The Sprawling 185-acre estate of Chateau Villette was located twenty-five minutes northwest of Paris in the environs of Versailles. Designed by François Mansart in 1668 for the Count of Aufflay, it was one of Paris's most significant historical chateaux. Complete with two rectangular lakes and gardens designed by Le Nôtre, Chateau Villette was more of a modest castle than a mansion. The estate fondly had become known as la Petite Versailles.
Langdon brought the armored truck to a shuddering stop at the foot of the mile-long driveway. Beyond the imposing security gate, Sir Leigh Teabing's residence rose on a meadow in the distance.
The sign on the gate was in English:
As if to proclaim his home a British Isle unto itself, Teabing had not only posted his signs in English, but he had installed his gate's intercom entry system on the right-hand side of the truck - the passenger's side everywhere in Europe except England. Sophie gave the misplaced intercom an odd look. "And if someone arrives without a passenger?" "Don't ask." Langdon had already been through that with Teabing. "He prefers things the way they are at home."
Sophie rolled down her window. "Robert, you'd better do the talking."
Langdon shifted his position, leaning out across Sophie to press the intercom button. As he did, an alluring whiff of Sophie's perfume filled his nostrils, and he realized how close they were. He waited there, awkwardly prone, while a telephone began ringing over the small speaker.
Finally, the intercom crackled and an irritated French accent spoke. "Chateau Villette. Who is calling?"
"This is Robert Langdon," Langdon called out, sprawled across Sophie's lap. "I'm a friend of Sir Leigh Teabing. I need his help."
"My master is sleeping. As was I. What is your business with him?" "It is a private matter. One of great interest to him." "Then I'm sure he will be pleased to receive you in the morning." Langdon shifted his weight. "It's quite important." "As is Sir Leigh's sleep. If you are a friend, then you are aware he is in poor health."
Sir Leigh Teabing had suffered from polio as a child and now wore leg braces and walked with crutches, but Langdon had found him such a lively and colorful man on his last visit that it hardly seemed an infirmity. "If you would, please tell him I have uncovered new information about the Grail. Information that cannot wait until morning."
There was a long pause.
Langdon and Sophie waited, the truck idling loudly.
A full minute passed.
Finally, someone spoke. "My good man, I daresay you are still on Harvard Standard Time." The voice was crisp and light.
Langdon grinned, recognizing the thick British accent. "Leigh, my apologies for waking you at this obscene hour."
"My manservant tells me that not only are you in Paris, but you speak of the Grail."
"I thought that might get you out of bed." "And so it has." "Any chance you'd open the gate for an old friend?"
"Those who seek the truth are more than friends. They are brothers." Langdon rolled his eyes at Sophie, well accustomed to Teabing's predilection for dramatic antics. "Indeed I will open the gate," Teabing proclaimed," but first I must confirm your heart is true. A test of your honor. You will answer three questions."
Langdon groaned, whispering at Sophie. "Bear with me here. As I mentioned, he's something of a character." "Your first question," Teabing declared, his tone Herculean. "Shall I serve you coffee, or tea?" Langdon knew Teabing's feelings about the American phenomenon of coffee. "Tea," he replied." Earl Grey."
"Excellent. Your second question. Milk or sugar?" Langdon hesitated." Milk,"Sophie whispered in his ear. "I think the British take milk." "Milk," Langdon said. Silence. "Sugar?" Teabing made no reply.
Wait! Langdon now recalled the bitter beverage he had been served on his last visit and realized this question was a trick. "Lemon!" he declared. "Earl Grey with lemon"
"Indeed." Teabing sounded deeply amused now. "And finally, I must make the most grave of inquiries." Teabing paused and then spoke in a solemn tone. "In which year did a Harvard sculler last outrow an Oxford man at Henley?"
Langdon had no idea, but he could imagine only one reason the question had been asked. "Surely such a travesty has never occurred."
The gate clicked open. "Your heart is true, my friend. You may pass."
"Monsieur Vernet!" The night manager of the Depository Bank of Zurich felt relieved to hear the bank president's voice on the phone. "Where did you go, sir? The police are here, everyone is waiting for you!"
"I have a little problem," the bank president said, sounding distressed. "I need your help right away."
You have more than a little problem, the manager thought. The police had entirely surrounded the bank and were threatening to have the DCPJ captain himself show up with the warrant the bank had demanded. "How can I help you, sir?" "Armored truck number three. I need to find it." Puzzled, the manager checked his delivery schedule. "It's here. Downstairs at the loading dock." "Actually, no. The truck was stolen by the two individuals the police are tracking." "What? How did they drive out?"
"I can't go into the specifics on the phone, but we have a situation here that could potentially be extremely unfortunate for the bank."
"What do you need me to do, sir?"
"I'd like you to activate the truck's emergency transponder."
The night manager's eyes moved to the LoJack control box across the room. Like many armored cars, each of the bank's trucks had been equipped with a radio-controlled homing device, which could be activated remotely from the bank. The manager had only used the emergency system once, after a hijacking, and it had worked flawlessly - locating the truck and transmitting the coordinates to the authorities automatically. Tonight, however, the manager had the impression the president was hoping for a bit more prudence. "Sir, you are aware that if I activate the LoJack system, the transponder will simultaneously inform the authorities that we have a problem."
Vernet was silent for several seconds. "Yes, I know. Do it anyway. Truck number three. I'll hold. I need the exact location of that truck the instant you have it." "Right away, sir."
Thirty seconds later, forty kilometers away, hidden in the undercarriage of the armored truck, a tiny transponder blinked to life.
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 Chateau 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-pere 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'etes pas Americaine?"
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. "Touche. 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 Remy Legaludec," Teabing said," my manservant."
The slender butler gave a stiff nod and disappeared yet again.
"Remy 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."