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by David J. Burnham

Table of Contents
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
part 2 of 3

Mathilde had assembled all of the staff and plied them with fine wines, seeming to be in better spirits than they had known for years. Eventually she had poured them all one final drink, a brandy from a flask that none of them recognised, but was assumed to have been purchased on her expedition that day. She toasted their good health and long life, which, considering her melancholic obsession, seemed odd in retrospect, but they thought nothing of it at the time and had made their way to bed. It was only when they came to that they realised that the drink which had concluded the evening had been heavily laced with a sleeping draft. Indeed, it had been so strong that it had rendered them unconscious until the very morning of the Master’s return. They had searched the house, but there was no sign of Mathilde, nor of the mysterious man in black.

The drawing room, however, had been locked from the inside and they could elicit no response from their frenzied hammerings. Mathilde’s panic-striken husband broke the door in and ran to an open window, but there was nothing to be seen. Turning, he walked back unsteadily and stopped in his tracks. Folded neatly on the table in front of him were one of his wife’s most magnificent dresses and all of her undergarments, her beautiful shoes stood on top of the pile, and in front of them rested a note, in her hand.

“My darling husband. I have left to be with my angels, such that I might live again, in better times. Forgive me, my dearest, for I know that I have hurt you, but rest assured that this is the only way that I might find peace. You will find another, in time, and I pray that you might find a happiness with her that I could never offer. Please do this with my blessing. Your loving wife. Mathilde.”

He looked up from the note, tears running down his cheeks, and through swimming eyes he saw the blurred outline of an open wooden crate, a golden urn in its midst. Such was his anguish that he paid it little attention and ran from the room, crying for help.

They found two sets of footprints below the window to the drawing room, one belonged to a man, the other to a barefooted woman. The conclusion was obvious. She had left him for another, although he could not, and never would, understand the contents of the note.

Had they disregarded that reflexive assumption and measured the footprints, then they would have found another mystery. Mathilde had had dainty little feet, but the impression was of a much larger woman! As it was, he had drawn his conclusions and that was the end of the matter. In many ways it was probably better that he went forward with that supposition, at least there were fewer unanswered questions.

He did eventually remarry, following a period of anger, despair and acceptance, punctuated by another revolt. He was blessed with three wonderful daughters and when their parents passed away, the contents of the house were divided equally amongst the grown women, as there was no son and heir and they had lives and families of their own to consider.

* * *

Françoise studied the final page. It bore an exquisite lithograph of a golden urn, strangely shaped and with no obvious function. Vines, cast in silver, threaded their way from its base to the mounted ruby at the summit, to all intents and purposes it could be nothing other than an extraordinary ornament. It was a strange and disarming story, and yet she couldn’t understand why the old documents had alluded to it with such a passion.

She continued to scrutinise the picture, then something caught her eye. At the centre of the vessel was a heart-shaped casting and, by adjusting the magnification on her glasses, further detail was revealed. Etched into the border of the heart motif, were tiny moons, chasing one another around the perimeter, as they waxed and waned. At its centre lay an hourglass with a third of its sand run through, but the grains sprayed upwards, defying gravity, frozen in time. All at once, she realised.

She slept fitfully for a few hours, the old volume resting next to her on the bed. When she awoke, she lifted the book to her bosom, slid on a pair of incongruously fluffy slippers and plodded off to the computer room. She swiftly ran the hand scanner over the picture of the urn, logged on to a sophisticated search engine and pasted the image into the relevant database search field. With a mixture of anticipation, in what she hoped to find, and fear that the internet catalogues wouldn’t contain such an unusual antiquity, she set it running.

There were in excess of a thousand similar matches, but for the first hour she found nothing but companies who manufactured prize-winners’ cups, commercial Chai urns, specialist vases for flower arranging, Greek and Roman wine pitchers and a preponderance of funereal urns (although the irony of the latter — in respect of the nature of her quest — caused her some amusement).

She narrowed down the search to examine private collections and museums, and was finally rewarded with a match. The picture was slightly pixelated, but by running it through her image manipulation software, there was no mistaking its characteristic form and detail. Its present location was Le Musée des Beaux Arts. She was in luck! The museum was only half a kilometre from La Rue des Fous, so she dressed quickly, and set off.

She could barely contain her excitement, as the auto-booth at the entrance to the museum processed her details and dropped a complimentary guide into the tray along with her receipt and returned credchip. She practically skipped into the foyer, causing a few raised eyebrows from fellow octogenarians, so she opted for discretion and sat down on a handy bench, in order to examine the booklet.

A thrill ran through her as she located the relevant section as being on the second level of the building, but moved off more sedately than before, not wishing to draw attention to herself. In her plain little outfit, sensible shoes and with modestly trimmed, grey hair, she blended in with the majority of the other visitors; other than those who had taken advantage of L'Institut Dermatalogique and had turned back the physical clock (outwardly, at any rate). No-one would have guessed that this innocent little old lady was, in fact, casing the joint.

On arriving at the second level, she resisted the temptation to break into a trot, pretending to be deeply engrossed in the exhibits between the main stairway and her goal. At last, at the far end of the main hall, and tucked off in an insignificant but luckily empty antechamber. There it was. On the wall above it hung an oil painting and despite the aging brushstrokes and a patina of dust, the captivating form of a beautiful young woman shone through. She would have been in her mid-twenties, at the time the portrait was painted, with a blue velvet jacket and a long, layered, voluminous green dress, gathered painfully about the waist by an underlying corset. The subject wore a melancholic expression.

