Obscurity, The Fifth Chapter
In which the widow confesses her sins in the sacrament of reconciliation.
We last read The Fourth Chapter, in which a rather mysterious figure appeared to know the widow’s secrets.
Séverine always had a fair amount of darkness within her. Like an enchantment, sometimes she could only feel the very edges of it, and yet other times she felt entirely enveloped by it.
In her dreams, she saw beings beyond her recognition—shadows that hung suspended over her bed as she slept. Demons, her confessor had called them, lost souls who clung to those at Providence’s doorstep. Pray, he instructed her, and be assured that they cannot reach you. Providence created us as human beings for a reason, he said, to lovingly spare us from the dangers of the spiritual world.
She hid as best she could—attending church, singing hymns, reading scripture, and dedicating her life to charity—but as soon as the lights were out and her eyelids closed she would fall victim to the reverie of her dreams and the darkness would descend upon her once more. Visions of those sinister beings filled her head, until at last she awoke, lit the candle by her bedside, and tried to forget her visions of the dark.
But Séverine no longer had to sleep to see her demons for her waking life was filled with them. Chaos swirled around her as she recognized her own disgrace in the familiar folds of the darkness. In fits of agony, she experienced what philosophers know as la nuit obscure de l'âme—the night of the soul.
Recounting her sins in her head, she tried to find reason in them—to convince herself that she was still inherently good. Alas, there is no escaping a mind ill at ease. As soon as she could attempt to forget her past, she would remember—and the memory would threaten to drown her.
No longer content to wait for the evening’s end, Séverine stepped from her chambers into the night. The door creaked loudly into the silence, her bare feet guiding her down the stairs, out the door, through the empty streets, and into the darkened chapel of the Ursulines.
Catholicism was firmly planted in the very best and the very worst of humanity, Séverine knew. The sins. The sorrows. The remnants. The ashes. The sacrifices that were made. The blood that was spilt. These were symbols she understood and found comfort in. For they were not made to make one feel lighter in countenance. They were made to be a mirror of the world—connected to the dark.
Séverine touched her fingers to water, crossed herself, and knelt upon the floor, her nightdress pouring upon it in rivers of muslin. Her muscles ached from holding onto her past too tightly, her joints cracked from bearing the weight of those woes for too long. She passed some indeterminate hours in this way, the echoes of trauma reverberating through her body in waves of pain.
As she stretched herself onto the floor, her muscles released from their grip a memory. Her husband floated before her shut eyes and she saw him as he once was. How her parents had desired his title and name, and he their wealth and commerce. How that had promised to be a happy union once. How they had stood on the very precipice of nobility and prosperity, two youth joined before the eyes of Providence.
How Providence had left her once they reached their estate in Paris. How her husband was transfigured once they crossed the threshold of their new home. How he tore the dress from her body and defiled her with a violent passion. How he ravaged her within an inch of her life, her screams bellowing against the thick stone walls that would conceal her torments in the years to come.
How the morning came, but the dawn never did.
Now her husband was gone but his shadow flickered near her soul, dwelling with her on that chapel floor, reminding her how much power he once held over her—and still did. Séverine allowed him to linger, if only for a moment more. For his memory could do nothing to harm her, even if it would forever haunt her—trembling through her body in waves of lingering pain, ever a reminder of what she once endured by his hands.
At first light, nuns gathered in the chapel for their morning prayers. Séverine tried to listen to the words they sang, but beads of saltwater pooled upon her skin and the cold depths of an inner ocean tugged at her fingertips. The darkness pulled her further beneath, choking her as a torrid ocean does its victim—a current of guilt dragging her further and further beneath until at last she thought she had met her watery grave.
Alas, the water turned out only to be the sweat of fever and she awoke to the bishop dabbing her forehead with a cool cloth.
“You lost consciousness during morning prayers,” he said simply.
Séverine looked upon her surroundings. She was still in the modest chapel where prayers were held, though the nuns were no longer in attendance, their song no longer echoing the halls. She lay on the stone ground, her eyes filled with remorse and regret, her gown soaked through with sweat and sorrow, her present exhausted by the weight of her past.
The bishop held her cold hands in his and determined his diagnosis. He knew there to be two types of fever: the fever that comes from disease of the body and the fever that comes from disease of the soul. Knowing her fever to be of the latter sort, the bishop stood, taking her into his arms as he carried her through the darkened chapel.
