“I can resist everything but temptation.”
– Oscar Wilde (an Irishman)
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m doing something REALLY different that I hope you like. I’m posting the second chapter of The Compass Master.
The second chapter, you see, opens in Ireland. In fact a a fair number of the chapters are set there, a few of the most important characters are Irish, and Layla Daltry lives in Dublin. The thing is I’m half Irish and most of my relatives live in the good old Republic. So when I was plotting my thriller it seemed natural to call on that part of my heritage.
Anyway, this second chapter might confuse you if I don’t give you a quickie background on the first chapter. As the story opens, Layla Daltry, hunter of antiquities with an emphasis on ancient books, manuscripts, and other texts written in Europe in the first sixteen centuries A.D., is in Bosnia and finishing her current mission. She has just rescued a precious medieval illuminated manuscript and will soon return it to its rightful owner. But her sense of triumph vanishes when she receives a message from Dr. Quentin Bryson: his scholar wife has passed away and he is about to attend her funeral, but Layla must not come to it because there might be danger.
Layla is devastated by the news. Both of the elderly Dr. Brysons were her closest friends and like loving grandparents. Yet Dr. Maeve Finnegan-Bryson had a great secret she was keeping from Layla? And now Quentin Bryson and that secret are in danger? Layla doesn’t understand and rushes to Ireland.
The Latin words floated over the grave and into the old man’s ears. They promised eternal life for the dead and comfort for the living, but on that November day all he could gather from them was a bitter chill.
There’s too much symmetry in this ceremony, Quentin thought. Words for the dead spoken in a dead language. Dead leaves crackling beneath shoes at the grave’s mouth. Crows like black shrouds stalking worms among headstones.
Crows prefer even rancid carrion to worms, he thought, and they don’t bother with the tiny ones that devour books. Worms that gnaw into the dust-dry pages his wife had loved so much. Maeve had spent the larger measure of her life searching through ancient sheaves and scrolls and books scribbled over in Latin and Greek and Coptic: one dead language, one living, and one banished to obscurity in the corners of a Biblical land.
It was twenty-seven years ago this month that Maeve had rushed back to him from a trip and declared, “I found them!” Her small body shivered with excitement, and she clutched a satchel of notes to her chest.
“You didn’t!” he gasped.
“I did indeed! I found exactly what the American man sent me to look for! The complete records of the nun’s trial, together and untouched and unread by anyone for almost five hundred years. But I read them, Quentin! I read them and they’re the most extraordinary evidence I’ve uncovered in all my years of searching. There’s even a passage in them that refers to the papyrus pages!”
The papyri. The ancient pages she had rescued before they could be burned in a place so forgotten few maps bothered to give it a village’s dot. The five fragile pages that spoke of a secret so extraordinary Maeve herself had never betrayed it.
“…Sed libera nos a malo…” the priest intoned. By church law he should have been saying the prayers in English, or perhaps in Irish, but Quentin had convinced him to use the language of the ancients. It was only fitting, since his wife had lived among them within her brilliant mind.
A movement nearby caught in the corner of his eye where his vision blurred at the open edge of his thick spectacles. His head swiveled toward it, but there were only wintering trees and headstones so old lichen had erased the names once inscribed on them. He wondered if someone was watching the funeral.
“Ghosts!” he mumbled. Of course it would be ghosts that followed his wife to her grave. She had pursued for decades the shadow of something he himself once suspected may no longer exist, until her reputation as a scholar stumbled, never to rise again. She was forced to shut herself away into obscurity, and as time passed she even concealed her unfolding discoveries from him. “The truth won’t set us free,” she had insisted. “It could kill us both.”
But in the end no one killed her. He simply found Maeve sitting at her desk, her face on the broken binding of an old tome, her writing hand stilled in mid-word upon two sheets of paper. Now here he was, burying her with her secrets.
The church’s bell was chiming the half hour when he saw his suspected ghost. It was a stranger – a tall man in a black leather coat with a rectangular face paled by the cold and a dark goatee and a grey knit cap, rendering him the color of ashes and bones. In the next moment the stranger vanished behind a wall. Some snooping journalist come to witness the humble internment of the formerly great Dr. Maeve Finnegan-Bryson, Quentin thought with disgust. To count the few mourners of a woman who had, long ago, commanded respect across the academic world. Maeve my sweetheart, how unjustly this world treated you.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, amen.”
