An excerpt from
The Bone Keepers
Tears in his eyes, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien stood in full sunlight on a patch of grass at Holywell Cemetery and watched as the casket containing the body of Robert Quilter Gilson III, was lowered into the ground. Full to the brim, no one had been buried at Holywell for twenty years, but the War Office had interceded and leave was granted to inter young Robert next to his father, a friend of Professor Tolkien’s youth who had been killed by a shell on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July of 1916. Memories of Bob Gilson, suppressed these many years, flooding back, had loosed Tolkien’s tears. There were others crying openly among the mourners at the gravesite. It would be hard not to cry for the local lad, a paratrooper who had been injured in Sicily a month ago, and was recovering at hospital in London when his heart gave out and he died while listening to the radio two days ago.
Bloody hell, the professor thought. Bloody, bloody hell.
“He lived three years longer than his father,” a voice behind Tolkien said.
Turning, Tolkien saw that the voice belonged to Eldridge White, the chief of MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, to which the professor had twice been attached in the past five years.
“What . . .?” Tolkien said.
“To pay my respects,” said White, “and to see you. Shall we walk?”
* * *
My dear John,
Please pardon my departure from our regular writing schedule, but last week, while stalking missing documents, a process which you know I have come very much to enjoy, I came across something odd and, I must say, troubling. So troubling that I immediately brought it to the attention of Cardinal Falco, the man in charge of the archives and, I am given to understand, a special and close friend to His Holiness. You will find this hard to believe but I now find myself a prisoner of the Church. I can do my work, but guards follow me wherever I go. My door is locked from the outside at night. I am told it is for my own safety, that, as I am English, and the political situation at the moment so fraught, people will think me a spy. Absurd, of course.
I am also enjoined by the cardinal from speaking about my discovery. Enjoined on the threat of excommunication. Fancy that.
I am an old man and not afraid for my life, but I would like to see an old friend, you, before I die. If you cannot come, I will understand. There is a war on, after all.
My love to Edith and the children.
Rome, 15 July 1943
“You intercepted this,” Professor Tolkien said, looking up after reading. He and White were sitting on a stone bench under a tree facing a timeworn grave marker enclosed in a low, wrought-iron border fence. He folded Father Morgan’s letter and put it in his jacket’s inside pocket, next to Robert Gilson’s obituary.
“Yes,” White replied.
“The others?” Tolkien asked.
“We read them all, of course. But of course so does the Vatican.”
“So how did this get through?”
“Your man Morgan gave it to our station chief. It came in the pouch.”
“How did you know I was here?”
“I stopped by the house.”
“You’re a busy man, Ellie.”
White remained silent. He took a moment to look about, as intelligence officers are wont to do. Tolkien followed his gaze. On the cemetery’s perimeter road, a small caravan of cars was carrying young Gilson’s family and friends back to their lives. Two old men—all the young and most of the middle-aged men were in the war—were filling in the grave. The sun beat down on everything.
A lighthearted remark had crossed Professor Tolkien’s mind when he finished Father Morgan’s letter. His old guardian, and now good friend, Francis Xavier Morgan, in his mid-eighties, was perhaps getting a bit befuddled in his old age. Prisoner. Excommunication. Rather. But then Tolkien remembered that when he last saw Morgan, before he left for Rome in the spring, he was as sound of mind and body as a church bell, the ringing of which got richer and clearer as the years passed. I am not afraid for my life.
And then, of course, there was the fact that the chief of MI6, perhaps the busiest and most heavily burdened man in England beside Churchill, had “stopped by” his house in Oxford. Nothing lighthearted about that.
“Who is this Cardinal Falco?” the professor asked.
“That is precisely why I tracked you down,” White replied.
“I don’t understand.”
“You get to the heart of things.”
“Shall I go over?” Tolkien asked.
“Yes,” White answered, “but I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“Father Morgan’s dead.”
“Yes. But . . .”
“How did I know?”
“You went to my house, Ellie.”
“I thought I should tell you in person, on your own ground.”
“Did you tell Edith?”
Tolkien nodded. Better that this news come from him. “The war?” he asked.
“We’re a long way off, old man.”
“Does it matter?”
“How is your catechism going?” Tolkien asked.
“You know I appreciate our talks.”
“I’m afraid I may not be your man anymore.”
“John . . .”
During the darkest days of the blitz, in October of 1940, in the midst of fifty-seven straight days of the bombing of London by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, White had asked John Tolkien to meet him occasionally, not to talk shop, as it were—which was fine with the professor, since he never considered himself a professional spy, nor an amateur one for that matter—but to talk about Catholicism. White was converting.
“What is your status,” Tolkien asked.
“I’ve done it.”
“Surely you can say something,” said White. “You were an inspiration, after all.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Adult converts never falter.”
What a thing to say, Tolkien thought, grimacing inwardly, directing his gaze at the gravestone in front of them. Anywhere but in White’s direction. The name on the stone was Theophilus Carter.
“The Gilson boy,” said White quietly, sighing almost imperceptibly. “There will, I’m afraid, always be war.”
