Easy reading - intermediate

The New Catacomb

Two researchers of Roman remains, Eugene Kennedy and Julius Burger, were sitting together in Kennedy's comfortable room. The night was cold. Outside under the bright winter stars lay the modern Rome, the long, double chain of the electric lamps, the brilliantly lighted cafes, the rushing carriages, and crowds of people on the pavements. But inside, in the luxurious room of the rich young English archaeologist, there was only old Rome to be seen. Old artefacts were on the walls and corners. On the centre table there stood the famous reconstruction by Kennedy of the Baths of Caracalla, which excited such interest and admiration when it was exhibited in Berlin. Kennedy, little more than thirty, had a European reputation in this particular branch of archaeology. He had a handsome face with high, white forehead, aggressive nose, and somewhat loose and sensual mouth.
His companion, Julius Burger was of a very different type. He had a German father and an Italian mother. Blue Teutonic eyes lightened his sun-browned face, and above them rose a square, massive forehead, with a fringe of close yellow curls lying round it. His strong, firm jaw was clean-shaven. In age and in reputation, he was on the same level as his English companion, but he had much harder life and work. Twelve years before, he had come as a poor student to Rome, and had earned little money ever since at the University of Bonn. He had climbed the ladder of fame slowly and hard until now he was a member of the Berlin Academy, and he would shortly be promoted to the Chair of the greatest of German Universities. But had never had free time for social life, he had always had to work hard to achieve what he was. It was only when he spoke of his own subject that his face was filled with life and soul. At other times he was silent and embarrassed, too conscious of his own limitations in other subjects.
And yet for some years these very different people were becoming friends. Their common interests and pursuits had brought them together, and each had been attracted by the other's knowledge. Kennedy had been amused by the frankness and simplicity of his rival, while Burger in turn had been fascinated by the brilliancy and vivacity which had made Kennedy such a favourite in Roman society. At the moment the young Englishman was somewhat under a cloud. He had had a love-affair, the details of which had never quite come out, which had indicated that he was a little ruthless and even cruel and which shocked many of his friends.
"Look here, Burger," said Kennedy, looking hard at the calm face of his companion, "I wish that you would trust me and tell me."
As he was speaking he pointed at a fruit basket lying on the rug on the floor. It was full of objects, inscribed tiles, broken inscriptions, cracked mosaics, torn papyri and rusty metal ornaments, which were quite unique. It was the German who had brought them in, and the Englishman's eyes were hungry as he looked at them.
"I would love to hear about your treasure," he continued, while Burger lit a cigar. "It is evidently a discovery of the first importance. These inscriptions will make a sensation throughout Europe."
"And there are a million of these there in the place!" said the German. "There are so many that a dozen researchers might spend a lifetime over them, and build up a reputation as solid as the Castle of St. Angelo."
Kennedy was thinking with his fine forehead wrinkled and his fingers playing with his long, fair moustache.
"You have discovered a new catacomb, Burger!" said he at last.
"Quite so. There is no mystery about that. I HAVE discovered a new catacomb."
"Ah, that is my secret, my dear Kennedy. I can just tell you that it is so situated that there is not one chance in a million of anyone else coming upon it. Its date is different from that of any known catacomb, and it has been reserved for the burial of the highest Christians, so that the remains and the relics are quite different from anything which has ever been seen before. I will prepare my own report of the matter."
Kennedy loved his subject with a love which was almost a mania. He was interested in the old life and history of the city. He wanted to see this new underworld which his companion had discovered.
"Look here, Burger," said he, earnestly, "I assure you that you can trust me in the matter. I will not write anything about anything which I would see until I have your permission. I quite understand your feeling and I think it is most natural, but you have really nothing to be afraid of. On the other hand, if you don't tell me I will make a systematic search, and I will most certainly discover it. In that case, of course, I would do what I wanted."
Burger smiled thoughtfully over his cigar.
"I have noticed, friend Kennedy," said he, "that when I want information over any point you are not always so ready to tell me."
"When did you ever ask me anything that I did not tell you? You remember, for example, when I gave you the material for your paper about the temple of the Vestals."
"Ah, well, that was not a matter of much importance. If I asked you about an intimate thing would you give me an answer? This new catacomb is a very intimate thing to me, and I should certainly expect a sign of confidence in return."
"I don't understand what you mean," said the Englishman, "but if you mean that you will answer my question about the catacomb if I answer any question which you may ask me I can assure you that I will certainly do so."
