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The Vieux-Port is deserted as I make my way back. It’s chilly in the evening, so my “signature” look is covered by a dark gray hoodie. I make my way from the hotel, guided by street lamps, the light from Notre Dame de la Garde reflecting in the still waters of the harbor, and what has now become a routine. While there are many ways from my hotel down the hill to the waterfront, I seem to take the same one each time, a wide staircase that doubles during the day as a skate park, clusters of two or three stairs separated by landings and mini-parks.
Midnight is very late for me, but while Marseille is far from a Spanish city in having late dining, some restaurants are still open, though none near the dock I seek, leaving only just enough light to find the blue flag Maurice used as a reference point for me. The jetty is empty, but I spot a bit of movement aboard one of the boats, a single-masted sailboat on the right side of the pier. “La Gloire de la Mer” reads the name of the vessel. “The Glory of the Sea.”
I am about to investigate when Maurice appears out of the dark next to me. Without a sound, he grabs me by the arm and guides me toward the boat. He easily maneuvers down a small ladder into the vessel, and gestures for me to do the same. I move a bit more gingerly than the old man, but manage to board the sailboat without embarrassing myself. Two other men are moving swiftly around, and Maurice moves to join them. The three seem to move as one, needing no words to prepare the small craft for departure. One man unties the boat from the dock and gracefully leaps in as it pushes back. In the dim light, I catch the glint of a golden pin on his lapel, a boat topped with an eagle.
A small motor comes on, barely audible above the sound of the water, and we slowly move toward the mouth of the harbor. The walls of Fort Saint-Jean appear on the right (starboard – I am getting good at this) of us as we go, massive and silent. Even though the fort is now a part of the modern MuCEM, Marseille’s Museum of Mediterranean Civilizations, I half expect a cannon barrage on our clandestine enterprise. Fortunately, none comes, and we pass the entrance to the harbor in safety and silence.
A light breeze is blowing, and the three sailors unfurl the sail of our vessel, cutting the motor. Maurice sits down next to me, as the man with the pin takes the wheel, aiming the bow of the boat to a familiar sight. Powered only by wind, the journey takes a bit longer, but soon the walls of the Chateau d’If fill our view. I turn back to look at the city, but it seems to have vanished in the nighttime fog. It is just as well, for there are more important things going on in front of me, the three men scurrying about. We sail past the concrete dock, and for a moment, I wonder if we aren’t headed for the Chateau at all.
We hug the rugged rocky coastline of the island, and maneuver around to the back. Sheltered there by the Friouls, the waters are calm, allowing the sailors to take down our sail and tie the boat to one of the larger rocks. Maurice grabs my arm again, and motions to the side of the boat. I look, but see only rocks. He makes his way to the side of the vessel and lightly leaps off, disappearing into a small opening. He pokes his head back out and gestures for me to follow. I climb the side of the sailboat and, uncertainly, leap toward the shore. I land on a rock, slipping and falling to my knees, but as nothing is broken or bleeding, I get up and follow the old man into what I can now see is a narrow tunnel carved into the side of the island.
Maurice pulls a small flashlight out of a pack around his waist, and the tunnel illuminates. It is damp, moss growing on the walls, and slopes steeply upwards. We walk in silence, the old man and me. He seems to know where he is going, so I have no choice but to trust in him. After a few minutes, he reaches a wooden door. A small key appears in his wrinkled hands, and he slides it into the lock. I think to ask about how he came to possess such a key, but think better of it; this is not the time for storytelling. With a squeak, the rusted hinges turn and the door opens to the dungeon of the Chateau d’If.
“This is where you must go on alone,” he says to me. “Too many of my brethren died in this prison for me to enter it.” He hands me the flashlight and his pack, and gestures for me to go on ahead. “I will await you here.”
He grabs my arm briefly as I move through the doorway, and I feel genuine caring in his firm grip. I am touched, and am only able to nod, lest my voice choke up.
I have no idea of my bearings, so I figure the best thing to do is to move slowly, making sure with each turn that I am able to recall my way back to the tunnel and Maurice. The dungeons are a twisted mass of cells and corridors, but fortunately, few rooms have more than a single entrance. The ever-present carvings on the walls remind me that prisoners were once kept in these molded holes, and I shudder at the thought. No light, no fresh air, and in many cases, no human contact. I can understand why few prisoners lived more than a handful of years in exile at the Chateau d’If.
