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Obscurity, The Seventeenth Chapter
In which we learn the history of three nuns named Marie, and perceive a threat to their future.
We last read The Sixteenth Chapter, in which the couturier discovered a door in the philanthropist’s quarters, and it revealed a defect in his character.
We have not spoken of the three nuns named Marie at any great depth, for until now we have been preoccupied by other stories. But the first Marie comes to our attention now with great urgency. For as the town was ravaged by malice, she became its next victim.
If we remember correctly, Marie the first, second, and third happened upon the widow in a port town on the brink of the French Revolution. How they got there was a matter of some consequence. The convents had been largely turned out by that point, l’Assemblée Nationale having determined another use for the Church’s most lucrative real estate. Unfortunately, there was a particularly rebellious convent in a suburb of Paris who had decided to evade those orders.
The convent at Saint-Denis was a teaching establishment—one that taught the poor children of its community and could not see a viable reason for the cessation of that teaching. The priest of that convent was a determined scholar, set upon the belief that as followers of the Ursulines, their focus was on education, not renunciation. He had thus resolved himself not to give up that spiritual vocation for the greed of his fellow countrymen.
At the same time, there was a young boy named Ignace who attended the convent for school. He was a bright child, yet impoverished—exactly the sort the priest did not wish to forsake. Ignace dreamed of being an explorer and a discoverer—of charting new territories and discovering their secrets. But though the priest prayed the child might one day meet those dreams, that through education he might rise above his station and have every opportunity to succeed, the child made one crucial and fatal error.
One afternoon, as the day turned to dusk and the sound of vespers were heard rather severely, Ignace happened to overhear a conversation between the priest and a member of l’Assemblée Nationale. He listened most attentively, though he could not understand all that was said, until his teacher discovered him and shoved him away toward the door. Thus reprimanded for his lingering, Ignace departed the convent and made his way home, wondering what he should tell his father of his discoveries.
The father of Ignace was a most fearful man. He was a Jacobin, though we use that term quite loosely in his case. Like many Parisians of his time, he was a Jacobin only by means of protection and would be a royalist just as easily should the monarchy happen to return. Self-preservation was his religion, more so than any particular ethos, and so the father of Ignace was careful not to associate with anyone who could be seen as an enemy of the state. When his son mentioned the rebellious streak of the priest, he boarded up his home lest any should try to convict him of such treasony. Times being what they were, a convent who refused orders was a great danger to the community that harbored it.
From that day forward there were murmurs in Saint-Denis. Ignace’s father mentioned to his butcher that the convent was hiding some royalist. The butcher wondered aloud to his bartender whether it was a refractory priest the convent were hiding. With only a few whispered words, the beast that had destroyed the monarchy of France had come to destroy the Church of Rome. The community became so ruled by the notion that their country might consider them conspirators, that they became conspirators in their own right. This was not, we hasten to add, the most logical of reactions. But fear works in that way, it can rid even the most sensible man of his senses. Especially when he is already intoxicated by the fear of his fellow men.
Coiling up from the ground like an asp preparing to strike, the villagers rose up against their religion. They stormed the convent walls and desecrated the abbey. They tore nuns from their beds and threw their naked bodies into the streets. They tied them to bedposts and flogged them with belt buckles. They spat in their faces and ripped hair from their heads. They raped them and beat them. They burned them with fire. Fear swept through the town like a plague, touching each and every soul until at last, the priest walked into the center of it and the chaos fell still.
Silence settled upon the town as everyone turned to see their tormenter. The one who, only three months ago was their saint and now was their sinner. The sky ripped in two as a dark storm cloud rumbled across the brilliant blue sky, framing the holy man with both darkness and light and the effect produced a sort of twilight—that moment when dawn and dusk are suspended in a delicate balance until at last the twilight tips in one direction or the other. Either to day or to night.
For a moment, the world stood still, hovering in the space between. Every breath held wondering which way the winds would turn. Just as it was at Calvary, there was the presence of evil just as clearly as there was the presence of good and the two clashed against one another violently.
The priest looked toward the sky for a moment, then there was the gleam of a blade and the spatter of blood. And the darkness descended upon them.
