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The Collectors

Philip Pullman


  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright (c) 2014 by Philip Pullman

  Cover art copyright (c) 2015 by Iacopo Bruno

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Originally published as an audio book by Audible, Great Britain, in 2014. Previously published as an eBook by RHCP Digital, an imprint of Random House Children's Publishers UK, a division of Penguin Random House Ltd.

  Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

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  eBook ISBN 9781101940044

  First American ebook 2015

  Random House Children's Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.





  Title Page


  The Collectors

  A Note From Philip Pullman

  About the Author

  "But the thing is," said Horley, "they didn't know each other at all. Never heard of each other. It wasn't about the makers. Only about the works."

  "And how did you hear about it?" said Grinstead.

  "From the dealer who sold me the painting. Falcondale. Max Falcondale."


  "Well, within limits, you know, but he'd made the sale anyway. He just wanted to tell the story."

  It was the December of 1970, and they were sitting in the senior common room of Horley's college after dinner. It was cold, and the dinner had been meager and dull, culminating in some sort of nut pudding that closely resembled wet cement. The small fire in the SCR had just enough energy to warm the rug directly in front of it, and left the corners of the room to fend for themselves. There was more warmth coming from the two standard lamps on either side of the hearth. The company wasn't large: the librarian, the chaplain, a couple of young fellows no one seemed to know by name, a visiting professor of philology, and Grinstead, Horley's guest for the evening. While the rest discussed European politics, Horley and Grinstead, occupying the shadows at the end of a sofa and the deepest armchair, respectively, spoke quietly about a painting in Horley's possession.

  Grinstead sipped his brandy and said, "Well, tell me what Falcondale said."

  "He told me the story as he'd heard it from the painter's daughter. Leonora Skipton. Her father usually painted landscapes in a sort of secondhand Impressionist manner, nothing especially original, but agreeable enough. He very rarely did portraits. This one was quite out of his usual range. Falcondale had no idea who the sitter was, a fair-haired young woman with the most extraordinarily ambiguous expression--one moment she looks cold, disdainful, contemptuous even, and the next on fire with a sort of lost and hopeless and yet somehow very sexy yearning. A very strong picture."

  "What's she doing?"

  "She's standing in front of a sort of dusty pink curtain, hands clasped in front, wearing a dark blue blouse thing and a cream-colored skirt. Very plain, very simple. It's all in the face."

  "She wasn't the daughter--Leonora, was it?" said Grinstead.

  "No. The daughter couldn't stand the picture--loathed it. She came in to Falcondale's gallery to confirm the identification, and said she wished it had been burned the day it was painted. That was all she'd say. She's some incredible age--must be nearly a hundred. Oh, and he showed me a remarkable letter--"

  "And what about the other piece?"

  "Ah. A little bronze, about a foot high. French, sort of Symbolist, I suppose you'd call it. A monkey, or an ape, I never remember the difference, sitting up with one hand reaching out toward us, or, you know, toward some fruit or something. The expression's the thing here, too. Absolute savage greed and brutality. Horrible thing to look at--I don't know how anyone could bear to have it around. But beautifully sculpted, you know, every hair, every little fingernail in place, perfect. And in the body a tension, an energy--any second it might spring at you and tear your eyes out....Ghastly thing, really. But brilliantly sculpted."

  "And who made that?"

  "Marc-Antoine Duparc. Ever heard of him?"

  "Yes, actually. Minor Symbolist, as you say. Was it a large edition, this bronze? Lot of them about?"

  "I'd be surprised if there were any others. There's just this particular one."

  "Has it got a tail?"

  "Yes, I think it has. Curled around its feet."

  "Then it's a monkey."

  "Oh, is that the difference? Well, a monkey, then."

  The visiting professor of philology labored to his feet, swaying slightly.

  "Good night, gentlemen," he said. "A highly enjoyable evening. I am most grateful. If someone could be kind enough--I forget where it is, my room--I would be so thankful for a guide, or at least an indication of the direction...."

