In Which a Little Light Is Shed
The language of the angels allows no earthly utterance,” Friar Bacon explained. “Therefore, it cannot be spoken by mortal tongues.” He emphasised this point with a solemn shake of his tonsured head. “That is not to say that it cannot be understood. With the proper application of intelligence and logic the meaning can be deduced. It can be made to speak to us.”
“What does the book tell you?” asked Douglas. After waiting almost three days while Roger examined it, his endurance was at an end.
“Patience, my friend. All in God’s good time.” The renowned scholar returned to his perusal of the parchments on his worktable. “First we must prepare the soil so that our understanding can be correctly seeded.”
“Of course,” muttered Douglas. “Forgive me, brother, if I seem overanxious.”
The priest brushed away the apology with a sweep of his hand. “As I believe I have indicated on a previous occasion,” he continued, “the script in question is derived from an alphabet of symbols-as are all languages, to be sure. For what is a written text but a collection of symbols that substitute for the elementary sounds of human speech? However, unlike the symbols strung together to form the sounds used in speech, the symbols in this book are abstracted and thus removed from the realm of vocal representation.”
Roger Bacon glanced at his pupil and seemed to require some sign that he had been understood.
“Intriguing,” commented Douglas. “Pray, continue.”
“See here,” Bacon said, picking up one of the scraps he had prepared for Douglas’s edification. “Notice how the symbols curve-this one to the right, this one to the left, some up, some down-each particular curve contains meaning, as do the small lines which branch away from the main, as well as those that cross the main. Where the lines branch and cross aids in determining meaning.” He tapped the parchment with a fingertip. “It is a most cunning and ingenious cypher.”
“Indeed,” replied Douglas, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the prospect of decoding what amounted to another whole language in order to decipher the book he had stolen from the British Library. “How many symbols are there in total?”
“Hundreds,” replied Roger Bacon simply. “As there must be.”
“To be sure,” Douglas agreed philosophically, thinking the greater part of his work lay before him. Then he remembered something the scholar had told him. “When I first gave you the book, you said you were the one who devised the script. By that, do you mean you invented the symbols in which it is written?”
“Only in part,” Bacon conceded. “For my purposes, I chose a script based on a symbolism that is far, far older than any other. I adapted it for my use, but did not create it.”
Douglas puzzled over the precisely parsed meaning of the priest’s words. “Am I to take it that you wrote this book?”
“You flatter me undeservedly, brother.” He laid a reverent hand on the small volume Douglas had brought him.
“Again, forgive my ignorance, but your name is most prominently displayed in the text.”
“A mere formality of acknowledgement,” replied the learned priest with a curious half smile. “Brother Luciferus, whatever his true identity, is merely declaring his debt to the originator of the script in which his book finds its voice. Nothing more.”
“How fortunate for me,” observed Douglas, “to have found the one man in England who can read it.”
“Yes, and in order that we might gain the benefit of it, I have applied myself to the task of rendering a transliteration of the text for future reference.” He nodded with satisfaction. “I am happy to say that work is now complete.”
“Three days,” mused Douglas. “My abbot will certainly wish to reward your service. You must allow us to show our appreciation.”
“Learning is its own reward,” replied Friar Bacon.
“But you made a copy?”
“Of the more interesting portions, yes. The rest is fragmentary. Perhaps, when time allows, I shall finish.”
“May I see it?”
“I would be delighted to show you,” replied Bacon thoughtfully. “However, I must first receive certain assurances.” Before Douglas could ask what these might be, the scholar rose and went to a large ironclad box in the corner of the room. “Naturally, it would not do to allow what I am about to show you to be heralded through the streets of the city. In these difficult times, men of learning must resort to a stringent secrecy while we await a more enlightened age to dawn.” He cast an expectant glance behind him.
Suddenly the scholar’s meaning became clear.
“I am happy to provide you with whatever assurances you deem appropriate-material or otherwise,” offered Douglas. “I know how easily particular aspects of our work can be misconstrued by an uneducated and unappreciative public.”
