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Obscurity, The Thirty-First Chapter
In which we spend a sleepless night in the company of those left behind by the widow.
On the night of the Comte’s murder, there were three members of society for whom sleep would not come.
The first was the child, who watched from his window as the moon grew so large it might have eaten every star in the sky for supper. It hung, suspended amidst twinkling raindrops, dripping its glow down to the world down below, as the boy kept guard over the night and the miscreants who dwelt in it.
Night after night he kept his eyes trained on deep recesses the light could not reach, pockets unseen by that celestial stardust. And in those darkened corners, unlit by the moon's rays, the child bore witness to God’s most vile creatures, those who had been shut off from the light as prisoners doomed to the deepest dungeon floors—who wept at their own indiscretions, their tears sparkling from their eyes, as they at last touched the twilight.
The captain had regaled the child with stories of the Chateau D’If, and the boy could see it in his dreams. Far from the shores of civilization, adrift in an unforgiving sea, their deviant demeaners shackling them to their god forsaken cells, tormented souls dwelt in a dungeon more deleterious than most—its recesses haunted by the sinking sins of their pasts, it’s ceilings dripping with their despair. No longer able to see the light, their eyes became blind, so accustom had they become to their darkness.
But if those beings were prisoners, the child thought himself their keeper. Warden of the woe begotten. Overseer of the ill-intentioned. Ever since the dream had come to him, an ominous warning of the perils that might befall his moon, he had christened himself her watchkeeper—protecting his household from those who wished to harm it until, at last, the sun returned and the shadows and the shadows could obscure it no more.
He felt the memory of the dream that had once tormented him. He could see it painted across the sky—a tableau of torments yet to come. The sun dipped below the horizon as those who lived in the shadow came out beneath the cover of darkness. Unaware that their every act was committed beneath the gaze of an unsuspecting child—his blinking eyes lit by the glow of the moon, awake as a lighthouse keeper who keeps shipwrecks away from his shores.
The boy was part of the shadow and could peer into that underworld unnoticed. A pair of eyes watching as the phantom waited in the alley, the eaves dripping drudgery upon his head, his teeth sharp as daggers beneath a cloak that obscured his most gruesome face. But just as quickly as he was seen, the phantom was gone, lost to the port where merchant sailors drank themselves into oblivion and took their pleasure with purchased women.
And yet there in that darkness was a gleam. For he did not see that torn flesh flayed from within his cloaks, nor did he catch sight of the gleam of his teeth. But tucked into the shadows, unnoticed by the men standing on the corners or the carriages that clattered opaquely against stone streets, stood the mercenary, his eyes kindled with a knowing gleam. Their light borrowed from the stars and yet stolen away into the streets.
Several streets over, the physician too could not sleep. He was a pensive man, that being perhaps his most admirable quality. Each night before bed, he reviewed the files of his patients by candlelight and attempted to discern from them some cause for their ailments. He turned the pages over and over, scratching his chin as he sought from his mind some pattern that might emerge.
Some were more easily discovered, as when those young mademoiselles, whose corsets were the tightest, who had the rosiest of complexions and the most charming of countenances, seemed to share an inability to conceive. He was able to ascertain from these fine observations, that there was a sort of restriction attached to such an ailment. That perhaps they were raised in a society that reared them to perfection and then caused in these women the inability to be so.
It was a protection mechanism, he believed, one in which Providence used the body to share with his daughters a message: that they were perfect enough as they were. That they need not seek their goodliness in the eyes of others, but only in the eyes of the lord their Providence—and of that, they were already assured.
The physician, in this case, prescribed a host of treatments: A tonic of cacao, milk, and honey to arouse the long forgotten pleasures of life; the reading of the twenty third psalm to stimulate sensations of goodness; and the loosening of one’s corset so as to allow in the womb space for a babe to be formed should Divine Providence so desire it.
Often, the women would return to the physician satiated, joyful, and with child. And more importantly, awakened to the goodness Providence had long desired for them.
Others, however, remained a mystery to him, as when they arrived the victim of some foreign poison, or some bewildering concoction. Indeed, he noticed a pattern among his patients that attended the apothecary with great regularity, and so became well versed in the antidotes required to salvage them. But there were still those whose ailments could not be named and whose symptoms could not be found amidst the annals of his medicinal encyclopedia.
When his candles at last burned to their ends he put his papers back in order, his questions reserved within them for a fresher day and a fresher mind, and then he made the sign of the cross and said his prayers, wondering what crisis might arrive at his doorstep that evening, when the moon was at its very best and human nature at its very worst.
As Providence would have it, that evening, at a quarter past midnight, he awoke to a small rapping at his window. There was naught that could be seen, when he looked at first, but the rapping continued and so he ventured to explore its cause even further. Lighting a match, he unlatched the window and there discovered a small child, obscured within the shadows.
