Rockingdown Revisitedby Sally Neary
PART 4: The Treasure-Seekers – February 1987
Lucy-Ann carried the coffee tray into the sitting-room and laid it on the table.
"And, how are the arrangements for the wedding going?" she asked.
Barney and Diana were visiting for Saturday lunch, as Barney had the afternoon off, although he would be on stage again that evening. As Roger was also free, he had joined them as well.
"Very well," said Diana. "Three weeks to go, and everything is ready, as far as I can see. "Numbers are at 105, and hotel accommodation is arranged for everyone who needs it. Neta and her family will be arriving on the 26th, and we will be picking them up at the airport. We have booked them all in at Bowland House until Monday."
"And Tess's dress – is that ready?"
"Oh yes – it fits to perfection, as long as she doesn't lose any more weight. She says she can't eat because she's so excited." Diana laughed.
"It's a long time since we all wore morning dress," said Barney, looking at Roger and Snubby. "It must be years, in fact."
"I know," said Snubby. "Lucy-Ann has me on a special diet ready for the occasion!"
"Snubby, have you heard any more from Robin Lownes about Rockingdown Hall?" asked Barney.
"Funny you should ask," said Snubby. "I've heard nothing since the New Year, but I suddenly received another letter on Thursday, just to confirm the offer made before Christmas and to ask me to reconsider. The letter stated that their client still wished to remain anonymous and for his solicitor to handle the negotiations. They have now offered to exchange contracts within fourteen days if I accept."
"I have to say, I would be sorely tempted to accept if I were in your position," said Roger, "but then I am not rich like you – particularly now," he added drily.
"Believe me, the cash would be very useful right now," said Snubby, "but if the place has some hidden value, I want to find out what it is. I'm stumped, I have to say."
"We know there's no possibility of mass development, and we have searched the place from top to bottom," said Barney. "It beats me as well."
The telephone rang, and Snubby walked into the hall to answer it.
"Good afternoon, Snubby," came Don Lapsley's voice. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."
"No, Don," answered Snubby. "We are just finishing lunch. Any problems?"
"No but just to say that I had a call from one of my contacts at the planning office this morning, off the record, so to speak," said Don, "and he says planning permission on Rockingdown should be through by the end of next week. I thought you might like to know. It means we can get fully started the week after."
"That's great news, Don," said Snubby, smiling broadly. "I really appreciate you calling to tell me." He paused a moment. "Don, I have just been discussing Rockingdown with the family. Are you by any chance aware of any hidden area or secret compartment that we may not know about?"
"Not really, Snubby, other than the one you already know about that was in the survey report."
Snubby paused. "Which one in the report?" he asked. "I can't recall anything being mentioned."
"It was the small loft area which is only accessible from the doorway on one of the balconies on the second floor," said Don. "It was in the report Snubby. We were able to check the other three loft areas, but there was no apparent entrance to the fourth area other than from the balcony. My guys would have had to be acrobats to have gained access to it. I don't think there's anything to worry about," he added. "Once we start work, we will erect scaffolding to access the loft to do any remedial work."
Snubby stood stock still. "Don, I don't remember reading anything in the report about an inaccessible loft area. But then I usually glance through your reports and rely on your verbal assurances." Snubby cursed himself not for the first time at his carelessness about reading the detail. He always relied on his advisors to check it for him.
"Don, I'll talk this over with the family, and get back to you if I have any other questions."
Snubby walked back into the sitting-room. "What's happened?" asked Lucy-Ann. "You look all red and excited."
"That was Don Lapsley with a message to say planning permission will be through next week. I asked him about any possible hidden areas or compartments and he said only the one I already know about that was in the survey report." He looked round at everyone. "I didn't notice it in his report – but there is apparently a loft area leading from one of the balconies off the reception hall on the second floor, and they can't find another access to it. Don says his surveyors would have had to be acrobats to investigate it."
"It's just as well we have one in the family then, isn't it?" said Barney calmly.
"Barney!" Diana looked at him in horror. "What are you thinking of? You are not planning to do anything foolish three weeks before Tess's wedding, surely?"
"Nothing foolish, no," he answered. "but let's look at the plans and see how it could be done. Snubby, have you got a copy here?"
