Editor’s note: The following story was written by my son, Benjamin, quite some time ago. We have enjoyed reading it for our family at Christmastime on occasion. If you enjoy mystery and fiction, I think you’ll like this story, too. The whole story has six short chapters.
Daniel B. Wallace
The Surprising News
The cold winds blew through the ragged red overcoat of Charlie Harris, as he stood on the street corner of 45th and Main in downtown Chicago. He was dutifully ringing his bell, donned in white beard, red garb, and black boots. On this particular night in early December Charlie was raking in the money, mostly because of pity. His rosy red cheeks—due to the frosty winds from the north—reminded so many people of old Saint Nick that they couldn’t help but throw a coin or two into his pail.
The year was 1892, and just like the previous four years Charlie was passing himself off as a Salvation Army volunteer. He had made a relatively decent living under this hoax, though this particular winter was the best yet. When Charlie had lost his wife to the influenza epidemic of 1885 his life began to go downhill. Charlie and Elizabeth had been married for almost twenty-one years. She was his whole reason for living even though she bore him no children. When she died that fateful spring Charlie was so despondent that he lost all concentration and drive. He would show up late for work at Huffman Clothing, Inc. on the south side of Chicago, and even when he was on time he would frequently stand and daydream. It didn’t take very long before he lost his job, too. The year 1885 was one that Charlie would like to forget.
The only benefit Charlie got from his early “retirement” was the few items of clothing he pilfered as he left the building. Little did he know that those few items would begin to make him money some three years later.
The year after his double loss saw another tragedy of Charlie’s own making. He was penniless, lonely, and had no family. Nearly fifty years old, he was graying fast. The tragedies of the past and the poor prospects for the future drove Charlie to drink. He drowned his grief and he abandoned his hopes in a bottle every night.
By the summer of 1886 he started to steal in order to feed his belly. At first it was little things: a loaf of bread here, an apple there. But his face became too familiar to the workers on Market Street and its environs and he was forced to become innovative. After a couple years of trickery and deception, he hit upon the Salvation Army disguise. In the winter of 1888 Charlie pulled out that old black overcoat and the brown boots he had stolen from Huffman Clothing, dyed them the appropriate Christmas colors, and peddled himself off as Santa Claus. His by-now naturally white hair and beard, coupled with a belly constantly full of cheap wine, gave Charlie a realistic look of the old Saint.
As I was saying, this particular evening in 1892 was especially profitable for Charlie. But more than even he realized, because this night his life would change forever. As he left 45th and Main shortly after 9 P.M. (when the shoppers had quit for the day), he briskly marched back to his little shack near the stockyards. And there, much to Charlie’s surprise, was a well-dressed, distinguished-looking man with an envelope in his gloved hands. He spoke, “Charles Bauer Harris?”
Charlie had not been called that in a long time. He answered cautiously, “It depends.” (He feared that the envelope was a warrant for his arrest. But he was too tired and too cold to run and figured he could finagle his way out of whatever trouble this man wanted to bring.)
The man said, “My name is Walter Beck. I am an attorney for the Helge F. Ahmanson Company, which has branches both in Europe and America. I just received the news three days ago that one of our biggest clients has passed away. That client was Count Friederich Reissdorf, your great uncle. If your name is Charles Harris, you have just become a wealthy man.”
“How? Why?” Charlie was grasping for words. He stood speechless as Mr. Beck continued.
“Count Reissdorf had no heirs. His only sister, Anna, sailed for America soon after she reached her twenty-first birthday. They kept in touch over the years and he learned of her marriage to Paul Masterson and of the Mastersons’ children, James, Suzanne, and Theodore. James died from a childhood disease, and Theodore, as you know, was never in his right mind for all of his thirty-eight years of life. Suzanne grew up and married your father, Noah Harris. The count provided in his will that any of his sister’s descendants who were alive when he died would equally split his fortune. But since you were an only child and since your parents died several years ago, our records indicate that you, Mr. Harris, are the sole survivor. And it has taken me three days and unspeakable inconveniences to find you.”
Charlie just stood there. He didn’t know what to think. Had the wine tricked his mind again? Was he seeing things, hearing things that were not real? When Mr. Beck handed him the envelope and Charlie nervously opened it, he cut his finger and began to bleed. Dreaming men don’t bleed. Charlie knew this was real.
There was a copy of the will inside (conveniently translated into English), a first-class ticket for a ship, two train tickets, and $500 in cash.
Mr. Beck explained, “The money is for food and other necessities while you are on your trip. In the morning a carriage will meet you here at 9 A.M. to take you to the train station. You will then use your pass and board the train to New York. From there you will sail on the Katarina Baldor to Hamburg, Germany. When you dock in Hamburg a carriage will be waiting for you to escort you to the train station. And there you will board the train to Tuebingen near the Black Forest. Your great uncle’s castle is not far fro...”
“My great uncle’s WHAT?!” Charlie interrupted.
“Your great uncle’s castle, Mr. Harris. It is not far from Tuebingen. A carriage will be awaiting your arrival in Tuebingen to take you on the final leg of your journey, to Count Reissdorf’s castle in Nekartailfingen.”
“Nefer-tie-flinger?” Charlie said, with his tongue in a knot.
“Nekartailfingen. It’s a tiny German village that your great uncle’s castle overlooks. Castle Reissdorf sits atop a small hill—about 3000 feet above the village below.”
Charlie’s head started buzzing. He had all sorts of questions and didn’t even know how to begin. So he meekly shook Mr. Beck’s hand, turned away without saying a word, and went inside his little hovel for the last time.
