by John M. Joyce (Dec. 2008)
Professor Sir Isaiah Whitewater, a tall, lean and rangy man in his late fifties, and the possessor a full head of sun-bleached hair together with a face carved, by exposure to the elements through many years of outdoor work, into a memorably craggy visage, surveyed the site of his latest archaeological dig deep in the heart of rural B-----shire with no small degree of satisfaction. On this bright sunny morn from his convenient vantage point on top of the piled up topsoil displaced by the excavations below, he could see nearly the whole of the forty-seven acre site of the dig. As he stood there, looking out over the site with the five farmers who had sacrificed so much of their fertile lands to this excavation, he could not help but experience a sense of pride in what had been accomplished in just six months, in uncovering what was, undoubtedly, the most important Romano-British site ever discovered, and uncovered, in England.
He turned to the assembled simple farmers – no, not simple, he reminded himself. They all held degrees in their subject, not, he granted to himself in a small and unimportant moment of pride, from his great and ancient University of Camford, merely from some modern red-brick or other, but, degrees none the less and, therefore, they must have demonstrated some level of academic rigour at some point in their lives. He went on, in his head, to review the level of support which they had all shown in the matter of this dig. ‘Yes,’ he thought to himself, ‘they understand. They’re not simple. I’ve had to educate them and guide them throughout this dig, and my requests for more and more of their lands, but they understand the importance of this work and the scale of the rewards which they might reap from it.’
“Gentlemen,” he said out loud, “ You can see for yourselves the size of this small Romano-British town. You can see also, I hope, that it was not levelled by some random enemy bent on its destruction; it was abandoned and was reclaimed, over time, by nature. It seems that no looting of the masonry took place – what we have here is an almost compleat small town which is proving very easy to reconstruct. This, at the moment, seems to be one of the most important Roman sites ever found in England!”
There was a murmur of polite, but sincere, agreement in which he detected an undertow of excitement.
“Have you had sufficient time to reflect upon my proposal for the future of this site?” he asked, his keen dark eyes darting from face to face as he spoke.
“Yes, we have, Sir Isaiah,” replied the youngest of them on behalf of them all, accentuating his words with restrained, defining gestures of his right hand, “And we’ve decided to do as you suggested. We have already formed a Limited Company in which we all have equal shares and we have commissioned an architect to design a visitor centre and all the other needed facilities. By the time you re-open the dig next summer we should have finished all the negotiations with the local Planning Department and we should be in a position by the end of the next digging season to submit a planning application in form.”
“Oh, excellent! I’m so glad! As you all know I’ve never been the sort of Archaeologist who believes that finds of this importance should be kept from the public. This site is far too important simply to be buried again and returned to agriculture. Not,” the Professor added quickly, “That there would be anything wrong in that, as such, for winning food from the soil is vitally important, as you all know – and as my stomach heartily appreciates. It’s just that I think that we can kill two birds with one stone, here, to quote the old saw. I think, as I’ve oft said to you, that you could make more money from these few acres as a tourist attraction than you could make from them as agricultural land and I firmly believe that the remains which we’ve uncovered here would be better safeguarded for the future if they were in the public domain in that way.”
“Aye,” said the portliest, and oldest, farmer, stepping forward to the edge of the bank and looking down upon the prone columns of the uncovered construction which had been tentatively identified as the Imperial Temple of Jupiter, “Happen you’re reet, Prof. I ne’er expected such an important and extensive a site from the few paltry bits and pieces the plough threw up now and again. You could almost say that it’s the English Leptis Magna we have here! Aye, and ane or twa o’ them mosaics is as good as yon Alexander mosaic in Pompeii, I’m a’thinkin’ – or do mine eyes play me false d’ye think, Sir? Yep, me and the missus are planning to convert some of the outbuildings into holiday cottages. We should all do verra well out of this, one knows!”
The reference to Leptis Magna and the famous mosaic floor at Pompeii very nearly threw Sir Isaiah completely out of his stride. ‘Never, never, never underestimate an English country man or woman’, the Professor mentally chided himself, ‘There’s a level of education and world experience in them which would put most of my students, busy on the works down there, to shame.’