Sometimes it is only in the midst of hell that we can see heaven. So it was for the first nun named Marie. She felt the commotion as surely as she heard it and ran out into the streets to meet it. There a hand had grabbed her arm, spinning her to face the center of the village. When she turned to see the one who had grabbed her, no one was there.
Her eyes adjusted to the commotion and she saw her advisor in the middle of it. He stood framed by a tormented sky. On the one side a summer's day, on the other a stormy night. His eyes gazed toward hers, holding her with a knowing look. She knew what was about to happen with every fiber of her being, so did he. Both knew the darkness intimately and saw it gathering toward him.
But then, just as surely as she had seen the shadows pull from every corner of the town, dimming the scene as in a vignette, she saw a light—a celestial presence that poured down upon him. The man looked up, transfixed by it as she was. It was then that the darkness reached the hand of the father of Ignace, forcing a blade into his palm and slashing it across the spiritual man’s throat.
It was too late. For the light had found the priest before the darkness, and it had taken his soul away before his very last breath—Marie bore witness to it. She knew the darkness, but she saw the light—It had loved him, It had known him, It was as though the holy man had signed a contract many lifetimes before this one, to live in the mire so that those who did also might find relief from it.
Marie felt this profoundly in her being. As though she remembered it from a dream. She too walked through the valley of the shadow of death, but death could not touch her. Like the darkness that hovered over the deep before Providence whispered, “let there be light,” it was there before it all. And so was she.
Gathering two of her comrades, the three nuns named Marie escaped on the back of a spice cart, traveling to the port town of Dieppe with no hope of crossing the ocean. None, that is, until they happened upon a mysterious woman standing alone on the dock. A deep slab of darkness obscured her, and then a flicker of the ocean revealed the portrait in her arms. The Virgin Mary mourning the torments of humanity. A sign from the heavens above.
We will not devote much time to the journey. For though it was eventful in every sense of the word, all transatlantic journeys were at that time, and that is not the focus of our story. Of course, food and water rations ran low, storms rendered the ship off course, and the journey took twice as long as originally estimated. The most pandemic of all was the fever, but then, even that was to be expected. Before Christophe Colombe had found his way to San Salvador, there had been no crossing of the seas and therefore no exposure to the hazards of the western lands. Tropical climates and the air they breathed proved detrimental to French sensibilities. Half the crew died fevered and delirious during the perilous journey.
But our story concerns not the ones who left us, but rather the ones who continued: the Comtesse, and three nuns named Marie, all of whom arrived grateful that they had survived and anxious for what was to come. They landed first on the southernmost coast of Saint-Domingue, then continued to the port of la Nouvelle-Orléans.
Over the course of one year, this small camaraderie had seen one husband murdered, one convent closed, and one priest sacrificed to the revolution. Now, for the first time, they stood on the bow of the ship together with the luxury of free thought and the ability to let the unconscious mind wander where it would.
The four women stood on the bow of the boat, free from the cloak of the nobility or the veil of the clergy. The air was warm and thick, holding them as if in a comforting embrace. They breathed in the tropical air, reveling in it its extraordinary scent, and thought only of the sunrise, the one that would light up a very new life for her by the time it dawned in the morning.
The first Marie was the most devout in nature—one who joined the order not out of poverty or responsibility, but for spiritual enlightenment alone. How she had always loved her Savior with the utmost attention, pursing Him as one would a lover or a father.
Now fever reached her, a wasting sickness slowly luring her to her death. This was not uncommon in those days, and there were many who succumbed to the fevers that so ravaged that city, but the first Marie was happy with her lot, feeling her Savior draw nearer to her by the day, inviting her beyond the veil that separated this world from the next one.
How she longed for that world, she thought. How she prayed for it. How she never ceased to devote herself to it even as fever gripped hold of her body and delirium took hold of her mind. As the second and third Marie’s knelt by her bedside, the abbess joining them in their vigil, Marie descended into sickness, calling out to her Providence with all the ecstasy of a mystic now nearing her heavenly home.
“How beautiful!” she said brightly, her eyes rapturous with emotion as tears streamed down her face. “How beautiful! Oh, but it is all so simple! How very blessed are we! How very blessed am I! Take me Spirit! Take me into Your love! That I might see what You see and hear what You hear. That I might love as You love and so live eternally in Your favor. Oh, take me Lord!! Take me!!!”
