The Templar Legacy (Page 38)


10:40 AM

MALONE FOLLOWED MARK AS THEY APPROACHED THE CHURCH OF Saint Mary Magdalene. Services were not held there during summer. Sunday was apparently too popular a day for tourists, as a crowd was already milling about outside the church, snapping pictures and recording video.

"We'll need a ticket," Mark said. "Can't enter this church without paying a fee."

Malone stepped into the Villa Bethanie and waited in a short line. Back outside, he found Mark standing before a railed garden where the Visigoth pillar and statue of the Virgin that Royce Claridon had told him about stood. He read the words PENITENCE, PENITENCE and MISSION 1891 carved on the pillar's face.

"The Notre Dame de Lourdes," Mark said, pointing at the statue. "Sauniere was enthralled by Lourdes, which was the premier Marian vision of his time. Before Fatima. He wanted Rennes to become a pilgrimage center, so he built this garden and designed the statue and pillar."

Malone gestured at the people. "He got his wish."

"True. But not for the reason he imagined. I'm sure none of the people here today even knows that the pillar is not the original. It's a copy, put there years ago. The original is difficult to read. Weather took a toll. It's in the presbytery museum. Which is true for a lot of this place. Little is as it was in Sauniere's time."

They approached the church's main door. Beneath the gilded tympanum Malone read the words, TERRIBILIS EST LOCU ISTE. From Genesis. Terrible is this place. He knew the tale of Jacob who dreamed of a ladder on which angels traveled and, after waking from his sleep, uttered the words--Terrible is this place--then named what he'd dreamed about Bethel, which meant "house of God." Another thought occurred to him. "But in the Old Testament, Bethel becomes a rival to Jerusalem as a religious center."

"Precisely. One more subtle clue Sauniere left behind. There are even more inside."

They'd all slept late, having risen about thirty minutes ago. Stephanie had taken her husband's bedroom and was still inside with the door closed when Malone suggested that he and Mark head for the church. He wanted to talk to the younger man without Stephanie around, and he wanted to give her time to cool down. He knew she was looking for a fight, and sooner or later her son was going to have to face her. But he thought delaying that inevitability might be a good idea. Geoffrey had offered to come, but Mark had told him no. Malone had sensed that Mark Nelle wanted to speak to him alone, too.

They entered the nave.

The church was single-aisled with a high ceiling. A hideous carved devil, crouching low, clothed in a green robe, and grimacing under the weight of a holy water stoup, greeted them.

"It's actually the demon Asmodeus, not the devil," Mark said.

"Another message?"

"You apparently know him."

"A custodian of secrets, if I recall."

"You do. Look at the rest of the fount."

Above the holy water stoup stood four angels, each one enacting a separate part of the sign of the cross. Beneath them was written, PAR CE SIGNE TU LE VAINCRAS. Malone translated the French. By this sign ye shall conquer him.

He knew the significance of those words. "That's what Constantine said when he first fought his rival, Maxentius. According to the story, he supposedly saw a cross on the sun with those words emblazoned beneath."

"But there's one difference." Mark pointed to the carved letters. "No him in the original phrase. Only By this sign ye shall conquer."

"Is that significant?"

"My father discovered an ancient Jewish legend that told of how the king managed to prevent demons from interfering with the building of the Temple of Solomon. One of those demons, Asmodeus, was controlled by being forced to tote water--the one element he despised. So this fount's symbolism is not out of character. But the him in the quotation was clearly added by Sauniere. Some say the him is simply a reference to the fact that by dipping a finger in the holy water and making the sign of the cross, which Catholics do, the devil--him--would be conquered. But others have noticed the positioning of the word in the French phrase. Par ce signe tu le vaincras. The word le, 'him,' represents the thirteenth and fourteenth letters. 1314."

He recalled his reading from the Templar book. "The year Jacques de Molay was executed."

"Coincidence?" Mark shrugged.