“You’re right, farmer Marchant,” Isaiah said to him, “The quality of the tessellation is as good as anything found around the Mediterranean. The miniature work in the borders is as good as anything in Rome, isn’t it?”
“Oh aye,” the portly farmer replied, “ And yon white has to be from the Carrara quarries, I’m a’thinkin’ – or Pietrasanta, perhaps. Was Pietrasanta worked in Roman times, know you?
The Professor recognised the gambit, the trap laid by this old and astute farmer, immediately. He didn’t know whether or not those particular marble quarries had been worked by the ancient Romans, but he suspected that they might have been. However, suspecting something, in the face of such obvious knowledge, and asserting it as fact if he did not know that fact for a certainty, could be highly prejudicial to his plans for this site. ‘No’, he thought to himself, ‘I am ignorant here and it will not do me any harm to be seen to ignorant, and, thereby, honest.’
“D’you know, Mr. Marchant, I have no idea. Given the remains of Roman era fortifications at Pietrasanta, it’s probable, and I suspect that the quarries in the Vicariato might have been worked back then, but I honestly don’t know. All I know for a certainty, as I’m sure you know, is that Michelangelo valued the stone from there quite highly, almost as highly as that from Carrara, but that was some centuries later than the Empire, of course!”
“Aye, ‘twas,” the elderly farmer replied, seriously, “But ‘twould still be interesting, think you, to have it confirmed, given an’ all that Motrone, the river port, seems to be a Roman settlement as well!”
“Aye, ‘twould seem so, e’en though it’s moved around a tad as that bitty stream changed its course through the years.”
“I think that you and I need to have a discussion about the origins of the tesserae on this site in the very near future,” the Professor stated, deeply impressed, and letting it be heard in his voice, by the old farmer’s knowledge, and obvious interest and commitment, “How about having lunch with me tomorrow so that we can thrash this out? I think that you know very much more than I do about this subject and I would very much like to hear your thoughts on it.”
Farmer Marchant willingly accepted the invitation and the entire group visibly relaxed. The trap, laid, baited and sprung, had served to prove to them that Professor Sir Isaiah Whitewater was a genuine person, not afraid to admit his own ignorance and willing to learn, even from one of their number. Obviously he didn’t look down on them and he could acknowledge learning wherever he found it. ‘Yes,’ they all thought, without a word being exchanged between them, ‘He’s a learned old man and one of us. He’s a proper Englishman, a proper Gentleman and a scholar of the old school. English to the back teeth and a real and proper British Jewish Gentleman. He’ll do!’
The young farmer who had first spoken smiled at the Professor and said, “Well, Sir, that brings us on to what we wanted to ask you, you see. It’s all very well we farmers forming a Company to take care of all this but, you know, well, I’m sure that you understand, it’s just us, and we’re just farmers and not experts and well, we was thinking...”
He trailed off, unable to compleat the thought.
“I’m sorry,” Sir Isaiah said, “But I don’t quite grasp what you said there. Can you say again?”
The only female member of that group of farmers, Sarah MacKay, took a step forward. She was as black as the ace of spades and her honest and comely face was serious and sincere. Her Trinidadian origins were writ large across her lineaments and her farming antecedents were obvious in her well-muscled form and in her large and competent farmer hands.
“You look,” she said, the local Shire burr coming through in her voice, but overlaid, attractively, by a vocal inheritance from warmer climes, “We’s just honest farming folk. We don’ have your learnin’ but weem know what’s good for us’n. What the young’un is trying to say is will you join the Board of our Company? You’m only have to buy one, single share for a poun’ and then us all will elec’ you to our Board. We’s in need of your ac-ad-em-ic input, you’se presence. We all need, an’ you know it, ah think, serious learnin’, so as to get this projec’ off’n the groun’! No-one ain’t going to take us seriously, if’n unless you’re on boar’!”
Sir Isaiah’s brain rapidly decoded that statement into plain English. In an instant he reached into his right hand trouser pocket and withdrew from the lagging heap of small change therein, with which all Englishmen are, today, burdened, a single pound coin.
“Who’s your Company Treasurer?” he asked Sarah.
“The young’un,” she replied.
He flipped the coin to him. “I’m in,” he said, as he did so. The young blond-haired, blue-eyed young farmer snatched the flying coin from the air with his left hand without so much as blinking!
