Tales from the Vaults: February

Dear readers of The Book and Paper Gathering, 

It has come to our attention that there has been something of a hole left in The Gathering’s archive by the lack of ‘Infilling’ over the course of some months. This loss must be repaired, which is no small task. After some discussion, we have decided to dig deep within our records to fill this void with some tantalising Tales from the Vaults

And so we begin, in the month of February, and with the colour RED

The records for this month indicate that Chinese New Year is upon us. Its origins are steeped in legend, but sources indicate that thousands of years ago, at the beginning of each new year, the monster Nian would arise from the sea and feast on people and livestock from the nearby villages.

Unsure of how to overcome the ferocious Nian, the villagers would flee their homes every New Year’s eve and take refuge in the mountains. One day, however, a stranger came to one of the villages. This old man refused to flee. He put on red clothes and stayed behind, decorating the houses with beautiful shapes cut from red paper and burning candles and bamboo to make a loud CRACK!

The people returned to find the village unharmed. After that, every year they would decorate their homes with the colour red, wear red clothes and burn candles and noisy bamboo to scare away the monster Nian. These traditions have been carried on through the years, including the beautiful and intricate art of Chinese paper cutting used to create the festive red decorations displayed in house windows. There’s even a museum dedicated to the practice.

Fifty shades of red…

“I will finish not without telling you my dear and loving friend that I love you madly and that I can never be a moment without adoring you.”

It has been said that February is the month of love. We continue our tales with fifty shades of red, and share with you a story of many secrets unearthed by the most sensuous art of x-ray fluorescence. Here we unfold for you a series of correspondence penned from the darkest depths of the French Revolution by none other than ‘Madame Deficit’, Marie Antoinette herself.

The year is 1792 and the infamous queen is under house arrest in Paris. The most enchanting Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, an ardent defender of Antoinette, has aided the royals in an attempt to flee the country (which, in fact, went horribly wrong and culminated in charges of treason). 

Throughout the lockdown imposed upon her, and whilst also presumably consuming copious amounts of cake, Antoinette exchanged a series of letters with Fersen, which were filled with codes, cypers and even invisible ink to conceal the nature of their correspondence. Could these letters, which survive to this day, be remnants of a romance from lockdowns past?

The nature of the relationship between Antoinette and Fersen is still a subject of much debate, but the tireless efforts of physical chemist Anne Michelin at the French National Museum of Natural History have managed to shed a little light on it. Using x-ray fluorescence to study the various compositions of inks has enabled Michelin to uncover many of the redacted parts of the infamous correspondence. (Published in Science Advances.)

No one likes a spoiler, so I shall leave you to study the evidence for yourselves with the keen eyes of a conservator, and to formulate your own analysis…

The Gathering’s book of puzzles

And here we must end our tales, but not without a matter to ponder: a riddle from The Gathering’s book of puzzles. Until next time we meet…

I am as old as the Romans, made from metal and wood. I speak many languages with vitriolic words…

What am I…?

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