Summary: It’s my toughest case yet: An apparent 14th-Century manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, only the 2nd ever discovered. Genuine or fake? It’s my job to find out. From Los Angeles to Bologna, Venice and Croatia, everything has come down to having all the players in one place: Nice.
For links to earlier episodes, see below.
I sat as far back in the restaurant in the Vieille Ville of Nice as possible.
I’d been in Nice for two days and had nearly everything arranged. If Chip Wroxton didn’t walk through the door, I could still pull everything off, but I hoped he’d show.
I’d set some wheels in motion before I left the monastery on the island of Kosljun in Croatia, more of them as I drove back to Trieste, then caught a plane to Nice. There were a lot of moving parts.
Everyone but Wroxton was in place, ready to meet at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis the next afternoon. It had taken a lot of phone calls, a lot of persuasion, and more than a little creative storytelling to convince everyone they needed to be there. Not everyone got the same story, but they came. I hoped the motivation I’d given Wroxton had been enough to get him off his canal boat in England.
Outside, there was brilliant winter sun.
I recognized him ─ barely ─ when he walked in, peering into the dark interior after the brilliant sunshine of the square: tall, loose-limbed, still slender; older, of course, grown into the stoop-shouldered, donnish man he’d been in training for as a young Medievalist when we were students at Göttingen. He sat down and looked at me.
“So … good to see you and all that. Will you tell me exactly why I’m here in France, of all places? You need me to look at a manuscript you can’t bring to England?”
“I’ll give you a preview,” I said, and set the first facsimile page I’d printed on the table.
He looked at it for ten seconds, looked up and said, “Cotton Nero A.x. If you need me to tell you that, then you’re slipping, old man.”
“Here’s a detail of lines 1686 and -7,” I said, setting down the second page.
He myndes ȝe bigge sleepe
That bides but an more nyght
“Bloody hell. What’s this? ‘The Big Sleep?’ Is this some sort of prank?”
“If it is, no one’s laughing, and the prankster’s trying to pass it off as a previously unknown manuscript of Gawain.”
“Not bloody likely, with voiced final e’s like that. It leaps out and gobsmacks you.”
“Once a certain investigator found it, of course.”
“Then if the investigator is so brilliant, why did he drag me to a country without a single decent glass of beer in it?”
“My client would like corroboration from an authoritative working scholar. I stretched a point and described you as ‘working,’ and the British Museum believed me.”
I sketched out the entire story for him, start to finish, concluding with the fact that the next day, Wroxton would examine the MS to corroborate my evidence that it was a forgery. His testimony and one other scholar’s would be used with mine for the BM to determine if there was fraud involved, in which case an antiquities detective of the French police and a representative from Interpol would take over the case.
“Who’s the other scholar?” he asked, making my day. I smiled at him.
I saw him flinch before he could stop himself.
“I saw her in Bologna. She looked at the MS there.”
“How is she?”
“Oh, you know, brilliant, charming, beautiful: same ol’ Luciana.”
Poor Wroxton looked as if he wanted to put his head in his hands. I laid it on.
“She asked if I’d seen you … how you were.”
“Hell. I don’t believe you. She wouldn’t ask. Didn’t you say that if I helped you solve this case there’d be a reward?”
“Not exactly what I said. I said it should be rewarding.”
“Spending a couple of hours reading scribbled Middle English doesn’t sound particularly rewarding.”
“Be patient, Wroxton. It might be more interesting than you expect.”
“Enough of this. I need a drink.”
I gave Wroxton a card with the address and all the contact information for the next day, and told him I’d see him at the University at 1:30 the next afternoon.
The Final Confrontation
I got out for a run in the morning through the Promenade des Arts, trying to clear my head.
My mind was racing, playing out the next few hours in advance … and all the things that could go wrong. If this didn’t play out, I’d have wasted a couple of weeks of constant travel, considerable money and the time of some busy people.
At one o’clock, I found the classrooms that had been arranged in one of the university buildings. Soon after that I was joined by Davidson Gettle, my British Museum contact. With him were Capitaine Gerard Parerre of Interpol and Lt. Cloiseux of the French National Police, responsible for investigating piracy and antiquities theft. Cloiseux had arranged our meeting place with the university.
I reviewed the plan with them. The officers went along with it, although they clearly weren’t happy taking direction from an American civilian on their own beat.
