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As Langdon and Sophie drove the armored truck up the winding, poplar-lined driveway toward the house, Sophie could already feel her muscles relaxing. It was a relief to be off the road, and she could think of few safer places to get their feet under them than this private, gated estate owned by a good-natured foreigner.
They turned into the sweeping circular driveway, and Château Villette came into view on their right. Three stories tall and at least sixty meters long, the edifice had gray stone facing illuminated by outside spotlights. The coarse facade stood in stark juxtaposition to the immaculately landscaped gardens and glassy pond.
The inside lights were just now coming on.
Rather than driving to the front door, Langdon pulled into a parking area nestled in the evergreens. «No reason to risk being spotted from the road,» he said. «Or having Leigh wonder why we arrived in a wrecked armored truck.»
Sophie nodded. «What do we do with the cryptex? We probably shouldn’t leave it out here, but if Leigh sees it, he’ll certainly want to know what it is.»
«Not to worry,» Langdon said, removing his jacket as he stepped out of the car. He wrapped the tweed coat around the box and held the bundle in his arms like a baby.
Sophie looked dubious. «Subtle.»
«Teabing never answers his own door; he prefers to make an entrance. I’ll find somewhere inside to stash this before he joins us.» Langdon paused. «Actually, I should probably warn you before you meet him. Sir Leigh has a sense of humor that people often find a bit… strange.» Sophie doubted anything tonight would strike her as strange anymore. The pathway to the main entrance was hand-laid cobblestone. It curved to a door of carved oak and cherry with a brass knocker the size of a grapefruit. Before Sophie could grasp the knocker, the door swung open from within.
A prim and elegant butler stood before them, making final adjustments on the white tie and tuxedo he had apparently just donned. He looked to be about fifty, with refined features and an austere expression that left little doubt he was unamused by their presence here.
«Sir Leigh will be down presently,» he declared, his accent thick French. «He is dressing. He prefers not to greet visitors while wearing only a nightshirt. May I take your coat?» He scowled at the bunched-up tweed in Langdon’s arms. «Thank you, I’m fine.» «Of course you are. Right this way, please.»
The butler guided them through a lush marble foyer into an exquisitely adorned drawing room, softly lit by tassel-draped Victorian lamps. The air inside smelled antediluvian, regal somehow, with traces of pipe tobacco, tea leaves, cooking sherry, and the earthen aroma of stone architecture. Against the far wall, flanked between two glistening suits of chain mail armor, was a rough-hewn fireplace large enough to roast an ox. Walking to the hearth, the butler knelt and touched a match to a pre-laid arrangement of oak logs and kindling. A fire quickly crackled to life.
The man stood, straightening his jacket. «His master requests that you make yourselves at home.» With that, he departed, leaving Langdon and Sophie alone.
Sophie wondered which of the fireside antiques she was supposed to sit on – the Renaissance velvet divan, the rustic eagle-claw rocker, or the pair of stone pews that looked like they’d been lifted from some Byzantine temple.
Langdon unwrapped the cryptex from his coat, walked to the velvet divan, and slid the wooden box deep underneath it, well out of sight. Then, shaking out his jacket, he put it back on, smoothed the lapels, and smiled at Sophie as he sat down directly over the stashed treasure.
The divan it is , Sophie thought, taking a seat beside him.
As she stared into the growing fire, enjoying the warmth, Sophie had the sensation that her grandfather would have loved this room. The dark wood paneling was bedecked with Old Master paintings, one of which Sophie recognized as a Poussin, her grandfather’s second-favorite painter. On the mantel above the fireplace, an alabaster bust of Isis watched over the room.
Beneath the Egyptian goddess, inside the fireplace, two stone gargoyles served as andirons, their mouths gaping to reveal their menacing hollow throats. Gargoyles had always terrified Sophie as a child; that was, until her grandfather cured her of the fear by taking her atop Notre Dame Cathedral in a rainstorm. «Princess, look at these silly creatures,» he had told her, pointing to the gargoyle rainspouts with their mouths gushing water. «Do you hear that funny sound in their throats?» Sophie nodded, having to smile at the burping sound of the water gurgling through their throats. «They’re gargling,»her grandfather told her. «Gargariser! And that’s where they get the silly name “gargoyles”.» Sophie had never again been afraid.
The fond memory caused Sophie a pang of sadness as the harsh reality of the murder gripped her again. Grand-père is gone.She pictured the cryptex under the divan and wondered if Leigh Teabing would have any idea how to open it. Or if we even should ask him.Sophie’s grandfather’s final words had instructed her to find Robert Langdon. He had said nothing about involving anyone else. We needed somewhere to hide, Sophie said, deciding to trust Robert’s judgment.