  He nearly lost his balance for a moment and put his hand to the mantelpiece to regain it. One of the young fellows sprang up and offered to help. The chaplain got up to shake the professor's hand, the librarian followed his example, and it took at least two minutes to get the old man out of the senior common room and into his overcoat and away. The librarian looked back at the fire.

  "Is it worth another log, d'you think?" he said, though he plainly thought it would be an intolerable expense.

  "Those logs are juniper, I believe?" said Grinstead.

  "They are, sir, the last of a large consignment from the college's forest land in Wales. Land now sold, I'm very sorry to say."

  No one spoke. The librarian sighed almost silently, and lifted the smallest log out of the basket and placed it at the edge of the fire.

  "Well, I must make sure the professor has found his rooms," he said. "Good night, gentlemen."

  He left, and a silence fell in the room.

  "I, too, should go," said the aged chaplain after a pause. "I think I shall be on my way. Good night, Horley. Good night, sir," he said to Grinstead. "Good night, er...hmm," he added to the remaining fellow, who stood up to shake hands before nodding a good night to Horley and Grinstead, and following the old man out.

  Horley went to place the librarian's log more centrally on the fire, and added another from the basket before taking the armchair under the standard lamp next to the hearth.

  "Come over this way," he said. "Damned cold away from the fire. That was typical, Bolton's reluctance to burn another log. This college is riddled with parsimony. D'you realize that the phone system is so old that if the porter's not physically present at the actual switchboard, none of us can phone out?"

  "Extraordinary," said Grinstead.

  He came to sit on the sofa opposite, and cast a glance around the dark-paneled walls at the five or six portraits of previous principals or benefactors.

  "Not up to much, are they?" said Horley. "The Millais drawing of Principal Ledger isn't bad, but the rest..." He gave a dismissive wave.

  "You were telling me about the bronze monkey," said Grinstead.

  "Monkey. Yes. Well, in itself it wasn't--isn't--worth very much. A curiosity, really. You'd need to have peculiar tastes to want the thing sitting there glaring at you, with quite so much detestation in its face. Falcondale had a copy of the provenance--it had passed through his hands a year or two before--and it certainly seemed immaculate. Modeled by Duparc, cast by Barbedienne,
bought by the Duc de Sevres, then passed fairly rapidly through a number of hands, exhibited as part of a show of Parisian bronzes in London, acquired by the Maeterlinck Gallery, and so on. All perfectly present and correct. The odd thing was how often it was sold on, and how quickly. As if people couldn't wait to get rid of it. No lack of buyers, though."

  "Why did they buy it, if it was so horrible?"

  "Couldn't tell you."

  "Why did you buy it?"

  "Ah, you see, I didn't. Now we come to the mystery. It seems that by chance, purely by chance, the bronze and the painting often ended up in the same collections. Someone would buy the painting, and a few months later the bronze would come up for auction, and they'd buy that. Or the other way round. Or they'd buy the one and then be given the other as a gift, or win it in a bet, or something. Without anyone intending it, the painting and the bronze would find themselves in the same room, time and time again. Falcondale was the first to notice it. He told me about it, and I was skeptical, of course, but he had the records. He'd followed it right back. I had to admit, there was something going on."

  "So who bought the monkey last?"

  "A man who owed me some money. Bought a Charpentier mezzotint from me and never paid. Lawyer chased him up, and he offered the monkey instead. In Bonnier's valuation, it was worth a fair bit more than he owed me, so I took it. I had no idea of the connection then. It was only last week, when I bought the painting, that Falcondale began to open up."

  "You're sure he wasn't making it up?"

  "Pretty sure. The business was going on before he was born. Before any of us were born."

  "You were going to say something about a letter."

