A nobleman named Lord Jonathon Rice ordered the castle built upon his marriage to Lady Willmont sometime during the late sixteen hundreds. As the current Lord Rice, the Fifth Earl of Riceland, I inherited the castle decades ago.
When I first inherited the estate, I eagerly explored the castle. A handyman had found a stash of keys buried behind debris and farm equipment in an old barn. After discovering some of the keys opened the vaults, I was confident I would find the long-lost treasure. As confident as I could be with no proof the treasure existed.
Over the years, I had the vaults opened and explored, only to find wine or foodstuffs such as honey that were long past use. Among the finds were some valuable pieces of armor, but the vaults held nothing of real value for the most part. Although with only one vault left to explore, I gave up. The odds of that vault containing the legendary treasure were unlikely.
I concentrated on the repair and upkeep, which proved more expensive than I could afford. While the sheep herd and sale of raw wool helped some, lack of adequate funds forced me to put off much-needed repairs and cut staff. There was a real danger that I would have to sign the estate over to the government for back taxes or open the estate to the public for tours.
Opening the estate to visitors wasn’t entirely a bad arrangement as doing so would provide the resources for restoration. Support from the government was available for upkeep and staff, at least concerning the public tours. However, it was an idea that I loathed. If I could, I wanted to keep Rice castle private as long as possible, but each year the prospects looked dimmer and dimmer.
So I fought back the debtors as best I could to try and find funds to keep the estate going. In my quest, I became obsessed with the possibility that perhaps the treasure the family legend spoke of was in vault eighteen, the only vault we couldn’t open.
There were precisely three thousand seven hundred and fifty-seven books dating back to the seventeenth century in the library. A few were valuable enough that they were on loan to libraries and museums, but most were ordinary books from over the years. Each volume was removed from the shelves, cataloged, and inventoried in the search for the Vault Eighteen key but found no reference.
I was aware that the likelihood of finding anything of value there was slim and none, but there was little to lose, so I created a plan to open the vault. After the door was open and if I found nothing, I would start the sale of the estate to the government.
The night before we attempted to force the vault door, I went to the dark-paneled library and poured myself a drink from the small bar. As I wandered to my favorite leather chair next to the fireplace and began to sit, I noticed a small gap in a section of paneling that filled the space between the bookcases, one I had never noticed. I used the library as my office, and yet, as many hours as I had spent there, I never saw that crack.
Tumbler in hand, I examined the crack in the paneling. The gap did not look fresh as if someone had recently tried to pry it open. The edges were aged as the other wood was from decades of exposure.
Gently I placed a fingertip against the edge and pressed lightly. The panel seemed to move ever so slightly. What? Wiggling my finger into the crack, I pushed with a bit more effort. The panel slid open a bit more, and my skin prickled as I kept pressing, and a tall narrow opening revealed itself. I grabbed a torch from a cabinet and bent to examine the hole more closely. There were no tool marks to indicate someone cut the gap in the panel. It had to be original.
There were several more of the panels in the frames of the shelves. I tested each, discovering they didn’t move. Only the one panel slid just enough to reveal a small hiding spot.
I shined my flashlight into the hole and thought I saw a glint in the reflection that seemed to go back to the back wall of the shelves. Yes—there was something in there. A key?
Poking around in my desk drawers, I found an old T-square ruler. I slid a chair next to the shelves and sat, where I would be at eye level with the gap. Light from the flashlight revealed there was something metallic in there.
“Okay, here it goes.” I jiggled the ruler around and managed to get the crossed end over the object, and started gently easing it forward toward me. I dropped the torch as the object fell to the floor.
Key eighteen lay bathed in torchlight.
I sank back into the chair and stared at the floor, not moving. My eyes wandered from the key on the floor to the small compartment hidden in the bookcase. How no one had noticed the crack for all these years was a surprise.
I realized I wasn’t breathing and forced myself to inhale and exhale until my breathing and pulse returned to normal, and started to think again. I looked over the key in the light of my ancient desk lamp. Comparing it with the other keys, it was indeed one of the original keys from the collection. But this was the missing key.
It was late, but I couldn’t wait. Grabbing the torch, I hurried through the halls until I reached the door to the dungeon stairs. I paused, my heart pounding. All hinged on what was in that vault.
The catacombs were dank, and the narrow torch beam was swallowed in the darkness. I made my way to vault eighteen. The heavy wood and steel-clad door seemed more ominous than before. Holding my breath, I inserted the key.
It wouldn’t budge.
I tried and tried, but I couldn’t get the key to turn. After frustrating myself and fearful that I would break the key, I decided to wait for morning. I would call a locksmith to open the lock. I didn’t sleep well that night.