«Sir Robert!» a voice bellowed somewhere behind them. «I see you travel with a maiden.»
Langdon stood up. Sophie jumped to her feet as well. The voice had come from the top of a curled staircase that snaked up to the shadows of the second floor. At the top of the stairs, a form moved in the shadows, only his silhouette visible.
«Good evening,» Langdon called up. «Sir Leigh, may I present Sophie Neveu.» «An honor.» Teabing moved into the light.» Thank you for having us,» Sophie said, now seeing the man wore metal leg braces and used crutches. He was coming down one stair at a time. «I realize it’s quite late.»
«It is so late, my dear, it’s early.» He laughed. «Vous n’êtes pas Américaine?»
Sophie shook her head. «Parisienne.»
«Your English is superb.»
«Thank you. I studied at the Royal Holloway.»
«So then, that explains it.» Teabing hobbled lower through the shadows. «Perhaps Robert told you I schooled just down the road at Oxford.» Teabing fixed Langdon with a devilish smile. «Of course, I also applied to Harvard as my safety school.»
Their host arrived at the bottom of the stairs, appearing to Sophie no more like a knight than Sir Elton John. Portly and ruby-faced, Sir Leigh Teabing had bushy red hair and jovial hazel eyes that seemed to twinkle as he spoke. He wore pleated pants and a roomy silk shirt under a paisley vest. Despite the aluminum braces on his legs, he carried himself with a resilient, vertical dignity that seemed more a by-product of noble ancestry than any kind of conscious effort.
Teabing arrived and extended a hand to Langdon. «Robert, you’ve lost weight.» Langdon grinned. «And you’ve found some.» Teabing laughed heartily, patting his rotund belly. «Touché. My only carnal pleasures these days seem to be culinary.» Turning now to Sophie, he gently took her hand, bowing his head slightly, breathing lightly on her fingers, and diverting his eyes. «M’lady.»
Sophie glanced at Langdon, uncertain whether she’d stepped back in time or into a nuthouse.
The butler who had answered the door now entered carrying a tea service, which he arranged on a table in front of the fireplace.
«This is Rémy Legaludec,» Teabing said,» my manservant.»
The slender butler gave a stiff nod and disappeared yet again.
«Rémy is Lyonais,»Teabing whispered, as if it were an unfortunate disease. «But he does sauces quite nicely.»
Langdon looked amused. «I would have thought you’d import an English staff?»
«Good heavens, no! I would not wish a British chef on anyone except the French tax collectors.» He glanced over at Sophie. «Pardonnez-moi, Mademoiselle Neveu. Please be assured that my distaste for the French extends only to politics and the soccer pitch. Your government steals my money, and your football squad recently humiliated us.»
Sophie offered an easy smile.
Teabing eyed her a moment and then looked at Langdon. «Something has happened. You both look shaken.»
Langdon nodded. «We’ve had an interesting night, Leigh.»
«No doubt. You arrive on my doorstep unannounced in the middle of the night speaking of the Grail. Tell me, is this indeed about the Grail, or did you simply say that because you know it is the lone topic for which I would rouse myself in the middle of the night?»
A little of both , Sophie thought, picturing the cryptex hidden beneath the couch. «Leigh,» Langdon said,» we’d like to talk to you about the Priory of Sion.» Teabing’s bushy eyebrows arched with intrigue. «The keepers. So this is indeed about the Grail. You say you come with information? Something new, Robert?»
«Perhaps. We’re not quite sure. We might have a better idea if we could get some information from you first.»
Teabing wagged his finger. «Ever the wily American. A game of quid pro quo. Very well. I am at your service. What is it I can tell you?»
Langdon sighed. «I was hoping you would be kind enough to explain to Ms. Neveu the true nature of the Holy Grail.»
Teabing looked stunned. «She doesn’t know?»
Langdon shook his head.
The smile that grew on Teabing’s face was almost obscene. «Robert, you’ve brought me a virgin?»
Langdon winced, glancing at Sophie. «Virgin is the term Grail enthusiasts use to describe anyone who has never heard the true Grail story.»
Teabing turned eagerly to Sophie. «How much do you know, my dear?»
Sophie quickly outlined what Langdon had explained earlier – the Priory of Sion, the Knights Templar, the Sangreal documents, and the Holy Grail, which many claimed was not a cup… but rather something far more powerful.
«That’s all?» Teabing fired Langdon a scandalous look. «Robert, I thought you were a gentleman. You’ve robbed her of the climax!»
«I know, I thought perhaps you and I could…» Langdon apparently decided the unseemly metaphor had gone far enough.
Teabing already had Sophie locked in his twinkling gaze. «You are a Grail virgin, my dear. And trust me, you will never forget your first time.»