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Obscurity, The Sixteenth Chapter
In which the couturier discovers something in the philanthropist’s quarters, and it reveals a defect in his character.
We last read The Fifteenth Chapter, in which we met the Comte, and discovered him in the rather unfortunate company of his wife.
Séverine knelt at her prie-dieu, her black veil covering her head, her fingers intertwined before her. She did not pray the lord's prayer, for it no longer suited her. She did not pray the rosary, for it no longer nourished her. Instead, she just sat there.
She should feel guilty for her dalliance, she thought, for taking a lover into her bed. Indeed, she was still a married woman in the eyes of the Church and would be considered a harlot for such crimes. And yet seemingly overnight had no use for such stipulations and now determined to remove all trace of them from her mind.
She was disinterested in being yoked to some sense of regulatory goodness. That path only subjected her to the depraved tortures of her husband and the insidious haunting of his unmurdered soul. Instead, she resolved to follow her own sense of goodness, and those were much easier set of steps to determine.
Though she did not know what her purpose was or if there was such a thing, that only instilled in her the need to protect those near to her. Though she did not know where her soul would rest when she died, that only instilled in her the need to fight for each moment. There were no hours to pray, no scriptures to read, no penance to do, she had only to live her one and precious life and see that it was lived to the full.
She still adored her Catholic faith, but no longer for its truth. She attended mass, but only to admire its beauty. She pondered the Virgin Mother, but no longer required her virginity. She meditated on the resurrection of her son, but she no longer required that act literally. She cherished the stories of the bible for they enriched her contemplative life, but her faith no longer depended on their truth to exist.
Where once religion had provided all the answers, now she allowed herself to question, and in that question, she found a new sense of freedom—as though Divine Providence had been slowly unraveling the fabric from which she had been woven and now she was free to be fashioned into anything she liked.
How long ago it seemed, that she bore the guilt of her husband’s supposed death, and how far she had come since then. Moving to la Nouvelle-Orléans had been a gift, a gentle freeing of her spirit. She was under no obligation to live life by any other means save her own, she realized, and sometimes love, and even murder, could be acceptable aspects of that life, if used under the appropriate conditions.
She bowed her head and felt that contentedness sit over her, much as a cloud sits over a bed of wildflowers. There she found her peace and so remained for many moments, safe from the snares of hell that dwelt so near her.
Across the marshes now hardened by the sun, where the muddy streets of la Nouvelle-Orléans began to dry and the stench of sewage began to recede, the city once rendered sordid by the spring, became sultry by the summer. The air hung heavy above the cathedral, as the bishop rang his bell and errant feet quickened to their pews.
The cathedral was yet unfinished, allowing vines to creep in through the exposed roof and rays of sun to pour through unpaned windows. The heat from those rays was intoxicating. Over clad women fanned sweat from their necks, attempting to keep each drop from falling between their breasts. Equally over clad gentlemen sweat into their coats as their eyes lingered at so sinful a sight. Latin words drifted above that tropical tableau, but no ear paid them any attention. An islandic fever had taken hold of every mind until it could think of nothing else save the impending allure of a warm afternoon triste.
Religion was important to these individuals, bien sur, for it provided, if not the moral foundation for their society, then at least the societal one. Piety, or at least the appearance of it, came with a certain status and prestige and they used it to separate those wretched individuals who were exiled to their city from the more devout Catholics who came to save it. They even invented hierarchies for it—ones that would place them at a higher standard merely by their ancestral conformity to it.
The rule of limpieza de sangre, as it became known, was created to certify that an individual's lineage was free from heresy for at least five generations. This was difficult to achieve in a place so diverse as la Nouvelle-Orléans, and for all that, a more coveted a position.
Our philanthropist surely could not provide such certification and our society made sure of that. His background was unknown, his ancestry disputed. Were it not for his wealth, he would have achieved no stature and the lords and ladies of la Louisiane used that knowledge to supersede his influence, placing themselves at an elevated class than he by the very virtue of their birth.
It was a convenient clause for it made superior the self-righteous, and inferior the devout. The Christ had met beings such as these. On an afternoon not dissimilar to this one, the Pharisees prided themselves on their virtuosity and used their religiosity for personal and professional gain—until a carpenter from Galilee turned the tables on the hierarchy. Those lords and ladies of la Nouvelle-Orléans did much the same, lauding their devoutness as proof of their own prestige and yet they foolish not to see that their own tables might be turned soon enough.
