With the plans for the slightly controversial new training scheme for the Porters well under way, I am finding myself at a bit of a loose end. I say ‘slightly controversial’ as the Porters are not happy at all about becoming ‘security professionals’. I suppose I can sympathise somewhat. These chaps came to Old College to see out the last of their working days (ideally by doing as little as possible), not to embark on new ventures. Particularly not new ventures that involve restraining techniques and conflict resolution. Even so, I am a little disappointed at their lack of a sense of adventure.
As happens often when I haven’t much to occupy me in The Lodge, I am patrolling the grounds of Old College. I say patrolling; that is a generous term for the superfluous ambling that has led me to the perimeters of the gardens and not much further. I feel a little guilty about using my time so gratuitously, but not much. It is nice to have time to have a think.
My mind is turning over the words of Professor K. Although it felt like he was talking in riddles, I feel certain he gave me all the information I need to pursue my interest in whatever mysteries Old College has to offer. I suspect they will not be half as interesting as I imagine, but it is certainly a pleasant distraction. Having assembled in my head all the information gathered so far, I have reasonable grounds to suspect that the following is true:
Something was discovered in the ground when The Porters’ Lodge was rebuilt some fifty years ago.
It was something bad; no one wants to talk about it.
Whatever is was, it is still having repercussions of some description all these years later.
The Master lied about ‘ghosts’ in College. What else could he be lying about?
What’s Head Porter’s problem?
That’s a point, Head Porter was been notably conspicuous by his absence recently. I rarely see him these days. This is not a bad thing, from my point of view; I am far happier left to my own devices. But I thought The Fellowship might have said something about it, particularly one of The Bursars. Is it normally acceptable for the Head Porter to be practically invisible? Maybe so, Old College has certainly done much to challenge my views of ‘normal’.
A thought strikes me. Professor K had made a pointed comment about reading – and the importance of a thirst for knowledge. Of course! There must be reams and reams of written history about Old College, it stands to reason. If I want to know more about the history of the place perhaps all I need to do is look further than the end of my own nose.
I mentally kick myself for not coming to this conclusion before. I am surrounded by learning and study and didn’t for one minute think that it might apply to me. Idiot. Self-recrimination out of the way, I believe that the best place to start would be The Old Library. I do not carry these keys as a matter of course, unwieldy as they are, so a quick detour to The Porters’ Lodge is required. Whilst I’m there, I make a cup of tea to accompany me in The Old Library. From what I gather from the students, studying is thirsty work.
As I have mentioned before, The Old Library is probably my favourite part of College. Despite my lack of formal education, I do like books. I am also very fond of old things, so this tucked away little dusty oasis of papery antiquity is just perfect. As I make my way carefully up the wrought iron spiral staircase, I am not exactly sure what I expect to find, or even what I should be looking for. If nothing else, it will be a nice way to while away an hour or so.
The lock requires a certain amount of jiggling and persuasion to convince it to release, but once I have wrestled the ornate and cumbersome door open, the wonderful smell of wood, paper and leather greets me like an old friend. The floor is warped and uneven and I am grateful that this job requires me to wear sensible shoes. I wonder where to start looking; this is not a library that is intended for everyday use and therefore does not seem to have a clearly defined index or labelling system. I’ll just have a little wander round and see what I can find.
Ah! There is the stunningly illustrated manuscript of Paradise Lost. It is in a glass case, so I can’t really read it, but just to be able to look at it feels like quite an event in itself. I have, of course, read Paradise Lost, but I’m guessing the copies we had at school were a lot newer than this one.
With all of these strange goings on recently, I idly wonder if The Old Library has any ghosts lingering? This is in the oldest part of College, after all. I am rather morbidly considering how many people might have died in this room over the centuries. It is quite surprising how recent events have changed the way I am thinking about Old College. This fascination with people dying all over the place is probably quite unhealthy.
I am quite enjoying my own little private tour, but haven’t found anything very useful. I decide to take a seat at the back by the medical books and, at the very least, enjoy my tea. I remember from Junior Bursar’s Guided Tour several months ago that the medical books are quite interesting, so I heave a random one out from its resting place on the shelf and pop it on the reading table to peruse while I finish my tea.
