The Tale Of The Three Antiquaries
Scary Books: Border Ghost Stories
Thomas Turnbull stood beside his spade and gazed rapturously at a small
portable Roman altar which he had just unearthed. Owing to a fortunate
legacy he had recently been enabled to retire from his business as a
ship's broker, and had bought a farm not far from the line of the Roman
Wall in mid Northumberland.
He prided himself on being a practical man in all he undertook--'Plain
Tom Turnbull' he styled h
mself, and in the pursuit of antiquities,
which was now his hobby, he sneered at all theorists, and relied upon
the spade. 'Magister Palae' was his motto, and now he had justified
his belief in his farm's occupying the site of an early out-lying Roman
Squat in build, sanguine in complexion, and auburn-haired, he stood
'four-square to all the winds'; his bold, prominent eyes recalled the
muzzle of an ancient blunderbuss ready to loose off at a moment's
Now the Society of Antiquaries of Oldcastle, of which he was a member,
were making a pilgrimage along the Wall on the next day, and he had
offered to provide tea for their refreshment at the conclusion of their
Thus his 'find' was twice fortunate. He would now be enabled to confound
Telfer, one of the most learned of the Society's members, by the
evidence of his spade work. Telfer was an antiquary of the
'well-documented' kind, an attorney by profession, thin and anaemic--'a
parchment browser,' Turnbull called him, as one founding himself upon
references in all discussions on antiquity. He had been indeed very
sceptical of the existence of Turnbull's 'early, out-lying camp' and had
annoyed 'Plain Tom' by his doubts.
Turnbull laid aside his spade, wiped the perspiration from his brow, and
took up his altar again reverently. Then he drew from his pocket a small
flask, poured a few drops into the tiny focus on the top as a libation
to Bacchus, and himself toasted 'the spade.' Carefully handling his
precious possession he returned home with it in his arms and placed it
on the drawing-room mantelpiece, to the dismay of his wife, who
misdoubted the religion of the Romans. 'That's a settler for Telfer,' he
said triumphantly; 'he'll be up to-morrow, and he'll have to swallow
'Swallow it! Swallow it!' echoed his wife. 'My dear, what do you mean?'
'He'll have to swallow it first, then he can have his tea on the top of
it,' replied her husband with a grin. 'But do you give a look to it
before he goes, for he'd pinch it if he got the chance.'
'You don't mean to say that he would actually steal it?' queried his
'Wouldn't he, though? He'd lift anything that was not too heavy or too
hot,' retorted her husband.
The next day proved to be a lovely autumn morning, and the prospect
along the Wall perfect for the antiquary, who could see it crawling like
some great serpent on its belly, with many an undulation from east to
west, over many a mile beneath the racing clouds and sunshine.
Turnbull walked down to meet the party of excursionists beside a newly
excavated mile-castle where they were to eat their sandwiches and
discuss their theories. After that he was to conduct them to his house
'The Crag,' and show them his altar and give them refreshment.
Turnbull took the very earliest opportunity of informing them of his
'find,' and while his friends congratulated him Mr. Telfer opined that
its discovery proved nothing as to a camp, for a portable altar might
easily be discovered anywhere along the Wall, and there was no record of
any camp at that particular spot. 'The spade will show,' cried 'Plain
Tom,' triumphantly. 'It's just my first-fruits. Wait a few weeks and my
spade will prove it.' Almost at once the party moved onwards, for they
had an early train to catch, and as soon as they reached the house tea
was set before them, and their host handed round the altar for
inspection. 'Pity there's no record on it to show to what God it was
dedicated,' said one, 'and by whom.'
'It probably belonged to some pioneers along the Wall who built
themselves a temporary camp whilst prospecting,' said Turnbull.
Telfer, on the other hand, was of opinion that the altar was not of the
local freestone, had probably been brought from a neighbouring camp, and
eventually thrown away when the Picts and Scots overran the Wall.
'If you'll show me the place where you found it,' he added, 'I can prove
to you, I think, that the surrounding stone is different.'
'My pioneers probably imported it,' said the other boldly, 'but the kind
of stone is neither here nor there. However, I'll gladly show you the
identical spot where I howked it out.'
While the rest of the party made their way down the valley towards the
railway station, 'Plain Tom' went off with his sceptic to the place of
'There,' said he, pointing to the spot, 'that's where it came from,' and
as he spoke he turned over with his spade some debris that had fallen
into the hole. His companion took up a fragment of stone, examined it,
shook his head, then proceeded to 'howk' out with his stick a stone of
some size lying half-bedded in the earth at the bottom of the hole. He
levered it away, and it rolled over on its side; something glittered
beneath. 'Ha! an aureus!' cried the attorney, and dashed upon it.
'I told you so, I told you so,' shouted his host in triumphant joy.
'This proves it!'
