Obscurity, The Twentieth Chapter
In which we meet the businessman once again.
We lead read The Nineteenth Chapter, in which we learned of the philanthropist’s past, and it returned to haunt him.
The captain traveled to the south of Spain where he was quick to learn the secrets the philanthropist left behind there. The residents would not soon forget the crimes committed against so prominent a businessman. They pointed him toward el Monasterio de Santa María de las Cuevas, and he walked toward the water briskly as the sun began to fall.
In Moorish times, the small islet was honeycombed with ancient caves. Draped in the billowing white vestments of their people, women wandered through the caverns, their feet pressing softly into the earth as they discovered rich deposits of clay within it. Pulling the clay from the ground, they molded it with their hands and baked it in the dim underground inlets, creating beautiful sculptures that adorned the rich tapestry of their lives.
Indeed, Moorish Spain was perhaps the most beautiful sight the ancient eye could behold. Their streets were paved and lit; exotic oranges, figs, and dates draped heavily above them. Libraries and universities were plentiful, educating residents in philosophy, astronomy, and arithmetic. Music drifted through the streets from every manner of foreign instrument. Even the poorest among them had access to the baths, hundreds of which graced the town, perfumed as they were with the incense of aromatic oils.
The Moors lived in this way for many years until a Christian king overtook them. The Moorish buildings became Christian ones and the caves that once beautified them crumbled into disrepair. It would be many years before a soldier would discover those labyrinthine caves and the elaborate vessels formed there by the hands of ancient women.
Entranced by the treasures he had found, the soldier followed the caves deeply beneath the surface of the Earth, imaging the fame and fortune that would accompany such a discovery. Soon, he became lost within the caverns, and unable to discern from which direction he had come. After a number of hours, he could no longer see the light, nor could he ignore the ghosts that dwelt there.
In utter darkness, the soldier spoke a prayer to the Virgin Mother, his words sinking softly into the cavern walls. At that moment, as though from a gleam in his armor, a light fell upon a woman’s face. It was a portrait, crudely painted by hands long ago. He reached out for it and held it to his breast as she led him away from those caverns, and out into the day. With the sun now burning brightly in his eyes, he made a study of his savior and found it to be a portrait of the Virgin Mother, her eyes dark and wizened with age, her skin bronzed as a Moorish woman.
His eyes welled with tears as he sat by the water, overcome by this miracle. Soon after, a monastery for Santa María de las Cuevas—our lady of the caves—was built to house that precious icon. She was, to them, a flame of the Christian faith that was miraculously kept burning during the years of Moorish occupation, and the Catholics came to cherish her. Over the years, her skin darkened with time and her portrait weathered with age, until the image disappeared, and there was naught but the legend to sustain her.
In her arms, men still took comfort, and so took vows of chastity before her—kneeling in the chapel as though her gaze still lingered on their skin, even though her portrait could be found no longer. It was there that the captain found the monk—a brother who had once been a very fortunate businessman but now wore the long white robes and cropped hair of the Carthusians.
His white, bowled hair belied his age and his stiffened joints the years he spent on his knees. He had lived at the monastery for ten years, leaving his cell only three times each day for the hours and once a week for a long walk in the hills. The monk lived entirely separate from the ilks of society. He took his meals in his cell and spent the great majority of his time in solitude and contemplation.
Sometimes he would garden or breathe in the salted sea air. It was different from the life he lived before, the one in which wealth had been his God, and the pursuit of it his religion. The monk had since found solace in his faith, he told the captain, and by and by found it more comforting than the wealth he worshipped in his youth. But though he spoke words of forgiveness, the captain still heard between them the smoldering coals of betrayal.
When it was the captain’s turn to speak, he spoke to that betrayal. Of a man who arrived in the new world with wealth beyond measure and who used that wealth for the subjugation of others. The captain spoke of greed, and lust, and violence. Of a man so consumed by ceaseless hunger that he would destroy an entire city for his incessant need to hold superiority over it.
