Treasure my foot! Charles thought as he tipped the old wooden chest onto his dolly. He pushed it toward the stairs with a groan. I expected the chest to have some weight, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be as heavy as it is! He paused, testing the balance before fastening the straps that would hold it snug. If I can just get this down the stairs without damaging it or harming myself, I’ll be happy. He tightened his muscles and his grip on the dolly, and slowly lowered the wheels off the landing and down to the first step. At each stair, he paused to ensure the cargo was stable, before lowering to the next one, until he reached the lower landing.
“That’s what happens,” he muttered to himself, “when people inherit old houses from elders who have lived a lifetime in one space and never ventured far from it. Nothing is ever discarded! If a beneficiary is lucky enough to inherit the stuff that I’ve inherited, it should be all neat and orderly, catalogued and classified. It rarely is. Fortunately for me, however, I was blessed with a fastidious family who often referenced their collection.”
Charles recalled how, over the years, the stashes of paraphernalia had often come in handy, especially the reference books, magazines and newspapers. Often during family holidays, the living room would erupt in debate and someone would be sent off to the attic to locate material supporting, or not, a particular point of the current debate.
I miss those debates and loud family gatherings, but I don’t miss being the one dispatched to the attic to find that vital bit of information supporting an argument. Charles chuckled. As a small child, I had been intimidated by the stacks of paper and accumulated assortment of furniture, stored ‘just in case someone might need it sometime’, as Grandpa would say. “But, Grandpa, you didn’t say anything about the spiders and their webs! I’d rather not have inherited them too.” Idly, he scratched behind an ear where he sensed a feather-light tickle.
Now they were all gone: those beloved family members who had collected and sorted and saved every item that had entered through the doors of the old manor, and sometimes the windows, and, on one occasion, the roof. It was all his. A legacy of stuff had fallen to him for disposal.
At the foot of the stairs, he wheeled his cargo into the kitchen. Of all the stuff I’ve had to weed through, I’ve been savouring this chest for last. It has always been shrouded in mystery and now I’m going to discover why.
Charles loosened the fastenings and tipped the trunk onto the floor. Everything else from the attic was gone, sent to local museums, sold, given away, or disposed of as junk. Over the past few months, the lives of his parents and grandparents and those who had passed before them had been reduced to an empty two-story, eight-bedroom, red brick manor, complete with a ballroom and a library of old tomes and records, and one domed chest, which happened to be locked.
Charles reached for a kitchen chair and sank into its leather seat. Now what!
“Hey!” Blanche said, backing her way through the door that separated the kitchen from a mud room, dangling grocery bags from each hand. She sat the bags on the counter and ran her fingers through her damp hair. “So that’s it!” She nodded toward the chest.
“Yes,” Charles replied with a grin. “The last item in the attic has finally escaped.”
“Is it as heavy as we thought?” Blanche asked, emptying the shopping bags and putting away her purchases.
“It is,” Charles replied. He placed his elbows on the table and propped his chin on his fists, frowning. “And, it’s locked.”
“Oh, how intriguing!” Blanche said, lowering herself into an unoccupied chair. “A medieval security system?”
The young husband and wife studied the locked chest.
“Could be,” Charles said, fingering the padlock. “Although I think it’s likely early Victorian. And, I seem to recall Grandma telling me when I was a kid that the chest is made from olive wood.”
“Olive wood!” Blanche ran her hand reverently across the domed lid. “Double intriguing.
“See here,” Charles said, stroking the sides. “Grandma told me that, under this leather skin and the reinforcing wooden slats, is another box made of solid olive wood one-and-a-half inches thick. These slats and leather handles are fastened to the sides with steel trims, and three steel hinges fastened the lid to the box.”
“Heavy-duty stuff!” Blanche said. She ran her hand across the lid on the opposite side. “The hinges on this side seem to mirror your side.”
“Yes, and the steel padlock in the centre of ‘my’ side suggests to the uninformed eye that it is the only lock, however, I happen to know that the two steel fasteners on either side of the padlock have hidden keyholes.” He gave his wife a mischievous wink.
Charles jiggled the padlock. It held fast. Then he remembered the odd-shaped key that he had received from his mother’s solicitor during the reading of her last will and testament. He had twisted it onto the ring that held the manor key, so he would keep track of it. Now, he reached into his pocket and pulled it out. The old key fit into the padlock perfectly and, when he twisted the key, the padlock popped open. With his thumb, he flicked the covers of the two hidden locks and tried the key again, finding success with each turn.
“Very clever,” Blanche said, noting the efficient manner in which he had opened the chest. “I wouldn’t have thought to flick the tabs.”
“I saw my grandfather do that once a long time ago,” Charles said. “I had been exploring in the attic. He didn’t know I was up there, and when I heard him on the stairs, I scooted into a shadow. I don’t know why I hid. I had no reason to fear him or the fact that I was up there without permission. But, that day, I felt like an intruder. I watched as Grandpa wiped the latches with a rag, then went back downstairs. I guess he was lubricating them. I imagine that if he didn’t lubricate them once in a while, the locks would have corroded.” Charles ran his hand over the lid again as he remembered that day. “As soon as my grandfather was out of ear-shot, I scooted downstairs, listening carefully to determine where he was, then set off in the opposite direction.”
“So, are you going to open it?” Blanche asked, her words breaking Charles’ reverie.
“You bet!” Charles lifted the lid slowly, listening to the groan of the old hinges. The lid was heavier than he anticipated, and as the weight of it shifted, he slowly lowered it as far as it would open.
“What’s this, Mom?” he asked the air. “What are you trying to tell us?”
He fingered his way through a layer of neatly placed journals with red covers.
“Mmm, smells musty,” Blanche said, “like old memories. What are those?” She stood on tiptoe to peer over his shoulder, then reached around him to pick up one of the red books, and read the title written on the cover in a neat script.
