Found Things series with its sequel, Secrets of the Chocolate House.
After her adventures in the seventeenth century, Xanthe does her best to settle back into the rhythm of life in Marlborough. She tells herself she must forget about Samuel and leave him in the past where he belongs. With the help of her new friends, she does her best to move on, focusing instead on the success of her and Flora’s antique shop.
But there are still things waiting to be found, still injustices needing to be put right, still voices whispering to Xanthe from long ago about secrets wanting to be shared.
While looking for new stock for the shop, Xanthe hears the song of a copper chocolate pot. Soon after, she has an upsetting vision of Samuel in great danger, compelling her to make another journey to the past.
This time she’ll meet her most dangerous adversary. This time her ability to travel to the past will be tested. This time she will discover her true destiny. Will that destiny allow her to return home? And will she be able to save Samuel when his own fate seems to be sealed?
- St. Martin's Press
- October 2019
- 320 Pages
“Brackston’s vibrant story is on firm historical ground, with period details woven in nicely….Time-swapping romance will please fans of Alice Hoffman.” —Publishers Weekly
“Secrets of the Chocolate House has all the romance of the seventeenth century with a heroine that is every bit twenty-first: clever, fierce, and willing to put her own life on the line to rescue the man she loves.” —Ruth Emmie Lang, author of Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance
“Brackston wonderfully blends history with the time-travel elements and a touch of romance. This series debut is a page-turner that will no doubt leave readers eager for future series installments.” —Publishers Weekly
“Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander collection will delight in Brackston’s new series and eagerly await its second installment. A bewitching tale of love across centuries.” —Kirkus Review, best science fiction and fantasy book in October 2018
“The Little Shop of Found Things is a delightful time-travel story with just the right amount of romance and mystery to be a truly engaging read.” —Book Junkie Reviews blog
“What a wonderful start to this new series by Paula Brackston with a unique and interesting foundation to magic and time travel.” —Carrie Book Reviews blog
“I recommend this book to readers of historical romance and readers who loved the Outlander series.” —The Book Was Better blog
“An enjoyable escapist read.” —Lit Loving Mom blog
“This is such a promising start to a new series. It’s historical and mysterious and suspenseful and magical all at the same time. The author has a true gift for these kinds of stories. I can’t wait for the next one!” —Random Book Muses blog
“If you like magical realism, novels with time travel or are an Outlander fan I would recommend this novel for sure.” —Book Gal blog
“After staying up late finishing The Little Shop of Found Things, I had to write to tell you how much I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! …I can not wait to recommend it to our adult readers at the store!” —Kimberly Cake, Enchanted Passage bookstore (Sutton, MA)
“Paula Brackston is back with what’s sure to be one of her most beloved titles yet! …Highly recommended.” —Marianne Colton, Lockport Public Library (Lockport, NY)
From her viewing point at the top of the hill, the landscape of Wiltshire fell away into the hazy distance of the cooling autumn afternoon.
Xanthe shielded her eyes against the lowering sun, a breeze disturbing her golden, spiral curls. The hills and slopes of the countryside were flattened by her lofty perspective, the distant villages and farmhouses appearing impossibly tiny, as if they could never hold real people. As she listened to the whirring call of the curlew, the rising notes of its distinctive song seemed to sound an alarm, a warning against the apparent peacefulness of the setting. For secrets hid among the long shadows of the dwindling day, in the dark copses atop the stout hills, within the stone walls of the old farmhouses, beneath the flagstoned floors of the ancient churches. And secrets were anchored to their hiding places only with the steadfastness of trust and the weight of danger.