As I shuffle my chair closer to the table, my foot makes contact with something very solid. I shuffle back quickly and see to my dismay that my highly polished practical shoe is scuffed. Bugger. I hope whatever I kicked has come off better than my shoe.
I bend down to see a fairly large wooden chest, tucked under the table and right up against the wall. The aged oak panels suggest it is pretty old and the lack of ornament or decoration give the impression that this is designed to be serviceable rather than aesthetic. Well, the obvious thing that springs to mind is – what’s in it? There are metal handles on either end and I give the one nearest to me a tug. The chest doesn’t move an inch, it is very heavy. I shift myself into a squatting position and wrap both hands around the handle. Using all the strength in my arms and legs I manage to move it by maybe three inches. The build up of filth and the contrasting conditions on the floor around the chest indicate it hasn’t been moved for a very long time.
The benefit of being small is that I can wriggle into tiny places. Under the desk I go and decide to see if I can open the chest from where it sits. To my immense surprise, there is no lock or fastening of any description; just a flip top lid. It opens easily, although the underside of the table prevents me from opening it very far. Squinting through the gap I can see there are a lot of very old-looking books stacked neatly in the chest. This looks interesting.
I scoot out from under the table and drag it out of the way of the chest. With the lid fully open, I can see an impressive-looking collection of very, very old books. Well, I might as well have a peek.
I carefully lift the first book that comes to hand out of the chest and rearrange the table so I can read in comfort. As I delicately open the cover and slowly turn the pages, I wonder if I should be wearing gloves of some kind. I don’t have any gloves with me, so it’s a bit of a pointless thought. The book appears to be the records and accounts of an enigmatic-sounding organisation called The Order Of The Lesser Dragon.
To be honest, I am struggling to understand a lot of what is written here as it is in what I can only assume is old English (or, ‘Ye Olde English, to give it its improper name). From what I can gather, The Order Of The Lesser Dragon was a wealthy gentleman’s society, in a similar vein to the Masons. They seemed to have had a lot of meetings and spent quite a bit of money on wine and cheese. The names of the past members appear to be listed periodically throughout the book, alongside the roles they played within the organisation.
This is all very interesting but I do wonder what this book is doing in The Old Library. Did The Lesser Dragons have something to do with Old College? Ah… here we go. There’s a whole bit here about them setting up an academic institution… it’s really difficult to understand most of it… but I recognise the names of ‘Apple Tree Court’ and ‘Old Court’. That’s a bit odd. If it’s a brand new building, why name it Old Court? This is obviously the record of an embryonic plan for Old College! There must be some explanation here about the naming of it, but it really is very hard to comprehend. There are lists and records of the artisans and craftsmen and their costs and materials. Some of the labourers appear to have been paid in mead! Fantastic! And what’s this? A long list of names… some of them seem very unlikely… There’s one chap here called Faldo! Who were these people?
Oh. I am able to decrypt this rather unhappy excerpt relating to the list of names. They were peasants, ‘sacrificed’ using some kind of ancient protection rites and cast into the foundations of Old College. This is unpleasant and a little unexpected. Mind you, now I think about it, I do recall something of this nature from my history lessons many years ago. For some reason I thought it was just bridges; I remember learning that people were buried in the foundations of bridges in the belief that it would stop them falling down. It must have been same principle used here. I do quite like that these Lesser Dragon chaps had the decency to at least make a list of the unfortunate sacrifice-ees and credit them in this weighty tome. That seems more than fair, in the given circumstances.
I expect the peasants are still there! Tucked up for all time beneath the ancient walls; eternal watchmen for Old College.
Oh. My. God.
Well. I think I may have solved the ‘mystery’ of what was discovered under The Porters’ Lodge, half a century ago. It must have been a fairly grisly unearthing, a whole pile of human bones. And a real pain in the backside, too, as I am sure there are all sorts of rules and regulations concerning the discoveries of human remains. I wonder what they did with them? I will have to find time to have another chat with Professor K. But not now, I think to myself sensibly. I’ve already spent far too much time away from The Lodge.
I replace the books and make sure I leave The Old Library as I found it. As I hurry back to The Porters’ Lodge I hope I haven’t missed too much. I will have to take this up with Professor K as soon as I get a minute. He was right, though. A thirst for knowledge certainly is a wonderful thing.