Obscurity, The Ninth Chapter
In which a bottle of poison is discovered in rather familiar company.
We last read The Eighth Chapter, in which blood was spilled at the Mardi Gras ball.
There was one man in town, an Englishman, who brought with him to the territory a knowledge of sorts. He was an apothecary—one who curated herbs and chemicals from every corner of the world and used them to prepare materia medica for the city’s physicians and patients.
Though the room was dark, the apothecary’s services were primarily used for light. To bring healing to the ailing, or to tempt those bodies who lingered too closely to the veil to return from it. For these services, he was well sought, and a great many were healed by his remedies. But though the apothecary was greatly emboldened by his profession, discovering in his clients the natures that ailed them and delighting in finding the treatments that healed them, he knew there was no money in a cure. Circumstance had long taught him that fortune favored a touch of the gods and so he had become adept at administering them.
As a young gentleman, the apothecary left England to learn from the doctors of Europe. As we have thus far ascertained, the methods employed at those times left something to be desired—there was merely a lot of bleeding and leeching, methods that, needless to say, did not meet the desired end of wellness. So, our apothecary continued his search for the herbs and tonics that would remedy the sick and draw fortune from the rich. When he did not find what he was looking for in the West he set sail for the East.
How amazed he was by the Orient and how knowledgeable they were in the healing arts. There he discovered a people who were not only well, but thriving. Whose skin was not marked by smallpox, nor ailed by yellow fever, but rather was smooth and beautiful, as though dipped in healing waters. He asked after their physicians and, for a time, apprenticed under a man who served his patients herbal tea on golden platters and set brass needles upon their skin.
From this healer he learned of the tides of the oceans and the direction of the stars—and how the two could provide such potent magics to his patients. After several years of study he became an apt enough practitioner in his own right and once he had sufficiently learned all he could about those ancient Eastern medicines, he packed up his belongings once more and traveled south to India where he had heard about doctors whose patients were freed from illness through the cleansing of their livers.
The Indians knew about the energies of their food and ate in such a way that their bellies stayed clean and their digestive tracts remained unhindered. Indian physicians massaged their patients’ bodies with oils and stretched their muscles with their hands. In so doing their muscles were more pliable than the rest of Europe, their joints fluid and youthful, and they were able to contort themselves in a variety of postures, as only children are wont to do.
For a time, the apothecary studied there, and learned all he could about those ancient medicines. He even learned of an ancient text in Sanskrit which, when practiced between lovers, had rather pleasurable consequences for a couple’s health. These things he studied with most fervent rigueur.
But after spending nearly a decade in the old world, he could not keep his mind from dreaming of the new one. Once more, he packed up his belongings and set out into the unknown, and after a long period of travel, he discovered himself on the other side of the world.
How primitive South America had appeared to him then, how uncivilized. When at first his sea legs grew accustomed to the wild landscape, he thought there was nothing to be found save a scattered assortment of Spanish settlers on a mission to leech the land of gold and silver. But then he discovered an indigenous people who, though they were not as well in body as those in the East—indeed they succumbed quite readily to the diseases of the West—they had, to their credit, one medicine that proved quite profitable.
The coca leaf was so potent that it administered energy, strength, and vitality to those who chewed it, and even more so when combined with the vitality of tobacco. These were highly coveted qualities by the miners at that time and, learning from the natives how to harvest a resource that would make their hardened lives more bearable, our apothecary grew quite wealthy from his dealings with the plant.
After so many decades, our apothecary became a physician of some renown, a healer of some knowledge, and a botanist of some note, but he had also procured an arsenal of eccentric herbs in his cabinet. Indeed, in two large leather trunks were stowed herbs from the Orient that drowned its users in the stars; a blue flower from India that, when steeped in tea, helped its users have the most languid dreams; and a leaf from South America that simulated the strength of a thousand men.
A wise merchant, he kept his contacts in each position, securing small shipments whenever he required use of their more desirable tonics—and these he sold at a premium. This allowed him to not only heal those who were not well, but to be handsomely paid for it. And it was with that goal of affluence that he decided to move his business to la Nouvelle-Orléans, where all the West Indies might partake in his healings and intoxicants.
It was there that a man we have perhaps seen before entered his shop. He appeared hidden, at first, by his cloak. It was only as he drew closer to the counter that the apothecary was able to see in this being a deformity—a visage twisted by some disease or ailment. He even had a gash torn through his face, as though he were the victim of a most frightful beast, though it was difficult to discern from the shadow that obscured him.
