A Promise of Riches

More from the novel in progress – The Secret of Maple Grove.


“When we were ripping out the old lath in the library upstairs, right there to the left of the fireplace, we found a wall behind the wall.  And in the real wall, the original wall, there was a built-in desk.  Just a board, basically, that locks up flat to the wall and then opens down on a hinge to become a writing surface. I don’t know what you’ll want us to do about that.  It’s a pretty piece of woodwork, but it will take some doing to get it right with the rest of the room if you decide to keep it.   But there are some little drawers, too, right above it, and they have stuff in them and I didn’t want to touch anything there until you saw it.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Well, papers, mostly.  There are clippings from old newspapers and some letters, still in envelopes.  They’ve got old stamps on them; could be worth some money.  Then there is junk – pens and pencils and erasers and old ink bottles; old business cards.  There was a jar in one little nook that had some change in it.  But I didn’t look all that closely.  I don’t want to make any decisions about any of this stuff.  You’ve got to come down here and go through it and let me know what you want us to do with this desk.  I’d keep it if I were you.  You’ll never see another one like it, but this wasn’t in the original plan and refurbishing it will take more time, so I need your word on it.”

“Can you find other things to do tomorrow?  I don’t think I can get there till late.”

“Yes.  That’s not a problem.  You’re going to enjoy this.”

It was dark by the time she got there the next day and because the wiring in the library had not been completed she had to plug one of the crew’s long, orange extension cords into a temporary socket at the top of the stairway and hang a naked bulb from a nail above the newly-exposed desk.  The crude light and looming shadows seemed fitting for this foray into the past, this opening of a kind of tomb.  The crew had left a folding chair in front of the old desk.

She unlatched the writing board and lowered it into place on its hinges.  She rested both hands on the surface for a moment and was surprised and impressed at how stout and steady it remained.  Then she opened the largest of the few drawers in the wall above the desk and took out a string-tied packet of letters and untied them and sorted them into short piles on the desktop.   She spent at least an hour scanning the dozens of old letters, some of them written in German, some of them in beautiful hand.  Many of them had to do with some timber business of one of the prior owners, others were from parents and children, telling of births and deaths, matriculations and graduations, conscriptions and illnesses.

After she read the last letter, she rocked back in her chair and noticed another slot in the wall there, this one only half an inch high and maybe a foot wide.  She slipped her fingers into the slot and touched the edge of a mailing flat.  She took a pencil from her purse and with the eraser end fished the parcel out of its resting place.  It was sealed in an old way with a red string wound around half-inch,red-card-stock circles, one riveted to the flap of the envelope and one to the body. She unwound the string and pulled from the envelope a yellowed parchment that had been folded into quarters.

She cleared the letters from the desk and opened the sheet out onto it and scanned the ancient map.  The names of the places and features were in another language.  German, she thought.   She knew that the house had been built before 1920, but she was sure from the look of it that the map was older than that.  Probably much older.  The area covered by the map was not broad enough for Rachel to recognize any distinctive features.  There was no coastline and no evidence of a large city.  The features were marked in another language in a tiny, ornate and now blurred script.  She found one word that she could decipher well enough to plug into an online search engine: “Eyfalia.”  An ancient name, she found, of an area in western Germany.

At the top of the page, near the middle, she saw an indecipherable scribble of words in another hand and a line leading from the note to a spot near a river.

She put the map on the floor, directly beneath the hanging lightbulb and took her phone and stood above it and focused and snapped a picture.  Then she searched the web for Jacob’s law firm in New York and found the partner page devoted to Jacob.  It did have his email address and she wrote him:  Jacob, can you or any of your associates there make any sense of this? And she attached the photo of the map.

He called at ten the next morning.

“Where did you find this thing?” he asked.

“In a drawer in the old Phillip’s house.  It had been hidden behind a wall.  Can you tell anything about it?”

