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Obscurity, The First Chapter
In which we meet Monsieur Le Propriétaire at his death bed.
We last read The Prologue, in which a mysterious woman turned up at the Plantation St. Vincent.
The brewing melancholy outside seemed to quiet as the cloaked man escorted the young woman into the estate—the night sinking its teeth into their skin as they followed the abbess down narrow corridors, through winding passages, and up creaking staircases, a single candle lighting their way through that perfect stillness.
Hushed voices followed them where they walked, whispered prayers lost from the mouths of the nuns who kept vigil, their words wandering against the walls until they could be heard no longer. At last, a heavy wooden door sealed them in silence as they found themselves in the bedchambers of the baron of the estate—the air shrouded with infection and sickness.
A large four-poster bed, Gothic in its carving, was draped with a red velvet canopy and laden with red velvet quilts—the man beneath them tortured by the weight of his own demise. Blackened veins coursed through his pale complexion, his face was contorted in agony, and his blood seeped into his sheets from some unseen ailment.
The woman knelt by his bedside, removing her silk gloves that he might take her hands. His lips were rough, calloused with the dread of the dead, his breath hollow as the air in an ancient crypt. With that stale kiss upon her hand, she bowed her head in penitent prayer by his bedside, that his soul might seek rest, and her own absolution.
The evening prior, that same woman sat in the private quarters of the cloaked man’s ship, anchored just beyond the shores of the port de Nouvelle-Orléans. He poured a glass of eau de vie for his guest as the candlesticks dripped to their ends between them.
The woman studied his face over the flickering light as they sipped lower into their glasses, the evening slipping away with the last dregs of their spirits. At one time, she imagined, the captain might have been a young gentleman, living his life in Paris and readying himself for a life at sea. Perhaps he was ambitious. Perhaps he was desirous of increasing his stature by working his way through the ranks until those around him, at last, called him captain. Perhaps he had intended for his life to be one of prestige and reverence.
She wondered what had turned him from honest work to dishonest work. From the merchant sailor who imported fine silks for her parents’ textiles business to the opportunist who had since sailed her across the seas. Had it only been the times and the inability to make a living from a country on the brink of revolution?
Perhaps he wondered the same about her. How a Comtesse of noble birth and marriage came to flee France aboard the ship of a privateer—without the benefit of her husband to escort her or her wealth to support her. Perhaps they were both escaping some forlorn past, she thought, and hoping for a more favorable future.
“I have been working with your family since I was ten years of age,” he began, as if able to determine the contents of her mind from the contents of her eyes. “At the time, the business was my father’s and I his first mate. And if you’re wondering how long I’ve been in the business of privateering, the answer is about five years less than that.”
He poured them each a second glass of eau de vie before continuing.
“Your parents were honest traders, at first. Just as we were honest merchants, at first. Together we had big plans. Plans that would see your parents successful traders and myself, one day, a successful captain.
“As a young man, I dreamed not of wealth but of adventure. I heard tales of exotic lands where a woman’s skin was as dark as the night sky, where vines grew unruly and untamed, and where wild hunters prowled the jungle. I heard tales of bloodthirsty predators, of creatures living beneath the swamps prepared to eat the spirits of those who trespassed in their murk.”
“Is it true?” the Comtesse asked, fascinated despite herself.
“All of it and more. But I also learned the way of the world and I saw the dishonesty in it. A steadfast merchant such as myself did not stand a chance against someone less virtuous than I. Whatever I bought or sold could so easily be stolen once aboard the ship. I returned to France often enough without a cent to my name and with a crew sick and dying of fever.
“By the time I was fifteen, my father was added to the list of the dead and your parents were penniless with a five-year-old to feed. Their fledgling textiles business could not afford to purchase another shipment and I was only one famine away from losing the only thing I ever owned, this ship, which was handed down to me by my father.
“Despite our best intentions on land, the seas were dishonest, and if we were to sail them we would have to play by their rules. It was easy to find a crew disreputable enough to work for naught and hardened enough by life to fight for it. I promised them only food when we had it and a share in the profits when we made it. But that was well enough for those who had nothing.
