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Obscurity, The Fourth Chapter
In which a rather mysterious figure appears to know the widow’s secrets.
We last read The Third Chapter, in which the widow enters society and rumors about her become a rather ghastly thing.
The nuns were singing vespers in the chapel at the hour the man approached the convent door. He was tall, dark, and stoic, ever the portrait of justice as his long black cloak billowed behind him on the convent steps. Three steady knocks announced his presence on the precipice and the abbess opened the door quietly and invited him in.
Music wailed through the hallways, the nuns singing a hymn that seemed an omen of the evening to come. Their voices echoed throughout the convent halls and when the man spoke, his voice lent a rich baritone to the nuns’ angelic soprano. He spoke to the abbess in hushed tones, but she spoke to him in much harsher ones.
If the reader had been privy to their conversation, it might have been surmised that the man was looking for something. But whatever words were spoken between them were halted when the abbess refused him entrance to her convent. He would not be allowed to conduct his audit here, she assured him, and the women in her care would not be removed of their piety for the sake of his lack of creativity.
Her words lent a foreboding legato to their terse discussion, but the man’s voice resonated deeply beneath it, attempting to soothe into those condemnable tones some sense of reason. To find some alternative that would see her convent’s piety ensured, and not the recipient of unfortunate and unintended consequences.
“Consequences,” the abbess seethed. “For whose sins must the convent pay?”
The nuns’ voices reached dizzying heights—as though they knew what had entered into their midst and yet determined to raise their voices against it. The music reached a dramatic crescendo, the melody coursing through a tangled and tormented harmony until all at once it stopped, unresolved in a suspended minor key.
“Perhaps,” the man said as he departed her office, “your reticence comes only because you have something most treasonous to hide.”
The man was unable to gain access to the convent that night, but we, being a more knowledgeable entity on the matter, would like to open those doors and introduce the reader to three nuns named Marie: all former members of a convent in Paris, all current members of a convent in la Louisiane, and all present on the manifest of the ship that carried the widow St. Vincent across the ocean.
There were a number of reasons why a maiden of marriageable age might consider the veil in those days: perhaps she lacked a dowry or desired to evade an ill-suited husband, perhaps she feared pregnancy or childbirth, perhaps she even joined for the love and devotion of Providence. None of that mattered in the least, however, when the revolution came to claim their habits.
In France, the revolution was caused by a Beast more fearsome than most. It stalked the rich and took the poor as its prey. It courted those with power and consumed those without it. Men, women, and children died at the hands of this Beast, and so they gave the Beast a name: Despotism.
Despotism plagued the nobility—It caused in them a desperation for more wealth than they already enjoyed and instilled in them a hunger for more power than they already beseeched. It tortured them with the thought that they were not quite as great as other men, but that they might reach that pinnacle of success one day—if only at the expense of those more miserable than they.
The less fortunate, Despotism taught those noblemen, were ever so deserving of their fate. For they were simple, uneducated, unclean. They washed their dishes in sewage and hung their clothing over coal fireplaces. Their teeth rotted from their mouths and their illnesses distorted their faces. They became that way because of their own ineptitude, the beast told the nobility as they shook the miscreants from their freshly polished shoes.
The nobility gave no mind to the true cause of poverty—for it hurt their most proper heads to do so—and so they gave themselves no blame for how dire those impoverished circumstances had become. Instead, they dabbed the bacon from their lips with handkerchiefs made of silk and pitied those who could not earn for themselves even a morsel of bread. On perfumed pillowcases they slept as they allowed the words of Despotism to sing them sweet vanities. How very merited their own lives were, It told them. How very earned were their inherited fortunes, It whispered.
In this way, Despotism taught the rich to disdain the disenfranchised—and what could the disenfranchised do but gather their torches and their spears and turn against It? With parched throats they protested, with hungry mouths they revolted. At last desperate for the lives that had been taken from them, they tore their way through the city, storming the Bastille, and marching on Versailles, until at last they came knocking at the door of the Church and demanded they give up their initiated.
