17. Paddington Makes A Bid
Paddington’s friend, Mr Gruber, laughed no end when he heard all about the trip on the river.
“Oh, dear, Mr Brown,” he said, wiping the tears from his eyes, “things do happen to you. I wish I could have been there to see it all.”
It was the morning after the picnic and Paddington had hurried round as soon as possible to tell Mr Gruber all about it.
Mr Gruber kept an antique shop in the Portobello Road. It was near the Browns’ house and Paddington usually called in when he was doing the morning shopping so that they could share a bun and a cup of cocoa for their “elevenses.” In his younger days Mr Gruber had been to South America and so they were able to have long chats together about Darkest Peru while sitting in their deck-chairs on the pavement. Paddington always looked forward to seeing Mr Gruber and he often lent a paw around the shop.
Most of the shops in the Portobello Road were interesting, but Mr Gruber’s was the best of all. It was like going into Aladdin’s cave. There were swords and old suits of armour hanging on the walls, gleaming copper and brass pots and pans stacked on the floor, pictures, china ornaments, pieces of furniture and pottery piled up to the ceiling; in fact, there was very little one way and another that Mr Gruber didn’t sell, and people came from far and wide to seek his advice.
Mr Gruber also kept a huge library of second-hand books in the back of his shop which he let Paddington consult whenever any problems cropped up. Paddington found this most useful as the Public Library didn’t have a bear’s department and the assistants usually looked at him suspiciously when he peered through the window at them.
After Paddington had explained to Mr Gruber all about his trip on the river they fell silent for a moment while they ate their buns and drank their cocoa.
It was while he was sitting back in his deck-chair admiring the view and watching the passers-by that Paddington noticed Mr Gruber’s shop window for the first time that morning. To his surprise it looked unusually empty.
“Ah,” said Mr Gruber, following his glance. “I had a very busy day yesterday, Mr Brown. While you were having high jinks on the river a big party of American visitors came round and they bought all kinds of things.
“As a matter of fact,” he continued, “I did so well I have to go to an auction sale this afternoon to pick up some more antiques.”
“An auction sale?” said Paddington, looking most interested. “What does it look like, Mr Gruber?”
Mr Gruber thought for a moment. “Well,” he began, “it’s a place where they sell things to the highest bidder, Mr Brown. All kinds of things. But it’s very difficult to explain without actually showing you.”
Mr Gruber rubbed his glasses and coughed. “Er suppose, Mr Brown, it wouldn’t be possible for you to come along with me this afternoon, would it? Then you could see for yourself.”
“Oooh, yes, please, Mr Gruber,” exclaimed Paddington, his eyes gleaming with excitement at the thought. “l should like that very much indeed.”
Although they met most days, Mr Gruber was usually busy in his shop and they seldom had the opportunity of actually going out together. At that moment a customer entered the shop and so, having arranged to meet Mr Gruber after lunch, Paddington raised his hat and hurried back home to tell the others.
“Hmm,” said Mrs Bird, when she heard all about it over lunch. “I pity the poor auctioneer who tries to sell anything when Paddington’s there. That bear’ll knock anyone down to half-price.”
“Oh, I’m not buying anything, Mrs Bird,” said Paddington, as he reached out a paw for a second helping of treacle tart. “I’m only going to watch.”
All the same, when he left the house after lunch, Mrs Bird noticed he was carrying his old leather suitcase in which he kept all his money.
“It’s all right, Mrs Bird,” said Paddington, as he waved goodbye with his paw. “It’s only in case of an emergency.”
“Just so long as he doesn’t come home with a suite of furniture,” said Mrs Bird as she closed the door. ‘If he does it’ll have to go in the garden.”
Paddington felt very excited as he entered the auction rooms. Mr Gruber had put on his best suit for the occasion and a number of people turned to stare at them as they came through the door.
Having bought two catalogues, Mr Gruber pushed his way to the front so that Paddington would have a good view. On the way he introduced him to several of the other dealers as “Mr Brown – a young bear friend of mine from Darkest Peru who’s interested in antiques.”
They all shook Paddington’s paw and whispered that they were very pleased to meet him.
It was all much different to what Paddington had expected. It was really like a very big antique shop, with boxes and tables loaded with china and silver round the walls. There was a large crowd of people standing in the middle of the room facing a man on a platform who appeared to be waving a hammer in the air.
“That’s the auctioneer,” whispered Mr Gruber. “He’s the man you want to watch. He’s most important.”
Paddington raised his hat politely to the auctioneer and then settled down on his suitcase and carefully looked around.
After a moment he decided he liked auction sales. Everyone seemed so friendly. In fact, he had hardly made himself comfortable before a man on the other side of the room waved his hand in their direction. Paddington stood up, raised his hat and waved a friendly paw back.