He was a man of some distinguished years, tall and strong, with thick black hair and eyebrows that were combed through with grey. He wore a black shirt with a white col romain at his throat and a solemn furrow upon his brow. Séverine felt weak in his arms—as though she had drowned in her sins and was now wasting away, slipping into the shadows where she belonged—where she had always belonged. She was a creature of the darkness now, she believed, and she would at last be granted admission to the darkness that so longed to swallow her up.
Her vision dimmed, her thoughts wan with feverish submission as she cried into the bishop’s shoulder, resigned to her fate at last.
When she awoke, Séverine found herself sitting in a confessional. It was intricate in its design, with wooden carvings that made it appear as a wild forest, still against the darkest night. At first, the silence seemed absolute, but then she heard the rustle of a cloak and saw her confessor sitting before her through the latticed opening in the wall.
And then she remembered.
There arose, on the eve of the French Revolution, a domestic dispute between the Comte and Comtesse de Saint Germain.
A royalist whose only title came from an aristocratic family now generations removed from their wealth, the Comte had demanded the endowment of his wife—but his wife refused. She knew her only power came from the inheritance of her wealth and the death of her mother had caused her to become very wealthy indeed.
The only child born to wealthy silk merchants in Lyons, the Comtesse had been arranged to marry the Comte when she was only sixteen years of age. Her parents had desired his reputation and real estate and his family had desired her wealth and commerce. The couple wed in a quiet ceremony before moving to Paris where they established their estate in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
Shortly thereafter, the Comtesse’s father expired and though the Comte had thought himself the inheritor of his father-in-law’s corporation, he was dismayed to find that his mother-in-law intended to run the business in his stead. So it was that the Comte found himself in the very unfavorable position of having no preoccupation, no income, and only a title to sustain his name.
Where the Comte floundered, however, the Comtesse flourished. Having spent her upbringing sewing garments from the fabrics her parents imported, she established an atelier near their estate in an abandoned parfumerie. Her mother handled the production of fine silks and brocades and the Comtesse sewed them into fashionable dresses for the Parisian bourgeoisie. One particular gown of note was even found in the trousseau of the queen, may God grant peace to that weary head.
With each passing day, the Comte grew in insecurity of the two women who were responsible for his wealth and reputation. As his wife became a couturière of great renown, he was left to become a rather insignificant, and worse, a rather desperate man—and desperate men, as the reader might well be aware, are known for causing a great many matters of strife.
The Comtesse long held a suspicion that her husband had murdered her father and her suspicions were confirmed when, upon returning to her home unannounced, she witnessed from boudoir as her husband took her mother’s life as well. Now he intended to arrange himself as the sole inheritor of his wife’s fortune, and to use that fortune to flee the country before the Jacobins turned the tides on the aristocracy.
What he could not have known was that his wife had taken similar precautions. Knowing full well the scope of a political landscape on the brink of collapse and fearing the reproach of her husband, the Comtesse had closed her mother’s silk facility in Lyon and sewn every piece of jewelry she owned into the seams of her gowns, sending them ahead with her mother’s ship merchant.
Thus arranged for the coming insurrection and planning to leave her husband by night, she had only to make her departure. But the Comte was desperate for her fortune and suspicious of her intentions. An extra glass of vermouth only secured him in his anxieties. Behind the closed doors of their Parisian estate, he reproached his wife for her insubordination, grabbing her left wrist in his hand.
Sitting at her vanity mirror, the Comtesse regarded her features in the mirror. Her skin was so porcelain and beautiful, her dressing gown of rose silk was secured about her waist with a strand of pearls; her ears adorned with diamonds that hung suspended against her soft throat, twinkling in the light of the gilt chandelier. Her long slender fingers were decorated with sapphires and emeralds and she watched them glimmer in the evening glow as she settled her comb upon the bureau.
For more than a decade, her beauty fooled every patron of her boutique. For she was beautiful beyond words, the daughter of wealth, the wife of nobility. Her husband was the most handsome man in Paris and his wife the envy of every noblesse who knelt before her and kissed her gloved hands. But they never saw the scars that ran down her arms or the deep purple shade of her thighs. They never heard the trill beneath her words or the trembling of her soul.
They never could have guessed at the atrocities reaped by so esteemed a lady.
Now she flinched beneath her husband’s hand, watching as he ran his fingers along her throat and wrapped them securely around her neck. The Comtesse watched her own eyes in the mirror, the slow fading of her life as her husband strangled the air from her lungs. And then, in the pause of one breath, an inhale that might have been her last, she made a different decision, pulling the knife from beneath her dressing gown as she slashed it across her husband’s face.
