Kit Williams' Puzzling Children's Book Holds the Key to Underground Treasure

updated 02/18/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/18/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

Spade in hand, Kit Williams set out on his furtive mission last August by the light of the full moon. Somewhere in Britain he buried a terra-cotta casket containing an 18-karat gold pendant which he had made in the shape of a hare. Adorned with mother-of-pearl, rubies, and other precious stones, the bejeweled bunny will be worth some $25,000 to the lucky person who finds it. It has already earned a fortune for Williams.

While thousands of treasure-seekers prowl the British countryside armed with picks, maps and computer printouts, the one essential tool is a copy of Williams' book, Masquerade. Hidden within the engagingly told and lovingly illustrated children's tale are clues, riddles and anagrams that will lead their decipherer to the lair of the hare. The author insists an enterprising 10-year-old has as good a chance of locating the pendant as an Oxford don. "To find the gold," he explains, "a person must find the key to my mind. I'm not an intellectual. My thinking is closer to that of a child."

So, apparently, is that of his audience. Recently a Derbyshire woman answered her front door to find a grown-up Londoner in frogman attire. Suspecting that the hare was submerged, he wanted permission to dredge the lake in front of her 17th-century mansion. Elsewhere, in Tewkesbury, housewife Rosemary Goudge has been turning away strangers who want to dig up the rose beds under her hare-shaped topiary bush. A rabbit-seeking Swiss nearly drowned when he climbed down a cliff in Cornwall and was trapped by the tide, and a Somerset woman was arrested after trying to break into a fire station with a crowbar. (Harebells grow outside the station in summer, she explained.)

A full-time artist since 1972, Williams, 33, had written nothing before Masquerade, and was unenthusiastic when approached in 1976 by a publisher who was fascinated by an elaborate puzzle that Kit had designed in a wood box. Still, the seed had been planted. "The idea came to me one day as I was eating breakfast," relates Williams. "I kept saying, 'You—go away!' At dinner it came back when I was with a friend. Soon the room was filled with ideas."

Williams completed six paintings, a year's work, before he began to outline his story—"something about the message a hare was taking from the moon to the sun." Toiling in the stone shed attached to his 200-year-old weaver's cottage in Gloucestershire, he sequestered himself for 10 hours at a stretch. In the winter he wrapped himself and his kerosene heater in a cocoon-like polyethylene tent. "With the fumes, I began to get a little loopy," he reports. But he surely wasn't daft. In just four months Masquerade has sold more than 250,000 copies. The book tops the British children's best-seller list and is third on the adult list. Though it has yet to find an American publisher, a French translation has already appeared and a Japanese edition is in the works. An opera is being planned, and Williams has sold the 16 color paintings that illustrate Masquerade for $9,000 each. "It hasn't hit me yet," he marvels. "It's like being in the theater. I've always had the part of a pauper, but now they tell me that they're casting me as the baron."

Raised in Kent, the son of a traveling bicycle salesman, Williams quit school at 15 to join the navy. After five years in the Far East, he returned to England a pacifist, with a dragon's head tattooed on his left arm, a skull and crossbones on his right and a snake's tail on his right calf. ("It's not you who puts on the tattoos," he explains. "It's your friends when you're asleep.") Unschooled as an artist, he took up painting while working in factories making electronic equipment.

Married—to another artist—and divorced, Williams lives today in the tiny village of Horsley with Veronica Robertson, the estranged wife of a lecturer in child psychology, and her 2-year-old daughter, Poppy. Sharing their existence are three cats, two gerbils, one sheepdog and a 5-by-10-inch mousehole, which Williams carved out and furnished like a doll's house right down to cups and saucers and a cradle for a wee mouse. With his fertile imagination, Kit contemplates the future (he wants his ashes made into a glaze and applied to a beer mug) and his publishing windfall. "I practice hailing taxicabs in the mirror," he says with a wink, "and talking to real estate agents."

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