"Yes, I have a copy in my study. I'll get it."
He returned from his study with a large brown envelope, and opened up the plan on the table.
Barney opened up the plan and studied it carefully. "Of course! Why didn't I realise before!" he said suddenly. "When I investigated the lofts, the two areas leading from the two bedrooms both had a small doorway to the balconies over the reception hall. The area from the main landing didn't. That means that there has to be another loft area which we haven't investigated which leads to the third balcony."
"I'm a mutt," said Snubby. "If I had read Don's report thoroughly I would have noticed it before."
"Let's look at the plan closely," said Barney. "The main access to the hidden loft area must be covered up in some way. Perhaps it's been plastered over. The only access until we've found it is from this balcony on the far wall of the reception hall," he said pointing to it. "I think I know how it can be done, but we'll need a long and very strong rope."
"Barney!" Diana looked at her husband in exasperation. "Do you want to be able to walk your daughter down the aisle in three weeks time or not?"
"Of course I do, sweetheart, and I will," said Barney. "Please don't fret. It's quite doable, providing the metal loop for the chandelier is strong enough."
"What?" Diana looked at him. "And how are you going to get a rope up there?"
"It's quite simple," he said, teasingly. "Let me show you."
"You see this domed area over the reception hall?" He pointed to it. "There is a trap door from the roof leading to it. It was put there originally so that the chandelier could be hung through and fixed onto the metal loop fitted at the top of the dome. It's the only way the chandeliers could be hung in those days. They were very heavy things."
"How will you get up there to hang the rope?" asked Roger.
"I shall access the roof from this roof exit here," said Barney, pointing to another area, and walk across to the dome and its roof entrance. The roof is flat here, as you can see. I will then open up the trap door over the dome and hang the rope through the loop, and I will need someone down below to hold onto the rope ends so that they can be twisted securely. I will then come down the staircase to the hall and climb up from there ."
"And how are you going to get to the balcony?" asked Diana.
"Once the rope is twisted securely, I will climb up and swing across until I can jump over onto it."
"Barney, I know you are a first-class acrobat, but you are not a teenager now, and the loop was meant to take a chandelier, not thirteen stone of you!" Diana looked at him, her eyes wide in concern.
"Diana, trust me!" said Barney firmly. "I will check out the strength of the chandelier loop first."
"When can we go down to Rockingdown to check it out?" asked Snubby. He looked at Barney.
"Well, I am due on stage in four hours time, and so today is out of the question," said Barney, smiling. "I suggest we head down there tomorrow morning. Have you got a strong and heavy rope, here Snubby?"
"I don't think we have, no," said Snubby.
"No problem – I am sure we have one at the theatre. We use ropes in the play. I'll borrow one later this evening and bring it with me tomorrow." Barney laughed. "I feel an adventure coming on."
"Let's call Dinah and Alastair," said Snubby, jumping up. "It may be useful to have Alastair with us if they are available. It will be useful to get his opinion and another pair of hands if we need them."
He looked round at everyone. "We may be on a wild goose chase, but it's the only area we haven't looked at. I think our latest Rockingdown mystery is boiling up!"
* * *
"It's a pretty strong contraption, don't you think, Al?" asked Barney, as they all stood and looked up at the heavy metal loop which hung from the dome of the ceiling in the reception hall at Rockingdown Hall.
"Yes, and it was meant to take a very heavy and valuable chandelier," said Alastair, looking up at it. "Once you have looped the rope through it, we can test it well before you climb up.
"Right, well there's no time like the present, and so I am going up to the roof with the rope now."
"I'll come with you," said Alastair. "Just in case it takes some force to open up the trap door to the dome. It may take two of us."
"Do be careful, both of you, won't you?" said Dinah. "Remember it's probably very icy up there, even though the roof is flat in parts."
"Roger, I suggest you and Snubby stay down below, and as I lower the rope, you can hold onto it," said Barney.
"Right – no problem," said Roger.
"Di, please don't look so worried," said Lucy-Ann, gently, looking at Diana's worried face. "You know that Barney knows what he is doing."
"Of course I do," said Diana, "but I'm concerned the metal loop just won't hold his weight and he may fall!"