* * *
She breathed in the scents of the wiry grass and gorse of the hill, letting her eyes focus on the far distance of the vista before her. It was not hard to imagine the view as it would have been four centuries earlier. Little change had taken place. The settlement boundaries had crept outward. Here and there a minor industrial estate sat unobtrusively, quietly industrious. If she listened hard she could discern the swoosh and rumble of traffic on the main road that crossed the valley, but there were no motorways here. No cities. Small communities inhabited the ancient landscape, all concerned with families, with survival, with their own intimate futures and worries. What was harder to imagine were the invisible veins of energy that crisscrossed the verdant scenery, like so many electricity cables, buried deep. But ley lines were infinitely more powerful, their influence stretching not only across the miles, but over centuries. Xanthe knew now how to look for them. She found a church spire off to her left in the east, and then, narrowing her eyes, turned to another, set in a village on the river. Another half turn to the west and she found an ancient burial site marked by a treeless mound. The line would cut through these potent points on the map of human habitation, and in turn be bisected by another line, drawn between two further points of power, and two more beyond that, and so on and so on, crosshatching the whole of the countryside, a network of energy, a web of timeless connection. Xanthe knew only too well the transformative strength of that energy in certain places. Places such as the old blind house at the bottom of the garden behind The Little Shop of Found Things. Not for the first time, she wondered how different things might have been had she and her mother chosen a different town in which to start their antiques business.
The chalk horse drawing Xanthe was standing next to was so large that had she been careless enough to step onto it, her Dr. Martens would not have covered even one of its mighty hooves. The scale of the drawing, so artfully cut into the green turf, revealing the bright whiteness of the chalk below, always impressed her. The people who had taken the decision to carve the hill figure, hundreds of years before she came to live in Wiltshire, could not have known how long it would stand sentinel over the landscape. Xanthe found it heartening that the horse had survived weather, farming, battles, and the march of time itself to stand proud and steady all those long, restless years. It was a source of calm for her, so that she had come to enjoy visiting it, seeking out solitude and peace high above the county plains, whenever life’s events felt as if they were getting the better of her.
She pulled her old tweed jacket tighter around her and sat on the wiry grass, dropping her hand to run her fingers over the compacted chalk of the great horse’s noble head. She thought about how much had happened to her in the past few short months. Of how much she had come to understand things that only a short time ago she would have thought impossible. Even with everything so fresh in her mind it was still hard, at times, to believe it had all been real. To make sense of the fact that, with the help of the silver chatelaine, she had traveled back in time to 1605. That she had saved Alice. That she had met Samuel.
Getting to her feet again, she took a deep breath of the bracingly cool air. There was no point torturing herself with what might have been. With what she had glimpsed, felt, and lost. She had come to accept that she and Samuel could never be together. He inhabited his time, his world, and she hers. What she had felt for him, and he for her, she believed to be real, but she knew those feelings had been heightened by the danger surrounding the circumstances in which they had met. Magnified by that fact she had been so reluctant to acknowledge: that they would forever be separated by the centuries. This was where, and more important when, her own life belonged. She had people who needed her and cared for her here. And there was work to be done. If she and her mother were to make a success of their new business, Xanthe had to focus all her energies on it. Their financial difficulties were far from over, and Flora’s health was unreliable at best. This was not the time to be distant. They were a team, she and her mother. That had to be her priority now. She would immerse herself in her work and turn her back on memories of the past. She said a silent goodbye to the great horse and followed the path back to the parking place where her cherished black London cab sat waiting for her. It was still her most treasured possession; a memento of her city life, and a boon when scouring the country for antiques.
By the time Xanthe arrived back at the shop the day had fallen into twilight and the little town of Marlborough was enveloped in a heavy fog. She shivered as she put the closed sign on the shop door and called out to Flora.
“Mum? I’m home. I’m going to lock up. Where are you?”
The sound of crutches on the tiled floor of the hallway to the workshop gave her mother away. Her arthritis might have made them a necessary part of her mobility, but that didn’t mean she moved slowly.
“I was just putting the finishing touches to another mirror frame,” she said as she hurried back into the shop. Her fine, fluffy hair was kept off her face by what Xanthe suspected was a polishing rag, rather than a scarf, but still Flora looked appealing, her English rose skin and deep-set eyes maturing kindly. Being in her fifties suited her.
“Leaving the stock at the mercy of shoplifters?” Xanthe smiled as she spoke, but there was a seriousness to her words. They had been warned about a spate of light-fingered browsers in the town recently.
Flora shook her head. “No one gets through the shop door without that old bell letting me know.”
Xanthe thought guiltily about how many times she had done just that, sneaking in and out of the house so that her mother wouldn’t know she had been there. Covering her tracks. Protecting lies. Keeping secrets. “I expect that’s why Mr. Morris never got rid of it,” she said.
