Donald Nolet – The Devil’s Handwriting
Prague, November 1610
It was a city of heights and depths. Spires reached up towards the sky. Bridges bedecked with spikes leaned across the Vltava. Yet at the same time, each visible structure had roots reaching back hundreds of years. In the bold, indomitable houses of Prague entire dynasties had been born, vilified, become extinct and had sometimes risen from the ashes again. As for the city, so too for the five men who had gathered in the gardens of Strakova Akademie this afternoon. They had spent their entire lives reaching for the stars, driven by a hunger entrenched deep in their innermost beings. Today’s host led the troupe past a field, pointing to the places where he had sown medicinal herbs due to sprout next spring. He halted and looked around. It was a cold, blustery afternoon and save for the small group the garden was empty.
‘Your presence here saddens me.’
Jacob Horcicky de Tepenec kept a sharp eye on the reactions of the four men. No shock, fear or suspicion. He was not surprised. Curiosity was in their nature. It was the reason they were here, in this city, in this location. They had travelled here from their comfortable homes, and having arrived there was no way back.
‘Why does it sadden you, Mr De Tepenec?’ a young man with fleshy cheeks asked. ‘Is our company so disagreeable to you?’
The four were no strangers. Some worked together on an almost daily basis. And all were aware of the others’ reputations.
‘I am sorry, because you came here of your own free will. But in so doing, you have inadvertently saddled yourselves with a certain obligation.’
A man of around forty with razor-sharp features took a step forwards.
‘Please explain. I assume you are speaking on behalf–’
‘Let’s not mention his name here,’ De Tepenec cut him short. ‘But I understand your question and the answer is yes.’
‘That’s what I wanted more clarity about. This is a most unusual course of affairs.’
‘Clarity is not what we are here for. That which will be divulged to you, you must not discuss, neither amongst yourselves nor with your nearest and dearest. You must not write about it either, even if every fibre of your being may implore you to do so. You will only do what I tell you to do. And that will demand the utmost of your many talents.’
A brief silence descended on the group.
‘Is that why we have gathered in this particular place?’ asked one of the two men who had not yet spoken. He scratched his beard, which was just as unkempt as the unruly tufts of hair on his head. ‘Walls have ears. The sky overhears everything, but never breathes a word.’
De Tepenec nodded in agreement.
‘Ah, very shrewd of you,’ the man resumed. ‘I have only just arrived in this most beautiful city, and already I cannot stop marvelling.’ He winked at his compatriot standing beside him. The man failed to react. Broad-shouldered, he effectively occupied the space of two men.
‘Your words intrigue me,’ he said, his voice as bronzed as his body. ‘And yet they carry a flavour of something distasteful. I am a free man. This sounds as if you seek to change this.’
‘Nobody is free, Mr Spranger,’ De Tepenec replied. ‘We are all tied to the past, present and future.’
‘And tied to the person you do not wish to name.’
‘To him too.’
De Tepenec pointed a finger to the upper part of the city where he had lived his entire life.
‘In recent years, this city has grown into a refuge for people like you. Artists, scientists, alchemists. Freethinkers. Whatever a man believes, here he is free to believe it. Prague is the light. But I need not tell you that there are many who wish to put an end to this. Dark clouds of fanaticism and intolerance are gathering over us.’
‘I think we all understand what you are referring to,’ the youngest man present said. To both him and the others this had been the principle reason for leaving their homeland and family.
‘Understanding is not enough,’ De Tepenec responded. ‘I ask of you – nay, demand that you do something about it. As of today, you will pass your days as you are wont to pass them. Your days are yours. Your nights, however, are mine.’
At that he resumed his stroll down one of the many paths crisscrossing the garden, followed after a moment’s hesitation by the four others.
‘I do not appreciate being spoken to in this manner!’ the man with the bony face exclaimed. Having caught up with De Tepenec, he was now walking beside him. ‘I am busy unravelling the mysteries of life. It is both my vocation and my profession. Neither of them allows any other pursuits. I wish you all a good day and the very best of luck in your endeavours, whatever they may be.’
The man prepared to leave.
‘Mr Kepler, sir, you will stay.’
‘Are you forcing me?’
‘If I do not express myself clearly enough,’ De Tepenec said forcefully, ‘then please allow me to make amends. Any one of you who walks away now, no matter how exalted his reputation, any one of you who trumpets what I am about to divulge to you effectively signs his own death warrant. It is a fate you will share with all the unfortunate ones you confided in.’
The four men were used to intimidations: their work, their ideas, they all provoked resistance. This time, however, the shock quelled any form of protest. He understood their bewilderment. They knew him as an erudite botanist and art lover – an ally in their quest for truth and beauty.
‘I am sorry to have demanded your full attention in this manner,’ he resumed quietly. ‘But I am glad I have it now.’
The man with the fleshy cheeks looked at the fearful faces around him.
‘What do you want from us?’ he asked timidly.
