Avoidance Of Doubt

Entry by: macdonald

20th May 2016
Avoidance of Doubt

It isn’t every day that a peer of the realm asks to see me urgently.

Let’s call him Sir Kenneth; a long-standing member of the board of Trustees at the British Museum.
We met in my office close to the main conservation room on the first floor of the British Library.
He lifted a plastic folder from the leather briefcase he was carrying. It contained a single yellowed manuscript sheet and he placed it on the desk in front of me.

‘What do you think?’ he said. I pulled a pair of cotton gloves from the dispenser and lifted out the sheet. A sour smell of old paper, mouldy particles of dust; time itself, filled my nostrils.

‘Italian blackletter script. Late twelfth century. The paper is pulped linen, probably from Moorish Spain or Morocco.Where did you get it?’

‘It arrived, addressed to the Board, in a repackaged Amazon cardboard box yesterday. Sender unknown.’

‘Has anyone translated it, yet?’

‘Only the chairman and I have seen it. My Latin’s a bit rusty these days.’

The writing was miniscule but immaculate.

‘I’ll read it to you’ I said.

'We followed the sound of a great crowd to the Hippodrome. Andronicus had been dragged from his jail by the mob, placed on an old camel and pelted with filth, beaten and stoned, then gouged with spikes, before the clubs of the crowd had finished him. His mutilated body was in full view, hanging from a rope attached to an ankle. Nearby, the Imperial Palace was being ransacked and in the turmoil, I was separated from my companions, and found myself pushed into a filthy side-street tavern.
Later that night a great brute, a mountain of a man with a thick beard and mass of curly black hair, pushed open the tavern door. A line of dried blood ran down his cheek to his wide chin and further spots and streaks of blood were splattered across his tunic. Two sweating ruffians stood at his back, daggers in their belts, sharing a skin of reeking arak. The giant brandished a gold frame containing a written document and addressed the whole tavern:
“Any man who can read this, keeps the frame.” His eyes were restive as a hawk’s as the framed parchment was passed around. I recognized the writing as Aramaic. The giant thrust his face into mine. His breath smelled of fish and cheap arak. I read the first line aloud:

“Greetings to you Abgarus; you are happy forasmuch as you have believed on me, whom ye have not seen.” He almost crushed me as he bent forward to peer closely at the parchment, but his blood-stained face suddenly seemed less fearsome.

“Go on,” he commanded. The writing was difficult to follow by candle-light, but I held my finger to the letters and continued steadily:
“For it is written concerning me, that those who have seen me should not believe on me, that they who have not seen might believe and live. As to that part of your letter, which relates to my giving you a visit…”

“Enough!” shouted the giant and pulled the frame from my grasp. Then, delicately for such a big man, he pulled off the wooden backing, extracted the parchment, tossed the gold frame onto my lap and hurried from the inn, followed by his henchmen, to the relief of all present.

An old priest asked to see the frame. I passed it to him.

“Fine gold; doubtless looted from the Palace,” he said.
I asked if he knew anything more and he said:

“Abgarus was King of Edessa in the first century.” And then asked me, “Were you able to read more of the letter?”

I shook my head. “Abgarus was a leper,” he said “He heard of a healer in Syria who was said to cure lepers. He wrote and asked if the healer would come to see him and offered to pay his expenses.”

“This letter was the healer’s reply?”

“Yes, it was,” said the priest.

Today, charlatans sell chips of animal bone, claiming they are the finger bones of saints and can perform miraculous cures by their touch. Fragments of blackened firewood are sold as pieces of the True Cross. I always laughed at the naivety of people who buy such rubbish. More foolish still are noblemen and princes who finance the producton of glass cases set in gold reliquaries but the trade does little harm. Nonetheless, as I sat in that Greek tavern, I began to understand the emotion which inspires this behaviour.

“And a few years later, Thaddeus, a pupil of the disciple Thomas came to Edessa and cured Abgarus of his leprosy.”

“Doubting Thomas?” I asked and he nodded.

I left the inn before dawn. The giant was lying asleep in the gutter, his henchmen and the skin of arak vanished. An evil looking knife was tucked into a leather belt across his chest. As I stepped over him, I was seized by temptation and knelt down. When I stood again his snoring abruptly ceased and I held my breath as he moved onto his side, then fastened my jacket and crept away.’
And there the two sheets of tiny Latin script ended.

