They did not linger long after the meal, though Gus did not seem eager to part from Angelique. Promises were made to meet again soon. The Clan strolled back towards the front of the Cathedral. Allie said, “Lovely place – except for that woman. I picked up some strange vibes from her. The waiter was kind of funny, though.”
“I fear Madame Hélène is called by many – discreetly, of course, but accurately – ‘the Spider-Queen of Bellegraal.’” Gus said. “They say she hears when an acorn falls in Acaire. I figured we best pay court; the sooner, the better. At least, that obligation’s taken care of. Now we can enjoy ourselves.” He added in a stage whisper, “But she’s probably still listening.”
“I agree with Allie,” Skip said. “Whatever her game is, it was a bit creepy.” He halted and checked his watch. “I think I’ll go move the car to the hotel. Anyone want to come?”
“No, it’s beautiful; I’d rather walk,” Gus said. “Nor is it far. Nothing is, in this town.”
Allie nodded, “Yeah, a nice stroll in the open air would be good after that.” Nigel made a brief call, but said little more, absorbed in his own thoughts.
“Anyway,” Gus said warmly, “thanks for the delightful surprise, sis. Once again, your talent for sneakiness is astonishing. How’d you manage it?”
“Carrying Angel’s pieces in the gallery gave me an excuse to keep in touch despite everything. But it was my pleasure, brother,” she said. “Just don’t blow it this time.”
“Easier said than done, but it’s not entirely up to me,” Gus’ optimism sounded strained. “She’s so skinny and skittish ever since the abortion, understandably, but that was so long ago.” He bit his lips in worry and changed the subject. “What about Skip? Is he okay? Seems antsy.”
“Separation anxiety, I guess. First time away from the kids since the split,” she said. “Seeing you and Angelique probably reminded him of Maya. What he needs is one of those awful French cigarettes he thinks we don’t know about.”
“Blast, I should have gone with him then,” Nigel said. “So why’d Hélène freak you out?”
“Didn’t you see the way she stared at me?” Allie shook her head.
Gus looked at the towering façade of the Cathedral to the big round rose window where a girl claiming to be the Virgin had once appeared with angels with flaming torches. Now statues of the heavenly visitors stood in their place, surrounded by giggling tourists posing for pictures. “No doubt it has to do with that.” He pointed at the sculpture.
“The Scolding Madonna?”
“Bloody hell, Prof; it makes brilliant sense,” Nigel laughed. They halted in their tracks, looking up at the glowing stained glass circle in the center of the lofty balcony lined with sightseers. “It’s ‘cause of Raimondo’s book, Cracked, right, Gus?”
He nodded. “His first book caused a huge stink,” Gus said. “Fatamorgana stole correspondence from the Fawkeslornes written by Cardinal Gilles that the Miracle was a hoax, a pious invention. The letters said that the Blessed Madeleine, our ancestress, pretended to be the Virgin with the help of her future husband Gilles and his cousin Jacques to save the town with Heronimo’s fireworks. Many people were not pleased by this. Raimondo was called seven kinds of atheist and twelve types of liar.
“Which just incited him further.” His voice became grim. “In the new one, Broken, he claimed Doc continued the hoax. I guess he didn’t like one of Madeleine’s descendants hooking up with Dad. What Nigel’s getting at is that Madame – and the waiter, too, I expect – were looking for your resemblance to the Scolding Madonna, or at least, Blessed Madeleine.”
“Quite,” the reporter agreed. “The fancy once crossed my mind, too.”
“Mother of Mercy, I had no idea,” Allie said. “Because of all his nonsense, I never paid attention to any of Raimondo’s rants.”
“Get used to it, darling,” Nigel said, “You’ll attract even weirder looks this week, no fecking doubt.”
She halted. “Thanks for the warning.”
“Yeah; and some odd and rude questions, too.” Gus sighed deeply. “Raimondo infuriated the Fawkslornes by making off with those letters. Maybe there’s something I could use. Might as well ask, since we’re bound to see Sir Gordon and Dame Melicent anyway.”
“Why should anyone care?” Allie asked as they continued strolling.
