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Obscurity, The Eighth Chapter
In which blood is spilled at the Mardi Gras ball.
We last read The Seventh Chapter, in which the widow ventured into the swamp for a cure.
Pursuit of an eligible husband was the most popular pastime among European ladies of a certain age. The courting season began each winter when local plantation owners brought their daughters to the city for a surfeit of social soirées.
Exultant balls, parties, dances, symphonies, operas, and theater performances set the stage for what would appear to the modern sympathies, a kind of harlotry. One in which wealthy European fathers solicited their daughters into the hands of equally wealthy suitors.
The women, for their part, played their roles flawlessly, flaunting their coquettish ways in an attempt to lure the most amiable of bachelors. For this, they required the most extravagant ensemble: a dress fitted with all the trimmings wealth could provide and jewels that would draw the eye to the most alluring of locales.
The quality of these women’s lives greatly depended on the status they were able to achieve through marriage, and so they adorned themselves with every possible armament in their pursuit of the opposite sex. Attraction, however, was a competitive game—one in which a very small quotient of European women vied for a very large quotient of European men. More often than not, those bachelors selected their mates from the much more abundant sum of gens de couleur libres.
One in particular was the desire of all la Nouvelle-Orléans. Indeed, for a woman of her place in society, she lived quite well and was thus rumored to entertain a number of particularly high-profile guests in her salon. These gentlemen paid her every living expense, rumor told, and in return she had only to provide a number of maritally inclined services.
The woman was a couturière of some renown—the most requested in town. By day, she entered into the city’s wealthiest salons, measuring the waists and busts of the women of the house and fitting them with every finery for the coming social season. By night their suitors entered her salon, rumor told, removing their cloaks and garments for another sort of service entirely. All customers, it must be told, were equally satisfied with the woman’s merits.
In fact, it was through these rumors that she came to entice another member of our town. The Veuve St. Vincent arrived at the couturière’s salon late in the afternoon. The room was furnished simply, but elegantly, with all the leanings of a European salon and yet garnished with a certain Creole charm. Wooden tables and chairs framed a bed laden with intricately patterned linens. Fabrics, scarves, feathers, and whimsies hung from walls and draped from furniture and foreign fragrances spewed themselves about the air with great exoticism.
The couturière entered with all the majesty of a queen. She was a palpable beauty, outfitted in the finest fabrics India produced. Her dark hair was wrapped around her head in a gold-gauze handkerchief, her neck ornamented with fine chains of gold, her body draped in a gown sewn of precious muslins interwoven with pearls. She was the very portrait of concubinage right down to her ornamented petticoats and richly embroidered slippers.
The widow understood immediately the effect this woman had on her detractors. For she must have aroused the jealousies of a great many French women by the effect she must have had on their lovers. And yet, those same women relied on her services if they had any hope of securing a suitable match. Though the widow knew better than to believe the gnarled intrigues of rumor, she couldn’t help but admire the woman’s guiles.
“Ah, so you are the widow who kills her husbands?” The couturière said with a thick Creole accent.
“And you are the seductress who lures suitors into her bed?” the widow countered.
“One never knows when one’s reputation will come to be of use,” the woman replied with a smile.
From that day forward, a business partnership was formed. One in which the couturière went about her business, calling on the city’s young ladies, dressing them, adorning them, and reporting their gossip back to the widow for a handsome sum.
It was a pleasant enough arrangement, one that was equally fortuitous to both women involved. As the season approached, young ladies were quick to call on their couturière, inviting her into their homes so they could select the silks, taffetas, laces, ribbons, and other embellishments necessary for their impending mating rituals. The young women delighted in such frivolities, and were infatuated by their opulence, though it was not just the gowns they found to their liking.
The couturière herself was a wealth of intimate knowledge. She knew all the secrets of the opposite sex: the hidden jealousies, the occult sympathies, and the carnal entreaties of men more hedonist than most. Though the ladies would, at times, wonder how the couturière came to be in the presence of such knowledge, their insatiable minds would not allow them to question it.
“What of M. de V—?” they would ask. M. de V—, the couturière told them, worshipped at the altar of intrigue and lived in the inimitable pursuit of women not so easily attained. He especially favored those who were married and of a devout nature, though they were hardly so virtuous by the completion of his conquests.
“And what of M. C—?” another lady would question. Well, the couturière said, he was something of a sodomist. He engaged in erotic endeavors unrelated to the marital goals of procreation and his lovers were quite charmed by his wayward affections. He was known to let his fingers wander up a woman’s skirts and to send her searching for paradise at his touch. Sometimes, it was said, he was known to use the benefit of his lips as well, brushing them against his lover’s thighs.
The ladies blushed at topics so impious to them, though they could not, in their curiosity, stop their ears from hearing them. “What of M. M—?” one young woman asked, her eyelashes aflutter. He seemed to her the very portrait of an upstanding gentleman. “Not all men desire the fairer sex,” the couturière answered with a smile.
Every now and again, a woman would be so bold as to ask of the couturière’s relationship with the mysterious Veuve St. Vincent. The couturière was not one to leave a client’s appetite unsatiated. “The woman drinks blood every night,” she would say in a whisper. “I’ve seen her cut the necks of fine young gentleman with her teeth and drink the life from their veins.”