Wroxton showed up on time, met Gettle, and I sent the two of them off to a classroom next door with the erstwhile Gawain MS so Chip could examine it. I was confident he’d find the same thing I had, but Gettle wanted authentication.
I left Parerre and Cloiseux for my appointment, walking to the building next door: a conference center where a three-day literature symposium was in progress. One of the presenters was Luciana Notastere, and it was her presence that had suggested Nice as the place I could assemble all the pieces of my case. She was also the shining beacon that had provided me with the means to attract Udo Vaht into plain sight.
I spotted him in the busy atrium: older, heavier, still the big head of dark hair, hawk nose, deepset eyes. He did me the favor of pretending to be glad to see me, and I did the same for him. I explained that we had half an hour before we were to meet Luciana on the scholarly matter she wanted to “consult” us about, and we sat on a bench in the atrium while I spun my tale to him.
Luciana had sent me a draft of her address, and I’d used it to create an imaginary problem of scholarship that — I hoped — sounded believable and fit somewhere within the realm of Vaht’s limited range of expertise. I only had to be convincing enough to get Vaht to believe Luciana was really interested in our opinions. I knew that the mere opportunity to spend an hour with the incandescent Signorina N. was enough motivation for any man who knew her to fly to Nice.
She came out of the conference hall doors, spotted us and walked toward us. The atrium was full of people, but no one could capture attention like Luciana: still lovely. Una bella figura was too pallid a phrase.
We stood as she approached and greeted one another. I’d seen her less than a week before. Vaht hadn’t seen her for forty years, so far as I knew. I started us walking back to the building where the policemen and Gettle were waiting, ostensibly to go to “an office” where we could talk. Luciana did a good job of sticking to small talk with Vaht, catching up on the years that had passed since we’d shared those doctoral-student days in Germany. She knew what was up with Vaht and the manuscript. I knew she wasn’t happy with the role of femme fatale I’d cast her in, but she made the best of it.
When Vaht started probing about the purported scholarly matter, I explained that Luciana had a Medieval manuscript with some puzzling lines in it. It would be the subject of a panel discussion during the next day of the conference, and I had thought to bring our former colleague into the consideration of the matter.
Vaht seemed to buy it, and then we were at the door of the classroom.
It was showtime. I opened the door, waited for Luciana to enter, then Vaht, walked in and closed the door behind me.
Gettle, Parerre and Cloiseux were seated where I’d assigned them: at the closed end of a U-shaped arrangement of tables, like a hundred seminar meeting rooms Luciana, Vaht and I had sat in during our academic careers. The men stood.
“Dr. Vaht,” I said, “Please meet Dr. Gettle, Capitaine Parerre and Lieutenant Cloiseaux. They’re interested in the manuscript we’re discussing, too.”
There was one other person in the room ─ someone Vaht knew: Ms. Valerian from the scriptorium Vaht directed in Croatia. Ms. Valerian looked sheepish, confronted by her supervising professor. I’d told her what was going to happen. Vaht looked stunned.
I got everyone to sit, but remained standing, walked over to Gettle and picked up the Gawain manuscript from the table in front of him.
“A few weeks ago, Dr. Gettle and his colleagues sent me this manuscript, which appears to be a 14-Century parchment copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s on 14th-Century stock, and the bindings are of the right period. Dr Gettle’s institution was invited to acquire this item for a considerable sum. If it’s genuine, it’s only the second known copy of the document in existence. They asked me to determine its authenticity.”
Vaht was watching me. I could tell that Parerre and Cloiseux were watching Vaht ─ closely.
“Dr. Notastere examined this manuscript and reached the same conclusion I did. There is one difference between this text and the original, and it is remarkable because it’s utterly inconsistent with the 14th Century English present throughout the rest of the text.”
To his credit, Vaht said nothing, although he was probably trying to think of a way to simply stop what was happening. He was outnumbered.
I turned to the head of the table.
“Tell me, Dr. Gettle, did our additional authority, Dr. Wroxton, agree with the opinion Dr. Notastere and I had?”
At that, for the first time ever, I saw Luciana Notastere lose her composure.
“Che cosa? Wroxton?”
“Yes. He’s just had a look at it, Luciana. He’s in another room, but we’ll see him later.”
Gettle said that, yes, Dr. Wroxton found the same incontrovertible difference.
“So, Udo,” I went on. Does this manuscript look familiar to you?” and I set it in front of him.
Vaht looked down at it, but didn’t touch it. I didn’t expect him to simply give himself away, so I pushed on.
