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Britain: Hare of the Dogged

5 minute read
Spencer Davidson

After 30 months of literary and literal digging, a rabbit is found

Who is Ken Thomas? Will he sell the rabbit? In frustration and fascination, all Britain was asking such questions last week as the latest chapter unfolded in a treasure hunt of epic and enigmatic proportions. There were few answers.

For the moment, Thomas was more a what than a who, and an irritatingly evasive what at that. He sat for a BBC interview, but behind distorting glass and in profile. His image was just as cloudy in a London Sunday Times photograph that was deliberately blurred at his insistence. His name was a pseudonym.

Thomas chose such anonymity because he had become an instant personality. He was, no less, the man who had finally solved the mystery of Masquerade. That fantasy for children by British Author-Painter Kit Williams has been a surprise bestseller for almost three years (1.5 million copies in eight languages). Climaxing a feverish 18-month hunt, Thomas had dug up the $10,000 bejeweled golden rabbit in Ampthill Park, Bedfordshire.

What golden rabbit, you say? Why, one like the pendant that Jack Hare, a character in Williams’ 1979 fairy tale, had been commissioned by the Moon to carry to her lover, the Sun, but had dropped along the way. Williams, 35, spiced up his tale, and launched an international treasure hunt, by burying a genuine 18-karat Jack Hare pendant that he had crafted himself. Clues to the whereabouts of the jewelry, he announced, could be found in the text and pictures of Masquerade.

The pendant became the hare of the dogged, touching off an orgy of literary and literal digging. The Druid ruins at Stonehenge, a popular site for rabbit sleuths, were overrun by spades-people. For 18 months Thomas pondered the problem, buying three copies of Masquerade and throwing two away when his wife complained of puzzle-neglect. He made a breakthrough by linking the inscription under one picture, “One of Six to Eight,” to Catherine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII’s six wives. Thomas also divined another key clue: a pictorial reference to the vernal equinox indicating an object whose shadow on that day, March 21, would point to the buried treasure.

Finding the object, however, proved to be more difficult. Working at night for secrecy, Thomas investigated Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire, 21 miles north of Ampthill Park, where Henry’s abandoned Queen died in 1536. The castle, now a girls’ school, yielded nothing. Then Thomas took a shrewd tack. He researched Williams’ own background for links, figuring rightly that the author would have buried the pendant in a place he knew. Ultimately, however, success was due as much to luck as to deduction. Driving past Ampthill Park one afternoon, near a spot where Williams had once lived, Thomas let his dog out for a run. The dog gave him a leg up on his search by discovering a stone in the park inscribed with a passage from Psalm 104: “The earth is full of thy riches.” Near by was a cross that memorialized Catherine of Aragon.

The excited Thomas discovered other clues mentioned in the book: a smaller cross, a rugby pitch, a lake and a precipice. He wrote Williams about his find, and the author immediately telephoned him to offer encouragement. Thomas spent three fruitless nights digging around the cross. Finally, armed with calculations of where the shadow of the monument would fall at the spring equinox, Thomas shifted to day work, boldly donning laborer’s garb and disguising his mission by erecting an official-looking fence around his dig. The crater eventually measured 10 ft. in diameter—and appeared to be empty. In despair, Thomas phoned Williams; the author agreed that he should call off the contest. But the next day, poking through the excavated dirt, Thomas discovered the wax-encased rabbit.

Williams, despite their contacts, still knows little more than anyone else about the man who found the rabbit. Thomas, judges the author, is in his late 40s. The spelling and syntax of his letters suggest that he is not a university man. But he is bold, patient, unswerving, clever at numbers and superb at deduction. And shy, probably because the golden rabbit is by now worth so much more and has become a magnet for all sorts of people. Thomas, so far, has no plans to dispose of it.

Kit Williams is pleased that the hunt is over. Now his crank mail will cease, and his cocktail party companions may shift to other subjects. He will no longer have to take refuge behind a telephone-answering service that informed the caller he was addressing a Chinese laundry. “I’m a free man,” Williams says.

Williams is chagrined by only one circumstance of the discovery. Thomas did not actually solve the key riddle in the book, a 20-word revelation of the exact location of the rabbit. Thomas was using what Williams terms “affirmations,” or collateral clues. Says Williams: “I put them in almost as fun and never thought anyone would be able to work it out from them. But he did.”

The main clue, therefore, remains to be found. Williams’ publisher, Jonathan Cape, is contemplating another prize, for anyone who figures out the 20 words. Plenty of readers, after all, should be eager-to try, including new ones. Masquerade is about to be published in a ninth language, Hebrew, and the soft-cover edition will be out in June.

—By Spencer Davidson.

Reported by James Shepherd/London

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