“For Raimondo’s ilk, it confirms their worst suspicions of us.” He shook his head. “Still, don’t worry. I doubt most people care – tubbies least of all.”
“Because… ?” Nigel prodded as the silence grew.
“While not all think the miracle hoaxed, many graaleurs just don’t care. Their passion is romance and mystery, gold and glory, not history.” He stopped again, and assumed a professorial air. They had reached the statue of Heronimo facing his great mechanical clock in the South Tower, erected upon the exact spot where the Inquisitor and his equipment had been blasted to bits either by Heaven’s wrath, or if the unbelievers were right, by the mage’s bombs.
The tall scholar, green with age, peered upwards through an instrument of two hoops mounted upon a rod; a pair of diminutive assistants huddled at his feet. White droppings covered the tops of everything like a thick layer of snow. A large grey pigeon let loose a blob which defiantly dangled from the scholar’s long nose. Local wits said the birds neither forgot nor forgave the mage’s legendary attempt to build a flying machine.
“The ‘hermit philosopher’ could have made fireworks or bombs to fool people who hadn’t yet heard of gunpowder,” Gus lectured. “But Madeleine’s widower, Gilles, though a cardinal, was thought raving mad when he promised to return the Holy Tub – though one would-be pope unfortunately believed him. So if they wouldn’t take the word of a prince of the Church, why should anyone set store by Fatamorgana, the infamous skeptic?”
“If that’s your clever plan for the debate,” Nigel commented as they turned the southeastern corner of the basilica, “you’ll need more than luck, Professor. You know, even if they didn’t believe Gilles, they still sacked the town.”
“Indeed they did, and it didn’t stop anything, did it?” Gus admitted, shrugging as fatalistically as a Frenchman as he thrust his hands into his trouser pockets. A pigeon dumped on him as if making a comment. The others tried not to laugh, and failed as he cursed the bird.
The Sun sank ahead of them turning the limestone walls of the ancient place of worship to their right a soft golden hue. Their destination beyond the castle, the Hotel International, came into view against the sunset at the base of the hill to the left. The resort was a dark modernist stack of cubes even larger and more imposing than the cathedral.
Between the hotel and cathedral, a long grassy park sloped down gently to the ruins of the Roman baths, still being excavated. The lawn was occupied by the Summer Festival market. Scores of people wandered among brightly festooned pavilions of artisans and sellers of handcrafted goods. Mandolins and flutes festively accompanied drumming with a folk song wafting through the soft evening air made fragrant with cooking food and spices.
They walked past the doors of the South Transept. Every surface of the Gothic edifice was ornately carved. Replete with statues, gargoyles and intricate stone traceries boldly rendered in orange by the sunset, it jutted out from the mass of the Cathedral. As the last light faded from the Sun, the rose window, divided into the panels of the zodiac around a central disk showing the Hand of God creating the planets, shone from within. Above it, the small clear round opening which lit the Rose Line also glowed.
The doors were an open invitation; they could see the top of the great golden frame of the huge painting of The Ascension of the Sacred Reliquary at the far end as the interior lights came on. Below it they could just catch a glimpse of the glittering glass roof of the protective iron enclosure of the Tomb of the Templars. This was the grand epicenter, the tubby Mecca and destination of pilgrims for hundreds of years, the holy spot where the Maundy Grail had vanished from history and occasionally reappeared as if to tease potential seekers.
“Want to pop in for a quick look?” Gus asked, teasing.
Allie peered wistfully through her round glasses but shook her hair, deep red in the fading light. “Tempting,” she agreed, “and it is what we came here to see.”
“Well then,” Nigel objected, “your look would be anything but quick. We’d have to drag you out screaming, like as not.” He checked his watch. “We really should go. Your brother should chomping at the bit at the hotel already.”
“Spoil sport,” she sighed, as sonorous voices began chanting the divine office. Candles began to twinkle within as the stars did above. An usher slowly swung the massive door shut as evening gently settled on Bellegraal.
The sky darkened; a nearly quarter-Moon giving its own pale benediction. For a brief while in the deepening twilight, enchantment reigned once again in the City of Marvels.