A spark wandered through the monk’s eye as the captain spoke, hinting at the torch of anger he still carried inside him. When the captain had finished speaking, the monk looked up at the chapel walls, his eyes affixed as though he could still see the Santa María de las Cuevas suspended before him. She was not an ordinary woman—she was a Moorish one. One who had known the infidels intimately. Who had walked with them through the caverns, her bare feet touching the clay floors beneath them. And yet she carried the torch of the Christian faith inside her, so that one day it might be rekindled again.
The monk could no longer ignore the spark that leapt inside him. That burned for the conquest that had gone unfinished. For the score that was yet unsettled. For the wealth that had taken decades to amass, and yet now resided with another. The monk had been patient, discerning. Waiting, just as our lady had done before him. But now he was called to action. Like the lady of the caves, he too would be brought out into the light once more. His face would once more see the sun.
The monk joined the captain on his ship with nothing but the robe about his waist, the sandals upon his feet, and a brown leather ledger in his hands, but the sea was vengeful and his health not up to the fight. With each passing day, monk’s skin grew sallow and his body grew weak, but he refused to submit his soul until he could meet his traitor.
He made it to la Nouvelle-Orléans and entered into the widow’s plantation. But when he entered her sitting room and saw above her mantle a portrait of the Virgin Mother, her skin darkened as the Moorish legend had told, his eyes became wet with splendor, his hands outstretched to her glory, and he fell to the ground, never to rise again.
When his eyes closed and his body slackened by death, a single coin fell from his hand, rolled across the sitting room floor, wandered beneath the velvet chaise, circumvented the elaborate rug, and landed at the widow’s feet. One Spanish doubloon, the history of which was explained by the man’s leather ledger.
In a rage, the philanthropist pulled the couturière by her hair onto the bedroom floor. She screamed, her fingers clawing at the plush red carpets beneath her as he pulled her body toward him. Her eyes, rimmed with kohl, blackened like the eyes of a serpent, were now widened with fear. Her breath, once heaving with passion, fell unevenly, forcing the jewels at her breast to pitch light wildly across the room.
Tearing the negligee from her skin, the philanthropist turned her body to the floor, pressing her face into the carpets as he took possession of her body from behind, just as someone once took possession of his. A hot tear streaked his cheek as the memory dislodged itself from the darkest recesses of his mind. It assaulted his senses, taking hold of his lungs without his consent and causing bile to rise in his throat.
He shut his eyes tightly against it, but the memory entered his consciousness unbidden. Flashes of the small room permeated his being. Glimpses of the twin bed. The memory of a child’s young cheek pressed roughly into threadbare sheets. Tears falling from shut eyes as the priest forced his weeping, withered body upon him, his night shirt draping the child’s head like a curtain as though concealing the old man’s sins.
The philanthropist wiped the tar from his face, shoving the memory from his mind as he attempted to erase the scorn that still dwelt inside him. He was not that child anymore, he reminded himself. He was the keeper of his own destiny. He had conquered this woman’s body and now he would possess her soul.
Overcome with rage, he desecrated the woman, penetrating her so deeply he thought he might slice her open from within. But he would not stop. He wanted her to remember this moment for the rest of her life, to replay the shame every time she shut her eyes just as he was forced to replay his.
Scorned by his memories, he grew vengeful, his movements wrathful. He tried to put it out of his mind. To forget the way the priest had pushed him onto the bed, had touched his underside tenderly, longingly, had thrust his own flaccid body upon him, moaning into the child’s neck as he thrust his body inside him, so overcome by decades of dormant pleasure, the remnants of which poured down the child’s thighs in salty streams of semen long ago spoiled by age.
Trying to forget only made him remember, and the philanthropist’s body grew more aroused, more ecstatic, more consumed by a naivete once ruined, a hate left unpaid for. Betrayed by his own body, he forced himself more violently on the woman beneath him, trying to take from her what had once been taken from him. His eyes welled with tears as he thought about the rector and allowed the memory to rudely arouse him.
