The old town of Chartres, around which the modern town unaesthetically sprawls, is built on a natural elevation that rises from a wide, wheat-growing plain in the region of Beauce in central France. Visitors and pilgrims, who since earliest times have made their ways to the ancient site, can see the cathedral of Notre-Dame from many miles off, the twin spires, like lofty beacons, encouraging them onwards.
Five successive cathedrals have stood on this site; all were burned to rubble save the present cathedral, which grew, phoenix-like, from the embers of the last devastating fire. On June 10th, 1194, flames sped through Chartres, destroying many of the domestic dwellings, crowded cheek by jowl in the narrow medieval streets, and all of the former cathedral save the Western Front with its twin towers and the much more ancient crypt.
As the fire took hold, the forest of roof timbers crashed burning to the ground amid frenzied clouds of burning cinders; the walls split, tumbled and collapsed while lead from the roof poured down in a molten stream, as if enacting a scene of eternal damnation in a Last Judgement.
The reaction among the citizens of Chartres was one of uniform horror. According to contemporary reports, they lamented the loss of their beloved cathedral even more than the loss of their own homes. Perhaps this was in part because, as today, their livelihoods depended on the many parties of pilgrims visiting the town to pay reverence to its most venerated relic, the birthing gown of the Virgin Mary, a gift to the cathedral by the grandson of Charlemagne, Charles the Bald.
Three days after the fire was finally quenched, some priests emerged from the crypt with the marvellous cloth still intact. As the fire took hold, they had apparently snatched it from its hallowed place and retreated for safety into the most ancient part of the cathedral, the lower crypt, the province of Our Lady Under the Earth, incarcerating themselves behind a metal door which had held firm while the fire raged destruction outside. The missing men had been presumed dead. The holy relic presumed lost. When it was seen to have been restored, and its rescuers returned to safety, it was agreed that this was a miracle, a sign from Our Lady that the town should build in her honour an edifice even finer than before.
The new cathedral was completed within twenty-six years, thanks to the devotion and hard labour of the townspeople, who pulled together to create a building worthy of the Mother of God with whom their town had so fortunately found favour. The bishop and his canons agreed to donate the greater portion of their salaries to aid the cost of the building works. Sovereigns of the Western world were approached for funds, and many dug deep into their coffers to ensure that their names were attached to the noble enterprise, which would gain for them fitting rewards in the life to come. People from neighbouring dioceses brought cartloads of grain to feed the citizens of Chartres, who were giving their labours for nothing more than the love of God. The whole astonishing structure was conceived, designed and accomplished by a series of master builders, men of clear enterprise and shining genius.
But of them and their companies – the scores of talented sculptors, stonecutters, masons, carpenters, roofers, stained-glass artists and manual labourers who implemented their plans – nothing is known.
Nor was anything known of Agnès Morel when she arrived in Chartres nearly eight hundred years after the building of the present cathedral commenced. Few, if asked, could have recalled when she first appeared. She must have seemed vaguely always to have been about. A tall, dark, slender woman – ‘a touch of the tar brush there’, Madame Beck, who had more than a passing sympathy for the Front National, chose to comment – with eyes that the local artist, Robert Clément, likened to washed topaz, though, as the same Madame Beck remarked to her friend Madame Picot, being an artist he was given to these fanciful notions.
As far back as Philippe Nevers could remember Agnès had been around. She had been an occasional babysitter for himself and his sister, Brigitte. Brigitte had once crept up with a pair of scissors behind the sofa, where their babysitter sat watching TV, and hacked an ugly chunk out of her long black hair. Philippe had pinched Brigitte’s arm for this and they had got into a fight, in which Brigitte’s new nightgown was ripped by the scissors, and when their mother came home Brigitte had cried and shown her both the nightgown and the pinch marks.
Although their mother had punished Philippe, the boy had not explained why he had set about his sister. Agnès was odd, with eyes, he might have suggested, had he overheard Robert Clément, more like those of the panther he had seen at the zoo, pacing up and down its cage in a manner the crowd found amusing. Philippe liked Agnès in the way he had liked the panther and had hoped that it might escape and get a bit of its own back on the laughing crowd. With the sensitivity which, even at age six, was a hallmark of his character, he knew their mother would be quick to blame Agnès for the episode with the scissors. So he bore the unfair punishment in silence.
Professor Jones, had he been aware of it, would have been able to date Agnès’ arrival quite precisely, since it was the same summer that his second wife left him. The weather had been uncharacteristically inclement, even for central France, which does not enjoy the dependable climate of the South. Professor Jones had taken a sabbatical year in order to embark on a long-cherished research project of documenting each of the supposedly four thousand, five hundred sculptures which embellish the nine great portals of Notre-Dame in Chartres. The work was to be definitive in the field and he had dared to hope that it would make his name. But the parochialism of the small town, the depressing steady drizzle and her husband’s preoccupation with insensate figures of the long past had lowered Marion Jones’s spirits, the very spirits which her husband had hoped to raise by bringing her to the famed medieval town.
This mismatch in taste and comprehension was only one of a long list of incompatibilities between Marion Jones and her husband. That summer, a renowned Japanese cellist visited from Paris to play Bach’s Suites for unaccompanied cello at one of the cathedral’s prestigious summer concerts. Marion, bored to tears by the life she was leading, wandered into the cathedral while the cellist was practising, and it was noted by Madame Beck that he was not unaccompanied when, a while later, he left the cathedral to return to his hotel. Not long after the concert, Marion took to making shopping trips to Paris, which is barely an hour’s train ride from Chartres. The trips became longer, and more frequent; one day she left with a larger than usual bag and never returned.
