by Mark Nicholls

(from Ghosts & Scholars 31)

Author's Note: The idea for this story came from a report on the discovery of some animal bones and curious papers in Trinity College, Cambridge, made by H.F. Wilson towards the end of the nineteenth century. The factual details may be found in the College magazine, The Trident 1 (1891), pp.237-43.

I have not the slightest doubt that there are many queer bits and pieces, many objects both valuable and worthless, to be found beneath the floorboards and behind the wainscots of those ancient buildings which cluster together in the centre of our ancient university city. I was about to add, would that we knew where to set our hands upon them; but, as my tale will suggest, the matter may not in fact be so clear cut. Forty years ago I recall a distinguished senior member of St Walstan's remark upon the discovery of a fine seventeenth-century basket hilt, clearly once belonging to the sword of a gentleman and engraved with a depiction of the Passion of Christ, found in a false bottom to the oldest wardrobe in his rooms. In my own undergraduate set at Prince Edward's Hall, moreover, there was a loose brick within the fireplace, which, upon examination, concealed a few pages from an account book of the eighteenth century, in an advanced state of decay and hidden away for no reason apparent to the modern eye.

As a rule, finds of this nature are best taken at face value. Should the item be rare, or of some interest to scholars, it might wisely be consigned to the care of a responsible museum; whereas if it consists of nothing but the scraps and detritus of ages, carried about by rats Gloucester-like through their systems of hidden passages and doorways, little harm is done in casting the same, bag and baggage, upon the hearth. The harm, indeed, may lie in doing otherwise.

On a late autumn morning in the year 1887, an old friend of mine - I shall call him Williamson since the story demands a name at several points - was sitting before a comfortable fire in his set, just over the second gateway to the First Court of St Botolph's College. For the reader who likes to know such details, I should add that Williamson was one of the better classical scholars of his generation, particularly well versed in the wars and battles of antiquity. He was also blessed with a considerable artistic talent. Three of his water-colours, including one showing the Thermopylae pass at sunset, hang upon my walls as I write; while those among you who frequent the better sort of second-hand bookshop will possibly be familiar with his Sketches from the Anabasis, published in Coronation year. But all this takes us forward some way, and we should, no doubt, return without further ado to our tale. Williamson, then, was sitting at his ease, awaiting the customary eggs and coffee, when his bedmaker's 'help' burst in, to all appearances quite discomfited. "Lawks! Sir," she babbled, in her usual disconnected and unpunctuated manner. "It's that man wot you had in of Tadworth's and if he hasn't gone and found wot he shouldn't, and it's just like I say as when you goes looking for trouble you find it right enough you do indeed." Here she paused, eyeing him as though expecting some definitive reply.

Williamson set about the inevitable detective work. The previous day, as he recalled, he had sent word to Messrs Matthew Tadworth and Son, carpenters and timber merchants, with a view to relaying one or two uneven floorboards in his bedroom. As a matter of record, this bedroom lay in the attic of the ancient court, one floor up. Tadworth, ineffably courteous, had promised to attend to the problem this very morning, and, indeed, Williamson had been awakened by Mrs Maggs an hour before with the news that a carpenter was already at the foot of the stair, and would the gentleman mind very much if he began work straight away? So the clues, such as they were, fell into place. "Do I take it," Williamson ventured, "that Mr Tadworth's man has made a discovery under the floorboards?" The good woman pulled a face, stamped her foot a little in vexation, and began again, her narrative gathering pace as it proceeded.

"Diss-covery, Sir? Ho yes, a diss-covery, right enough. It's like my Harry always said, Sir, these old buildings - wot do you think they hold then eh? He says, only rats? I should rather think not hah! And then he larfs my Harry does and he says they can tell you a tale or two I shouldn't wonder, them rats and what not. Diss-covery! It isn't right, Sir, really it's not, when a pore body can't take to cleaning and setting her young gentlemen straight a-times without a contree-temps and all this a-doing - terrible I calls it. Bones, Sir! A heap of bones, God bless us and preserve us! And the bones right under your bed, and wot's more, Tadworth's man he has a good look at them and he whistles all curious like, and it's wot he says after that that sticks with me, Sir, really it does. He ups and he stares at me all serious and he says 'Mrs Maggs, I do believe that these here are 'ooman bones'. 'No, Mr Scrivener,' I says and I crosses myself, Sir, for wot can you do? 'Yus! 'Ooman bones, Mrs Maggs, an 'ooman skellington all in bits and pieces, pulled about as you might say taken all in all. And would you please ask the young gentleman to have the goodness to come upstairs and look at them.' Begging your pardon, Sir, for disturbing your cogitations, not that I won't answer for your digestion, at this early hour and all."

