The Saint’s Treasure
This is genuine gold - ancient gold coins from the Roman era. The engraving on the coins is a fading figure of a man. Danny doesn’t care who the man was because this is the Saint’s treasure, the legend recounted from generation to generation, from the third century until now.
It is the gold, the gold that will change his life forever.
It was three years ago when a 19-year-old Thai-British man named Danny was instructed by his advisor to get a part-time job as an assistant to the curator of St. Albans Museum on Hatfield Road. It’s not a job that he particularly wanted, but his academic background in history and archeology qualifies him for it. It’s a boring job, like being a security guard. His duty is to patrol particular spots and monitor whether any visitors break the rules. Do they touch the displayed artifacts? If he catches someone doing that, his job is to tell that visitor to back off. It’s a tedious job, but it’s a way to help Danny and his mother to try to make ends meet – his father died when he was just a little boy. It was essential for him to find work.
Danny’s job has reached another level of boredom since St. Albans City Council decided to close the museum in 2015 in order to build a new splendid new one in the heart of the city. Now that the 117-year-old museum has closed, the former assistant curator – in reality a security guard – has become a menial labourer. He is now assigned to pack and classify valuable artifacts into the correct categories, ready to be elegantly displayed once again in the under-construction museum on St. Peter’s Road. This tedious work must be finished in two years, in time for the grand opening of the new museum.
“You will have opportunities to learn the history of this ancient city and it will help in your field of study,” the museum curator says. Danny just grins, thinking “What more can I learn”? He’s been studying this city since the first year he enrolled in the university.
Situated 19 miles north of London, St. Albans was once a small town under the Roman Empire. Verulamium, as it was called then, was like other towns ruled by the Romans; people were forced to have faith in the gods and goddesses of Rome.
During the third century, however, Christianity gradually spread to Britain, and a young native of this town named “Alban” declared himself a Christian. He challenged the power of Rome and received capital punishment, becoming the island’s first martyr. Later he was canonised as a saint, and the city’s name was changed to St. Albans in his honour. A small chapel was built on the spot where the saint was executed, and it was later enlarged into a magnificent cathedral.
That is the origin of a legend, according to which the town’s citizens united to pool a certain amount of gold with the primary purpose of using it enable Alban to escape. After the young martyr lost his head, the gold was kept for a different purpose - to maintain the monastery of Saint Alban. The gold became known as the “Saint’s treasure”.
Almost 2,000 years later, this legend has faded into an old fairytale; no-one has ever found the gold, and there’s no proof that it ever existed back in the days of the glorious Roman empire.
Danny also believes that the story is just that – a story invented to add colour to a legend. When he’s assigned to pack the museum’s antiquities, however, he starts to wonder.
Amongst piles of artifacts more than a hundred years old, Danny notices several paintings of St. Albans Cathedral that make him feel strange.
At first, he doesn’t realise how strange. But then he compares dozens of paintings of the cathedral, dating from when it was just a small chapel until it became a huge cathedral in the 14th – 16th centuries. What Danny notices, to his surprise, is a faded gold dot to the right of the cathedral on several of the ancient paintings.
What is the meaning of this gold dot – a trivial detail that seems to be meaningless? Why does it appear in the exact same spot in dozens of paintings from different centuries? It is a very tiny dot– barely noticeable at first. When Danny compares the paintings with one another, it occurs to him that it might just be a clue to the mythical gold.
“Might this be the map showing the location of the saint’s treasure?” Danny asks himself. The question pushes him to research more of the old paintings. The more gold dots he finds, the more he starts to believe that the saint’s treasure might be more than a fairytale.
Danny measures the distance of the gold dot from the cathedral in all the paintings, and finds that it always appears in the same spot – around 400 feet from the cathedral.
Danny volunteers to work longer hours without asking for overtime pay. He wants to be alone at night in the museum that is about to close its doors forever.
“I have to do more research,” Danny tells himself, and dedicates his time to examining every old manuscript that he can find. After working hard for over a year, his labours finally bear fruit.