The Secret Message
For the first night in as long as he could remember, Charlie did not finish off the day with his liquid demon. This allowed his mind to think clearly about what had transpired. At first he doubted that he really had a great uncle and he thought this whole thing was one elaborate scheme. But by whom? And for what reason? It couldn’t be the police, because Mr. Beck could have arrested him on the spot. Besides, he gave him real money and walked away. Charlie decided this had to be real. And even if his great uncle didn’t have that much money, a free trip to Europe with $500 cash was certainly better than his present circumstances. In the least, he could live in his great uncle’s castle for the remainder of his days. Even if it was a castle more in name than in fact, it had to be a far cry from his present shanty.
Charlie rose early the next morning. He put on his red coat and black boots, for these not only were his bread and butter but they also were his best clothes. He also brought out the $17 that were stored in a box under his bed, besides the $500 and the other items given to him by Mr. Beck. The carriage was there promptly at 9 A.M. And, just as Mr. Beck had told him, the whole trip went exactly as planned. (I’ll not bore you with the details, because I know you want to hear about the castle.)
Charlie arrived at Tuebingen in early spring. He had, along the way, picked up a fresh set of clothes and a few other necessities. (But he still kept his Saint Nick outfit, for sentimental reasons.) Over half his money had been spent when he arrived at the castle. The trip from Tuebingen to Nekartailfingen was, like the two train trips and the ship ride, relatively uneventful. Except for the last few miles. As the carriage rounded a corner in the thick of the Black Forest, it came to an opening. Directly in front of the road was a steep mountain with a castle perched on top. The day was sunny, though quite chilly. As they drove up, the castle was crowned by the late afternoon sun, looking almost as if it were wearing a halo. This castle was not at all like what Charlie expected it to be—and to his relief! He really believed it would be dark and gloomy, housing werewolves, vampires, and crazed scientists who were busily creating hideous monsters to be unleashed on the unsuspecting villagers below.
As they drove through the village, many people came out of their homes and shops, shouting in German, “It’s the Count’s heir! It’s the Count’s heir!” They seemed genuinely eager to meet him. That was a wonderful moment for Charlie. After the death of Elizabeth, no one had cared for him—until today.
As they drove on to the base of the mountain, the winding road looked quite dangerous. But as they curled upward and upward around this massive cone, it became evident to Charlie that the path was rather safe. When they finally reached the castle, Charlie was struck with its colossal size. Before he had a chance to take in the vision in front of him, thirteen servants came out to greet their new master. There were two chefs, two gardeners, one chauffeur, five maids (one for each floor of the castle), two handymen, and a butler. The butler introduced himself. “Welcome to Castle Reissdorf. My name is Albrecht Koschmieder, your faithful servant.”
Charlie said, “That’s alot for me to remember. How about if I call you ‘Al’?”
“If that is your wish, mein Herr,” responded Albrecht, although he seemed insincere about it. Charlie never did call him Al.
Albrecht showed Charlie the castle. He led him into the immense kitchen with its six ovens and endless pots and pans, the dining room almost as long as the clothing factory Charlie used to work in, the pantry larger than Charlie’s shack in Chicago, the library with its thousands of volumes, the Great Hall large enough to play a decent game of football in. All this was on the first floor, and there were still thirteen rooms to go—on the first floor! After painstakingly showing Charlie each of the eighty-one rooms, and explaining a little of each one’s history, they arrived at the fifth floor of the castle. “And this is the eighty-second room of Castle Reissdorf,” Albrecht beamed. One room occupied the entire floor… Count Reissdorf’s bedroom. This would be Charlie’s bedroom now.
As Charlie sat down on the ponderous oval bed, he was thinking more about the flights of steps he would have to scale daily just to find some sleep than he was about his new-found fortune. Albrecht seemed to have read his mind: “The Count died at age one hundred and three. He insisted on maintaining his quarters at the top of the castle to make sure he didn’t slip into old age too easily. The count was a remarkable man.”
That evening Charlie ate the biggest and best meal of his life. He sat at one end of the dining table—a table which more resembled a bowling alley than any table Charlie had ever seen. The chefs and maids kept bringing in breads and soups and cheeses, followed by roast beef and roast pork and white fish from the Black Sea. He ate mushrooms and wilted cabbage and stuffed sausages and small steamed potatoes. The lavish meal was served with a dark ale in a large lidded mug. The taste of alcohol reminded him of what he had become in America, though he quickly put that depressing thought out of his mind. The best part of the meal was dessert: there were a dozen different desserts to choose from and almost all of them were chocolate-something. Charlie tried one piece of cake, a small pastry, and some kind of custard. All this was more food than he had remembered ever seeing at one time—and it was all for him. None of the servants joined him at the table; he sat alone. But Charlie couldn’t help noticing that there were thirteen seats around the table that were well worn.
As he waddled up the five flights of stairs, Charlie began to ponder for the first time what good fortune had come his way. He was rich beyond his wildest dreams! He had servants, a gigantic castle, food and clothing to last several lifetimes. He fell asleep that night happy and content.
Over the next few weeks Charlie explored his new home. All the servants were quite helpful and friendly, though only Albrecht knew English well enough to communicate in more than broken sentences. Charlie decided to learn the native tongue since there were more of them than there were of him. He began going into the village (Hans, the chauffeur, would drive him) once or twice a week and learn as much as he could. He soon learned more than German. All the villagers spoke highly of Charlie’s great uncle, the count. He had made their little village a happy, prosperous place. On many occasions, the count would bring the poorer folk from in and around the village to his castle. Rather than merely feed them, he would have them follow one of his servants and learn a skill from them. Each servant had many talents. For example, two of the maids were skilled in making various crafts, one of the chefs wrote poetry, and the butler was an incredible harpsichordist. But most of the poor folk who came to the castle learned from the gardeners. They would leave the castle able to feed themselves, with their dignity intact. Charlie learned much about the compassion and wisdom of his great uncle on these visits. There was still much for him to learn, however. Charlie would not know until quite some time later the best gift his great uncle gave these villagers.