No sooner had he sat down than the man waved again. Being a polite bear, Paddington stood up and once more waved his paw.
To his surprise the man stopped waving almost immediately and glared at him instead. Paddington gave him a hard stare and then settled down to watch the man on the platform who appeared to be doing something with his hammer again.
“Going…” the man shouted, hitting his table. “Going… gone! Sold to the young bear gentleman in the hat for two pounds fifty!”
“Oh, dear,” said Mr Gruber, looking most upset. “I’m afraid you’ve just bought a set of carpentry tools, Mr Brown.”
“What?” repeated Paddington, nearly falling off his suitcase with surprise. “I’ve bought a set of carpentry tools?”
“Come along,” said the auctioneer sternly. “You’re holding up the proceedings. Pay at the desk, please.”
“A set of carpentry tools,” exclaimed Paddington, jumping up and waving his paws in the air. “But I didn’t even say anything!”
Mr Gruber looked most embarrassed. “I’m afraid it’s all my fault, Mr Brown,” he said. “I should have explained auction to you before we came in. I think perhaps I’d better pay for them as it wasn’t really your fault.”
“You see,” he continued, when he returned from the desk, “you have to be very careful at a sale, Mr Brown.”
Mr Gruber went on to explain how the auctioneer offered each item for sale, and how, after one person had made a bid for something, it was up to anyone else who wanted it to make a better offer.
“If you nod your head, Mr Brown,” he said, “or even scratch your nose, they think it’s a sign you want to buy something. I expect the auctioneer saw you raise your hat just now and thought you were bidding.”
Paddington wasn’t at all sure what Mr Gruber meant, but having carefully made sure the auctioneer wasn’t looking, he quickly nodded and then sat very still while he watched the proceedings.
Although he didn’t say anything to Mr Gruber, he was beginning to wish he hadn’t come to the auction. The room was hot and crowded and he wanted to take his hat off. Apart from that he was sitting on the handle of his suitcase, which was most uncomfortable.
He closed his eyes and was just about to try and go to sleep when Mr Gruber nudged his paw and pointed to the catalogue.
“I say, Mr Brown,” he said. “The next item is very interesting. It’s an old pistol – the sort highwaymen used. They’re quite popular just now. I think I shall try bidding for it.”
Paddington sat up and watched excitedly as the auctioneer held the pistol in the air for everyone to see. “Lot thirty-four,” he shouted. “What am I bid for this genuine antique pistol?”
“Twenty pounds,” came a voice from the back of the room.
“Twenty pounds fifty,” called Mr Gruber, waving his catalogue.
“Twenty-one pounds,” came another voice.
“Oh dear,” said Mr Gruber, making some calculations on the side of his catalogue. Twenty-one pounds fifty pence.”
“Twenty-two pounds,” came the same voice again.
Paddington stood on his case and stared across the room, “That’s the man who made me buy the carpentry tools by mistake,” he whispered, tapping Mr Gruber excitedly.
“Well, we mustn’t let him have it whatever we do,” exclaimed Mr Gruber, “Twenty-two pounds fifty!”
“Twenty-three pounds,” cried Paddington wildly.
“Ahem,” said Mr Gruber tactfully, not wishing to offend Paddington. ‘I think we’re bidding against each other, Mr Brown.”
“Any advance on twenty-three pounds?” shouted the auctioneer, looking most pleased.
As there was no reply he raised his hammer. ‘Going… going,” he called. “Gone!” He brought the hammer down with a loud crash. “Sold to the young bear gentleman in the front row for twenty-three pounds.”
Mr Gruber felt in his wallet for the money. Taking Paddington to an auction sale was becoming rather expensive.
“I’m sorry about that, Mr Gruber,” said Paddington guiltily, when he returned. “I’m afraid I got rather excited.”
“That’s all right,” said Mr Gruber. “It was still a very good bargain, Mr Brown – and I did want it. I shall put it in my window to-morrow.”
“I think perhaps I’d better not do any more bidding,” said Paddington, looking very crestfallen. “I don’t think bears are very good at it.”
“Nonsense,” said Mr Gruber. “You’ve been doing very well for a first time.”
All the same, Paddington decided to keep quiet for a while and watch Mr Gruber. It was all very complicated and not a bit like shopping in the market, where he was allowed to test everything with his paws first before arguing over the price.
Mr Gruber pointed out several items in the catalogue to Paddington and gave him a pencil so that he could mark off the ones he had bought and how much had been paid for them.
The list of items Mr Gruber bought grew and grew until Paddington felt quite dizzy with writing down all the figures and he was pleased when at last he announced that he had finished buying for the day.
“A very good day’s work indeed, Mr Brown,” he said, as he checked Paddington’s figures. “And thank you very much for all your help. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
Paddington looked up from his own catalogue which he had been studying earnestly. “That’s all right, Mr Gruber,” he said vaguely. “Excuse me, but what is a preserves stand?”
