This story was written for a competition arranged by Hastings Writers Group in 2009, to write a mystery story in 2000 words. It was awarded third prize.
The story is based on actual historical information. I have put in some references at the end.
'Did you know that there is no known portrait of Robert Hooke?' Sophie said.
'Didn't Lisa Jardine identify one in her biography of him?' I tentatively suggested. 'I seem to remember seeing it on the book cover.'
'She thought it might be Hooke, but it's been identified as Jan van Helmont the alchemist.'
'Weren't they all alchemists in those days? Even Newton spent a lot of time on alchemy.'
'Yes, it was the period when alchemy was beginning to give way to chemistry. Newton also spent a lot of time on the biblical prophesies in the book of Daniel.'
'Strange fellow, Newton.'
'Some people say he destroyed or deliberately mislaid the portrait of Hooke that was on display at Gresham College when the Royal Society moved from there in 1710.'
'I can't believe he would be that mean.'
'I don't buy that story either,' Sophie said. 'Surely there would have been other portraits of Hooke about. He was active for a long time. I think he just didn't want his face to be on record.'
'You think he destroyed the portrait himself? What makes you think that?' I asked. 'He wasn't deformed or unusually ugly was he?'
'John Aubrey, the antiquarian, described him as a bit stooped and pop-eyed. Richard Waller, who knew him when he was older, said he had a very crooked back. But that wouldn't have been apparent in a portrait would it.'
'So perhaps he was just bashful!'
'No!' Sophie laughed. 'I'm sure he thought quite a lot of himself.'
'You've obviously been researching him quite closely.' I observed. 'Do you think you may have found an authentic portrait of Hooke? That would be a great find!'
'I remember seeing what I think was a portrait at the end of his book, the Micrographia, in the Cambridge University Library. I saw it there a few years ago.'
'Surely if there was a portrait in that book, it would be well known by now?'
'It's not in every copy. That's the only one I've seen it in. Not all copies of books are identical. In those days they were often issued in loose sheets and the buyer arranged for the binding. Anyway, I'm going there tomorrow to check on it and have a photocopy taken.'
'Well, be careful handling it. Last time I went there the back fell off the book I'd reserved. I'm probably still on their blacklist!'
It occurred to me after Sophie had gone that she hadn't established why Hooke should not want his face to be recorded. Did she have some theory? She phoned me at my office in London the next day from the Library in Cambridge.
'George, can you get over to the Bishopsgate Institute?'
'What, right now?'
'Yes. They have the only other copy of Micrographia like the one here in Cambridge.'
'Did you get a copy of the portrait?'
'No. That's the trouble. It's been torn out!'
'Torn out! Do they know who took it out last?'
'Yes. Someone signing himself Monsieur Du Clix. I've never heard of him, but apparently he provided authentic references. Signed by a Professor Clouseau, from the Louvre in Paris.'
'Clouseau! Are you sure that's the name?'
'Yes, I thought it must be a joke, but it seems he's genuine, or was. He died last year. But listen. The page was only taken yesterday.'
'And the Bishopsgate copy is the only other one known?'
'Yes, it and the one here may have been Hooke's own copies. Gresham College is not far away, and Hooke was buried at St Helen's, Bishopsgate. There was a commemorative stained glass window to him there. It was destroyed in the 1993 IRA blast. But anyway it wasn't an authentic portrait, just a formal representation.'
'I'll get onto it right away.' I promised. 'See if you can turn up anything more on this Du Clix fellow. Why would he want the engraving anyway? It wouldn't raise a large ransom would it?'
Bishopsgate is not far from my office. The Institute is a venue I've often visited for the midday concerts, and occasional lectures. The Library contains an eclectic collection of material relating to London, particularly to radical politics and social reformers of the nineteenth century.
As soon as I spoke to the genial Librarian at the desk, asking about the Micrographia, he seemed surprised.
'Strange you should ask about that, Sir,' he said. 'I brought it out for another reader just a quarter of an hour ago. A French gentleman.'
'Is he still here?' I asked, glancing around anxiously.
'I think he's still in the reading room. Oh. No. There he is, by the door. He must have finished or decided to take a break.' Then raising his voice: 'M'sieur, have you finished with the Micrographia?'
The figure by the door turned and looked back at us. He had long lank grey hair framing a rather non-descript face. I felt I had seen that face before somewhere, but at that moment could not place it. He showed no sign of panic.
'Ah. Mais oui. C'est finis!' he said in a perfect French accent.
He turned again and walked calmly away.
'Check the colophon!' I said to the Librarian. He looked at me uncomprehendingly. 'The last page of the book, with the printer's mark, check it's still there.' I said firmly. Then I moved quickly to the doorway and looked out. 'Monsieur DuClix ...' I called out, as I ran down the long corridor towards the front entrance, but the Frenchman was nowhere to be seen. Nor was he in Bishopsgate.
I ran back into the Library.
'It's been torn out!' the Librarian cried with indignation. 'The last page. Torn out!'
'I've lost him,' I said. 'Is there another way out?'
'Yes,' he gestured. 'Turn right, and round the corner, there's an emergency fire exit.'