“Well, if he used to restore things like I do he’d have needed it. I can’t be in two places at once, love, and when you decide to go off on one of your walks…”
“Sorry, Mum. Just needed a bit of air. Clear my head.”
“I’m teasing. Doesn’t take two of us to man this place, not all the time. What does need your attention, on the other hand, is the stock. Or rather the lack of it.”
“Christmas may seem ages off, but we can’t afford to miss the trade. People start shopping for gifts earlier and earlier these days. And if the things we find need some work doing…”
“OK, you’re right. I should be out scouting for more stuff.”
“If we don’t have it we can’t sell it.” She paused, her face more serious for a moment. “We need these few weeks to be a success. Your father is still dragging his heels when it comes to agreeing to the divorce settlement.”
“Still no news?”
Flora shook her head. “Why would he be in a hurry? He’s got the family home and the income from an established business.”
“Not to mention whatever his new woman brings to the party.”
Flora tutted. “No use relying on any progress this side of the New Year. We just have to focus on finding treasures and making sales. And we have to prepare for our first Christmas in our new home! Nearly December and not so much as a pudding stirred.”
The moment of tension passed as Flora gave way to her irrepressible love of the festive season. Xanthe made a mental note to make sure this would be a happy one, for both of them.
“Oh, and I want to get working on that lovely pine dresser we found in Devizes last week. We need to find a van from somewhere so we can collect it.”
“No way that was going to fit in my taxi.”
“Why don’t you ask Liam if he knows where we can get one from?”
As always the idea of seeing Liam brought with it a tangle of feelings. He had already proved himself to be a good friend, had helped her when she had needed him. And it wasn’t as if he was being pushy. But still it was clear his interest in her went beyond friendship. What he didn’t know, what he couldn’t know, was that Xanthe’s heart was still bruised after having to leave Samuel.
She realized her mother was looking at her, waiting for an answer.
“Sure, Mum. I’ll call him.”
“Oh, look.” Flora waved one of her crutches at the window. “No need. You can ask him now.”
Liam was standing outside. He was wearing his favorite old, soft, leather jacket and had his hands deep in his pockets against the cold. His stubble, Xanthe noticed, had passed just beyond what was fashionable into something a little more rugged, yet still he was dangerously good-looking. He gave a rueful smile, his light blue eyes crinkling at the corners. Xanthe opened the door.
“I was passing.…” He grinned.
“Down a cul de sac?”
“I like to take in the sights.…”
“In this fog?”
“For heaven’s sake, Xanthe, let the poor boy in and shut the door. It’s chilly enough in here as it is. We were just talking about you, Liam.”
“Oh?” He looked at Xanthe, who hurried to explain, the expression of hope on his face unnerving her.
“We need a van. To pick up a dresser.”
“A lovely piece,” said Flora. “We found it at an auction in Devizes.”
“Mum wants to work her magic on it with paint.”
“Do you have a van?” Flora asked Liam.
“No, but I know a man who does,” he said.
“Excellent.” Flora turned and stick-stepped her way toward the hall. “I was just about to muster up an early supper. Why don’t you join us and we can make plans?”
“Oh, well…” Liam hesitated for form’s sake, but Xanthe could see how keen he was to accept the invitation. “That’d be great,” he said at last.
“Brave man,” she muttered to him as they trooped upstairs to the little kitchen on the first floor. Her mother’s singular approach to cooking was not for the fainthearted, and Liam had already chewed through one of her lunches, so he knew what he was letting himself in for.
In the few busy months since buying the property, Xanthe and Flora had transformed the dusty, cluttered shop into a wonderful, light-filled space, stocked with gorgeous things. The living quarters, however, had not received the same attention. There were still packing cases in every room and the sitting room was mostly given over to being an office, apart from the green velvet sofa on which they flopped when time allowed. Nothing had been repainted, and the floors remained covered in nasty carpet or cracked linoleum. In the kitchen, plates and general paraphernalia sat about in stacks and heaps waiting to be found homes.
“Find yourself a seat,” said Flora, opening the fridge. She had given up apologizing for the mess. Xanthe suspected she no longer noticed it. It was only when visitors called that she herself saw their home with fresh eyes and felt a little embarrassed.