Late in the summer of 1893 a man from Goettingen arrived at the castle, claiming that he was Count Reissdorf’s grandnephew. He demanded half the inheritance and wanted Charlie to leave the castle and go back to America. Because he had no proof of what he claimed, Albrecht insisted that the man stay in the village until he could look into this matter. That evening Charlie opened the safe in his bedroom—the safe whose combination only Albrecht and Charlie knew. He began rustling through some old documents, trying to find any clues to the man’s bizarre claims. While looking for any record of this grandnephew, Charlie spotted the original draft of the will. The will—written in German—specifically mentioned only the count’s sister, Anna, and her descendants as heirs of the fortune. As weak as Charlie’s German was, he at least could figure this part out. By now, he knew the family history well and, convinced that all was safe, he blew out the lamp and crawled into bed. As he lay there, second thoughts entered his mind; worry was not far behind. What if Anna had been married before she came to America? If so, the man in the village might be Charlie’s cousin and heir to half his fortune.
Immediately Charlie grabbed the will from the nightstand and without bothering to light the wick tried to read it once again, half thinking that it might address this new concern. The moon was full and bright and Charlie could almost make out the words written on the paper. But as he held up the will to the moon’s light, he saw some other letters, embedded in the paper itself. The letters were not written on either side of the paper—they seemed to be sandwiched between both sides. He quickly lit the wick, hoping to read the words more clearly. But as he held the will up to the lamp’s light, these sandwiched words disappeared.
So Charlie once again blew out the light and strained at the words that only the moon revealed. After a few seconds the words came into focus:
It was a half-magical moment. It was as if Charlie had discovered some cure without knowing what disease it was for. He quickly memorized the words, even though they were not in English. So much was at stake that it was easy for him to get locked into his head, “Mein feste Berg hat ein sui generis Tuer.” Charlie went to sleep, half singing this cryptic note to himself.
The Mysterious Stranger
The next morning Charlie temporarily forgot about the would-be heir down in Nekartailfingen. He grabbed the will and, once more, attempted to read the embedded writing—only this time in daylight. It was not to be seen. He twisted the paper around, tried various angles. Still he could see nothing. Apparently this secret message could only be read by the light of the full moon. He was not sure why the count would have put in such a message which almost surely would have gone unnoticed under normal circumstances. In fact, did the count do this? Was it even meant for Charlie? Without pondering such things too long, he figured that whoever put the message in there and for whom, Charlie saw it and, by golly, he was going to find out what it meant.
As he mulled the words over and over again in his mind, a melody subconsciously sprang forth. He began to hum the tune that he fell asleep with the night before, but with slightly different words: “Ein feste Berg ist unserer Gott.”
“No, those aren’t the words!” Charlie thought. “‘Mein feste Berg hat…’ but wait!” he shouted. “Ein feste Berg” is the name of a German hymn my grandmother Anna used to sing to me as a child. How is it translated? “A mighty fortress is our God!”
Charlie knew he was on to something. His German was better than to translate the words so loosely. “‘Ein feste Berg’ means ‘a great mountain,’ or something like that,” Charlie exclaimed. “‘Mein feste Berg’ must therefore mean ‘my great mountain.’ The secret note is about this castle! And—my great uncle must have written it because this is his great mountain.”
“In the hymn ‘ist unserer Gott’ means ‘is our God.’ But the message in the will says ‘hat ein sui generis Tuer.’ This means, uh, ‘has a something-something door.’ My great mountain has a something-something door. That’s it! That’s it!” Charlie shouted. “No, that’s not it. What in the world does THAT mean?”
Charlie knew that the part of the puzzle that must be solved was the meaning of “sui generis.” And he also knew that he would have to solve it without the aid of anyone else.
“Tap! Tap! Tap!”
Charlie almost jumped out of his skin when he heard the knock at the door. “Come in,” he squeaked out.
It was Marie, the maid. “Breakfast is served, mein Herr.”
Charlie almost galloped the five flights of stairs down to the breakfast room. His mind was spinning with ideas, plans, schemes. At first he thought he would go into the village and simply ask what “sui generis” meant. But if his great uncle had taken such pains to make this message so secret, Charlie didn’t want anyone else even hearing a part of it. Could he talk to the servants at the castle? No, he didn’t know if he could trust them, even though they were the kindest people he had ever met.
Charlie got up from the breakfast table, took a stroll through the garden, and thought about “sui generis.” Although his German was not very good, he soon realized that these words did not sound German at all. Going into the village or talking to the servants would be of no help anyway.
Charlie decided to spend the day in the library. He figured that his great uncle would have left the clue somewhere in his castle. And since this was fundamentally a puzzle of words, what better place to find the answer than in the library?
As he was ready to walk into the library, he suddenly realized something: “Gadzooks! The will! I left it on the nightstand!”
Charlie immediately ran upstairs, grabbed the will, and locked it up in the safe. Then, he just as quickly ran downstairs, eagerly anticipating the treasures awaiting him in the library.
As he trotted down the Great Hall toward the library, Albrecht came up to him. “Mein Herr, the man in the village is here to speak with you.” Charlie had almost forgotten about him. Charlie asked Albrecht to show him in. They met in the sitting room, far away from the library. Charlie was still out of breath from the cursed stairs.
“Mister Harris, my name is S. G. Bergfeste,” proclaimed the tall, elderly, bearded stranger. The man seemed completely at peace with himself, and not at all the kind who would crave someone else’s fortune. Charlie instantly felt relaxed in his presence.
“S. G. Bergfeste,” Charlie repeated. “That name sounds famil— ”
All of a sudden Charlie gasped in horror. Of course the name sounded familiar! “Feste Berg” was part of the secret message and “S.G.” were the same initials for “sui generis”! Who was this stranger who seemed to know the very contents of the secret message?
The man immediately took Charlie’s hand, and whispered, “So you DO know. Excellent. Excellent. The second part of your journey has begun.”
