by Ranulph Williams
A little history, like news, can be a comforting thing, provided one does not look at it too minutely. As with the more salacious of newspaper scandals, history on closer inspection has an uncomfortable habit of becoming far too real.
Christopher Malpleasance was certainly careful to keep his history at a polite distance: in dim portraits high up on the wall where he did not have to meet their eyes and locked away in glass fronted cabinets in the library that the butler had carefully lost the key to.
They were certainly safe in the library, the Malpleasance ancestors, as Christopher was not a library sort of man. Not that he was stupid or ill-read, no more than any other self-respecting Englishman, more that he saw it as he saw the rest of the Hall, and, indeed, the Malpleasance birthright in general: an institution that he might not comprehend in all its parts, but which he was pledged to defend to the very death. To “Do that which must be done and reck not the price” as the family motto had it. He might only have visited on high days and holidays, but it comforted him to know it survived.
It must, therefore, have been a long and extremely dismal afternoon that forced Christopher to look for entertainment there. Although he was not likely to find any whether he were a bibliophile or not.
The monotonous customs and plodding hobby horses of the Malpleasance family had furnished the library with a motley collection, united by only one trait: tedium. From committee proceedings fifty years out of date, to finickety disquisitions on heraldry several centuries redunant, yard after yard of leather bound boredom lined the walls.
Which might be why Christopher decided to turn out the desk instead. He might have told himself he was intending to tidy up but he was, of course, merely distracting himself. And the journal was to prove, in the end, more distraction than he might have wanted.
Quite how much was not completely evident at first, although it was still distracting enough for a rainy few hours. Christopher found the bundle of papers jammed in at the back of a drawer, the pink ribbon that bound them together caught in the runner. Christopher hardly needed any excuse to stop what he was doing and read it, but the name of Sir Kit Malpleasance signed on the first page was irresistable.
Sir Kit had lent Christopher, and all the eldest Malpleasance heirs, his first name. Two hundred years ago the Malpleasance fame, denuded by centuries of placidity, ill fortune and entropy, had been on the edge of ruin. It had been Sir Kit who had pulled it back and, in doing so, had given the Malpleasance family its greatest, most secret treasure: its mystery.
The mystery being, of course, just where the salvation had come from. One day the Malpleasance’s had been headed for the workhouse (or, even worse, for work), the next all the debts on the Hall had been cleared, with no clew as to where Sir Kit had found the funds with which to pull it off.
Rumour had plenty to say on the matter, naturally, mentioning horse races and jewelry thefts and even a duel, but the family kept its own suspicions to itself, whispering in the nursery of buried riches and Popish finery. The concensus, however, was that the zealous philanthropy Sir Kit became famed for could only be the actions of the guilty possessor of ill-gotten plunder. Sir Kit had done that which must be done and paid the price.
And here was his own hand, clear and determined.
“So have the events of the preceding day troubled me, with the discovry of the manuscript, and the arrival and investigations of Mr T——, that it behoves me to set down what had proceeded, at once for my own recollection, and with a mind to my descendants, to whom these occurrences may well prove to be the greatest moment, standing, as they might, as both an assurance of their liberty, and a seal upon their doom.”
Whatever else Sir Kit might have found, he seemed at least to have stumbled upon a good supply of commas.
But could this be it? Could this be the answer to the great mystery? Could Sir Kit Malpleasance be about to divulge the family’s darkest secrecy?
“Moved as I am to write, it is the shadow of this doom that gives me pause, that weighs upon me so that I have determined to tell my story not in this plain script, but, most fittingly, for it is how the secret came to me, in a cypher.”
Cypher? A code? Christopher turned over the page. Oh! Say it is not so! But no, page after page of nonsense: letters scattered seemingly at random across the paper, impenetrable and stubbornly mysterious. Christopher stacks the papers back together and puts them down with a sigh. The discovery of the manuscript and the investigations of Mr T——: here is the heart of the secret, promised but still withheld in code.
But the Malpleasance family have survived two whole centuries with the mystery and such is the ennui of the afternoon that Christopher is disposed to suspect that they can survive a little longer, too. He puts the bundle back in the drawer and leaves the rest for the servants to tidy up.
It is, however, the season for boring, rainy afternoons, and it is not many days before Christopher finds himself driven back into he library once more. But this time he is very surprised to discover that he is not alone. A small, balding man in a shapeless leisure suit, shiny with age, is craning up on tiptoe to read the spines of books above him on the shelves. One finger is raised in exquisite anticipation, ready to pluck down anything promising.
The butler had told Christopher, of course, that there was a visitor waiting in the library. He had simply, sunk in the torpor of the afternoon, forgotten. The man seemed quite happy to have been left on his own in there for three quarters of an hour, though. A cup of tea had gone cold on a side table, untouched. Christopher coughed, once discreetly, the second time noticeably. The man jumped at the sound and turned, all in one jerky, avian motion.