An amber piece of paper that is about to break into pieces is hidden in a forgotten old box. Danny believes that this manuscript is important because it shows more than the cathedral and the gold dot – it also has two lines of tiny lettering.
The young lad puts on a pair of gloves before carefully taking out the ancient paper.
The message has been written in old English and Latin.
Danny takes several weeks to examine the lettering, and finally he gathers some of its meaning – enough for it to begin to make sense.
“Anyone who can find the Saint’s treasure, please give the old coins to the cathedral’s caretaker. The discoverer will receive a valuable reward that will change his life forever.” The translation of the ancient document chills him to the bone.
“It will change my life forever,” Danny mumbles to himself.
Though he knows the location is about 400 feet to the right of the cathedral, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact spot. Moreover, the layout of the town has changed significantly over the centuries. No longer is there empty space surrounding the cathedral. To the left is a large public park, and further to the back is a shopping precinct. A school is at the front. On the right side - the important side – there are now shops and houses. Danny thinks for several days on how to find the definitive spot where the treasure should be. Finally, he gets the answer.
Danny spends all of his savings, plus some money he borrows, to buy a small drone so he can obtain an aerial view of the cathedral. After comparing the footage with the old map, he is quite confident that the saint’s treasure is not in the cathedral’s compound but in the rear garden of a Thai restaurant, Thai Rack.
“What a stroke of luck!” Danny thinks.
The wheel of fortune is certainly on his side. As a half-Thai, half-British lad, he has walked in and out of Thai Rack regularly so he knows the owner, Auntie Jeem, very well. She is very kind and always gives a discount to students. But to just walk into the restaurant and seek permission to dig up her back garden – that would be too weird. Impossible.
Danny walks into Thai Rack with a broad smile, pretending to visit Auntie Jeem for her delicious food. Actually, he’s there to look around. If his calculations are right, the treasure should lie beneath the flowerbed behind the restaurant.
Thai Rack is a medium-sized restaurant, with the entrance on George Street. The plot extends far to the right side of the cathedral - but the building only occupies half of the land. The rest is the garden, which is left unused in winter.
Every summer, Auntie Jeem decorates her garden with banks of flowers. Dining tables are perfectly positioned, making the restaurant a popular and charming outdoors eatery. Sitting in her garden is a feast for the eyes, with brightly-coloured flowers framing the iconic cathedral in the background.
If his estimation is correct, the land where the garden of Thai Rack is now situated was vacant land or forest a thousand years ago – a suitable place to bury the Saint’s treasure.
“The summer is approaching,” Danny tells Auntie Jeem. “I see you open the flower garden very year. I am free this year - should I come to help you with the garden?” The young man is embarking on the project that will change his life.
It makes her laugh.
“It’s tiring. Normally, I hire someone to clear the dead vegetation. It takes time to plant new flowers and it is hard work. I see you don’t usually do physical labour – are you tough enough to do it? She asks.
“I can do it,” Danny replies. “I love gardening. You don’t have to hire anyone. I will do it for free. I can start now as it is a while before the summer arrives. I can clear and prepare the flowerbeds before you plant the new flowers.”
He has spent more than a year in the museum groping for information, so working in the garden for a short period is nothing - especially since this work will change his life forever…if he finds the Saint’s treasure.
Auntie Jeem gives the green light, giving Danny the opportunity to walk in and out of the restaurant whenever he wants. She offers some wages, but Danny refuses her. Instead, he’s paid in food – he can order anytime from the restaurant.
But that’s not what Danny is after. After digging for over a week, Danny realises that it won’t be so easy to find the treasure – he’s searched almost every square metre in the garden. The treasure would not have been buried close to the surface, or other gardeners would have found it long ago.
Danny anxiously rethinks his strategy. He has already spent all his money on the drone. Finally, he decides to borrow from some loan sharks in the university despite the eye-popping interest rates they charge. It is necessary for him to obtain a hand-held metal detector, one with a strong signal and equipped with a depth indicator.
