‘It will shine again’: Stained Glass and the 1984 Fire at York Minster
In the second part of our tribute to the fortieth anniversary of the York Glaziers Trust, its first Superintendent, Peter Gibson OBE, tells us about the restoration of the late medieval glass in the minster’s famous rose window after the church was ravaged by fire in the early hours of 9 July 1984.
‘It had been an abnormally hot Sunday and I had taken my mother out for tea. Despite the sweltering temperatures, we had enjoyed ourselves. In the evening I went to bed without a care, but at 2.45 am in the morning, the phone started to ring and kept ringing. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up the receiver, and I couldn’t quite believe what I was told. The south transept of the minster was on fire. I got dressed hastily and literally ran to the scene (Fig. 1).
‘I entered the church through a door on the north side. The nave was full of smoke and noise. Canon John Toy and other members of the Clergy were rescuing sacred objects. The smell was thick and acrid, you could taste it, almost touch it. Dust was everywhere. The roof of the south transept had collapsed under the weight of water as the city fire brigade fought the blaze with everything they had – not just modern equipment and well honed skills (Fig. 2), but also with bravery and grit. Some firemen had climbed walls to attack the fire at close quarters; others had scrambled up ladders with scant regard for their own safety. It was almost hand-to-hand combat. I will never forget their faces streaked with sweat and cinders, their bodies stretched to exhaustion by the heat and the emotion of the struggle to prevent the fire spreading to the rest of the church (Fig. 3). Afterwards the North Yorkshire Fire Service was awarded the Cross of St William, the highest honour the minster can bestow (Figs 4 and 5). One day I hope there will also be a statue in front of the church commemorating their courage.
‘I made my way to the south transept, splashing through puddles and clambering over charred timbers. Piles of smouldering debris, sometimes eight to ten feet high, surrounded me. Without a roof the walls of the transept soared towards the open sky (Figs 6 and 7). And to my amazement, the great rose window stood intact. None of its beautiful sixteenth century glass glorifying the Tudor dynasty had fallen out. Above the scorched stonework, I could see the silhouette of a cross. There and then I knew the glass could be saved. Despite my welling tears, it was not a time to despair.
‘An hour later, the Fire Chief asked me if I wanted to check the window. Together we climbed a narrow staircase and edged our way across an eighteen inch sill directly below the window. There were more than 40,000 cracks in the 73 panels (Fig. 8). Lead solders had melted, but thanks to a major conservation effort by the Trust fourteen years earlier, which had renewed the leadwork, the glass had held.
‘Any relief I felt as we descended was quickly undone when the chief suggested that I also take a close look at the external face of the window. A tender was positioned in front of the south door. I was helped up an extending ladder and strapped onto the thirtieth rung. Then the chief left me! Although I wasn’t afraid of heights and had worked up ladders all my life, nothing had prepared me for what happened next. In fits and starts I was raised a 105ft (about 32m) in the air. The ladder swung right and left. I didn’t look down. Once again, the window seemed to have survived the inferno intact.
‘This time the tears were different as the south transept had a special meaning for me. I had been an altar server in the church when the then dean, Eric Milner-White, discovered that I was about to leave school at lunchtime on the coming Friday without a job to go to. Quizzing me closely, he told me to meet him in the south transept at 2 p.m. After showing me round the glazing workshop he gave me three books about stained glass to read over the weekend. On Sunday he called on my parents and I told him that I liked the pictures. The next day at 8 a.m. I began a seven-year apprenticeship. My life as a glazier had begun in the south transept. I knew that it would not end in failure there.
‘In the weeks that followed we carefully removed the glass (Fig. 9), wrapping it in fablon, a clear sticky plastic, before taking it back to the workshop for repair. Professor Roy Newton (1912–2003), the scientific advisor to the YGT, introduced me to Dr Norman Tennent, a conservation expert in Glasgow. Their help was invaluable.
‘Repairing the glass was painstaking. Each blackened pane had to be photographed and carefully cleaned with a mix of water and a mild detergent applied with special glass-fibre brushes (Fig. 10). Some of the glass was very thin. The more grime we removed, the more cracks we found. Slowly we sealed every crack, using a pippet to inject a special type of refracting non-yellowing epoxy resin adhesive between each crack to make the joins appear less conspicuous (Fig. 11). After the adhesive had settled, we removed the old lead and made exact tracings of the panels so that we could cut two new pieces of perfectly matching clear glass to create a sort of ‘sandwich’ for the sixteenth century originals. Then we applied a silicone sealant to the outside edge of the three layers of glass and releaded the windows with specially made deeper than usual cames before soldering the joints and brushing a waterproof compound between the flange of the lead and the glass. From start to finish the job took us just over two years and thousands of man hours. Not a single original panel was lost.
‘At the same time we were restoring the glass, we were also helping to mount exhibitions in the minster showing people what we were doing (Fig. 12). Together with everyone else who helped to repair the cathedral, it was wonderful to see the queen visit the south transept in November 1988 and unveil the window to the public for the first time since the fire (Figs 13 and 14).