A weird and terrible summons indeed! Williamson deliberated upon the quirk of fate that had decreed he should, for upwards of four years, have slept peacefully over a tomb. He swallowed some coffee, lit a cigarette and hastened to the head of the stairs. His bedchamber was never the brightest of rooms, but even from the doorway he made out, clearly enough, the small opening in the floor to which the carpenter was pointing, in an attitude at once tragic and triumphant. Not for nothing had Mr Scrivener won his reputation among regulars at the Three Crowns as a fluent observer of life's curiosities in their myriad forms. However, if we may surmise that his story was not soon told, told at length it was. I shall give it in substance as I heard it, somewhat later, from Williamson. In the course of his repairs, the good man had realised that it would be necessary to remove an old, decayed plank, lying close up against the outer wall. This having been done, a small cubic space lay revealed, some two feet - perhaps a little more - in each direction, extending down to the reed and plaster ceiling of Williamson's study below. The sides were supplied by upright panels of oak, clearly cut down from something much larger, and inserted with a degree of precision.

Williamson dutifully peered into the dark recess. It was all he could do to stop himself chuckling out loud. Though by no stretch of the imagination a medical man, he observed on the most cursory of inspections that the "skellington" was nothing of the kind, but rather an accumulation of bones belonging to a small beast. "Rabbit, maybe, or more likely a fowl of some sort," he murmured to himself, lifting one or two up towards what little light the room possessed. "A rat's larder, I shouldn't wonder. Lord knows how many years back. Though the box itself is a puzzle, I suppose." He looked again. "Fair workmanship too, if I'm any sort of a judge." Just as he was turning to explain matters to his audience, however, he noticed that five or six of the bones - which lay in an extended quadrilateral design, such, occasionally, are the results of random scattering - appeared to conceal a small piece of cloth, once green, perhaps, but now only a mottled black and grey with age and grime. That cloth, it was equally apparent, covered a small object, around eleven inches long. Again Williamson reached down, moved away the cover, and took hold of the mysterious item. "Why," he said, "it's a cylinder - silver I should think and pretty old. But what's this inside, now? A letter, to be sure. Mrs Maggs, bring over that lamp, and let's have a stab at reading it."

Alas! Our Williamson, whatever his scholarly merits in other fields, was not the man for this task. The casket, he guessed, dated back two to three hundred years, but although he established with some degree of certainty that the writing was in English, the words themselves remained obscured behind the particularly wretched, crabbed hand and the archaic formation of words. Mrs Maggs and Mr Scrivener both did their best to help, but their suggestions owed more to a shared romantic vision than to any capacity for decipherment. Mrs Maggs insisted that she saw the word "skellington" - "there, Sir, clear as day!" - while Mr Scrivener, recalling a book that he had once struggled through as a child, said he shouldn't be surprised if it was some sort of a "parrydox" pointing the way to the College's buried treasure (buried treasure lay under every college of the University, in his certain opinion). There was, Williamson concluded at length, only one thing for it. He would have to lay the paper before an Authority, and, by good fortune, an Authority was to hand. His choice settled upon no less a sage than Theophilus Brennan, senior fellow and University Librarian for the past forty years, whose rooms lay at the foot of O Staircase, just across the court. "I shall call on him tonight, after Evensong," he reasoned; "and it's a pound to a sixpence the old boy'll con it out in no time." He returned to his breakfast in an excited, even a curiously elated frame of mind.

The day passed soon enough. His curiosity having been whetted by several hours' anticipation, Williamson was more than a little annoyed when he saw, or thought that he saw, another figure preceding him into the Librarian's rooms, but having knocked he found Brennan alone and put the circumstance down to a trick of the far from adequate light. He was motioned to a chair near the fire while the necessary explanations were offered and received. Brennan nodded, and whistled, and he turned the paper this way and that, with many a "God bless my soul!" and a "tut, tut!" by way of elaboration. "You know, of course, what this means?" he asked, appreciating full well that his visitor knew nothing, and looking forward - these are the vanities of knowledge - to some pleasurable elucidation.