He tells Auntie Jeem that he wants to work in the garden in the morning to avoid disturbing customers. She gives him the key. Danny brings his equipment to the restaurant at 5am and uses the detector to thoroughly examine every inch of the garden. The detector sends signals a few times, making him quiver with excitement, but he unearths only a few pennies dropped by customers years ago.
Danny begins to lose patience with the machine as it is very cold before dawn in February. Just as he is about to give up, he is startled by a long buzzing signal.
His heart beats like a drum. He thinks about throwing the machine away, despite its fancy price, if he’s disappointed once more. He slowly puts down the machine and looks at the screen, which indicates that a large pile of metal is hidden more than a metre below the withering roses.
Danny scoops out the soil with his shovel again and again. He’s exhausted, and he feels his shoulder jar every time the shovel hits the ground – but this is the prize he has to find. The Saint’s treasure he’s spent the last year searching for may lie here, in a place no-one would imagine.
After digging almost two metres deep, the shovel hits something that is not soil. It feels hard, and it’s accompanied by a metallic noise – a sound that catches Danny’s breath. Throwing down the shovel, he uses his bare hands to scoop out the soil.
Finally, he uncovers an old - but still intact - metal box. It is of sturdy construction- it’s been here for more than 18 centuries. A small lock is attached to the clasp. Danny lifts the box up to the ground and takes out a pocket knife to open the lock. A golden colour streams from the box just as the sun rises.
He finds gold coins from Ancient Rome, featuring a faded image of a man. Surely he has found the Saint’s treasure, whispered about from the third century until now.
It is the gold…gold that will change his life forever. Danny recalls the message he found in the museum.
The young man sits and thinks for a while. Actually, he has often considered what he would do if he found the Saint’s treasure. If he sells it on the black market, it would fetch a high price - Roman gold coins in good condition are much sought after by antique dealers. But he would risk arrest. Instead of the freedom of being rich, he might end up behind bars.
What should he do? The inscription says that if he brings the coins to the cathedral’s verger, he will get a huge reward. If it is the prize that will change his life forever. Everybody knows that St. Albans Cathedral is one of the top cathedrals in the country, with huge assets. Even if there were no prize, the discovery of the artifacts would allow him to claim an award of one third of the value – enough to make him a millionaire.
Danny opens the box, ignoring the large crater he has left in Thai Rack’s garden, and runs out of the restaurant to the cathedral.
Gasping for air in front of the cathedral’s main door, Danny holds the metal box tight to his chest in one hand while pounding on the door like a madman with the other. He has spent almost two years in search of the treasure. Now that he’s found it, he won’t waste a second before handing it to the verger and claiming the prize of his life.
There are some people walking in front of the cathedral but Danny pays them no attention. He continues hammering on the door until finally someone opens it. It is Father Dennis, who Danny has met many times. The father normally wears a friendly smile on his face – but this morning, he only looks at Danny curiously.
“What’s happened, Danny? Why are you pounding on the cathedral’s doors so early in the morning?” Father Dennis asks. He has known Danny since he was a child, and does not expect him to act recklessly. Looking Danny up and down, he is surprised to see dirt covering him from head to toe. He’s even more surprised to see him clutching a box to his chest.
“Treasure…treasure” Danny sputters breathlessly. “I have found the legendary Saint’s treasure.” He then hands the box to Father Dennis - and immediately collapses to the ground.
Danny does not know how much time has passed. He feels like he’s dreaming, floating above a golden orb. Yes. It is the legendary treasure, the St. Albans’ coins which he has given to the cathedral’s verger. He will get a tremendous reward, a thing that will change his life forever.
Slowly opening his eyes, Danny finds himself lying down on a bench inside the cathedral, Father Dennis at his side watching him anxiously. Further away, a group of fathers surrounds the metal box from ancient times. He blinks several times until he feels he has regained consciousness. Father Dennis hands him a glass of water before asking him where he discovered the treasure. He haltingly tells the story, and is informed that the coins will be studied by historians and archeologists for a certain time.
“And if this is the legendary Saint’s treasure, as the discoverer, you will receive the reward as promised in the ancient inscription,” Father Dennis says.