“Alas,” mused Roger Bacon, “it is not only the public which so often fails to appreciate the nature of our more delicate investigations-many of our leading churchmen are particularly lacking in the finer faculties of discernment. Led by the twin banes of intolerance and ignorance, they too often condemn where they rightly should revere. They traduce what should be championed. They denounce what should be praised.”
Douglas knew that the eminent scholar was speaking from painful personal experience, having endured ecclesiastical persecution for some of his more daring ideas. “Pray, receive my most solemn and sacred vow that the secrets shared in this room will remain secret hereafter.”
The scientist smiled. “I knew you to be a fellow pilgrim.” He bent his angular form to the iron box and, withdrawing a key from a fold in his robe, unlocked the hinge, raised the lid, and withdrew a sheaf of cut parchment tied with a red band. “Come, let us sit by the fire where the light is better. We will read it out together.”
He led his guest to the wide hearth where a coal fire glowed.
“The most valuable piece of scientific equipment yet invented,” declared Bacon, indicating his chair beside the fire. There were two of them, one on either side of the bright-burning hearth. “They are of my own design. Please,” he said, directing Douglas to sit. “You will find it supremely conducive to mental activity of every kind.”
Douglas settled himself into what amounted to a low, straight-backed throne with wide armrests and deep cushions covered with sheep skin; the chair was tilted at a slight angle and was, he was pleased to find, eminently comfortable-a definite necessity, as it turned out, for they would spend the better part of the next three hours steeped in erudite discursion of the contents of what Roger Bacon called the Book of Forbidden Secrets.
“The identity of the author is hidden beneath a veil of wilful obscurity-I think we can agree that the name Brother Luciferus, or Light Bearer, is an all-too-obvious pseudonym. Nevertheless, the brilliance of the man’s intellect shines out with unmistakeable clarity. The vision which produced this singular document is as unique as it is revolutionary.”
“And therefore readily mistaken and censured by those of, shall we say, more prejudicial opinion,” commented Douglas.
Bacon offered a sage nod. “Hence the coarse appellation, The Forbidden Secrets, which, I suspect, is a flirting reference to another highly influential work, The Secret of Secrets. At all events, the author wished his work to remain uncensored and chose the script devised by myself to preserve his work.” He laid a long-fingered hand on the bundled parchments. “Moving on, the breadth of topics addressed in this tome is somewhat narrow in consideration of a yet greater work of which this is seen as a mere distillation-hence the title Opus Minus Alchemaie.”
The title put Douglas in mind of one of Bacon’s own works: the Opus Majus. Was Brother Luciferus really Bacon himself, hiding behind an alias?
“In the main, the subject matter concerns the author’s explorations in the science of alchemy,” continued the professor, “but he indulges in brief excursions into topics of more esoteric interest.”
“Such as?” wondered Douglas.
“Immortality,” replied Bacon, “spirit travel, the uses of earth energy, the power of human will-queries and speculations of this nature. Digressions, as I say.”
“And yet not without interest to a mind hungry for knowledge of every variety.”
The scholar offered an indulgent smile.
“I myself feel drawn to the very things you describe. This spirit travel of which you speak-is there anything of use for practical application contained in the book?”
“Oh, indeed. Brother Luciferus was keenly interested in this mode of conveyance and its implications for discerning what he calls”-the philosopher paused to consult the pages in his hand, scanning them for the place he had marked-“yes, here it is, ‘a most salubrious mechanism which reveals the impossible breadth of creation and the deeper expression of the Mind of God.’ In this, he is not wrong-as I myself can attest.”
“Indeed?” Douglas affected surprise. He knew from his researches the legend that Roger Bacon had been credited with the ability to appear and disappear at will, and even to be in two places at once-both of which would be easily accomplished through ley travel.
“Oh, yes. I have indulged in experiments which have proved beyond all doubt that it is a repeatable phenomenon which, however poor our understanding of it, nevertheless affords ready application of its properties to those who know how to manipulate the more subtle energies.”
“The book tells how to do it?”