Without doubt these events were the most traumatic experience of my working life. I have never been able to read account of other great fires, such as that which gutted the choir of Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, without feeling a sudden rush of memory, the noise, the smoke the smell of 9 July 1984, all over again. In my opinion the way we responded to the fire defined the York Glaziers Trust: our purpose, our commitment, our craft, our comradeship. Without the work we had undertaken before the fire and the skills we had accumulated over decades, the window may not have survived. We made it shine again (Figs 15 and 16).’
Peter Gibson was speaking to Roger Rosewell. Thanks to Amanda Daw, Robert Drysdale, Peter Gibson, Louise Hampson, the North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, and Nick Teed. Photographs are reproduced with the permission of the Dean and Chapter of York Minster, Peter Gibson, and the North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service.
NEXT TIME, Part III: A Miracle of Conservation: The St William Window.
Ghostly Glass: The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
Ninety odd years ago, in a candle-lit room in King’s College, Cambridge, the provost, M. R. James (Fig. 1) read aloud his latest ghost story to a group of friends, an annual Christmas event. This Christmas we hope that Vidimus readers can enjoy a similar tingle as they read the same story by flickering computer screens!
Montague Rhodes James (1862–1936) was an outstanding medieval scholar and the provost of King’s College, Cambridge (1905–18), and subsequently of Eton College (1918–36) until his death. His ghost stories are among some of the finest ever written. One of their great characteristics is his ability to mix the scholarly possible with unabashed hokum.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas has a particular resonance this year. At its heart is a mystery involving Steinfeld Abbey, the Premonstratensian monastery near the town of Urft in the Eifel region of Germany, whose cloisters were once filled in superb Renaissance glass. Earlier this year some of that glass was displayed in the wonderful Rheinische Glasmalerei. Meisterwerke der Renaissance exhibition in Cologne.
James had seen much of this glass in 1904 when he compiled an inventory of the collection of its then owner, Lord Brownlow, at Ashridge Park in Hertfordshire, subsequently privately published as Notes of Glass in Ashridge Chapel in 1906. When the house was sold in 1928, an anonymous buyer (in fact, E. E. Cook, grandson of Thomas Cook of travel agency fame) bought all bar three panels for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where they can be seen today.
THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS
‘Verum usque in praesentem diem multa garriunt inter se Canonici de abscondito quodam istius Abbatis Thomae thesauro, quem saepe, quanquam adhuc incassum, quaesiverunt Steinfeldenses. Ipsum enim Thomam adhuc florida in aetate existentem ingentem auri massam circa monasterium defodisse perhibent; de quo multoties interrogatus ubi esset, cum risu respondere solitus erat: “Job, Johannes, et Zacharias vel vobis vel posteris indicabunt”; idemque aliquando adiicere se inventuris minime invisurum. Inter alia huius Abbatis opera, hoc memoria praecipue dignum iudico quod fenestram magnam in orientali parte alae australis in ecclesia sua imaginibus optime in vitro depictis impleverit: id quod et ipsius effigies et insignia ibidem posita demonstrant. Domum quoque Abbatialem fere totam restauravit: puteo in atrio ipsius effosso et lapidibus marmoreis pulchre caelatis exornato. Decessit autem, morte aliquantulum subitanea perculsus, aetatis suae anno lxxiido, incarnationis vero Dominicae mdxxixo.’
‘I suppose I shall have to translate this,’ said the antiquary to himself, as he finished copying the above lines from that rather rare and exceedingly diffuse book, the Sertum Steinfeldense Norbertinum. ‘Well, it may as well be done first as last,’ and accordingly the following rendering was very quickly produced:
‘Up to the present day there is much gossip among the Canons about a certain hidden treasure of this Abbot Thomas, for which those of Steinfeld have often made search, though hitherto in vain. The story is that Thomas, while yet in the vigour of life, concealed a very large quantity of gold somewhere in the monastery. He was often asked where it was, and always answered, with a laugh: ‘Job, John, and Zechariah will tell either you or your successors.’ He sometimes added that he should feel no grudge against those who might find it. Among other works carried out by this Abbot I may specially mention his filling the great window at the east end of the south aisle of the church with figures admirably painted on glass, as his effigy and arms in the window attest. He also restored almost the whole of the Abbot’s lodging, and dug a well in the court of it, which he adorned with beautiful carvings in marble. He died rather suddenly in the seventy-second year of his age, AD 1529.’
The object which the antiquary had before him at the moment was that of tracing the whereabouts of the painted windows of the Abbey Church of Steinfeld. Shortly after the Revolution, a very large quantity of painted glass made its way from the dissolved abbeys of Germany and Belgium to this country, and may now be seen adorning various of our parish churches, cathedrals, and private chapels. Steinfeld Abbey was among the most considerable of these involuntary contributors to our artistic possessions (I am quoting the somewhat ponderous preamble of the book which the antiquary wrote), and the greater part of the glass from that institution can be identified without much difficulty by the help, either of the numerous inscriptions in which the place is mentioned, or of the subjects of the windows, in which several well-defined cycles or narratives were represented.
