Authors: Graham Masterton
Nigel said, âI don't think the tower was standing here for very long. At a very rough estimate it was built just before twelve seventy-five, and most likely abandoned during the Black Death, around thirteen forty.'
âOh, yes?' Mark was already trying to work out what equipment they were going to need to shift these stones and where they could dump them. Back at Hazelbury quarry, maybe, where they originally came from. Nobody would ever find them there. Or maybe they could sell them as garden benches. He had a friend in Chelsea who ran a profitable sideline in ancient stones and eighteenth-century garden ornaments, for wealthy customers who weren't too fussy where they came from.
Nigel took hold of Mark's sleeve and pointed to a stone that was still half buried in grass. There were some deep marks chiseled into it. âLook â you can just make out a cross, and part of a skull, and the letters DSPM. That's an acronym for medieval Latin, meaning “
God save us from the pestilence within these walls
âSo whoever lived in this tower was infected with the Black Death?'
âThat's the most obvious assumption, yes.'
Mark nodded. âOK, thenÂ .Â .Â .' he said, and kept on nodding.
âThis is very, very exciting,' said Nigel. âI mean, it's â well! â it could be
, when you come to think of it!'
âYes,' said Mark. He looked around the site, still nodding. âKatie told me you'd found some metal thing.'
! That's the clincher, so far as I'm concerned! At least it
be, if it turns out to be what I think it is!'
He strode back to the place where he had been digging, and Mark reluctantly followed him. Barely visible in the mud was a length of blackened metal, about a meter and a half long and curved at both ends.
âIt's a fireguard, isn't it?' said Mark. Nigel had cleaned a part of it, and he could see that there were flowers embossed on it, and bunches of grapes, and vine tendrils. In the center of it was a lump that looked like a human face, although it was so encrusted with mud that it was impossible to tell if it was a man or a woman.
Mark peered at it closely. âAn old Victorian fireguard, that's all.'
âI don't think so,' said Nigel. âI think it's the top edge of a mirror. And a thirteenth century mirror, at that.'
âNigelÂ .Â .Â . a
, as big as that, in twelve seventy-five? They didn't have glass mirrors in those days, remember. This would have to be solid silver, or silver-plated, at least.'
âExactly!' said Nigel. âA solid silver mirror â five feet across.'
âThat's practically unheard of.'
The Lady of Shalott
was true. She had a mirror, didn't she, not for looking at
, but for looking at the world outside, so that she could weave a tapestry of life in Camelot, without having to look at it directly!
âThere she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colors gay.
She has heard a whisper say
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
âBut moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appearÂ .Â .Â .'
Katie joined in:
âAnd in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights
For often thro' the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot.'
âTop of the class,' said Mark. âNow, how long do you think it's going to take to dig this out?'
âOhÂ .Â .Â . several weeks,' said Nigel. âMonths, even.'
âI hope that's one of your University of Essex jokes.'
âNo, well, it has to be excavated properly. We don't want to damage it, do we? And there could well be other valuable artifacts hidden in the soil all around it. Combs, buttons, necklaces, who knows? We need to fence this area off, don't we, and inform the police, and the British Museum?'
Mark said, âNo, Nigel, we don't.'
Nigel slowly stood up, blinking with perplexity. âMark â we
to! This tower, this mirror â they could change the entire concept of Arthurian legend! They're archeological proof that the Lady of Shalott wasn't just a story, and that Camelot was really here!'
âNigel, that's a wonderful notion, but it's not going to pay off our overdraft, is it?'
Katie said, âI don't understand. If this
the Lady of Shalott's mirror, and it's genuine, it could be worth
âIt could, yes. But not to us. Treasure trove belongs to Her Majesty's Government. Not only that, this isn't our land, and we're working under contract for the county council. So our chances of getting a share of it are just about zero.'
âSo what are you suggesting?' said Nigel. âYou want us to
it again, and forget we ever found it? We can't do that!'
âOh, no,' Mark told him, âI'm not suggesting that for a moment.' He pointed to the perforated vines in the top of the frame. âWe could run a couple of chains through here, though, couldn't we, and use the Range Rover to pull it out?'
âWhat? That could cause
âNigel â everything that happens in this world causes irreparable damage. That's the whole definition of history.'
The rain had stopped completely now and Katie pushed back her hood. âI hate to say it, Mark, but I think you're right.
found this tower,
found this mirror. If we report it, we'll get nothing at all. No money, no credit. Not even a mention in the papers.'
Nigel stood over the metal frame for a long time, his hand thoughtfully covering the lower part of his face.
âWell?' Mark asked him, at last. It was already growing dark, and a chilly mist was rising between the knobbly topped willow-trees.
âAll right, then, bugger it,' said Nigel. âLet's pull the bugger out.'
Mark drove the Range Rover down the hill and jostled along the banks of the ditch until he reached the island of Shalott. He switched on all the floodlights, front and rear, and then he and Nigel fastened towing chains to the metal frame, wrapping them in torn T-shirts to protect the mouldings as much as they could. Mark slowly revved the Range Rover forward, its tires spinning in the fibrous brown mud. Nigel screamed, â
At first the metal frame wouldn't move, but Mark tried pulling it, and then easing off the throttle, and then pulling it again. Gradually, it began to emerge from the peaty soil which covered it, and even before it was halfway out, he could see that Nigel was right, and that it was a mirror â or a large sheet of metal, anyway. He pulled it completely free, and Nigel screamed, â
They hunkered down beside it and shone their flashlights on it. The decorative vine-tendrils had been badly bent by the towing chains, but there was no other obvious damage. The surface of the mirror was black and mottled, like a serious bruise, but otherwise it seemed to have survived its seven hundred years with very little corrosion. It was over an inch thick and it was so heavy that they could barely lift it.
