Grey as a flag, the church tower shouldered above trees: trees of so many shades of green that they caught the eye unawares. They rattled suddenly as a flock of black birds shot skywards, a cloud which broke as soon as seen.
Four people encased in the hot confines of an elderly Volkswagen Beetle stared at the tower with varying degrees of frustration.
'Well, it's there,' observed the driver of the car for the tenth time.
'So why can't we get to it?' asked one of his passengers. 'We've been down Church Lane and All Saints Close, and neither of them were any use at all.'
'We're going to miss it if we don't get there,' complained the youngest, who was fourteen and inclined to be impatient.
'Nobody else's found it,' the driver pointed out. "Nothing's going ding.'
A car full of bellringers on an outing is not a lovesome thing, especially if all fails to go smoothly. Perfectly sensible people undergo a metamorphosis which puts Dr Jekyll's to shame if there is the slightest chance of not being first at the next tower. Spouses snarl at each other. The day becomes a mad dash from church to church as tempers shorten. All this is done for pleasure.
'Look, there's a footpath sign. I'm going to get out and walk. Can you park here?'
Alan Bellman, a lanky, gangly man who bore a passing resemblance to Leslie Howard, and who had taken up ringing despite rather than because of his name, sighed, wondering how he had let himself be talked into coming on this outing. He pulled off the narrow road onto the yellowed grass at its verge, which was baked sere in that un-English summer.
As soon as the car came to a halt, the family he was chauffeuring - normally as pleasant as one could hope to meet - scrambled out of the car and headed for the footpath like a panting band of dogs. Young Debbie's flip-flops slapped the soles of her feet, and the piebald flies with red eyes which doze upon the fronds of bracken in the sun buzzed upwards as the ringers passed them.
Following more slowly, Alan heard a bell sound suddenly, high and unexpectedly musical. Then another, and the rest of the six followed in close pursuit, swift and sweet as a scale on a glockenspiel. Ahead of him, Debbie quickened her pace so that her brown legs matched the speed of the bells.
His attention on the pleasing sight of Debbie's back view in her T-shirt and brief shorts, Alan barely managed to catch a bramble she had brushed aside before it raked his face; then he looked up in pleased surprise at the church facing him.
Unlike the walls of crumbly sandstone, red as rust, which flanked many of the roads they'd travelled that day, this tiny church was faced with knapped flint, cold in the sunlight. It was perfectly proportioned: its dimensions pleased the eye. Out from its tower tumbled the sound of the bells, bright and melodious. A group of ringers stood outside the open tower door, bright in summery shirts and dresses, almost too exotic for the quintessence of England in which they stood, surrounded by the silent trees.
Following his passengers, Alan joined the desultory queue, thinking as he watched the rush for bell-ropes that 'tower-grabbing' was a very descriptive term for this activity. He was content to wait: the urgency which seized most of his fellow ringers was alien to his nature. Maybe, he sometimes thought, this was one of the reasons why he himself was such an indifferent ringer. Such skill as he possessed, he had learned years ago to please his then girlfriend - a plan which had misfired when he had turned out ham-fisted. By that time, however, he himself had met Kim, and married her soon afterwards. Alan smiled a little at the memory of his first sight of her. For an instant he'd thought her a boy, with her cropped hair and jeans.
Eyes a little out of focus, he watched the ringers and the pattern the ropes made as they bounced up and down - the way the colours of the thin matted sallies blurred as they moved, red-white-and-blue turning to red in motion. Then he shook himself and, still listening with half an ear to the quick succession of the bells, wandered into the empty nave of the church.
It had that slightly sad and musty smell of all redundant churches. The worn stone floor was bare, and the pews had all been removed - no doubt to some pseudo-aged pub or yuppie kitchen. Dust drifted, in its stately way, in the coloured light falling through the stained glass: all that remained to the building of its past. That, and the bells, and the tarnished wall plaques. Little enough, when you remembered it was the centre of a community once, and people were christened there, and wedded, and buried in the churchyard outside.