The passage with which I began my story had set the antiquary on the track of another identification. In a private chapel – no matter where – he had seen three large figures, each occupying a whole light in a window, and evidently the work of one artist. Their style made it plain that the artist had been a German of the sixteenth century; but hitherto the more exact localizing of them had been a puzzle. They represented (will you be surprised to hear it?) JOB PATRIARCHA, JOHANNES EVANGELISTA, ZACHARIAS PROPHETA, and each of them held a book or scroll, inscribed with a sentence from his writings. These, as a matter of course, the antiquary had noted, and had been struck by the curious way in which they differed from any text of the Vulgate that he had been able to examine. Thus the scroll in Job’s hand was inscribed: ‘Auro est locus in quo absconditur’ (for ‘conflatur’); on the book of John was: ‘Habent in vestimentis suis scripturam quam nemo novit’ (for ‘in vestimento scriptum’, the following words being taken from another verse); and Zacharias had: ‘Super lapidem unum septem oculi sunt’ (which alone of the three presents an unaltered text).
A sad perplexity it had been to our investigator to think why these three personages should have been placed together in one window. There was no bond of connection between them, either historic, symbolic, or doctrinal, and he could only suppose that they must have formed part of a very large series of Prophets and Apostles, which might have filled, say, all the clerestory windows of some capacious church. But the passage from the Sertum had altered the situation by showing that the names of the actual personages represented in the glass now in Lord D_____’s chapel had been constantly on the lips of Abbot Thomas von Eschenhausen of Steinfeld, and that this Abbot had put up a painted window, probably about the year 1520, in the south aisle of his abbey church. It was no very wild conjecture that the three figures might have formed part of Abbot Thomas’s offering; it was one which, moreover, could probably be confirmed or set aside by another careful examination of the glass. And, as Mr Somerton was a man of leisure, he set out on pilgrimage to the private chapel with very little delay. His conjecture was confirmed to the full. Not only did the style and technique of the glass suit perfectly with the date and place required, but in another window of the chapel he found some glass, known to have been bought along with the figures, which contained the arms of Abbot Thomas von Eschenhausen.
At intervals during his researches Mr Somerton had been haunted by the recollection of the gossip about the hidden treasure, and, as he thought the matter over, it became more and more obvious to him that if the Abbot meant anything by the enigmatical answer which he gave to his questioners, he must have meant that the secret was to be found somewhere in the window he had placed in the abbey church. It was undeniable, furthermore, that the first of the curiously-selected texts on the scrolls in the window might be taken to have a reference to hidden treasure.
Every feature, therefore, or mark which could possibly assist in elucidating the riddle which, he felt sure, the Abbot had set to posterity he noted with scrupulous care, and, returning to his Berkshire manor-house, consumed many a pint of the midnight oil over his tracings and sketches. After two or three weeks, a day came when Mr Somerton announced to his man that he must pack his own and his master’s things for a short journey abroad, whither for the moment we will not follow him.
Mr Gregory, the Rector of Parsbury, had strolled out before breakfast, it being a fine autumn morning, as far as the gate of his carriage-drive, with intent to meet the postman and sniff the cool air. Nor was he disappointed of either purpose. Before he had had time to answer more than ten or eleven of the miscellaneous questions propounded to him in the lightness of their hearts by his young offspring, who had accompanied him, the postman was seen approaching; and among the morning’s budget was one letter bearing a foreign postmark and stamp (which became at once the objects of an eager competition among the youthful Gregorys), and was addressed in an uneducated, but plainly an English hand.
When the Rector opened it, and turned to the signature, he realized that it came from the confidential valet of his friend and squire, Mr Somerton. Thus it ran:
Has I am in a great anxeity about Master I write at is Wish to Beg you Sir if you could be so good as Step over. Master Has add a Nastey Shock and keeps His Bedd. I never Have known Him like this but No wonder and Nothing will serve but you Sir. Master says would I mintion the Short Way Here is Drive to Cobblince and take a Trap. Hopeing I Have maid all Plain, but am much Confused in Myself what with Anxiatey and Weakfulness at Night. If I might be so Bold Sir it will be a Pleasure to see a Honnest Brish Face among all These Forig ones.
I am Sir
Your obedt Servt
P.S. – The Villiage for Town I will not Turm It is name Steenfeld.
The reader must be left to picture to himself in detail the surprise, confusion, and hurry of preparation into which the receipt of such a letter would be likely to plunge a quiet Berkshire parsonage in the year of grace 1859. It is enough for me to say that a train to town was caught in the course of the day, and that Mr Gregory was able to secure a cabin in the Antwerp boat and a place in the Coblentz train. Nor was it difficult to manage the transit from that centre to Steinfeld.
I labour under a grave disadvantage as narrator of this story in that I have never visited Steinfeld myself, and that neither of the principal actors in the episode (from whom I derive my information) was able to give me anything but a vague and rather dismal idea of its appearance. I gather that it is a small place, with a large church despoiled of its ancient fittings; a number of rather ruinous great buildings, mostly of the seventeenth century, surround this church; for the abbey, in common with most of those on the Continent, was rebuilt in a luxurious fashion by its inhabitants at that period. It has not seemed to me worth while to lavish money on a visit to the place, for though it is probably far more attractive than either Mr Somerton or Mr Gregory thought it, there is evidently little, if anything, of first-rate interest to be seen – except, perhaps, one thing, which I should not care to see.