'I expect he's got away, but I'll see if I can spot him. You'd better call the police.'
Following the instructions, I emerged onto the side street. Far down the end I spotted the mysterious Frenchman. He was walking at quite a normal calm pace. I ran after him just as he turned into another side street. When I got to the corner he was still a hundred yards ahead, and taking another turning. He clearly knew the maze of small streets and alleys here better than I did, but I was getting closer, and he didn't seem to have any urgency in his manner.
I was only twenty yards behind when he turned and saw me. For a moment he seemed startled. Then he stepped sideways into another narrow street. When I got there he was running as well. He was a good runner too, for his age and slight build. But three more turnings and I was nearly on him. Then one more and ... poof! ... vanished into the proverbial thin air.
It was a dead end. In more ways than one. There were high buildings on either side, but directly ahead the way was blocked by a monument. On it there was a panel illustrating the Great Fire of London, and beneath it the date in Roman numerals: MDCLXVI.
Something about that inscription struck me as odd, but I wasn't able to work out what it was immediately, because on the ground before it my attention was taken by something grey. I bent to pick it up. It was a wig of lank grey hair.
'So, Sophie,' I said the next day, 'what is it you've got involved in here?'
'You're not going to believe me.'
'Try me,' I said. 'A monomaniac who collects all portraits of Robert Hooke?'
'Not a maniac. He has a good reason for it.'
'There's not been a ransom claimed. The auction houses aren't offering any spare pages of Micrographia for sale. The police can't trace any one called Du Clix.'
'Oh, Monsieur Du Clix's the easy part!' Sophie laughed. 'The name, that is, not the man.'
'The name? You mean it's made up?'
'Of course it is. You saw the inscription on the cenotaph, where you found the wig.'
'Cenotaph you call it? I thought that was the memorial by Edwin Lutyens in Whitehall.'
'The word "cenotaph" is just Greek for "empty tomb". It's a memorial to those killed in the Great Fire of London. It was designed by Robert Hooke.'
'Yes, he and Wren were the architects in charge of the rebuilding after the fire. Everyone knows that. But the only inscription on the tomb is the date, 1666.'
'In Roman numerals.'
'Oh, of course, I see now. I thought there was something odd about it at the time, but was distracted by the wig. The numerals rearranged spell M DV CLIX in monumental lettering, using V for U. So our quarry gave us a deliberate clue, or just likes setting little puzzles.'
'Yes, he's an ingenious fellow. He invented the sash window, the universal joint, the spring watch escapement, the air pump and the adjustable microscope, among other things.'
'You're claiming Robert Hooke is still alive? He'd be, let's see, getting on for 400 years old! Anyway, didn't you say he was buried at St Helen's in Bishopsgate?'
'Supposedly, but he was disinterred around 1850 and moved to North London, exactly where no-one knows. So we can't dig him up to see if he's still there. It was probably someone else anyway, if my theory is correct. Plenty of body snatchers about in those days.'
'You can't really be serious about this! What exactly are you claiming -- that the cenotaph is some sort of time machine, or that Hooke is one of the Immortals, the Wandering Jew perhaps? You've been reading too many fantasies.'
'I suppose it could be a time machine. I hadn't thought of that.'
'It's clear that there must be some secret entrance to the empty tomb. There wasn't time for him to escape by any other route. Hooke designed it and he was certainly capable of providing it with a secret door that only he could activate. I grant you that, but it's more likely that he just passed the knowledge on to someone else.'
'Have you heard of the Count Saint Germain?' Sophie asked.
'Oh no, you're not into all that Rosicrucian Illuminati nonsense now?'
'He was a real person. He lived around 1710 to 1784 and claimed to be very much older than he looked. Various writers claim he was also Francis Bacon who lived 1561 to 1626.'
'And that he wrote Shakespeare!'
'No, that's all piffle. But don't you see? If St Germain was Bacon, what was he doing between whiles, in the seventeenth century?'
'Your saying he was being Robert Hooke?'
'Exactly! Carrying on the Baconian project by assisting in the development of scientific knowledge through the Royal Society.'
'Hmm, at least that theory makes more sense. But how does he do it? Reincarnation?'
'No. I think he has the Elixir of Life. One of the two main aims of the Alchemists.'
'But if he is a scientist, surely he would have published this discovery. It would be world-shattering. Instant Nobel Prize stuff.'
'Perhaps he only has a small quantity, or it is extremely expensive to make, or requires extremely rare resources, or only works for certain people, or ...'
'All right, suppose I buy your theory. Let's go and test it out.'
'Let's go and interview Monsieur Du Clix!'
'You know who he is?'
'I'm a detective aren't I? It wasn't difficult. I recognised him at the Library. Just take away that ugly grey wig and replace it with close-cut white hair.'
'So who do you think he is now?'
'Look out the window. See that building dominating St Paul's?'
'You mean he's the man who built that. The architect?'
'What else would an architect and engineer be doing in London these days? Anyway, lets go and ask him shall we? I've made an appointment for this afternoon.'
The Count Saint Germain