“We are going to redecorate up here,” she said. “Eventually.”
“Really? Can’t think why,” said Liam, moving a stack of Antique Trader magazines off a ladder-backed, pale pine chair. Xanthe recalled his own flat and realized that interior design, or the lack of it, was hardly a priority for him. He’d far more likely spend his time and money on his beloved classic cars. Just as she and her mother would rather be restoring a Georgian table, or reframing a set of Victorian prints, or repairing a crucial chip in a piece of powder blue Wedgwood china. She cleared some space on the old kitchen table and fetched bottled beers from the fridge.
“The dresser’s a big one,” she told Liam, handing him a bottle opener. “The base is over eight foot, three cupboards, and the top half has glass doors. Though we may have to abandon those.”
“Nonsense,” said Flora. “I’ve got the perfect set of hinges we can use.”
“My mate’s van will handle it, no problem.” Liam paused to take a swig of his beer. “I’ll text him. See when we can have it.”
“You don’t need to abandon the workshop; I can drive it,” said Xanthe, taking a packet of spicy noodles from her mother and putting them back in the cupboard, selecting rice instead.
“Course you can,” Liam agreed, “but you are going to need help lifting the dresser in and out of it, aren’t you?” He had about him such an easy charm it was impossible not to feel a little better for simply being in his company.
Xanthe smiled at him and nodded. She admired his patience. Some men would have given up on her by now. Would have realized she wasn’t looking for a relationship, taken the many hints she had dropped, and looked elsewhere. But not Liam. He was prepared to wait, and while he waited, to be a good friend. She couldn’t help liking him for that. And their shared love of music and performing gave them a safe common ground too. He was a good lead guitarist. Better than good, in fact. She remembered the first time she had heard his band play at The Feathers, and the first time she herself had sung there. It was good to have a friend who understood what it felt like to stand up in front of a crowd, to make yourself so vulnerable, to give of yourself in that particular way.
Liam was an undemanding guest, and soon they were all seated at the table, a stub of a candle found for an orphan silver candlestick, more beers, and bowls of rice with chopped-up frankfurters, spring onions, tomatoes, and a handful of sultanas Flora had flung in while Xanthe’s back was turned.
“Xanthe’s singing in The Feathers again the week after next,” she told Liam. “You will come along and support her, won’t you?”
“Try and stop me. Looking forward to it. Harley says takings go up every time you sing there, Xanthe. He’s always telling people about how brilliantly you sing. What’s the word he uses?”
“Stop, you’re making me blush.”
“Stupendous, that’s it. He tells everyone you’re stupendous!”
“He’s a good publican. He’s good at selling his events,” Xanthe said with a shrug. In truth, she was, at last, enjoying her singing again, welcoming the chance to perform, and to earn some money of her own. She had intended to make herself choose new songs. Singing the ones that were of that distant time—Samuel’s time—only made her melancholy. What was the point in wallowing? And yet, she still felt drawn to the melodies and sentiments of that era. Perhaps singing those ballads and love songs that Samuel would have known, just for a little longer, would help her ease away from him. Perhaps it was a way to prove to herself that she had accepted that she was never going back. The adventure was over. To return to him made no sense. It was too dangerous, and there was, ironically, no future in it for them. She had to focus on home, on work, on her singing. It was the right thing to do.
Liam interrupted her thoughts, checking a text on his phone. “Right, we can have the van on Thursday. That suit you?”
Flora answered for her, adding a liberal amount of brown sauce to her supper as she spoke. “Perfect. We’ve got a house clearance to do at Laybrook first thing tomorrow. I want to be back here by eleven at the latest so we don’t have to leave the shop shut too long.”
Xanthe nodded. “I took that booking. A lady who lived in the village all her life. The nephew is dealing with her estate. He said there’s nothing large, as the family have taken the major pieces of furniture. Mostly paintings, china, rugs, some glassware.”
Liam frowned. “Don’t you find it creepy, sifting through a whole lot of stuff that belonged to someone who just died? Sort of ghoulish?”
“No,” Xanthe said. “It’s fascinating. We get a unique glimpse into someone’s life through the things they chose to keep close to them. It’s very revealing. And it’s a privilege.”