"Not a bit of it," confirmed our hapless hero, playing up to his role, and wishing that he was on firmer ground. For the first time in his secluded little life, Williamson began to appreciate that history had not closed in this country with the departing legions. However, he said nothing, feeling it more appropriate to encourage, to listen, and to draw his own, private conclusions.

"Why, my dear Williamson" - Brennan was steadily working up a head of steam - "what we have here...this little - ah! - worthless scrap, as you call it. Why, it is nothing less than a piece of College history, and I fear a distinctly discreditable piece at that. I wonder, will you be so good as to fetch me down my copy of Joseph's Annals, dear boy? There, just behind you, and third shelf across. Right! Now I fancy the whole business is at page one hundred and thirty-seven; not so, not so! One hundred and thirty-nine. Yes, yes, one hundred and thirty-nine to be sure! Well, well! Where to begin? You will not, I suppose, recall my commemoration address of 'sixty-seven on the benefactions of Oswald Conybeare? No? A little before your time, no doubt. Too bad, too bad. I really believe I did the man justice - though the occasion demanded that I was altogether kinder to him than he deserved. Oswald Conybeare was, you will not need reminding, Master of our College for no fewer than fifty-nine years. His portrait - ah, yes, his portrait! - hangs in Hall, on the south wall, alongside that of his old adversary, Bishop Fortescue. I have always thought it an infelicitous juxtaposition, but the portraits committee has a collectively strange sense of humour, I fear. Where was I? Conybeare! Yes. He was appointed when little more than a child through the efforts of his father, who was, as you will again, I am sure, have no trouble in recalling, Queen Elizabeth's unofficial ambassador to the Milanese court during the 1580s, and a knight of this shire in the Parliaments of 1597 and 1601. The father was, I think, singularly privileged in being first of his House, after Mister Speaker, to kiss the Queen's hand following her Golden Speech; one of many marks of favour bestowed on so doughty a war-horse of the regime.

"But I digress, I digress! Despite the forced circumstances surrounding his elevation, Master Conybeare ruled his little empire diligently enough. Many - though not all - among the Fellowship were won over. You see, he was himself a scholar of distinction, though his tastes were, I suppose, a trifle exotic for his own time. But his translation of the Almagest was among the earliest in English, while the stellar charts of which he was so proud on occasion brought him to the notice of the other heads of houses, and may help explain why he never in all those years served as Vice-Chancellor. In the days of his notoriety, John Chamberlain, if I remember rightly, came up with a shocking pun involving those charts and Star Chamber! Mmm! And I once heard old David Jardine tell - back before the Russian war - how Conybeare introduced Galileo's telescope into England, a good twenty months ahead of Harriot. Whatever the chronology, we can be sure from the accounts that he used his - ah! - apparatus in an observatory, specially fashioned for him in the original tower - your rooms, dear boy, your rooms! - from where the great Restoration wing of this Court took its departure."

"All very well," muttered Williamson, "but what has this to do with my paper?" Brennan shot him a reproving glance over the top of his spectacles.

"We were, of course, coming to that - but the background may indeed be relevant, as I trust you shall observe. Well! In the ordinary course of things, one would have expected Conybeare to prosper. He was, I should add, a very wealthy man on his father's death, and much of this wealth came in time to the College, and pays for four exhibitioners to this day. As another legacy from the elder Conybeare, he had powerful friends in Court and in Council, and he had his start in life - three hundred years ago the mastership of a college was - I say, rightly - assessed as a stepping stone for the young and able, not some sweet pasture for redundant horses who have had their day. But I wander once more, my dear boy! Suffice it to say that his career faltered, and the reason that it faltered - will you have guessed? - was religion. In contrast to his rather puritan father, Master Conybeare was known and taken for a Romanist! I do believe this was his mother's work - she was a Tyrwhitt, you see, though from a cadet branch. Oh, he conformed to the extent necessary, put in his hours in Chapel, cultivated a succession of deans who were all, be it said, chosen by himself and compliant careerists to a man. But there was talk on high table of a massing priest who came to him by night, and even more sinister prattle of visits from the redoubtable Jesuit superior, Father Garnett, who is supposed to have hidden on occasion within the confines of the Lodge, aye, and sampled the College cellars, I have no doubt.