"Well, then," said Burger, leaning back in his settee, and puffing a blue tree of cigar-smoke into the air, "tell me all about your relations with Miss Mary Saunderson."
Kennedy sprang up in his chair and glared angrily at his companion.
"What the devil do you mean?" he cried. "What sort of a question is this? You may mean it as a joke, but you've never made a worse one."
"No, I don't mean it as a joke," said Burger, simply. "I am really rather interested in the details of the matter. I don't know much about the world and women and social life and that sort of thing, and such an incident has the fascination of the unknown for me. I know you, and I knew her by sight—I had even spoken to her once or twice. I would very much like to hear from your own lips exactly what it was which happened between you."
"I won't tell you a word."
"That's all right. I only wanted to see if you would give up a secret as easily as you expected me to give up my secret of the new catacomb. You wouldn't, and I didn't expect you to. But why should you expect otherwise of me? There's Saint John's clock striking ten. It is quite time to go home."
"No; wait a bit, Burger," said Kennedy; "this is really strange of you to wish to know about an old love-affair which ended months ago."
"Certainly," said the German, gathering up his basket of curiosities, "but in this case, as you must be aware, it was a public matter which was the common talk of Rome, so that you are not really doing Miss Mary Saunderson any injury by discussing her case with me. But still, I respect your decision; and so good night!"
"Wait a bit, Burger," said Kennedy, laying his hand upon the other's arm; "I am very keen on this catacomb business, and I can't let it drop quite so easily. Would you mind asking me something else in return—something not quite so eccentric this time?"
"No, no; you have refused, and there is an end of it," said Burger, with his basket on his arm. "No doubt you are quite right not to answer, and no doubt I am quite right also—and so again, my dear Kennedy, good night!"
The Englishman watched Burger cross the room, and he had his hand on the handle of the door before his host sprang up.
"Hold on, old fellow," said he; "I think you are behaving in a most ridiculous fashion; but still; if this is your condition, I suppose that I must submit to it. I hate saying anything about a girl, but, as you say, it is all over Rome, and I don't suppose I can tell you anything which you do not know already. What was it you wanted to know?"
The German came back to the stove, and sat into his chair once more.
"May I have another cigar?" said he. "Thank you very much! I never smoke when I work, but I enjoy a chat much more when I am under the influence of tobacco. Now, as regards this young lady, with whom you had this little adventure. What in the world has become of her?"
"She is at home with her own people."
"Oh, really—in England?"
"What part of England—London?"
"No, Twickenham."
"You must excuse my curiosity, my dear Kennedy. But it is something so entirely outside my own experience that I cannot even imagine how you did it. For example, if you had loved this girl your love could hardly disappear in three weeks, so I assume that you could not have loved her at all. But if you did not love her why would you make this great scandal which has damaged you and ruined her?"
"That's a logical way of looking at it, certainly," said Kennedy. "I liked her, and—well, you say you've seen her—you know how charming she was. But still I admit, looking back, that I didn't really love her."
"Then, my dear Kennedy, why did you do it?"
"Because of the adventure of the thing."
"What! You are so fond of adventures!"
"Where would the variety of life be without them? It was for an adventure that I first began to pay my attentions to her. It was also difficult to court her because she was the companion of Lady Emily Rood, it was almost impossible to see her alone. On the top of all the other obstacles which attracted me, I learned from her own lips very early that she was engaged."
"Mein Gott! To whom?"
"She mentioned no names."
"I do not think that anyone knows that. So that made the adventure more attractive, didn't it?"
"Well, it certainly gave a spice to it. Don't you think so?"
"I tell you that I don't know much about these things."
"My dear fellow, you can remember that the apple you stole from your neighbour's tree was always sweeter than that which fell from your own. And then I found that she cared for me."
"What—at once?"
"Oh, no, it took about three months. But at last I won her over. And we had a delightful time, as long as it lasted."
"But how about the other man?"
Kennedy shrugged his shoulders.
"I suppose it is the survival of the fittest," said he. "He wasn't probably as good as I was when she deserted him. Let's drop the subject, because I have had enough of it!"
"Only one more thing. How did you get rid of her in three weeks?"
"Well, she absolutely refused, under any circumstances, to come back to face the people she had known in Rome. Now, of course, Rome is necessary to me—so there was one obvious cause of separation. Then her old father came to the hotel in London, and there was a scene, and the whole thing became so unpleasant that really—though I missed her dreadfully at first—I was very glad to get out of it. Now, I really trust you will not repeat anything of what I have said."