“Do you know about the ancient inscription?” Danny is perplexed because hasn’t told a soul about it since he found it in the museum.
“We know because the museum’s archives have full details of this story. We just did not know whether it would actually come true. Today, you have brought us an epic task - to prove it’s real,” he says.
The archeological verification process takes a long time. The garden behind Thai Rack is declared an archeological site. Auntie Jeem is a little angry with him – because of the big hole in the garden, she has to close her restaurant for a while. Danny decides that when he gets money from the cathedral, he will compensate her with 10,000 or 20,000 pounds.
His creditors, the loan sharks in the university, stay quiet and smile when they meet Danny. It is now the talk of the town that he is the one who has discovered the Saint’s treasure and is waiting for its authenticity to be verified. Then he will get the reward that no one has received before. Danny has sufficient credit to spend all the money he wants.
The time drags on, but Danny has waited for almost two years - so another three or four months is not a big deal. As the cold of winter turns to the heat of summer, Danny tells himself that the verification process will soon be done.
In the middle of June, Father Dennis invites Danny to the cathedral.
“The archeologists’ verification process has been completed,” he says slowly. Danny is silent. He dares not ask, but he is totally confident in what he has discovered. “The gold coins you have dug from the ground date back to the third century. They are genuine gold, of huge historical and aesthetic value. As of now, we think that the Saint’s treasure you found is worth at least 500 million pounds.”
“500 million pounds.” Danny groans in a low voice. He quickly calculates how much money he should get from the cathedral. If it is only one third of the value under the rule for ancient discoveries, he should receive almost 200 million pounds – a life-changing amount of money.
“We will follow what is written in the ancient inscription,” Father Dennis declares. “On June 23, we will hold the annual ceremony with the parade of Saint Alban. You will be awarded the prize on that day, in front of the residents of the whole town. Please be prepared.”
His words make Danny want to jump for joy.
It is only a few more days. Danny promises all his creditors that he will repay them twice the amount he borrowed. He also promises to pay 20,000 pounds to Auntie Jeem, who still has not spoken to him.
On the morning of June 23, Danny puts on his best outfit and walks confidently to the cathedral.
There are hundreds – maybe thousands – of people waiting for him at the cathedral. When he looks around, he sees several huge puppets. Each Saint Alban’s Day, a puppet show portraying the martyrdom of Saint Alban goes around the town. This year will be a special one – there will be a ceremony to award Danny the prize he has won.
Father Dennis leads him to a vehicle used as a mobile platform for the ceremony. Another father places a blue garment on him. Blue is the symbol of Saint Alban.
Father Dennis reaches for the microphone and his voice booms out.
“After 1,800 years, we have discovered the missing Saint’s treasure. After the verification process, we now know the gold coins Danny found are worth more than 500 million pounds.”
The residents cheer loudly, and Danny straightens himself proudly.
When the cheering dies down, Father Dennis continues.
“The cathedral’s archives have recorded that he who discovers the Saint’s treasure and hands it to the verger will get a priceless reward that will change his life forever. The reward is this: He will be the chair of this parade, dressing as Saint Alban so the people of this city will remember their saint, the symbol of a humble life. The saint who eschews all external assets, holding only his internal belief in the pride of the discoverer – this is the honour that will change his life forever.”
As he speaks, Danny fears that he has fallen into a trap.
“The humility and the honour will stay with him forever. Danny, the discoverer, will be remembered forever.”
With the deafening chants of all the Fathers, Danny faints once again. In his dream this time, there are many creditors asking for their money. It will surely change his life forever.
Note: The history of St. Albans and the places described in this story are real, but the Saint’s Treasure is a product of the author’s imagination.
Author Notes: Suphaphan Plengmaneepun is a veteran journalist with the Bangkok Post, the most known and longest-running English daily in Thailand. She has a passion in writing and has many articles published in Thai-language magazines for over a decade. The Saint’s Treasure is her first short story translated into English, partly to honour the places and the St. Albans who has inspired the imagination for the story.
She is now based in Bangkok but has travelled regularly to the United Kingdom.