About twenty people milled about snapping photographs and admiring the gaudy imagery, which all oozed a cryptic allusion. Stained-glass windows lined the outer walls, lively from the bright sun, and he noticed the scenes. Mary and Martha at Bethany. Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Christ. The resurrection of Lazarus.

"It's like a theological fun house," he whispered.

"That's one way of putting it."

Mark motioned to the checkerboard floor before the altar. "The crypt entrance is there, just before that wrought-iron grille, hidden beneath the tiles. A few years ago some French geographers conducted a covert ground-penetrating radar survey of the building and managed to make a few soundings before the local authorities stopped them. The results showed a subsurface anomaly beneath the altar that could be a crypt."

"No digging was done?"

"No way the locals would allow that. Too many risks to the tourist industry."

He smiled. "That's the same thing Claridon said yesterday."

They settled into one of the pews.

"One thing is certain," Mark said in a hushed tone. "There's no path to any treasure here. But Sauniere did use this church to telegraph what he believed. And from everything I've read about the man, that act fits with his brazen personality."

Malone noticed that nothing around him was subtle. The excessive coloration and overgilding tainted any beauty. Then another point became clear. Nothing was consistent. Each artistic expression, from the statues, to the reliefs, to the windows, was individual--without regard to theme, as if similarity would somehow be offensive.

An odd collection of esoteric saints stared down at him with listless expressions, as if they, too, were embarrassed by their garish detail. St. Roch displayed a wounded thigh. St. Germaine released a bevy of roses from her apron. St. Magdalene held an odd-shaped vase. Try as he might, Malone could not become comfortable. He'd been inside many European churches and most exuded a deep sense of time and history. This one seemed only to repel.

"Sauniere directed every detail of the decoration," Mark was saying. "Nothing was placed here without his approval." Mark pointed at one of the statues. "St. Anthony of Padua. We pray to him when searching for something lost."

He caught that irony. "Another message?"

"Clearly. Check out the stations of the cross."

The carvings began at the pulpit, seven along the north wall, then another seven on the south. Each was a colorful bas-relief that depicted a moment in Christ's crucifixion. Their bright patina and cartoonish detail seemed unusual for something so solemn.

"Strange, aren't they?" Mark asked. "When they were installed in 1887, they were common for the area. In Rocamadour, there's a nearly identical set. The Giscard House in Toulouse made those and these. Much has been made of these stations. Conspiratorialists claim they have Masonic origins or are actually some sort of treasure map. None of that's true. But there are messages in them."

Malone noticed some of the curious aspects. The black slave boy who held the wash bowl for Pilate. The veil Pilate wore. A trumpet being sounded as Christ fell with the cross. Three silver discs held aloft. The child confronting Christ, wrapped in a Scottish tartan blanket. A Roman soldier throwing dice for Christ's cloak, the numbers three, four, and five visible on the faces.

"Look at station fourteen," Mark said, gesturing toward the south wall.

Malone stood and walked to the front of the church. Candles flickered before the altar and he quickly noticed the bas-relief beneath. A woman, Mary Magdalene, he assumed, in tears, kneeling in a grotto before a cross formed by two branches. A skull rested at the branch base and he immediately thought of the skull from the lithograph last night in Avignon.

He turned and studied the image of the last station of the cross, number 14, which depicted Christ's body being carried by two men as three women wept. Behind them rose a rocky escarpment above which hung a full moon in the night sky.

"Jesus being carried to the tomb," he whispered to Mark, who'd approached close behind him.

"According to Roman law, a crucified man was never allowed burial. That form of execution was reserved only for those guilty of crimes against the empire, the idea being for the accused to slowly die on the cross--death taking several days and for all to see, the body left for the carrion birds. Yet supposedly Pilate granted Christ's body to Joesph of Arimathea so that it could be buried. Have you ever wondered why?"

"Not really."

"Others have. Remember, Christ was killed on the eve of the Sabbath. He could not, by law, be buried after the sun set." Mark pointed at station 14. "Yet Sauniere hung this representation, which clearly shows the body being carried after dark."

Malone still didn't understand the significance.

"What if instead of being carried into the tomb, Christ is being carried out, after dark?"