Charlie sat there dumbfounded. This was more mysterious—and more wonderful—than when he had met Mr. Beck back in Chicago.
The stranger continued. “Mr. Harris, I am not really Count Reissdorf’s grandnephew. I have been sent here to help you fulfill your destiny. You are on the right path. Do what you planned to do today. You will be rewarded for your efforts.”
“But Mr. Bergfeste,” Charlie pleaded, “if you know so much, why don't you tell me what the mysterious words mean?”
“Mr. Harris, do you own a Bible?”
“Uh, no…” Charlie confessed. He had not even looked at a Bible since Elizabeth had died.
“You will find one in the library. In fact, you can find one on every floor of this castle. Your great uncle was a very pious man.”
“But my German is not that good yet. How can I read a German Bible? Besides, why are you asking me this?” Charlie impatiently asked.
“In the library you will find over thirty different translations of the Scriptures. I will leave you with two clues: Proverbs 25:2 and John 3:16. Aufwiedersehen.” The stranger shook Charlie’s hand, turned, and left the room. And Charlie sat, more perplexed than ever.
The Magical Door
Charlie sat stunned for a few moments. His good fortune was not in jeopardy after all. But there was work to be done. An intriguing mystery needed to be solved. There was more to this castle than meets the eye!
He entered the massive library and began to notice its contents for the first time. There were thousands and thousands of books. Dark oak shelves were affixed to all four walls, and were at least two stories tall. A gigantic ladder was hooked on the top to a brass rail which encircled the entire room.
Charlie felt overwhelmed. How would he ever find the answer to the puzzle? “Albrecht! Albrecht! Help, I need you!”
Albrecht soon arrived. Charlie asked him if he could explain the arrangement of books.
“Yes, mein Herr. On the south wall are books on philosophy, art, music, languages, and the humanities. On the east wall are the works of history and biography. The west wall contains volumes on a variety of topics including fiction, literature, mathematics, and science. The north wall is dedicated to religion. The books on each wall are arranged alphabetically.”
“Ahh, so the north wall would have Bibles?” Charlie asked.
“Yes, and so would the east, west, and south walls” Albrecht responded. “The fourth shelf from the bottom on each wall has Count Reissdorf’s favorite books. All his Bibles will be located here.”
“Thank you, Albrecht. You have been very helpful.”
Albrecht had unwittingly given Charlie many clues. Charlie hastily decided to spend his day looking at the several hundred volumes on the fourth shelf.
First, he went to the south wall and found the section on languages. Here he noticed four Bibles in English, three in French, and several others in a variety of languages. He grabbed one of the English Bibles and found Proverbs 25:2: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; it is the glory of kings to dig it out.”
“Ahh hah!” Charlie exclaimed, “that’s why Mr. Bergfeste would not tell me more. He wanted me to work hard for the answer because I am king of this mountain.” Charlie was half right.
“Now, let’s find John 3:16… Here it is. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.’” The expression “one and only” was underlined in red ink. In the margin there were handwritten words, also in red: “one-of-a-kind, unique.”
Charlie brushed it off. “This verse is a dead end,” he sighed. “Maybe I should try another English version.” He opened the next English Bible and found a slightly different translation for John 3:16. For “one and only” this version had “only begotten”: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But the words were underlined in red. And, once again, there was a marginal note: “one-of-a-kind, unique.” Charlie looked at the other two English versions and found exactly the same marginal note, written neatly in red ink.
He was stumped. “What does that have to do with anything?” Charlie said in a frustrated tone. After much fruitless thought, Charlie rose and began randomly opening different books throughout the library. “No clue in here,” he repeated as he went through book after book. Rather than carefully put each book back in its place, Charlie threw them on the floor in disgust. After several hours of wasted time, hundreds of tomes were strewn all over the floor as if scattered by a Texas tornado.
Charlie sat discouraged in the middle of the room. It was late afternoon by now. After he had sat there for a few minutes, a beam of light came through a small window high up on the west wall of the library. It landed on the first book Charlie had opened, the Bible, almost as if to remind him of Proverbs 25:2: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; it is the glory of kings to dig it out.”
Just then, Charlie got an idea. “Why should I expect the clue to be found in an English Bible? There are several Bibles on the fourth shelf—maybe it’s in one of them.”
Charlie didn’t even bother to look in the German Bible, Die Heilige Schrift. He figured that since the words “sui generis” were not in German, the clue wouldn’t be either.
Charlie found John 3:16 (with some trouble) in the French Bible. Nothing made any sense. But, just as with the English Bibles, there were certain words in the verse that were underlined in red. And in the margin were some comments in red, too—and these also made no sense because they were written, he supposed, in French.
He figured that he would go through every Bible in an attempt to find a clue. After some time, Charlie came to a volume with a handwritten label on the spine, “Vulgata, ex Hieronome.” Since it was surrounded by La Santa Biblia, The Holy Bible, and other similar titles, he figured that this, too, must be a Bible. With a little effort, Charlie found John 3:16. And, as he expected, he found some words in the text underlined in red. In the margin he found the red handwritten words “sui generis.”
“That’s it! That’s it!” Charlie shouted. “‘Sui generis’ means ‘one-of-a-kind, unique.’”
“Now, how does the secret message go… ‘Mein feste Berg hat ein sui generis Tür.’ ‘My great mountain has a one-of-a-kind door!’”
Charlie’s heart was pumping fast now. He reasoned that there must be a very special door in the castle somewhere. But where? “This is an enormous castle. That special door could be any place,” sighed Charlie. “Tomorrow I shall ask Albrecht to give me another tour of this place. And this time I'll take good mental notes.”
The next day was spent with Albrecht. This butler seemed to know the castle inside and out. He was a walking encyclopedia when it came to Castle Reissdorf. The rich history of the place made Charlie awestruck about his heritage, but after an entire day of learning about his new home, Charlie had no leads. No leads at all…except, perhaps, one.