"My dear Kennedy, I would never repeat it. But all that you say interests me very much, because it gives me an insight into your way of looking at things, which is entirely different from mine, because I have seen so little of life. And now you want to know about my new catacomb. I will not describe it, because you would never find it by that. There is only one thing, and that is for me to take you there."
"That would be perfect."
"When would you like to come?"
"The sooner the better. I am all impatience to see it."
"Well, it is a beautiful night—though a little cold. what about in an hour? We must be very careful to keep the matter to ourselves. If anyone saw us they would think that there was something going on."
"We will be careful," said Kennedy. "Is it far?"
"A few kilometres."
"Not too far to walk?"
"Oh, no, we could walk there easily."
"Let's do it, then. A cabman would be suspicious if he dropped us both at a lonely spot in the middle of the night."
"Quite so. I think it would be best for us to meet at the Gate of the Appian Way at midnight. I must go back to my room for the matches and candles and other things."
"All right, Burger! I think it is very kind of you to let me into this secret, and I promise you that I will write nothing about it until you have published your report. See you at the Gate at twelve."
The clocks were striking midnight when Burger, wrapped in an Italian overcoat, with a lantern hanging from his hand, walked up to the place of meeting. Kennedy stepped out of the shadow to meet him.
"You are passionate in work as well as in love!" said the German, laughing.
"Yes; I have been waiting here for nearly half an hour."
"I hope you left no clue as to where we were going."
"Not such a fool! My God, I am freezing! Come on, Burger, let us warm ourselves by hard walking."
A peasant or two going home from the wine-shop, and a few carts of country produce coming up to Rome, were the only things which they met. When they came to the Catacombs of St. Calistus Burger stopped with his hand to his side.
"Your legs are longer than mine, and you are more used to walking," said he, laughing. "I think that the place where we turn off is somewhere here. Yes, this is it, round the corner of the pub. Now, it is a very narrow path, so perhaps I'd better go in front and you can follow."
He lit his lantern, and they followed a narrow track across the marshes of the Campagna. Their road led them under one of the huge arches of the great Aqueduct of old Rome and past the circle of crumbling bricks which marks the old arena. At last Burger stopped at a solitary wooden cowshed, and he drew a key from his pocket. "Surely your catacomb is not inside the cowshed!" cried Kennedy.
"The entrance to it is. No one would guess that the entrance was there."
"Does the owner know of it?"
"No. He had only found one or two objects which made me almost certain that his house was built on the entrance to such a place. So I rented it from him, and did my excavations for myself. Come in, and shut the door behind you."
It was a long, empty building, with the mangers along one wall. Burger put his lantern down on the ground, and shaded its light in all directions except one.
"Someone might see a light," said he. "Help me to move this boarding."
The floor was loose in the corner, and plank by plank the two researchers raised it and leaned it against the wall. Below there was a square hole and a stair of old stone steps which led away down under the earth.
"Be careful!" cried Burger, as Kennedy impatiently, hurried down them. "It is a perfect labyrinth there and if you lose your way there the chances are a hundred to one that you will never come out again. Wait until I bring the light."
"How do you find your own way if it is so complicated?"
"A few times I almost lost my way, but I have learned the ways a bit. There is a certain system to it, but it is quite complicated and if you were in the dark, you would certainly not find the way out. Even now I always spin out a ball of string behind me when I am going far into the catacomb. You can see for yourself that it is difficult, because every one of these passages divides and subdivides a dozen times for a hundred yards."
They had descended about 6 metres from the level of the cowshed, and they were standing now in a square room. In every direction were the black openings of passages which radiated from this common centre.
"I want you to follow me closely, my friend," said Burger. "Do not stop to look at anything on the way, because the place to which I will take you contains all that you can see, and more. It will save time for us to go there directly."
He led the way down one of the corridors, and the Englishman followed closely at his heels. Every now and then the passage split into two, but Burger was evidently following some secret marks, because he neither stopped nor hesitated. Everywhere along the walls lay the Christians of old Rome. The yellow light flickered over the dry features of the mummies, skulls and long, white armbones crossed over the chests. And everywhere as he passed Kennedy looked at inscriptions, funeral bowls, pictures, utensils, and other things hundreds years old. It was clear that this was the earliest and finest of the catacombs, containing so many Roman remains as no one have ever seen before.
"What would happen if the light went out?" he asked, as they hurried onwards.
"I have a spare candle and a box of matches in my pocket. By the way, Kennedy, have you got any matches?"
"No; you had better give me some."
