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Obscurity, The Thirty-Eighth Chapter
In which we learn the secrets of the third Marie.
We have mentioned slightly the third of the Maries, who traveled with the widow from France, was interred into the convent, and was discovered to be missing from it some time later. What we have not discussed is how she came to be a most important member of this most peculiar story.
The third of the Maries was born into poverty, her mother a seamstress, supporting her child in a small unheated and unfurnished room shared with her employer, a most disreputable clothier. There was peeling paint upon the walls and no beds upon which they could sleep. Eventually, her mother passed away from a lingering influenza—her coughing had become more ratchet each year, and at last she could do nothing but succumb to it.
At the passing of her mother, the clothier became despondent. Unable to turn a living without a seamstress to fulfill his orders, he turned to the drink to suppress his existential angst. On the brink of hunger, with none to support her, the girl who would come to be called Marie began taking the orders herself.
The wages were meager, and not enough to support the small room her mother had rented. The clothier treated her badly, he spat on her hair and cursed her—eventually he became violent and disorderly, blaming their lot on her mother and how her death had ruined them both.
Marie moved onto the streets, living in an empty crate as she sewed night and day, taking every reputable job that would help her position. Alas, it was never enough—she had hardly enough to preserve her own life, though she certainly wished to keep it.
One night, as she sat outside to sew, attempting to glean a few extra working hours from the light of the moon, a man approached her. He was disorderly and drunk and looking for her mother. The man was crude and missing his teeth, and with his slurred words he spoke of her mother’s beautiful hair, then he looked at the young Marie and saw the same shade.
It became clear to the young Marie that she would have the opportunity to earn extra wages if only she offered her body up to him. But her mind was fortified against that reality and she could not abandon her spirit so easily. She fought him off with the blade of her sewing scissors and resolved to find another way to earn a respectable life.
But that evening she was changed. She calculated her wages over the coming years, noted the likelihood that someone in her position would ever have the opportunity to increase their earnings, and realized that in a few years’ time she would be exactly where she was now, hoping only for that day’s bread and that the wind didn’t weep too coldly that night.
Marie became angered by her reality, understanding that there was naught she could do but wait for the day she would miss her income and starve. What she needed was a stool—some ledge upon which she could prop herself up, to see above the poverty that consumed her so that she might stand a chance to rise above it. But no stool was offered to her. No ledge supported her.
It was not that she wished the rich would hand her money, but they walked the streets flaunting their silken breeches and did nothing to earn them save be born into a father’s wealthy estate, while her mother did nothing to earn her own lot save be born a woman, scorned for her inability to hide the sin of her pregnancy. Between both realities hung the lie that circumstances were determined by merit—and that lie allowed the wealthy to maintain their preeminence.
Marie had never seen any proof of that fact—no member whose hard work allowed them to rise above their station. Especially no woman. There were shopkeepers and chimney sweeps and notaries and pensioners, but they too had some penance to begin with to enact such an enterprise, and they too were men. Was there no help from humanity, she wondered? Was there no way to earn a better circumstance? Was every act of injustice merely a bad hand dealt by God?
In the morning, she was determined to change her fortune. Destitute and hungry, she walked into the basilica and sat between the pews. Just as she whispered her most desperate prayer, a lamp was lit in the cathedral and a man stood upon the dais. Slowly the pews filled with men and women just like her, whose clothing were wretched and whose children clung to them. These were the working class and they assembled to find some hope for their lot.
When the darkness fell overhead, and the stained-glass dome spilled stars across the floor, a priest stood up, or was he a bishop? He told a story that was both haunting and familiar. Of a young noble man and a woman with red hair. Of an error that was made and a retribution that would follow. Of an imbalance built into the fabric of the world. Marie listened to his words with rapt attention and then a man got up from his pew and stood before the dias.
The man spoke of injustice. Of the weight of oppression that held them to the floor and the societal structure that reaffirmed their place there. Of the thumb that held them to the ground so they could not rise. They did not wish to take charity, he said, they only wished for social equality and economic viability, so that they might work hard and have it count for something. That they might have the opportunity to improve their lot and feed their families, just as the wealthy were able.
Marie’s eyes were enlightened for, in that moment, she understood that there was some governmental power that might help her to rise but had thus far refused. So it was that when the rumbling of the revolution drew toward her, she threw her lot in with these people who called themselves the sans-culottes. This was her stool, she thought, her chance to improve her means and earn a better life. She attended meetings and became educated about her options. She supported fixed wages and price controls that would assure affordable food for people like her.
But the fighting and the hoping did nothing to improve her life in the interim. After the reign of terror took nothing back save a few criminals, she was forced to retire her rebellious nature and use the rest of her hard-earned money to enter the convent where she became a novice at the convent Saint-Denis. There she intended to spend her life as a schoolteacher in service to those youth who might one day rise above—a second generation that might be better off than the first.