“Not to mention a treasure hunt,” said Flora. “And Xanthe is always on the lookout for something that sings to her, aren’t you, love?”
Liam leaned forward, gesticulating with his fork. “Your daughter has been very cagey about her special talent, Mrs. Westlake. Plays it down every time I try to ask her about it.”
Xanthe helped herself to another beer. It wasn’t a secret, the fact that some of the antiques they found spoke to her, giving her glimpses of their past, but it wasn’t easy to talk about it without her feeling she must come across as a little bit bonkers. “Yes, well, I might find something special, I might not. Can’t know until I get there. More rice, anyone?”
She let the subject drop, but privately she could not help being excited at the prospect of this kind of house clearance. By all accounts the old lady’s house was something special in itself, and the village had a reputation for being one of the prettiest and best preserved in Wiltshire. They were almost certain to find some interesting and beautiful things for the shop, and that was what mattered. She told herself firmly that it might even be for the best if nothing in particular sang to her. No more mysteries. No more traveling back through time. She had to root herself in the here and now.
* * *
Arriving in Laybrook the next day, however, it was all too easy to believe she and her mother and even her black cab had journeyed to a bygone age. The little village was picture-postcard perfect, shown off to its best advantage beneath the flattering winter sunshine. The last of the russet leaves held fast to oak and ash, with evergreen climbers glossy over low stone walls. Road signs and markings had been kept to a minimum. Cottages, shops, pubs, and houses had all been painstakingly preserved, with not a modern window or clumsy extension anywhere to be seen. The National Trust had bought the village some years earlier and now managed it with meticulous care, but this was not a museum. Laybrook was a thriving community, and the beautiful houses were homes to real people living real lives. The house that had been home to Esther Harris for decades was a fine example of simple but elegant eighteenth-century English architecture. Lavender House was two stories of warm, tawny stone, its long windows balanced along classical lines with an imposing front door. The woodwork was freshly painted white, contrasting crisply with the rich stone, while the door itself gleamed in deep French navy. Dark gray stone tiles clad the steeply pitched roof, a chimney at either end. Unlike many of the smaller, terraced houses in the village, this one was detached, and set back from the street by a neat, paved front garden which was in turn enclosed behind a low wall topped with black iron railings. Two clipped bay trees stood guard on either side of the iron gate.
Xanthe parked the cab directly outside the house and opened the door for her mother. The fog of the previous day had gone so that the village was dressed in late autumn sunshine. Even so, she was glad of the old college scarf she had tucked into her vintage tweed jacket before they set out. She made a mental note to dig out her winter coat when they got home, and next time to team her tea dress with warmer leggings.
“Ooh,” said Flora, planting her crutches firmly onto the pavement and taking in her surroundings. “How very lovely. No wonder they use this place for films.”
“It is fairly gorgeous,” Xanthe agreed. She felt a tingle of excitement, a prickling of her scalp, and wondered briefly if it signified something special inside the house. Something that was waiting for her. The thought, after recent events, caused anxiety to knot her stomach. Shaking off the idea, she told herself it was only the normal excitement of the treasure hunt.
“Let’s get started,” she said. “The nephew promised he’d be here by nine. His name’s Lionel. Sounded like the whole business of inheriting anything is a bit of a chore for him.”
They made their way to the front door and Flora used the key she had been sent to let them in. The hallway echoed as they stepped onto the broad boards of the floor. There were very obvious spaces where large pieces of furniture had already been removed, as well as light patches on the walls being the ghosts of the paintings that once hung there. A polished wooden staircase led up from the center of the hall, with a narrow passageway on one side toward the back of the house, and doors off right and left to the reception rooms.
Flora took her notebook from her backpack and consulted a list. “There won’t be anything in here. Let’s try the sitting room first. There should be a corner cabinet, a Persian rug, a chaise longue and, according to the nephew, ‘a lovely fire screen.’ We’ll see. One man’s lovely is another man’s ghastly.”