“Then you is in wit’ us,” Sarah said, looking around the other four. There was no dissension, “Welcome to the Boar’!” she said, “I am the Chairman of this here Boar’ and we will do all of our things legally according to Her Britannic Majesty’s, and Parliament’s, laws. And we will make money together!”
And that last was a promise, nay, almost a threat!
Over an excellent luncheon eaten in the local hostelry – The Sheep In Arms – the Board discussed various things and Sir Isaiah’s opinion was sought on many of them. The Professor was well used to such working lunches with farmers and landowners, not just in England but also in many far-flung corners of the globe, and he prided himself, rightfully, on his diplomatic skills and tactful use of language. Much was decided upon and much, of course, deferred until relevant information became available. It was with some pride that he noted the almost instinctive ability of his fellow Englishmen (and woman), regardless of station in life, to competently organise themselves into a functioning committee and to get things done according to due process.
After the luncheon Sir Isaiah returned to the dig whilst his fellow board members went their own ways. There really wasn’t very much for him to do for his great genius lay not only in a thorough grasp of his subject but also in an innate ability, rare even in the best of academics, to organise, to enable and to delegate highly effectively. The teams which he had organised just a year ago, each one headed by a very competent post-graduate student, were working all over the site with methodical and well-organised efficiency. He walked around the large site offering words of praise here and there, correcting minor faults in procedure with kindliness and humour, expressing quite genuine interest in odd discoveries which differed from the expected – in other words, being a good and encouraging manager. On several occasions he dropped to his knees and helped some struggling student or amateur with some delicate task or other with no hint of condescension but with obvious enjoyment and a genuine interest in the small part of that great work in which, together, they were for that moment engaged.
No one who was encountered by him, who was helped or advised by him that afternoon, was left feeling inadequate or foolish, useless or stupid. Professor Sir Isaiah Whitewater had a rare talent: a talent which enabled him to bring out the very best in people and, all unknown to him, for he was a much more modest man than one might think from the encomiums which have been heaped upon him, a talent for making, no, allowing, in the best sense of that word, his people to respect him, like him and feel at ease in his company. He was, as the farming members of the Board had noted privily to themselves that morn, ‘...a real and proper British Gentleman.’
Eventually his tour of the site took him to the one blot on this idyllic archaeological landscape – a very large copse of trees and wild shrubbery designated as an SSSI (a Site of Special Scientific Interest) which straddled almost two acres of the southern border of the archaeological site and ran off further into the surrounding countryside for some two square miles. No amount of cajoling, of calling in of favours, of belabouring Civil Servants, of threatening action in the Courts, of yelling and storming through the offices of many Government Departments, had sufficed to avail against an implacable opposition to him being allowed to dig up, or even to dig one or two small, very small, exploratory trenches in that copse. He had, eventually, acquiesced gracefully and apologised to all whom he may have offended but, still, he was puzzled by the strength of the opposition and by its absolute implacability. In the normal way of things he would have been allowed to dig one or two, perhaps even three or four, small trenches in such a copse on such an obviously important SSSI – hedged around by restrictions, of course, designed to protect the wildlife therein, quite rightly; but at least he and his teams would have had some little idea of what lay under such a special area and how the area related to the archaeological dig as a whole.
Nothing, however, could stop him from walking through the copse, as he realised as he stood at its eastern edge that late autumn afternoon. No, nothing at all could stop him from doing that. He could walk through it, quarter it and cast his expert eye, an eye made expert in its ability to observe by years of walking important, but denied, territory, over it. In an instant he scrambled over the banked up earth and stood, almost triumphantly, upon the threshold of the copse. The trees waving gently in the light fall breeze seemed to beckon him on into the green shade.
Confidently, assured in his own knowledge, he strode forward into the gloom. It was but a scant few steps, perhaps no more than a hundred yards or so, just about where the city wall should have been, that he felt the ground give way under his feet and he fell, tumbled, down a deep and sloping well. On and on went his fall. Head over heels he plummeted into the earth until, at last, he came to rest upon a mound of stale mould. He lay there upon that damp earth regretting his foolishness for some few minutes. The flashlight which he always carried with him in his jacket pocket seemed to have broken, or, at the very least, severely bruised, his ribs in the fall. Winded, he was disinclined to move.