The inn where the English gentleman and his servant were lodged is, or was, the only ‘possible’ one in the village. Mr Gregory was taken to it at once by his driver, and found Mr Brown waiting at the door. Mr Brown, a model when in his Berkshire home of the impassive whiskered race who are known as confidential valets, was now egregiously out of his element, in a light tweed suit, anxious, almost irritable, and plainly anything but master of the situation. His relief at the sight of the ‘honest British face’ of his Rector was unmeasured, but words to describe it were denied him. He could only say:
‘Well, I ham pleased, I’m sure, sir, to see you. And so I’m sure, sir, will master.’
‘How is your master, Brown?’ Mr Gregory eagerly put in.
‘I think he’s better, sir, thank you; but he’s had a dreadful time of it. I ‘ope he’s gettin’ some sleep now, but –’
‘What has been the matter – I couldn’t make out from your letter? Was it an accident of any kind?’
‘Well, sir, I ’ardly know whether I’d better speak about it. Master was very partickler he should be the one to tell you. But there’s no bones broke – that’s one thing I’m sure we ought to be thankful –’
‘What does the doctor say?’ asked Mr Gregory.
They were by this time outside Mr Somerton’s bedroom door, and speaking in low tones. Mr Gregory, who happened to be in front, was feeling for the handle, and chanced to run his fingers over the panels. Before Brown could answer, there was a terrible cry from within the room.
‘In God’s name, who is that?’ were the first words they heard. ‘Brown, is it?’
‘Yes, sir – me, sir, and Mr Gregory,’ Brown hastened to answer, and there was an audible groan of relief in reply.
They entered the room, which was darkened against the afternoon sun, and Mr Gregory saw, with a shock of pity, how drawn, how damp with drops of fear, was the usually calm face of his friend, who, sitting up in the curtained bed, stretched out a shaking hand to welcome him.
‘Better for seeing you, my dear Gregory,’ was the reply to the Rector’s first question, and it was palpably true. After five minutes of conversation Mr Somerton was more his own man, Brown afterwards reported, than he had been for days. He was able to eat a more than respectable dinner, and talked confidently of being fit to stand a journey to Coblentz within twenty-four hours.
‘But there’s one thing,’ he said, with a return of agitation which Mr Gregory did not like to see, ‘which I must beg you to do for me, my dear Gregory. Don’t,’ he went on, laying his hand on Gregory’s to forestall any interruption – ‘don’t ask me what it is, or why I want it done. I’m not up to explaining it yet; it would throw me back – undo all the good you have done me by coming. The only word I will say about it is that you run no risk whatever by doing it, and that Brown can and will show you tomorrow what it is. It’s merely to put back – to keep – something – No; I can’t speak of it yet. Do you mind calling Brown?’
‘Well, Somerton,’ said Mr Gregory, as he crossed the room to the door, ‘I won’t ask for any explanations till you see fit to give them. And if this bit of business is as easy as you represent it to be, I will very gladly undertake it for you the first thing in the morning.’
‘Ah, I was sure you would, my dear Gregory; I was certain I could rely on you. I shall owe you more thanks than I can tell. Now, here is Brown. Brown, one word with you.’
‘Shall I go?’ interjected Mr Gregory.
‘Not at all. Dear me, no. Brown, the first thing tomorrow morning – (you don’t mind early hours, I know, Gregory) you must take the Rector to – there, you know’ (a nod from Brown, who looked grave and anxious), ‘and he and you will put that back. You needn’t be in the least alarmed; it’s perfectly safe in the daytime. You know what I mean. It lies on the step, you know, where – where we put it.’ (Brown swallowed dryly once or twice, and, failing to speak, bowed.) ‘And – yes, that’s all. Only this one other word, my dear Gregory. If you can manage to keep from questioning Brown about this matter, I shall be still more bound to you. Tomorrow evening, at latest, if all goes well, I shall be able, I believe, to tell you the whole story from start to finish. And now I’ll wish you good night. Brown will be with me – he sleeps here – and if I were you, I should lock my door. Yes, be particular to do that. They – they like it, the people here, and it’s better. Good night, good night.’
They parted upon this, and if Mr Gregory woke once or twice in the small hours and fancied he heard a fumbling about the lower part of his locked door, it was, perhaps, no more than what a quiet man, suddenly plunged into a strange bed and the heart of a mystery, might reasonably expect. Certainly he thought, to the end of his days, that he had heard such a sound twice or three times between midnight and dawn.
He was up with the sun, and out in company with Brown soon after. Perplexing as was the service he had been asked to perform for Mr Somerton, it was not a difficult or an alarming one, and within half an hour from his leaving the inn it was over. What it was I shall not as yet divulge.
