The Devil's Cathedral
It was pouring rain. The street's cobblestones were vanishing under puddles and mud. Joliette was walking towards the cathedral. Water was streaming down her neck and along her eyes. As she walked, she wondered when somebody would invent some kind of clothing to wear over the rest of the clothes that would protect people from the rain.
She passed a girl her own age: ten years old, like her. She was walking barefoot in the mud, wearing a small, wet dress. Her long hair was plastered to her face. Their eyes met for a moment, seemingly sharing the same ordeal.
Joliette had boots. She was lucky! And she lived in a big, beautiful gray stone house. Her father, a cultured, brilliant man who was very rich and appreciated by all, was a master builder of cathedrals.
The one he was working on at the moment might become the largest church in the country. He was overseeing a construction site with several hundred workers and was an important and respected man, almost as much as a king or a prince.
The year was 1190.
Walking along the facades, Joliette reached the foot of the grand staircase that led up to the entrance of the enormous cathedral. She climbed it and stepped into the impressive building.
The walls, columns, roof, and the great nave's marble floor were already finished, as were most of the stained-glass windows. Workers were busy with three large rose windows: those to the left and right of the transept and the one above the entrance, which was now behind her.
Scaffolding crowded the entire space. Hundreds of men were chiseling away at stones with a deafening clatter. Some looked up as the boss's daughter passed by.
"Hello, Little Sun," said some who knew her well.
People sometimes called her that because Joliette was born just after a solar eclipse, on July 15, 1180. She uttered her first cry as the dark disc of the moon slowly slipped aside, revealing the sun.
Moving from ladder to ladder, she climbed the scaffolding by the rose window of the Virgin, to the left of the transept. She had just seen her father, who was deep in conversation with François, his master glazier on the project. She kissed them, then climbed back down.
She left the building and followed the alley that led to the lower part of the town, near the river, to the house of the wizard Corbelius.
Nobody answered when she tapped with the door knocker, but the door was ajar.
"Is that you, Joliette?"
The man drew near, imposing, majestic, even a little frightening. The first thing that stood out was his lean, brown face, framed by long white hair and an abundant beard. Always clad in black or white tunics that hid his feet, his poise both impressed and fascinated.
"Corbelius, please show me more pictures."
The man stepped over to a monumental fireplace where a coal fire was burning. He picked up a small, blue-painted terracotta vessel, carefully sealed with a cork. He opened it, drew out a pinch of powder, and sprinkled it over the embers.
An image of a forest clearing appeared. Does and fawns were playing among the flowers in the sunlight. Then everything disappeared.
"Do it again! Can you make another one, please?"
The wizard took a second pinch and sprinkled it on the flames. High mountains appeared, crowned with eternal snow. Torrents leaped from cascade to cascade.
"It's so pretty!" the girl exclaimed. "I wish my father would build a cathedral in the mountains. Then I could see them for real. Could you do another one?"
Corbelius threw in a third pinch of powder.
"Here's your father's cathedral. Abandoned."
A huge church appeared, oddly resembling the one her father was building, but this one was in ruins, the stained-glass windows shattered, the roof collapsed.
"That's horrible!" the girl said. "I don't want to see that. This picture isn't real."
The wizard stood silent and motionless by the fireplace, watching Joliette.
"Corbelius, I want to be able to create pictures like yours. Could you tell me how?"
"It's simple, little one. But you must have the powder. It's extremely difficult to make. You need to gather rare plants, grind them into powder, and then carefully measure and mix them."
"Will you teach me?"
"No, it's a secret."
"Please! I promise I won't tell anyone the mystery of the powder."
The wizard looked at the girl in silence for a moment.
"I'd like to," he said suddenly. "But first, you need to do something for me."
"Okay, anything you like."
"All right. Come with me."
He led Joliette into a strange workshop. Tubes and vessels containing different-colored liquids gave off pungent fumes. It was an alchemy laboratory.
Two large octagonal stones lay on a wooden table. Their hollowed-out centers contained a kind of crystal that resembled an open eye.
"Take these two stones to the cathedral and ask the workmen to set them, one in the middle of the rose window of the Virgin, to the left of the transept, and the other in the center of the rose window of the Risen Christ, at the back of the church, above the doorway. In exchange, you'll bring me the other two, which have already been cut for this purpose, and will no longer serve any purpose."
