Random Writing 8

The cardinal stood motionless at the top of the stairs, carefully examining the couple below him in the concourse. Had they but looked up once they would surely have spotted him, but it seemed that God's will was that his misstep should go without remark. He narrowed his eyes, wishing that he had an eyeglass with which he could see their mouths more clearly. Over the last ten years he had quietly practised lip-reading for just such a purpose. Every Tuesday morning he had a selection of different choristers and monks sent to the stairwell onto which his antechamber opened to recite verses from the bible as an act of piety and education for travellers upon those great stairs. The exact verses were picked at random by a process involving lots (he would have preferred dice, but the impious nature of their involvement in gambling stayed his hand - it would probably not be best to put temptation so close at hand for his assistants). The various worshippers stood on the ground floor, from where they could be heard both up and down the stairs (and in the case of some of the more lusty-voiced choristers, in the garden outside and the antechamber to the royal court itself). The verses recited, he had specified carefully, should last one full hour - after which time they should be repeated six further times, ensuring that during the hours that the regent's court was officially in session any visitor or supplicant was sure to be expose to God's message.

The cardinal's predecessor had (during his time of service) shown him a curious feature of the offices. When the palace had been built it had included a private corridor from the room which then served as the cardinal's study along the front length of the house to a set of rooms in the east wing. The third cardinal to inhabit the palace had decided (for whatever reason) to have the passages at each end bricked up (perhaps for reasons of privacy - at that time the east wing had been entirely given over to military interests). Some subsequent occupant of the post, however, had quietly had the nearby wall removed and covered over with a bookcase on an elaborate hinge that rendered it subject to the will with only a slight pressure, even when fully loaded with volumes. A hidden hook and catch near the top left side of the bookcase prevented it from swinging open when it was not required, and indeed a matching catch on the inside could be used to secure it from the inside to decrease further the chance for discovery (under normal circumstances no-one was allowed to enter the cardinal's study without permission, and two loyal guardsmen manned the door during the hours of day, but such precautions or taboos had not always existed, nor was everyone bound by them as strongly as a civilised man would hope to expect).

The cardinal himself, through the use of a pair of devout carpenters who were (on completion of the work) awarded a much desired passage with generous allowance to the remote colonies where they were to act as both construction foremen and missionaries, had had the private gallery thus created modified still further. It had formed a length of corridor 30 rods long, traversing the front of the palace at a height on a par with the second floor. Small windows allowed light in from the south wall, windows which could be spotted from the front of the palace but which lay between the larger windows which illuminated the stairway and the hall below. On the inside of the hall the position of the passage was marked by a large dado rail upon which were hung large portraits of the king-in-waiting's ancestors.

Halfway along the hallway the cardinal had caused to be constructed a pair of shutters which could be pulled across to cover the window, a desk and chair, and a small circular hole in the wall which could be plugged with a glass bung with a rubber washer to hold it in place. This hole had been the most difficult part of the construction, entailing as it did a visible burrowing through the existing wall. The carpenters had stayed in the corridor overnight to accomplish the task, while at the same time the cardinal's personal secretary had secreted himself in the hall with a brush and bag with which on the completion of the work he could quickly sweep up any detritus or dust that had fallen outwards from the bore-hole.

On Tuesday mornings at precisely eleven o'clock the cardinal would sit himself at the desk, from which he could easily press his eye to the spy-hole - the plug being made of a specially clarified glass that lacked the distortions that might otherwise hinder him, and imparted a slight magnification with which he could see the mouths of the worshippers more easily. With the plug in place and two leather pads bound over his ears with a woollen scarf, the cardinal was able to see the choristers perfectly clearly in the hall below, but was unable to hear them in the slightest. Lending his fullest attention to the mouths of his servants he then dipped quill in ink and carefully recorded what he could make out of each verse. The texts in question being somewhat known to him in the due course of his profession he was of course at some slight advantage, but it was to his reckoning only enough to act as a starting point that he might not be completely confounded initially. The randomisation of the verses therefore acted against that, ensuring that although after a few initial words he could decipher a whole verse, the next one declaimed would be a mystery to him again.

Later in the day, safely back in his study, the cardinal could compare his list with the list of verses prepared by his assistants and find out how accurate he had been. He had improved rapidly over the course of the decade's practise, and was now confident of being able to read the lips of anyone but the most disfigured misfortunate, should he come within viewing range of their speech.

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