Authors: Glenn Cooper
“Even I know it!”
“Only because you are my friend, and you have sworn an oath.”
“Yes, yes, my oath,” Will said wearily.
“Do not take it lightly.”
“All right. I am utmost serious.”
John retrieved the book of Vectis from the shelf and sat down with it near Will. He dropped his voice to a low, conspiratorial tone. “I know you are not as staunch a believer as I, but I have a notion.”
Will raised his eyebrows with interest.
“You have seen the letter. You know what this old monk, Felix, wrote. Perhaps the Library was not destroyed after all. Perhaps it exists still? What if I could find it and take possession of these books? What would I care if I had meager Wroxall then? If I had the keys to the future, I would be as rich as any lord, more famous than father’s friend, old Nostradamus who, as we know, lacked full powers.”
Will watched him rant, fascinated by his crazy eyes. “What would you do, go there?”
“Yes! Come with me.”
“You’re mad. I am to marry, not partake in adventure. I will travel to London soon, to be sure, but no farther. Besides, I take this Abbot’s letter to be a work of fancy. He spins a good story, I’ll give him his due, but monks with ginger hair and green eyes! It is too much.”
“Then I will go alone. I believe in the book with all my heart,” John said truculently.
“I wish you good speed.”
“Listen, Will, I refuse to let my brother learn the secret. I wish to hide the papers, all of them. Without the letters from Felix and Calvin and Nostradamus, the book is useless. Even if my father were to tell my brother its origins, there would be no basis for belief.”
“Where would you hide them?”
John shrugged. “I do not know. In a hole in the ground. Behind a wall. It is a large house.”
Will’s eyes began to sparkle, and he sat upright. “Why not turn this into a game?”
“What sort of a game?”
“So, let us hide your precious letters, but let us make them clues in a hunt for hidden treasure! I will compose a puzzle poem with all the clues, then we will hide the poem too!”
John laughed heartily and poured both of them more mead. “I can always count on you to thoroughly amuse me, Shakespeare! Let us proceed with your game.”
The two of them scampered around the house, giggling like children, looking for hiding places, shushing themselves so not to wake the servants. When they had a rudimentary plan, Will asked for sheets of parchment and writing implements.
John knew where his father kept the Vectis papers, inside a wooden box secreted behind other books on the top shelf. He used the library ladder to reach it, and when he hauled it down, he reread Felix’s letter while Will bent over the writing table. After dipping the quill, he would quickly write a line or two, then tickle his cheek with the feathered end for inspiration.
When he was done, he waved the sheet above his head to dry and presented it to John for inspection. “I am best pleased with my effort and so should you be,” he said. “I have chosen the sonnet form, which adds further amusement to the enterprise.”
John began to read it, and as he did, he squirmed in his chair with impish pleasure. “Can’t be well! Clever, very clever.”
“I thank you,” Will said proudly. “It is pleasing enough that I have signed it, though I doubt my vanity will ever be discovered!”
John slapped his thighs. “The clues are challenging but not insurmountable. The tone, playful but not frivolous. It serves its purpose most ably. I am indeed pleased! Now, let us bury our treasure like a pair of filthy pirates marooned on an island!”
They returned to the Great Hall and lit a few more candles to ease their task. Their first clue went inside one of the great candlesticks that adorned the banqueting table. John had wrenched one open and satisfied himself it would hold several rolled sheets. Will had argued that Felix’s letter should be divided into a first clue and a last, since the end of the letter held the greatest revelation. John placed the pages and forced the candlestick back together, banging the base on the carpeted floor to make sure it would hold firm.
The next clue, the Calvin letter, required more effort. John scurried off to the barn to fetch a mallet, chisel, an auger, and grout, and a full hour later, drenched in sweat, they had succeeded in prying off one of the fireplace tiles and drilling a deep hole. After inserting the rolled letter, they plugged the hole and regrouted the tile. In celebration, they raided the pantry, had some bread and cold mutton and the rest of a good bottle of wine from an onion-shaped green-glass bottle.