"What if the workers don't want to do it?"
"Joliette! You're the master builder's daughter. If they hesitate, just say that your father ordered it."
"Put them in this leather bag and carry them on your back. Take one at a time. Now it's up to you. Bring me the two stones that are no longer needed, and I'll teach you how to make the pictures. And don't forget. It's a double secret. I don't want you to tell anyone about the powder or the swap, not even your father. Do you promise?"
The wizard Corbelius slipped the first stone into the bag and helped the girl slide her arms through the straps.
"Go on," he said.
Joliette walked up the street leading to the cathedral. The rain had stopped. She stepped through the transept door, headed straight for the Virgin's doorway, and climbed the scaffolding. Then she approached the workmen. She easily spotted the other octagonal stone.
Master François came over.
"What are you doing here, Little Sun?"
"You need to set this stone in the center of the stained-glass window instead of the other one," she said in a small, not very confident voice.
"I'm surprised. But if your father ordered it... He's the boss."
"May I take the other one?"
"Yes, if you want. We don't need it anymore."
Joliette slid it into her bag and climbed down the ladder. She returned to the wizard and gave him the stone.
"Very good. Now take the other one."
That was easier. François wasn't there, and the workers, who were used to following the master's orders, didn't ask any questions.
Our friend returned to Corbelius.
"Can you tell me about the powder?"
"Not now. I have to go away for two days, but when I come back, I'll tell you."
Joliette returned home a little disappointed, a little ashamed. Why had the wizard wanted to replace the stones? What was the reason for the glass eye in the middle of them?
Due to the lack of lighting in 1190, workers often toiled from sunrise to sunset.
At dawn the next day, a foreman whom Joliette's father had tasked with opening the cathedral entered the building, followed fairly quickly by a hundred craftsmen of all kinds.
The sun appeared in the east and slowly rose into the sky. Then a strange and impressive phenomenon took place.
As the sunlight illuminated the nearly completed stained-glass window of the Virgin, a laser-like beam of light (which didn't exist in those days) seemed to emanate from the central octagonal stone.
The eye was a powerful magnifying glass designed by Corbelius, which concentrated the sun's energy into a burning point that moved from right to left across the transept floor. The movement—caused by the sun's ascent from the horizon to the sky—lasted less than a minute.
The pale marble floor was immediately charred. A black line appeared, accompanied by smoke. It began on the right and extended to the left, passing by the monumental altar at the center of the cross shape of the cathedral.
The stunned workers watched the strange phenomenon in silence.
Then work continued upon an order from the foreman.
But the phenomenon recurred around noon. Another ray, this time emanating from the center of the rose window of the Risen Christ above the main entrance, traced a black line on the floor. It went from bottom to top, meaning from the portal to the altar. It crossed the transept line, forming a cross on the church floor, but upside down. An inverted cross.
The dumbfounded workers, who were extremely superstitious in those days, shrieked in fear.
"The Devil's cross! Satan's cross!"
"The Devil drew an inverted cross of Jesus on the floor!"
"Hell is taking over the building!"
"It's a Devil's cathedral! We're all cursed!"
They ran away, leaving behind their tools, unfinished sculptures, and half-carved stones on tables and trestles. They spread through the town, shouting, "the Devil's cathedral," "doomed to Satan," and "misfortune to us and to the people of this town!"
Joliette's father rushed to the church with his daughter in tow, accompanied by Master François. People were already coming out of their homes and standing on street corners, gathering in small groups to discuss the event.
A buzz gradually spread through the town. Fear was turning to anger. On top of that, heavy rain and hail began to fall, drenching the streets, causing damage, and inflaming tempers.
An old worker, who remained loyal to the master builder, described the phenomenon of the fiery cross and explained its source.
"A ray of light came out of those new octagonal stones you told us to put in the center of the rose windows. The original ones didn't have this strange central glass eye. We replaced them on your orders."
"Me?" our friend's father gasped. "I ordered nothing of the sort. I didn't even know about this replacement."
Joliette remained silent, ashamed, and on the verge of tears. It was all her fault. She didn't dare say anything. She remembered the wizard's words: "A double secret."
She hesitated, then decided to keep silent, fear in the pit of her stomach.
She bolted out of the building and made her way to Corbelius's house.
