For a fellow so seemingly devoid of logic as Professor VJ Duke, he can be remarkably pragmatic when presented with a puzzle such as this. After quite some time of arguing about the relevance of jewels and queens, it was the good Professor who came up with the sensible method of thinking. Which is a surprise in itself.
“Now see here,” says Professor Duke, firmly. “All these fancy words and phrases are simply here to distract us. What’s important is the symbols. The symbols here are of the same type of those carved into the tombs. I say we discover which symbols denote the word ‘Avalon’ and find the tomb with matching ones. I’ll bet my hat collection we find the Holy Grail in there.”
The Dean is studying intently a stray thread from his jumper. If I know The Dean, he is feeling rather put out that he didn’t think of this himself. To be fair, his elaborate suggestion involving the Crown Jewels was brilliantly inspired. But it did seem rather like a thinly veiled excuse to break into the Tower of London. What is it with The Dean and breaking into places? Not just to wear his Zorro outfit again, surely.
“You are a genius, Professor!,” I say. “Let’s have another look at it, then.”
I whip out my battered pocket notebook – held together by curling sticky tape and willpower alone – and jot down some notes. By carefully comparing the symbols to the text below and using a process of elimination, it is possible to identify several of the words. Eventually, I come up with this…
“it’s as good a solution as any, I suppose” says The Dean. “Although, let us not rule out my suggestion…”
“Well, of course we won’t!” says the Professor. “But in the meantime, let’s find Avalon!”
As one, we three move from tomb to tomb, the chaps vigorously scuffing away centuries of detritus while I helpfully hold the torch. Head Porter would have an absolute fit if I ruin my uniform and he is hardly in the best of moods as it is.
Down here in this place outside of time it is very difficult to comprehend how it passes. No sounds but those of cloth on stone (and the occasional profanity from The Dean) serve to remind me that I am still in the real world and not some strange pocket of ancient history. After what might be a while, or longer, we find ourselves a match.
On the stone lid of an innocuous-looking tomb, no different from the others, we see the same three symbols staring back at us.
“In here?” the Professor says, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Let’s try,” I reply.
The three of us take purchase of the lid and together heave and, indeed, ho – a valiant crusade of flesh against stone – to slide it free.
“Buggeration!” huffs The Dean, his face turning an unusual shade of puce. “This is no good! Let’s just smash the thing to smithereens!”
“Now just a have a few bits of patience!” chides the Professor. “Keep at it. I think I can feel a movement… come on… there!”
A sound like the stirring of an ancient beast shatters the quiet of the Crypt as stone grinds against stone, yielding to our collective endeavours. If there were any poetic justice in the world, some rousing orchestral music would burst forth and an enigmatic glow would light our expectant expressions from the depths of the freshly opened tomb.
Needless to say, neither of these things happen, but instead a fetid cloud of something that many moons ago was once air erupts right into our faces, nearly choking us in the process. A period of decidedly un-heroic spluttering and coughing ensues, leaving us all feeling rather peaky.
“Come on, then let’s have a look inside the blasted thing!” The Deans says, once he has sufficiently regained something approaching composure. “Get about it, Deputy Head Porter, you have the torch.”
Brandishing my torch like it was Excalibur itself, I approach the open tomb. The sound of my heartbeat fills my ears and the familiar metallic taste of adrenalin coats the roof of my mouth, already dry from the centuries of dust. If my time at Old College has taught me anything it is that the unexpected is standard procedure and the impossible merely part of the day-to-day running of things. But could the legendary Holy Grail really be laying just inches from me?
“Bugger!” exclaims The Dean. “Bugger and thrice bugger. The blasted thing is empty!”
Ah. But then, did I really expect anything otherwise?
“Someone’s messing around with it,” says Professor Duke, narrowing his eyes. “That’s not unlikely, you know. The Grail was always being shoved about the place, to stop people finding it, see.”
“I put my money on Head Of Housekeeping” The Dean mutters. “That woman is forever shifting things about.”
“More likely, the Order of the Lesser Dragon,” I suggest. “Perhaps the hiding place of the Grail was compromised and they took it somewhere else?”
“Well, if they will go leaving clues about the place, what do they expect?” says the Professor, quite reasonably.
“Could it still be in Old College, do you think?” wonders The Dean, hands thrust into pockets and head tilted upwards in thought.
“We have to find it!” the Professor says, beginning to pace a little. “I want to present it to The Master at my inauguration feast! Dadblameit! I just knew we should have bought those earrings when we had the chance. And he would’ve looked good in those, I’m thinking.”
“You said we would find the Grail, done and dusted by tea time,” The Dean says to Professor Duke. “It’s ten past tea time already!”
“Listen,” I say, eager to avert a kerfuffle. “If the Order of the Lesser Dragon did move it, there is every possibility that it will be documented in their records. I happen to know that they are kept in a chest in the Old Library.”
“Then we shall head to the Old Library!” cries the Professor.
“Didn’t you hear me, old chap?” replies The Dean “I said it’s ten past tea time already. Holy Grail or no Holy Grail – this is practically a meal time and I am not missing that for anything.”