Professor Jones waited mournfully, long after his sabbatical year had come to an end. Finally, giving in to despair, he resigned his university position and made a permanent home in Chartres, but not before a small parcel containing a wedding ring had arrived with a note telling him where he could ‘stick his bloody sculptures’.
The current dean, the Abbé Paul, might have remembered Agnès’ arrival since he too, at that far date, had only lately come from his seminary to serve as a curate at the cathedral. He had found Agnès under a man’s coat, asleep in a convenient niche in the North Porch. Although the dean at the time, Monsignor André, a stern administrator, had let it be known that tramps should not misconstrue the nature of Christian charity by taking the cathedral for ‘a doss house’, the young priest found himself turning a blind eye to the intruder.
Paul’s father was a Highland Scot who could trace his family line directly back to Lord George Murray, the general who had led the ill-fated Jacobite rebellion against the English in the rising of 1745. The general’s descendant had met his future wife when she had gone with a friend to visit the festival at Edinburgh, where he had held a research fellowship at the university. The marriage was a successful one: but Charles Murray had succumbed, after a short fight, to his French wife’s pressure to return to her native land in search of the light she bitterly missed in the long Scottish winters.
The strain of rebellion in him succumbed to his greater fondness for his wife and concern for her happiness. He gave up his study of Ovid’s metaphors and became a respected Classics master at a school in Toulon.
But a measure of his father’s dissident heritage salted the young Paul’s character. The sleeper in the cathedral porch was a young woman; she looked peaceful. For all Dean André’s strictures the young Paul could not bear to awaken her to what he guessed was a grim reality.
Quite how Agnès had managed since those days was a subject of nobody’s speculation. She had made herself useful in the small ways that help to oil the wheels of daily life. She was an accomplished ironer, a reliable babysitter and was known to ‘sit’ naked for Robert Clément (the last activity making her less desirable to some in the first two capacities). She made a reputation as a conscientious cleaner, and Professor Jones, after a more than usually bad attack of moth had made lace of his slender wardrobe, discovered that she could also darn.
Agnès no longer had need of the shelter of the cathedral when the subject of her cleaning it came up. The weather, which twenty years ago had witnessed her arrival, was repeating itself. Streams of sodden visitors – in coach parties, families and couples, as well as those travelling by choice or necessity alone, not to mention the troupes of those seeking enlightenment, historical or spiritual – were playing havoc with the cathedral floor. The once pale paving stones, quarried from nearby Berchères-les-Pierres, after hundreds of years of footfalls had darkened and pitted, which made them, as the current cleaner Bernadette often remarked, ‘hell to keep clean’.
Agnès was weeding the flower-beds before the Royal Portal when the Abbé Paul encountered her. A summer of steady rain had brought on both the weeds and Thomas the gardener’s rheumatism. His wife had put her foot down and insisted he go to a spa for a cure. And, as was often the case when a temporary replacement was needed, it was Agnès who had come to mind.
Enclosed in wicker borders, which gave the impression of large square florist’s panniers, the flowers, mainly white, had been chosen to enhance the summer evenings. Had Robert Clément been there, he might have observed that they also enhanced Agnès’ dark skin as she bent to root out the weeds. But the Abbé Paul was a man of the cloth and no doubt it was simply friendly courtesy that made him stop to greet her.
‘Good day, Agnès. I must say we are most grateful for your help.’
Agnès straightened a back blessedly free of Thomas’s rheumatism. Although she was unaware that the Abbé had let her sleep undisturbed that first night she had come to Chartres, she nevertheless felt safe with him.
‘I like them best at night.’
The Abbé Paul agreed. ‘The scent is stronger then.’
‘The weather has brought on the weeds, though?’
It was one of Agnès’ virtues that she didn’t say much. It made the Abbé Paul more inclined to be chatty himself though as a rule he was not a talkative man. ‘I’m afraid it’s making a filthy mess of the cathedral floor. All those wet muddy feet. And now, God help us, we seem to have lost our cleaner as well as our gardener. It’s too much for Bernadette’s knees, she says.’
Agnès stood, a trowel in one hand, an earthy-rooted dandelion, which she planned to add to her evening salad, dangling from the other. The green leaves against her long red skirt and her impassive brown oval face gave an impression, the Abbé Paul fleetingly thought, of a figure from a parable portrayed in one of the cathedral’s stained-glass windows. A labourer in a vineyard, perhaps.
It seemed Agnès was pondering, for as Paul was about to utter further pleasantries and move on, she spoke. ‘I will clean it if you like.’
‘Oh, but I didn’t mean . . .’ Now he was concerned that she might imagine that he was approaching her as a skivvy rather than for the pleasure of conversation.
‘I would like to, Father,’ Agnès said.
The Abbé Paul paused. It would certainly help. The bishop was exercised about the state of the cathedral, which meant that he was being harassed too. And Agnès was known to be reliable.
‘I would like to,’ she repeated, with emphasis.
‘Well, if you felt you could . . .’
‘I do,’ Agnès said.
So it was agreed she should start that same week.