As his senses returned, however, he realised that he lay atop a heap of God’s good earth, stale though it might be, in some large space. He sensed, rather than saw, that he was lying in some underground cavern. Now, Sir Isaiah didn’t obtain his reputation as one of England’s foremost Archaeologists by being stupid or cowardly. As his senses returned he had the wit to reach for his high-powered torch, that self-same torch which had so brutally assaulted his ribs some few minutes before, and, despite the discomfort which it caused him, he switched it on and inspected his surroundings.
And what a sight greeted his eyes! Serried rank after serried rank of sarcophagi, arranged in circles around three great central stone coffins greeted his eyes, as they grew accustomed to the gloom in which he found himself. Despite his pains and his severe discomfort he forced himself to stand and walk into the very centre of that assemblage. Never before had he encountered such remains and his heart was racing and his mind was shouting at him, ‘This is it! This is it! This is what will make you great! What a find! What a find!’ Could one blame him? No! One could not! But his joy was brought up halt in front of the central stone sarcophagus as he shone his light upon the inscription, worn by time and damaged by the rock fall that his precipitate entry into that great cavern had caused. What was left of that inscription simple read Hi_ j _ _et _ r t _ rus _ e x _ u _ _ m que _ ult _ r _ _ _ ania and what had been letters just minutes before lay in dust, fresh dust, beneath the inscription amongst the muddled rocks of the roof fall. He could have wept. He did so weep. But only for a few seconds. ‘Twas enough. He knew it was enough. There was no other possible interpretation but the Latin which his erudite mind offered to him. This, indeed, was it!
Then, just then, some stray beam from his torch caught the deeply incised inscriptions on the sarcophagus to his left – just one simple word stood out in that dim light – MERLYN. Fascinated, Sir Isaiah played his light over the tomb. There were no other inscriptions but, lying on the lid of that coffin, that tomb perhaps, was half of a stone roundel obviously broken, or sawn, from its other half. The Professor almost swooned with shock. The characters upon that half roundel were, to him, instantly recognisable even though, in the order in which they were thereupon present, they made no sense. In a swift movement he grabbed that half roundel and pocketed it.
A huge fear, a massive sense of shock, overcame him at that point. All that he wanted to do was run away. He scrambled desperately towards the foot of that sloping well down which he had fallen just a few minutes earlier. He scrabbled, earth and root filling his mouth and nose, upwards toward the light, along and up that steep slope until he found himself gasping for breath in the pale golden green evening in the copse above, his usually immaculate tweeds muddied, dirtied and despoiled.
Sobbing and desperate he headed for his Rolls. His world, his calm ordered world, had just fallen apart and he knew of only one person who could possibly put it back together again. That journey back to, into, London, to that office which he knew so well on Queen Anne’s Gate, was a nightmare of conjecture, of dream, of disturbed reality. The half-roundel, now resting in comfort on the passenger seat beside him haunted him, hunted him, into nightmare territory. It couldn’t possibly be true, could it?
Much, much later that evening – close to the witching hour – Sir Isaiah wrenched the doors of that singular office open and threw that piece of stone down upon the walnut veneered desk of the Marquis.
“Thank-you,” his Lordship entoned in a sepulchral and calm voice, “But what, Sir Isaiah, do you expect me to do with this?”
“Hide it,” he said, “You were a pupil of mine and I’m sure you know what that is Hide it, for God’s sake man, hide it! Hide it! It’s half of everything that we need to know. Put it in your safe. Lose it in your system – for mercy’s sake, lose it in your filing system for then, since you’re Civil Service, it’s gone for ever. For Heaven’s sake, you’re SOTS, you were a Postgrad of mine! Hide it away with everything else you lot keep hidden!”
There was a moment of silence.
“Tea?” the Marquis asked, politely.
“Tea, what do you mean ‘tea’? What is this? What are you trying to do?” and then the professor’s eye happened, quite by chance, to catch site of the perfectly empty desk. He glanced into the Marquis’s eyes. A calm half smile played in those deep grey eyes.
“Tea?” the Marquis asked, again.