Barney and Alastair disappeared up to the second floor with the rope. It was a long and heavy one. They were both dressed appropriately in track-suits and trainers. They reached the roof opening through the trap-door, and opened it using their joint strength. Barney climbed up first, and Alastair followed, handing to him the rope.
"Gosh, it's cold up here," said Barney. "I can feel the icy wind blowing across the roof."
They both moved carefully across the flat roof to the area over the reception hall. Barney found the trap-door to the dome quite easily.
"It looks frozen over," said Alastair. "We may have a problem opening it up."
"No we won't," said Barney, smiling broadly. "I have come prepared." He took from his pocket a tin of de-icer from his car. "I guessed it would be iced up. I'll de-ice it." He sprayed the edges of the trap-door thoroughly, and they both held onto the handle and pulled it. "It's not budging," said Barney anxiously. "I'll try again." He sprayed it again thoroughly, and they tried again. "I can feel it coming," he said. "One more heave." They pulled it firmly, and the trap door shot open.
Barney lifted it open. He looked down through the hole and could see everyone standing below. "We made it," he called. "I am now going to thread the rope through the loop and lower it down. Take the ends of the rope as soon as you can reach them."
He and Alastair gradually lowered the rope through the metal loop fixed to the ceiling which was easily accessible from the trap door. "I've got it," called Snubby.
"Right, we are coming back down," called Barney. He and Alastair shut the trap door and climbed back across the roof to the roof exit . They climbed back down the stairs to the reception hall.
"So far so good," smiled Barney. He gave Diana a hug and kissed her. "Don't look so worried, sweetheart," he said. "I know what I'm doing! I am now going to twist round the rope to make it strong and secure."
He twisted the rope round and round until it hung firmly from the loop above. He then leapt onto it a few feet above the ground and pulled hard. "It's holding firm," he said, looking up.
"Yes it is," said Alastair, looking at the loop closely. "It's well secured, and I think it will take your weight, even when you swing across. It was built to last!"
Barney climbed up like a cat, looking across at the balcony area where he needed to be. He judged the right level. "Right," he said. "Here we go."
He began to swing himself to and fro in the direction of the balcony. Alastair continued to watch the ceiling area for sign of the loop giving way at any point, but it held firm. "You're ok," he called.
Barney continued to swing to and fro, gaining speed. Diana held her hands to her face in fright. She wouldn't be happy until this was all over. It had been bad enough, she thought, when he climbed up a rope to the nursery balcony outside Rockingdown Hall all those years ago, but he had been fourteen then!
Everyone was quiet so that Barney could fully concentrate. He took one more swing and suddenly hurled himself over the balcony, landing deftly on both feet. He swung round, facing the others, still holding onto the rope.
A cheer broke out, and everyone, other than Diana, clapped loudly. Snubby put his fingers to his mouth and let out a piercing whistle. "Bravo!" he called.
Barney laughed his loud uproarious laugh and gave a bow. "That was the easy part," he said. "I have now got to get through these double doors." He pulled hard at them and they shot open unexpectedly easily. "Right, here we go," he called.
He took his torch from his pocket, and entered the loft-area. He walked into a huge cob-web, and had to wipe it away from his face before he could continue. "Gosh, it's filthy in here," he called.
He looked round. The area couldn't have been more than fifteen foot square with a sloping ceiling. There were some boxes in the corner. He went over to investigate. He lifted the boxes. They were quite light – empty in fact, thought Barney. He moved two or three of them away, and a cloud of dust blew over him, as he moved them. There was something that looked like a crate lying behind. He moved the remainder of the boxes to one side.
"Is there anything there?" came Snubby's impatient voice.
Barney walked over to the opening and looked through. "It looks as if there is some sort of crate here. I am just going to have a closer look."
He went back to the crate and shone his torch all round it. It was covered in dust and dirt. Looking closely, he could see some writing on the outside of the crate to one side. He took off his track-suit top and began to wipe the dust and dirt away from the lettering and looked hard. He could just make out five or six letters. C-H-L-A-N-D. What on earth does that mean? He thought. He looked at them again closely. Yes, he had read them correctly.
