Stephanie and Charley sat in a special pew that had been reserved for the Weatherby family since the early 19th century. Mary had met them at the entrance and walked with them down to the second row from the front. Little did her visitors know that they would be captives in that pew for the next two hours.
Not that they minded too much. The structure was magnificent in almost every aspect – towers, windows, sanctuary, grounds, roof and music. The Archbishop of Canterbury, whose home they were now in, was on a tour of African nations on this Sunday morning. The sunshine had lingered for another day and rays filtered in through the numerous glass windows, giving Charley the sense she was in a kaleidoscope.
The ceiling was vaulted in grand, sweeping curves, with pillars and supports sweeping endlessly upward. Built in 1077, the structure had stood the test of time. Thomas Becket had been martyred here 100 years later and shortly thereafter a significant fire tore through the structure. Becket’s death and sympathy following the fire saw the popularity of the cathedral surge.
Charley was impressed with the piety evident in Mary’s behaviour. She knew the hymns by heart, knelt at all the appropriate times, and listened intently to the message delivered from the elevated pulpit only a few feet in front of them.
Mary had them exit by a side door, in part to avoid the crowds gathered around the senior priest but also to show them something meaningful to her. They wandered among tombstones and memorials until the elderly woman stopped in front of a number of stones sequestered within a low iron fence. The names on most of the stones were familiar: Millicent, William, Elizabeth, James.
“Forgive me, I always come out this way to spend time with my family. Just being here helps me to realize that I will be joining them soon.”
Her visitors didn’t know what to say. Mary’s candour had caught them off-guard and yet was delightfully fresh and sincere.
“Come, let’s follow this path through the cemetery. Thomas is at the end of it with the car. I’m having a special lunch prepared for the two of you.”
Fifteen minutes later they were sitting down to fish and chips and Shepherd’s Pie. “I thought we should get you some classic British food before you return to France,” said Mary, delighted at having surprised them.
The women ate heartily, happy to be together. For Mary especially, the company was a welcome change after so much isolation.
“Mary,” Charley said at last. “Do you know why Aramis went up into the Forest? I mean, it makes no sense. Did something special happen up there between you two? Did you carve your initials in one of the beams for posterity’s sake?” she inquired with a smile, which her host returned.
“We kissed there many times,” Mary said shyly. “His parents were still alive then and mine were … well, you know. We had no place that was private. It became a secret place we called our own – close to God and close to one another.”
Both Stephanie and Charley thought of how awkward it must have been up so high. But then again it was a intimate and risky – the kind of things young lovers thrive on.
“Was he a guide then?” Stephanie asked.
“No, he became one shortly after though. His uncle was a senior guide and … well , he was a wonderful man and understood our need to be alone. There wasn’t much security back in the 1960s. Sometimes the door was even left open because nothing ever happened there except tourists and religious services. We would climb up the stairs by St. Anne’s door and make our way to the top in the dark. O, it was so exciting and exotic.”
“We took those stairs a few days ago and it was neither of those things,” Charley noted sadly.
“Is the cathedral ruined – fully damaged, I mean? It would be tragic if it were.”
Charley looked at her and smiled. “No, much of it can be rescued and entire sections of the building were unharmed except for smoke and water damage. But the Forest – well, it is mostly gone, except for the portion where Aramis was found. Those beams didn’t burn through or collapse even after being exposed to the flames.”
“But dear Aramis was,” Mary said, a catch in her throat.
“Not really, Mary. He was burned, yes, but firefighters had already arrived during that time and put the flames out before his body was fully consumed.”
The older woman sat quietly, her face a map of grief and memory.
“Can I ask you again? Why do you think he went up there? To be with the memory of you, of your secret place?”
“O no, he was a romantic but always sensible. He went to save the painting, I suspect?”
The silence was so intense that her visitors didn’t know what to think. They waited for her to continue, but when she didn’t, Charley pressed.
Mary sighed, as if she knew this moment had to come. “My father dealt in art and Paris was a wonderful place to discover paintings of all kinds in the 60s. My mother used to say he spent more time looking at the women in his paintings than he did at her. It wasn’t true of course, but he did purchase expensive works of art and sometimes would take Millicent and me along with him as he bargained for prices.”
She paused for a time to take a drink of her coffee, reminiscing and attempting to recall all the details.
“One day, father’s driver drove us to an old warehouse in a run-down part of the city that hadn’t really recovered from the war. It was almost in a state of limbo – not destroyed but not rebuilt. While father and his agent negotiated with some German art supplier for a painting he wanted, the two of us went exploring. It was a dirty old place, full of plaster dust and rain on the cement from holes in the roof. But we came upon some men looking over what look like an old painting of a young man in a funny hat. We knew French well and caught them saying that the canvas had been stolen by the Nazis in 1943 from a wealthy person’s chateau somewhere outside the city. It had been stashed in the warehouse originally, being saved for when the Nazi’s built the Führermuseumin honour of Hitler. Of course, things took a different turn and after the war it had remained in the warehouse and was only discovered by these men a few days before. Apparently, it was worth a fortune and rather than returning it to its owner, they were going to sell it to a German buyer the next week.”
“And they didn’t know you were there, listening?” Stephanie asked.
“O no, but we were terrified. We watched as they rolled up the canvas and placed it is a long tube and stored it in a secret place near the top of a warehouse shelf. Then they left and so did we. Father had been looking furiously for us and scolded us before we headed back to the car.”
“Are you saying that’s the painting Aramis was looking for?” Charley asked.
“The exact one.”
“But you said it was in a warehouse?”
“Not after we stole it,” Mary said, her cheeks flushing red and a gleam in her eye.
“What?” blurted Stephanie
“I told Aramis of what we had heard and he thought it was a crime what the men were doing. He suggested we break into the building and just take it. That night we dressed in dark clothing and entered through a broken window. With the help of moonlight coming in through the holes in the roof, I led him to the shelf, where he grabbed the tube and we secretly came out the way we went in.”
“This is incredible,” said Charlie. “And how did it end up at the cathedral?”
“The men who had sold my father the painting he wanted visited our home the next week, subtly attempting to figure out if we had the painting somehow. They knew we were there the day it went missing and were sure we had something to do with it. Poor father. He was clueless and we stayed out of their line of sight as much as possible.”
“And so you placed it in Notre Dame Cathedral to protect it?” Stephanie reasoned.
“Yes. Aramis constructed a wooden box of oak, narrow and just wide enough to enclose the tube. We then went up to the Forest together and worked to screw the box on the side of one of the great beams where people wouldn’t see it. It was secured on the third timber from the end, just in front of the smaller rose window.”
Charley listened in wonder. “That’s where they found his body – the exact place,” she said.
Stephanie thumbed through the drive in her Leica and located one of the digital photos of the area. “Here,” she said. “This is where he was.”
Mary put on her glasses and looked momentarily before her eyes could no longer focus through the tears. “That’s it,” she murmured. “It’s the exact spot. Dear Aramis. I wonder if it’s still there?”
They fell into silence, each lost in thoughts of mystery and excitement. Finally, Charley grabbed both of Mary’s hands.
“I think it’s time that the three of us took a trip, Mary. It just wouldn’t be proper to go without you. Are you able?”
Wiping the tears from her cheeks, she squeezed the reporter’s hands and nodded. “Yes, tomorrow. It will be my final gift to Aramis. We go tomorrow.”