At seven a.m. the following day, I called a locksmith from the nearest town, and he arrived by eight o’clock. He was angry at my insistence that he come immediately but happy for the extra money I paid him to get there. I was only hoping I wasn’t spending my dwindling funds on a lost cause.
He examined the lock and the key, cleaning out the door lock of dirt and debris from years of nonuse. He filed rough edges from the key and liberally oiled both. He handed me the key, and I inserted it in the lock.
I wiggled the key, feeling the pressure in my fingertips. I held my breath as the resistance gave way and, with a metallic click, the door unlocked.
I thanked the locksmith and dismissed him. I was going to see what was in that chamber without other prying eyes.
Alone, it took all of my might to swing the door, with its rusted hinges, open. The smell of three-hundred-year-old stale air hit me, and I gagged. Stepping back to let the room air out, I swung the flashlight around the interior.
I waited for a few minutes then stepped into the room. The smell of centuries-old stale air was oppressive, but I could breathe. The room was larger than the other vaults had been, and there were no windows in the room—the only light coming from my torch.
Centuries of family lore hinted at a treasure worth a fortune. Stories told of a valuable find by Lord Jonathon Rice during the seventeen hundreds. Now three hundred years later, I was standing in vault eighteen to discover if the legend was real.
There was only one thing in the chamber—a table in the center of the room with a wooden casket sitting on top.
It dawned on me to take pictures, so I pulled my mobile from my pocket and took a flash photo. The amount of dust settled on the casket obscured the top, and I brushed it away only to sneeze and gag for a few minutes until I could get my breath. Once the dust settled a bit, I took more photos.
The box’s lid contained a burled wood inlay and a pattern in what shone like gold-embedded wood. I recognized that pattern as I had seen it many times before in the house. It was the family coat of arms.
Running my fingers along the top, I realized there were no latches. I tried to raise the cover, but it was too tight. I searched my pocket for the small knife I always carried, and I slid it around the seam until the lid loosened.
My heart pounded in my chest, my fingers trembling as I touched the lid. I was about to see if the stories of the family hiding a set of crown jewels were true. What if there was a second set? Was the original Lord Rice charged with keeping a reserve set of jewels, a way of keeping them safe from those who would overthrow a king? Or was the legend a fairy tale like Peter Pan or St. Nicholas?
I had my answer when I lifted the lid. The narrow beam of light from my torch shone on a large purple velvet bag, drawn shut with a gold cord—a wax seal with the royal crest securing the cord’s knot.
I rushed upstairs carrying the casket and yelled for my wife. Lady Dinah came running into the library.
“What is going on?”
“I found the key to vault eighteen. I couldn’t get the lock open last night, so I called a locksmith and,” he removed the cover, “look.”
She peered into the box, and the color drained from her face. “Oh my, that is the royal crest. You found that in the vault?”
“Yes.” My wife breathed quietly as I gently lifted it from the box. Someone slid the box out from under the bag as I lifted it.
“I think so, hon.” I could barely breathe as I set it down.
“We shouldn’t open it. You should call James. He will know what to do.”
I agreed and placed the call to James Marsan, our attorney, who decided it was best to have someone from the government present. They arrived at three in the afternoon.
My wife and I escorted our attorney and three representatives from the government and the Queen to the library, where the box sat on the stately family library table.
As soon as the Queen’s representative saw the royal crest on the wax seal, he smiled. “We have known that in the seventeen hundreds, the then monarch commissioned a duplicate set of the crown jewels, St. Edward’s Crown and the Sovereign's Orb, out of fear that if the monarchy were overthrown, the rightful heir would be king or queen by possessing these crown jewels. It may have been a foolish thought, but if that velvet bag contains those two items, it would be the greatest find in English history.”
After documenting the bag, the crown’s representative instructed me to cut through the cord, leaving the wax seal intact. Carefully, I pulled the bag away from the contents.
Before us sat the duplicate crown and orb, the Crown Jewels.
To say that our lives changed forever at that moment is an understatement. Due to public interest, the government placed the estate on the historical places registry and funded all renovations. As the true Crown Jewels were secure, safely tucked in the Tower of London, these jewels were on display for all to see—for a fee, of course.
To my surprise, I found that I have enjoyed escorting strangers through the estate, especially to my favorite stops, the library and vault eighteen. However, I found my deepest satisfaction when the visitors entered the parlor where the jewels are displayed. As they viewed the crown and orb for the first time, their eyes widened in awe— just as mine did.
Thank goodness, I found that key.