On the second floor was a tiny room that contained only information about the castle. There were a couple of books and three copies of the original drawings or blueprints. Besides these items, the room had only a desk (large enough to hold one blueprint), a chair, and a lamp. As Charlie rifled through the two books, he soon realized that Albrecht had memorized just about every word in them! Therefore, they contained nothing new. But the blueprints held out more promise.
As he began to study a blueprint, he noticed that the master bedroom seemed to be a bit larger originally than it was now. It was hard to tell, because the drawings were so old that measurements were not even used to describe the rooms’ sizes. In fact, Charlie would never have noticed the apparent discrepancy between the drawing and his bedroom had it not been for the proportional distances between the fifth window and the wall. The drawing showed the distance between the wall and the window to be the same as between the fifth and fourth window. But in his room the wall seemed a little bit closer. It was not the kind of thing anyone would have caught, however, unless he was looking for it.
“The secret door must be in my bedroom, near the fifth window,” Charlie whispered eagerly. He quickly rolled up the drawing and ran upstairs. He probed around the wood-paneled wall where he thought the secret door might be, but all he found was wall. He looked behind the pictures, twisted the bed knobs, looked under the bed, even tried to lift up the carpet. But he found nothing. At last Charlie thought, “If the first clue was in the safe, I wonder if the second clue might be here also.”
Just then, Marie knocked on the door. “Dinner is served, mein Herr.”
After a quick meal, Charlie marched back up the stairs once again, “These cursed stairs. Five flights! I need to put in one of those newfangled contraptions called an elevator one of these days… Or should I? I’d have to ruin part of the beauty of this old place to do it. Um, maybe not. Maybe I should just keep going up the stairs without complaining so much. But gee whiz! Five flights is a bit much! Is it really worth it?”
By the time Charlie finished grumbling, he was in his room. Once there, he opened the safe. After more than two hours looking at the papers, he became quite discouraged. None seemed to have any clues. The last document he came to was one sheet of paper, carefully rolled up inside a leather pouch. “This one must be important!” Charlie exclaimed.
When he unraveled the leather container, in front of him was a blank piece of paper. “A blank piece of paper! There's nothing in this safe!”
But Charlie thought for a moment. “Holy moly, that's it!” he announced to himself. “It's not blank! It's more moon-writing!” Charlie blew out the lamp and held it up to the moon, which was full and bright once again. (He didn’t even realize how fortunate he was to have a full moon that night.) He could make out the words “Daniel 3,17. 18. 21. 27.” He had to stop for a moment. “Why are there commas here and periods here?” he asked himself. Then, after pondering the activities of the day, he realized that in German Bibles the comma was used where a colon would be used in an English Bible. And a period was used where a comma would be used in English. Quickly Charlie lit the lamp once again and found the Bible in the nightstand. But it was in German.
“Arrgh! Another trip downstairs!” Charlie trudged down the five flights of stairs to the library, found one of the English Bibles, and laboriously marched back to his room.
“Let's see. Daniel 3:17, 18, 21 and 27. Here it is:
“If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”
Then these men were bound in their mantles, their tunics, their hats, and other garments, and they were cast into the burning fiery furnace. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their mantles were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them.
Charlie was astounded. He looked at the fireplace in his room. It was almost five feet tall, just as wide, and was on the west wall, next to the fifth window. “Do you think that this is it? That the secret is in that fireplace?” he muttered to himself. Although he didn’t want to believe it, he knew that a great secret lay just beyond this hearth. “You mean I’ve got to light the fire in that monstrous box and walk through it? Come on, Uncle Friederich, you've got to be kidding!” But he was too involved in the mystery now to quit at this point.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Charlie muttered as he lit the fire in the cavernous fireplace. “Well, here goes nothing,” he sighed, and, crouching down, he took one step into the furnace, just in front of the burning wood. Just then he heard a faint click at the rear of the fireplace, on the right. Charlie saw a brass ring drop down about four inches. But before he could reach for it, the blaze got too hot for him.
He stepped back out of the box and threw the quilt from his bed on to the fire. The flames were quickly extinguished. “Now I know the secret. I’ll just step on that spot again.” Charlie stepped on the same place, but nothing happened. No click. No brass ring.
“Oh good grief! I guess the thing must be lit if it’s going to work,” he groaned. He dutifully relit the fire—this time with the quilt still on top of the wood. (He was so involved in his mystery-solving that Charlie didn’t even think about what he was doing.)
Once the fire was barely going, Charlie deftly stepped on the right spot, and, with a gloved hand, grabbed the brass ring as it dropped down from the right side. A deep groan bellowed out from behind and above the furnace, as if to protest Charlie’s act. And immediately the fireplace with its hearth began to rotate 180 degrees. Charlie was inside the secret compartment!
The Greek Door
Charlie stepped out from the hearth and found himself enclosed in a small, long and narrow room. It was really more a hallway than a room. This hallway went from north to south and seemed to be as long as the west wall in his bedroom. It was only about three feet wide. There were three lamps high up on the wall, lining the path. Each was already lit, as if someone had anticipated Charlie’s arrival. Next to each lamp was a door with some writing on it. But none of the words made any sense.
“Oh great,” he huffed, “more letters to decipher.” The first door had words in Latin, the second in Hebrew, and the third in Greek. They all looked Greek to Charlie.
The lamp next to the third door was at first burning brightly, then flickering, then burning brightly, then flickering—as if to beckon Charlie inside. He decided that this would be the door he would attempt to enter first. As he approached, he noticed the letters more distinctly. There were three lines of text which read:
Charlie grabbed a charred piece of wood from the fire, and wrote down the letters on his handkerchief. He knew that he had more work cut out for him and the words of Proverbs 25:2 began ringing in his ears.