“Ah, Mr Malpleasance, Sir Christopher, I mean, of course, the Baronetcy, after all: I took the liberty of looking you up before taking the further liberty of looking you up: Debretts, you see, before calling round. Tonks.”
Christopher takes the proferred hand and shakes it in a careful, noncommital way he reserves for charity callers and unidentified clergymen. Christopher is used to being cornered in his drawing room and button-held on market days, and has learnt the politely interested land-owner’s manner of putitng inferiors at their ease.
Mr Tonks, he soon discovers, is on a cycling tour of the area, ferreting out places of an antiquarian interest. He was on his way somewhere else when he happened upon the Hall, quite by chance. He saw immediately, as, of course, Christopher must know, the lineaments of the Tudor manor house that lie at the core of the East wing. Saw it immediately and had to know more. He hoped Christopher didn’t mind.
And so Christopher finds himself talking to Tonks about the Hall, and the Malpleasance family, about their history and, finally, about their library. For this, as it turns out, is Tonks’ great passion – historical documents and books. So it is, perhaps, inevitable that Christopher finds himself opening the drawer and pulling out Sir Kit’s manuscript.
Mr Tonks’ delicate fingers flutter over the first page, touching it lightly, with a mixture of hesitation and excitement.
“Oh yes, I see, the solution to the Malpleasance mystery, right under your nose all this time. Well, your hands, at least: if you were writing at the desk, I mean. Do you see?”
Christopher made a careful noise in his throat to show that he did not see but that that did not signify.
“And here’s our further mystery, wrapped up in an enigma. Oh dear, how thrilling. May I?” And Mr Tonks began to leaf through the manuscript so deftly that the pages seemed to turn themselves under his flickering hands.
“Hm, quite in code, as you say, but, you see, there are spaces, indicating perhaps words, but we must beware, Sir Christopher, for that itself could be a trap set for us… but wait, what’s this? A clew, I think, by Jove!”
Tonks’ finger flashed down at a single letter on its own in a jumbled paragraph, a single letter followed by a long hyphen.
“Dare we hope, Sir Christopher? Dare we hope?”
Christopher made his careful noise again.
“Our mystery man, Sir Christopher, our monogrammatic mystery man. For here in his letter,” and again the pages bend beneath his hand, “Sir Kit tells us for the arrival of our Mr T—–, you see, a single T with a hyphen, and here, now, a single F, with a similar hyphen – it is hope, Sir Christopher: a transposition cypher in which we may now suspect, perhaps I might say, strongly suspect, that F stands for T. And this is much to our advantage, Sir Christopher,” the pages float by once more, his thin, white finger pointing each letter F as it passes, “The letter T, the second most common letter in the alphabet, and so we begin…”
“Do you mean,” says Christopher, as he begins to break this new code of Mr Tonks’ monologue, “That you can decipher it?”
“There is, as I say, hope, Sir Christopher, we may at least have that, I think.”
Which is how Mr Tonks came to stay at the Hall. No one elsewhere was expecting him, it seemed, and he was expecting to be nowhere, and the mystery of the Malpleasances proved to be too much of a temptation. It was Christopher, however, in the end, who provided the sought after clew, although it had been staring them in the face all along.
They were having a sullen supper after a long fruitless day in the library. Doubly fruitless for Christopher, for all he had to do was to watch Tonks make incomprehensible notes and mutter to himself.
“I become more and more convinced,” said Tonks, plashing his spoon in the soup, “That what we have is a simple transposition cypher, based on a single key phrase.”
Christopher made a bubbling noise of uninformed agreement.
“It is but for the lack of that phrase that all the other phrases remain lost to us,” Tonks gestured with his spoon, staining his tie, “I feel sure there is a clew, though, somewhere in Sir Kit’s letter. All that talk of a ‘Malpleasance will know what to do’…”
“Oh well,” remarked Christopher, for lack of anything more perceptive to say, “We Malpleasances, we do what must be done and do not reck the cost, you know.”
“Family motto, you know: ‘We do what must be done and do not reck the cost’ – it’s up there, under the coat of arms, although that’s in Latin, of course,” explained Christopher with the guilty air of someone pointing out the clearly obvious.
“Of course!” Tonks dropped his spoon in his excitement, “That must be it! Our key phrase, Sir Christopher, you’re right, I’m sure of it!”
He was, and Mr Tonks was right, too. Naturally Sir Kit Malpleasance had tried a few other tricks and dodges in his cypher, but with the family motto and the letter T firmly in his possession, Mr Tonks was not to be deterred. So much so that by lunchtime the next day he was able to burst in on Christopher in a state of some excitement.
“Most extraordinary, Sir Christopher, most extraordinary!”
“Is it?” asked Christopher, wary that it might prove to be more extraordinary than his piece of hmr and that he might be called upon to abandon yet another meal half way through.
“Oh yes, really the most extraordinary serendipity, really it is,” Mr Tonks was waving a sheaf of handwritten notes, “I have succeeded in deciphering the first few pages of Sir Kit’s testimony and it really is the most extraordinary thing.”
