So bitter cold out, but it was the look on his face that froze me. Then I turned and ran across the busy street between taxi cabs and a city bus. Dashed up the granite steps, through, and in. Antechamber scowled at me but I didn't check my bag. Sped through the portico and up the sweeping marble stairs. His breathing burst through the heavy doors behind me like a gust of wind as I cleared the mezzanine. Massive iron lions lay tense but impassive at the turn. Over my head the chandelier must have swayed a bit.
At the top of the stairs I faced a great mural of charging soldiers and rampant chargers. Gilt edged glass display showed instruments of war. I slipped on the parquet floor in my haste to turn away from the direction I saw as a dead end. Brass lamps swung down on long dusty red sashes to light the hall like Michaelmas candles. Below me the echoing tread rapped impatiently closer. My footsteps ran up towards the long windows casting a pale light into a sober wood paneled reading room at the end of the hall. Through the second archway I pulled up short and turned into an unlit passageway where a narrow stone staircase led steeply up a long path to a more gloomy chamber. Slipped around a velvet rope and rushed upward as quietly as possible.
The cathedral exhibition hall at the top of the steps was lit only from debris encumbered skylights far above my head. Grey stone degenerated gracefully into textured black slabs and slate flagging. Beside me by the top of the stair stood a balustrade. Narrow wise across the hall four platform stairs mounted up to a fifteen foot high double door. One side was ajar. The imposing doors were done in studded leather on a heavy dark metal. I pushed breathlessly through without that they murmured aught.
All is quiet and light. Outside, dark, echoing and somber. The silence. Yellow, tanned, khaki, paste, plum, and the color of linens soiled with dried blood. Fleur-de-lis. Strutting ionic marble stretching up two floors. Sleepy faced caryatids singing soundlessly. Books and more books. Well aligned Spartan surfaces colluding in age. Wood, deep tarnished brass, iron, glass, paper and dark cloth. Warm dusty air, rhyming hues, simmering silence. Sanded sunlight glancing through fan slit slats above the shuttered grand windows.
All around the walls are brass and oak shelves behind locked glass doors. They stand nine and a half feet high. Above that height the yellowed wall supports occasional portraits of richly dressed religious figures in deep chiaroscuro. Between these the paint gently peels away in soft curling strips. The long windows and the first bookcases flank two darkened wardrobe safes. Like heavy brass coffins built sheer into the walls. Notched dials turn smoothly as if floating in mercury.
All the books relate to Joan of Arc. Jeanne'd Arc, Saint Joan, Jehanne Darc, La Pucelle, the Maid of Orléans. Witchcraft. Christian tradition. Hagiography. French Heroines. History. Papers, pamphlets, albums, volumes, sets, binders, loose leaf, foolscap, soft cover, memorabilia. Four rows of long angled glass topped cases mounted on carved oak frames. All empty. Grey felt bleached around book shaped indentations.
All I am doing is holding my breath. Listening to the absence of sound. Standing at the edge of the vault looking up along the curved ceiling. Sun streaming through the dust. Dust drifting to the floor. The doors are shut. Locked.
I am not moving.