“Since you happen to be in charge of a workshop that produces facsimile pages of Sir Gawain on actual 14th-Century parchment, is there any possibility that this book is a modern copy, assembled from pages stolen from your workshop?”
He looked at me with an expression that suggested he disliked me.
“I don’t see how. We have extremely robust security measures around our work products.”
I thought he’d stop, but he went on.
“Besides, if there are differences in this text and the original, they are not from our atelier. We produce only exact facsimiles.”
Ms. Valerian was already blushing. She knew her moment had come, and I didn’t blame her for being unhappy about it. I picked up the book from in front of Vaht, set it in front of the young woman and opened it to the spurious lines.
“Line 1686 here reads, ‘He myndes ȝe bigge sleepe.’ Ms. Valerian, what does that line read in the original?”
Without hesitation, she had it.
“Sir Gawayn lis and slepes.”
“Please let everyone here know why it is that you know a specific line in the poem so well, Ms. Valerian.”
Ms. Valerian showed her mettle, and didn’t wilt. She held her head up and looked at the men sitting at the end of the table.
“I did the lettering on that specific page. I changed two lines so that we could identify the book as our work, and to prevent it being represented as an original.”
Now the most soul-satisfying moment of my career had arrived. Not only was I going to solve my case, but I was going to deliver a long-deserved coup de grace to a pretentious, dishonest scoundrel who had been a thorn in my side when I was an eager, naïve aspiring scholar.
“To save you the embarrassment of explaining it, Ms. Valerian, I happen to know why you replaced those lines with ones that don’t follow pronunciation conventions of the English dialect used in Gawain.”
Ms. Valerian’s eyes opened wide. They were extremely attractive, dark eyes, but still no match for Luciana’s.
“It’s a joke, isn’t it? You and your colleagues figured out that Dr. Vaht has difficulty remembering that final e’s aren’t pronounced in the dialect of the original Gawain poet. He always has, since his student days. We all noticed it, even then.”
The one overt reaction in the room was from ─ of all people ─ Luciana. She burst out in a howl of laughter, then quickly covered her mouth with her hands. Ms. Valerian was trying to keep her expression under control, but I suspected she might be on the verge of tears. It was an embarrassing thing to admit to, playing an in joke on a mentor’s failing.
“I think at this point I can only ask one more question, Ms. Valerian, and then I think the other men in the room will take over the questions. You told me in Kosljun that Professor Vaht himself removed this book from the monastery and took it with him?”
Ms. Valerian nodded. At that moment, Lieutenant Cloiseux stood up.
“Assez! Merci, Monsieur Blaknissan. You are correct. Our turn for questions, please. You and the Professoressa may go.”
I nodded at everyone except Vaht, waited at the door while Luciana went past me and stepped into the hallway. She folded her arms and leaned against the doorjamb.
“And now are you going to tell me about Chip Wroxton, since you pretended you hadn’t seen him when you were in Bologna?”
“I told you the truth. I didn’t see him until yesterday.”
“Here? In Nice?”
“You know, Luciana, when I told Wroxton you’d seen the manuscript, he asked me the same question: Were you here in Nice? It’s almost as if the two of you would like to see one another, even though you’ve been pretending that’s not the case for about twenty years.”
“Perhaps it’s none of your business.”
“Oh, really? Two of the smartest people on the planet unable to figure out how they might both have careers and still have one another, too? It’s getting a little late in life to keep being stubborn, Luciana. Maybe if you walk into the next classroom down the hall there, where Chip Wroxton is waiting to find out if he’s needed for further authentication work, the two of you might be able to figure something out. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get you both in the same place, and I’m waiting for you to go open that door.”
Luciana Notastere looked at me with those eyes of hers. She didn’t smile … not exactly. She nodded, placed one hand on my arm for just a moment, then walked past me to the next door. She looked back at me one time, then turned, opened the door and walked in. I hoped she and Wroxton would have a more enjoyable question and answer session than Dr. Vaht was having at the moment. They had a lot to discuss.
Not every case ends as satisfactorily as that one. I’d started out hoping I’d actually been holding another copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in my hands. That didn’t work out. Everything else turned out pretty well. I might be able to pay my rent for a change. And even old Wroxton might’ve found the experience “rewarding.”
I had a plane to catch.
Special thanks to the readers who voted in the polls and sent me to Bologna and Croatia. You played a big role in helping solve my toughest case. Grazie, merci, thank you.
© Brad Nixon 2017