“Is it?” asked Sir Christopher again, as it seemed to be expected of him.
“Oh yes, here,” and Tonks spread the papers on the table in front of him, “You see Sir had his own little mystey. It seems that shile he was having some repairs made to what was, I believe, the old chapel, he discovered some papers, papers that were also indecipherable, although in this case because they were in some version of medieval Latin – quite the code, I would think!”
“Is it? I mean, it is,” said Christopher.
“But that’s not the extraordinary part, Sir Christopher, not at all. You see, Sir Kit, unable to understand these papers, puts them to one side until, a few weeks later, our elusive Mr T arrives: and who do you think he was, Sir Christopher? A scholar, sir, touring the area, calling in quite by chance! Extraordinary enough, you might think, Sir Christopher, but even that is not all. For Sir Kit showed him his papers and, together, they translated them. There, what do you make of that? A Sir Christopher, a visiting Mr T, an unravelling mystery. Is ths not most extraordinary?”
Sir Christopher, naturally, had to agree that it was indeed most extraordinary, since it certainly was, but some other sensation was stealing over him, some sense of the uncanny, some foreboding. That more than extraordinary, something, somewhere, was simply not right.
Mr Tonks, however, appeared not to feel any of this, and took his lunch back to the library, such was the fever of work upon him. In fact, by supper time he felt confident enough to announce that the key to the mystery lay in the crypt of the old chapel, a place that Christopher knew well, having, as a child, often thrilled at his own daring at attempting the steps down into its gloom.
He led the way now, despairing of his food, fetching a lantern from the pantry for their mission, reluctantly at first, the sense of dread still hanging over the enterprise. But Tonks had brought the papers with him, so eager was he, continuing his work even as they walked to the crypt and Christopher found himself starting to be caught up by his enthusiasm.
They were already in the chapel when Tonks held up his hand.
“Wait, Sir Christopher, one moment,” he mumbled to himself a little, “A yes: ‘shovel’, I think. Sir Kit had equipped himself by this stage with digging equipment. Do you think we should…?”
Christopher acquiesced and went in search of something to dig with, returning with a mattock he had found outside of the scullery door. He found Tonks already esconced in the crypt, sitting on top of some ancient Malpleasance, the lantern resting on the prone knight’s forehead.
“This wall,” gestured Tonks, “If I have my cardinality right. It matches Sir Kit’s description and I notice it is of considerably rougher work than the other walls and, of course, quite unadorned.”
“The wall?” asked Christopher, who wasn’t quite sure how he felt about knocking in a crypt wall.
“Oh yes,” insisted Tonks, “Our answer, your answer, Sir Christopher, lies within, I am sure. You see, Sir Kit and his Mr T had ascertained from their papers that some treasure, no doubt from the Catholic days of the household, had been hidden down here. But…” Christopher began beating at the wall with his mattock and now only caught odd phrases of Tonks’ story,”…some disagreement.. strong words, Sir Kit says… question of rights…” flakes of plaster fell away as the iron bit dug hollowly into the damp masonry. Flakes of plaster followed by chunks of cement, or something like it, as a dark hole began to open beneath Christopher’s blows.
“Opened a cavity… found treasure… itemising it… Mr T quibbling, Sir Kit says…”
Definitely a hole, a void beyond the wall, but not empty: something in it.
“…seizes one of the items…”
Something gleams in the impenetrable darkness. Is that more of Sir Kit’s treasure?
No. What is that? It that… teeth?
“Oh dear,” says Mr Tonks, peering over Christopher’s shoulder, “So that’s what happened to our Mr T.”
And the shape in the darkness resolves itself into a face. A face two hundred years old and as from human as it might get, but still a face. The skin dried back from the teeth in an emotionless grin, the cheeks sunk, the eye sockets empty and, on the brow, a brittle round hole where the head has been smashed in.
“The Malpleasance mystery revealed,” says Mr Tonks, and there is a grim relish in his voice, “No wonder Sir Kit wanted to keep it secret. This will write up very well in my antiquarian society proceedings. Perhaps it might even make the national papers. I must get my camera.”
It was probably the mention fo the national newspapers that did it. The thought of his family honour dragged through the mire of public gossip did something to Christopher Malpleasance’s stomach. The Malpleasance’s had crusaded with Coeur de Lion, charged with Prince Rupert, cannonaded with Wellington and now some of that fighting spirit swung the mattock up and brought it back down again on Mr Tonks’ shiny, unprotected head.
After that Christopher Malpleasance broke down the rest of the wall and immured the second Mr T with the first. The mattock and Mr Tonks’ bicycle went into the lake. The servants were told he had simply left again. No one expected him and no one came looking for him, least of all Christopher Malpleasance, who did not go down into the crypt ever again. Instead he threw himself into charity work, earning himself many comparisons with his illustrious forebear, Sir Kit.
A credit to the Malpleasance family, they said of him afterwards. Never let it be said of Sir Christopher Malpleasance that he did not do what must be done, nor did he reck the cost.