'Have you rung yet?' said a voice in Alan's ear, making him jump. He shook his head.
'Go and have a ding, then.'
'Okay,' Alan said, and went for his grab.
Only the tenor rope was free, but he was content to take the easy option of keeping the rhythm: it was one thing he could do competently.
"Do you want to play, Alan? Or shall we do some Stedman?"
"No, I'll bang the drum."
Having found the rhythm, Alan did not need to concentrate too hard - people who knew told him he should watch the other ropes, but he usually rang behind by counting the beat - and found his eyes drawn past his fellow ringers.
On the walls of the little ringing-chamber hung peal-boards black as ebony, the writing upon them illegible from where he stood. Newer boards commemorated the coronation of Elizabeth II and the Festival of Britain, but he could see nothing more recent. It was, however, the old ones which fascinated him.
Alan was a writer by trade and an antiquarian by inclination. Like a jackdaw, he collected old things: papers, books, paintings; letters, documents, photographs. When he could, he wrote about these things for magazines: they were his centre and his core, a passion like music was to Kim. Most of the time, though, he wrote copy for advertisements, this being a more lucrative pursuit.
When the touch was over he stood his bell, tied the rope in that particular knot which novice ringers find so tricky to master, and crossed to examine the ancient boards. To his considerable disappointment, he found them largely indecipherable: what writing remained had faded to the state of blind-embossing: raised bumps of black on black. With some difficulty, he made out a few names - ones whose very shapes were old: Bartholomew, Tyler, Southwell.
Southwell. The name snagged at his memory. Behind him, the next relay of ringers pulled off for their own grab, and the bells' sound rose once more. Carefully, so as not to knock any elbows, Alan sidled along the wall and out through the tower door into the churchyard.
It was not as overgrown as he had expected, although the trees crowded in like Tolkien's Old Forest. Grey gravestones, encroached by yellow powdery lichens, told the parish story to the early sixties. Alan's eye was caught by a fenced area outside the graveyard, and he leaned over the stone wall to see it.
Barred round by rusty rails, and almost obscured by tall grass and cow-parsley, there squatted a massive tomb. Reminded of E F Benson's creepy story The Room in the Tower, with its grave outside the churchyard 'in evil memory of Julia Stone', Alan, naturally, had to go and look.
Once inside the railings, Alan saw that the monolithic slab atop the tomb was blank save for patches of khaki lichen and olive-green liverwort and bird droppings. The sides, however, were a different matter.
His heart thumped and his breath came quickly as he saw the carvings. Excitedly he fumbled for his little fixed-focus camera, but found himself too close to see very much through the viewfinder. He wished Kim, a professional photographer, were there with her Leica and a wide-angle lens; in her absence, he had to do the best he could on his own.
At one end of the tomb was a simple inscription: 'ROGER SOUTHWELL. DY*D 1697 A.D.'
Southwell again. Where had he heard that name before? Clockwise from this, seven panels told a story: three on each side and one at the far end. All were surrounded by illustrations and motifs in smaller panels forming friezes and borders. There was too much to assimilate quickly.
Alan stood up too fast, his head suddenly spinning. The sound of the bells still crowded the air, not allowing any other sound in; looking at his watch he saw that some twenty minutes remained of their hour at All Saints. He squatted down again.
The carvings were both intricate and surprisingly well-preserved considering they had been braving wind, rain and snow since 1697. Alan ran his fingers over the first panel, finding the stone was strangely smooth to his touch. Then he examined the picture it presented.
The protagonist - Roger Southwell, presumably - appeared to be a scholar, or perhaps a magician, since the surrounding carvings were of cabalistic-looking symbols.
In this first picture Southwell, if it was he, was lifting a book inscribed LIBER ARCANI from a hiding-place. Alan copied the Latin words into his notebook, followed by 'Man finding book'. He knew that liber meant book, but his Latin O-level lay too far in the past for much more than that.
