Tuesday, 17 April 1900
The horrible hacking cough subsides again, so the housemaid takes the blood-stained cloth from the artist’s weak hand and gently wipes his lips. “Ah, Antoinette, what a blessing you are,” he whispers. She helps him raise his feverish head for a sip of water. “The monster doesn’t appreciate you. Were you my niece and not subject to his evil whims, things would be different.”
“Rest, Master Alfini, please,” Antoinette says, “do not talk. It’s not so bad, really. What can I do? Who could I tell? The bishop’s no better.”
“I suppose so,” the painter murmurs. His eyes burn like candles in his pale face. “Very well, I’ll rest now, if you’ll tell me about it again, please.”
She sits by his bed, patting his face with a soft, moist towel. “Ah, Master, I wish you could have seen it! Imagine, the South Transept clean and bright, filled with flowers and the whole town in their Easter best.
“Your magnificent painting still excites great wonder, of course, but much praise was given the protective gazebo you designed that was installed over the Tomb just before Holy Week. The bishop said…” she stops. The artist’s eyes are closed, his ragged breath coming shallow and fast.
He rouses himself. “Wait until they see it at Christmas. Since I won’t be there, I must give you my present now, Antoinette,” Alfini says. “I can help, a little. Bring me the casket.” She carries the small chest, surprisingly heavy, from the bureau and gives it to the painter.
Opening it, Silviano takes out an ancient gold coin and she gasps. Despite everything, he smiles.
“Should’ve done this years ago, but this box is yours now. All I can tell you is that it is some of the long-sought treasure of the Templars. Do not ever tell anyone of it, no, not even your lover Émilien. I’ve told the boy all he needs to know so not a word of this to him or Dupre, I beg you. For your own safety, you must never say anything to anyone.”
“Master Alfini, of course, but why?”
“She’s coming, child; soon her wrath will spill once more in a wave of blood and death unlike anything the world has ever seen. You will need it then, but I, I must go now. Take the gold, my dear, save for this,” he says, holding the écu d’or. “This is for him. Send Father Dupre in now, for my last confession.”
“Don’t worry, child,” he smiles with a strange glint in his fevered eyes. “I have no fear, for whatever it’s worth, I’ve seen the Maundy Grail. In any case I will soon be beyond any priest’s poor power to either curse or save. But I must make sure the beast never finds it.”
He starts hacking again, and tears well in her eyes as she wraps the casket in her shawl. “Thank you, Master Silviano,” she whispers. “God bless you.”
In the parlor, the priest waits in his stuffed armchair, cognac in hand, wreathed in cigar smoke, scowling as always. He glares at his housekeeper from under his heavy white eyebrows. “Well?” he growls. “Did he say anything?”
“He wants to see you, Father,” Antoinette chokes. “It’s time.” She turns and flees wailing to her room. The priest rises, stubs out his stogie, and puts his purple stole around his neck. He drains his glass, loudly smacking his lips.
“Antoinette!” Dupre calls behind her. “Don’t forget dinner! Clean yourself up, girl. Your miserable face would put anyone off their food.”
Then he goes in. Alfini pulls himself upright for this final confrontation. “She tells me the bishop was favorably impressed by the enclosure.”
Dupre shrugs. “Well enough. Complained that the custom wrought-iron enclosure cost too much, and the glass on the canopy caused muttering, too.”
“Fear not; as I promised, it will bring people in just as the Vision once did,” the artist says, a strange smile on his fever-slick face, “replacing one conjurer’s trick with another. But I forsee that many will come just to try to discover my painting’s secrets, which will come to haunt you, too, priest. For I tell you this as truth from my dying lips; my painting holds clues to the treasure of the Maundy Grail.”
“Do you want the last rites or not? I came to hear your confession, Silviano, not more fevered ravings of blasphemy,” the priest replies, sitting. A thought hits him. “Or is this your confession?”
“Ravings? Not so, and here’s the proof. All I have to confess is this, Father,” the painter says, opening his hot, trembling hand. It contains the golden écu. “Here, take my fare to the next world. It’s all you’ll ever see of the treasure or the Tub. Heronimo led me to his secret hiding places in Maureven, because I speak his language of art and beauty,” he whispers. “Not you. Your money-grubbing soul would prostitute the Scolding Madonna herself if you could.”
Dupre silently accepts the medieval gold piece, his mind whirling. He doesn’t know what to ask, but it doesn’t matter. Alfini is dead.
When Antoinette finally emerges in the evening gloom, the priest is sitting in his chair, turning the gleaming coin around in his fingers. Stroking his white muttonchops, Father Dupre looks up, but instead of cursing her for not preparing his meal, he grins. His grimace is more terrifying than his scowl.
“Silviano’s gone,” the priest rumbles, “melodramatic to the end. But the mad fool’s last words gave me an idea.”
Dupre’s promotion of the Scolding Madonna as the patroness of harried caretakers is a huge success, launching the town into the Twentieth Century. He successfully mass-markets small figurines to overworked nuns and Catholic mothers around the globe. The pastor’s crowning achievement is in persuading the city fathers to change the town’s name to Bellegraal, in honor of the Holy Tub. And with an appearance of a light on the painting in 1912 as if to bless his work that furthers add to his wealth and influence, the town’s resurgence really begins.
But Dupre’s lavish lifestyle comes to an abrupt, bloody end the morning after the First World War begins. On 2 August 1914, the priest is found bludgeoned to death, with both Alfini’s painting and several statues vandalized.
Antoinette’s alibi is unshakeable; the Invisibles get the blame. The maid moves to Paris, opens a nightclub for soldiers, and dies, much beloved, during the Spanish Influenza pandemic four years later.
Yet Silviano proved prophetic: though the Vision is seen no more, and after being caught once on film in 1931, neither is the light on the painting, still the seekers keep coming.