‘Your accomplishments have preceded you. That is what brought you here, to the heart of the nation, the centre of civilisation. And that is certainly no mean feat. But it pales into insignificance compared to the task that awaits us. Remember those dark clouds I referred to earlier?’
All those present nodded. De Tepenec smiled as he looked up at the grey sky.
‘It is your task, gentlemen, to cleave them with an eternal ray of light.’
Rotterdam, the present
Three months, five days and this final, wakeful night – that’s how long Zina Welter has not set foot outside the house. This is where she has been eating, sleeping, screaming and crying. This is where she has lost herself and found something else in return. From a few metres away she looks at the 243 sheets of paper that cover the living room wall. There’s handwritten text on each one of them, accompanied by illustrations. She walks over to the wall. Only then does it become clear that the texts have not been written in Roman script, nor in Arabic, Cyrillic, Chinese or whatever known alphabet. An age-old manuscript, consisting of hundreds of pages covered in assured, flowing handwriting that nobody’s ever been able to decipher. She starts ripping the sheets off the wall, one after the other, and stacking them up. The top page boasts a stamp with a crest: Lux et veritas. Underneath it are the words Yale University Library. Gift of Hans P. Kraus. Something else has been added in pencil in the top left-hand corner of the card: Beinecke Library MS 408. Yale’s university library is home to the original. Not so long ago, the study of unique manuscripts such as this one was the preserve of a handful of scholars. In the digital age, it’s a question of downloading and printing a PDF. The stack disappears into her wheeled suitcase. Done. Now all that’s left on the wall is a print-out of a black-and-white photograph of a man with a severe profile and a goatee. For months now, he’s been peering at her scornfully through small round glasses. She gives him a wave.
‘See you in a couple of days, Wilfrid.’
She looks at the curtains, made of blackout fabric. When did she last open them? Her memory, so accurate in many areas, fails her now. Curtains. Walls. They’ve done their job. Perhaps a bit too well. It’s the kind of gradual process that sees something protective turn into something obstructive. Abruptly, she yanks both sides apart, the sliding runners sounding fresh to her ears.
It’s already light outside. She squeezes her eyes when confronted with the rising sun. Zina takes her suitcase and walks into the hallway. A slight tremor in the hand that rests on the door knob. A last moment of doubt.
Then she opens the door. Step by step, she shuffles down the garden path. On the screen of her phone she can track the red dot of an approaching Uber. When she looks up, she sees a Volkswagen the size of a tank pulling up. According to the app, the driver’s name is Yussuf. He turns out to be a friendly looking, skinny man, who takes her suitcase without a word and places it in the boot of the car. From the back seat, she watches real life pass by: a man walking his dog, a bike secured to a lamp post. These normal things are strangely overwhelming, as if she’s seeing and hearing them all for the first time. It was a good decision to take a taxi for this first part of her journey. The window screens the outside world, allowing her to slowly get used to it again.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Losers’ Ball. Welcome to the Voynich Weekend.’
There are some forty people in the room, predominantly white men, mostly middle-aged, with receding hairlines and baggy sweatshirts to hide the excess weight. Among them, a few stand out: a pale, lanky man, who’s sharply suited and booted; a woman with blue hair and full sleeve tattoos on both arms; the man next to her in a washed-out brown T-shirt sporting a combination of letters and digits.
NTF could be an abbreviation. Is there a logical sequence in the numbers? 1-3-1-7-5-5. It’s not Fibonacci. Something else perhaps?
‘My name is Simon Walcott,’ the speaker resumes. Zina puts him in his late thirties. His right hand moves from the lectern to his head and ruffles his slightly greying curls.
‘You’ll notice that I crack lots of bad jokes when I’m nervous. My apologies in advance. I’m at my best when I’ve got my nose buried in a book. However, as the organiser it appears to be my duty to welcome you to this event. As you probably all know, I’m the man behind voynichvoices.com – a website, or perhaps I should say online platform, entirely dedicated to the Voynich Manuscript. Worldwide, it’s the biggest stage for discussion of this mystery, which plays such an important role in our lives. In that capacity I’m also the forum moderator.’
He pauses a moment during which time he rolls up his shirt sleeves to reveal a pair of muscular underarms.
‘Our quest began more than a hundred years ago when, tradition has it, Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich unearthed the manuscript in an Italian monastery. With that, he both discovered and lent his name to the greatest puzzle of all time. More than two hundred unreadable pages of riddle, enigma and mystery. Whatever the outside world may think, the fact remains that this is the Mount Everest of cryptology. And we’re the mountaineers. This is no easy voyage. Since Voynich’s discovery, the world’s greatest cryptographers have been working on it, all trying to decipher the manuscript. To no effect. We can’t blame them. The Voynich appears to have materialised out of thin air. A singularity. No other document using the same writing system has ever been found. We have no Rosetta Stone. We don’t know if the symbols can be translated into Latin, medieval Italian or whatever language. The illustrations are equally mysterious. Hundreds of plants, but what are they? Nobody knows. Objects of which we can’t say with any certainty what they represent, curious astrological tables – the list is endless.’