His eyes were wild with fear as he fell to the floor, his chest heaving with disbelief as his wife stood above him—removing the gloves from her wrists. She looked at him for only a moment, with anger in her heart and vengeance in her bones, then she plunged the knife through her husband’s chest and did not regret the fading of his wasted life.
The blood seeped into her dressing gown, slowly creeping up the fabric as her eyes met the portrait that hung above the mantle. The Virgin Mary was reticent in her mourning, she thought, and weeping at what her eyes had just seen.
“Madame,” the bishop said, “you are forgiven.”
The words were powerful, but they were not enough.
“If I am forgiven,” she said, “then how am I to forget?”
“Ahhh,” the bishop sighed, relaxing into the confessional as though he were the patron of a philosopher’s salon. “Priests and mystics alike have pondered that question for thousands of years. But allow me to share my own personal tale if you’ll indulge me.”
The widow nodded.
“A long time ago, when I was a young man, I was something of a nobleman. Ah, I can see the surprise in your eyes, but let me tell the rest of my story and you will surely come to understand it.
”You see, I had everything a young man could wish for. I had wealth, an admirable estate, the best upbringing a family could provide, and a name that opened every door. That was just the trouble, you see. For when someone has the world they grow tired of it, and that is just what I did. Nothing would satisfy me—no sweet, no drink, and no woman’s touch—and I tasted every one of those things I could find.
“It wasn’t that I was particularly promiscuous, you understand. There were men of my upbringing far more hedonistic than I. Alas, it was just such a rationalization that was ultimately the cause of my degradation. For I fell in love with a woman… a married woman. She was luminously pale and had the most beautiful red hair I had ever seen. At the time, I never wanted anything more than to stroke that fine mane with my fingers.
“I knew she did not belong to me, but she was as eager as I and so I took her into my bed. When we held each other it was as though, for a moment, I could grasp some sense of meaning in the world when the rest of it had none—but such is the way of sin. It provides temporary relief for our souls and so blinds us from our smarter sensitivities.
“She took me into her life, and I took her into mine, as though there were no other man to thwart it. There was, bien sur, and my actions had disastrous consequences for the both of us.
“Her husband eventually found out, as they always do, and he cast his wife into the streets. She was a ruined woman and there was nothing I could say or do to alleviate her treachery. I was of the aristocracy, of noble breeding and blood. Society would not allow me the grace of marrying so marred a woman, nor would I abide it. My parents eventually sent me away to Paris where I would become involved in politics and pleasantries alongside the rest of the bourgeoisie, and my lover, I would come to find out, would fall into prostitution, become plagued by disease, and die.”
Séverine knew all too well that those of fortune and favor could cover up any number of indecencies, even the murdering of one’s own in-laws with the hope of inheriting their fortune, and so she was not shocked to hear his tale. The very injustice of it seemed to turn her sorrow to anger. And then, she remembered what that anger had caused. “You were explaining how you were able to overcome such failure?” she prompted.
“Yes, yes. Though the scandal had not touched my own reputation, it had touched hers, and that fact haunted me for years. I lived in darkness, plagued by my failure, my lack of integrity, my lack of virtue. I was an immoral character who was playing the part of a moral one on the stage of my own life. Then one day, I was sitting in a pew and the priest recited those most harrowing words from Matthew:
“‘And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.’
“I realized then that I wasn’t afflicted by demons, I was afflicted by just One: Lust. And there was only one way I could rid myself of the vulgarities of Lust forever: to take a vow of celibacy. I did so at that very moment. I said a silent prayer, probably my very first one, promising that I would never again engage in such vulgarities. The demon immediately lost its power on me and left me alone—I was free.
“I joined the order against my parents’ wishes. I did not believe in Providence and yet entered my period of discernment completely devoted to Him. It was the one way I felt I could redeem my actions and eventually I came to feel that I did. I was not thwarted by my experiences, but made stronger by them. As a consequence, I am now a man of principle, of discipline. And I have spent my life in complete opposition to the loose morality I exhibited in my youth.
“It’s true that you cannot undo what has been done,” he said at length. “But you can recognize the true demon who plagues you—and you can rage against it with all your might.”
We next read The Sixth Chapter, in which we discover three men with rather nefarious intentions. (Available Friday at midnight.)