“Well, it’s in German and it’s apparently of an area right on the border of Germany and Belgium.  But my people tell me that the map was probably made before either one of those countries existed.  The names of the places on it are archaic, most of them are completely gone now or have had other names for a long time.”

“You could make that writing out?”

“Yes.  The stuff that’s available now for document analysis is unbelievable, the image we have now is clear enough.  Helps to have someone around who reads German, too.”

“Could you read that note at the top?”

“Yeah.  It says ‘Rothaar Berghöhle.’ Rothaar Mountain Cavern.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, it might mean that the spot on the map is a cave or cavern of some sort and that there is or was something hidden there.  Something of value, probably.  We think that the map is of a place called the ‘Eifel Uplands,’ some low mountains, right there along that border.  I’ve got calls in to some of my friends in London who have calls in to their friends in Brussels and The Hague to see if anybody knows anything that might give us a clue as to what that hidden thing might be.”


In the five hours between this conversation and Jacob’s next call to her, she thought of nothing but Jacob and the possibility of treasure.  Every connection that she had lately had with him had been very pleasing.  His kind words encouraging her to buy the house; his understanding of her dream; his image of her character; his gallant surrender of any unwanted pursuit of her; his humble view of his own success; and – this was painfully attractive – his competence and consequence in the world.  She had wondered more than once what exactly it had been that had prevented her from stopping him from walking out of her door that day six months ago.  Why had she not done as her heart then urged her?  Why had she refused him the happiness that he still most sincerely sought in her?

And now it was clear to her.  She was unable to encourage him now when she had treated him so shabbily before since now she was in vulnerable financial position and he was, so to speak, king of the world.  How would it look if she now said yes to everything she had said “no” to when they were on equal footing?  She would not have it appear that her acquiescence in his pursuit of her was based on financial interests.  She could not have lived with herself for that.  Any relationship would have to be based purely on mutual affection.  It would have to appear that way to everyone, particularly Jacob.  He deserved no less.  She would give him no less.

But what if there really was a treasure?  She allowed herself to imagine that remote possibility.  What if there was something hidden in a cave in Belgium that would bring her some share in the kind of wealth that would give her the very indepence she would need to allow herself to show her affection to Jacob?  How much would it take?  Not too much.  She would not have to be equal to him, only independent, only in such a shape that anyone could see that she did not need him or want him only for his money.  Just enough to pay off everything connected with the old house and allow her a comforting supplement to her income, year by year.

The fantasy got better as she let herself imagine it coming to full flower.  And as her mind reeled with these possibilities she had to confess to herself how much and how deeply she did love Jacob and how perfect an ending to the story if the two of them now reconciled and lived out not only her dream of resurrecting Maple Grove and the town around it, but the dream that he had dreamt of them together ever since they were seniors in high school.  How completely now she could right the old wrong she had done him. She was almost dizzy with the idea. How perfectly and how fully their lives and hopes would fit together now.  All of the old songs that had meant so much in high school, she could hear them again and believe again what they promised.

It was more, far more, than she had ever experienced, far more than she thought she would hope for again.

But when he called again, she of course, gave no hint of her mind.

“I’ve got to say first of all, that this – what I’m about to tell you – might be wrong.  But is very interesting and I think compelling.”

“Is it good?”

“Yes.  If we’ve got this figured out, it could be very good.”

“Well.  Go on, then.”

“I’ve got to start by telling you how I got the story.  You know I was at Oxford for a few years.”

“Oh, yes.  I did know.”

“I met people there who know their way around the European continent.  People who are connected.  Some of them titled.  Nobility.”


“Well, one of my best friends from that time – a guy I have actually done a few deals with since I’ve been in New York – his father is a member – a knight, I guess – of the order of the Golden Fleece.”

“That sounds impressive.  What does it mean?”

“In this case, it means that he is in on some ancient secrets.  This order was started back in the fifteenth century by a guy who was the Duke of Burgundy.”

“The wine country?”