He said nothing.

"Are you familiar with the Gnostic Gospels?" Mark asked.

He was. They were found along the upper Nile in 1945. Seven Bedouin field hands were digging when they came across a human skeleton and a sealed urn. Thinking it contained gold, they smashed the urn open and found thirteen leather-bound codices. Not quite a book, but a close ancestor. The neatly written, ragged-edged texts were all in ancient Coptic, most likely composed by monks who lived at the nearby Pachomian monastery during the fourth century. They contained forty-six ancient Christian manuscripts, their content dating from the second century, the codices themselves fashioned in the fourth century. Some were subsequently lost, used as kindling or discarded, but by 1947 the remainder were acquired by a local museum.

He told Mark what he knew.

"The answer as to why the monks buried the codices came from history," Mark said. "In the fourth century Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, wrote a letter that was sent to all the churches in Egypt. He decreed that only the twenty-seven books contained within the recently formulated New Testament could be considered Scripture. All other heretical books must be destroyed. None of the forty-six manuscripts in that urn conformed. So the monks at the Pachomian monastery chose to hide the thirteen codices rather than burn them, perhaps waiting for a change in church leadership. Of course, no change ever occurred. Instead, Roman Christianity flourished. But thank heaven the codices survived. These are the Gnostic Gospels we now know. In one, Peter's, it is written, And as they declared what things they had seen, again they saw three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one."

Malone stared again at station 14. Two men supporting one.

"The Gnostic Gospels were extraordinary texts," Mark said. "Many scholars now say the Gospel of Thomas, which was included in them, may be the closest we have to Christ's actual words. The early Christians were terrified of the Gnostics. The word came from the Greek gnosis, which meant 'knowledge.' Gnostics were simply people in the know, but the emerging Catholic version of Christianity eventually eliminated all gnostic thought and teachings."

"And the Templars kept that alive?"

Mark nodded. "The Gnostic Gospels, and several more that theologians today have never seen, are contained in the abbey's library. The Templars were broad-minded when it came to Scripture. There's a lot to be learned from these so-called heretical works."

"How would Sauniere know anything of those Gospels? They weren't discovered until decades after his death."

"Perhaps he had access to even better information. Let me show you something else."

He followed Mark back to the church's entrance and they stepped out onto the porch. Above the door was a stone-carved box upon which words were painted.

"Read the writing beneath," Mark said.

Malone strained to make out the letters. Many were faded and hard to decipher, and all were in Latin.


"Translated it means, 'I have had contempt for the kingdom of this world, and all temporal adornments, because of the love of my Lord Jesus Christ, whom I saw, whom I loved, in whom I believed, and whom I worshiped.' On its face an interesting statement, but there are some conspicuous errors." Mark motioned. "The words scoeculi, anorem, quen, and cremini are all misspelled. Sauniere spent one hundred and eighty francs for that carving and for the letters to be painted, which was a sizable sum at the time. We know this because his receipts still exist. He went to a lot of trouble to design this entrance, yet he allowed the misspellings to remain. It would have been easy to repair them, since the letters were only painted."

"Maybe he didn't notice?"

"Sauniere? He was a type A personality. Nothing slipped by him."

Mark led him away from the entrance as another wave of visitors entered the church. They stopped in front of the garden with the Visigoth pillar and statue of the Virgin.

"The inscription above the door is not biblical. It's contained within a responsory written by a man named John Tauler early in the fourteenth century. Responsories were prayers or poems used between scriptural readings and Tauler was well known in Sauniere's time. So it's possible Sauniere simply liked the phrase. But it's pretty unusual."

Malone agreed.

"The misspellings could shed some light on why Sauniere used it. The painted words are quem cremini, 'in whom I believed,' but the word should have been credidi, yet Sauniere allowed the misspelling. Could that mean that he did not believe in Him? And then the most interesting of all. Quem vidi. Whom I saw."

Malone instantly saw the significance. "Whatever he found led him to Christ. Whom he saw."