"Oh, that is all right. There is no chance that we would separate."
"How far are we going? It seems to me that we have walked at least 500 metres."
"More than that, I think. There is really no end to the tombs—at least, I have never been able to find any. This is a very difficult place, so I think that I will use our ball of string."
He fastened one end of it to a stone and he carried the string as he advanced. Kennedy saw that it was necessary because the passages had become more complex than ever, with a perfect network of intersecting corridors. But these all ended in one large circular hall with a square pedestal of tufa topped with a piece of marble at one end of it.
"My God!" cried Kennedy in an ecstasy, as Burger put his lantern over the marble. "It is a Christian altar—probably the first one in existence. Here is a little cross cut upon the corner of it. No doubt this circular space was used as a church."
"Exactly," said Burger. "If I had more time I would like to show you all the bodies which are buried in these niches on the walls, for they are the early popes and bishops of the Church, with their mitres, their croziers, and full canonicals. Go over to that one and look at it!"
Kennedy went across, and stared at the horrible head which lay loosely in the niche.
"This is most interesting," said he. "This is unique. Bring the lantern over, Burger, I want to see them all."
But the German had stepped away, and was standing in the middle of a yellow circle of light at the other side of the hall.
"Do you know how many wrong turnings there are between this and the stairs?" he asked. "There are over two thousand. No doubt it was one of the means of protection which the Christians adopted. The chances are two thousand to one that a man got out, even if he had a light; but if he were in the dark it would, of course, be much more difficult."
"I think so."
"And the darkness is something dreadful. I tried it once for an experiment. Let us try it again!" He came to the lantern, and in an instant it was as if an invisible hand was put tightly over each of Kennedy's eyes. He had never known what such darkness was. He stepped forward but there was a solid obstacle. He put his hands out to push it back from him.
"OK, Burger, enough," said he, "let's have the light again."
But his companion began to laugh, and in that circular room the sound seemed to come from every side at once.
"You seem nervous, friend Kennedy," said he.
"Go on, man, light the candle!" said Kennedy impatiently.
"It's very strange, Kennedy, but I don't know where you are standing. Could you tell me where I am?"
"No; you seem to be on every side of me."
"If I didn't have this string which I am holding in my hand I would have no idea which way to go."
"Light the candle, man, and have an end of this nonsense."
"Well, Kennedy, there are two things which I understand that you are very fond of. The one is an adventure, and the other is an obstacle to overcome. The adventure will be to find your way out of this catacomb. The obstacle will be the darkness and the two thousand wrong turns which make the way a little difficult to find. But you needn't hurry, because you have plenty of time, and when you stop for a rest now and then, I would like you to think of Miss Mary Saunderson, and whether you treated her fairly."
"You devil, what do you mean?" roared Kennedy. He was running about in little circles with both hands stretched out.
"Goodbye," said the mocking voice, and it was already at some distance. "I really do not think, Kennedy that you did the right thing to that girl. There was only one little thing which you didn't know, and I can tell you. Miss Saunderson was engaged to a poor student, and his name was Julius Burger."
There was a rustle somewhere, the sound of a foot striking a stone, and then there was silence in that old Christian church—a heavy silence which closed round Kennedy and shut him in like water round a drowning man.
Some two months afterwards the following article appeared in the European Press:
"One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years is that of the new catacomb in Rome, which lies some distance to the east of the well-known vaults of St. Calixtus. This important burial place, which is very rich in most interesting early Christian remains, was found by Dr. Julius Burger, the young German specialist, who is quickly taking the first place as an authority upon ancient Rome. Although he is the first to publish the discovery, it appears that a less fortunate adventurer had been there before Dr. Burger. Some months ago Mr. Kennedy, the well-known English researcher, disappeared suddenly from his rooms in the Corso, and it was thought that he had left Rome because of his recent scandal. It appears now that he had become a victim to his love of archaeology. His body was discovered in the heart of the new catacomb, and it was evident from the condition of his feet and boots that he had walked for days through the corridors which make these underground tombs so dangerous to explorers. The dead gentleman had hastily made his way into this labyrinth without taking with him either candles or matches, so that his sad fate was the natural result of his own boldness. What makes the matter more painful is that Dr. Julius Burger was an close friend of the dead Mr. Kennedy. His joy over the extraordinary finding has been greatly spoilt by the terrible fate of his friend and fellow-worker."

Adapted from "Tales of Terror and Mystery By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle".


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Created by J. Brandecky, August 9, 2013. Copyright.
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