"Now then, let us look a little deeper into Joseph. Hmm, ah yes! That's true. I was forgetting. In the summer of 1605, keeping company with the most adamant recusants of the Midlands, the Master went on that very public Romish pilgrimage to St Winifred's Well - in Flintshire, I believe - and though he cloaked the matter in excuses involving ailing relations or some equal rigmarole, you can imagine, my dear fellow, what sort of a fuss they made about that.

"All bad enough, bad enough! However, there was more. A rumour so dreadful that even the most golden career could not have survived its corrosion. And..." Brennan shook his head a little, and tut tutted once again, as though reproachful of the disgrace dealt out to his College by one who had died over two centuries before. "...I fear that we have here, in your paper, evidence to confirm the worst, the very worst, of those rumours. Dear me, dear me! A sad business indeed."

The reader will appreciate Williamson's frustration at this point. It must, I think, have been obvious even to the self-indulgent Mr Brennan, for he hastened to turn another page of the College chronicle and to pass the book into his friend's outstretched hands. "There," he said; "you might as well read it over for yourself. If I should tell you the truth, I have little heart for the task! To think that one so eminent within our little Society could have been so - I will not say worse - so remiss." Williamson needed no further encouragement. He read from the volume, just as I do now; just as anyone with an interest in these matters might do in a moment of leisure:

But [the good Dr Joseph had written in an unusually censorious if typically verbose passage] how soon the years of fortune were to close! It is not to be doubted that, in his wilful and headlong pursuit of knowledge, and in his blind attachment to the fashions of Rome, the Master himself turned the hand of God against him. "Therefore," thus saith the Lord, "I will bring evil upon this people, even the fruit of their thoughts. I will lay stumbling-blocks before them." Through his sister's husband he was connected with the Treshams of Rushton, in the County of Northampton, and, such is the fatal mix of vanity and charity, common to all mortal men, he presumed upon this connection to establish himself in good favour with his kinsfolk, and with those who adhered to an ancient house of much distinction, howsoever flawed by manifest errors of religion.

Herein lay the root of great misery and desolation. "Son of man, prophesy, and say, A sword, a sword is sharpened, and furbished!" The discovery of that perfidious mischief, known to our forefathers as the Powder Treason, or Fawkes's Plot, the odious detail that Master Francis Tresham had himself a hand in the design, and the knowledge of that intimacy which had existed between the houses of Conybeare and Tresham, alike conspired to bring the avenging angel very near. The date upon which this devilish work was discovered, is it not commemorated in our Chapel, as elsewhere, down to this present time? It may safely be omitted. Nevertheless, should we not also remember that this discovery bred a cloud of suspicion, suspicion which touched every corner of the land, visiting both the guilty and the innocent? On the sixteenth day of November 1605, our College was subject to the dismal spectacle of a search, made against all the ancient privileges of the University, by Sir Richard Hughes, Deputy Lieutenant of the county, conducted by express order of His Majesty's Council. In vain did our Society protest against the extreme discourtesies suffered that day, for truly, the Lord dispenses to each according to his merits, and our Master, in his folly, had deserved no better. For three weeks he was restrained, even within his own residence, while certain papers were weighed and considered in the high counsels of Whitehall.

Yet in the end all these scraps and jottings did not answer to the purpose, for 'tis said that the Master had received word from one at Court who loved him, after the manner of my Lord Monteagle, and that he had hastened to burn much, and to conceal certain other documents which contained matters of importance. There the question rested. The Master was suffered to live. Sometime friends of his father spoke for him to a King at once sceptical and tolerant. But the Lord ensures that mercy is tempered with justice. "A sword is upon the liars," declares the prophet, "and they shall dote!" Ever afterwards he remained the object of scorn and suspicion, shunned by the other heads of houses, distrusted by his own fellowship, derided by the humble townsfolk on the rare occasions he ventured abroad.

Williamson looked up, light having dawned. "And that paper?" he began.