Later in the morning Mr Somerton, now almost himself again, was able to make a start from Steinfeld; and that same evening, whether at Coblentz or at some intermediate stage on the journey I am not certain, he settled down to the promised explanation. Brown was present, but how much of the matter was ever really made plain to his comprehension he would never say, and I am unable to conjecture.
This was Mr Somerton’s story:
‘You know roughly, both of you, that this expedition of mine was undertaken with the object of tracing something in connection with some old painted glass in Lord D_____’s private chapel. Well, the starting-point of the whole matter lies in this passage from an old printed book, to which I will ask your attention.’
And at this point Mr Somerton went carefully over some ground with which we are already familiar.
‘On my second visit to the chapel,’ he went on, ‘my purpose was to take every note I could of figures, lettering, diamond-scratchings on the glass, and even apparently accidental markings. The first point which I tackled was that of the inscribed scrolls. I could not doubt that the first of these, that of Job – ‘There is a place for the gold where it is hidden’ – with its intentional alteration, must refer to the treasure; so I applied myself with some confidence to the next, that of St John – ‘They have on their vestures a writing which no man knoweth.’ The natural question will have occurred to you: Was there an inscription on the robes of the figures? I could see none; each of the three had a broad black border to his mantle, which made a conspicuous and rather ugly feature in the window. I was nonplussed, I will own, and but for a curious bit of luck I think I should have left the search where the Canons of Steinfeld had left it before me. But it so happened that there was a good deal of dust on the surface of the glass, and Lord D_____, happening to come in, noticed my blackened hands, and kindly insisted on sending for a Turk’s-head broom to clean down the window. There must, I suppose, have been a rough piece in the broom; anyhow, as it passed over the border of one of the mantles, I noticed that it left a long scratch, and that some yellow stain instantly showed up. I asked the man to stop his work for a moment, and ran up the ladder to examine the place. The yellow stain was there, sure enough, and what had come away was a thick black pigment, which had evidently been laid on with the brush after the glass had been burnt, and could therefore be easily scraped off without doing any harm. I scraped, accordingly, and you will hardly believe – no, I do you an injustice; you will have guessed already – that I found under this black pigment two or three clearly-formed capital letters in yellow stain on a clear ground. Of course, I could hardly contain my delight.
‘I told Lord D_____ that I had detected an inscription which I thought might be very interesting, and begged to be allowed to uncover the whole of it. He made no difficulty about it whatever, told me to do exactly as I pleased, and then, having an engagement, was obliged – rather to my relief, I must say – to leave me. I set to work at once, and found the task a fairly easy one. The pigment, disintegrated, of course, by time, came off almost at a touch, and I don’t think that it took me a couple of hours, all told, to clean the whole of the black borders in all three lights. Each of the figures had, as the inscription said, ‘a writing on their vestures which nobody knew’.
‘This discovery, of course, made it absolutely certain to my mind that I was on the right track. And, now, what was the inscription? While I was cleaning the glass I almost took pains not to read the lettering, saving up the treat until I had got the whole thing clear. And when that was done, my dear Gregory, I assure you I could almost have cried from sheer disappointment. What I read was only the most hopeless jumble of letters that was ever shaken up in a hat. Here it is:
‘Blank as I felt and must have looked for the first few minutes, my disappointment didn’t last long. I realized almost at once that I was dealing with a cipher or cryptogram; and I reflected that it was likely to be of a pretty simple kind, considering its early date. So I copied the letters with the most anxious care. Another little point, I may tell you, turned up in the process which confirmed my belief in the cipher. After copying the letters on Job’s robe I counted them, to make sure that I had them right. There were thirty-eight; and, just as I finished going through them, my eye fell on a scratching made with a sharp point on the edge of the border. It was simply the number xxxviii in Roman numerals. To cut the matter short, there was a similar note, as I may call it, in each of the other lights; and that made it plain to me that the glass-painter had had very strict orders from Abbot Thomas about the inscription, and had taken pains to get it correct.