  "Oh yes. Falcondale had a letter--he gave me a copy of it--from a woman in Moscow to a distant cousin in London. A minor aristocrat of some sort. Written in French, about seventy years ago, before the revolution, anyway, about a scandal in her social circle. The husband of a friend of hers was a diplomat, and he'd been representing Russia at some high-level talks in Paris, and somebody had shown him the monkey and he'd rather fancied it. So he made an offer and they accepted it, and the bronze went home to Moscow in his baggage. As soon as his wife saw it, she hated it and wanted it out of the house. She thought it was an embodiment of pure evil. But the husband dug his heels in and refused to get rid of it, so the wife consulted her priest, who tried to exorcise it. He spent the night in the salon where the husband kept the thing, praying and, you know, whatever they do, and when the wife came down in the morning, there was the priest dead on the floor, head bashed in, and the monkey on the sideboard, covered in blood."

  "Good God," said Grinstead. "Who did it?"

  "They never found out. Husband was badly shaken, of course, and when the police took it away as evidence, he never asked for it back. They couldn't find anyone to charge, so after a year or so, they put it up for auction, and it was bought by a collector, who gave it pretty sharpish to a Moscow gallery, where it found itself in the same room as the painting. Again."

  Grinstead drank the last of his brandy. "And now it's yours," he said. "They're both yours."

  "Yes, both mine."

  "Are you going to keep them?"

  "I thought what I'd do," said Horley, "just to be mischievous, is adjust my will and leave the painting to this college and the monkey to Merton."

  There was an ancient rivalry between Merton and Horley's college.

  Grinstead nodded. "Sound plan," he said. "Are you going to show me these things?"

  "Oh, would you like to see them?" said Horley in mock surprise. "I haven't even unpacked the monkey yet. It arrived this morning."

  "Well, let's go and do that," said Grinstead. "This room's getting colder and colder."

  A fine freezing rain was drifting down into the quad as they left for Horley's rooms. There were only two windows lit in the old buildings, and as Grinstead looked around, one of those went out.

  "Who was this chap who owed you money for the mezzotint?" Grinstead said.

  "Rainsford. I was never sure I could trust him. D'you know him?"

  "I bought a drawing from him once. A Vernet. It was a fake."

  They climbed the stairs to Horley's rooms. The light was on a timer switch, and by the time Horley was fumbling with his keys, the light went out.

  "More penny-pinching," he said. "What would it cost them to give us an extra thirty seconds of light? Anyway"--he opened the door and stood back--"welcome to the warmest room in the building."

  "My God, it is, too," said Grinstead.

  It was suffocating. It was actually hot. The gas fire was burning fiercely, the heavy curtains were drawn tight against drafts, and an electric fire with all three bars glowing red gave off an odor of toasted dust. Grinstead took off his overcoat at once.

  Horley was bustling around, hanging up his gown, throwing his keys on the desk, taking out some wineglasses, clearing some books off the table next to the sofa, switching on a lamp.

  "Perhaps we could economize a little," he said, and switched off one bar of the electric fire.

  "I'm certainly warm enough. Is this how you live, Horley, at this Turkish-bath temperature?"

  "Only out of mischief. I like imagining the bursar's expression as he sees the utility bills. Claret?"

  "Go on, then. Not a large glass. Where's this picture?"

  "All in good time," said Horley, sounding almost skittish.

  Grinstead sat as far away from the gas fire as he could get, and took the glass Horley handed him. The wine was sour and unpleasant, but so was the wine they'd had at dinner.

  "D'you remember the first picture you bought?" said Grinstead.

  Horley was adjusting the angle of the lampshade so as to shine clearly on the table opposite. "Yes, I do," he said. "It was a dirty postcard. I bought it in Egypt during my national service. I kept it for a week, and then I felt rather ashamed and threw it away. I mean, the composition was lamentable. Never looked back, really."

  "Start of a great career."

  "Well, here she is, that not impossible she, whatever her name is...."

