‘Now, the second act, as it were. I shall assume this goes no further and you will not act upon it, unlike Van Zelden. The Reserved Manuscript Depository at King James University, Edenborough is little known outside academic circles. Access is strictly by written appointment to the university and one must sign a waiver absolving them from liability. Only then will Solomon Drake, the Chief Librarian, ask you to sign the visitors’ book, which he keeps below the desk. It is an old book, dating to the mid-eighteen-eighties. I dare say it would be enlightening to discover the names of the good the bad and the mad who have frequented the depository, but Mr Drake would never permit it. Well, almost never: he did once make an exception for me. The legalities dealt with, Mr Drake takes a large iron key and escorts you through a small iron door into a windowless antechamber. Once it was lit solely by candlelight, but early last century gas was installed and this still serves today. No mains or battery-powered equipment is allowed inside. On entering, your attention is drawn to the iron cage in the centre of the room and the reading desk and chair within. A man may comfortably stand inside that cage and touch any two of its five sides at once. The bars are about a hand’s width apart and the base is solid iron. I advise thermal socks.’
Tried to lighten the moment there but not even the flicker of a smile from O. Assume I don’t need to tell him it’s iron because magick cannot abide iron or any of its alloys. Editors lead frightfully dull lives and as the Depository is the nearest I get to anything actually perilous I like to make the most of it.
‘All said,’ I continue, ‘it is an appalling room and many give up at this point. Assuming your nerve holds, you sit at the reading desk within the cage and wait while Mr Drake retrieves the requested texts from the strongroom. These are in copper-lined boxes, which he places on the reading desk. Do not attempt to touch them just yet.’
‘Then comes a little speech. The reader must not open the boxes until Mr Drake has exited and locked the door of the cage. Cotton gloves must be worn at all times when reading; Mr Drake places these on the desk. When you have done, you must return the manuscripts to the boxes exactly as you found them – this will be checked – and dispose of the gloves in the waste bin. Believing you are over-awed by this litany, Mr Drake attempts to reassure you by smiling. You are not reassured. Lastly, Mr Drake tugs at a rope suspended from the ceiling and you hear a bell ring in the distance. This, Mr Drake assures you, will bring someone to release you from the cage.
‘Now, I dare say you assume this is all to prevent theft, yes?’
O shrugs. I have no idea if this is in reply to my question or mere indifference. There’s something odd on the ceiling above his head. Wonder if it’s a spider’s web catching in the light. Damned if I can see it properly and I can hardly stare at it. Take a sip of whisky. Need water. Bit of pork scratching caught in a tooth.
‘Well, you are partly correct,’ I tell O. ‘I have been in that ghastly room three times and each I think more unpleasant than the last.
‘But, back to Van Zelden. Several months after the encounter in New Amsterdam, I was reading a minor, but fascinating, monograph by Organ Morgan in the King James University reading room when I noticed Van Zelden at the enquiry desk. Of course, I guessed immediately why he was there. He was following up my unfortunate admission of the whereabouts of MacGregor’s books. So, I hid my head behind Organ Morgan and overheard Mr Drake telling Van Zelden he needed an appointment for the “cell”. For a moment, I thought Van Zelden’s charm might shatter; but no, he was all smiles at the desk and only the slight twitch of his head as he walked away betrayed his impatience. He has a nervous tic, have you noticed? It’s only apparent when he thinks no one is looking.
‘Excuse me one moment. Quite warm.’
If I don’t loosen my tie I’ll gasp. Should have asked for water with the whisky. Still, take a sip to wet the pipes.
‘Some time after Van Zelden had left I returned Organ Morgan to the desk and asked of him. Solomon Drake was not immediately forthcoming, but I explained I had met Van Zelden some months previous and knew he was interested in MacGregor.
‘Ah, indeed? Drake replied. That would explain why the gentleman asked if we held anything on magick, theosophy, and hermeneutics from MacGregor’s library. I thought it unusual he should know exactly where we might keep such works.
