Saturday, 14 June 1337
The alchemist tries to concentrate on the speech, but it’s difficult. He stands far above the crowd safely behind a rib of the cathedral’s unglazed rose window overlooking the town square, clenching the belt of the maiden perched outside. That brave girl holds a flared tube out of which roaring flames and sparks cascade. Each of the two men flanking her also grasp long sparkling torches. But the wizard must choose the proper words, despite this dire situation high above the crowd.
Heronimo presses hard against the stone, ignoring his pain and the dizzying height in his crazy scheme to prevent an auto da fe in Bellegarde. “Forgive one another while you still can,” the sage says. On the other side of the window, the trembling maiden whose girdle he tightly grasps repeats them as loudly as she can. Below, the mob of townspeople who came expecting to see people burned to death instead of this amazing apparition moan and sway.
With a final burst, the spewing flames at the end of the flared metal pipe the young man on his left holds fizzles, and moments later the one gripped by the other boy and that of the girl in the middle also sputter and fade. Time for the finale. “Now set free the captives,” he says, “or you too shall be condemned!”
“Gilles, Jacques,” he hisses. “Give me your torches and hold her well!” He lets go of her belt without waiting, takes her torch and drops the smoking tube inside, then one of the boys’. With the last torch’s dying flame, he lights the fuse of a fire-apple and throws it through the window. “Inside now, lads, quickly!” he barks. They safely haul the maiden within just before a huge flash and clap as the explosive blasts the Inquisition and its terrible machines below to hell. Thunder echoes around the square mingled with screams.
The throng cowers in holy terror, crying and calling on God and the saints. Meanwhile, the girl clings to Gilles like a wet sheet, shaking like a leaf in the wind. The youth holds her close, grinning like a madman.
“Bravely done, Lady Madeleine,” the philosopher says. “But we must get you out of here.” The baron’s daughter nods. The boys help her descend a ladder and change their tunics. The magician blows out the last fire-tube and drops it onto a pile of wet rags below. Heronimo nimbly slides down to pour water on them, hiding the cylinders behind the remaining piles of construction material.
Already fists pound on the thick doors of the cathedral. Motioning to the teens to hide behind him, he stoops, covers his head with a cowl, and pulls back the bar. “What’s all this noise about?” Heronimo shouts as the crowd pours in.
A large peasant, teary eyes bulging, roughly grabs the wizard. “Didn’t you see her, old man?” he demands, shaking him. “The Mother of God; she was right there! The Blessed Lady herself here, scolding us for our sins!”
“Who?” he says, but the man is already scrambling up the ladder. Heronimo waves to Madeleine, Gilles, and Jacques as they slip into the throng. He lets himself share a warm embrace with them in the midst of the exuberant mob despite the lingering discomfort from his last interrogation.
“Our mad ploy worked, children. We saved the town; well done, all of you,” he whispers. “The Inquisition will surely think twice before returning.”
“Thank God,” says young Gilles. “It was an ordeal for all of us; even serving as their secretary was a kind of torture. I shall have nightmares over what you poor wretches endured. But my relief must pale in comparison to yours.”
“How did you know what to say?” the girl asks. “It sounded so right.”
“Aye,” agrees Jacques. “Put the living fear of God into them, it did.”
“I just knew,” Heronimo le Mage wildly laughs, throwing out his hands. “Child, if I told you why I was so certain it would work, you’d never believe me!”
The young couple glance at each other but say nothing, for wizards are permitted their unfathomable utterances. Then they gaze again at each other much more deeply. While they ardently kiss, the philosopher hobbles through the open doors, for youth must have their private rewards. With a wink and a grin, Squire Jacques disappears into the crowd to seek his own well-earned comforts.
Outside, the entire town erupts in an ecstasy of deliverance. Around the charred, twisted remains of the instruments of torture in front of the unused pyres, children dance. It is the most beautiful sight the old sage has ever beheld.
A decade later, his dread prophecy is recalled when famine and the Great Pestilence scythe across the land during the English invasion that starts the Hundred Years War. But eventually death and devastation pass.
Among the fearful penitents who survive the Black Death, the vigil for the promised return of the Sacred Basin becomes an annual tradition. Along with Heronimo’s marvels, the twin apparitions of the Holy Tub and the Scolding Madonna make Bellegarde famous, and a beacon for pilgrims especially in times of fear.