‘Well, after that discovery you may imagine how minutely I went over the whole surface of the glass in search of further light. Of course, I did not neglect the inscription on the scroll of Zechariah (‘Upon one stone are seven eyes’), but I very quickly concluded that this must refer to some mark on a stone which could only be found in situ, where the treasure was concealed. To be short, I made all possible notes and sketches and tracings, and then came back to Parsbury to work out the cipher at leisure. Oh, the agonies I went through! I thought myself very clever at first, for I made sure that the key would be found in some of the old books on secret writing. The Steganographia of Joachim Trithemius, who was an earlier contemporary of Abbot Thomas, seemed particularly promising; so I got that, and Selenius’s Cryptographia and Bacon’s De Augmentis Scientiarum, and some more. But I could hit upon nothing. Then I tried the principle of the ‘most frequent letter’, taking first Latin and then German as a basis. That didn’t help, either; whether it ought to have done so, I am not clear. And then I came back to the window itself, and read over my notes, hoping almost against hope that the Abbot might himself have somewhat supplied the key I wanted. I could make nothing out of the colour or pattern of the robes. There were no landscape backgrounds with subsidiary objects; there was nothing in the canopies. The only resource possible seemed to be in the attitudes of the figures. ‘Job,’ I read: ‘scroll in left hand, forefinger of right hand extended upwards. John: holds inscribed book in left hand; with right hand blesses, with two fingers. Zechariah: scroll in left hand; right hand extended upwards, as Job, but with three fingers pointing up.’ In other words, I reflected, Job has one finger extended, John has two, Zechariah has three. May not there be a numeral key concealed in that? My dear Gregory,’ said Mr Somerton, laying his hand on his friend’s knee, ‘that was the key. I didn’t get it to fit at first, but after two or three trials I saw what was meant. After the first letter of the inscription you skip one letter, after the next you skip two, and after that skip three. Now look at the result I got. I’ve underlined the letters which form words:
‘Do you see it? Decem millia auri reposita sunt in puteo in at… (Ten thousand [pieces] of gold are laid up in a well in…), followed by an incomplete word beginning at. So far so good. I tried the same plan with the remaining letters; but it wouldn’t work, and I fancied that perhaps the placing of dots after the three last letters might indicate some difference of procedure. Then I thought to myself, ‘Wasn’t there some allusion to a well in the account of Abbot Thomas in that book the Sertum? Yes, there was: he built a puteus in atrio (a well in the court). There, of course, was my word atrio. The next step was to copy out the remaining letters of the inscription, omitting those I had already used. That gave what you will see on this slip:
‘Now, I knew what the first three letters I wanted were namely, RIO – to complete the word atrio; and, as you will see, these are all to be found in the first five letters. I was a little confused at first by the occurrence of two i’s, but very soon I saw that every alternate letter must be taken in the remainder of the inscription. You can work it out for yourself; the result, continuing where the first ‘round’ left off, is this: “rio domus abbatialis de Steinfeld a me, Thoma, qui posui custodem super ea. Gare à qui la touche.”
‘So the whole secret was out: “Ten thousand pieces of gold are laid up in the well in the court of the Abbot’s house of Steinfeld by me, Thomas, who have set a guardian over them. Gare à qui la touche.” The last words, I ought to say, are a device which Abbot Thomas had adopted. I found it with his arms in another piece of glass at Lord D_____’s, and he drafted it bodily into his cipher, though it doesn’t quite fit in point of grammar.
‘Well, what would any human being have been tempted to do, my dear Gregory, in my place? Could he have helped setting off, as I did, to Steinfeld, and tracing the secret literally to the fountain-head? I don’t believe he could. Anyhow, I couldn’t, and, as I needn’t tell you, I found myself at Steinfeld as soon as the resources of civilization could put me there, and installed myself in the inn you saw. I must tell you that I was not altogether free from forebodings – on one hand of disappointment, on the other of danger. There was always the possibility that Abbot Thomas’s well might have been wholly obliterated, or else that someone, ignorant of cryptograms, and guided only by luck, might have stumbled on the treasure before me. And then’ – there was a very perceptible shaking of the voice here – ‘I was not entirely easy, I need not mind confessing, as to the meaning of the words about the guardian of the treasure. But, if you don’t mind, I’ll say no more about that until – until it becomes necessary.
‘At the first possible opportunity Brown and I began exploring the place. I had naturally represented myself as being interested in the remains of the abbey, and we could not avoid paying a visit to the church, impatient as I was to be elsewhere. Still, it did interest me to see the windows where the glass had been, and especially that at the east end of the south aisle. In the tracery lights of that I was startled to see some fragments and coats-of-arms remaining – Abbot Thomas’s shield was there, and a small figure with a scroll inscribed “Oculos habent, et non videbunt” (They have eyes, and shall not see), which, I take it, was a hit of the Abbot at his Canons.
‘But, of course, the principal object was to find the Abbot’s house. There is no prescribed place for this, so far as I know, in the plan of a monastery; you can’t predict of it, as you can of the chapter-house, that it will be on the eastern side of the cloister, or, as of the dormitory, that it will communicate with a transept of the church. I felt that if I asked many questions I might awaken lingering memories of the treasure, and I thought it best to try first to discover it for myself. It was not a very long or difficult search. That three-sided court south-east of the church, with deserted piles of building round it, and grass-grown pavement, which you saw this morning, was the place. And glad enough I was to see that it was put to no use, and was neither very far from our inn nor overlooked by any inhabited building; there were only orchards and paddocks on the slopes east of the church. I can tell you that fine stone glowed wonderfully in the rather watery yellow sunset that we had on the Tuesday afternoon.
‘Next, what about the well? There was not much doubt about that, as you can testify. It is really a very remarkable thing. That curb is, I think, of Italian marble, and the carving I thought must be Italian also. There were reliefs, you will perhaps remember, of Eliezer and Rebekah, and of Jacob opening the well for Rachel, and similar subjects; but, by way of disarming suspicion, I suppose, the Abbot had carefully abstained from any of his cynical and allusive inscriptions.
