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Obscurity, The Thirty-Third Chapter
In which the town descends into hysterics.
In the days following the widow’s imprisonment, a series of perfectly explainable, if we must be curt, occurrences drew the town into hysterics.
First, despite the fact that none were ever seen in the cemetery, a bouquet of white roses found themselves atop the Comte’s tomb and then ceased from wilting. They remained fresh as the afternoon they were plucked for many weeks, until it could only be presumed that they were cursed.
Then, a noblewoman fell from her third-story balcony and was found dead on the street. When questioned, her husband exclaimed that a bat had flown in through the bedroom window and attempted to bite her, happenstancing her great fall. Naturally, this led to conjecture that the widow had the ability to change form at night, slipping through the bars of her prison cell to frighten poor misses from their windows.
Perhaps even more spectacular, when the lamplighters were granted access to the widow’s residence, a portrait was discovered behind the peeling wallpaper of her study. Hidden beneath the white herons that wallpapered the small room, the corners slightly curling from their proximity to the hearth, appeared to be a portrait of the Veuve St. Vincent, removed of her veil of mourning, and cloaked with the veil of a bride.
Her hair was dark and solemn, her lips forcing a smile. She hid some intrigue behind her eyes, but it was of the undeveloped variety. And yet, when the portrait was more thoroughly examined, she was found to be much older than her living likeness, her hiding place left unrevealed for more than a century beneath blankets of dust and delirium.
It was even discovered, when the bills of sale were recovered from the widow’s plantation, that her husband, the former M. St. Vincent, had never married. Even more, no mention of a Mme. St. Vincent was ever made, neither at home nor abroad. She simply appeared one afternoon at his home, her husband mysteriously dead in her wake.
Even the manifests made no mention of her, for no ship arriving during those years carried a woman with her namesake nor her stature, neither had any passenger on their pages gone unaccounted for. She simply appeared in their midst as though she arose from the waters or emerged from the wood. A nymph stolen from the pages of Shakespeare and sprinkled about so destitute a city.
As the investigations continued and were made public in the papers, the gentry delighted in deciphering abstract meanings from them. Indeed, when they discussed it among themselves, society could not agree upon the widow’s age. Some said she was in her 20th year, others in her 40th, still others claimed she was in her 70th year or perhaps her 700th.
Of even greater speculation was the widow’s origin and the origin of her wealth. For she arrived out of nowhere and from that nowhere arrived fully formed, with an education worthy of the Medici’s and a philosophy worthy of Voltaire. She spoke many languages, each with the affluency of the first and neither did she have any accents, denying any hint that might belie her origins.
Some believed she was the forgotten daughter of a Transylvanian princess sent to be raised in France for fear of the Hapsburgs. Others that she was raised in a convent, the illegitimate child of some Turkish monarch, sent away with her riches but without her name or title. Still others claimed she must be of Moorish origin for her hair was an extreme shade of black and her lips so thoroughly stained with scarlet.
Even her wealth, which was thought to be bottomless, could not be found among her possessions. Her pearls and sapphires and rubies and diamonds were gone from her apartments before she was ever removed from them. There was no velvet to be found, no dresses of satin or silk. Her trousseaus had long been stored away, and to where none could ascertain.
Her retinue too had disappeared. None knew the whereabouts of those who had once frequented her, save the couturière who continued in the employ of the philanthropist. When questioned about her former employer, the couturière only addled their minds even further, claiming on one occasion that the widow was raised in a lighthouse on Belle-Île, and on another that her mother was an Albino woman from the Arabian sea.
Even her childhood memories seemed rapt with affectations. The widow’s father was a wealthy miner, the couturière said, who pursued his riches in the new world. As a child, the young maiden had hung her laundry with clothing pins made of rubies until she was orphaned, forced into convent where she lived until she was old enough to abscond. At last, the couturier embellished, the young Mme. St. Vincent escaped to the north, the remainder of her father’s fortune sewn into her undergarments and clutched between her fingers.
The stories were fantastical and outlandish, their plots contradicting and inconclusive, and yet they were perhaps less so than the truth. For, as the reader well knows, truth is a rather subjective thing, and it can rather run away with itself if not cared after prudently enough. Our minds and our memories are not altogether adherent to the truth, and so over time, those things that are true become mingled with those things that are imagined, until we cannot remember truthfully the truth of the matter.
