My previous attempt to explore the Crypt was somewhat foiled by The Master and his partiality to sudoko puzzles so I am quietly delighted at the prospect of poking around this most ancient and unusual part of Old College. The final resting place of Old College Masters since the mid-1400s, I find it to be no coincidence that the Crypt is situated in close proximity to the wine cellars. The Fellowship elite are remarkably comforted by having a good quality claret close to hand.
Head Porter has remained behind at the Lodge, as apparently ‘we still have a College to run, you know.’ Such a minor point has not deterred The Dean, who was eager to lead the charge into the very bowels of our academic institution.
My eyes adjusting to the cloying gloom, I get the sense that the darkness in this place is something much more tangible that a mere absence of light. Rather, it is the presence of something else. I try not to let the fact that I am surrounded by tombs lead my thoughts to darker places than is sensible and try to think on something useful. In all honesty, a great deal of the sinister atmosphere has been somewhat diluted by the continued bantering of Professor Duke and The Dean. Evidently thrilled to be in each other’s company, their rapier-like wit and bawdy exchanges verge on being slightly disrespectful in such eminent company.
Breathing the centuries-old air catches my throat a little and the resultant coughing elicits the attention of my companions.
“Is everything alright?” asks the Professor. “Do you need some water or juice?”
I offer a thumbs up to signify the affirmative whilst a particularly vicious skirmish of dust assaults my windpipe. The Professor turns towards The Dean.
“Now, Mr. Dean, be a good chap and give her some water,” he says.
“What? I haven’t got any water,” The Dean replies. Professor Duke pats himself down as if some previously forgotten source of water might appear about his person.
“Never mind, never mind” I say, finally clearing my airways. “I’m fine.”
“Right then,” says The Dean, beginning to pace at little. A sure sign that he is thinking. “Obviously the sensible thing to ensue is to search for clues. It’s a tried and tested method, we always find something interesting when we search for clues.”
“Very true!” the Professor agrees with some enthusiasm. “Now, what is the usual form that these things take? I shall keep two eyes searching about.”
“There’s the rub, you see” replies The Dean. “They can be literally anything. Once, one of the buggers turned out to be a kettle.”
“That’s true, actually” I confirm. “Anyway. Let’s just take a look around, shall we? See what we find.”
Once some candles have been lit, I must say that the Crypt does have a certain macabre charm. The artfully fashioned marble caskets of rest are of the finest craftsmanship and their beauty still emanates through the layers of dust. I find myself thinking that I should suggest to Porter that he bring Detective Sergeant Kirby down here, before quickly putting a stop to that train of thought. I shouldn’t really be encouraging that kind of behaviour.
As we progress through the chambers there is a feeling of travelling back through time as I notice that the dates on the tombs hurtle further and further towards the past. The gravity of what we are doing, what we are searching for is punctuated by The Dean chortling at the more unusually named Masters and the Professor excitedly whistling what sounds like two tunes at once. Before long, we find ourselves in a chamber that feels positively prehistoric, even by Old College’s standards. The low ceiling drips something thick and undefined and the walls have a sticky sheen of an unworldly, reeking substance. The tombs here are not the elegantly carved sculptures of reverence that we have previously seen. There is nothing aesthetic about the lichen-ridden slabs of stone that nestle stoically in the fettering gloom.
I train the beam of my trusty Maglite on the crumbling stone to see if I can make out any inscriptions there. Running a hand along the rough and aged surfaces, the tombs feel a lot sturdier than they look.
“Now take a look here!” Professor Duke is boisterously buffing one of the tombs with his cuff. “I’ve found an interest.”
The Dean and I gather round and see what he is getting at. It is just possible to make out some sort of inscription on the tomb. It is not something I could recognise, rather a collection of symbols inscribed on the lid.
“Well!” exclaims The Dean. “What in buggery are those things?”
“Maybe clues, my man!” the Professor replies.
A hurried inspection of the other tombs reveals similar symbols cut into the stone, still visible after many centuries. But what do they mean? Enthused by this interesting find, we begin to search the chamber a little more carefully. All jovial banter has subsided, a keen focus now at the fore.
There is an ancient, primordial instinct that comes to the surface at times such as these. My conscious mind cannot even imagine what I might be looking for, but the unrelenting conviction that there is something to be found drives me on. That, and the over-riding urge to get to whatever it is before the chaps find it.
It would seem that today is my lucky day.
Near to the chamber’s entrance, where the wall meets the floor, is a most unusual thing indeed…
I call the other two over.
“Goodness me!” exclaims the Professor. “What on earth is that? A bunch of gardoobling letters, I think. What a confusing wonder.”
“I’ll tell you what that is,” replies The Dean. “That, my friend, is a clue.”
“Those are the same symbols that are on the tombs,” I say, barely able to form the words. “Underneath is what I assume to be a translation. It’s in Latin.”
“What does it mean?” The Dean asks. I clear my throat and hope that my schoolgirl level of Latin is sufficient. Just barely, it is.
“It says –
‘Remember fair Avalon, City of Harmony
Remember our queen, the sleeping jewel
Silent in the fair City of Harmony’
Or, as good as, anyway.”
“Awesome job, Deputy Head Porter!” the Professor claps his hands with glee. “As a side note, I’m wondering what sort of jewel the queen was. An emerald or a diamond. Anyways, all we have to do is find Avalon and the Grail is ours! Right! Right?”
I need some time to think. The realisation that the Holy Grail might really be hidden somewhere in this very room is something of a distraction.
Find Avalon. But how?