Just before he left the hallway, he realized that he had not even tried to open any of the doors. He attempted the knob on the first, then the second, then the third door. Not one budged at all. Frustrated that his secret passageway contained secrets still beyond his grasp, he walked back to the fireplace. This time, without having to step in the furnace itself, the fireplace rotated as he stepped on the hearth. Back in his room, more puzzled and discouraged than ever, Charlie went to sleep.
The next day Charlie Harris returned to the library. He figured that the best clues would still be in here. When he opened the door, all the books stared at him from the shelves, neatly stacked and in order.
“What happened? Have these last two days been one long dream?” he wondered. Just then, he heard a sound coming from behind one of the chairs. It was Ursula, the second story maid.
“Guten Morgen, mein Herr,” she declared.
“Why are you here?” asked Charlie. Remembering that she knew little English, he asked again, “Warum bist du hier?”
Ursula’s response was sheepish and a bit muffled. Rather than ask her to repeat it (he thought he might not understand her German any better the second time around anyway), Charlie simply smiled. He figured that he had made such an enormous mess of the library that Bertha (the first floor maid) must have asked Ursula for help.
“Danke, danke sehr!” Charlie declared.
Ursula smiled, then left quickly and closed the doors behind her. Charlie pulled the handkerchief out of his pocket, unfolded it, and gently placed it on the desk. Then he systematically grabbed Bible after Bible, opening them at random, trying to see if any of the letters matched. He was not really hoping for a magical cure to his dilemma—like some kind of celestial sign which dropped into his lap. Mr. Bergfeste was right: Charlie would have to work to find the clues. But he thought that if one or two of the words on his handkerchief matched something in one of the Bibles, he would at least know which language he was trying to decipher.
After going through dozens of Bibles, Charlie chanced upon one which had letters on the spine much like the words on the secret door: H KAINH DIAQHKH. He opened it and found the words DIA and PRO. “This must be it!” Charlie cheered.
“Albrecht! Albrecht!” Charlie yelled. In a few minutes, Albrecht was in the doorway of the library.
“How may I assist you, mein Herr?”
Charlie asked him if he knew what language this particular Bible was written in.
“That, I believe, is Greek, mein Herr,” Albrecht responded.
“Do you know Greek?” Charlie asked.
“Count Reissdorf began to instruct me in that most beautiful and ancient of languages. But, alas, my memory of it has faded away in these past few months.”
Charlie at first thought he might try to get him to decipher as much of the handkerchief as Albrecht could. But this would cause more problems for Charlie than it was worth. Why would Charlie have Greek words, scrawled in charcoal, on a handkerchief? It was too risky.
Charlie inquired, “Do you know anyone who could teach me Greek? I’ve always wanted to learn the language.”
The butler stated that the village had no scholars, but that the count used to speak highly of Tübingen University. Surely Charlie could find someone there to teach him Greek.
No sooner had Albrecht relayed this suggestion than Charlie had run upstairs to his room. He was packing his bags to go to Tübingen! He put the handkerchief in the safe. That morning Hans drove him to the city.
Housing arrangements were swiftly made and Charlie found himself signed up for a course on the basics of ancient Greek, taught at Tübingen University. He soon discovered that not only was he the oldest student in the class, but the instruction was in German.
Charlie spent an entire semester at Tübingen learning as much as he could about the language of the gods. For the first few weeks, Hans would pick him up on the weekends and bring him back to the castle. But more often than not, Charlie would simply hole up in the library and study, rather than socialize with the help. His visits to Castle Reissdorf were both unproductive for him and disappointing for the servants. By late October, Charlie asked Hans not to return until the semester was over, on December 23rd.
Although quite discouraged at times at learning this tough language—especially through a German instructor—Charlie was determined to get down the basics. He got so involved in his studies that he almost forgot the real reason he came to Tübingen in the first place. In the evenings, just before he retired, Charlie would read some book outside of his field, just to spurr him on. His instructor recommended that he read a book entitled, John Brown of Haddington. This happened to be in English, for it was originally written in English. (The University library also had a German translation, but Charlie declined that version.)
John Brown of Haddington was a shepherd boy from the hills of Scotland, who lived quite some time before Charlie’s day. As a teenager John Brown taught himself Greek without any instructor at all! He became one of Great Britain’s greatest theologians.
Charlie was so motivated by this story that he finished the semester at the top of his class. On December 23rd, Hans brought Charlie home. That whole day was spent with the servants, in joyful interaction over Charlie’s feats.
He went to bed that night, content that he was making something out of his life. The next morning Charlie woke up, startled at the realization that he had not even looked at the handkerchief since his homecoming. He quickly opened the safe and pulled out the handkerchief. With some work, he was able to decipher its contents:
“ENTER THROUGH THIS DOOR ON THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRIST’S BIRTH.”
“Amazing! Eureka! The door will open on Christmas Eve.” Charlie was so excited about his discovery that it took him till after breakfast before he realized that today was the day before Christmas.
All day long, Charlie paced back and forth. First, in the Great Hall, then in the drawing room on the third floor, then in the conservatory out by the garden. All the servants thought that Charlie was just a sentimental old fool when it came to Christmas. But they didn’t mind, for they figured that Charlie’s sentimentality would produce a great number of presents in their stockings the next day.
But Charlie was not thinking about them, or Christmas, or stockings. He had long ago abandoned the magic of Christmas when he donned his Saint Nick outfit in the Windy City, hoping only to use this guise to cheat some honest folks out of their hard-earned money. For Charlie, Christmas had become the symbol of his former chicanery.
When, however, he thought about the “Greek Door,” Charlie’s mind was more on adventure and solving a great mystery than on deception. That evening he went to his room shortly after dinner. He prepared a small fire and walked into another realm that lay beyond the hearth. As he came to the third door in the hallway, he noticed that the lamp was once again flickering, burning brightly, flickering, burning brightly. He approached the door somberly, his heart pounding fast. Almost six months ago, Mr. Bergfeste had said that the second part of his journey had begun; Charlie knew that it was now almost over.