"That's what Dad thought, and I agree. Sauniere seemed unable to resist sending messages. He wanted the world to know what he knew, but it was almost as if he realized that no one in his time would understand. And he was right. No one did. Not until forty years after he died did anyone ever notice." Mark looked over at the ancient church. "The whole place is one of reversals. The stations of the cross are hung on the wall backward from every other church in the world. The devil at the door--he's the reverse of good." Then he pointed to the Visigoth pillar a few feet away. "Upside down. Notice the cross and the carvings on the face."

Malone studied the face.

"Sauniere inverted the pillar before carving Mission 1891 at the bottom and Penitence, Penitence along the top."

Malone noticed a V with a circle at its center in the bottom right corner. He cocked his head around and envisioned the image inverted. "Alpha and omega?" he asked.

"Some think so. Dad did."

"Another name for Christ."

"That's right."

"Why did Sauniere turn the pillar upside down?"

"No one has come up with a good reason."

Mark stepped away from the garden display and allowed others to surge forward for pictures. He then led the way toward the rear of the church, into one corner of the Calvary garden where a small grotto stood.

"This is a replica, too. For the tourists. World War Two took the original. Sauniere built it with rocks he would bring back from his forays. He and his mistress would travel off for days at a time and return with a hod full of stones. Odd, wouldn't you say?"

"Depends on what else was in that hod."

Mark smiled. "Easy way to bring back a little gold without arousing suspicion."

"But Sauniere seems a strange sort. He could have just been toting rocks."

"Everybody who comes here is a little strange."

"That include your father?"

Mark appraised him with a serious countenance. "No question. He was obsessed. He gave his life to this place, loved every square foot of this village. This was his home, in every way."

"But not yours?"

"I tried to carry on. But I didn't have his passion. Maybe I realized the whole thing was futile."

"Then why hide yourself away in an abbey for five years?"

"I needed the solitude. It was good for me. But the master had bigger plans. So here I am. A fugitive from the Templars."

"So what were you doing in the mountains when that avalanche came?"

Mark did not answer him.

"You were doing the same thing your mother's doing here now. Trying to atone for something. You just didn't know folks were watching."

"Thank heaven they did."

"Your mother is hurting."

"You and she worked together?"

He noticed the dodge. "For a long time. She's my friend."

"That's a tough nut to crack."

"Tell me about it, but it can be done. She's hurting bad. Lots of guilt and regrets. This could be a second chance for her and you."

"My mother and I parted ways long ago. It was best for both of us."

"Then what are you doing here?"

"I came to my father's house."

"And when you arrived you saw that somebody else's bags were there. Both our passports were left with our stuff. Surely you found them? Yet you stayed."

Mark turned away and Malone thought it an effort to hide a growing confusion. He was more like his mother than he cared to admit.

"I'm thirty-eight years old and still feel like a boy," Mark said. "I've lived the past five years within the sheltered cocoon of an abbey governed by strict Rule. A man I considered a father was kind to me, and I rose to a level of importance I've never known before."

"Yet here you are. Right in the middle of God-knows-what."

Mark smiled.

"You and your mother need to settle things."

The younger man stood somber, preoccupied. "The woman you mentioned last night, Cassiopeia Vitt. I know of her. She and my father sparred for several years. Should she not be found?"

He noticed that Mark liked to avoid answering questions by asking them, much like his mother. "Depends. She a threat?"

"Hard to say. She seemed to always be around, and Dad didn't like her."

"Neither does de Roquefort."

"I'm sure."

"In the archives, last night, she never identified herself and de Roquefort didn't know her name. So if he has Claridon, then he now knows who she is."

"Isn't that her problem?" Mark asked.

"She saved my hide twice. So she needs to be warned. Claridon told me she lives nearby, in Givors. Your mother and I were leaving here today. We thought this quest over. But that's changed. I need to pay Cassiopeia Vitt a visit. I think alone would be best, for now."

"That's fine. We'll wait here. Right now I have a visit of my own to make. It's been five years since I paid respects to my father."

And Mark walked off toward the cemetery's entrance.