The screen turned out to be mediocre and the chaise too big to fit in the shop. The rug was somewhat marred by sparks from the open fire beyond it. Xanthe knelt down to inspect it more closely. It felt wonderfully soft as she ran her hand over the rich reds and blues of the pattern. As a child all such rugs had made her think of a magic carpet, and this one was no exception. She liked to think of all the children who had sat on it, perhaps playing with a favorite teddy bear, or driving a toy car along the geometric pattern at its edges. She wondered how many Christmas presents had been unwrapped on it, right there, in front of a crackling fire, and how many beloved dogs had stretched out upon it to luxuriate in the warmth from the hearth.
“It’s not perfect,” she told her mother, “but it’s still nice. I think it would sell quite quickly.”
Flora was scrutinizing the corner cabinet. “This is Victorian. Bit brown. Looks like this was used to display silver. The nephew must have already snaffled that. This is in good nick though.”
“We could use it in the shop.”
“Or I could rub it down and transform it with a new coat of paint. Dark wood’s still pretty unfashionable. It would have a completely different feel if someone painted it … oh … mole’s breath gray?”
“You’re the woman to do it,” said Xanthe.
Deciding they would make a low offer for the cabinet and think about the rug, they moved back through the hall and up the rather fine staircase. There were two floors of bedrooms and bathrooms. Xanthe let her mother check the ones on the first floor and took herself up the second flight to the attic rooms. She could hear the echo of her mother’s crutches as she stick-stepped her way across bare floorboards.
“These rooms are pretty much empty already,” she called up. “The beds might have been nice; pity not to have had a chance at those.”
“We haven’t room for beds, Mum,” Xanthe reminded her. The smaller rooms on her floor would have originally housed the servants. The ceiling was boarded with modern insulation but still the unheated space was chilly. Xanthe could only imagine how cold the winters must have been for the maids living up in the rafters of the house. In times gone by the servants themselves served as insulation, helping to keep their employers warmer in the rooms below. Xanthe was reminded of how cold, even in autumn, her bedroom had been at Great Chalfield Manor. She thought wistfully of Jayne and wondered how her fellow kitchen maid was faring.
“Oh!” Her mother’s delighted shout brought her back to the present. “A lovely escritoire! Come and have a look.”
At last they went back downstairs to the dining room. As they let the door swing open, Xanthe and Flora gasped in unison. For Flora, it was the sight that greeted them that so impressed her. For Xanthe, it was the sound of a clear, high note, like the ringing of a celestial bell, that caused her to catch her breath and even throw her hands to her ears. Flora was too taken up with their find to notice her daughter’s gesture. If she had seen how strongly Xanthe had reacted to the contents of the room she would have known instantly that something was singing to her. Some special object, filled with the vibrations of its own history, was calling to her. As it was, she was entirely focused on the treasures in front of her.
“Now that’s what I call a collection!” she said.
The dining table and chairs had evidently been taken away, so that the main part of the room was empty. The far wall, however, had been given over entirely as a place to house the objects of Esther Harris’s passion. On deep shelves, behind glass doors, sat dozens and dozens of chocolate pots. Some were copper, some fine china, some pewter, others silver. One or two were enameled. There were pots with wooden handles; pots with stirrers and pots without; pots with matching cups and saucers; pots with silver spoons and sugar bowls and tongs. There were graceful eighteenth-century porcelain examples with exquisitely painted decorations depicting flowers or finely dressed ladies. There were beaten silver pots engraved with swirling initials or coats of arms. There were sinuous pots in the art nouveau style and angular art deco ones with tiny wedgelike cups on ebony trays.
“Wow!” muttered Flora, hurrying forward to scan the shelves, taking in the range and beauty of what they had found.
Beyond the briefest of glances, Xanthe barely saw the true extent of the collection. She was irresistibly drawn to a single pot. She stepped forward, placing her hand on the glass, submitting to that unmistakable song, giving in to her gift. From anyone else this particular pot might not have earned a second glance. It had no elaborate rococo curls, nor was it fashioned from translucent French porcelain. This pot was made of copper, burnished to a deep shine over hundreds of years, dented in places, its simple shape and plain wooden handle suggesting that it had been made not for show but for function. Similar in size and shape to a modern coffeepot, the chocolatiere differed in one or two crucial details. The handle was set at right angles to the slender gooseneck spout. This was to allow the pot to be gently swirled as it was poured, the better to mix the grainy chocolate with the hot milk. The wooden half of the handle was shaped to fit the palm of the hand and to protect it from the heat of the pot. The lid had a hinged finial, which lifted to reveal a vital hole. Xanthe had seen such pots before and knew that a stirring stick, or “molinet” as it was known by aficionados, would be lowered into the liquid so that it could be stirred before pouring, to blend the mixture and keep it from separating, making sure that the chocolate was evenly distributed.