She began weeping in earnest, her arms outstretched for some unseen specter, her body yearning for some unknown paradise, and then all at once she collapsed onto the bed, weary and exhausted, shuddering with tears and moaning with otherworldly pleasures. “Take me.” she kept repeating, muttering softly as her lips purpled and her skin paled—the fever falling upon her as a dew falls upon a bed of wildflowers.
For a time, Marie appeared unconscious, her body sinking into the white starched sheets as Christ’s might have done in his shroud. A lone ray of sunshine fell through a shuttered window alighting upon her face and then a flood of light poured in as the door opened suddenly, the striking figure of the widow appearing before them.
Her face was pale and stricken, her eyes wet, she hurried to her sister and held her into her arms. “Oh, my darling,” she cried. “Oh, my darling sister.” She pulled back to look at Marie then, and at once the girl appeared to awake.
“Oh Séverine,” Marie cried softly, “don’t cry for me! Don’t waste your tears on so perfect a day as this. For today I go to my Creator and how I have longed for His embrace! To have Him hold me in His arms! To have His breath upon my skin. Oh blessed day!”
Séverine held her friend’s face in her hands, searching into that half gone soul, wondering what wonders lay beyond so mysterious a door as death. Marie’s eyes glistened with a hope that might yet be realized and an eternity that might yet exist. She fell back onto her pillow, her eyes filled with rapture.
Marie reached one hand toward that ray of light, her fingers touching it delicately, scattering sparkling particles in their wake. Then with one last breath, she looked into that beyond, her eyes welling with tears as she was taken into that mystery and a gasp of awe befell her.
Séverine fell to tears, kneeling on the floor as her sisters placed their hands in hers, pondering a loss that would never again be found. In that holy moment, the four watched as the sun shifted, the ray ceased to shine through the shutter, and a black night befell that faithful spirit. Silent prayers were murmured on trembling lips, as they held one another’s hands in their own.
There is a recklessness that attends to those living in captivity, and Séverine found herself in its grips. After so many nights spent barricaded within her home, now she now stood in the cemetery at the tomb of her friend, daring any troubled spirit to near her. She was a dangerous woman, she thought, and none could stand against so wild a spirit as hers.
She stood alone, a low wind tugging at her veil as a restless cloud obscured the dimming sky. She did not attend the funeral, for it posed a public risk to her person, but she came to her friend now, the mercenary watching at the gate for any phantom that might harm her. The sound of a violin fell upon her ears, though she could not discern if it were that of a nearing troubadour or the workings of her own solemn mind.
She did not cry, for she was not sad—such adverse emotions could no longer reach her. Rather, she felt a great peace. Death was no longer the grim clanking of a man in irons, she thought, but a sweet melody upon the wind. Though she would hear her friend’s voice no longer, her song would continue to be sung by those who had loved her, and her spirit would live on in them. As she pondered that beautiful soul, a shadow moved before her, just as she knew it would.
“Monsieur le Comte,” she said, welcoming her visitor.
There was no response. Not a sound, not a movement. Somewhere from within the convent walls she heard the chorister voices rise in song, a low hymn hummed by mourning spirits. The song shrouded Séverine’s ears until she could no longer hear the movements of her obscured guest. She knew his presence was near to her, she felt his rotted spirit watching her, and yet she had no fear. This was but a troubled man, she thought, and one who would haunt her no more.
Her recklessness made her bold, and she turned to face her wayward husband. She could not see him, nor could she sense his location, but she wanted him to see her. To see the woman she had become. She was no longer the wasted property of a depraved man, but the strengthened woman who had freed herself from his tyranny. Here she was unfettered by the chains that once bound her, emboldened by the freedom that now consumed her, and unwilling to be captured once again.
As if in evidence of that fact, a blade was revealed from the folds in her skirts, shining in the gleam of the coming moon. He sensed her danger, this she knew. She was a great threat to him now and he was well aware of it. She stepped forward with authority, walking between the tombs, and daring him to make his move against so foreboding a woman as she. No move was made, no rustle save the branches now stirring in a warm wind, and then she moved to the gate where Monsieur Delacroix stood.
She gave one last look to the cemetery as Rémy shut the iron gates behind her, and they left.
We next read The Eighteenth Chapter, in which a missionary turns up dead and drifting in a canoe.