A huge shudder of relief shook the Professor’s frame. “Yes please,” he said, in a relieved tone of voice.
Naturally, and as one would expect, there was much complicated negotiation over tea. Certain ‘findings’ were ‘buried’, or ‘re-buried’ perhaps, shall we say. In the end, everything was amicably resolved and a very discreet SOTS team secured... how should one put this... mmmm, shall we just say... certain SSSIs? And, of course, some, well one, at least, eminent Archaeologist was reasonably content, if not happy? What a useful thing a Life Peerage really is. Bless the person who had the idea! Yes, and one or two farmers found themselves quite unexpectedly, services to science and the community and all that, with some quite unexpected letters after their names and some completely unexpected Royal patronage for their land sacrifices to Archaeological Science. All told, one could think, a most satisfactory outcome.
“So,” Her Majesty said, “You have now secured both halves of the roundel, my Lord?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Lord John, thirteenth Marquis of Raltende replied, “I have.”
“And can you decode the whole thing yet? Can you raise the defenders of Our Realm at need?” Her Majesty asked him.
“Not yet, Ma’am, but it’s only a matter of time and diligent study. Some months, a year or two or three at most, perhaps, but who knows. It’s an ancient code and the key may elude us for decades or be found tomorrow.”
“It’s complicated, then?” Her Majesty asked, glancing at him sharply.
“It is, Ma’am. Exceedingly complicated. You’ve seen the symbols on the compleat roundel as has His Highness, the Prince of Wales, your son and heir, who is at least as well versed in ancient civilisations as I am. If the three of us cannot make sense of them quickly, given our access to the hidden files, then it’s unlikely that we will be able to decode them quickly – but we will decode them, Ma’am; have no fear about that, we will decode them and eventually we will summon those whom we need, at will.”
“I do hope so,” Her Majesty said, “At least we know now where they lie. Are they safe there?”
“Very safe indeed, Ma’am,” Raltende replied, “Just yesterday, at the Investiture, you assured their sleeping safety.”
Her Majesty is nobody’s fool. “Those strange five farmers from B----shire?” she asked with certainty.
“Ah, I wondered about them. Well done, Lord John!”
Her Majesty got up from behind her desk and turned to the window which looked down over the Mall and the gathering gloom of that autumnal evening. Obedient to protocol Lord John rose from his seat as well. Some little silence ensued then a deep sigh escaped the small, elderly frame of his Liege Lady. He heard, he distinctly heard his Queen say, sotto voce, he was sure he heard it, and never thereafter sure, that he had heard aright, or heard anything of a wistful comment at all, “Oh for a night with my knights!”
Much later that same evening Lord John sat at his desk looking at the fully translated and completely decoded roundel. It hadn’t taken him more than five minutes after Professor Whitewater had left to decode the whole thing. It couldn’t be used: it could never be used. It was far too dangerous and unpredictable a tool to be used in any but the most extreme of circumstances. Yes, those knights, with all their powers, and that Merlyn, and who knew what power he might still possess, would defend England. Therein lay the problem. England, and only England, was precisely what they would defend – even if it meant eliminating all of the rest of the world!
He glanced at his watch. Drat! It was time to feed the Unicorns.
He felt old and tired and weighed down by responsibilities. Hmmmn. Maybe he should tell Her Majesty about the Unicorns. No, maybe not. Best to keep that between himself and the young Prince – as long as someone in the Royal House knew, then it was alright – the spirit, if not the letter, of the pact his ancestor had made with a different monarch in different century was, at least in some sense, fulfilled!
Then he remembered Her Majesty’s sharp glance, and the wistful whispered comment to herself, as she stood in the window embrasure looking out across her kingdom.
‘Damn me,’ he thought, ‘She knows that I’ve decoded it and she trusts me that it can’t be used, but she regrets that it can’t! Well, one doesn’t stay Queen of the United Kingdom for almost sixty years without learning a thing or two! She’s one smart Lady!’
He stood up, put back his shoulders and went to feed the Unicorns.
He got back to his office just in time to meet the delegation from the Council of Cornish Pixies which was demanding that the Government increase their common mischief allowance by eight percent to make up for their sub-prime lending losses.
It was a long night but he beat them down to two and a half percent – for just two years and then a review!
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