His joy was perhaps excessive; it seemed to eclipse at least his
surprise, but his companion paid no attention to him in his own
'Ha! an aureus of Hadrian--and in excellent preservation,' rejoined the
other, after a careful examination. 'What an uncommonly lucky find!' and
without more ado he slid it into the palm of his left hand.
'A find!' echoed 'Plain Tom,' choking upon astonishment and rage. 'Here,
hand it over--I'm owner here,' for his own particular pet coin was
disappearing from his ken.
'Even if you were the Lord of the Manor you could not make your claim
good,' replied the attorney coolly. 'He who finds, keeps. Treasure trove
to be claimed must be hidden--lucri aut metus causa. This aureus was
evidently lost or cast away in flight. The finder retains it.'
'Cast away in flight' sounded ludicrously enough in the other's ears,
but he was incapable of speech. Indeed, 'Plain Tom' with difficulty
controlled the fires that were scorching him within. His hands trembled
convulsively on the handle of the spade; his enemy had turned about and
taken a step down the hillside as if to follow his companions. Now
beckoned Opportunity. 'Plain Tom' grasped his spade more tightly, lifted
it in air, and brought it down with a thud on the top of his enemy's
cloth cap. The attorney's knees gave way instantly; he sank in a heap,
then slowly rolled forward and onward down the slope. The aureus had
dropped from his limp hand. 'Plain Tom' was on to it like a knife--the
song of Deborah and Barak on his lips. Then he paused and looked upon
the motionless figure of the man below now lying half hidden amongst
some bracken. What was to be done? A shudder of dismay crept up the
observer's spine. Could he be dead? No, no, he was only stunned.
Well, 'Plain Tom' swiftly determined on his line of action. There was a
shepherd's cottage only a quarter of a mile away where he might get help
to lift and carry the fallen man; he would leave him there for the night
after explaining that he had found him lying unconscious from a faint in
the bracken. That done, he would himself go for the local doctor and
explain how he had found the attorney's body. Then he examined the spade
carefully. There was no sign of blood upon it, fortunately. He had
caught his enemy squarely with the flat of it; all was well, for none
had seen him--not even his victim--lift it and strike.
The shepherd was at home, and at once accompanied him to the spot. 'He's
deid,' said the herd, lifting up a limp arm. 'I'm doubtin' he's got
'Nonsense,' said his companion with affected assurance. 'He'd a weak
heart, I know, and the long walk has been over much for him. His pulse
is all right,' he added, pretending to feel upon the wrist. 'Now we'll
carry him to your house, and I'll fetch the doctor. He'll be all right
in an hour or two, I'll bet a guinea.'
The attorney was of slim build, and the two men carried him easily to
the cottage. Leaving him there Turnbull strode off for the doctor, whom
he found at home. Explaining how he had found the body, he helped the
doctor saddle his pony and bade him ride with all speed, requesting him
to bring him word to 'The Crag' when he had recalled his patient to
Then 'Plain Tom' set off for his home, whistling to himself to keep up
his spirits, and ever and anon glancing at his recovered aureus with
joy. 'Magister Palae,' he muttered to himself, ''tis a fine weapon.'
The doctor did not arrive at The Crag till some two hours later, and
when he did he showed a long face. After he had seated himself in
Turnbull's little sanctum, sacred to his antiquities, he delivered
himself slowly of his professional opinion. 'He's bad,' he said
mournfully, 'verra bad,' for the doctor was Scotch; 'he's had an unco
shock'--he glanced keenly at his companion as he spoke--'and a verra bad
fall. His hairt is gey weak--and he says--if he disna recover he'll
haunt ye--for what ye've done.'
'For what I've done!' cried 'Plain Tom,' aghast. 'The poor man's brain's
affected. What on earth can he mean?'
'And he said also that if the worst should happen,' continued the other
with unmoved visage, 'that he would bequeath me the aureus. He's a
warrum-hearted body, an' he kens that I'm a bit of an antiquary mysel'.'
'His aureus!' exclaimed 'Plain Tom' with re-aroused indignation, and
forgetful of secrecy, 'why, the damned fellow--no, I don't mean that--I
mean he's delirious; but he'll be all right again soon, doctor?' he
'I'm nane so sure of that,' replied the other, shaking his head. 'I
thought as I came alang I had a sort of a feeling as of a wraith nigh
about me--a lang, eldritch sort o' a form i' the mist.'
His host shuddered, looked through the window apprehensively in the
gloaming, saw some vague, misty wraith approaching. Then he felt for the
aureus in his waistcoat pocket.
'Oot wi' it,' the doctor demanded, and 'oot' it came after a struggle.
The doctor rose and held out his hand. 'Aweel,' he said, 'it's safe wi'
me. I'll awa noo--back to my patient, for I'll no' can leave him just
Then the door closed silently behind him. 'Vicisti, O Caledonia,'
groaned 'Plain Tom,' and as he spoke he rose up in search of the whisky
bottle and consolation.