Silence. The old man tilted as if pushed off balance. Somehow the rhythmic intonations of Latin had bound Maeve to him, while in the wordless wake that followed he could feel this last thread unravel, and she was gone. Now he was truly alone, the uncoupled living half of the whole he and his wife had been nearly all their lives.
The priest closed his prayer book and handed it to a young server. He picked up one of the two shovels crossed over the open grave, dug into the nearby mound of earth and dropped a shovelful onto the casket below. Then he held out the shovel to him, the widower.
Quentin stared at it. He stumbled back one step, another, and turned full about. The mourners murmured, “Oh, the poor man!” and clucked their tongues. As he trudged away and out of the cemetery and up the street, the priest hurried after him while the mourners followed in a clump.
It took no more than five minutes for him to walk the distance to his house. A short man with a narrow frame, he had never been strong, and his bald head held only a fraying patch of white hair. But out of habit he walked quickly, his odd gait shifting his upper body back and forth like a bantam rooster, and although his weak eyesight had deteriorated yet more from a lifetime of too much reading, his hearing and other senses were as acute as ever. Hence he felt the mourners and priest dutifully shadowing him and heard their breaths as he unlocked the door and stepped into the foyer. The door to the reception room was open, and in his clouded mind he remembered that he had shut it. He drifted through its doorway. Stopped. A groan flew out of his mouth.
The room was a nightmare! Overturned chairs stuck their legs in the air while the sofa cushions choked out gobs of stuffing. The walls stood naked and the pictures that had crowded them littered the floor, while a Greek statue of Artemis gazed down at her broken arms.
“Holy Mother!” the priest gasped.
The old man swayed on his feet. This was impossible! Someone had broken into their home in this town where serious crimes never trespassed, and vandalized this room and perhaps stolen precious possessions…
In a jolt Quentin pivoted about. “The study!” he cried.
The mourners gaped as he hurled his small body past them and up the stairs and into the room to the right of the landing. What he saw made him contract in pain. The destruction! God have mercy, the destruction! This study that had for so long served as a sanctuary for him and Maeve – he didn’t recognize it. The two desks angled away from their places like crooked skeletons, and their drawers did headstands in front of them. The file cabinet yawned with emptiness. Hundreds of books from the shelves piled crazily over each other on the rug, and blanketing them all was a snow of papers.
Quentin’s eyes fixed in horror on Maeve’s empty desk. The notes she had been writing when she died – where were they? He fell to his knees and raked his hands through the mess.
“Gone!” he gasped. Her precious dying words. Her final, vital notes he had not yet sent away to the hiding place, so distracted had he been in his grief. “Maeve, forgive me!” he moaned.
You were right, you were right, his mind chanted. After all these years and my private doubts, it was you who saw the truth I was blind to. All this time the American has indeed been on the same trail you were on. He never died or gave up, as I insisted he had. All the while you were hunting everywhere for the precious thing that had been hidden so long ago, he was right behind you. And now he has taken your final words, your final uncovered clues. “What is gone can lead to the obliteration of everything,” Quentin whispered. Everything Maeve had dedicated her life to saving. What is gone, and what could yet be stolen, would change history itself.
Somewhere beneath the debris, the telephone rang. He stared in the direction of the sound, barely aware of the priest hurrying into the room and pulling the thing from beneath the rubble, and saying “Bryson residence.” Then the priest repeated a name that made the old man stumble forward and grab the receiver.
“Layla!” he cried. “Is that really you?”
“Quentin, I’m so sorry!” a voice replied. “I only now got your message.”
“You must come at once! Maeve is dead and her secret has been stolen!”
“Secret? What do you mean, secret?”
Quentin realized that the priest was staring at him and cringed at the indiscretion he had committed. Oh, my young friend, he thought, how can I tell you the truth when my own wife hid so much of it from me for my own sake?
(The Compass Master, Copyright 2011)