The people were quite overcome by such stories. Particularly troubling was the death of a young maiden. She was fair and beautiful—one of the debutante’s ladies in waiting—and when the hour of her death tolled nigh, her soul spirited away from her body leaving those who dwelt near it bewildered by so quick and painless a death.
The young woman was surrounded by a retinue of ladies at the hour of her death, none of whom could discern wither her last breath was taken. Afterward, they spoke of blasphemous things, of some omen that appeared at the woman’s window each night. That she never took her last breath, and in fact, never ceased breathing at all, and yet would not awake.
The priests hushed the maidens and their mothers chided them. They were not to speak ill of the dead nor were they to raise pandemonium over the cause of it. They interred the young woman in the cemetery, her body unsure of its own death, only to watch in terror as each of those ladies who had witnessed the mystery of that death so also took to their death beds.
This incited in their mothers a panic. For surely, as was to be the most obvious conjecture drawn, their children were the victims of the widow, whose influence only expanded in the event of her imprisonment. A fevered panic rose among them, so much so that the first maiden was exhumed of her resting place and discovered less dead than she had once appeared. Her skin maintained its glow, and at her lips a touch of blood.
In a most gruesome display of fear and horror, they cut the heart from that poor woman’s body and burned it at the blacksmith’s forge. Uncontented that the disease ended with her, they followed the poor woman’s trail, repeating the procedure on each of her ladies in waiting until all were returned to their tombs with no hearts and no heads, and thereby no means to meet the Resurrection when it came.
It was then that they turned to the Comte—that first victim of the widow. Removing the lid from the Comte’s tomb, they gazed upon that most gruesome face and were frightened by his eerie smile. How had he lasted so long so interred? How had his breath not transfixed, and his heart not crumbled? Perhaps, they reasoned sensibly, he no longer needed such faculties to tip the lid from his casket and take his victims each evening.
The Comte’s heart so removed, they had only to follow his death to the widow, whose imprisonment did nothing for the form she took at night, who could easily remedy herself slender and slip from its grasp. The abbess refused them entry to the convent time and time again, but that would not keep them from their fear or panic. Or from rattling the gates at night.
Séverine had resolved herself by the dawn. The sentimentalists can waste an entire lifetime to their tragedies, but Séverine would not live another minute with hers.
How strange that one can oscillate so severely between two conflicting emotions. To fall into such blighted weakness one moment, and to reign with such strength the next. Séverine wondered momentarily what kind of person that would make her altogether. Was she weak or strong? Perhaps, she thought admirably, it was one’s weaknesses that made them strong.
Indeed, Séverine felt more boldened than before. Aware that she was complicated from one moment to the next, with all the fleeting sadnesses of humanity and all the triumphant happinesses too. With boundless empathy and ceaseless indifference. With a craving for social wit in one moment, and solitude the next.
If she contained the very worst of human nature, then she also contained the very best. Their sin and their salvation. Perhaps that was as God divined. An Eden that for all the beauty Divine Providence bestowed upon it, contained also the vilest creatures capable of destroying it. Perhaps God Himself was both good and evil, she wondered.
So many years later we have still not discovered the answer to life’s complexities, except to announce that it is complex indeed. The line between good and evil remains a mystery to us all. Perhaps even to God. For attempting to discern among us who is right and who is wrong will only harden both parties in their mutual distrust of one another and seek to divide them without reason.
The truth is that no one person harbors it. Perhaps God’s only aim is that one day we will see the good that exists in one another, without seeing the evil. Until her imprisonment, Séverine saw her own faults too clearly. She would fall asleep at night aware of each thing she did wrongly. But no longer. For the moment, if not forever, she would attempt to see within all, and at the very least herself, the good.
Thus resolved, when the villagers clamored for her soul out of doors, their panic inciting them all to frenzy, Séverine knelt with her prayers and contemplation within the solitude of her cell. By the morning, when the villagers at last opened the gates and reached her quarters, Séverine was gone, and their greatest fears were confirmed.
We next read The Thirty-Fourth Chapter in which the widows retinue prepares for her return.