The Antiques Shop Owner beckons us through to a room at the back of the shop. It is arranged like a drawing-room – the sumptuous personal quarters of a dignified academic, perhaps – but labels and tags hanging from the furniture seem to indicate that it is simply further stock for his unusual emporium. Dimly lit and cunningly arranged, this room feels rather like a staged set; darkly theatrical and other-worldly in equal measure, I must say that I am glad of the Professor’s company in this place.
“Please, make yourself at home,” says the Shop Owner, gesturing to the eclectic array of seating scattered about the room. Professor Duke heads for a high-backed velvet armchair with matching footstool, which he settles himself into with a cacophony of satisfied gruntings. Spying a tea set sat proudly upon an elderly looking dining room table, I pull up one of the accompanying chairs hoping that my proximity to the tea things will prompt an offer of refreshment.
I never know quite how seriously to take an offer to ‘make myself at home’. Probably not too seriously, I would think. Sometimes I wonder if it is merely a friendly way of saying ‘sit down’. Just as I am considering pushing the boundaries of ‘making myself at home’ into ‘making myself a pot of tea’, the Shop Owner joins me at the table. He rather rudely has his back to the Professor, although I soon notice that he can see him reflected in the highly polished surface of a gilded mirror situated on the wall close by. The Professor has already spotted this and is eyeing the Shop Owner with some intent.
“Tell me, my Old College friends,” the Shop Owner begins, his keen eyes flitting between mine and the reflection of the Professor. “What think you of mysteries? And, for that matter, histories?” There is an expectant pause, during which we are evidently expected to do more than gawp gormlessly, which is what we do. “What find you more compelling – the mysteries of histories or… the histories of mysteries?”
“Well, here it is,” the Professor replies testily, “Riddles vex me, overall. So, let’s not speak in riddles; otherwise, if you insist to speak in riddles, I shall need some tea Deputy Head Porter would like some, too.”
“The Professor is right,” I agree. “But back to your question – we at Old College are fairly well versed in both history and mystery. If you want our help, which I can only assume that you do, then you had better start with some straight-talk. And if you have such thing as a kettle, I should get it on, sharpish.”
The Shop Owner ignores us both and continues as if neither of us had said a word.
“Since I was a small boy, my interest has been held by arguably the greatest legend of these lands – or any lands, it could even be said! A legend so well-known that it has become intangible. That is to say, the legend of the Knights Templar and their quest for the Holy Grail!”
Professor Duke sits up smartly in his chair.
“Deputy Head Porter – I must be forward a bit – This guy’s mad!” he says, not even attempting to be tactful. “I say if there’s no tea to be had then we buy The Master the sparkly earring and be away with ourselves.”
“You would not rather present the most elusive treasure of legend to The Master of Old College?” the Shop Owner asks, although his tone suggests that this is more of an instruction than a question. “For I have reason to believe that it lay very close by.”
Professor Duke is momentarily distracted by this surprise announcement and I wish I could say the same. However, I am so accustomed to the unlikliness of the academic world that very little shocks me these days. An enigmatic antique dealer talking about the Holy Grail does not create quite the twang of anticipation that one might expect. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if there was ever a likely hiding place for the Grail, Old College could very well be it. Head Of Housekeeping probably keeps jellybeans in it, or something.
The Professor strides over and stands beside my chair, hand on hip – a sure sign that he means business.
“Now, I’ve got a question – or a few,” he fixes the Shop Owner with his very best stare. “What makes you so sure that the Grail is in Old College and why are you so keen to share this information with us? Speak up!”
The Shop Owner slides out a little drawer, artfully concealed within the table’s edge. He removes some carefully collected papers, tied with blue ribbon. He handles the small bundle as one would an explosive or deadly poison; as he does so, he speaks.
“All my life I have researched and hunted for the truth about the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail,” he says. “Along the way I have found many truths and of many things I can be certain. The Templar’s connection to The City, yes. And… the connection to Old College is all but cast in stone…” He gently pushes the unwrapped papers across the table towards me. A quick glance is enough to tell me that they are written in a form of old English that I haven’t a hope of understanding. The Shop Owner seems to sense this and is good enough to explain further.
“It says in here, amongst other things, that ‘the Grail sleeps beneath the dragon, watched over by minds of fire.’ It is my belief that the Templar entrusted the Grail to the College founders, so that it might be hidden within the construction.”
“The Order of the Lesser Dragon,” I reply, scratching my chin.
“Well, I wouldn’t put anything past those buggers,” agrees the Professor. Then he adds “Dadblameit!”
“I am certain that the Grail lies within the grounds,” the Shop Owner reiterates, a passion rising in him now. “But someone such as myself would never be permitted to search in such secret places. But you – you! You both could hunt for me, uncover the truth and take the gift that wants itself to be taken! The gift of truth and of legend.”
The Shop Owner is wild-eyed with fervency now and is a humble supplicant to our mercy and favour. I look over expectantly towards the Professor, who shrugs his shoulders.
“You know, the Holy Grail would make a brilliant gift for The Master,” he says.
“Oh, go on, then,” I say, resigned to the fact. “I suppose we could take a quick look around the old place.”