The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
M. R. James
"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
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,
"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
"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
"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 ˆ 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 ˆ 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
"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
"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,
"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
"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
1.Keep that which is committed to thee.
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