Brennan nodded. "Just so, my dear fellow, just so! What you have here would appear to be a letter of intelligence - perhaps from Tresham, or perhaps not. The hand is clearly disguised and the missive is, as you have remarked, atrociously ill-written. Yet it is, most certainly, addressed to Conybeare, and while the details superficially make little sense, taken and examined in one particular light they are all too clear. You will notice, here, and here again, that the writer suggests Conybeare might join those gathering to hunt on the Tuesday following - which I take to be the fifth of November - and you will notice, too, the reference to "matters which may take their course". Mmm! A grim course this would have been, I fear! If I were to remind you (dear, dear, a dreadful thought) that the Powder plotters assembled together a number of - ah! - potential supporters at Dunsmore in Northamptonshire, under colour of a day's hunting; men who in the event of success might have formed the heart of a Catholic army set on toppling State and Protestant religion all together; would the remarks not seem just a little suspicious to you, eh?"

"Undoubtedly," replied Williamson.

"Mmm. So they would to me. A bad business - a sad business, indeed, even though I am persuaded that it has all the makings of a true monument to Roman folly."

Mr Brennan possessed the Anglican conceits of his time. Once, long ago, while on a trip to Rome, he had noticed that when the pontiff bent in prayer for all mankind, the knees on which he knelt were artificial! This gentle concession to the frailties of old age had made the deepest of impressions. On his return to England, Brennan had severed a youthful connection with John Henry Newman, resigned from the popish Camden Society, and had retired to the safety of his College Chapel and his Book of Common Prayer.

"I suppose," he murmured, after a distinct pause, "that only one question remains. What's to be done with it, eh? And, to resort to a vulgar commonplace of our American cousins, that's your call, dear boy, your call!"

Williamson frowned. "Surely," he replied, "it should go to some museum? I could present it to Briaval, or would you have it for the University Library?" Brennan shuddered visibly at the very thought.

"No," he said. "No, I should not. I concede that it is nothing less than a remarkable find, a very remarkable find, but if I were you, my boy, I should throw the thing into the flames. Ah! Really I should!" He punched fist against hand, bringing them together up to his chin.

"But why?" Williamson was genuinely nonplussed. He wondered secretly whether Brennan had lost his wits.

"For, let me see, two - no - three reasons. First, because it reflects badly on the College which feeds us and provides us with shelter in our decrepitude. Alas, you will find it to be so, one day. Second, ah yes! Second because Conybeare in the crisis of his life did not want the letter found, and - even after all these years - I should not like to stand out against his resolution. Then, dear me, there are the bones. Now, as you would have it, they were left there by rats, and rats may indeed have some part in the plot. But Briaval will tell you there is a book in the old Library - a unique survival, I might add - which preserves in translation the apparently credulous beliefs peddled by the disciples of Ibn al-Faraj. You recall? The gentleman whom Kinglake mentions in Eothen, and Charles Churchill too, in his excellent volumes on the Druze of Mount Lebanon. The gentleman who was executed, if I remember rightly, for necromancy and the grosser Islamic heresies in the great square at Damascus, early in our sixteenth century. And the book - I have looked - comes from Conybeare's library, and has a few matters by way of spells, incantations and I know not what else which are, shall we say, to the purpose. Let me make my point more concisely! Come the ultimate test the Master himself may have disapproved, but there were those among his friends who would not have hesitated, not for an instant; not, as one of them once said so memorably, for a chamber full of diamonds." Having delivered himself of these ominous sentiments, Brennan's spirits visibly brightened once more. "And now, my dear fellow, you will stay, I think, for a glass of sherry! We have ample time before we dine, have we not?"

Williamson did not stay. As he explained to his colleague, he was taking young Siddelow, the Magdalene botanist, into dinner and he fully expected that his guest would already have arrived. But he returned to his rooms in a distinctly pensive mood. It was all very well for Brennan to counsel destruction, and all very well for him to sit nodding out of politeness, but there were, he pondered, many distinguished men, even within the University, who would curse his name for evermore were the story of this wanton piece of vandalism ever to run abroad. No! Really he could not bring himself to do such a thing! As for the University Librarian's half-baked fears of reprisal - reprisal from one dead these two centuries! - they hardly deserved consideration. He fingered the case with its curious contents, as if seeking reassurance. Besides, little in the story suggested that Conybeare had been a malicious, or a vindictive man. An erudite zealot, an ambitious fool, perhaps, but nothing worse. Still, Williamson felt some need to justify the course he proposed to adopt. He had not, he reasoned, sought association with the discovery, but since circumstances had conspired to involve him, and since the thing had indeed been found, he was clearly under something of an obligation to present it to the College Library for safe keeping. Yes! The matter was settled. He would call on Briaval in the morning.