“A preserves stand?” said Mr Gruber. “Well, it’s a thing for holding jam or marmalade.”
Paddington’s eyes gleamed as he started to unlock his suitcase. “l think I shall bid for that, Mr Gruber,” he said excitedly, as he peered inside the secret compartment to see how much money he had. “It’s the next item in the catalogue. I think I should like a preserves stand for my marmalade.”
Mr Gruber looked at him rather nervously. “I should be careful if I were you, Mr Brown,” he said. “It may be an antique one. If it is it’s probably worth a lot of money.”
But before he had time to explain to Paddington just how much it might cost him the auctioneer rapped on his table for silence.
“Lot 99,” he shouted, as he held up a piece of shining silver to the light. “A very unusual kind of preserves stand. What am I bid for this valuable piece of antique silver?”
“Six pence!” cried Paddington.
A hush fell over the room. “Six pence?” echoed the auctioneer, hardly able to believe his ears. “Did I hear someone say six pence?”
“l did,” called Paddington, waving his catalogue in the air. “l want it to keep my marmalade in. Mrs Bird’s always grumbling because my jars get sticky.”
“Your jars get sticky?” repeated the auctioneer, passing a hand over his forehead. It really was a most unusual day. Things hadn’t gone at all according to plan.
Some items had been sold for far more than he had ever expected. Others – like the preserves stand – were fetching nothing at all. He had a nasty feeling it had something to do with the young bear in the front row.
He seemed to have a very powerful stare and he’d done his best up to now to avoid catching Paddington’s eye.
“Come, come,” he said, giving a high-pitched laugh. “I’m sure we all enjoy a little joke. Let’s start again. Now – what am I bid for this valuable item?”
“Nine pence,” said a voice at the back of the hall amid laughter.
“Ten pence,” said Paddington firmly.
The laughter died down and there was silence. “If you ask me,” whispered a voice behind Paddington, “that young bear knows something.”
“It’s probably a fake,” whispered another voice. “After all – it’s not the first thing he’s bought this afternoon.”
“He’s with old Mr Gruber, too,” whispered the first voice. “And he said he was interested in antiques when he came in. I wouldn’t touch it if I were you.”
The auctioneer shuddered as he gazed at the preserves stand in his hand. “Any advance on ten pence?” he cried.
There was another long silence. “Going…” he shouted, raising his hammer and looking around hopefully. “Going…” Still no one spoke. “Gone!”
He brought his hammer down on the desk with a crash. “Sold to the young bear gentleman in the front row for ten pence.”
“Thank you very much,” said Paddington, as he hurried up to the table. “l hope you don’t mind if I pay you in pennies but I’ve been saving up in case of an emergency.”
“Pennies?” said the man. He mopped his brow with a spotted handkerchief. “l don’t know,” he said, turning to his assistant. “I must be getting old. Letting young bears get the better of me at my time of life.”
“A very good bargain indeed,” said Mr. Gruber admiringly, when they were outside the saleroom. He turned Paddington’s preserves stand over in his hands. “I should say it’s worth every penny of fifty pounds.”
“Fifty pounds?” exclaimed Paddington, staring at Mr Gruber. “Fifty pounds for a marmalade stand?”
“At least that,” said Mr Gruber. “I’ll put it in my window for you if you like, Mr Brown.”
Paddington thought hard for a moment. “I think I would like you to have it as a present, Mr Gruber,” he said at last. “I don’t expect you’d have bought the carpentry tools if I hadn’t been at the auction sale.”
Mr Gruber looked most affected by Paddington’s offer. “That’s very kind of you, Mr Brown,” he said. “Very kind of you indeed. But I know how fond you are of marmalade and I’d much rather you had it. Besides,” he added, “I’ve had a very good day and I think it was worth the price of the carpentry tools just to see the expression on the auctioneer’s face when you offered him six pence for the preserves stand.”
Mr Gruber chuckled at the thought. “l don’t think he’s had many dealings with young bears before,” he said.
“I’ve said it before,” remarked Mrs Bird, later that evening, “and I’ll say it again. That bear’s got an eye for a bargain.”
The Browns were having a late supper before going to bed. Paddington’s “antique” stood in the centre of the table in a place of honour. He had spent most of the evening polishing it until he could see his whiskers in the side and Mrs Bird had opened a new jar of his favourite marmalade especially for the occasion.
There was a blissful expression on Paddington’s face – that part of it which could be seen behind bread and butter crumbs and smears of marmalade.
“l think,” he announced, amid general agreement, “preserves taste even nicer when they come out of an antique.”
“Especially,” he added, as he dipped his paw into the marmalade, “a ten-penny one!”