Impassioned by his own decrepit sins, his body at last reached the very pinnacle of pleasure, spilling the remains of his tormented soul upon her, just as the priest had once done to him. Repulsed by his own thoughts, he removed himself from the couturière and fell to the floor weeping—the couturière sobbing silently beside him, her soul tormented by an entirely other hell.
With each passing day, the philanthropist grew in his anxieties, muttering to himself as he paced in his chambers. There appeared to be no further word concerning the coin, nor of the man who sent it. The widow had suspiciously returned to town and remained secluded within her residence and the convent, the mystery drawing around her as a tempest.
After the rumors of her ménagère’s death, the widow’s reputation had retired to new depths. Where men once reviled her, now they feared her. Where women once gossiped about her, now they remained silent. Where once the widow’s allure and intrigue used to entertain them, now it frightened them. And quite unsettlingly, she frightened the philanthropist too.
For he could not cease from wondering what information she knew, and what plot she entertained. For it was her slanted handwriting upon the envelope, he worried, and her silver crest that sealed it.
His mind grew troubled. Far more so than had the widow written the truth out in its entirety. Why did she not unmask him? Why obscure him in her shadow? Why draw him into the depths of her delusions? Perhaps she was ill at mind, he thought. Perhaps she was not well in spirit. No matter which way he turned the widow’s actions over in his mind, he could not find in them any reason, any logic.
His mind tossed and turned in frightful fits, obsessing over every possible reasoning. If the widow knew of the philanthropist’s past, did the governor too? Would the rest of the town know soon enough? Would they remove him of his wealth, or worse, expose him of his childhood treachery? Would they know of the sins that stained him? That left a blemish on his soul that could not be erased? Why had no further word been said?
The philanthropist continued in this way for several days until at last he fell into disease. His servants began to fear for him as his hallucinations drew more agitated, his lips humming words like devil, demon, and vampire. they could not decipher from them any meaning except that he was nearing his death, and that his death would not be a very restful one.
Attempting to separate themselves from the caverns of hell the man must be nearing, the servants brought in turns the bishop, who attempted to exercise him of his demons, and the doctor, whose Francophilian methods we have formerly expressed the ineptitude of. After descending into madness for several days, the philanthropist seemed to settle in some baser inferno where his mutterings took on an even lower pitch, his moaning transforming into something evil and wrathful.
His servants attempted to reassure him, to lure him back to the world, and they did so by fanning his sweating body with palm leaves and spouting aspects of life he might cling to, if only so that he would not dwell in that charred underworld any longer. Perhaps, one said, if he were to marry, to find a woman who might elevate him in the eyes of his peers, he would be able reach that most pinnacle of satisfaction.
Seeing that this idea kindled in the philanthropist some interest, this servant hurried to continue. There was a woman newly arrived from Nouvelle France, he said, whose beauty was yet unsurpassed and whose regality could not be denied. Her social standing alone would assure him favor with the king, for her father was a most decorated man. The philanthropist’s delusions turned more sensical then, as his fevered mind grasped some semblance of a scheme.
Yes, a bride, the philanthropist thought to himself, holding to that branch as though it were the last one on the side of the living before he fell into the abyss of the dead. A bride and her offspring would secure his immense riches should any foe attempt to destroy him. Yes, she would be his security. For they could not ruin him without ruining his bride and his offspring as well.
A title, and a favor from the king, would ensure his social standing should any retaliatory measures be taken. He would have the fortitude to mark them as libel, as heresy. For how could a man of his good providence ever be guilty of such treasons, especially when accused by those insipid as they.
They were jealous, he would laugh, as he donated more money to their unfortunate causes. After all, what proof could they have of his past? And what wealth could not overcome it? Even the widow, whose vengeful tactics were indeed well funded, could not do more than frighten a man of his standing.
When at last he had pulled himself back upon the precipice, recovered enough to remain firmly planted among the living, he called for the young woman’s father, determined that he should rise above this scandal and be considered foolproof against the widow’s advancing plots once more.
We next read The Twenty-First Chapter, in which the widow is similarly haunted by her past—and a protection spell must be put into place.