Obscurity, The Thirty-Second Chapter
In which the philanthropist prepares for his pending nuptials.
The Christmas season was upon them, and the philanthropist’s wedding hung suspended above it as the star that once guided the magi to their new king. In the courtyard, where the cathedral was still under construction, preparations were being made for that most anticipated moment, a menagerie of sorts filling the square with performers and sellers and carolers.
Holly was draped about the lampposts; a giant tree was erected in the square and decorated with cranberries and candles. Chestnuts popped over street fires, persimmons appeared as jewels upon sellers’ carts, vintners mulled wine in barrels and ladled it out to passersby. The air smelled of cinnamon and cloves and the occasional meddling of frankincense, boughs of which lay bundled upon the cathedral floor for the coming revelries.
Before the steeple, members of the free black militia heaved a giant brass bell into the heavens. The bell was commissioned from Spain and had spent months being hammered by hand, etched by artisans, and tested by monks for pitch and timber before traveling across the ocean where it would toll from the cathedral’s tower, forever a testament to the philanthropist’s glory.
The philanthropist watched from his salon, and even stepped out to his balcony for a brief benediction. He said only a few words to remind them of his importance and benevolence before a member of the battalion wrapped the rope about his arm and pulled with all his might. The bell tolled once, then twice, its song slow and methodic as the bells of a Buddhist temple summoning young monks to prayer. The sound was elegant and warm—it echoed in all their hearts and minds with the sentiment of the season.
When the philanthropist turned back toward his salon, he became overwhelmed by his own importance. For he achieved what he had desired since he was a small boy peering at his loathsome face in a puddle, hoping he would one day become a man of great renown and stature, whom fortune favored and whom Providence could not fell. Now, he looked upon the Plaza de Armas and saw in it a reflection of his most accomplished self.
Turning his gaze inward, he looked upon the woman who had raised his reputation to such heights. Whose elegance and piety had instilled upon him some remnant of her goodness, and whose fine recommendation had won him a seat on the cabildo and a place of honor within the presbyter. Now he sat as king, presiding over his city’s government and his city’s religion, as his betrothed was fitted for her bridal suite.
Indeed, the debutante now stood upon a parquet before him, lifting and lowering her arms with all the grace of a swan as the couturière took measurements. The philanthropist smiled smugly at the scene. How he adored watching his former lover dress his future bride—at turns touching her fingers, décolleté, and waist, each movement piquing his interest more than the last.
The philanthropist had instructed his mistress that his fiancé would be adorned with every possible display of wealth. There would be tulle, so much of it and the exact color of her skin that she appeared to float within it. Damask imported from France for her underskirts, lace sewn by Belgian nuns for her undergarments, diamond combs crowning her head, and a veil of clouds to mask her eyes. With all these things she would be adorned and was now being fitted for such embellishment.
“Mademoiselle, I would have you remove your garments,” the couturière requested.
The young debutante lowered her eyes gracefully to the floor, her eyelashes melting upon those fair cheeks. “If it would please monsieur, I would have him take leave of the salon,” she said softly.
How pious she was, the philanthropist thought, how devout. She was the most beautiful woman in town—her skin like silk, her cheeks as roses, her hair the sweet color of copper. She would be the envy of every man in every pew, he thought as he left the room, and then in a fortnight she would be his, her breasts bared for his eyes to see, her corset untied for his hands to feel. Only a couple days more and he would be like Herod, his kingdom assured and his place in it satisfied.
He could not have known, or perhaps he did not wish to acknowledge, that just like that ancient dignitary, there was a metaphorical babe sleeping in the wood, whose very existence threatened his rule.
As outside the bells tolled, their sound filled Séverine’s soul, resonant in her chest like the soft padding of rain the forest floor.
Séverine knelt on the floor of her cell, her silk chemise falling from her shoulders, her hands folded in their desolate prayer, her eyes softly shut against her tears. There was no prison in those days, for the cabildo had burned down in the fires, and thus the commander had no choice but to confine her to the convent under house arrest.
She looked into his eyes as he released her, his grip firm on her arm, and then he was gone. Her cell was bare save a small wooden bed, a chair, and a desk. There was a wooden cross hanging upon the wall and a small leather-bound bible upon the desk. She saw no visitors save the abbess who brought her daily bread. And she heard no voices save the sound of the choristers singing their lamented song.
In that makeshift prison, her mind twisted down darker avenues than she had thus far explored. It wound down stone steps and descended obscured alleyways, the chorister voices haunting her soul until it reached the very bottom of the abyss and there discovered her most grievous exile. She was alone, and the world was dark and desolate around her.
Those who have been consumed by their own melancholia might once have discovered themselves in that place. Indeed, our Séverine recognized it, and trembled from it. It was cold and cloaked with misery. Devoid of life and lost of those with whom she had once shared it. T’was the valley of the shadow of death and naught but her own demons dwelt there.
Séverine could hear their voices, and they taunted her. They were ruthless, and they clawed at her mind with all the ferocity that exists within them. Their words struck at her with sharpened teeth, salivating that they would have at last the feast that was so long dangled before them. In that complete isolation it became easier to believe their words, for there was naught a single soul to visit her and there was none who could console her.
Alone in that darkest of nights, writhing from a pain that comes only from within, she met at last the beast that had for so long pursued her. That hungered to be triumphant against her. It knelt before her, poised to take her very last breath, and then, she looked up and a tear fell from her cheek. For there, in her darkest mind, she faced her most fearsome beast, and she knew its name. It was Loneliness.
For a moment she allowed herself to feel that reality. That her family had left her. Her friends abandoned her. Her religion refused her.
But God did not.
The sound of a single chorister met her ear and Divine Providence found her laying on the ground, a ray of light upon her skin. Tears fell from her eyelashes as she felt His arms wrap around her—His loving embrace lifting her to her feet—and then she was held in His arms, cherished as a babe in the loving arms of her Creator. His hand was upon her hair, her head upon His chest, His breath the very tempo of hers, her heart the very cadence of His.
How she longed to leave the pain and the suffering behind. To be pulled from the melancholia that threatened to drown her. To be led into that Elysian night, crowned with the moon and enrobed by the stars, enveloped at last in their sweet Euphoria. Alas, God willed her back into the world and so she awoke, the touch of His hand on her cheek naught but the memory of a tormented soul.
The feeling of His breath was lost to the life that lay beyond this one. His light removed of her surroundings. The darkness returned to them. Slowly her senses returned to her, the stone upon which she lay prostrate cold against her cheek, her lips pressed to the floor in prayer, her hair drying the tears that touched the ground. Picking herself off the floor she peered through the window, the world now silenced, watching as the stars blinked themselves into existence.
We next read The Thirty-Third Chapter, in which things grow stranger in the widows absence, and panic grips the town.