It was dark by six, and by six thirty they were in a punt near one of the larger grates. Henry had plotted the possibilities on a map and regarded this as the likeliest option. Marko opened a carpet bag, and much to Sebastian’s surprise, Lady Glossop set to work with a pair of narrow files.
“This padlock is new” she said. “This has been used recently.” Hopefully that was a good sign.
They opened the grate, and were able to punt inside, their lamps illuminating the dank interior.
Inside was a small dock for punts, where several dozen were stowed awaiting the following summer. There were also a couple tied up. A short series of steps led up to an apparently blank wall, but realising that there was space behind it, a few moments searching revealed a switch which swung a section open, revealing a set of steps leading up perhaps thirty feet into a small chamber. A lever here swung another section of wall open, and emerged onto a paved tunnel; they were hit with a gust of warmer air and cooking smells. In the distance could be heard the clatter of a kitchen. Bertie gave a thumbs up, as they filed into the darkened tunnel., and Lady Glossop, clad in dark riding breeches and a black silk blouse, motioned as she crept ahead.
“Wonder if she’ll keep her top on this time?” wondered Bertie. He glanced briefly at Marko, who raised his eyebrows and smiled.
Ahead of her as she headed towards the clatter, the corridor tuned a sharp right angle right. She peered round and saw that shortly thereafter it turned another sharp right angle left. The noises were a little clearer here.
Her lantern caught a detail on the wall opposite the corner, and she crept over and examined it. At the top of the wall was the etched symbol of a pair of crossed compasses, and below there were other carvings; she motioned the others over.
Ponsonby had spoken of a hidden door discovered by Choker and the Russian, and they still had the cryptic message taken from MacPherson. As they fiddled a hidden door swung open, revealing a small, bare room.
“I say” said Bertie, “An old Priest’s Hole. There was rumoured to be one somewhere below decks.”
“On the Serpent and the Lightning, Dexter Fess of the Priest Hole, touch the Hidden God in Solomon’s Keystone” said Marko, recalling the cryptic clue they had discovered.
Well right of the Priest’s Hole is this compass thingy." said Bertie. “Wait a minute. Solomon’s Keystone: the keystone is at the top of an arch. And Solomon’s Keystone – Temple of Solomon – trouser wigglers.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Sebastian.
“Trouser wiggler chaps. Secret handshakes. Freemasons!” said Bertie smugly. It dawned on some of them that compasses were a symbol associated with Freemasonry. They pressed the small symbol in the centre of the compasses, and another door swung silently open.
Proceeding from Solomon’s Keystone, a four-foot wide passage emerged onto a narrow, rail-less stone bridge, twenty five feet long, which crossed a wide, cylindrical well. The ceiling was five feet above, and to either side of the bridge, the well plunged into the darkness.
Reaching across this was a brass cantilever bridge. Looking at it dubiously, Sebastian motioned for the others to wait while he crossed.
On the far side they could see an arch with a statue of the Grim Reaper standing next to it. Ominously, a series of skulls were carved into the arch stones surrounding the portal.
As he stepped on he fealt a click, and the bridge seemed to tilt slightly. Increasing his pace Sebastian soon realised his mistake. More clicks were heard and the others saw that with a hiss of gears and hidden mechanisms the surface twisted and tilted, threatening to dump their companion into the dark well.
Sebastian saw that he was now going to make it, as the floor tilted a full ninety degrees to the vertical, and his stomach lurched. With a final effort he kicked the bottom edge before he slid completely of, and made a leap in the darkness. His fingers reached and he caught, literally by his fingertips, the edge of the ledge outside the Skull Portal. Panting he managed to drag himself up.
With a groan of gears and clicks, the bridge slowly righted itself.
“There are symbols on the floor of the bridge” said Henry, who had been watching closely. There seemed to be four different types, repeated in two foot by two foot squares across the length of the bridge. They were all variations on a triangle.
“I wonder if they represent the elements” pondered Bertie. “Alchemy and all that. Earth, Air, Fire and Water?” The others shrugged.
“I’m going to try something” he announced. Stepping lightly, he jumped on identical symbols all the way across, and arrived safely.
“Easy” he beamed. Hesitantly, the others followed.
“This way chaps” he said, stepping through the portal. A click told him he shouldn’t have, and as he fealt the rush of air he dived forwards into the room, feeling a burning pain as a blade scythed out from the wall, ruining his jacket and narrowly missing inflicting a serious wound. With several clicking noises, the blade withdrew into the wall.
“Pressure plate” said Lady Glossop. “Just jump over it.”
The octagonal chamber had recently been ransacked, but was clearly some sort of ancient library.
“Must be valuable” whistled Bertie. “Look at this: ’ Bibliotheca Occulta,” or “Circle of Eight”; until now. I bet no one knew such a place even existed.”
There were hundreds of scrolls and handwritten grimoires lining its shelves, but much had clearly ben removed. In the centre were several crates similar to some they had seen in Choker’s cellar. No doubt he ha been busy stealing them.
On the opposite wall, which was free of books, was an elaborate stone door carved into the wall, with no obvious way to open in. In the door’s centre was a carved stone cherubic head, with pouting lips; traces of once rich paint could still be seen.
Egged on by Bertie, Lady Glossop made a face and kissed the pouting lips. Immediately she wished she hadn’t as she experienced a burning sensation, even as the door clicked as the stone mouth receded as the door opened.
“Poison” she screeched, wiping her mouth. But now they had other problems.