This week, my Guest Writer is Jim Webster who is currently on a blog tour. As he says, “The theme for this one is ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’ where a friend of Tallis, who is an artist, has painted eleven pictures and to help out, Tallis is taking people round them and telling the story behind the picture“.
9) The Catacombs
I have mentioned Harl Bronnen before, he is a man with many business interests and he is an occasional patron of mine. Admittedly I will be given more work by his wife, but in all candour, Harl’s tasks tend to be more interesting.
I was summoned to attend upon him at his chambers, and when I arrived I was greeted with coffee and idle chitchat until the pleasant young clerk who poured the coffee had left us. It was then that Harl came to the point.
“Tallis, you have been in the cellars under the Council of Sinecurists building.”
“I have. I had research work to do and was granted access to the old records held down there.”
Harl glanced round the room; even through it was empty bar for the two of us. “I have reason to believe that there is a deeper cellar, a secret repository.”
“You do?” I tried to sound interested rather than nervous.
“Yes, I know of documents that appear only occasionally but can never be found in the cellars. But I’ve heard a whisper that there are deeper cellars.”
“There are?” I know, it’s a facile thing to say but I was still wondering how I as a poet came into this discussion.
“Do you know of the catacombs?”
“Port Naain is built on mud! How can we have catacombs?”
Harl proceeded to tell me a long story. There was a religious order in Port Naain, the Confirmed Ablutionists, who shunned water. Apparently the order still exists but has only small presence in the city in our time. In Port Naain there are plenty, not all of them small boys, who seem to avoid water at all costs. But in the case of the Confirmed Ablutionists, they take it to extremes. One problem they had was that on death, due to the shortage of land and the high water table, the vast majority of us make a last trip on the corpse boat and get dropped into the sea a fair way out wearing a well weighted shroud. As you can imagine this was anathema to the order. They purchased a plot on the hill below the Council of Sinecurists building and proceeded to tunnel into the hill to produce their own catacombs.
As the order faded the last Grand Master sold the catacombs to a local entrepreneur for cash and a fast horse and disappeared. The entrepreneur intended to offer the catacombs to Port Naain people, so they could be buried on dry land, for a reasonable sum. Unfortunately for him his reasonable sum was considerably more than the one vintenar it costs to ride the corpse boat and his project failed. Finally the Council purchased the catacombs off him and he also faded from the story.
Now Harl wanted me and a colleague of my choice to enter these catacombs and work our way through them to see if we could find a hidden repository of records.
“Why me, Harl?”
“Simple, you’re competent and I can trust you.”
So it was agreed, I would find a colleague and Harl would show us the entrance to the catacombs.
When it came to choosing a colleague how could I go past Lancet Foredeck? Yes I know he’s self-opinionated, egotistical and vain. I also know he’s a performance poet, with all that entails. On the other hand I’ve known him quite literally all my life, and in spite of his failings he is loyal, courageous and a good man to have at your side when trouble threatens.
When he heard the amount of money Harl was offering he had no hesitation in joining me. So that very evening we made our way through the park on the slope below the Council of Sinecurists building and found Harl waiting for us in the shelter of a small fane. He produced a key and a lantern and led us to a metal door at the back of the fane. This he opened easily. I discovered later he’d been oiling the lock for over a month.
As Lancet stepped through the door I reached to take the lantern off Harl. He shook his head. “I’ve decided that I would think less of myself if I didn’t accompany you.”
It was his expedition and his money so we could hardly tell him he couldn’t come with us. So I nodded and followed Lancet through the door.
The catacombs were a maze of brick lined corridors. Built into the walls were brick alcoves and each was filled with stacked bones. It is obvious that cadavers hadn’t been kept together as skulls were in one place, shoulder blades in another, leg bones in another. In silence we pressed forward. I confess that I was glad of both the lantern and the company.
Lancet had thought to bring a bag of soot with him, and every time we came to a junction he left a sooty mark to show our route. At each junction we stopped to confer, but Harl kept us heading uphill. He felt that the repository would be close to the cellars, which seemed a reasonable suggestion.
Eventually Lancet stopped and beckoned to Harl to bring the lantern forward. There on the floor there were obvious footprints in the dust. It was evident that we’d found a track that was used at least occasionally. After a whispered debate we decided to follow the track away from where we assumed the cellars were. This we did and after five minutes came to an alcove that was a lot deeper than the others we’d seen. This had no bones in, but when we entered it we could see it was deeper than the light from our lantern could penetrate. Slowly we advanced and as we did we could see rack after rack of documents becoming visible in the gloom.
Harl immediately made his way to the documents and as I held the lantern he started reading them. Here he was particularly cunning in that he picked the shelves that had the freshest looking footprints by them. His assumption was that these were the most recent documents to be ‘disappeared.’ Methodically he checked the various folios, some he put back, and some he slipped into a bag. We’d been there perhaps an hour when Lancet came back to join us.
“Somebody is coming.”
“At this hour?” Harl asked.
“Perhaps they access these records at night when there isn’t the usual staff about?”
Well Lancet’s suggestion seemed reasonable to me. I pointed deeper into the alcove. “I’ll put out the lantern and we’ll hide at the back where nobody goes.”
Hidden we waited. We’d spread out a little to ensure that if we were found, we weren’t found together.
Frankly my place of hiding could be better. I put my hand down to discover I was squatting in a pool of remarkably cold water. Apparently there was a drainage system to keep the catacombs dry and I’d found it.
At the front of the alcove I could see a light, and there were at least two people talking quietly. I decided to get closer to see if I could hear what they were talking about. Unfortunately Lancet had the same idea and in the darkness we couldn’t see each other. Indeed I didn’t know he was there until my cold wet hand touched the back of his neck.
Lancet screamed, and what a scream. The two men gathering records fled, abandoning their lantern. We relit our lantern from theirs and also fled, Harl carrying his precious papers.
Obviously we waited for repercussions, but nothing seemed to happen although we heard a rumour that clerks in the building refused to go down into the cellars except in groups of three or four. Harl paid Lancet and I generously, and then proceeded to produce the documents in court to force the Council to release the rest of the archive. You’ll doubtless remember the case, which was decided by a full vote of the Council. This august body, realising that some small coterie had been conspiring against the rest of them, had the records in the secret repository brought up to the surface and put on display in the Hall of Records. Harl was publicly thanked by the Council although there was some talk that Lancet and I should be prosecuted for trespass. Eventually even the Council realised that they were unlikely to gain a conviction.
Oh and the painting. Yes, Harl commissioned it from Andreal, and normally it hangs in his place of business, but he has graciously allowed Andreal to display it at this exhibition.
Tallis Steelyard and Jim Webster proudly present:
Tallis Steelyard. The Festival, and other stories.
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. In here
Tallis touches upon child rearing, politics as a performance art, the joy of
dance and the advantages that come with good manners. Discover why Madam
Dolbart was forced to constantly hire new cooks, marvel at the downfall of
Dash Blont, lecher, libertine, and philanderer. Whatever happens, do not
pass through life without knowing of the advantages to be gained by an early
morning pick-me-up of horse dung spread fine on toast. You too can be
charming and elegant once you know how.
For a mere 99p all this and more can be yours.