Bacon nodded. “And more. Brother Luciferus expounds practical principles as well as concomitant philosophical considerations-such as deriving the dynamism by which spirit travel operates, the mechanism, if you will, and its salutary effects on the physical body.”
“How very interesting.” Douglas’ eye fell upon the sheaf of parchment scraps. “And you have translated this?”
“For purposes of further experimentation, I have.” Bacon paused, then added, “I hope your abbot will not mind. Of course, the translation is mine and must never leave my possession.”
They talked on through the evening hours and far into the night, pausing only to take a little bread and wine so that they might continue their discussion. When at last the renowned scholar confessed to growing weary and needing a little rest, Douglas rose and with a low bow of deference, thanked his host for his unstinting diligence and service. “I shall speak to my abbot, and no doubt he will wish to reward you for your intellectual generosity and service to scholarship. You have been more than helpful.”
“I hope you will give your abbot my best regards.” Bacon took the red ribbon and carefully retied the bundle in his lap, then returned to the strongbox and locked away the deciphered script. “Will you come to me again, brother?” he asked, dropping the key back into place inside his robe. “We have much to discuss.”
“Alas, my time in Oxford has come to an end,” replied Douglas. “My duties at the abbey…” He smiled apologetically.
“But, God willing, I may be asked to return for further instruction. If so, I will welcome the opportunity. Indeed, I-” He paused, as if embarrassed.
“What is it, I pray you?” asked the professor. “Was there something else?”
“I have already taxed you enough,” said Douglas. “But there is one final matter which may interest you as much as it has excited the curiosity of many of our brothers at the abbey-a matter I have been pursuing in my own researches.” He reached into his robe and brought out the copy of the Skin Map he had obtained from Sir Henry’s strongbox in the Christ Church crypt. “May I?”
“By all means,” granted Bacon. He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth to stifle a yawn.
“I am led to believe that this is a map. I mention it now because of its uncanny similarity to the symbol language you have translated from the Book of Forbidden Secrets.”
Friar Bacon held out his hand for the parchment. “If you would allow me.” He unrolled it and held it to the light. “Yes, I see what you mean.”
“Can you make any sense of it?”
“A map, you say?”
“So I believe.”
“Yesss…,” the scholar said slowly. “Fascinating.”
Douglas bit his lip.
“Yes, I do see what you mean,” confirmed Bacon. “But it is not a map.”
Douglas felt his strength leaking away through his legs into the floor. He swayed on his feet as if the floor were tilting beneath the knowledge that his efforts had been for nothing. He fought down his disappointment.
“Not a map in the common sense of the word,” Bacon continued, “though I understand why some may think it so.” He held the parchment to his face to study it more closely. “Yes. These are numerical coordinates.” He tapped a finger on one of the meticulously copied symbols. “Given a key, I believe I could decipher them for you.”
“A key?” wondered Douglas.
“A key to unlock the mystery of the numbers,” said the professor. “For unless we know to what the coordinates correspond, the information provided by the numerals will remain meaningless.” He passed the scrap back to Douglas. “Do you possess such a key?”
“I confess that I do not. But might a sample be provided which I can take away with me for further study at the abbey? I know my brothers would be grateful for even that much.”
“For a certainty,” replied Master Bacon. He crossed to his worktable, took up a quill, dipped it into his inkhorn, and began scribbling quickly on the parchment. When he finished, he handed the still-wet copy to Douglas. There were now rows of numbers beside a dozen or so of the small glyphs-numbers that Douglas recognised as longitude and latitude coordinates.
“I am in awe of your erudition,” said Douglas with a bow. He thanked him and took his leave.
“My greetings to your abbot,” called Roger Bacon from the door of his tower. “We will speak again when next you return to the city.”
Once outside, Douglas paused to rouse the sleeping Snipe, who was curled in his cloak at the foot of the stairs. “Wake up,” he whispered. “I have work for you.”
The boy awoke, instantly alert.
“There is an iron box in the corner of the room…” He described the strongbox and where the key was kept. “Inside the box is a document tied with a red band.”
Snipe gave a shrewd and silent nod.