As he walked round the court he met Fosdick, the Head Porter, proceeding in his usual stately fashion towards the Hall, to oversee the sounding of the first bell for dinner. He enquired whether his guest had arrived, and Fosdick replied in the affirmative, adding that he had shown Mr Siddelow up to Williamson's rooms. At the same time, he ventured to remark that he thought the young gentleman somewhat indisposed.

"Not well, you say?" quizzed Williamson, rather absently, his mind still on other matters.

"I should not quite suggest so much, Mr Williamson," replied Fosdick. "Only he seemed to dislike the light in the Lodge, to veer away from it, almost. Right the way up to your rooms he was a-mutterin' to me, but he kept his voice down so low and sounded so hoarse I couldn't catch one word in three. And though he held his coat about him with the collar turned right up, I thought that he shivered rather more than the ordinary."

"Well," answered Williamson, "it is a cold night, is it not; and like to turn colder still, I shouldn't wonder?" There, for the moment, the matter rested.

He reached his set shortly afterwards. "Hello," he said, pushing the door open, catching sight of a figure seated in his armchair over by the fire, and supposing, very naturally, that it was Siddelow. "Sorry I'm late. Been talking to Brennan!" Turning his back momentarily, he hung up his coat behind the door, but swung about as some curious, unheralded sense of extreme danger touched his brain. His visitor had risen, in as far as a visitor of this sort could indeed rise, and was making towards him with quite surprising agility, arms outspread, much as the farmer corners his chicken. Williamson stood transfixed for a couple of seemingly endless seconds. Then he ducked, screwed up his eyes and screamed, loud and shrill, his cries shattering the cloistered calm of that ancient court. Many came running, the Head Porter and the tardy Siddelow in the van, but when they found poor Williamson he was quite insensible with terror, shaking and pointing wildly with jerking, stabbing, outstretched fingers at the innocent, empty corners of the room.

The coincidence of Williamson's accident and the unhappy mischance which befell Mr Scrivener that same afternoon was not lost on Mrs Maggs. A gentleman like Mr Williamson, she supposed, being prone to too great a stimulation of the brain, might take alarm at the merest nothing - that in itself was not to be wondered at. But she deliberated loud and long whether some altogether unaccountable agency, having once finished its sport within the College, could have turned its attentions elsewhere; could, indeed, have ensured that poor Mr Scrivener fell in with such fatal wickedness on his walk home through Barnwell, in the gathered dusk. No one, after all, was ever charged with the crime, despite the best endeavours of an energetic constabulary. Some there were who reasoned with her, yet she would only laugh meaningfully, and demand what sort of robber it was who would have inflicted those cruel injuries, and still have failed to relieve the stricken carpenter of the few valuables about his person? She spent many a pleasant hour proposing to her extensive and generously credulous circle of friends and acquaintances that both men had been victims of a curse placed on the "skellington", adding that "them rats they knew a thing or two about plagues and hobgoblins and wot else I don't know (and don't want to know neither)."

Williamson, for his part, made a full recovery. At least, the doctors, following an extensive period of recuperation in the Swiss Alps and at the Sudetan spas, pronounced him entirely fit and well. You will imagine that I was cautious in broaching the subject, but on one occasion curiosity got the better of me, and I asked him what it was that he had seen, that evening in his study. He shook his head. "I do not think that I can ever describe it," he said; "but, do you know, I reckon I might be able to sketch out something which approaches a likeness. Be a good fellow and pass me that paper."

I did so, and, after an appropriate interval, was presented in return with his impression. Williamson, as I have mentioned, is a skilful artist; he has a talent for catching the essence of things. The picture, particularly in the shadowing of the eye sockets, in the line of the bone, and in the handling of the tattered rags wrapped about the head and trunk, was as fine as it was distressing. "You will pardon me for asking," I said, as I hurried the paper into the fire.

Is it necessary to state, in the way of a conclusion, that the letter of which we have spoken at such length has never been seen again, from that day to this?

Copyright (c) 2000 Mark Nicholls

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