In the convent, she watched over the orphans. She watched over also, the bishop, and attended his confessional with great regularity. It was there that she met two other nuns named Marie, who also had some desire to make this life a better one, to undo the trials they were born into for the next generation. And then the revolution came for them and they held one another’s hands and fled into the night.
Upon her arrival to la Nouvelle-Orléans, however, Marie became angry once more. For there installed was the bishop, the one she had seen speak at the basilica and assumed dead at the end of the revolution. He dressed with frills and wore a pocket watch. In spite of her own poverty, he lived with great frivolity.
The third Marie fell into listlessness. For she felt she was no longer working toward the purpose the revolution had given her. The fight for liberté, égalité, fraternité had ended. Cloistered in the convent she saw only the inequality that continued to proliferate among the orphans they cared for. The European parents who, though they were equally poor, were upset that their children were educated alongside native and African students as well as French and Spanish. Was there no end to the segregation, Marie thought? Would even the poor divide themselves into those who were better and those were worse?
When Séverine came to her in the cloister, Marie begged to be of assistance. To fight for those in most need and not allow them to be swallowed by the despotism that had once consumed them abroad. Séverine agreed. That very day, Marie removed the veil from her head, and spilled a trove of red hair upon her shoulders. The truth of who she was at last exposed to the world.
It was thus that the third Marie took the persona of a young debutante arrived from la Nouvelle France, a prime candidate for the philanthropists’ future bride. It took only a couple of strategically placed servants to introduce the idea of marriage into the philanthropist’s fevered state and the captain disguised as the girl’s stately father to seal it. A marriage contract was drawn up imminently, with a clause included by the captain to allow for every asset in the philanthropist’s position to become common property upon marriage.
So it was that the third of the Maries woke the morning following her marriage, put on her dressing gown, and read the morning paper with some feeling of accomplishment and success. That all the things she had been working for had at last come to light, and that the orphans who had no families upon which they could stand, could at least have the benefit of a meal to eat three times daily, and an education that might help them avoid her fate.
Because of her, they might now have some stool upon which they could stand.
A few days after her wedding, Marie sat at a wooden desk in her room and penned a letter to her friend, it read as follows.
My dearest Séverine,
Oh, to be used is such a marvelous feeling, for at last, I have come to be helpful to my brethren, and my joy does not cease to abound at such an opportunity.
As requested, I dispatched a letter to the governor on the evening last, along with the parcel you entrusted me. As evidenced by this morning’s paper, it appears he received my words and acted upon their merit. You were right, of course, to understand his ambitions, and to cater toward them.
Oh, to be so fortunate and yet so frivolous. To have watched my transient husband spend so tirelessly and extravagantly on a feast that would feed only those who do not need to be fed. I can hardly fathom that those who have so great a fortune squander it on so little.
It is to my great happiness that at least, in the aftermath of such frivolity, I am in the position to be of service to the next generation, that orphans who are the recipients of that most bountiful endowment might be fed and clothed and educated and be treated as equals in a country that might allow them to be so.
I will also treasure that two men, who were once the beneficiaries of that frivolity will now provide service to the future generations. Their pasts at last expunged by their futures. Their wrongs at last righted by their own hands.
The first man took no convincing, for the bishop was already so convinced of his guilt that he was ready to right it. As to the second man, it appears my husband did require some convincing. The fellow, though he appeared quite amiable at the start of our wedding proved quite the aggressor at the end. Were it not for the couturière’s most divine potion I might have discarded with my virtue before our purpose was accomplished.
I thank you for your thoughtfulness, and for arriving in time to help me escort that sedated man to his bedchambers. I am glad to hear that all went amiably and according to your most well-designed plan. I thank you also, for this small furnished room in the city, where I may walk to the convent each morning and work there as you do. I will treasure this act of grace to the end of my days.
Thank you for using me to such a purpose, Madame, in so doing you have entrusted my life with more than the hope of God, but with the action of man. In so doing, I have come to experience a great hope in our society, that we may do something about those ills of it and not remain idle in our homes as the rich squander their resources and the poor go without any. That future generations be not so unequitable, and that the divide among them ceases to exist.
I have discovered a great many things along this journey together, not the least of which is how blessed my life is to be among such fine company. Thank you for entreating me with so many fortunes, I feel very rich indeed. It is my most sincere hope, dearest Séverine, that we will continue to be friends until such a time that Divine Providence sees fit to take us into his keeping, and that He sees fit to forgive us our deception when He does.
With love, and penance, and many happinesses, and devotion,
We next read The Thirty-Ninth Chapter, in which a child is born into the swamp. We are nearing the end of our tale. To purchase the (very) first hardcover edition of Obscurity, signed by the author, become a Novelle Collector.