chapter 11 - a hidden passage and a mysterious book

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Once outside, Alf gave directions in a low voice. Lionel retrieved the flashlight from the car and led the way.

After about half a mile they came to a high stone wall. Further on still was a set of huge iron gates, through which was blackness, except when briefly the moon shone through the edges of a cloud. Set back a long way they could sometimes make out the silhouette of a large building with turrets and strange spires. Oddly the iron gates were not locked.

Alf gently pushed open one of the gates, which squeaked slightly on its hinges, and went in. The others followed.

The gravel drive crunched underfoot, so they took to the lawn. Every so often their way would be met by a large obelisk of topiary, and they would feel their way round. Coming at last to where the lawn gave way to more gravel in front of the house, they turned left, following the lawn around to the side. Here they met a neglected knot garden. Out of respect for some unknown past gardener they all tried not to trample the low box hedges. Sometimes there was the scent of lavender trodden underfoot.

Finally they reached the back of the house where they found a large conservatory. The doors were shut, but Captain Kipper found they gave way with a slight splintering sound on a modest heave of his shoulder.

A dim light was coming from somewhere inside the building. They pushed their way through the shoots of neglected vines hanging with clusters of dried out grapes. Large fan-palm leaves and spiky cycad fronds brushed their faces. When at last they left the tangle behind them they entered a long corridor lit at the far end with a single lightbulb hanging without a shade. 

There were signs of former glory in the encaustic tiled floor and the wooden half-panelling of the walls, but the paintwork above the dado rail was cracked and stained, and there were marks on the wall where once pictures had hung. Leading off the corridor were a number of doors, all painted in the same pale green, giving the impression of a stately home turned into a neglected military hospital.

One by one each of them tested one or other of the doors. One was a broom cupboard. Another led into darkness which Lionel’s flashlight revealed to be an abandoned library festooned with cobwebs. He called Alf over in a whisper.

“It would help if we knew what we’re looking for,” Lionel said.

“Don’t worry about that,” replied Alf, “we’ll know it when we find it.”

The Captain shrugged and kept opening doors then closing them again.

Lionel paused a little longer in the library. A flash of gold-tooled lettering on the spine of a small book had caught his attention. Closer examination showed it to read ‘Seynt Doris Ilande.’ 

Someone once said that chance favours the prepared mind ['Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits preparés.' Louis Pasteur, Lecture, University of Lille, 7 December 1854] and perhaps this was one of those chances. The leather was hardly worn but it looked dry, ancient and dusty. Lionel picked up the book, and opening it the spine creaked as though it had not been touched in several hundred years. At the title page Lionel read, ‘Seynte Doris, an Ilande in ye Westerne Indies, its Historie Geographie & divers Marvells founde therein together with a Description of its Aboriginall Salvages, set down in all Veritie by Henry Herring, Earl of a Bit of Cornwall and not the Other Bit, who went there with Francis Drake, Kt. in the XXI year of the reine of Her Glorious Majestie Queen Elizabeth whom God preserve. Printed and sold at St. Doris-by-the-Fishmonger Churchyard, London MDLXXXXIX.’ The frontispiece facing the title page showed a woodcut, primitive and wonderful, of a volcanic island fringed with palm trees, in the distance a little ship much like Drake’s ‘Golden Hinde’ and dominating the foreground a triumphantly naked mermaid.

Lionel closed the book and put it into his pocket.

It was the matter of a moment. Lionel was an habitually honest man, and had he thought about this at all he would have determined to return the book at the earliest opportunity. It was not greed for a rare manuscript that motivated him, but the promise of information which, while it might not help him, seemed closely related to the story Alf had told them. Also he wondered greatly at the mermaid picture.

He closed the door on the library and continued past Alf and the Captain, who were trying other doors, dependent on the light from that single ceiling bulb. At the far end on the left an opening led to a large hallway dominated by the foot of a grand staircase, but there was no additional lighting, and where it went could not be seen.

On the right the door opened onto a narrow wooden staircase of the sort servants use when they require not to be seen.

Lionel beckoned to the others and he led with the flashlight, trying not to make the boards creak. Part way up they met a narrow corridor leading off the staircase to one side. Following this they came to another door set into the wall. Opening this carefully Lionel could see yet another door about two feet in front. He had seen things like this in stately homes before. Often such a door would be decorated on the other side to resemble the rest of the wall so as to be all but invisible, allowing servants to appear and disappear without discommoding the occupants of the room. There was a small crack in the door, evident from a bright light that shone through it from the other side.

Lionel held back and Alf peered through. There was a long moment of silence broken only by Alf’s breathing, that sounded almost like a sighing. “You should take a look,” he whispered finally to the others.

Captain Kipper looked. “Shiver me jellyfish!” he exclaimed in a hoarse whisper. He turned towards Lionel, his face lit by the sharp sideways light from the crack, his expression like one whose whole understanding of the world has just been entirely demolished. Finally Lionel looked.

***

A note from Myfanwy

Dear Littoral Litterati,

Well, the chapters are coming thick and fast at the moment, although some of them are quite short. When I've typed up the one after next you will learn why sometimes keeping a pasty in your pocket can make the difference between life and death.

It can be very lonely looking after a genius, if that's what he is. Having not even thanked me for the numerous cups of tea, he is now asking me to make him a sandwich. I am somewhat put out and I think I shall wait until he says please.

love,

Myfanwy

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