A few candles cast a flicker of light across the façade of the dark house, giving it a sinister appearance. He hadn't left, despite what he had said. Joliette entered without knocking.
"Wizard! What did you make me do? The whole town is angry with my father. They say he's building the Devil's cathedral."
"Calm down and take a seat, little girl. Building a house of God on that very spot is sacrilege, an insult to the gods of the past."
"I don't understand," said Joliette, still standing.
"I'll explain," Corbelius replied. "Your father is building the cathedral where a dolmen once stood. The druids, my ancestors, used to come here to pray and officiate ceremonies in which animals, and sometimes humans, were sacrificed to the gods of the earth, water, forest, and more. The bishop ordered your father to build the church on that very spot, on purpose, to wipe out the old religions."
Our friend listened in silence, shifting nervously from one leg to the other. The wizard continued.
"This construction is stirring up the wrath of the ancient gods. Hail fell earlier, destroying crops and killing beasts in the fields. They demand vengeance. The gods want the cathedral destroyed."
The horrified Joliette remembered the picture Corbelius had shown her the other day of her father's building in ruins.
"People from town and country alike are gathering. Fear, a bad advisor, is leading them to me. Sooner or later, they'll come looking for me. I'm waiting for them. I'll go with them to the cathedral in procession. We'll make a sacrifice, worthy of the sacrilege, and appease the gods. I'll make the offering on the high altar in the center of the building."
The stunned and distraught girl trembled. Her heart was racing.
"Go away," shouted the wizard, "and remember your promise. You must keep this secret!"
Our friend returned to the mud and badly cobbled streets and went home. She was crying.
"Where have you been, Mademoiselle Joliette? I've been looking for you everywhere."
Our friend no longer had her mother, who died when Joliette was eight. Since then, as her father had dedicated himself to building the cathedral, his life's work, and had considerable means at his disposal, she had had a maid, a kind, smiling young woman, who often accompanied her on the street and looked after her at home.
"Come along, Mademoiselle. Your bag is ready. We're off to your grandmother's in Sombreuil."
"Why? What's going on?"
"The town seems to be in revolt. All you hear are shouts and threats in the streets and squares. People are behaving like maniacs. Your father wants to move you to safety. I've been waiting for you. We're leaving immediately."
"I want to talk to my papa before I go," replied Joliette, now determined to reveal the secret.
"He just left the house."
"Let's go find him."
"We don't have time. He'll come to see you at your grandmother's in Sombreuil in a few days."
"But I need to speak to him right away. It's extremely important. It can't wait."
"We'll go by the worksite on our way out of town. Come on. You'll probably see him there."
Unfortunately, our friend didn't find her father as she fled through the streets with her maid, who hurried her along, terrified that they might run into people who would recognize them. They left town on foot. The grandmother's house was in the middle of a village about six miles away.
Along the way, they came across groups of peasants, pitchforks and scythes in hand, who were heading for the town, their eyes glaring and their hearts angry. Some even carried heavy maces on their shoulders, intent on destroying the cathedral.
Suddenly, a cry rang out. A unanimous shout from all sides, from every mouth.
"Let's go to the Druid!"
"Corbelius will save our town!"
"Everyone to the wizard's house!"
They soon formed a long procession. Men, women, and children—many with weapons of all kinds —swarmed down the street to his home, pounding the cobblestones with their clogs and the facades with their shouting.
They gathered in front of Corbelius's house.
The wizard had been waiting for just this moment. He savored his triumph. All he had to do now was galvanize the crowd, fuel their anger, and turn it against the cathedral like the surf hitting a cliff.
He stepped out onto the balcony, wearing a white tunic and a wide-sleeved black cape. This sparked a loud rallying cry, which he calmed with a sweeping gesture.
"Townspeople and country folk, I understand your righteous fury. Misfortune has befallen you and your children. Hail will destroy your crops. Your livestock will die, one by one. The black plague will invade the land. Fire from the sky will burn your homes. Misfortune will befall you all!"
Corbelius fell silent for a moment. Just long enough to gauge the impact of the hateful words he had spoken.
"I know the cause and the cure. The cause is this cathedral, built on the site of a dolmen, a place of prayer for my Druid ancestors. The gods of the earth, the forests, and the woodlands are angry. The cure is to make a sacrifice, one that I'll perform for you myself, this evening before nightfall, on the altar of the Devil's church. But the sacrifice must be commensurate with the offense to the gods. We'll sacrifice a human, a little girl: Joliette! Go find her and bring her to me at the cathedral before nightfall."