Walcott looks up from his notes and glances around the audience.
‘The Voynich, as you can see around you, is something for born losers. Masochists. Hopeless romantics. People who gain satisfaction from unending pain and humiliation. We’re scum, my dear guests, working on a doomed mission. The laughing stock of the scientific world. Let’s be honest, faced with these odds it’s nice to be surrounded by people who’re just as deranged as we are. A short break from our computer screens, spent among likeminded folks. That’s why I came up with the idea for an actual Voynich Weekend some years ago. Since then, I’ve organised this great event at this dream location once a year.’
His words draw some isolated chuckles from the audience. When the taxi pulled up outside the building in Brixton in South London, Zina wondered briefly if she got the address wrong. A drab community centre, with windows covered in a thin coat of dust and grime. Tentatively, she had walked in. A plasticized poster affixed to the flipover in the lobby welcomed her to the Voynich Weekend in a swirly font. The arrow underneath had pointed her to one of the rooms in the back.
‘We have three speakers with us this evening,’ Walcott resumed. ‘Tomorrow, when we have our expert-led workshops, we’ll be looking more closely at various aspects of the manuscript. The programme is concluded with a drinks reception. Have an exciting weekend, ladies and gentlemen, before you all return to your humdrum lives.’
He extends his arm invitingly to someone in the front row.
‘Our first speaker needs no introduction. Please put your hands together for the mammoth among Voynichologists, the first among equals, Professor Svoboda.’
To polite applause, a man in the front row rises to his feet. He has a full, dark beard, and his stocky body is dressed in a classic tweed jacket. Svoboda. Zina knows the name from the online forum. He signs off each of his commentaries with his full name and position. So this is Professor Jan Svoboda, professor in Medieval History at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic. Nerves are starting to get the better of her. Not long now and she’ll be standing there. Her article is good, but having lived digitally for so long she’ll have to present it with unpractised vocal chords. For ages she didn’t utter more than a couple of sentences at a time: an exchange of pleasantries with the neighbours, a few words to the supermarket delivery guys – that’s it.
Svoboda’s presentation reaches her in snippets. A powerful baritone holding forth on his latest approach, in which he aims to find blocks of text that may or may not be in the manuscript. Popping up on the screen behind him is a piece of text from the Voynich that looks like a poem. In a tone that suggests he has all but won the race, the man drones on about well-known poems from the renaissance, which he intends to superimpose, one by one, on this text, in search of a match. The professor rounds off his talk and, to more polite applause, stares defiantly at the audience.
Simon Walcott announces a short coffee break. A few tables line the back wall of the room. Two chrome tea and coffee urns are waiting for them. Zina feels uncomfortable as she joins the gathering, half of whom clearly know each other, while the rest is made up of loners like her. Small islands in the ocean, jealously watching the chatty continent beside them.
The Voynich is real.
The thought keeps repeating itself, like a mantra. The manuscript is not a figment of her imagination. It actually exists. And she’s not the only one for whom its mystery is irresistible. She knew that, but apparently needed to have it confirmed.
The Voynich is real.
Zina spins on her heels and finds herself staring into two friendly, grey-blue eyes. Simon Walcott.
‘Hello. I’m Simon.’ He extends his hand.
‘Oh… hello,’ Zina stammers, while shaking his hand. ‘How did you know it was me?’
Walcott points to the little blue sticker with her name. Like everybody else here, she slapped it onto her chest upon arrival.
‘You don’t have a profile picture on the forum, so you left me no choice but to resort to these kinds of tricks.’ He flashes a grin.
‘I forgive you.’
‘I wasn’t entirely sure if you’d come. I mean, I only know you through the forum. And through email, of course. I actually tried to call you.’
‘I haven’t been answering my phone recently.’
Her first real conversation. So far so good.
‘Do you mind if I ask you a question, Simon?’
‘The man sitting next to me is wearing a T-shirt with the letters NTF, followed by 131755. Do you know what that means?’
Simon smiles. ‘That’s Chester. He literally lives in that shirt. It’s to do with Yamamoto.’
‘The Japanese General Yamamoto. The mastermind behind the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. By breaking a Japanese code the Americans managed to ascertain when Yamamoto would be paying an inspection visit to occupied New Guinea. It’s the number of the intercepted message that led to the downing of his aircraft.’
‘He’s a real freak about that sort of thing. Privacy, that kind of area. Extremely distrustful of our beloved government. I personally don’t really buy into all that paranoid stuff, but he’s right about one thing. In the course of history, codes have claimed as many lives as they’ve saved. I’m curious to see what the Voynich code will mean to us.’
Walcott has a brief look around before leaning towards her.
‘And you think your plan will succeed?’ he asks softly.
Translated by Laura Vroomen