As we well know, there are none more judgmental of the Catholics, than the Catholics. Though Providence can be used by quiet thoughts for love, it can also be used by loud voices for hate and the lords and ladies of la Nouvelle-Orléans used their religion to shout their superiority—their godliness. They made clear their distaste for the philanthropist and his incessant attempts to purchase their regard, even as they considered themselves more sanctimonious than he.
And so, that afternoon, when the summer heat had worked each mind into a mild cacophony, the philanthropist attempted to sit in the box he had purchased for himself and the governor stood to contest him. All eyes turned toward the conflict, unwilling to provide their sympathies for the philanthropist, and yet unwilling to deny their loathing of him.
The governor held his face stern, desperate to prove himself more in control of the city than his wealthy opponent. The two men looked at one another for a moment, then the philanthropist turned to leave, a small smile curling at the corner of his lips.
It was said that the governor sent a strongly worded letter of the incident to his superiors after that, but the next Sunday, the philanthropist would resume his position in the cathedral, and the governor would look on with loathing.
The philanthropist could not be bothered by the ilks of society. For those with the most wealth held the most power and he was a very powerful man indeed. He laughed at their feeble attempts to place themselves above him in rank and in stature, for they knew in their hearts they had no choice but to make obeisance to him.
He held their very lives in his hands. He had purchased the hospital and staffed it. He had purchased the lamplighters and policed them. With all his riches, he could pay a man to kill every single one of them if he so desired and he could pay off the police to get away with it. They were mere gnats biting at his skin and they could never impale a giant such as he.
Of course, the philanthropist’s reality was not an agreed upon one. For he saw himself through a lens that magnified his accomplishments and diminished his misdeeds. Lacking the sort of self-doubt that allows an individual to be humbled, he achieved a level of self-satisfaction that only his own ego could agree upon. Like Narcissus before him, he saw his own reflection and felt most deserving of it, or at least he told himself so with great regularity.
Indeed, he enjoyed his prosperity immensely and he used that prosperity to purchase favors from the couturière who now frequented his bed. She came to his quarters whenever he called for her, beholden as she must have been by his wealth and prestige. Even as he passed by her pew in the cathedral, she stood to follow him, knowing him to be of one mind.
The two walked in silence behind one another until they reached the philanthropist’s quarters, he entering through the front door and she crossing into the courtyard through a servant’s entrance. In her presence the philanthropist felt himself like the sultan from the Thousand and One Nights. And, like the woman from the Thousand and One Nights, she was more adept than any courtesan he’d had the pleasure to bed.
Her mind was that of a cunning snake and her body that of a skilled seductress. When she entered his chambers, she withdrew her cloak, allowing him to watch her undress as he laid back on his bed with his hands behind his head.
She would tease him at first, taunting his body with her fingertips before focusing her lips between his legs. As she lured his body into pleasure, she coaxed his mind into ever climaxing heights of his own grandeur. Some lowly governor might attempt to take his seat in church, he thought, but what need had he of a pew, when he could purchase the finest mouth in all la Nouvelle-Orléans and place it wheresoever he chose?
That the governor might be reduced to such petty measures was proof enough of his ineptitude, he thought. For the man had not the means nor the power to bed any woman save his wife—and if he could not afford such a modest favor, what use was he to a bustling city, with ample financial burdens.
As the sun shone through his windows, alighting the gold gilded frame of his four-poster bed, the philanthropist reveled in his own virility, his own strength. For there was nothing money could not buy him and there was nothing it did not allow him to control. He was king of this town and every peasant in it at mercy to please him.
As he bestowed upon this woman the honor of drinking from his most holy scepter, he filled his mind with delusions of grandeur. He could achieve anything he wanted to, he told himself, and there was no height to which he could not climb. His mind grew intoxicated by his own self-aggrandizement. Even more so when he witnessed the pièce de résistance of his plan.
He exulted in his ingenuity as the couturière’s eyes lit upon a door—unhinged and unhung—leaning against his wall. He saw her shock and became unable to contain his arousal as she recognized it as the one missing from the widow’s plantation. Drunk on his own indulgence, the philanthropist spilled his seed upon her. Then relaxing onto his bed, he allowed her to lick his thighs, reminded as she now was that he was the king of this small town, and she should be so lucky to lap up his largesse.
She may have charmed the sultan, he thought, but may she be reminded: just like the Thousand and One Nights, she was always one night away from her own execution should she cease to please the king.
We next read The Seventeenth Chapter, in which we learn the history of three nuns named Marie, and perceive a threat to their future.