The second picture showed the same man studying the book which he had found. That he was reading of treasure was implied by a frieze of crowns and coins, but strange creatures crawled among them - beasts of fearsome aspect. Alan wrote 'Man reading about treasure(?)' after copying the inscription, and this impression was borne out by the third frame, which showed the man digging beneath a tree of no identifiable species. Instead of leaves, tiny birds and bats filled its branches; closer inspection showed the bark to be made up of serpents. Spiders and flies and crawling things abounded in the images surrounding this picture. 'Man digging for treasure,' Alan captioned it.
'Alan!' called someone, startling him.
Realising he must be invisible, crouched down as he was, Alan stood up and waved:
'We're going to have lunch in the pub.'
'There's only one. That-a-way. King's Head, or-Arms, or something. Some bit of a king, anyway.
'King's Buttocks?' suggested Alan.
'I'll see you there in a minute. Don't drink all the beer,' Alan called, his attention returning to the drama in the story's fourth frame.
Here something had burst from the ground and was clutching the treasure-hunter in a horrid parody of an embrace. The creature seemed to have no proper shape, but it had claws, and teeth - with which it appeared to be gnawing its victim's face. Its fur was cleverly carved: conveying the impression of a nature both oily and unclean. Around this picture the images were unequivocal - demons fanged and clawed, and skeletal Death's naked bones and clenched smile.
'Monster attacks R.S.' wrote Alan laconically, and moved round the tomb to see what happened next.
As if some Pandora's box had opened, horrors poured up out of the earth. Here the artist appeared to have been strongly influenced by Hieronymous Bosch, and a shiver crawled suddenly across Alan's shoulders. He did not linger, noting merely 'Monsters on rampage.'
So involved was he with the story that it was with some relief he saw Good vanquishing Evil in the next frame. The panel was filled with saints, all grim of countenance, with their clear eyes focused on the centre, where cowered the killing beast. 'Saints Overcome Monster,' wrote Alan, like a tabloid sub-editor. 'Gotcha,' he thought, recalling a favourite headline.
The seventh and final frame showed the saints again - 'All Saints,' Alan realised, belatedly recalling the church's dedication - but now they were binding the creature: not in chains but in garlands, garlands of elder and rowan, oak and ash, and other leaves he could not identify.
'Green Party ties up the monster,' he wrote flippantly.
And that was it; full circle. He was back at the inscription. 'DY*D 1697 A.D.'
Was this a real legend of Roger Southwell's death, or a serious allegory of some sort - a warning against meddling with the supernatural? Or simply a conventional caution against avarice?
Wishing for more information, he squinted again at the carved letters. Some strange impulse drew his attention to the base of the panel, and pushing the grass down with his hand, he found a further inscription - a line of deeply graven characters. But they were merely a meaningless jumble of letters. Alan frowned, but wrote them down anyway, then headed for the pub to join the others.
What with another pub visit at the end of the day, then a long drive back, followed by a chicken tikka with some of the other ringers, it was nearly midnight when Alan finally got home. He decided to go straight to bed, since Kim was away on location until mid-week.
Although they had met in a ringing-chamber, she had little time to pursue that hobby these days; which was a pity, as she had always been keener, and better, than Alan. Her being musical had a lot to do with it, he felt, as music is kin to mathematics and mathematicians often make accomplished ringers.
In the morning, after breakfast, he put Verdi's Otello on the stereo and headed for his bookshelves. The first thing he looked up was the village, and here he struck gold at once:
'Fenstanton: Fenstanton Abbey (ruined). A house built c.1660 for Roger Southwell, reputedly a magician. It stood empty for some years after his death in 1697 and has never been occupied for any length of time; around 1800 it was described as "derelict". Southwell himself lies buried in an interesting tomb outside the churchyard of the redundant church of All Saints, reputedly because he was excommunicated for wizardly activities.'
