The lock releases and with some trepidation, I place an unsteady hand on the gnarled surface of the ancient door. It is almost as if the heartbeat of thousand years of history can be felt in the elderly wood, prickling my fingertips in a desperate attempt to make itself known. In a fleeting moment I feel the forlornly discarded liberty of the many, many unfortunate souls who have passed through this portal before me, on their final journey to the Chateau’s dungeons; the last vestiges of hope clinging still to the oaken frame.
Hope does not die. It may find itself swathed in darkness, but still it remains. The last spark of light that refuses to go out.
The realisation that I shall be treading the very path that the Knights Templar walked so many years before fills me with an overwhelming sense of veneration and it is clear that I am not alone in this. Professor Duke lays a reassuring hand upon my shoulder and even The Dean wears an expression of solemn reverence. No words are spoken. We have no need of words.
I put my weight against the door and it opens with surprising ease into a dark, stone walled passage about eight feet wide. My hand fumbles at my side for my trusty torch, which is a familiar thing of some comfort in this foreign place. Once illuminated, I can see that the path ahead slopes downwards and slightly off to the left. The surface integrity underfoot appears good, yet proceeding with caution does seem to be a prudent measure. And so we proceed.
After several minutes of walking, the passage seems to become significantly narrower and the ceiling bears down upon us. The subtle change of air as we progress deeper beneath the ground unnerves me a little; the cloying dampness clings to my skin like spider webs and a tiny little voice at the back of my mind is suggesting that it is difficult to breathe.
Now is not the time to start listening to voices in my head.
Not one of us has any idea where we are headed, nor what we will find when we get there. I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I fail to identify. I am not sure that it is fear, exactly, nor could I swear to it being excitement. It is not entirely pleasant. Professor Duke is following directly behind me and this is of some comfort. A thought strikes me.
“Professor?” I call out, softly; my voice sounding alien and remote in this strange setting.
“Yes?” he replies.
“Um. Do you mind… if I hold your hand, just for a bit. I feel funny.”
“Not at all, not at all!” replies the Professor, reaching out and tucking my sweating paw into his own. “You should know, The Dean and I have been holding hands for the last five minutes.”
“That’s only because I can’t see where I’m going!” The Dean shouts back, curtly. “It’s very dark back here, you know.”
“You would be very welcome to be at the front with the torch!” I shout back. There is a pause.
“A sturdy rear defence is of the utmost importance, Deputy Head Porter!” he eventually replies. “Onwards, if you please!”
“Give me that dadblame torch,” the Professor suggests kindly. “I shall go at the front, since monsters usually take the people from the middle. Just kidding. Besides, someone needs to keep an eye on The Dean back there and you, Deputy Head Porter, have far more experience in that field than I do.”
We switch places and I do my best to suppress the growing nausea that is threatening the back of my throat. I cannot imagine what is wrong with me, I am usually quite brave in these situations.
“Let’s sing a song to lift our spirits!” says Professor Duke.
“Splendid idea!” The Dean replies. “I suggest ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’ by Meatloaf.”
“That’s not very appropriate, given the circumstances Sir,” I say quickly, before he can break into song. “Surely something like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ would be more fitting?”
“Does it have a guitar solo?”
“It could have!” the Professor chimes in. “It could go something like… Oh ho ho, what have we here?”
I walk straight into the back of Professor Duke, who has planted himself stock still in the centre of the passageway. In turn, The Dean crashes into me, creating a sort of Porter sandwich. Peeking around the Professor, I can see a squat, arched entrance to what can only be the dungeons. This is it!
The Professor strides forward with confidence, only slightly perturbed that he has to crouch a little to pass through the archway. There is a mumble of discontent as he takes off his top hat. I follow through with no such hinderance, what with me only being slightly taller than a small child. Rather unexpectedly, The Dean makes a surprisingly dramatic entrance involving a combat roll and a rallying cry.
Struggling to his feet, The Dean seems to have over stretched himself somewhat and is treating us to some of his more colourful expletives. The Professor sighs and sadly knocks dust from his topper.
“It’s a sad day when a gentleman has to involuntarily remove his own hat,” he says to himself.
My bowler remains defiantly in place. Slowly, my eyes adjust to the gloom and I look about as best I can. We are standing in a cavernous room, the ceiling concealed somewhere above in the murk. I think there might be things hanging from there but that could simply be an over-active imagination. This is certainly a dungeon. We are in the right place – in so far as, we are exactly where we wanted to be. But very little feels right about it.
“Well, then, gentleman,” I say, hands on hips and upper lip stiffened in the traditional British fashion. “Here we are.”
“And seeing as we are here,” continues The Dean “I expect we had better make ourselves useful and start searching for clues!”
Ah, The Dean’s love of searching for clues is unshakable. Although, often ineffective. It’s a good job the chaps have me with them, I tell you.
(Just in case you didn’t spot it… the solution to The Curator’s Puzzle can be seen in the way he has hung the paintings – the wood panelling which surrounds the paintings reveals three numbers… 289! This is the code for the dungeon door.)