Once again we are beholden to the current executors of the Knolly estate for letting us publish this, the second package of the great man's journals and memoirs.
Sleepless and Unsettled Part 4
It is very difficult to hold a conversation - let alone explain the intricacies of a home-grown and much-adapted sign language - especially when moving up staircase after staircase, each of which gets progressively narrower the higher up one gets. Suffice to say, by the time we got to the loft entrance, space was too tight to allow for any arm-waving until we had got on the other side of the doorway.
Emilia for her part was very attentive and hung upon my every word, interjecting with some very interesting questions. I did have to steer clear of our recent use of hand signage and its ongoing development with Charlie, and I think my answers in certain areas were evasive enough. But I thought, there and then, that this young woman would give some of my erstwhile colleges in the coding section a damn good run for their money. Well spotted, Auntie!
Sol-Tan remained very tight-lipped during the upward journey; something was obviously bothering him but it did not seem to be the right time to enquire. He pushed the door open with a little flourish and then disappeared into the gloom beyond. Emilia and I hesitated before following but then came the sound of a match being struck and a yellow light from an oil lamp pushed back the darkness. In we went and Sol- Tan passed a lamp to each of us.
'It's less cobwebby than I imagined,' said Emilia as she held her lamp up at the roof space, '... But every bit as dusty.'
She sneezed and a rather sad little spider scuttled for cover.
'Bless you my dear, I take it from that remark that my Aunt has not let you venture up here before?'
Sol-Tan snorted at this, while Emilia continued to venture further into the loft.
'Everyone should know their place, Mr Knolly sir.'
Ah! So here was an inkling of the reason behind Sol-Tan's recent reluctance to converse.
I was looking around at many old but familiar items - some stacked neatly like old school reports, other things like heavily-used cricket bats, pads and such like were just thrown in a heap. The loft seemed very sound, no sign of damp or mould and apart from the majority of space now being used as storage, didn't seem much different from when Bertie and I used to come up here on rainy weekends, or, just to get away from my Aunts' guests far below.
'Is everything up here yours, Mr Knolly?'
'Hmmm, it would seem that most of it is mine ...or mine and Bertie's at least.'
'What on Earth is this!?' exclaimed Emilia.
She had lifted an old Addlie and Stanner brown blazer, making several moths homeless in the process and, obviously uncovering something of interest and intrigue.
I moved over to where she was standing to get a closer look and lifted my lamp. Moving further pieces of school clothing, I uncovered Babbage's contrivance and revealed a grand (but dusty) array of interlocking wheels, cogs, gears, dials and levers.
'That, my dear girl, is what remains of Mr Babbage's Analytical Engine, which Bertie somehow acquired as part of a homework project.'
I lifted one lever - which turned a wheel - which turned some other wheels - which generated a pathetic squeak from deep inside the machinery.
'You appear to have assassinated a mouse sir.' Sol-Tan muttered from somewhere in a darkened recess across the room.
Emilia giggled and then jumped as a pile of punched cards fell into a slot and then tumbled to the floor.
'What's it for? Is it some kind of hurdy-gurdy?' asked Emilia.
'To be honest, no-one really knows its full capability. It is thought that Babbage had monumental hopes for it and a series of successor machines. He took these plans to his grave, but Bertie thought that he could have used it as an extension of his Tool. He thought that it could have been used to calculate complex problems and ....'
Emilia held up one of the cards, '...And these cards with holes would give it its instructions, perhaps?'
I heard a sigh from Sol-Tan.
'Bravo Emilia! That's exactly what Bertie thought too. If you are at all interested, I shall get him to show you his Tool one day.'
In that odd glow given off by her lamp I saw her eyes widen in anticipation at such a marvellous offer. A strange plink-plinking noise came from Sol-Tan's direction.
'I seem to have found your violin, sir.'
'My violin! Goodness, I'd quite forgotten about that...'
Emilia looked at me. 'Did you play?'
'We tried, oh, yes we tried. I'm sure if we look hard enough we'll find a banjo too. Such happy times! Bertie and I were sure we would be the next best thing to tread the boards after Misters Ward and Spundley (the celebrated clowns and Negro entertainers) although I don't think the world was really ready for us.'
