An excerpt [fragments + Chapter VI] from:
by Alida Baxter, published by Arrow Books, London, 1980
[...] And now this - this latest nightmare, this suicide mission described as an assignment: a series of humourous articles about travelling with an American tour package; the total confirmation of his Editor's sadistic streak. A coach bouncing along on a suspect rear axle, with an offside rear wheel that looked like a bundle of firewood.
[...] As if it weren't enough, jolting along on an unfinished axle - there was no doubt whatsoever in his mind that these men were the official guides or observers so often provided behind the Iron Curtain by considerate local governments. The way they had appeared had been quite sufficient: it had happened a couple of days ago: at night, when the group went to bed, these two hadn't been there - in the morning, when the group got up, there they were - sprung out of the ground (although not very far) like garden gnomes. [...]
[...] Directly above the caravan now rose the foreparts of the castle. It had an iron-studded gateway, which stood open, a dimly-discernible portcullis and no moat. Immense in its own right, it was made even more impressive by its situation - on a shelf of ground, the last plateau before the mountain lifted away in a surge of pines and rock. From its height it dominated the thread of road, the lower sweeps of forest, the yet lower valleys; it was approached in its omnipotence by the three coaches as Colditz might have been approached by ants.
Vast, awesome: it was terrifying. Every heart chilled. Every single horse stopped short and stopped suffering from constipation.
As one, Mrs. Bernini, Mrs. Milesi and Mrs. Franconi started feverishly saying their rosaries.
And the coachmen applied their whips and their curses to the horses, and the dusty train lurched awkwardly and rattled on again. [...]
[...] Dim and cool above him, somewhere, intanglibly distant, was a ceiling. And between Warner and the ceiling's giddying height stretched what looked like a Xanadu set from Citizen Kane.
An immense hall, out of which ran not one but two staircases, one off in the gloom at the far end, and one to his right; both wide enough to accommodate several massed choirs and still permit traffic to pass easily up and down to the galleries.
On the left loomed a fireplace in which it would have been possible to park a couple of hearses and a yacht, end to end. Tapestries dense as nightmares hung on either side of this hearth, obviously ready to be cut into suits for King Kong, while portraits that would have dwarfed the weak creature flanked the staircase on the opposing wall.
Dark oak tables the size of dance floors stood at intervals of a few yards down the length of the hall, and above them, strung from quadrupled chains that terminated unseen in the remote vaulted roof, depended gigantic chandeliers.
The light fell reluctantly into this furnished abyss from high, leaded windows; the windows frowning down from between the upper and lower galleries. And the galleries themselves, gleaming and ballustraded, were draped here and there with more tapestries and carpets.
On every level massive doors and eerie corners led off into unimaginable distances, corridors, uncharted chambers of the castle. [...]
Leopold and Demyan sat side by side on the four-poster bed and stared up at the canopy.
They had not taken off their hats, they had not removed their shoes, not opened their cardboard suitcases. They were in a state of nature, and they were very gloomy.
"You," said Leopold to Demyan, and Demyan said, "No. You."
This dialogue did not take place in English.
"It was me last time," said Leopold to Demyan, and Demyan said, "You're good at it."
They went on staring at the canopy for a little while. "Perhaps there's nothing there?" said Leopold to Demyan, and Demyan said, "We are to make sure."
What Leopold and Demyan were supposed to ascertain was the bugged or un-bugged state of the room they were in, and the reticent nature of their conversation was due to the fact that they both had trouble checking on bugs over a height of six feet.
"Perhaps there's a nest of spiders up there?" said Leopold to Demyan. Demyan said, "And?" and Leopold said "No. No. Nothing."
There was a period of quietness. Except for the death-watch beetle.
"Perhaps we should get a chair?" said Leopold to Demyan, and Demyan said, "I will hold it steady for you."
They both slid on to their feet (their feet had been dangling a few inches above the floor), then Leopold went in search of a chair. Then he had found all the ones he couldn't move, he found one that weighed less than a hundredweight tucked in a corner, and he dragged the ferociously carved thing up to the bedside, where Demyan held its back steady while he climbed on it and stretched out his arms toward the canopy.
There was some grunting and groaning. There was a pause. Leopold announced, "Still I can't reach."
They looked at each other. Leopold pouted down at the top of Demyan's headgear, and Demyan gazed up from under the brim of his battered hat.
Demyan said, "I will fetch another chair." Then he moved away, and the chair on which Leopold was perched fell over.
When Leopold was coherent he informed Demyan that the carpet was not thick.
Nothing in their room, it was plain, was of the first order. They had only been accommodated after a private consultation between Warner Blenkinsop and the Baron, and the Baron had extended them none of the courtesies he showed his American guests. This chamber, though huge (what else, after all?) was indifferently decorated, and housed many vast, dark and ugly wardrobes but only one bed. (The Baron had said, disdainfully, "I am sure you will not object.") The wardrobes had been the first things they examined: they contained an intimidating amount of household linen, and absolutely no bugs.