‘Of course, most embarrassing. Drake knew I’d spilled the beans, as it were. For obvious reasons the library doesn’t advertise the sort of works it holds in the Reserved Manuscript Depository. I enquired if Van Zelden had mentioned me at all. In reply, Drake raised an eyebrow and asked if I wanted him to mention my name when Van Zelden returned.
‘That was the very last thing I wanted. Instead, I asked Drake if he thought Van Zelden would return. Drake stared solemnly at the door to the Depository.
‘Oh yes, he said. He’ll be back.’
Really, I have to do something. I’m gasping. Pork scratchings have done for me.
‘You’ll have to excuse me a moment. Need a glass of water.’
Jonathan is round at the other bar. Bunch of lads in the back room. All leathers and beards. No doubt the owners of the motorbikes outside. Red Lion draws a rough crowd at times. I try to catch Jonathan’s eye.
‘One moment there, Nevil. Serving these gentlemen.’
I glance back at O and catch him staring at the fire. He’s dressed entirely in black. Hadn’t noticed that before.
‘Right, Nevil, what can I get you?’
‘Oh, just a glass of tonic water. Bit dry from all this talking.’
‘So long as you’re happy, that’s what counts.’
‘What? Oh yes, suppose so. Chap from my publisher. Interview.’
‘Quiet sort, isn’t he.’
‘Oh, you noticed that as well. Hardly heard a blasted word he said, frankly. Still, keep our voices down. Don’t want him overhearing.’
‘No, Nevil. Wouldn’t want that, would we.’
He gives me a wink and I give him a coin for the tonic water. I take a sip and it instantly hits the spot and dislodges the pork scratching. I rejoin O. Rather wish I hadn’t put us so close to the damn fire. The log Jonathan put on has really caught.
‘Where were we?’ I say.
O turns to face me. He has the most extraordinarily long face and frightfully dark eyes. Reminds me of an African mask I once saw. Still, mustn’t let it bother me. H&D surely know what they’re doing.
‘Van Zelden, that’s where–’ found my place again ‘–of course, I can only give you my version of events, but I think you’ll find I’m perfectly reliable. I seldom pay attention to celebrity and show business, but, knowing Van Zelden’s interest in MacGregor I went to one of his shows in Lunden. Most disturbing. I have no sympathy for the dark arts, but, if one’s expertise is Scottish literature one cannot help learning something about magick. Van Zelden’s talent for psychic manipulation and divination was beyond rational explanation. It was obvious he had acquired, as he put it to me in New Amsterdam, the real thing, complete with speaking-in-tongues and spitting blood, which was utterly ghastly and so unhygienic. It brought applause from his audience and, so I later discovered, condemnation from the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Quite right to. Whatever Van Zelden had sought in MacGregor’s books, it was obvious he had found something. I wrote to him immediately, warning of the danger he was in, but he never replied. Then, last year, Van Zelden announced in The Times that he was the first practising seer in public view in over a century and the heir to Sir Tamburlaine Bryce MacGregor!’
I sit back expecting some sort of reaction from O, but it’s the same enigmatic stare.
‘Anyway, you can imagine what I thought of that. I had given Van Zelden what he wanted, and now he accused MacGregor, to whom I had given half a lifetime of study, of witchcraft.’
I’m getting quite cross recalling all this. Slow down and take a sip of tonic water. Look after yourself old chap. Don’t get flustered.
‘Frankly, I was furious. I learned of Van Zelden’s claim a few days earlier when The Times contacted me in my capacity as secretary of the Sir Tamburlaine Bryce MacGregor Society. I refuted Van Zelden completely; I had the evidence of MacGregor’s journals and twenty-eight years of research. The reporter seemed sympathetic to my argument, but it was a charade. The published article ignored everything I said. No offence–’ I lean forward ‘–but in my experience journalists prefer a good story to good facts. One or two scholars dismissed Van Zelden’s claims, but the majority had no opinion and a few even agreed with him.
Obviously, I had to do something. So, I proposed a new edition of This Iron Race to counter Van Zelden’s lies and Hare and Drum agreed. Which brings us here.’
Not that he’s taken a blind bit of notice of where we are and he’s still not touched his pint. Still, not my coin so why let it bother me. On with the story.