“Well, yes and no.  The area he ruled included what is now the Burgundy region of France, but in that day Burgundy, the duchy of Burgundy it was called, was the biggest and richest state in Europe.  Took in parts of what is now France, all of Belgium and some of what is now Germany.”

“Sounds like some good company.”

“Well, yeah.  And this guy – he was known as ‘Philip the Good’ instituted this order in 1430 in celebration of his own marriage to Isabella, a Portuguese princess.  He was all about good company, as you put it, so he creates this order of knighthood and grants the members all sorts of privileges.”

“What privileges?”

“I’ll get to that later.  They’re really something, but I want to get to the business about your map first.”


“You see, one generation after this high-falutin club was born, Philip the Good’s daughter, Mary the Rich – that was really what they called her – entered into a marriage with a guy named Maximilian who was the son of Frederick III, the Emperor of the House of Habsburg or the Holy Roman Empire or whatever you want to call it.  Basically it was almost all of eastern Europe – what is now Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania.  So, this wedding was a bit political and economic deal.  Frederick’s empire was the greater military power, but he was not as rich as the Duke of Burgundy, so to keep up appearances, Frederick sent 500 wagons of treasure from Vienna to Ghent in Burgundy as a wedding present.”

“What kind of treasure?”

“The best of everything that the house of Habsburg had to offer.  They had been ruling eastern Europe for over two hundred years before then and they had collected war spoils from lots of different little principalities over there and even some stuff from the crusades in the middle east.  So you would have not only gold and silver and jewels by the truckload – or wagon load, in this case – you would have all kinds of art objects – paintings, carvings and sculptures taken from ancient cultures.  You would have the best work of the empire’s finest artisans – armour, gowns, crowns, that sort of thing.”

“What a nice wedding.”

“Again, yes and no.  Most of the loot made it to Ghent intact, but their was one lieutenant in Frederick’s army that succumbed to temptation.  Guy’s name was Simon, and he was a knight in the order of the Golden Fleece.  He convinced his cadre of soldiers to carry off some forty of the treasure wagons a day or two before they reached Ghent.  The legend has it that the treasure was hidden in a cave there in the Eifel Uplands.   Simon poisoned every one of the men who had helped him hide the treasure.  He was never caught.  He apparently found a place to hide and lived out the rest of his life on the spoils of his heist.  But the legend has it that the great part of that treasure – not the gold and silver and jewels, but the art – the ancient sculpture and painting – anything that would have been hard to pass anonymously – is still there.  Lots of folks have looked over these centuries, but no one has found . . .

“Anyhow – and here is the really good part. . .”

“Good part?  There’s something better?”

“Maybe.  Simon’s betrayal of Frederick is the only treasonous act ever in the 600-year history of the order.  It is a stain that has not been removed, a crime that has never been resolved.  The person who finds the wagons and restores them to the House of Hapsburg will be granted membership in the order, regardless of birth, and a rich share of the spoils recovered.”

“I get the part about the share in the treasure.  But what would membership mean?”

“A title, for starters.  You would be knighted.”

“That’s nice.  Won’t do much for me in West Virginia.  You hinted that there were other perqs. . .”

“There are.  And they may well do you good in West Virginia.  Originally, anyone admitted to knighthood in the order was not longer subject to the jurisdiction of any nation.  If a knight was accused of any wrongdoing, he would be tried by a jury of his peers, that is, by other members of the order.”

“I don’t think that the courts here would give that any weight.” She laughed.

“No.  It isn’t observed anymore, even in Europe.  But in its place you have this.  Members of the order have access to the estates of the House of Habsburg and to the libraries and galleries there.  There are still a dozen or so of these great houses and they stay busy with goings on that you never hear about in the newspapers.   Concerts by the greatest composers and performers in the world; exhibitions of paintings and sculpture; lectures by Nobel laureates.”

“That would be nice.”

“If this all works out, your house in Walhonde will be on the map, as they say.  You could bring paintings from the great houses to Maple Grove, on loan.”


copyright 2018


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