Leopold and Demyan were now working their way round the rest of the furnishings. They had noted that their room was located at a great distance from the American tourists; but having noted it they did not worry. Failure to make a note was what caused the real trouble. Worrying about something you had made a note of it was a problem for the higher authorities.
"I will stand on the bed," Leopold said to Demyan, and Demyan said, "I will hold your legs."
They were in the middle of this manoeuvre when Demyan said, "We should take our shoes off." They got down for a few minutes to do that, and then they stood up again, on the bed, in their socks, and Leopold said, "Now I am too short."
The dilemma was on its way to becoming insoluble.
But Demyan solved it. He hauled a chair to the bed, he hauled the chair on to the bed, he held the chair steady while Leopold climbed on to it, Leopold groped all round the canopy, making grunts and "Urgggh!" noises, and then Leopold said, "No bugs."
It may have been a small step for mankind, but it was a giant stride for Demyan and Leopold.
Now all they had to do was check the floor, the lamps, the tables, the windows and the undersides of the chairs.
"And underneath the mattress," said Demyan.
"You can do that," said Leopold.
Having relaced their shoes, they began on either side of the broad oak door and worked their way slowly over the objects around the walls. Nothing was under the chair-seats, nothing was behind the paintings ... Occasionally Leopold would call to Demyan, to help him shift a chest or a bench sideways, or Demyan would call to Leopold, to climb up on something and have a look at an ornamental weapon or an upper shelf.
They crawled under things, they peered over things, they measured the thickness of things and deducted the inside measurement from the outside measurement. They counted half a dozen mattresses to investigate on the four-poster bed.
After an hour and a half, there was nothing left. Nor was there much left of Demyan and Leopold: even stolidity has its limits.
They were side by side again, sitting on the coverlet.
"Nothing," said Demyan.
"Nothing," agreed Leopold.
The death-watch beetle went clack in the wall.
A period of silence. And of rumination. Demyan said, "I know what we have forgotten."
"Yes?" said Leopold.
"We have forgotten the carpet."
So they got down on their knees and began rolling back the carpet, and round about the centre of the floor (which was very, very dusty) Leopold stopped making sounds of distress and said, "I see something."
They folded and rolled back more carpet, and them Demyan uttered the confirmation: "Something has been hidden in this floor!" and they sat back on their heels and studied what they'd uncovered. It was definitely something. It was a square of wood, cut out and re-sunk by the look of it, and fastened down securely by four screws.
Demyan looked and Leopold. Leopold looked at Demyan. Demyan said, "We must get the tools."
After five minutes, Leopold go up and went and fetched the tool kit.
Demyan reached out and chose a large screwdriver. It needed all his strength to get the first screw to turn. Normally, he would have handed this menial work over to Leopold, but the importance of the find was affecting him.
"What is it? Can you see what it is? What do you suppose it is?" asked Leopold. Leopold, without moving, was so excited he was giving the impression of movement. Just leaning over, he appeared to be waving his arms and jumping about. Such a lack of control was grossly aggravating to Demyan.
"Get out of my light!" he told Leopold crossly. He put real muscle into the unscrewing of the second screw.
They were getting nearer now - Demyan could sense it. The square of wood was less firm; it had slewed slightly, and sat at an angle in its floor frame.
Demyan slid the edge of the screwdriver into the head of the third screw. It wouldn't budge for a while - but then, suddenly, it began to turn. And as it began to turn there came a sound, like a creaking. As though somewhere, deep in the floor, there arose a protest.
"Whatever it is, it will be an old model." Leopold had squatted down, out of the light, on the long roll of carpet.
Demyan made no answer; he was working at last on the fourth and last screw. "Ahhhh-" he breathed, for he felt the screw-head jump and turn, released in its wooden hollow. And soon, soon, he, Demyan, would know what -
The noise struck like a shrieking wind: when it seared through the floor at him, he winced. The creaking, wherever it was, was all at once as harsh and high-pitched as raw screaming.
From somewhere in the bowels of the castle came a rumble and an horrific tearing, the boards beneath Demyan and Leopold trembled.
Leopold leapt up and crossed himself. In due course, Demyan would made a note of that. But for the moment he had his hands full. He still had the screwdriver set in the head of the fourth screw, and the mysterious block of wood was gyrating slowly in its square, hidden place. One side of the block had ridden up so high that it was at least an inch above the floor level; only the fourth and final screw was every second more visible. But what strain, and why, what was tearing and torturing this buried secret, and where was that noise coming from? That splintering? That crashing? That incredible, thunderous shock which tore the screwdriver from Demyan's fingers! That indoor earthquake! And, most terrifying of all, that abrupt and total silence.
Demyan and Leopold, acting upon standing orders and training, had unscrewed from above, through their floor and its ceiling, a secondary breakfast room's massive chandelier.