‘I examined the whole structure with the keenest interest, of course – a square well-head with an opening in one side; an arch over it, with a wheel for the rope to pass over, evidently in very good condition still, for it had been used within sixty years, or perhaps even later, though not quite recently. Then there was the question of depth and access to the interior. I suppose the depth was about sixty to seventy feet; and as to the other point, it really seemed as if the Abbot had wished to lead searchers up to the very door of his treasure-house, for, as you tested for yourself, there were big blocks of stone bonded into the masonry, and leading down in a regular staircase round and round the inside of the well.
‘It seemed almost too good to be true. I wondered if there was a trap – if the stones were so contrived as to tip over when a weight was placed on them; but I tried a good many with my own weight and with my stick, and all seemed, and actually were, perfectly firm. Of course, I resolved that Brown and I would make an experiment that very night.
‘I was well prepared. Knowing the sort of place I should have to explore, I had brought a sufficiency of good rope and bands of webbing to surround my body, and crossbars to hold to, as well as lanterns and candles and crowbars, all of which would go into a single carpet-bag and excite no suspicion. I satisfied myself that my rope would be long enough, and that the wheel for the bucket was in good working order, and then we went home to dinner.
‘I had a little cautious conversation with the landlord, and made out that he would not be overmuch surprised if I went out for a stroll with my man about nine o’clock, to make (Heaven forgive me!) a sketch of the abbey by moonlight. I asked no questions about the well, and am not likely to do so now. I fancy I know as much about it as anyone in Steinfeld: at least’ – with a strong shudder – ‘I don’t want to know any more.
‘Now we come to the crisis, and, though I hate to think of it, I feel sure, Gregory, that it will be better for me in all ways to recall it just as it happened. We started, Brown and I, at about nine with our bag, and attracted no attention; for we managed to slip out at the hinder end of the inn-yard into an alley which brought us quite to the edge of the village. In five minutes we were at the well, and for some little time we sat on the edge of the well-head to make sure that no one was stirring or spying on us. All we heard was some horses cropping grass out of sight farther down the eastern slope. We were perfectly unobserved, and had plenty of light from the gorgeous full moon to allow us to get the rope properly fitted over the wheel. Then I secured the band round my body beneath the arms. We attached the end of the rope very securely to a ring in the stonework. Brown took the lighted lantern and followed me; I had a crowbar. And so we began to descend cautiously, feeling every step before we set foot on it, and scanning the walls in search of any marked stone.
‘Half aloud I counted the steps as we went down, and we got as far as the thirty-eighth before I noted anything at all irregular in the surface of the masonry. Even here there was no mark, and I began to feel very blank, and to wonder if the Abbot’s cryptogram could possibly be an elaborate hoax. At the forty-ninth step the staircase ceased. It was with a very sinking heart that I began retracing my steps, and when I was back on the thirty-eighth – Brown, with the lantern, being a step or two above me – I scrutinized the little bit of irregularity in the stonework with all my might; but there was no vestige of a mark.
‘Then it struck me that the texture of the surface looked just a little smoother than the rest, or, at least, in some way different. It might possibly be cement and not stone. I gave it a good blow with my iron bar. There was a decidedly hollow sound, though that might be the result of our being in a well. But there was more. A great flake of cement dropped on to my feet, and I saw marks on the stone underneath. I had tracked the Abbot down, my dear Gregory; even now I think of it with a certain pride. It took but a very few more taps to clear the whole of the cement away, and I saw a slab of stone about two feet square, upon which was engraven a cross. Disappointment again, but only for a moment. It was you, Brown, who reassured me by a casual remark. You said, if I remember right: “It’s a funny cross; looks like a lot of eyes.”
‘I snatched the lantern out of your hand, and saw with inexpressible pleasure that the cross was composed of seven eyes, four in a vertical line, three horizontal. The last of the scrolls in the window was explained in the way I had anticipated. Here was my ‘stone with the seven eyes’. So far the Abbot’s data had been exact, and, as I thought of this, the anxiety about the ‘guardian’ returned upon me with increased force. Still, I wasn’t going to retreat now.
‘Without giving myself time to think, I knocked away the cement all round the marked stone, and then gave it a prise on the right side with my crowbar. It moved at once, and I saw that it was but a thin light slab, such as I could easily lift out myself, and that it stopped the entrance to a cavity. I did lift it out unbroken, and set it on the step, for it might be very important to us to be able to replace it. Then I waited for several minutes on the step just above. I don’t know why, but I think to see if any dreadful thing would rush out. Nothing happened. Next I lit a candle, and very cautiously I placed it inside the cavity, with some idea of seeing whether there were foul air, and of getting a glimpse of what was inside. There was some foulness of air which nearly extinguished the flame, but in no long time it burned quite steadily. The hole went some little way back, and also on the right and left of the entrance, and I could see some rounded light-coloured objects within which might be bags. There was no use in waiting. I faced the cavity, and looked in. There was nothing immediately in the front of the hole. I put my arm in and felt to the right, very gingerly –
‘Just give me a glass of cognac, Brown. I’ll go on in a moment, Gregory …
‘Well, I felt to the right, and my fingers touched something curved, that felt – yes – more or less like leather; dampish it was, and evidently part of a heavy, full thing. There was nothing, I must say, to alarm one. I grew bolder, and putting both hands in as well as I could, I pulled it to me, and it came. It was heavy, but moved more easily than I expected. As I pulled it towards the entrance, my left elbow knocked over and extinguished the candle. I got the thing fairly in front of the mouth and began drawing it out. Just then Brown gave a sharp ejaculation and ran quickly up the steps with the lantern. He will tell you why in a moment. Startled as I was, I looked round after him, and saw him stand for a minute at the top and then walk away a few yards. Then I heard him call softly, ‘All right, sir,’ and went on pulling out the great bag, in complete darkness. It hung for an instant on the edge of the hole, then slipped forward on to my chest, and put its arms round my neck.