After about a half hour, I find the staircase that I took down from the courtyard, and from there I remember how to get back to my hidden room. The stone is as I left it earlier today. I set the flashlight down, leaning it against a corner of the small chamber so that it dimly lights the cell, and open the pack. Sure enough, it contains a chisel and hammer, and I slowly begin to remove the mortar around the carved stone. It is not lost on me that I am defacing a French national landmark, but the excitement of potential discovery outweighs that guilt for the moment.
With each tap of the hammer on the chisel, a bit of mortar crumbles away. I lose track of time as I labor at the stone, but before long I can wiggle it slightly in its slot in the wall. A few more blows and it comes free, revealing a small alcove and… a bar of soap. “It is said that a man arrived there with only the rags on his back and a bar of soap, and that both would outlive him.” The words of the man in the soap museum echo in my head. Gingerly, I place the chisel into the center of the soap, and tap on it with the hammer. It breaks open, and a golden ring falls to the floor.
Silently, excitedly, I grab it, brushing off the soap remnants to reveal the golden eagle of Napoleon! I place it into a zippered inside pocket of my backpack and carefully clean up the soap and mortar from the floor, putting them into the alcove, and then wedge the stone back in. Confident that nobody will notice without a close inspection, I pick up the flashlight and make my way back to Maurice.
I arrive at the old man, and contort my face into a deep frown. “It wasn’t there,” I tell him. “I must have been wrong.” His frown matches mine, the sorrow evident.
The boat trip back is done in complete silence. The sailors go about their business, but there is no spring to their step after hearing the disappointing news from Maurice. For my part, I sit in a seat by the bow, alternating my stare from the water to my companions.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit guilty at misleading Maurice. I truly have no idea of his intentions, if he wanted to steal the treasure for himself, or just to help a friendly American who seemed to honor something so integral to his story. But in this line of work, you don’t take chances like that.
I want to think myself the hero of this story, the young-ish intrepid adventurer in search of hidden treasure. But let’s face it, while I might be a nice person with good motives, I did just deface a French monument to steal a priceless artifact, and then lie about it to someone who offered his assistance, whether that assistance was in good faith or not. And unlike other popular culture heroes, I have no intention of donating the ring to a museum. It’s likely to end up in one eventually; museums are, after all, just the collections of rich people who have since passed away and thought to make their personal collections available for public viewing. But for now, what the buyer decides to do is not something I am able to influence. I will go about my life, and my Swiss retirement fund will get a lot larger.
We make landfall again, and I am unable to look Maurice in the eye as I depart, headed for my hotel and the solace of sleep.
The sun fills my room, waking me from a deep slumber. I take the ring out of its hiding place from the night before and put it on my finger, that physical tangibility assuring me that the events of last night weren’t merely a dream. I make some coffee and sit down in the chair. X can wait; my readers can’t. An hour later, the article on Cambodia is ready for publishing. I splash some water in my face and send X a message.
“This thing is pretty! I might just keep it. I think it would match my eyes.” I send a photo of the ring, just in case “he” thinks I am referring to a scarf I may have purchased. French fashion, you know.
The phone vibrates immediately. “I’ll send someone by to get it. When will you be home?”
“Give me a few days. This city needs to be explored.”
I put the phone away, place the ring in an inside compartment in my suitcase, and hop in the shower. The morning sun is still just as bright as I leave the hotel with my backpack. Notre Dame de la Garde gleams, and today, I have nothing on my agenda except climbing up to see if it is as beautiful up close as it has been all week from down below. After all, Nathan’s Notes will need some content from Marseille, and the story of Napoleon and his ring is one that will need to be kept secret.
From the top of the hill, the basilica is every bit as stunning as from the bottom. From the terrace around it, I stare down at the landscape below. I can see Chateau d’If sitting out in the sea, a rock amongst the blue. I see where the Marseille Soap Museum would be, opening to eager tourists to learn the secrets of the city’s most famous industry. And in the corner of the Vieux-Port, I can just make out Chez Marmar. I wonder if Maurice has yet begun his sweeping. I again feel a twinge of guilt, but brush it aside.
The city spreads out below me, with so many other wonders that I can’t wait to discover. “Merci, Marseille,” I whisper. “Merci.”
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The Ring of Marseille
A short story combining travel and mystery, set in the south of France.