The Maestro nodded and took a sip of water. While Leclerc read the introduction, the lights in the hall dimmed again, except for spotlights on the three men. Fatamorgana theatrically removed his oversized spectacles and polished them. “Tonight we have a special event. For the seventh time ever in the history of this organization, we present a debate between two leading theorists.
“Professore Raimondo Fatamorgana of the Free University of Bologna is one of the leading religious historians working in the field of nipterology, a skeptic well known to all. A candidate for this years’ Gilles for Lifetime Achievement, and three-time winner of this contest, he is the co-author of The Holy Grail and the Holy Tub, and has written numerous papers and recently published his second best-seller, Broken: The Mystery of the Holy Tub Revealed.
“Tonight he challenges Doctor Augustine MacLantis, an archeologist until recently with the University of Alvarado in the United States. The professor is the second son of the lately-deceased James MacLantis and Maureen Masterson, the other auteurs of Holy Tub, Holy Pail. Gus has published a popular tourist guide to the area, and takes an active role in nipterological studies. He is here to defend his father’s reputation and nomination for the Lifetime Achievement award. Please kindly welcome them both.”
Polite clapping flared and quickly died. Leclerc shuffled his papers and briefly set the rules and time limits. He looked narrowly over the top of his glasses. “As this is a conference devoted to the study of one of history’s great unsolved mysteries, the discussion is expected to be civil and maintain a high level of intellectual discourse. Anything else, like name-calling, and I will stop the debate and clear the hall. Is this clear?” He waited until both men nodded.
“Very well. We are gathered tonight to discuss a contentious issue. As Maestro Fatamorgana has made serious accusations which Doctor MacLantis refutes, he will be allowed to speak first. Gentlemen, let us begin.”
The old man stood, leaning with both arms upon his podium, baring his teeth in a confident grimace. “My friends, I apologize for my lateness. But it was necessary to ascertain certain scientific results, as you will soon appreciate. We will get to that soon.
“First, let me speak of the sadness of the death of my old friend and colleague brings. I grieve for James more than I can tell. I do not come tonight to cast aspersions on his honor but his work. The challenge issued is to defend scientific truth. I fear an awful lot of nonsense has been circulated about the so-called Holy Tub, and Doc MacLantis both fed into it, and off of it.
“Since the Holy Tub vanished in a puff of myth, superstition has science at a disadvantage. This miraculous washtub which can forgive sin, taken to Heaven because of the stubborn wickedness of the world, is a wonderful, beguiling fable. But it is a bedtime story for children, like the Tooth Fairy. The adult world needs hard facts instead.
“From the first scientific investigator, Brother Gabriele, to me today, almost seven centuries later, the duty of stating the obvious truths, however unpleasant, has fallen.” He held out his hands. “Like him, I cannot tolerate absurdity. The Holy Tub is nothing but pia fraus, good people, a pious fraud. I care not if this stand makes me unpopular, hated by those who make their living perpetuating these fantastic fairy tales.”
Cynics in the crowd laughed openly at this: if anybody made a career off the Holy Tub, he had. But the professor continued unfazed. A screen behind the stage showed The Ascension of the Sacred Reliquary. Fatamorgana didn’t look, but ticked off points on his slim fingers, dismissing each in turn as pictures of the miracle plays, images of the Scolding Madonna, Cardinal Gilles, and Death flashed by in rapid succession. The montage ended with Alfini’s self-portrait of his moment beholding the Vision of the Sacred Tub.
“How many of these pretty lies are left? Did the Tub fly to Heaven? No, a key cardinal later admitted he helped hide it. Did Mary arrange it? No, I discovered it was done by a conspiracy led by Heronimo.”
His voice swelled. “Did she foretell the Plague? No, the Virgin was but a religiously-deluded girl who babbled vague threats of doom. Years after the Black Death, these half-remembered oracles were retroactively applied. For if the Blessed Madeleine knew the Plague was coming, why did she not survive? Would not Mary protect her own?
By now the Maestro was nearly shouting. “What of the treasure? There was none – the Templars weren’t touring to raise money; they were fleeing for their lives, traveling as lightly as possible. They merely claimed they carried riches hoping they would be spared. Does the Tub appear to the faithful in visions? No, it’s a trick of moonlight through ancient glass windows, reflected off the gilded manger upon the altar screen, played upon the sleep-deprived brains of a few imaginative fanatics.”