Some farmers, who had come in from the fields, had spotted her fleeing to her grandmother's house with her maid. A posse formed, disheveled and sweating hatred. They soon caught up with the two.
The poor young woman could do nothing in the face of these furious men. They left her beaten and desolate at the side of the road.
Our friend was tied up and taken back to the chaotic town.
Night would fall in an hour. The enraged group entered the already-crowded cathedral and laid our terrified friend on the high altar.
Corbelius appeared. He moved through the human mass with majestic, calculated slowness, stirring up even more fear, screams, and hatred. He turned to face them from behind the high altar.
Joliette was crying. He loosened her restraints, but ordered her to lie still on the stone, in full view of the now howling crowd.
He then silenced them with a solemn motion.
François, the master glazier, looked on in horror from the back of the cathedral. He left and hurried to find our friend's father at home.
Believing his daughter to be safe in Sombreuil at her grandmother's, Joliette's father was considering his next move. What should he do about the revolt? Should he call the gendarmes or would it be better to wait for the raging anger to subside on its own?
François briefly described the unfolding drama, with Joliette as its innocent victim.
The master builder had wanted to protect his work, but when he learned about the new turn of events, he didn't hesitate for a second. The distraught father thought only of saving his daughter.
He grabbed a crossbow and ran to the cathedral with his friend.
They both entered through the main door. The crowd didn't recognize them. No one paid them any attention, as everyone was focused on the altar where Corbelius was standing. Our friend's father climbed the scaffolding for the rose window of the Risen Christ at the entrance.
There was now an impressive, almost suffocating silence. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath, their mouths open like a silent scream.
The wizard dropped his black cape behind him in a sweeping gesture. Dressed in white like the Druids of old, he raised a golden sickle aloft. All eyes locked on it.
Joliette's father stretched the string of his crossbow and took careful aim. The bolt whizzed through the air above the thousands of heads, crossing the great nave. It pierced Corbelius's wrist, making him cry out and drop the sickle. It fell to the floor.
"The second bolt will go into your heart," our friend's father shouted.
His powerful, authoritative, and implacable voice dominated the stunned silence.
The crowd turned and saw the master builder perched on the scaffolding, lit by the last rays of the setting sun that blazed through the stained-glass window behind him.
"You have one hour to get out of town. I banish you forever."
The wizard fled, leaving the girl on the altar and the golden sickle on the floor.
"As for you," Joliette's father continued, addressing the crowd, "I'll be waiting for you tomorrow at dawn at your workspaces. If you don't come, hundreds of other craftsmen will be lining up at the door to replace you."
The master builder climbed down a ladder, parting the mass of people who respectfully stepped aside to let him pass. When he reached the altar, he took his daughter in his arms.
"There's no Devil here. I see only purity and innocence. Go home."
The cathedral emptied completely. Our friend was crying, pressed against her father's shoulder. She watched the residents flow like a river towards the town. She told him the secret of the octagonal stones, ending with a fervent apology, drowned in tears.
The workers returned at dawn. All had regained their composure. In the distance, the wheat was recovering from the storm. Reassured, the farmers returned home and resumed their patient work in the fields and stables.
Joliette woke up early. Her father was calling her. They quickly left the house. They walked briskly and silently to the cathedral, where the sun was shining. They stepped inside.
All the way there, our friend wondered why they were in such a hurry. She would soon find out. They stopped in front of François, who was busy giving orders to his craftsmen.
"Here's the culprit," Joliette's father told his friend.
She had to repeat the story of the wizard's request, the promise made, and the pledge of secrecy to the master glassmaker.
François gazed into Joliette's eyes for a long time.
"I have to disassemble the two stained-glass windows in question. We'll lose three weeks. I'll destroy Corbelius's stones myself. You, young lady, are going to go back to his house. It's abandoned, so you'll be safe. And then you'll bring me the two rose window center stones you so innocently took there. This is your punishment."
"That's a very light punishment," said Joliette's father.
"Your daughter is only ten years old, my friend. Corbelius took advantage of her innocence and naivety."
Our friend did as she was told with a light heart. She thanked Master François.
And the magnificent cathedral's towers, walls, and intricate stained-glass windows reached for the sky.