âWhat do we do now?' asked Katie.
âWe take it back to the house, we clean it up, and we try to check out its provenance â where it was made, who made it, and what its history was. We have it assayed. Then we talk to one or two dealers who are interested in this kind of thing, and see how much we can get for it.'
âAnd what about Shalott?' asked Nigel. In the upward beam of his flashlight, his face had become a theatrical mask.
âYou can finish off your survey, Nigel. I think you ought to. But give me two versions. One for the county council, and one for posterity. As soon as you're done, I'll arrange for somebody to take all the stones away, and store them. Don't worry. You'll be able to publish your story in five or ten years' time, and you'll probably make a fortune out of it.'
âBut the island â it's all going to be lost.'
âThat's the story of Britain, Nigel. Nothing
can do can change it.'
They heaved the mirror into the back of the Range Rover and drove back into Wincanton. Mark had rented a small end-of-terrace house on the outskirts, because it was much cheaper than staying in a hotel for seven weeks. The house was plain, flat fronted, with a scrubby front garden and a dilapidated wooden garage. In the back garden stood a single naked cherry tree. Inside, the ground-level rooms had been knocked together to make a living room with a dining area at one end. The carpet was yellow with green Paisley swirls on it, and the furniture was reproduction, all chintz and dark varnish.
Between them, grunting, they maneuvered the mirror into the living room and propped it against the wall. Katie folded up two bath towels and they wedged it underneath the frame to stop it from marking the carpet.
âI feel like a criminal,' said Nigel.
Mark lit the gas fire and briskly chafed his hands. âYou shouldn't. You should feel like an Englishman, protecting his heritage.'
Katie said, âI still don't know if we've done the right thing. I mean, there's still time to declare it as a treasure trove.'
âWell, go ahead, if you want Historical Site Assessment to go out of business and you don't want a third share of whatever we can sell it for.'
Katie went up to the mirror, licked the tip of her finger and cleaned some of the mud off it. As she did so, she suddenly recoiled, as if she had been stung. â
,' she said, and stared at her fingertip. âIt gave me a shock.'
âA shock? What kind of a shock?'
âLike static, you know, when you get out of a car.'
Mark approached the mirror and touched it with all five fingers of his left hand. âI can't feel anything.' He licked his fingers and tried again, and this time he lifted his hand away and said, âOuch! You're right! It's like it's
conductive,' said Nigel, as if that explained everything. âSir John Raseburne wore a silver helmet at Agincourt, and he was struck by lightning. He was thrown so far into the air that the French thought he could fly.'
He touched the mirror himself. After a while, he said, âNo, nothing. You must have earthed it, you two.'
Mark looked at the black, diseased surface of the mirror and said nothing.
That evening, Mark ordered a takeaway curry from the Wincanton Tandoori in the High Street, and they ate chicken Madras and mushroom bhaji while they took it in turns to clean away seven centuries of tarnish.
The Best of Matt Monro
on his CD player. âI'm sorryÂ .Â .Â . I didn't bring any of my madrigals.'
âDon't apologize. This is
First of all, they washed down the mirror with warm, soapy water and cellulose car sponges, until all of the peaty soil was sluiced off it. Katie stood on a kitchen chair and cleaned all of the decorative detail at the top of the frame with a toothbrush and Q-tips. As she worried the mud out of the human head in the center of the mirror, it gradually emerged as a woman, with high cheekbones and slanted eyes and her hair looped up in elaborate braids. Underneath her chin there was a scroll with the single word
âLamia?' said Mark. âIs that Latin, or what?'
,' said Nigel. âIt's the Greek name for Lilith, who was Adam's first companion, before Eve. She insisted on having the same rights as Adam and so God threw her out of Eden. She married a demon and became the queen of demons.
He stepped closer to the mirror and touched the woman's faintly smiling lips. âLamia was supposed to be the most incredibly beautiful woman you could imagine. She had white skin and black eyes and breasts that no man could resist fondling. Just one night with Lamia and
! â you would never look at a human woman again.'
âWhat was the catch?'
âShe sucked all of the blood out of you, that's all.'
âYou're talking about my ex again.'
Katie said, âI seem to remember that John Keats wrote a poem called
, didn't he?'
âThat's right,' said Nigel. A chap called Lycius met Lamia and fell madly in love with her. The trouble is, he didn't realize that she was a bloodsucker and that she was cursed by God.'
âCursed?' said Katie.
âYes, God had condemned her for her disobedience for ever. “Some penanced lady-elfÂ .Â .Â . some demon's mistress, or the demon's self.”'
âLike the Lady of Shalott.'
âWell, I suppose so, yes.'
âPerhaps they were one and the same personÂ .Â .Â . Lamia, and the Lady of Shalott.'
They all looked at the woman's face on top of the mirror. There was no question that she was beautiful; and even though the casting had a simplified, medieval style, the sculptor had managed to convey a sense of slyness, and of secrecy.
âShe was a bit of a mystery, really,' said Nigel. âShe was supposed to be a virgin, d'you see, “yet in the lore of love deep learnÃ¨d to the red heart's core.” She was a bloodsucking enchantress, but at the same time she was capable of deep and genuine love. Men couldn't resist her. Lycius said she gave him “a hundred thirsts”.'
âJust like this bloody Madras chicken,' said Mark. âIs there any more beer in the fridge?'
Katie carried on cleaning the mirror long after Mark and Nigel had grown tired of it. They sat in two reproduction armchairs drinking Stella Artois and eating cheese and onion crisps and heckling
, while Katie applied 3M's Tarni-Shield with a soft blue cloth and gradually exposed a circle of shining silver, large enough to see her own face.