It was the middle of the night, but there was still work to do. The Nostradamus letter and the page from his
book needed to find their way up to the bell tower of the chapel. As long as they didn’t drunkenly ring the bell, there was little chance of being discovered so far away from the house. That task took longer than they had planned because the planking was devilishly hard to rip up, but when they were done, they had put their spent bottle of wine to good use as the repository of the pages. To finish, Will etched a small rose on the plank with his sheath knife.
They feared that dawn would come before they hid the last clue, so they proceeded with great speed to complete this task, one that they might not have been able to accomplish if sober.
When they returned to the house smudged and smelly from their physical labors, they retired to the library as the first rays of sunlight streaked the sky.
John gleefully approved Will’s idea for the poem’s hiding place and applauded its perfection. Will cut a piece of parchment to size and made it into a false endpaper. Then the exhausted boys made for the kitchen, relieved that the cooks were still in bed. The bookish Will knew how to make a bookbinder’s paste from bread, flour, and water, and in a short while they had the white glue they needed to seal the poem into place inside the back cover of the Vectis book.
When they were done, they placed the heavy book back onto its shelf. The library was getting bright from the rising sun, and they could hear the house stirring with activity. They sank into their chairs for a final laughing fit. When they burned themselves out, they sat for a while, chests heaving, close to nodding off.
“You know,” Will said, “this has all been for naught. You, yourself, will undoubtedly undo all this fine work and retrieve the papers on your own account.”
“You are probably right,” John smiled sleepily, “but it has been excellent fun.”
“One of these days I may write a play about this,” Will said, closing his reddened eyes. His friend was already snoring. “I will call it
Much Ado About Nothing.
IT WAS AUTUMN when John Cantwell finally set out on the quest that had consumed him ever since the night he drunkenly conceived it. Then, he was warm and dry in his father’s library. Now, the crossing of the Solent was treacherous, and he was shivering and sea-splashed.
A stiff gale was blowing from the mainland toward the Isle of Wight, and the captain of the sailing ferry had to be persuaded with a few extra shillings to make the passage that day. John was not a seafaring man, and he spent the brief journey heaving over the gunwales. At Cowes harbor, he made straight for the roughest public house he could find to buy himself a drink, converse with the oldest men he could find, and hire a couple of locals with strong backs.
He did not bother to buy himself a bed for the night because he was planning on toiling while most men slept. During the course of the evening, he consumed a good many tankards of ale and a large bowl of cheap stew, and, thus fortified, he waited in the moonlight for his hired men to return with picks and shovels and coils of rope. At midnight, the entourage of John Cantwell and three burly islanders wielding oily torches left the tavern and headed down a footpath through the woods.
They were never more than a few hundred yards from the pounded shore. Nearby, the gulls called, the waves rhythmically crashed on the beach, and the salty, fresh breezes off the Solent sobered John and cleared his head. It was a cool night, and for warmth he clasped his fur-collared cloak over his high-collared doublet and pulled his cap down over the tops of his ears. His laborers led the way, whispering among themselves, and he gave himself to his own thoughts, daydreaming of wealth and power.
The old-timers at the tavern had been suspicious and taciturn until he loosened their lips with drink and coin. The Vectis Abbey was a ruined shell of its former self, he was told, done in during King Henry’s days by Cromwell’s henchmen. Like almost every Holy Roman church in the land, it had been sacked and looted, and the villagers and townsfolk of the island given license to use its stones for building works. The population of monks had largely dispersed, but there were diehards who lingered, and to this day, a small group of Benedictines stubbornly tied themselves to the ruins.
The old men knew nothing about any ruins of an ancient library, and they shook their heads and scoffed at the rich mainlander’s questions. Yet when pressed, one grizzled fisherman did recall that as a boy he had walked the abbey fields with his grandfather and had scampered into a grassy hollow, a large, depressed squarish plot. His grandfather had shouted at him to return to his side and had batted him with his walking stick, warning him to say away from the spot as legend had it, it was haunted ground, populated by the ghosts of hooded black-robed monks.