“Within five more years, your parents had all the finest dyes and silks they could get their hands on and wealth, the size of which, could not even be measured. They flooded the streets of Lyon with manufacturing facilities and jobs. The town even had the wherewithal to make your father the mayor. Another five years passed, and your parents had set their sights on Paris. All they needed was a means of distribution.”
“My marriage,” the Comtesse answered knowingly.
The captain nodded. “An entrance into society. And useful you proved on such a front. Your dressmaking business turned a small fortune for your parents and I heard tales it lined your own pockets as well.”
“I’m sure you are aware that none of my wealth remains,” the Comtesse answered, holding his gaze.
“Ah, but it does. You have wealth of spirit and that is of the greatest worth to enterprising individuals such as myself. I’ve seen you on the bow of the ship at night, your eyes fast on the horizon. And I see the same character in you that I once saw in myself: a world that has tried to shackle you and a will to be set free.”
The Comtesse turned her gaze and a tear fell down her cheek unbidden—a small hint of the secret she still kept and the sin she still bore.
"I know what you’ve done,” the captain said, more thunderously than before. “At least I can guess to it. But you were merely playing a game that was stacked up against you, just as I was. And before you speak to me of sin and all the perils of Hell, allow me to tell you that I do not believe a word of it. Not for a second.
“I have seen the very edges of this earth—the mountains cloaked with Providence’s glory and the geysers spewing Satan's wrath. I have seen missionaries murdered by the natives they had come to serve, their organs cut from their bodies while their lungs still had air enough to breathe, and I have seen proprietors grow rich from the hands of the slaves they slaughter, hanging their heads from the fence posts in warning to the others.
“When you see the world as it is, you recognize it for its truth. That there is good in it as surely as there is evil, but a person’s character has nothing to do with it. Amidst the spiritual warfare that rages between God and Satan, what can humans do but play the hand we’ve been dealt? If we get caught up in this evil or that good, it’s only because we’re the spoils of war, not because we deserve it any more or any less.”
The Comtesse felt as though the captain was responding to the very anguish of her spirit. He saw the darkness that lived inside her and he appealed to it. Though only his eyes touched hers, she felt as though she were naked before him. As if he touched every part of her body, though in actuality he only touched every part of her soul—and that was perhaps all the more exposing.
“The most virtuous person on earth can be killed by the Devil and the most murderous wretch can be rewarded by Providence,” he continued. “The only thing that matters is that we have the grit enough to make it through the battlefield. I may know nothing of the next world, but in this one, we have only the choices we make and the consequences that result from them. And even then, the consequences can be mitigated if you take care enough to avoid them.”
The Comtesse considered the captain. His arms were bronzed by the sun, strengthened by years of heavy labor and scarred by the many battles of living.
“What is your Christian name?” he asked her then.
“Séverine—” she began.
“Séverine,” he interrupted. “You will not need the rest where we are going.”
“Who is there?” the dying man rasped, his voice scratching at the gates of Hell as the memory lapsed from her mind.
“It is your wife,” the woman replied, glancing briefly at the abbess. “Séverine St. Vincent.”
The man smiled then, the stale breath of the dead falling from his lips as he attempted a laugh—a retched thing that fell from his mouth in fits of anguish and blood.
“My wife,” he repeated when he regained his composure, his eyes appearing for a moment to see the captain beside him. “Please, a kiss for your husband before he departs.”
Séverine leaned in slowly, aware that the abbess watched from the doorway as she placed a kiss upon the man’s cheek.
“Please,” he requested, “I would but taste your lips once more.”
Séverine drew near to her husband, allowing him to taste, with his last inhale, the succulent dew upon her lips and drink, with his last exhale, the warm summer’s day upon her neck. She shivered, as though a cruel winter’s night had touched her, draining the moisture from her lips and the warmth from her skin.
The door creaked open and a chill shuddered down her spine.
“He’s gone,” the captain said. “Madame St. Vincent.”
The abbess stood in the doorway, a fortress against whatever spirits might attempt to lay claim to the corpse.
“Madame,” she said finally, “are you feeling altogether well?”
The widow St. Vincent looked up at the abbess, unable to comprehend her words at first. But then she removed her hands from the grip of the dead man and, touching her fingers to her lips found the blackened blood of death upon them.
We next read The Second Chapter, in which the ménagère of the Estate St. Vincent has a disturbing premonition.