Count Roland led them quickly to a circular staircase which led to the next floor. Up there, one entire side was occupied by gilded tabernacles and myriad-rayed monstrances for showing the sacred bread. They came upon row upon row of Eucharistic vessels: glittering chalices, patens, and other communion vessels, set among sparkling crystal cruets.
Around a large empty space at the far end figurines of the Scolding Madonna were arrayed, almost every version ever produced. It started on the left with an illumination in the priceless manuscript which first told the story. Near the middle stood a magnificent, large fifteenth-century bronze statue of the Lady flanked by angels like sentries, dark with age.
Further along was a mob of cheap cast ceramic version commissioned by the Scolding Madonna’s Barnum of a promoter, the Abb� Dupre, four centuries later. Next came several modern abstract statuettes and winners of the Conferences’ Art Shows. Beside them stood a bunch of modern comic renditions, including plastic toys like the fatal one given to Doc.
“Here you can see the rise and decline of the Lady of Bellegarde,” the Count said, taking in the devolution of dolls with a sweep of his hand. “From medieval masterworks of high devotion to modern mass-produced mockeries; how she has fallen, and now become a murder weapon.”
“An ironic fate,” Gus said, “especially if Maestro Fatamorgana is correct. He supposedly found evidence that she started as a murderous hoax. He claims the baron’s daughter impersonated the Virgin Mary to deliberately set the Inquisition up so they could be blown to bits by Heronimo.”
“It would amuse Fatamorgana as another example of the lies of faith,” Allie said. “But I notice you aren’t laughing, Count.”
“No, I’m not,” Roland shook his head. “This near-blasphemy strikes me as utterly poignant. I find it strangely melancholy.”
“This coming from a man whose butler looks like Christ,” Skip muttered.
“A fair observation, Charles,” Count Roland said with a twisted smile. “I admit I do enjoy my little joke – you can tell a lot by the way a person first reacts to Se�or Rodriguez. But as I get older, I am becoming more impressed all the time by the force of faith in daily living, the manifest power of belief these things embody. So much time and treasure, blood and tears, that people give in hope of a better world beyond is moving, no? Standing here in the midst of this evidence of trust in things unseen,” he sighed, “I could almost believe.
“Please don’t tell Cardinal Mortens!” the Count laughed. “For this is my hope for immortality. I wanted you to see that my wonder cabinet isn’t a rich man’s eccentric hobby, an amusement to pass idle hours. No, I am as devoted to my collection as your father was to his.
“When I too am laid in the crypt, this legacy shall endure,” he sighed.
“Anyway, here, this prime location waits in anticipation,” the noble said with a sweep of his hand, indicating the empty area. “I hope your family’s contributions will occupy it soon. Would they not make a fitting centerpiece? By the way, the auction is still on, is it not?”
Skip glanced at the others and nodded.
“We hope you understand, sir,” Gus said. “There was nothing personal in refusing your initial offer. Nor was it done due to greed, but a sense of fairness to the community.”
“Fear not, Professor, I am not offended, though precautions are unnecessary.” The Count smiled, yet his brows frowned at the same time. “True, Beauregarde did write of Old Bellegarde, ‘the smiling landscape conceals a warren of tunnels filled with eyes and knives.’ The Revolution made him suspect everyone, no doubt. We’re much more civilized now.”
“I recall what Tobias wrote concerning Cardinal Gilles’ revelation the Holy Tub was hidden here: ‘His well-meant words an instant blunder, resounding through the land like thunder, bringing no peace or brotherly feeling, but deadly war without hope of healing.’ I certainly hope things have much improved,” Gus said.
“Oh they have,” the Count said. “Old secrets have bred more than enough suspicion through the centuries. I hope to show that cooperation works better than competition.”