To John, this seemed a promising place to begin his quest, and he made it his nocturnal destination.
The footpath opened into a field, and, by the light of the moon, the Cathedral of Vectis came into view. Even in ruins, it was an imposing structure, grand in scale. As he drew closer, he could see that there was no longer a spire, and the walls were half-gone. The windows that remained had no glass, and long grass and weeds had crept into open door-frames. There were other low buildings, some in shambles, some intact. From one row of stone cottages, wisps of fireplace smoke rose from a chimney. They gave these dwellings a wide berth and circled around them toward a more distant field closer to the shore.
The laborers knew the whereabouts of the sunken ground, and they grumbled as they approached it. They had been unaware the patch of land had a taint, but the words of the old fisherman carried some weight, and they were nervous.
John took one of the torches and inspected the area. In the dark, it was hard to appreciate its boundaries. The tall grass sloped down into a flat depression not more than two feet below the level of the rest of the field. There were no visible features, no reason to favor one spot above another. He shrugged his shoulders and at random chose the ground beneath his feet. He called the men and bade them dig.
When the laborers hesitated at the edge of the hollow, John had to begrudgingly offer more compensation. But when they commenced their work, they proceeded at a furious pace, slicing through the sod into the rich, soft soil. Two of them had been grave diggers, and they were capable of shifting dirt prodigiously. In an hour, there was a good-sized hole; in two hours it was large and deep. John squatted on the edge watching, occasionally jumping down and having a closer look by torchlight. The soil was moist and brown with a fertile, earthy smell, but in time he took note of some lumps of charred wood and a layer of ash.
His heart raced. “There was a fire here,” he exclaimed.
The men were disinterested. One of them asked how much deeper he wanted them to go. He replied by telling them to quiet themselves and keep digging.
Over the sound of the gulls, John heard a
A shovel had struck stone.
John jumped back into the hole and scraped at the ground with his boot, exposing a flat stone. He grabbed one of the shovels and scraped it clean then thrust the shovel into the dirt two feet away. He hit more stone. He picked another spot and dug—more stone. “Clear the whole bottom of the ditch!” he commanded excitedly.
Soon, a surface of flat, smooth stones was exposed, a carefully fitted floor, long buried. John exhorted the men to take a pick to the stones to see what lay beneath. The laborers engaged in a nervously whispered debate among themselves but complied, and within a half hour, three of the large, flat stones had been dug out.
John got down on his hands and knees to inspect the area. With growing eagerness, he saw that the stones had been resting on a large-timbered frame. He gingerly placed his hand through the hole where the stones had been, and it went straight through, his entire arm disappearing. He took a handful of dirt and dropped it through the hole. It took a full second or more to hear the dirt rattling against something hard.
“There is a chamber below!” John declared. “We must climb down at once!”
The men began to back away to the farthest corner of their trench. They huddled and spoke to each other in low, urgent voices, then declared they would not go down. They were too afraid.
John begged them, then tried to bribe them and finally, in a rage he threatened them, but it was to no avail. They swore at him and climbed out of the trench. The best he could do was to get them to sell him their rope and leave a torch. In short order, he was alone in the night.
His apprehension was tempered by the excitement of the moment. He tied the rope around one of the timber beams, dropped it into the hole, and heard the loose end hitting solid ground. Next he tossed the lit torch down the hole and listened to it clatter. The torch stayed lit, and, looking into the void, he could see a zone faintly illuminated, a stone floor and perhaps an irregular wall. He took a deep breath to steel himself for the task, swung his legs into the hole, grabbed the rope, and began to use his arms and clenched feet to work his way downward.
The air in the chamber was stale and lifeless. He descended by inches, fearful of the dark, so he concentrated on the more reassuring glow of the torch. When he had descended about twenty feet, there was still another ten to go. He looked down and squinted through the particulate smoke emanating from the torch head.