Confident that further research would yield more information about Southwell, Alan took his notepad from his pocket and looked at what he had written the previous day.
LIBER ARCANI. Secret book, presumably. Or - book of secrets? He wrote 'The book of hidden things'.
HIC DIVITIÆ LEGET. 'Here reads (he reads?)' What was 'divitiæ'?
Putting down his pen, Alan went to hunt for his old Latin dictionary. Eventually he found it in the glory-hole under the stairs, sandwiched between a hymnbook stamped in purple ink 'Priory Grammar School. Do not remove' and a 1960 Ford Anglia manual.
'Here he reads of riches,' he wrote a moment later, and eventually, with the help of the dictionary, he translated the captions to all the frames.
The others read: They have set a guardian (he knew 'custodia'); The reward of avarice; The power of God's holy saints; and finished with something Alan vaguely thought was a quotation: 'Auri sacra fames', accursed hunger for gold.
And now, he thought, what about that strange string of letters? Looking at them anew, Alan was certain they constituted a cipher, but how to break it?
The first thing he noticed now was the frequency of Gs and Zs, one of which must presumably stand for E, the commonest letter in the English language.
Alan sighed, stood up, fetched a beer from the fridge, and stared out of the window for a while. There was no easy solution to the code: that was plain. Also, it was Sunday, so libraries were shut. Either he'd have to try and solve it without help, or - wait.
Since waiting was out of the question:
'Okay,' said Alan to himself, 'you're a bright lad. You've been known to ring Stedman Triples. You can't let a little thing like a code bamboozle you.'
He turned up the stereo, fetched a garden chair from the shed and put it outside in the sun, then settled down with paper and a pen.
Somewhere he'd seen codes grouped into equal numbers of letters - four or five. He added up the letters and found thirty-two, so wrote them down in fours.
GZNU ZNZL PVTO VLFO GUHL SGZD VSMR MVWG
They looked more manageable like that, anyway.
All right. There were four Gs, four Zs, and four Vs as well, so maybe these stood for E, T, and A, the commonest letters in English. He played around with this possibility for a frustrating half-hour, convinced that Z stood for A, simply because of the juxtaposition:
TANU ANAL PETO ELFO TUHL STAD ESMR MEWT
Something he'd read stirred in his memory then, and he rearranged the letters, taking the first of each group, and then the second, and so on.
TAPE TSEM ANEL UTSE NATF HAMW ULOO LDRT
Now he had to guess. The two TSE combinations were almost certainly THE, but that didn't help much. There were two Os together, and Ls round them, and another L, which made three. Whatever came after E, T, and A as fourth commonest letter? Try O, Alan thought, and got:
TAPE THE MANE OU THE NATFH AMW OOOO DRT
Which was nearer to making sense, it seemed. And yet, far from solution.
'Bugger this,' thought Alan, and stared morosely down the garden. In the background, Luciano Pavarotti was lamenting the loss of Otello's peace of mind. 'Ora e per sempre addio, sante memorie, addio sublimi incanti del pensier,' he sang. 'Now and forever farewell, sacred memories, farewell, sublime enchantments of the mind...' As always, it raised the small hairs at the back of Alan's neck.
Then something occurred to him, like a lightbulb over Goofy's head:
A B C D E then F G H
Z Y X W V ... U T S
It was a backward substitution! Quickly he scribbled out the rest of the alphabet, and came up with:
TAKE THE NAME OF THE MAGUS AND FOLLOW IT
And what the hell was that supposed to mean? he asked himself.
The name of the magus. Roger Southwell. Alan laughed suddenly. The answer had sprung off the page, a clue by a seventeenth century cruciverbalist:
He'd bet a hundred pounds that there was, or had been, a well in the grounds of Fenstanton Abbey - and he recalled, with a shudder, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.
As to what was in the Fenstanton well - 'Well,' thought Alan, 'only one way to find out.'