Xanthe closed her eyes. The glass beneath her hand seemed to vibrate. Above the keening note she could hear something else: a rumbling. What was that? Wheels, perhaps? Over a rough road, maybe? And something more. Water. Not the trickle of a brook or the rough sound of a rocky river, but a low thrum, suggesting a surge of deep, fast-flowing water. She waited for a vision, for a glimpse of what the pot was trying to show her, but nothing came.
Flora’s voice reached her despite her dreamlike state. “Some of these are really special. Look, Meissen, Limoges … lovely bit of chinoiserie going on there. And those two have to be Viennese. Good grief! This lot must be worth a small fortune. Way out of our budget, I’m afraid.… Xanthe?” After a moment her daughter turned and Flora realized Xanthe’s attention had been entirely taken by the single, unassuming pot. “Xanthe, love, have you found something?”
Xanthe opened her eyes and looked at her mother, her face confirming what Flora had already worked out.
At that moment they heard the front door open.
“Hello? Anyone about? Mrs. Westlake?” called a breezy male voice from the hallway.
Xanthe and Flora exchanged anxious glances. Both knew the price of the collection would be way beyond their means. And both knew that Xanthe absolutely had to have that copper pot.
“In here,” Flora sang out as casually as she was able.
Esther Harris’s nephew, middle-aged and middle management by the look of him, came striding into the room, hand outstretched in greeting, confidently accommodating Flora’s need to adjust her hold on her crutches so that she could shake it.
“Lionel Harris. You got the key to work then? Well done. The front door can be a bit tricky. Poor old house needs some work. Apart from the outside, which the Trust insist is kept up, my aunt was inclined to let things slide. I see you’ve found her coffeepots. Can’t think why she had such a fondness for the things. Don’t recall her ever even drinking the stuff. But there it is, each to their own. I suppose one or two of the prettier ones have their charm.”
Xanthe forced herself out of her reverie, shook the man’s hand, and tried to avoid her mother’s gaze. Lionel had revealed so much in such a short time it was difficult to process it. First, it was obvious to Xanthe, he had not known his aunt well. If he had he would surely have discovered what her collection really consisted of. Second, and here was the dilemma she knew Flora would be facing at precisely the same moment, he evidently had no idea how valuable the collection was. It was possible they could get a real bargain and turn a sizeable profit. But that would mean hiding the truth from him to strike a good deal. Xanthe could imagine many dealers she knew rubbing their hands together at the prospect of such a transaction. Less scrupulous members of the antique trade considered it no more than sound business, and if the seller was too lazy or too naive to find out the true value of what he had then that was his problem.
Flora, on the other hand, would never stoop to such low practices.
And yet, Xanthe could not walk away from that pot. Their only hope was that he might be prepared to split the collection.
Xanthe smiled. “Miss Harris must have been collecting for a long time.”
The nephew shrugged. “My father and she weren’t close. She hardly ever visited.”
“And you don’t want to keep any of these for yourself?” she asked.
Lionel Harris gave a dry bark of a laugh. “My wife said she won’t give them house room. Mind you, that’s not to say they don’t have a value,” he added, letting the thought sit there, waiting, presumably, for an offer.
Xanthe heard her mother tut under her breath. However much she prided herself on being a levelheaded businesswoman, to hear a lifetime of collecting reduced to nothing more than money, and to have so much craftsmanship and beauty reduced to a figure, would not sit well with her.
Xanthe nodded. “You’re right,” she said, knowing it was what the man wanted to hear, “some of them are quite sought after. And of course there is always a price to be had for silver.” She let him enjoy his moment and then went on. “Problem is, a collection of this size, well, nobody’s got room for it. We’d have difficulty shifting so many pots to the same person. And, to be honest, we don’t have enough storage space for all of them. Ours is a small shop.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Lionel. “Business rates in Marlborough are a nightmare. How about you just choose the ones you think you could sell? I can let the charity shop take what you don’t want.”
