The ushers swung open the heavy doors to let in sightseers waiting outside. Allie squirmed in through the fresh herd of wondering tourists. “Am I too late? It’s not noon yet, is it? Did I miss it?” she demanded.
Skip, focused on the rose window, looked annoyed at the interruption. “Miss what?”
“Nope, we’re just going,” Gus said, checking his watch. “Still have a few minutes.”
“Come on, let’s get a good spot –” Allie began, and noticed the paving for the first time.
“Holy cow,” she exclaimed, hurrying to the crowded railing to peer at the Rose Line just touched by the oculus’ spotlight. “Dear me, if Mom could see this.”
“Later, sister,” Gus tugged at her sleeve. “Plenty of time afterward.”
“Wait a second, brother. Look at the Earth medallion.” She pointed at the roundel nearest the door. “Skip, can you get a good shot of the whole thing?”
Skip tried holding the camera overhead but kept getting jostled by the crowd. Allie squatted and looked under the railing but it didn’t help.
“What is it, Allie?” Gus asked. He peered at the marble disk where the Rose Line began, splashed by vivid pools of colored light from the stained glass window above. Like a spotlight, the bright circle from the oculus approached the base of the cross. There the calendar reversed at the summer solstice after which the days would shorten again as the solar angle declined. He could not discern what she found so fascinating.
“The floor,” she said. “There’s supposed to be an interesting optical effect upon the floor at solstice, like the Monumentum, but with the spots like golden apples or coins matching the planets. First midsummer in a century it will be visible. This could prove Mom and Dad were correct when they claimed it was a map to the treasure,” she finished in a whisper.
“We know,” Gus said. Impatiently, he added, “Are you coming or not?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “But I can’t believe they don’t have a photographer here to get a good shot of the floor.”
“Solstice is next week, sis,” Skip said. “Until the alignment, why bother?”
By now it had become so crowded along the guard rail Allie could not stand. On the other side of the medallion, it was worse. A young girl fell onto the pavement and started crying. This drew a policeman’s attention.
“Back away,” he barked. “Give us room. There are far too many people in here. Don’t make us control admittance.” It did the trick. The crowd began to disperse a little. In a minute, Allie could rise again.
“Are you unhurt, Miss?” Suddenly the gendarme offered her a hand.
She accepted. Embarrassed, she could only nod.
They continued into the nave. On the south side, a large crowd gathered around a polished marble statue upon a tall pedestal of the Virgin Mary bearing a torch with twisting carved flames. Portable bleachers were packed with tubbers and true believers raptly listening as the prelate went through his spiel. Beside him stood Angelique and a tall, elderly man with bushy grey eyebrows and long beard, garbed in dark medieval scholar’s robes and a plain white hood.
“Now,” Galliard said, “to tell us a little a the ‘Wonderful Memorial,’ we are blessed to have Ieronimus Magus, played by the Chateau’s own resident astronomer, Professor Emeritus Lucien Lacnuit; and a descendant of a prominent family of artists, including the carver of the statue before you. I speak of an accomplished painter herself, Angelique Montc�lance.” Polite applause followed. The old man bowed slightly to Angelique, allowing her to speak first.
“Hello everyone,” she began, voice gaining in volume. “I am little used to public speaking, so I apologize for any faults.” She noticed Allie and Gus watching and brightened.
“My distant ancestor, Abel Montc�lance, collaborated with Ma�tre Heronimo to create all these marvelous designs. He made this statue and laid the pattern in the floor here, but also built the Danse Macabre in the crypt below as well as many of the stained glass windows. He was involved in the construction of Heronimo’s other devices, both the Cosmoscope at the Chateau and the Great Clock outside.
“As an artist, I can describe the design and the beauty of the effect, but Magister Ieronimus must explain how it works. In a few minutes, it will be visible,” she said. “But it will not be perfect until Our Lady’s feast day, several days from now.”
She turned towards the statue. Carved from creamy marble, the sculpture was a gleaming representation of the Blessed Virgin as the Scolding Madonna, holding a flaming torch above her head. Unlike most other versions, her face was not a angry mask but as full of tender concern as later divine mothers of the Renaissance, her beckoning right hand held out imploringly.
“She is magnificent, is she not?” Angelique said. “What makes this ‘hierophany’, this blessed appearance, as Bishop Galliard might call it, so truly wonderful is the delicate play of light and shadow we will soon witness.” Approaching noon, the Sun had just edged past a specially-designed buttress outside and began to directly shine on the glistening white stone through the image of Mary in the stained glass window above.
“Notice the colors, as above in the figures in the window, so below. At noon, the blue will line up with her robe, her hair will turn brown, and her face will come alive. On Midsummer Day, of course, the colors will be briefly in their proper places. But note what form her shadow takes. It becomes a more terrible figure altogether.” The hues spread over the polished marble, casting a dark shadow upon a slab mottled with black streaks and spots below.
“This is a unique masterpiece; but the science involved is beyond me,” she finished, nodding at the astronomer. “For that we must ask our learned Ieronimus Magus.”
The old man bowed again, sleeves touching the floor. “Thank you, my good lady. To understand this clever hierophany, you need to know a little of how the Sun appears to move. I urge you to see the show performed daily at the Cosmoscope planetarium for an enlightening, if I may say so, demonstration.”
He paused. “As you doubtless know, the Sun reaches its highest point of the year at the first day of summer. Simply put, this statue was positioned so it would be lit by the Sun twice that day and only then. First, at dawn,” he pointed at the main doors, “a shaft of light through the main entrance briefly illuminates the statue. And at noon,” he turned to the window, “it’s again lit with sunlight streaming through the glass above aligning with the figure.”
As he spoke, the bells of the Great Clock began to chime. “Ah,” he smiled, “precisely on time. The colorful effect’s not exact yet, but you should get a good idea.”
“Behold the promise and warning of the Scolding Madonna!” the bishop proclaimed as the cold marble blossomed with delicate hues; the statue’s face glowing a soft pink. He pointed dramatically at the floor. The shadow almost perfectly lined up with the dark swirls. Though slightly off-register like a bad printing job, together they took on the eerie outline of the Grim Reaper, with red glowing spots for eyes. Mary’s torch cast a shadow of a crooked scythe blade. Death’s skeletal hand thrust forward, summoning all flesh to the grave.
“Forgiveness and fatality,” Gus muttered, “never far apart in Bellegraal, is it?”
Observers murmured reverently among themselves as the solemn tolling of the bells stopped. A few people knelt, crossing themselves as pilgrims did every summer since 1350.