With good fortune, the female security officer who had shown Stephanie and Charley the Forest on their earlier tour greeted the Paris team as it approached the security tent.
“Bonjour,” she said in a pleasant enough greeting. Charley introduced Bernard, Denis and Mary to the officer – Elaine had a deadline and was needed back at the office, somewhat chagrined that she wouldn’t be on the rather exceptional visit to the upper extremities of the cathedral.
Bernard took immediate charge of the situation, saying that he had been in touch with both Ministry and security departments to ensure that the visit to where Aramis had perished was permissible.
“Yes, I have received my instructions and I’m happy to assist.” She led them to a vertical crane lift that had been assembled on the sanctuary floor for help in disassembling some of the ruined timbers in the Forest.
“The elevating platform can take only four people at a time,” the officer noted, “so it will take a few minutes to get everyone up there.”
“I don’t wish to start until a representative of the Ministry of Culture joins us,” Bernard cautioned. “I had put in a personal request to Minister Moreau that someone be present should we find the artifact we are looking for.”
“Ah, he is here already Monsieurand is already up in the breams,” the officer said. They craned their necks and in the partially secluded timbers above saw a man in a yellow hard hat looking at them and waving.
Bernard, Charley, the security officer and Denis went up first, wearing helmets and fastened by a security line to the platform. They greeted the ministry official as the crane journeyed back down to collect the others. Taking advantage of the pause in the events, Bernard briefed the official on the specially placed container that was once in the Forest and hopefully would be located today. The man appeared dubious, but understood that he had to afford all assistance he could, since the minister had spoken to him directly.
They watched as Mary, accompanied by Stephanie, stepped off the platform a little unsurely but then finding her balance.
“I had some extra handrails temporarily placed along the path, Madam. You can hold on to them as we move towards the far end of the building,” the security officer said kindly.
Stephanie preceded them all, capturing both video and still shots and endeavouring not to get in the way amidst all the cramped spaces.
There was something of pageantry and pathos in how the older woman sought to make her way not only through a charred and ancient forest, but through her own history. What thoughts must she be entertaining – a kiss, many kisses, lengthy talks, risks, God, love, intrigue? Surely all of them. Yet she held her bearing, revealing little in her countenance but an enlightened dignity that came from years of refining the spirit.
When they came to the first transverse, where the crossbeams intersected the planked pathway, Mary’s safety line was unfastened and then rejoined on the hand railing on the other side. She chanced to look down in that moment of stillness, but rather than sensing dizziness or vertigo, her spirit felt elevated, lofty, inspired. All with her spotted it in an instant, lending a certain sacredness to the moment.
At last they came within 10 feet of the smaller rose paneled window, scarred from the flames and heat but nevertheless intact. Charley was about to show Mary where the body of Aramis was discovered but she surprised everyone by moving directly to the spot. Instinct had taken over and she moved as if reliving the past.
The tears that came to Mary in that moment went unheralded but not unseen. It was like standing at an altar where the spirit rises to something beyond life, past the knowable. They all remained absolutely still as the woman’s eyes ran over the contours of the beam running upwards at it steep angle, the heavy bolts affixing the beam to the thick rafter, and then on the place on the oak where her old love had breathed his last.
Surprisingly, she reached to Bernard’s hand for support and gently sunk to her knees, hands running across the grain.
“He was here, correct?” she asked, looking up at the security officer.
“Yes … exactly,” the woman replied.
Through a catch in her throat, Mary revealed, “He laid on this spot to protect this.”
Her hand had folded over the side of the beam closest to the window and away from prying eyes. They all shuffled to see what she was doing until at last they spotted it.
The narrow wooden box was affixed to the beam by two screws at either end. Unless one looked carefully, it hugged the profile of the beam and would never have been discerned. Mary ran her hand along its length, her eyes closed but her memory fully open to its past.
Eventually she looked up at those around her and smiled. “I knew it, but had to see it. I think when Aramis realized he could not remove the box in time, he chose to cover it with his body, his final breath of life.”
She grabbed Bernard’s hand once more and awkwardly raised herself to a standing position.
“No one ever saw it during the discovery of the body or the clean-up from the fire,” the security officer said.
“He designed it that way,” Mary said, smiling at her. “It was attached below the edge of the beam and could only be spotted by standing in front of the rose window there, on the other side.”
The official from the ministry moved to the window and looked back, but even then he barely could distinguish the shape of the oak container from the side of the beam. He smiled at the sheer genius of it, then looked up to the officer, requesting that she use her radio to call up someone with a toolbox.
Mary then talked of the night they had installed it and how Aramis had predrilled with a hand drill some holes to make it easier for the screws to enter the oak when the box was finally affixed. “I helped to hold it while he, with some effort, affixed the screws to the beam and the box with them. It must have taken us half an hour.”
They were all drawn back into the moment, each imagining what it must have been like and how quiet they had to be.
“Did you think you were maybe breaking the law, Madam,” the Ministry man inquired with a touch of authority in his tone.
She shook her head before saying, “No, we thought we were saving history. I left for England shortly after we placed it here and I had just assumed that he would have returned it to the family that it was stolen from by the Nazis. I honestly thought it was gone from here until I heard from Charley and Stephanie here that he had climbed up here during the fire and died in this location of the Forest. This was the only reason he would have come.”
The government officer let it go, realizing the motive for protecting the painting was likely what mattered.
The maintenance man had climbed the stairs and suddenly appeared behind them. Instructed to remove the case from the beam, he brought out a cordless drill with the suitable attachment and asked for help as he pulled out the two screws.
“Please, let me do it,” Mary suggested. “I held it as Aramis put it in place and now I can help take it out.” A smile crossed everyone’s lips at her wish. It seemed entirely suitable.
A minute later, Mary and the worker lifted it off the side of the beam and laid it in front of the others.
“What now?” asked Bernard.
The man from the ministry was firm in that he wanted to see if the painting was indeed inside. The worker discovered that the lid actually slid down the entire length of the box through a groove on either side. He pulled it and though the thin lid was stuck by friction in a couple of locations, it eventually gave way.
And there in front of them was a rolled-up piece of art canvas, about two feet long, and clearly aged. The official, now with a blue latex glove on each hand, lifted it out and unrolled the material.
“Mon Dieu. Mon Dieu,” he gasped. There before them was a remarkable portrait of an angel, looking to the ground.
“What is it?” Bernard blurted.
In response, the man sat down heavily on the beam and covered his eyes with his hand.