‘That’s it,’ I said. Sir Ken was holding a second plastic sheet in his hand.

‘What’s that?’ I asked, but immediately felt a lightness in my chest.

‘Again, I was hoping you’d tell me,’ said Ken. ‘It arrived in the same box as the manuscript you’ve just read.’

He handed me the sheet and my hands were trembling as I placed it on my desk and examined it under the ultra-violet light.

‘I once found similar vellum sheets at a Parchmenteer’s shop on the site of the ancient Jerusalem marketplace. Some skins with the hair scraped away were in a wooden pail under a heap of lime powder and so were well preserved. Both the language and handwriting are different. It could be Ancient Aramaic.’

‘Can you translate it?’

‘Regrettably no.’

‘What about here in the library. Is there anyone who might be able to?’

‘Ancient Aramaic? Well, that would be Deborah Holt. I could ask her. She always goes back to her flat in Holborn at lunchtime. Feeds her cat I think. We might just about catch her though.’

Deborah Holt was already in her coat when we reached her office but she was happy to oblige us. I uploaded the mobile image I’d taken onto her computer and she bent over the screen, but after a few seconds stood upright and began buttoning her coat again.

‘If this is this your idea of a joke, Ken, it’s not very funny.’

‘Not at all, Deborah,’ said Ken. Why would I joke with you?’ He looked to me with a puzzled expression. ‘What does it say, Deborah?’ he pleaded. ‘Won’t you read it for us?’

‘I don’t need to read it,’ she said. ‘I know the text by heart,’ and she began to recite. ‘ “Greetings to you Abgarus; you are happy forasmuch as you have believed on me, whom ye have not seen.”

I sat heavily into one of the chairs, mumbling to myself. The unknown author of the manuscript must have lifted the letter from the jacket of the giant in Constantinople. Why didn’t he tell us in the manuscript?

‘Constantinople?’ said Deborah. ‘The original of this letter was last seen in Constantinople eight hundred years ago. Ken Milne reached into his briefcase and lifted the vellum sheet out.

‘Could this be the original?’ Ken said.

Deborah sat down alongside me, her face suddenly pale.

‘It only appeared yesterday’ said Ken. ‘ How can you know the words by heart, Deborah?’

‘Because I’m Christian, Ken and I specialise in the Ancient Languages of the Middle East. Anyone who does knows the text of this letter.’

‘A Christian text? I wish one of you would explain what on earth this is all about.’

‘Be patient, Ken,’ I said. ‘We haven’t even read it all yet. Please carry on Deborah, but I know the next line.

“For it is written concerning me,”I recited, "that those who have seen me should not believe on me, that they who have not seen might believe and live.” I know it from the story of Doubting Thomas.

‘Correct young man,’ said Deborah. ‘That’s exactly what it says and if this is not some sort of elaborate hoax then you have found the treasure of the century. Don’t you know how it ends?’

‘I don’t. The manuscript doesn’t tell us.’

‘You should have googled it. The supposed text is well known.’ Ken Milne spoke up.

‘Deborah, might I ask you to finish the letter?’

‘Of course, Ken.’ She turned back to the screen.

"As to that part of your letter, which relates to my giving you a visit, I must inform you that I will soon fulfill all the ends of my mission in this country. Once I have completed this mission I will visit you and if for some reason I cannot come will send to you forthwith one of my companions to visit you and cure your disorder and bring life to you and those around you.” Deborah turned back to Ken.

‘Can I see the original please?’ and Ken, still baffled, handed it to her.

She lifted it from the polythene sheet and holding it with her right hand, stroked the surface gently with the fingers of her left.

‘The DNA in the goatskin they used was much the same DNA in the goats that roam Jerusalem today. You could do DNA testing on it and find the age of this sheet by radiocarbon dating. For the avoidance of any doubt.’

‘Avoidance of doubt? Doubt about what?’ said Sir Ken.

Deborah tried to reply and words formed on her lips but she seemed unable to speak them. Tears began pooling in her eyes and I noticed the crucifix hanging from her neck for the first time. I said quietly:

‘Is it signed, Deborah?’ and she turned back to the screen.

‘Yes,’ she said, her words broken by a sob, ‘it is.

I placed a hand on her shoulder and Ken, frustrated and annoyed pleaded:

‘Signed by whom, for goodness sake?’
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