Anthony waited until the only other customer in Digby’s Bookshop had left before he put down the novel he had been pretending to examine and went to the counter.
Digby was seated at his desk. He did not look up from a catalog of rare books.
“What do you want?” he growled.
“I wish to purchase a book for a good friend who shops here,” Anthony said. “It is to be a surprise for a special occasion. My friend is very knowledgeable about rare volumes, but I lack expertise in the field. I thought perhaps you could assist me in selecting something that she will truly appreciate.”
Digby snorted and turned the page. “What’s the name of your friend?”
Digby reluctantly put down the catalog and heaved an exasperated sigh. “No offense, sir, but the lady is a bloody nuisance.”
“In what way?”
Digby flung a hand wide, taking in the shelves of books. “Nothing in my shop is good enough for her. She only reads sensation novels. I don’t carry that sort of thing. I am a dealer in rare volumes.”
“I thought she came here specifically to purchase rare books.”
“There are only two such books that are important to her. Both exceedingly difficult to obtain,” Digby said grimly. “She’s very choosy. Very demanding. Not just any first editions, but specific first editions. Neither one was in my shop.”
“I understand you had some luck. She showed me the copy of a book on Aristotle that you located for her.”
Digby’s whiskers twitched in an irritated manner. “The only reason I was able to persuade the new owner to sell it to me was because he has no interest in rare books. Didn’t know the value of what he had. I haven’t been so fortunate with the owner of the Milton. Even if he could be convinced to sell, he made it clear the price would be far beyond Mrs. Bryce’s reach.”
“Perhaps if I spoke with the collector I could convince him to sell it to me,” Anthony suggested. “Would you give me his name?”
Digby scowled suspiciously. “Now, see here, Mrs. Bryce is employing me to find that book. Damned if I’ll hand the business over to you, sir.”
“I would, of course, pay you a commission as a token of my appreciation for your valued assistance.”
Digby did not appear enthused. “Even if I did give you the name of the collector, you probably won’t be able to talk him into selling.”
“I will pay the commission whether or not I am successful in acquiring the book for Mrs. Bryce,” Anthony said.
Digby’s brows formed a solid line above the rims of his spectacles. “The commission must be paid before I give you his name.”
“Of course,” Anthony said.
AN HOUR AND A HALF later Anthony was shown into a library that was so cluttered with bookshelves and volumes he could not immediately locate his host. The housekeeper disappeared before he could request directions.
“Lord Pepper?” he said to the seemingly uninhabited room.
“Over here, sir,” a gruff voice called out from behind a towering bookcase. “Near the window.”
Anthony threaded a path through a maze of books piled on the carpet and walked past several rows of bookcases.
A large, heavily built man lumbered to his feet behind a vast mahogany desk. His clothes were of good quality but sadly out of style. It had clearly been some time since he’d had his graying hair and whiskers trimmed. He smiled widely, displaying a gold tooth.
“Mr. Stalbridge, a pleasure to meet you, sir.” He motioned to a chair piled high with leather-bound tomes. “Sit down, sit down. With any luck my housekeeper will bring us some tea.”
“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, sir.” Anthony picked up the stack of books on the chair and looked at his host. “Where shall I put these?”
“Just set them down anywhere on the floor.”
Easier said than done, Anthony thought. He eventually located a section of carpet that was not already littered with books and put down his burden, then returned to the chair and sat down.
Lord Pepper resumed his seat. “How is your father, young man?”
“Very well, sir. He sends his regards and asked me to ascertain that you are still satisfied with your Apollo Patented Safe.”
Pepper smiled fondly at the massive strongbox that stood next to the desk. “Perfectly satisfied. I have the utmost confidence in the Apollo. I may have to acquire another one soon, however. That one is full.”
“My father will be delighted to hear that.”
The Apollo was the reason he had got past the front door of Pepper’s town house. When he had mentioned the name of the owner of the Milton to his father, Marcus had recognized it immediately. “Known Pepper for years. Very keen on books.”
Pepper laced his thick fingers together on top of the desk. “Now then, what’s this about my copy of Milton? Have you become a collector, sir?”
“No,” Anthony said. “I wish to acquire it for a very good friend.”
“I see.” Pepper assumed a sly expression. “Well, I’m not sure I can be of assistance. That book is one of my most valuable possessions. In fact, I keep it in my Apollo.”
It was the answer Anthony had expected. He settled into his chair and prepared to go after the information he really wanted.
“I understand, sir,” he said. “Obviously I shall have to look elsewhere for a gift for my friend.”
“You won’t find another copy of a first edition of that particular Milton in such excellent condition,” Pepper said proudly. He nodded in the direction of the safe. “I spent years trying to obtain that one.”
“As a matter of curiosity, would you tell me how it came into your hands?”
Diamond-bright satisfaction gleamed in Pepper’s eyes. “I’d heard rumors from time to time that it was in the private collection of a gentleman named George Barclay. I approached him once or twice while he was alive, but he refused to sell.”
“It’s a rather sad story, I fear. Barclay took his own life, leaving behind a massive amount of debt. His only living relation was his daughter. She was forced to sell off the house and most of the contents, but she managed to keep Barclay’s books. Very few people know it, but the young lady used them to open a small bookshop.”
A chill of awareness made Anthony go very still. “She was the proprietor of a bookshop? Barclay’s Bookshop, by any chance?”
“Ah, I see you’re aware of part of the story. It became quite notorious, of course, after Gavin was murdered there.” Pepper lounged back in his chair, shaking his head sadly. “Shocking, really.”
“That, too. But I was referring to Miss Barclay’s decline and fall. The Barclays were descended from an old, distinguished family. I’ve no doubt but that George Barclay would have turned over in his grave at the notion of his daughter lowering herself so far as to go into trade.”
“Doesn’t sound like he left her much choice,” Anthony said evenly. “After paying off his debts she would not have had many alternatives.”
“Yes, well, I suppose that’s true. Nevertheless, it was a great pity. You’d think a young lady would have had more self-respect.”
What was she supposed to do? Anthony wondered. Walk the streets? Enter a workhouse? Doom herself to a miserable life of genteel poverty as a governess or a paid companion?
He forced himself to suppress his anger. He was here for information, he reminded himself, not a debate. “Continue with your story, sir. I find myself fascinated.”
“Let me see. Where was I? Ah, yes, Barclay’s Bookshop. It was located in a rather poor part of town, but Miss Barclay knew a great deal about rare books because her father had been an avid collector. She had begun to attract a good clientele and, I believe, must have been turning a profit there at the end. But then, of course, she murdered her lover, Lord Gavin, and committed suicide.” Pepper clicked his tongue against his front teeth in a tsk-tsking manner. “Tragic.”
“Were you acquainted with Miss Barclay?”
“No. The Barclays did not go into Society. Never had occasion to meet the girl.”
“What of Lord Gavin? Did you know him?”
“Not well. He belonged to one of my clubs, but I rarely encountered him. Had a taste for seventeenth-century volumes, as I recall. Not too particular.”