“Each of these journals holds an initial outline for the manuscripts that Mom wrote.” Charles picked up several and flipped through pages. “I’ve watched her write and sketch in many of them over the years.”
“Ya,” Blanche replied with enthusiasm. “I recognize some of the titles.” She frowned. “But, not all of them.”
“That’s ‘cause some of them are working titles that were changed at a later point, prior to publication.” Charles lifted the journals out of the chest and stacked them on the table. “These, on the other hand, I have never seen before.” He collected what appeared to be several small diaries, tidily bound together with pink ribbons. Each packet contained ten such diaries.
“Look,” Blanche said, pointing to the labelling. “They’re all labelled ‘My Life’ with a year noted. Wow! Your mom has a diary for almost every year of her life!”
Charles sorted the piles of diaries by decades. “This seems to be the earliest stack,” he said. “It has only four books, and the first one is dated 1906. He untied the ribbon and flipped through the pages of each of the diaries. He grabbed another bundle, and then another. “Look! You can watch her handwriting mature with each year!”
“This is the most recent stack,” Blanche said, lifting a bundle bearing dates within the last decade and setting them down again. A diary bearing the current year lay unbound, on top of the others. “May I?” She held it up for Charles to see.
“Go ahead,” Charles said, feeling apprehensive.
Blanche flipped the pages until she reached the last of the handwriting.
“This last entry is dated three weeks ago,” she said, “the day before your mom went into the hospital. She must have known something was amiss. I mean . . . for her to put this last one in the trunk. That would have taken some effort to climb the stairs to the attic, open the trunk . . .” Blanche let her words fall away.
“Let’s leave them for now,” Charles said. “I’m not sure I’m ready to read Mom’s intimate thoughts just yet.”
They retied the pink ribbons that had been loosened and set the diaries in piles next to the manuscript journals.
“What’s this?” Charles said, lifting three leather-bound journals of differing shapes and thicknesses from the chest. “These are altogether different from Mom’s journals and diaries, and they’re numbered.”
“How curious!” Blanche said peering over Charles’ shoulder again.
“This one seems very old.” Charles said, fingering the cover of the journal marked with a number one. “See how the ‘one ‘is written. He set the journal on the kitchen table, and carefully lifted the cover. The script seems old too, maybe French or German. He tapped his finger at the top of the first page of writing.
“Look at this!” he exclaimed, making space for Blanche to stand next to him. “Look at the dates and the way the entries are written. This seems to be an index of sorts, numbers corresponding to items.”
“I can’t read any of it,” she said. “You’re the historian and antiquities scholar. Can you?”
“Well . . . this is a date.” Charles finger tapped on the page. “May 25th, 1505. The paper is vellum.” He lifted the top corner of the page gently. He looked up at Blanche, wide-eyed. “If I’m reading this entry correctly, there is an item in the chest that was acquired, and recorded, in 1505. Apparently, the item was used as a seal by the Hanseatic League.”
“Hey! Wasn’t the name of your mom’s first novel ‘The Hanseatic Seal’?” Blanche remarked.
“Indeed,” Charles replied, scanning other items on the list. “Here’s another entry, dated 1602. It describes the recent acquisition of a pewter plate.”
“One of your mom’s subsequent novels was called ‘The Pewter Plate!’” Blanche declared.
“This appears to be the source of my mother’s ideas for her novels,” Charles said, continuing to scan the pages of lists, turning each page with great care. Finally, he closed the ancient book and reached for a modest looking volume. “This one has more recent dates, starting from 1896.” He tipped the book for Blanche to see.
“Look!” she said. “The entries recorded over the last fifty years seem to have been written in the same hand. Isn’t that your mother’s writing.”
Charles closed his eyes and nodded.
“And the writing preceding her’s is my great grandfather’s.” Charles opened his eyes and peered at Blanche.
“This is a lot to take in,” he said, “ and more work will be required to authenticate everything, but . . .” He shook his head trying to digest the curious revelations. “It seems that my mother acquired the more recent items herself.”
He set the volume on the kitchen counter and reached for the pile of diaries dating from 1940 to 1950. He untied the pink ribbon and withdrew the diary dated 1946. As he flipped through the pages, he heart began to beat faster. He placed the diary on the counter, next to the index volume, and tapped a shaking finger on the entries. “This entry,” he said pointing to the index, “says ‘six gold buttons from the Fuhrer’. And here . . .” He indicated the handwriting of his mother’s diary. “Mom explains how she acquired the buttons and that, before she could sew them on Hitler’s new uniform, he took his life and the war was over.”
“Your mother was a Nazi sympathizer!” Blanche blurted in astonishment. “I never would have guessed.”
“No! No, she wasn’t,” Charles said. He flipped back and fourth amongst the pages. “It appears she was a British spy! She was under cover and employed by the Fuhrer as a tailor!” He snapped the diary shut and reached for another one marked 1943.
“Her novel! ‘The Fuhrer’s Buttons’! That’s about her, isn’t it?”
“It’s certainly seems to be based on her experiences,” Charles replied.
Blanche snatched a diary marked 1941 and flipped the pages as well.
“Wow!” she exclaimed. “This one talks about working with Albert Einstein!”
For the next while, the young man and his wife read and chatted about his mother’s work, and her experiences, and they marveled at what they had yet to discover – not only the contents of her diaries, but the treasure that lay in a maze of numbered boxes at the bottom of the olive trunk. My quiet, stately mother, who never had so much as a hair out of place! Words jumped off each page, holding them spellbound. The diary entries recorded in his mother’s hand had become the seeds of her novels, and the adventures that her protagonists encountered were based on her own.
“My gosh,” he whispered in awe, “what a life you led, Mom, and I had no idea!”