The women would swoon, their youth making them highly susceptible to the allure of superstition. Once their gowns had been designed and fitted, the ladies returned to their salons, telling their friends and families the exorbitant tales they heard from the couturière of the Veuve St. Vincent, and the couturière returned to the salon of the widow, with stories of the young women and their most rapt fascinations.
The couturière saved her most opulent gown for the widow. White clouds of fabric swooped in billowing skirts of taffeta with diamond petticoats dripping subtly beneath. The corset held Séverine closely without the need for extraneous adornment, drawing the admirer’s eye to her creamy porcelain skin, dark brooding eyes, gold powdered hair, and lips that might have been painted on by an artist’s brush.
It was late in the evening by the time the widow arrived at the ball. She found couples in various stages of undress hidden in the alleyways. Suitors kissed their lovers passionately, feeding one another cakes with their fingertips and licking the icing from one another’s lips, all of them so besot they thought themselves hidden by the night. How wonderful it was to be young, Séverine thought, and to satisfy one’s every cravings.
Inside, the Mardi Gras ball was in full effect. The music was feverish, the dancing frenzied, and all who participated in the merriment feasted on endless trays of shellfish and spirits, satiating their every desire as they whiled away the evening. By the time the hour tipped toward morning, the ball had devolved into a sort of pious chaos—those more upstanding individuals retiring to their homes and those more audacious sorts reveling in an evening that was only beginning.
Despite the frivolities, when Séverine took her first step into the ballroom a hush overcame it, as though every breath ceased, the men from her exquisite beauty and the women from their inscrutable envy. “Trop de zèle,” some ladies whispered over half drunk champagne glasses. “Trop d’audace,” others murmured in agreeance, aghast that the couturière would be so vindictive to create a gown so insatiable as that. Indeed, it was the first time many had seen the widow free of her veil and her black dress of mourning.
Even the musicians seemed to flounder a note at the sight of that corporeal vision. A group of gens de couleur libre, who earlier in the evening had played an eclectic menagerie of boleros and waltzes, changed their tune, now drawing from depths of their own spirits to play a tune both soulful and lively. European and African men alike vied for the attentions of those free women of color as they turned around the dance floor, and at the center of it all was the couturière, lifting her glittering skirts in the most provocative manner.
Her dance was tantalizing and seductive, one of the most beautiful things the widow had ever seen. It was hope. It was faith. It was destruction. It was annihilation. The men knew not how to dance with such a vixen. They could only watch with an insatiable lust as she moved her hips with mesmerizing torment, her eyelids closed in some private ecstasy.
Through that menagerie of seduction, a single gloved hand offered the widow a glass of red wine on a silver platter, but as she reached to take it another hand interrupted hers and handed it to the ménagère behind her. When the widow turned toward the hand in question, she found at the other end of it the mercenary. That stoic savant wore a coat of frosted rose silk with broad facings of black velvet. At his neck was a cravat of rose silk, his dark hair curling above his porcelain complexion with all the integrity of a scholar.
Behind his eyes lay secrets unbetrayed by his facial expression. Only the gentle pull of his gloved hand on hers could lure her into a dance, and the music at once consumed them in its chaos. There was the sensation that the ballroom in which they danced contained the whole of the Caribbean—and all of them danced as though spellbound by it. Drunk with merriment and pleasure they forgot their prejudices and reveled in the exotic remnants of lost humanity that dwelt in so forlorn a place.
Their bodies brushed against one another. Their minds were hypnotized by one another. He held her closely, touched her lingeringly, and looked into her eyes most intimately. She returned his gaze with unbridled ferocity. It was as though they had met lifetimes before this one, that memory lost to the strange preoccupation of existing and forgotten to the far reaches of the universe in which they spun.
Their bodies forgot to dance as he held her even closer, her cheek so excruciatingly close to his. She closed her eyes as though to remove herself from the moment, but then he touched her cheek gently with his fingertips, and then her lips. For a moment it appeared they might fall deeply into some other world, allowing themselves a moment of mystery and passion unencumbered by the consequences that might follow it.
How wonderful it is to be young, Séverine thought, and to satisfy one’s every craving. His lips touched hers, and she allowed herself to enjoy them. Their kiss was slow and savored—as though it elapsed them into a rather tantalizing trance. The ballroom was forgotten, the party gone on without them, and yet their kiss remained suspended between them, like the sweet taste of vermouth that lingers after each sip.
The next moment a chilling scream fell through the ballroom and they were startled from their spell.
Séverine rushed to the sound, her dress catching the light as she reached the front door. A young couple had stumbled into an alleyway, only to discover in their dalliances the swooned body of the ménagère, her mouth marked with blood, her breath bubbling to her lips in fits of anguish.
Tears poured from the widow’s eyes as she held her friend tenderly, her white dress once more stained by the blood of her sins, the red of it reaching for her heart. Of all the lives she had been privy to, of all the deaths she had borne witness to, she felt this fading life more than any other. For she had allowed herself a kinship with this woman, and to have hope in it.
“Mother” the ménagère whispered, her eyes alight with the wonders of the world beyond this one. And then with a breath, she slept.
We next read The Ninth Chapter, in which a bottle of poison is discovered in rather familiar company.