‘My dear Gregory, I am telling you the exact truth. I believe I am now acquainted with the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind. I can only just manage to tell you now the bare outline of the experience. I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and moving slowly over it, and of several – I don’t know how many – legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body. I screamed out, Brown says, like a beast, and fell away backward from the step on which I stood, and the creature slipped downwards, I suppose, on to that same step. Providentially the band round me held firm. Brown did not lose his head, and was strong enough to pull me up to the top and get me over the edge quite promptly. How he managed it exactly I don’t know, and I think he would find it hard to tell you. I believe he contrived to hide our implements in the deserted building near by, and with very great difficulty he got me back to the inn. I was in no state to make explanations, and Brown knows no German; but next morning I told the people some tale of having had a bad fall in the abbey ruins, which, I suppose, they believed. And now, before I go further, I should just like you to hear what Brown’s experiences during those few minutes were. Tell the Rector, Brown, what you told me.’
‘Well, sir,’ said Brown, speaking low and nervously, ‘it was just this way. Master was busy down in front of the ‘ole, and I was ‘olding the lantern and looking on, when I ‘eard somethink drop in the water from the top, as I thought. So I looked up, and I see someone’s ‘ead lookin’ over at us. I s’pose I must ha’ said somethink, and I ‘eld the light up and run up the steps, and my light shone right on the face. That was a bad un, sir, if ever I see one! A holdish man, and the face very much fell in, and larfin, as I thought. And I got up the steps as quick pretty nigh as I’m tellin’ you, and when I was out on the ground there warn’t a sign of any person. There ‘adn’t been the time for anyone to get away, let alone a hold chap, and I made sure he warn’t crouching down by the well, nor nothink. Next thing I hear master cry out somethink ‘orrible, and hall I see was him hanging out by the rope, and, as master says, ‘owever I got him up I couldn’t tell you.’
‘You hear that, Gregory?’ said Mr Somerton. ‘Now, does any explanation of that incident strike you?’
‘The whole thing is so ghastly and abnormal that I must own it puts me quite off my balance; but the thought did occur to me that possibly the – well, the person who set the trap might have come to see the success of his plan.’
‘Just so, Gregory, just so. I can think of nothing else so – likely, I should say, if such a word had a place anywhere in my story. I think it must have been the Abbot … Well, I haven’t much more to tell you. I spent a miserable night, Brown sitting up with me. Next day I was no better; unable to get up; no doctor to be had; and, if one had been available, I doubt if he could have done much for me. I made Brown write off to you, and spent a second terrible night. And, Gregory, of this I am sure, and I think it affected me more than the first shock, for it lasted longer: there was someone or something on the watch outside my door the whole night. I almost fancy there were two. It wasn’t only the faint noises I heard from time to time all through the dark hours, but there was the smell – the hideous smell of mould. Every rag I had had on me on that first evening I had stripped off and made Brown take it away. I believe he stuffed the things into the stove in his room; and yet the smell was there, as intense as it had been in the well; and, what is more, it came from outside the door. But with the first glimmer of dawn it faded out, and the sounds ceased, too; and that convinced me that the thing or things were creatures of darkness, and could not stand the daylight; and so I was sure that if anyone could put back the stone, it or they would be powerless until someone else took it away again. I had to wait until you came to get that done. Of course, I couldn’t send Brown to do it by himself, and still less could I tell anyone who belonged to the place.
‘Well, there is my story; and if you don’t believe it, I can’t help it. But I think you do.’
‘Indeed,’ said Mr Gregory, ‘I can find no alternative. I must believe it! I saw the well and the stone myself, and had a glimpse, I thought, of the bags or something else in the hole. And, to be plain with you, Somerton, I believe my door was watched last night, too.’
‘I dare say it was, Gregory; but, thank goodness, that is over. Have you, by the way, anything to tell about your visit to that dreadful place?’
‘Very little,’ was the answer. ‘Brown and I managed easily enough to get the slab into its place, and he fixed it very firmly with the irons and wedges you had desired him to get, and we contrived to smear the surface with mud so that it looks just like the rest of the wall. One thing I did notice in the carving on the well-head, which I think must have escaped you. It was a horrid, grotesque shape perhaps more like a toad than anything else, and there was a label by it inscribed with the two words, ‘Depositum custodi’ (‘Keep that which is committed to thee.’).’