He hesitated for a second before touching the doorknob. He read the Greek once again, suspecting for a brief moment that he might have copied it down wrong and that the past few months’ effort had come to naught. But it read as he hoped it would. This was the night to fulfill his destiny.
As he grabbed the knob, it turned without any effort on Charlie’s part. The door swung open without a sound. A bright light from beyond the door flooded the hallway, momentarily blinding Charlie. After a few seconds of silence, the sound of a rushing wind filled the doorway. Charlie was literally swept off his feet and sucked into the room.
Back through Time
Charlie found himself floating in mid-air, spiraling upward. All he could see around him was bright light. He felt nothing, smelled nothing, and heard only the great wind that was hurling him through space to an unknown destination. In a few moments he was gently caressed to a soft landing in the middle of a village square. Dazed from this most unusual journey, Charlie noticed the new moon in the late evening sky.
“That’s not right,” he grunted. “It’s almost a full moon tonight.”
As he glanced around the village, he quickly noticed how peculiar it looked. There were no horse-drawn carriages, no brick houses, no steepled churches. The road was not even paved. There were just small houses, a few shops, and a few camels kneeling at a post.
“This is not Nekartailfingen, this is not Germany. This is not Chicago, nor America. Where in the world am I?” Charlie cried.
Just then he spotted a small, rotund fellow standing on the roof of one of the houses. He was dropping something down the chimney. As the man stealthily climbed down the roof, Charlie approached him.
“Alright, what’s going on here?” Charlie demanded, tapping him on the shoulder.
The man turned around and faced Charlie. It was like looking in a mirror! Both men had white hair, white beards, and were, to put it mildly, pleasantly plump.
“Charlie Harris! It’s about time you showed up!” the man declared.
“Huh? How’d you know my name? And what are you talking about? And who are you, anyway?” Charlie half-snarled, though in a befuddled sort of way.
“Charlie, I know that you must be quite confused right now. Permit me clear matters up a bit. My name is Nicholas. This is the village of Myra in the country of Anatolia. In your century this village will be called Kale, and the country, Turkey.”
“In MY century?” Charlie asked, disbelievingly.
“Yes, in your century, the nineteenth. It is the fourth century here in Myra. This is 343 in the year of our Lord, to be precise.”
“This is too much to believe,” Charlie snapped.
“Actually, you haven’t even heard the half of it, Charlie,” asserted the man. “You see, history will know me as Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Sinter Klaas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle…”
“Kris Kringle?” Charlie asked.
“Yes, but that’s another story how I got that name,” the man stated.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Charlie sighed. “Just one story at a time, please.”
“That’s fine with me. Charlie, I sent for you by way of your great uncle’s will. He and I planned on you taking over the work. It’s been a family business for a long time, you see. Frankly, I had my doubts that you would make it back when you did. You were a little slow on your Greek lessons at first, as you may recall.”
Charlie just stared. All his hard work at Greek just to meet Santa Claus! Why, he didn’t even believe in the old fool!
Nicholas continued. “Charlie, your destiny is to be Santa Claus for as long as you live. Through your servants at Castle Reissdorf you will spend every year finding out about the helpless and downtrodden, the misfortunate and weak throughout the world. You will help these precious children with gifts, food, and special encouragement. The world is already overcrowded with bitter and unhappy adults. Do what you can to keep these little children from joining their ranks.”
“What do you mean, ‘Do what you can?’” Charlie asked cynically. “Aren’t you going to wave a magic wand and give me a pack of flying reindeer or something?”
“You’ve been watching too much television, Charlie.”
“What’s television?” Charlie inquired.
“Oh, that’s right. Television comes after your time. It’s hard to keep all the centuries straight, you know. Anyway, I don’t work like that. I don’t have reindeer, couldn’t possibly fit down a chimney, and certainly don’t even get to every home every Christmas season. I’m only human, you know.”
The frailty, charm, and sincerity of this old man began to win Charlie over. As Nicholas talked on, he related to Charlie how the legend of Santa Claus grew. Nicholas was a wealthy man who saw certain needs in the village of Myra. Every year he would pick two or three needy families as recipients of a special gift. Some folks just needed an extra boost, he figured. On the evening before Christ’s birth was to be celebrated, he would scale the roofs of the chosen houses and drop a small bag of goods through the chimney. He would have to do this late at night, when the fires had died down. The Christmas Eve of 341 was one of Nicholas’ favorites. He dropped three bags of gold through the same chimney in order that the three daughters of a poor, aging man might each have a dowry. All three girls were married the following spring, fulfilling their dear father’s dreams.
When Charlie heard all this, he fell to his knees and wept. “I never knew, I never knew,” he lamented. “After Elizabeth died, my life took a bitter turn. I became a thief and a drunkard. Even after I came to the castle, I was more interested in what I could get out of the deal than in helping anyone. Now I understand why everyone in the village and the servants at the castle have been so kind—they all know that I am destined to be the next Santa Claus.”
“No, not quite. Only the servants know your secret identity. The villagers have been nice to you for another reason.”
“Oh, I know,” Charlie responded. They expect me to treat them the same way my great uncle did.”
Again, Charlie was only half right.
“Well, of course they couldn’t help rejoicing to see you that first day you drove through Nekartailfingen. They figured that you must somehow be very much like the count—after all, you look remarkably like him.
“You see, Charlie, the count took possession of the castle at a young age. It was willed to him by his great-great uncle, Heinrich Debrunner.”
“Yes, yes. I know all that,” Charlie interrupted. “Get to the point.”
“Charlie, you only know part of the story. And I am getting to the point. What’s your hurry, anyway? You’ve got a few hundred years to hear this story, don’t you?”