There was a cough from behind. (I really don't know how he managed to move around like that.)
'I believe, sir, that you were making too much noise for it to be classified as music or entertainment.'
'Sol -Tan, I will have you know that the "noise" was indeed music, and as you are well aware people have different tastes. I say! Are those the trunks over there?'
We stepped gingerly over all sorts of over bizarre creations that festooned the floor, as well as some rather sad toy soldiers.
'These aren’t the trunks we’re looking for....' said Sol-Tan quietly.
'Really? Are you sure?' I asked. 'Well, I guess that you must be sure considering that you had the misfortune to move them up here in the first place.'
'Indeed, sir. This one here is in fact your Uncle Monty's chest and these others are your Aunt's - consisting of summer wardrobe, extreme winter weather wardrobe and so on. Your travelling trunks are over this way....'
Lamps held high, we followed Sol-Tan in the direction indicated.
'Uncle Monty's chest?' enquired Emilia.
'My Aunt's late husband. I'd quite forgotten it was up here. It's been locked as long as I can remember. Bertie and I never found the key and Auntie forbade us to force it open. I think she hid the key deliberately.'
'So Uncle Monty is the skeleton in her cupboard?'
'Good Lord, no, Miss Emilia! Second Cousin Robert is the skeleton in the cupboard!' exclaimed Sol-Tan.
'She still has him in there then, eh?' I quipped. 'Surely Emilia, my Aunt has told you about Uncle Monty's death?'
'No. Do tell!' said Emilia as she clapped her hands in anticipation. Sol-Tan shook his head and sighed at the thought of yet another re-telling of the sad episode.
I thought that I would give the poor girl at least a brief version of events. 'Well,' I started. 'It was in ...'
'Mr Knolly sir, perhaps the tale could wait until after lunch?'
In the lamplight I saw Emilia pull a face, but I could see the sense in Sol-Tans request, after all it would detract from our search.
'I believe these here are the trunks and packing cases Madam sent back from Africa.'
'Well, they certainly look familiar; I wonder which one holds what Elspeth is looking for?'
'Perhaps if you gave us a clue we could help?' Interjected Emilia, still slightly sulky. 'Oh, look! Each one has a label of contents.'
Wonderful, saved by wife's resourcefulness and sense of order. The young lady's mind would not have to be subjected to the world beyond the boundaries set by my Aunt - just yet.
I thought for a moment.
'Look for a label that mentions.... ummm.... Ladies evening wear.'
Looking at the labels brought memories flooding back; of Elspeth riding full tilt across the veldt in her snug fitting uniform, of playing tennis, of meeting old school chums.
'Mr Knolly, some of contents listed seem quite useful, how is it that they are still up here?'
'Time moves on Emilia, and what was useful then, would now be considered quite passé in today’s modern world.'
'This label says, "Bertie and dresses and assorted costumes", how odd?'
'Really! That sounds like the box she wants.'
Emilia looked at me her mouth shaping a question; I looked at Sol-Tan who raised his eyes heavenward. There was a ringing in the distance. Saved by the bell!
'Ah! Lunch is being served, Mr Knolly.' Said Sol-Tan making a dash for the door.
'Hold your horses!' I said. 'Give me a hand with the trunk.'
Sol-Tan turned smartly and carefully, we manhandled the trunk out of the doorway, with Emilia sensibly standing well out of the way of the manhandling, but still obviously struggling with the wording of that label.
It was my misfortune to end up descending the stairs backwards. It is one of those things really that, no matter how carefully I plan it, I always end up in the same situation.
Unfortunately, whilst I had a good grip on my end, the same could not be said for Sol-Tan; the only warning I was given that something was amiss was the pop-eyed stare that he was giving me.... And then he let go!
The trunk hit the stairs; gravity took its toll on it, and then it took its toll on me. I quickly released my grip on the handle; the narrowness of this staircase gave me no choice but to leap aboard the trunk itself as it careered down to the landing, some twenty or so steps below me. It was a great shame that I was looking upstairs at Sol-Tan and Emilia who were crying out and waving, for had I been looking the other way, I might have noticed that 'Young' Humbert was on his way up to fetch us for lunch.....