He recognized the child at once and made quick work with his cloak, fastening it over his white nightshirt and lighting a lantern in his hand before following the child out into the night. He was led to the apothecary (how odd that he had been thinking about the apothecary and his intrigues only moments before) where, upon opening the door, he discovered the hinges to be powdered, suspending a fine powder in the air with the intent of inebriating some unsuspecting soul.
Putting a finger to the dust and then to his tongue, he identified a leaf, that when crushed and inhaled intended to bring someone to the apothecary’s den already inebriated of his senses. Indeed, as he descended the stairs, his nightshirt trailing on the stairs behind him, he found the mercenary, asleep in some other world and lost to the realm of consciousness.
He checked the man’s eyes, and then his tongue, and, after ascertaining there was some means of salvation available to him, he borrowed a strength that came only from God to carry the man up the stairs, through the streets of la Nouvelle-Orléans, and into his home, where he placed the man upon a wooden table reserved for just such a purpose.
The mercenary was clearly not the intended victim of the devil's whiles that evening, and yet he was almost lost. The physician put on his spectacles, sat upon a small stool, checked the man’s pulse, then took the child in as his nightly apprentice as they set about restoring the mercenary’s soul to his body, if Divine Providence would be so willing to allow it.
That same evening, a young woman requested the bishop for the sacrament of confession. The chapel was dark, save a small alter where candles had been lit for one lost soul or another. Slowly they put themselves out as their wicks neared the end of their solemnities, the last of their prayers drifting toward the heavens in tendrils of smoke.
Just as the bishop pondered the lamps, and whether it might be prudent for him to light them, a young maiden appeared before him, making the sign of the cross before she knelt in the darkness. All that could be seen was the ivory of her skin and the gentle cover of her cloak. The bishop looked upon that vision and blessed her as she repeated her formalities.
After a moment pause, her lips tip-toed into the state of her soul, her words caressing against one another as a dove’s wings do at nightfall. He knew the sound of her voice and yet could not place it—not that it was the bishop’s intention to know the identity of his confessor, but it tapped gently at his memory nonetheless, his mind restless for some answer.
Unsuccessful in this endeavor, he closed his mind from such thoughts and turned his attention to the woman once more. Her breath rose and fell evenly as she spoke, her story steady and dispassionate. She meant only, she said, to satisfy her soul before she entered that most holy sacrament of marriage.
Ah, then this must be the young debutante, he thought, for it was only a fortnight until the wedding of the philanthropist and his young bride. He had not yet seen that tender young woman for confession, nor had he had the pleasure of being introduced to the woman he would marry so forthcomingly—she was new to the city and had yet to amend herself to the bishop’s keeping.
Ah, but then how did he recognize her voice? Drawing his attention to her words once more, the bishop noticed a gentle trill and there sought to understand it. She was concerned about the wedding night, he thought knowingly. So many pious young women were fearful of that moment—alone in her husband’s bedchamber at night, her breasts at last freed from her bodice, her body now given to the keeping of another.
He tried to comfort the young mademoiselle, to explain to her the holiness of that union, the sacredness of that bond. But though she nodded at his speech, she did not seem pacified by it. There was a pause, and then she spoke perfectly, as though reciting a poem, her words chosen carefully and placed purposely.
“I only wonder,” she said, “whether it is moral for a man to hoard wealth, and yet refuse it to those in need?”
The bishop became confused. Did her husband not give alms? Did he not give generously of his own money that their cathedral might be rebuilt? That their city might be restored?
“My mother was left with nothing,” she continued, “when her husband discovered her pregnant with another man’s child and cast her into the street.”
“My dear, that must have been most difficult to…”
“I heard tell that her lover became a bishop and moved to the new world,” she continued gently. She lowered her veil, revealing coppery, red hair that fell in undone waves from that porcelain complexion. “That he continued to live a life of great piety when his lover was deemed a prostitute and died a wretch.”
The bishop choked on his breath.
“It is strange,” she continued. “How one became a saint, and the other a sinner, when both were accomplices to the very same crime.”
"Mademoiselle!” the bishop said desperately, his lips trembling with the fear of God. “Please, it could not be—it cannot be. But your father is the esteemed naval officer! You must have been raised with all life had to offer! You must have known satisfaction! Please, I beg of you!”
He knelt prostrate before her, his eyes closed in a penitent prayer, his knees quaking as they hit the floor. His shaking hands clasped together as though he had always known this moment would come for him. “Mademoiselle please,” he whispered. “What would you have me do? Ask of it and it will be yours.”
The young woman nodded her head. “Merci, mon pere, for your most generous offer,” she said with a satisfied bow. “For there is rather something I would ask of you.”
We next read The Thirty-Second Chapter, in which the philanthropist prepares for his pending nuptials.