Nicholas continued. “As I was saying, Heinrich Debrunner was the count’s great-great grandmother’s brother. When Friederich Reissdorf came to the castle he was not unlike yourself. He brought with him many bitter memories. His family lived in a tiny village near the Rhineland. His mother died in 1792 while she was giving birth to his sister, Anna. Four years later, when Friederich was only seven years old, his father died from pneumonia. Friederich raised Anna by himself, since he did not know of any other relatives who could care for her. Both of them nearly starved to death so often that they viewed dire hunger as a normal mode of existence. Friederich broke one of his legs when he was just twelve. He set the leg himself—and did a rather poor job of it. He walked with a rather pronounced limp until his death.”
“Wait a minute! You mean that old coot walked up those five flights of stairs at the castle with a limp! He really was a remarkable man!” interjected Charlie.
“Yes, he was. But you don’t know the half of it, Charlie. Friederich did not know how to read until he was twenty-four years old. And when he did learn, it took him a long time before he was very interested in it. Anna never did learn, I’m afraid.”
“But what about that great library at the castle—all those books?” Charlie asked.
“Friederich had a remarkable experience which changed his life and caused him to see the value of books. I’ll get to that part. But first—” Nicholas at first hesitated, then gave a sigh of resignation before continuing.
“In time, Friederich began to steal food and clothing from his neighbors. He even taught Anna how to pilfer money from the local church without getting caught. Your grandmother Anna learned some of the great hymns of the faith while waiting to steal from the offering plate.”
“When he was twenty-four his great-great uncle died and he inherited the castle. It was there that he went through an experience similar to yours. That is, similar to the adventure which brought you to me.”
“So you’re the reason my great uncle began to read, and why he became so well-liked in the village,” Charlie suggested.
“Not exactly, Charlie. When I met him I told him that I could not use him. The pain and bitterness in his life were so deep that he would only foul the job up. He really didn’t have the spirit of Christmas.”
“You mean he didn’t believe in you?” Charlie inquired.
“Heavens no!” declared Nicholas. “I wouldn’t be offended if someone didn’t believe in me. Besides, there’s much more myth about me going around than there is truth. And it’s getting worse every century. I’m only a servant.”
“You’ve got me real confused, now, old man. I thought you were going to zap me back to my time and I was going to be the next Saint Nick. And I would bring presents to all the good little girls and boys every Christmas.”
“You haven’t been listening very well, Charlie. How do you expect to bring presents to all the good children? I’m only human, you’re only human. The most you’ll be able to do is set an example of kindness and justice. Your wealth is limited; so use it wisely. If you can get to a few homes every year, that’ll be enough to spur others on to imitate you. But quite frankly,” Nicholas hesitated, “I can’t use you either.”
“WHAT?” Charlie shouted, almost waking some of the good folks of Myra.
“Like your great uncle, you don’t yet understand the true meaning of Christmas,” Nicholas patiently explained.
“O.K. You brought me back here. I’m all ears. Tell me the true meaning of Christmas,” demanded Charlie, cynically. He really didn’t want to listen any more to Nicholas, but he figured he would have to if he ever wanted to get back to his own time.
“My friend,” Nicholas began, “Christmas is a celebration of the birth of God’s Son. That Babe in Bethlehem was born for one purpose: that he might die to pay the penalty for sinners, like you and me. When he rose from the dead, this proved that God accepted his payment. If you, Charlie, put your trust in him, your sins, too, will be forgiven.”
Charlie was silent, stunned. He had heard the Christmas story of course. But even as a child he didn’t really believe it. He thought both Saint Nick and Jesus were fairy tales—although the story about Saint Nick was a juicier one. And for the REAL Nicholas to bring in religion seemed, well, out of place.
“Charlie, I’m a bit surprised you didn’t pick up on your great uncle’s clues,” Nicholas probed.
“What do you mean?” asked Charlie.
“You know—John 3:16, sui generis, the unique door, and all that,” the old saint affirmed.
“I still don’t get your point,” Charlie stated, once again in a befuddled sort of way.
“Charlie, Jesus of Nazareth is the one-of-a-kind door to heaven. He is sui generis! He’s the only way to God,” Nicholas declared. “He changed your great uncle’s life, Charlie. The day Friederich met Jesus he began to read everything he could. He taught himself thirteen different languages, and learned seventeen more with the help of tutors. He began to exercise, as painful as it was for his leg. He became fit in mind and body and then poured out his compassion on the downtrodden. His vast knowledge of history, psychology, ethics, science, music, art, and especially the Bible made him extremely well-suited to discern those who truly needed help and to figure out the best ways to help them. And his excellent health gave him the energy to accomplish the goals he set for himself.”
“All this because of meeting this baby from Bethlehem?” Charlie asked, skeptically.
“Quite frankly, yes. When a man meets God—truly meets God—his life has to change for the better. And in ways that go far beyond his greatest aspirations.
“And now, Charlie, what about you? Would you like to meet this Babe from Bethlehem?”
When Nicholas asked this question, so pointedly yet so gently, something wonderful came over Charlie. All of his bitterness, all his selfishness vanished. His arguments, his skepticism, all his doubt disappeared. He knelt there, in the snow, with Saint Nicholas, and placed his trust in the Son of God.
As he rose to thank Nicholas for introducing him to the real meaning of Christmas, Charlie was whisked away to another time and another place. He found himself standing in the secret passageway, in front of the Greek door. He couldn’t help but wonder what lay beyond the other two doors, and he was determined to find out in due time. But now, there was work to be done.
Before he retired that evening, Charlie found Hans and asked him to drive him into the village. “Stay here, Hans. This will only take a few minutes,” he whispered. Charlie got out of the carriage with three small bags in his hands. A few minutes later he returned, empty-handed, humming a Christmas carol. The new Santa Claus was in business.