Flora’s mouth fell open at this. Xanthe knew they couldn’t let him give away objects that could be worth tens of thousands of pounds without knowing their value. But if they talked the pieces up too much he might realize what he had and not let them have any. Xanthe thought quickly. It was true that the collection as a whole could be worth a great deal, but it was also a fact that few collectors existed who would be interested. Getting him to split it up might not be doing him out of what he could get, but they had to at least alert him to the real value.
“There are one or two that we’re interested in. They’d fit with our stock, you see. Your best bet for the others would be to put them in an auction.”
“Really? Would it be worth the bother?”
“Oh yes,” Flora insisted. “We can let you have the number of a good auctioneer. He’ll see they go into the right sale. You might be surprised how well they do.”
“All right, sounds like a plan,” he said. “Which ones do you want?”
Xanthe and Flora both waited, just for a moment, determined not to show any real eagerness, wary of seeming too enthusiastic.
Flora waved a stick at the shelves. “I’m quite taken with that flowery set with the cups and saucers. I think they might be Austrian. That silver one is Georgian and lovely, but a bit pricey for us, I should imagine. Art nouveau is always popular, so we could make you an offer for those two over there. And the one with the Chinese dragon, I like that. Xanthe, anything take your fancy?”
Xanthe’s pulse began to race. The ringing in her ears grew louder. “Oh, you know me, Mum, I like the rustic stuff,” she said, pointing at the copper pot. To her it felt so important, so filled with powerful history, she found it impossible to believe that Lionel Harris wouldn’t be able to see how special it was.
“What, that funny old thing with the dents?” he asked. “I suppose you know what young people want. How much for those five then? Sorry to press you, but I’ve a lunch meeting in Salisbury, and there’s the rest of the house to get round yet.”
Xanthe didn’t trust herself to handle the deal. Flora did her best to sound nonchalant.
“Well, if you throw in the little corner cabinet in the sitting room I think we could go to 3,000 pounds.”
To his credit, Esther’s nephew did a fair job of hiding his surprise. Even so, Xanthe saw a fleeting expression of delight cross his face. He cleared his throat and strode up to the shelves, studying the pots as if, suddenly, he knew what he was talking about.
“Three thousand, you say? Hmmm.”
They waited. The sound of a church bell ringing drifted in through the thin glass of the window.
“Of course pretty china will always find a buyer,” he said, looking hard at the set Flora wanted. “How about we make it three and a half?” he asked at last.
Xanthe tensed. Her mother’s choices were sound enough, but it was still a niche market. And yet again she was asking her to spend money they scarcely had to buy something she wouldn’t want to part with, at least not for some time.
Flora made a show of considering the offer, appearing to do some mental calculations. “Well, that is rather more than I’d like to pay, we do have our markup to consider.…” When Lionel didn’t budge she smiled. “Tell you what, throw in the Persian rug and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
An hour later, the rest of the house toured with no great finds, Xanthe tucked the bubble-wrapped copper chocolate pot safely into the back of the taxi, swaddling it in the rug, her hands trembling ever so slightly as she did so.
“Soon have you home,” she whispered to the strange treasure. “And then you can tell me your story. Promise.” At the same time she promised herself that whatever it revealed to her, there would be no more jaunts to the past. Not this time. It was just too dangerous.
She helped her mother into the passenger’s seat, handing her some of her painkillers and a bottle of water. The village had woken up properly now, and even so late in the year there were tourists eagerly taking selfies in front of the stunning cottages. Not for the first time, Xanthe wondered at the power of such prettiness to draw people in. It wasn’t simply the charming look of the place, of course she knew that; it was the presentation of an ideal. Chocolate box. A rural idyll. Harking back to a time long gone, when lives were simpler and the sun shone constantly. Except that, as Xanthe had found out for herself, lives were often far from simple, and the winters were just as bitter, the cold just as deadly. She climbed in behind the steering wheel and they set off for Marlborough.
Copyright © 2019 by Paula Brackston