At the very moment when three nuns named Marie fled the revolution by night—who should they find fleeing that very same revolution, but a woman with blood beneath her fingernails and one portrait of the Virgin Mary weeping beneath her arm, and just beyond her most harrowing figure, the ship of one notorious captain and the harbinger of all of their salvations.
The man who darkened the convent door was also a product of the French Revolution. He had been a mercenary, one whose task it was to live amongst society and hunt out those most treasonous souls within it. Those who accepted bribery, committed treachery, and acted lecherously silently disclosed themselves to him from among the nobility and commended themselves up to the gallows for their sins against the government.
This task proved exceptionally useful during the Revolution, where he became adept at rooting out those royalists whose loyalties fought against the revolution in secret, turning them over to the Jacobins for their treasonous behavior. In this way, he fought against the Beast, and took only those cases most salient to his cause. In fact, he proved so expert at his task that he became known to his contemporaries only as “the mercenary.”
Once the tides of la revolution turned and the state rested surely, if not indefinitely, in the hands of the nation, the mercenary turned his attentions toward the private sector, establishing a retainer with an investor whose fortune was swindled by a less than honest Comte. It was his task to find this embezzler and follow his laundered path through the West Indies and into la Nouvelle-Orléans until his location could be discovered and the investor’s money returned.
Toward this goal, the mercenary had stalked every member on the manifest of that ship—the one that had silently left the port of Dieppe by night, and landed on the shores of la Louisiane months later—a treasure trove of royalist riches in her hold, quickly laundered away into some nefarious enterprise or other. The convent unwilling to give up her Maries, the widow was the last remaining member of that crew, and indeed seemed a more deserving suspect. Her new investments into her sugar plantation produced a fresh wave of rhum that quickly inspired the local caberets—her own, the best positioned to profit from it.
It was thus that the widow reclined to her estate one evening only to discover a dark and foreboding figure standing within her salon and the deep, welling recognition that justice had at last found her.
The man stood perfectly still; his eyes focused on the portrait of the Virgin Mother before him. His face was emotionless, his jaw firm, and his dark hair curled over his forehead as though he were the very portrait of a Greek philosopher pondering the fate of the plaintiff before him. The painting was dark and haunting, he thought, not because she was covered in soot and ash, but because he had seen her likeness before—one could not forget a portent such as that.
Only a year prior the mercenary had seen that same portrait in the estate of the Comte and Comtesse de Saint Germain. It was the Comte who was suspected of stealing the fortune of his investor. The mercenary was meant to find proof of this disloyalty and arrest the man quietly, and so he let himself into the estate Saint Germain where he discovered it endowed with every finery. There were no missives in the Comte’s study, nor ledgers in his portfolio, but in the boudoir of the Comtesse he discovered a sachet of secreted letters addressed to a merchant sailor in the West Indies.
For a moment, he pondered that evidence, and as he did so he regarded the rather harrowing portrait above the mantle. It was the Virgin Mother weeping, her tears darkened, her feet bare, her countenance full of an emotion he knew all too well. There was a sense that she was mourning for the unjust, he thought, and a pity that the unjust could not seem to recognize themselves as such.
Just then, his reverie was interrupted by the sound of the Comtesse and the approach of the Comte. With haste, he removed himself from the boudoir and hid himself within the courtyard. Behind the stone walls of that fortress he heard not the sounds of violence, nor the impending sighs of murder. He only stood still against the night until, at length, he surmised the Comtesse must have retired for the evening and the Comte might be discovered alone.
The mercenary returned to the estate once it had darkened, but by the time he reached the boudoir, he was stunned to discover the Comte laying in a perfect pool of his own blood, and the portrait no longer in residence behind him.
We next read The Fifth Chapter, in which the widow enters the sacrament of confession.