He heard Snubby's voice again, and walked back to the opening. "I can see some lettering on the crate but it's only part of a word." He called. "Di, you are good at word games. Can you think of a word that ends in C-H-L-A-N-D?"
Diana paused and looked up at him. "Yes," she called. "They are the last six letters of DEUTSCHLAND. The crate came from Germany!"
Snubby gave a sudden yell. "If it came from Germany, I bet it was put there by Lord Rockingdown's cousin – Sir Edwin Naseby! You remember Miriam said he was working with the Nazis. I bet that's it!"
"Snubby – I bet you're right!" called Barney. "But there must be another entrance to the loft. It's quite a big crate and it couldn't have been put in there from this balcony. I'll just check it over."
He shone his torch round the floor and walls of the loft area and suddenly gave a shout. "I've found it!" he called. He walked back to the opening.
"There is a large square loft opening in the floor but it's sealed up from below," he called. There must be a false ceiling in the room below!"
"Barney!" called Alastair. "I am coming up to the bedroom below where you are. When I get there, bang on the floor over the loft entrance and we will try and identify where it is. Just give me three minutes."
Everyone followed Alastair up to the second floor. Barney gave them a few minutes to get there and began to hammer on the loft exit on the ceiling below. Down below, everyone could hear Barney's thuds to the ceiling over to one side. "Here it is," said Alastair, "about two feet from the corner. "A false ceiling has been put in at some stage and the loft entrance covered up. Somehow we have to get that ceiling down if we are going to get the crate down. There is no other way."
"Barney can't hear us from here," said Roger. "We will need to go back down to the hall to talk to him. He will need to get down anyway the same way he climbed up."
Once down in the reception hall, Alastair called up to Barney. "We have located the position of the loft entrance, but the ceiling will have to be taken down before it can be opened up. You will have to leave the crate there for now and come down the way you came up."
"Right," said Barney. "Here I come." He closed the doors of the loft entrance from the balcony and took hold of the rope. He held onto it firmly and swung over the balcony, swinging across. Once he had steadied the rope, he began to climb down and landed softly on the ground.
"Well done, mate – you're a marvel!" said Snubby, patting him on the back. Diana hugged him tightly and he hugged her back. "I'm OK – as easy as pie," Barney laughed.
"Now what do we do about that crate?" he asked. "I can't come back tomorrow – it's a two hour drive from London down here, and I have to be back by mid-afternoon."
"I need to be in London tomorrow as well," said Snubby.
"So do we all," said Roger. "So what do we do? We can't get anyone here to help today."
"I'll call Don Lapsley," said Snubby.
"But Snubby, it's Sunday. You can't expect Don to come down here on a Sunday afternoon!" said Lucy-Ann anxiously.
"Don Lapsley has worked for me for almost twenty years," said Snubby. "I have looked after him and he would do anything for me. If he can get here, he will. I'll call him from my car-phone now."
* * *
Don Lapsley drew up outside the entrance to Rockingdown Hall and got out.
"Don, I can't thank you enough for coming down. It's very important – otherwise I wouldn't have asked you," said Snubby, standing in the door.
"I've known you long enough to know that, Snubby," said Don, smiling. "But you just might have to square it with my wife. She doesn't understand why I have to take down a ceiling on a Sunday afternoon in February!"
He removed some tools, a bag and a step-ladder from the back of his van, and Snubby and Roger helped him carry them inside. "We think there is something very important in the loft which we couldn't access," said Snubby. Barney has been up to see it by climbing a rope hanging from the chandelier loop and swinging over the balcony there."
"Good heavens!" said Don. "How on earth did you manage that?" he looked at Barney in amazement. " By jove, you ought to be in a circus!"
"Well, there's an idea!" said Barney, grinning widely.
Snubby helped Don carry the tall step-ladder, and they walked up to the second floor again to the bedroom below the loft area. "That's where it is," said Alastair, pointing to the area of the covered loft entrance."
"Right, well may I suggest you all leave me here in peace, because I am going to make a hell of a mess getting down this ceiling," said Don. "I'll call you when it's done." He began to climb into some overalls and put on his hard hat.