  The picture was resting on a little easel on the table, a small thing, no more than fifteen inches tall and twelve across. Horley removed a black velvet cloth with a silly flourish that Grinstead completely ignored. The painting, oil on canvas in a pretty gilt frame, glowed in the lamplight as if there was a bloom on the colors. The young woman stood modestly, hands entwined, head slightly tilted, fair curly hair loosely restrained behind her neck with a red ribbon. Grinstead's eyes were fixed on the face in the picture, and Horley was taken aback by the intensity of the visitor's gaze, until he remembered that the man was a collector, after all. But this was more than acquisitive connoisseurship: it was feral. Grinstead's jaw was working--Horley could see the muscles tightening--and his lips were drawn back, so that his clenched teeth were bared.

  "D'you--er--have you seen her before?" Horley said.

  "Yes. I know who she is."

  "Good Lord. How d'you know that?"

  "We were lovers."

  "Oh, come on," said Horley. "What's her name, then?"

  "Marisa van Zee."

  Grinstead's eyes had not left the young woman's face. As Horley followed the other man's gaze, the painted expression seemed to be showing another of its characteristic shifts of meaning: there was a little curve of happy triumph somewhere in the lines of the model's mouth and her eyes, though he found it impossible to see precisely where.

  "But, Grinstead, this painting is seventy years old--probably nearer eighty! You're not being serious--I mean...What do you mean?"

  "I mean that I knew her, and that for a short time we were lovers. She was the most remarkable woman I shall ever know."

  "What, later than this, when she was old? Is that what you mean? Oh, come on, man! For God's sake, I know we've drunk a fair amount--"

  "It wasn't fair at all. It was disgusting, Horley. I don't know why you don't pour the whole cellar into the gutter and start again. Who's y
our wine chap?"


  Horley lowered his jaw and blinked hard, as if trying to widen his eyes. He slipped his hand inside his jacket and scratched hard.

  "What's the matter?" said Grinstead.

  "Itching. Driving me mad."

  Horley had been trying not to scratch for some minutes now, but he couldn't hold off anymore. He blinked again. He was conscious of not being as conscious as he would like to be.

  "Sorry, Grinstead," he said. "I'm...I don't know what to say."

  "Never mind. Don't say anything. I've known this picture for half my life; I'm most grateful to you, Horley, I am really."

  "You knew about it, then?"

  "I saw Skipton painting it."

  "And the monkey, and so on?"

  "Yes, I knew that story. I've heard it a dozen times, and all incorrectly. I met Marisa van Zee in Skipton's studio when she was eighteen and I was about five years older. I recognized something about her that you could never imagine."

  "What was that?"

  "She came from another world."

  The electric fire gave a click as the switched-off bar reluctantly adjusted to its new temperature. The soft roaring and popping of the gas fire was the only other sound, though Horley thought he could hear his own heart beating. The itching was growing intolerable.

  "You're being metaphorical, of course," he said. "About knowing her, and so on. I mean, you know, eighty years--you must be about my age, and I'm not...I'm afraid I'm not following you at all. What did you say? Another world?"

  "There are many worlds, Horley, many universes, an infinity of them, and none of them knows about any of the others. Except that at very rare intervals, a breach appears between one world and another. A little crack. Things slip through. Once you become attuned to it, you can spot things that don't come from here. There's a different sort of light that seems to play on them. That little pottery elephant on the shelf over there--I suppose you were told that was Assyrian, were you?"

  "As a matter of fact, yes."

  "Well, it's not. It comes from another world. I couldn't tell you which one, I can just see that it does."

  "I see...," Horley said. "And you met the young woman because of Skipton?" he went on carefully. He was feeling short of breath, as if he'd been running.

  "Because I was working for old Garnier. Bertrand, the dealer, not his brother, Francois. I had to call on Skipton about some small matter, and there she was. Instantaneous. I knew she was from another world, and she knew that I knew it."