‘Mathilde!’ Françoise whispered, under her breath. The golden urn was even more stunning than she had imagined, set on a square base, itself engraved with the months and seasons. The lower half of the bowl was ribbed, like an ostentatious jelly mould, the upper half bore a relief map of the Northern hemisphere, with the familiar heart-shaped casting over Europe; stubby handles stuck out each side, in the form of a pair of clenched fists. It rose up to a miniature, but fabulously ornate, clock tower at its apex, a huge ruby mounted in a claw at its summit. Sliver vines curled up from the base, attached to the surface of the vessel by fine, thread-like filaments, exquisitely tiny green enamelled leaves grew from the stems as they entwined the foot of the clock tower and threaded their way around it, gripping it tightly.

As she adjusted her glasses she could discern no junction between the distinct upper and lower halves, and thermal imaging showed it to be as cold as ice. She reached out to touch the glass surface, wondering if the urn might be sealed in an icy vacuum for preservation, as seemed to be the case with many of the exhibits. It was cool, of a single layer and set in a metal frame, but not as cold as the thermal image, so it was the urn itself that was at a low temperature.

She glanced at her hand and the heat radiating from it, so there was nothing wrong with the function of her spectacles. She switched them back to high magnification and proceeded to check the entire area around the display case for any sign of security devices or an alarm system. It seemed to be clear of both.

The problem that she faced was purely one of size. The urn was 60 centimetres across at its widest point and about the same in height, from the base to the ruby. This wasn’t something that she would be able to slip under her coat. She gazed at her quarry for ages, her emotions swinging from excitement, to despair and then to a moment of rationality in which she chided herself for being so foolish in even entertaining such a ludicrous notion. She longed to run her fingers over its surface, to unravel its secrets. So near and yet, tantalisingly, so far.

After a while, a cleaner came in, trundling a large trolley, stacked with brushes, electrostatic dusters, hand-held battery-powered vacuum units and all manner of hygiene related paraphernalia. Her activities were practically superfluous to the pristine, seldom-visited environment, but nevertheless she dutifully went through a well rehearsed sequence of steps, before turning to leave Francoise in her solitudinous reverie.

She listened to the cleaner shuffling through the doorway and off into the main second level exhibition hall. With one final glance at the painting, Francoise vacated the antechamber and headed back to the stairs. As she reached the top, she caught sight of the cleaner waiting for a lift. Feigning decrepitude, she sidled up alongside and joined her when it arrived.

She got out at the lower ground floor and pretended to examine the bizarre collection of grotesque stuffed toys, whilst subtly shadowing the cleaning woman. She watched her open a door at the end of the corridor, push the trolley through and close it behind her. Moments later she heard another door close, and through a floor to ceiling window she saw her walking up a ramp, divested of her uniform, up onto the pavement outside the museum, and off out of sight. Her heart raced. Could she do it?

Inside the service room Françoise busily flung everything out of the trolley and dropped its canvassed side panels back into place, having rolled up her coat and stuffed it in the far end. She located the cleaners’ lockers and briefly experimented with the various uniforms and hats, until she found an outfit which fitted her. Once prepared, she took a deep breath and opened the door back into the museum, checked to make sure that the coast was clear, pushed the trolley out and closed the door again.

At the lift she crossed her fingers, heart in mouth, praying that it would be empty. The doors slid apart. No passengers. She wasted no time in crossing the second level exhibition hall and swung the trolley into the antechamber, where she had stood only twenty minutes previously. From a pocket beneath her uniform she produced a small surgical laser and deftly cut around the front of the frame.

A single tap in the right place and the glass fell towards her. She caught it carefully, wearing a pair of thick rubber gloves that had been hanging off the back of the trolley (to avoid cutting herself and so as not to leave fingerprints) and leant it on the panelled surface below the display case. Gripping one of the fist-shaped handles she started to heave the urn forwards, relieved that her careful security survey had been correct and that no alarms were sounding, at least, none that she could hear. She could feel the chill from the vessel, even through the gloves, and was surprised by its weight. She paused to assess the situation.

A few minutes later she had discovered wheel locks on the trolley, so she’d parked it parallel to the display case, lifted the side panels, thrown caution to the wind, by dragging and scraping a bench seat across the floor, and was currently turning it into a slide, by flipping it upside down and wedging it between the lower shelf on the trolley and the cabinet. She threw out the central shelf from the trolley and grabbed a length of stout rope, coiled beneath her coat on the lower shelf (she’d spotted the rope in the service room and had taken it on a whim).

Using the laser, she cut a small hole in the wooden base of the cabinet, behind the urn itself and inserted a metal pole into it, from one of the telescopic handles that allowed the cleaner to reach into high corners with an electrostatic duster. She heaved the urn round by 90° and tied one end of the rope off on the handle closest to the pole. She looped it twice around the pole, then tensed it and tied it off on a cross-piece between the legs of the bench seat.

Little by little she manoeuvred the urn to the edge of the cabinet and onto the lip at the top of the bench slide. As it started to tilt, she untied the rope from between the bench legs, wrapped it a couple of times back around the cross-piece, and holding onto the rope firmly, she gave the urn a nudge. Steadily feeding out the rope, the vessel slid down the bench towards the lower trolley shelf.

The metal pole bent ominously and the bench creaked, but everything held firm and she was able to pivot the urn on its square base and swing it onto the trolley. Swiftly untying the rope, she dropped the canvas side panels, unlocked the wheels and headed for the main hall, and the lift.

She had a nasty moment as she made her way along the lower ground floor corridor. A museum security man was making his final rounds to clear the place of any stragglers, and he was walking towards her. Françoise pretended not to see him at first, but as they passed he cleared his throat and she feared the worst.

Proceed to the conclusion...

Copyright © 2005 by D. J. Burnham

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