"We will be on the landing," said Snubby. They all waited outside for about ten minutes while Don worked at taking down the ceiling. "He's making a hell of a racket," said Snubby, grinning. "It's just as well there aren't any neighbours to worry about!"
"Right, we're done!" called Don.
They walked back into the room which was full of debris and dust. The loft entrance was now fully visible.
"Right, I suggest I go up again," said Barney, "but I might need some help moving the crate."
"I'll come up with you," said Alastair. The two of them climbed up the step-ladder, removed the loft entrance and hauled themselves into it. The crate was heavy, and needed both of them to carry it across to the loft opening.
"We are going to lift it down carefully through the loft opening. It is wide enough," said Barney.
Roger, Snubby and Don all held the bottom of the crate as Barney and Alastair lowered it through the opening.
"What on earth is in it?" asked Lucy-Ann.
"I don't know," said Dinah, "but there must be something of value in there."
The crate was carried out of the bedroom onto the landing, away from the debris. Barney and Alastair climbed down from the loft and followed the others onto the landing.
"Right, there it is," said Don. "Who's going to open it?" The others looked at him. "I thought so," he said.
He took some tools from his work-bag and began to work at the outer edges of the crate, removing the nails which held it secure. "I am trying to be as careful as I can," he said, "in case there is anything of value in here."
"Here we go." He lifted the top of the crate away. Whatever was inside was covered in a type of cloth. Don and Barney lifted the item from the crate and placed it on the floor of the landing.
Barney gradually unwrapped the cloth. "There is some sort of gilt frame here," he said. "I think it's a painting of some sort."
He finally removed the cloth. Barney switched on his torch to see it more clearly, as the light was already fading.
"It's a portrait of a woman," said Diana. "Gosh, it's rather lovely isn't it!"
"Do you recognise it Di?" Alastair asked his wife. "What is it?"
Barney handed the torch to Dinah and she looked closely at the painting. She moved it around the frame first and then slowly over the painting itself, pausing to look more closely. She got up and looked up, swallowing hard.
"If it's what I think it is," she said slowly, "this is the reason for your inflated offers, Snubby." She paused. "I'm surprised you weren't offered more."
"What is it Di?" asked Lucy-Ann.
"It's a Raphael," she whispered. "I am almost certain – probably one of his later portraits from the Roman period – early sixteenth century." She pointed to some gilded monograms worked into the border of the woman's gown in the painting. "You see these monograms – this was a typical signature of his work. And the quality of the gilded frame and its condition shows it's genuine."
She looked at Snubby. "If it is, this painting must be worth ten times the value of Rockingdown Hall."
"Good grief," Snubby looked at her in amazement.
"How long has it been there, I wonder?" said Roger.
"Since Sir Edwin Naseby put it there I should think," said Snubby. "He must have hidden it for the Nazis, or maybe, maybe it was in fact a gift to him for helping them with their cause!"
"Thousands of paintings were plundered by the Nazis during the war from all over Europe," said Dinah softly. "Many have never been found, and this must be one of them. Gosh, I'm covered in goose-pimples," she said.
"If Sir Edwin did put it there, it must have been put there before he was interned," said Barney. "That means at some stage between Lady Rockingdown's death and Sir Edwin's internment – probably in 1941. He must have planned to come back for it, possibly after the war."
"But Miriam told us that he died just after the war. And that is probably why it's still there!" said Lucy-Ann.
"I can't believe it," said Diana. "Do you realise, that when we were here as children on holiday all those years ago and solved the smuggling mystery in the cellars, this painting was already up here in the loft. And over thirty-five years later, we have come back and found it." She squeezed Barney's hand. "It feels unreal."
"I think I want to sit down," said Don Lapsley. "What are you going to do with it Snubby?"
"Firstly, I have an urgent phone call to make," said Snubby, "and then I think we should head home with it and wait for the police to arrive."
"Who are you going to call?" asked Roger.
"Bill, of course," said Snubby. "He'll know what to do, and who to contact. Whoever has been making the offers for Rockingdown knows this is here, and I think Bill will want to come up from Cornwall first thing tomorrow morning."
"After all," he said, "it's not everyday you find a five million pound picture in the attic."
To be continued...