“I thought we fought the war to end all wars.”
“You chose the wrong specimen.”
John Tolkien was surprised to see that White, a man steeped in the hard realities of the twentieth century, was embarrassed. Actually he felt this rather than saw it, as the two, both Englishmen to the bone, were studiously avoiding each other’s gaze.
“I don’t think you’re a saint, John,” said White. “If that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Neither do I,” said Tolkien, a ghost of a smile crossing his face. Not a saint indeed. He rose and walked over to Theophilus Carter’s grave, to make sure he had read the name right.
“You don’t think . . .?” Tolkien said, turning back to face White.
“We had a man watching Morgan,” said White. “He was quite healthy for his age, but suddenly he dies in his sleep.”
“After learning something deeply troubling.”
“And bringing it to this Cardinal Falco.”
“Which brings us around to my initial question,” said Tolkien. “Who is he?”
“A shadowy figure, a childhood friend of Pacelli’s.”
“Yes. Until recently he was the nuncio to Mussolini’s government.”
“What do you think Father Morgan found?”
“We have people in the Vatican, of course,” said White, his eyes now cold and clear, the eyes of a professional. “The rumors are thick. The pope will make a deal with us; the pope will make a deal with Hitler; Hitler will assassinate the pope and occupy Vatican City. Outside the white line there is talk that Mussolini will be deposed.”
“The white line?”
“The Germans had Mussolini paint a white line around Vatican City. Inside it you are safe, outside you are subject to the fascists’ barbaric laws.”
Professor Tolkien did not respond. Father Morgan worked in the Vatican Archives Library. A harmless old parish priest, at the end of his usefulness, free to wander about the dark maze that was Vatican City, he might have come across something that was not meant for his eyes, for anyone’s eyes.
“He wrote to the pope to get this assignment,” Tolkien said.
“Yes, I know.”
“They met when Pacelli was in England. Morgan was his confessor here.”
“Did Morgan tell you how that came to be?”
“Pacelli walked into the Birmingham Oratory while Father Morgan was preparing for mass. He offered to serve.”
“Stooping to conquer.”
“Why was Pacelli here?”
“He was the papal emissary to the queen’s funeral.”
“Yes. Afterward he confessed to Morgan. They became friends, began a correspondence.”
“Had I known all this, I would have recruited him.”
Tolkien smiled. He could not imagine his old guardian a spy.
“He told me he wanted to end his days in Rome, in the Vatican,” said the professor.
“He got his wish, I’m afraid.”
“What would you like me to do?”
“Did Morgan know about your extracurricular activities?”
Tolkien did not reply. His operational work for MI6 was supposed to be a secret. MI6 did not officially exist. But once or twice a year he traveled up to Birmingham to visit Father Morgan. And to confess his sins, one or two of which were committed when he was in France in 1940, working for the non-existent White, head of the non-existent MI6. His brow knit. He shrugged.
“Not to worry,” said White. “A good thing you did, perhaps.”
“What shall I do?”
“Find out what Morgan uncovered, and if it got him killed, for starters.”
“We don’t want the pope killed. We don’t want him falling in with the Germans. We don’t want Italy’s Jews slaughtered.”
Tolkien, who was walking slowly back to the bench, stopped in mid-stride. “Anything else?” he said. “Climb Everest? Melt the ice cap?”
“See what you can do,” said White. He was not smiling. “Let the situation dictate.”
“Your old friend Ian Fleming is going over as well.”
“Ah, the plot thickens.”
“On another matter, but you’ll help him if you can.”
“Help him how? What’s the assignment?”
“He’ll explain. But the thing is, he’s . . .”
The professor had not seen Fleming since they visited Albert Einstein in New Jersey in 1940. It would be looked on as an odd thing for an Oxford professor and a vaguely identified admiralty employee to be seen together, so they refrained. There was a cryptic note from time to time, one or two of which seemed too cynical by half to Tolkien. He had been worried about his old colleague and now he understood why. Erratic was not the way an Englishman in the service of his government would want to be described. Unreliable came next, which was a death sentence to a career and a reputation.
“Do you know who Theophilus Carter was?” said Tolkien. He had paused to think and to gaze at the beautiful day before resting his eyes on the Carter gravestone.
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“A furniture dealer. Something of an eccentric, if you believe the stories.”
“No, I don’t.”
“He was Lewis Carroll’s model for The Mad Hatter.”
White barked out a short laugh. “I suppose you could say we’ve gone through the looking glass,” he said.
“Worse,” said Tolkien. “When do I leave?”
“Tomorrow evening. A car will pick you up at six. You’ll go in through Switzerland.”
White’s answer was to raise his eyebrows.
“Sorry,” said Tolkien. “I puke.”
“Yes, I know,” said White. “Churchill should have added it to his list.”
“Yes, blood, toil, tears, sweat . . .”
“I see, and puke.”
“I’ll mention it to him next time I see him.”
“Don’t. It doesn’t work artistically.”
Both men smiled, ruefully; the only kind in times of war.