The apothecary asked the nature of this creature’s ailment. The reply reverberated, as though it came from a deep part of that being’s throat, a part that somehow remained intact though the voice became garbled by the treacherous route it took to his deformed lips. His baritone sounded as though it came from the underbelly of the ocean and then was hurled over the sides of a ship during a storm. With it he requested argentum colloidal for the wounds of his flesh which, he said, had refused to heal.
From this, the apothecary suspected syphilis, an ailment that could be helped by the tonic requested and could certainly lay cause to the wounds of this man’s flesh. If, however, the man was, as the apothecary feared, more beast than man, the same treatment might be used to cause harm to another. The apothecary knew well that if he dispensed of the poison, he might save the life of a man who sorely needed it, or he might cause the demise of one he wished to harm. If, on the other hand, the aptoehcary withheld the poison, he would forfeit, he was sure, a rather handsome sum.
Unfortunately, our apothecary, renowned healer though he was, was not one to turn down payment. He had many expensive habits, you see, and was not keen to dispose of any of them. And so, placing the powder in a small brown jar, and with instructions to apply it nightly, he sent that most hideous creature back to the swamp where he came from, and did not give it another thought thereafter.
We must interrupt this scene to insert our mercenary into it. For it had come to his attention in the days prior that certain ill appropriated funds were discovered in the company of gamblers and spent on the services of prostitutes.
It was in following this trail of hedony that our mercenary discovered the arbiter of those tasks in the company of our aforementioned apothecary. He watched from the shadows as the cloaked man took his package and paid his dues, the mercenary wondering all along, whether he had seen that cloaked creature before.
Perhaps he had, albeit briefly. Yes, wasn’t he the very individual who had watched the widow from the cabaret? Who clung to the very edges of her tale even as his cloak dripped water upon her floor? Did we not suspect him then of following the widow through the streets? And could the mercenary have not come to a similar conclusion?
Indeed, we are inclined to believe such a theory, and perhaps we should take better notice of this individual’s whereabouts in the future. For there was something most familiar about him, our mercenary noticed. Perhaps he was even more familiar than he thought.
The creature took its leave of the apothecary’s shop—a rusty bell announcing his departure from a crook in the doorway. In the shadows of the alley, the creature would almost have gone unrecognized by the mercenary were it not for the flash of a streetlamp that illuminated his fearsome features. In an instant, the mercenary saw the hideous scar that carved through the man’s face, distorting it with the touch of the Devil.
He had seen that scar before—the mercenary could be sure of it now. It was he who once quarreled with his wife in an estate in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It was he who was discovered in a pool of his own blood shortly thereafter. It was he whose face was slashed through with a knife, the harrowing portrait of the Virgin Mother no longer weeping behind him.
The mercenary remembered that night. He had left quietly to retrieve his superiors, but when he returned for the body it was gone—lost to wherever the portrait had gone before him. What a curious turn of events had cursed that night: when a man, his wife, and one portrait of the Virgin Mary became lost to the tides revolution, only to wash up on the shores of la Louisiane sometime after.
It was under such circumstances that our mercenary decided to attend the ball, to see for whom that loathe vial was intended—and to ascertain once and for all whether that person might be the man’s wife.
It was thus that the ménagère found herself the recipient of a rather deleterious plot. Returned to the city with the widow, she spent the week readying the household to attend the Mardi Gras ball.
She could not have known that there was a man who wished ill of her lady. Who poured a glass of wine only to fill it with poison. Who cloaked himself with the shadows even as he pressed white gloves to his wrists. Who put that glass on a silver tray and then handed it to her lady.
But the widow had a suitor, that night—a mysterious man with a darkened countenance and a rosy complexion. With the skill of a soldier he whisked that glass of wine from the widow’s hand, and placed it in hers. She watched the widow swirl into the dizzying fray, her hands held in his, her eyes lost in his.
It was then that the ménagère touched the glass to her lips and found in it a bitter tonic. One that, when it met her tongue, left her gasping for air. She hadn’t more than a drop before she recognized its intent. The dose was potent, and it coursed through her body in waves of delirium. She choked on the air, and clasped her hands to her throat—that simple act of tarnished potation drawing death into her veins and hastening it toward her heart.
The crowds sunk into the shadows as the ménagère attempted to discern from them the being who had cause to harm her lady. Her vision shifted and she clutched the table as the room spun around her in an array of velvets. Before she could fall to the floor, she witnessed the widow hurrying toward her, her white dress billowing behind her in her haste, but the woman was transfigured before her. “Mother,” she whispered, as she reached for that harrowing specter.
She was dead by the time she awoke within the convent walls to find the abbess and three nuns named Marie keeping vigil by her bedside. The windows were dark, but candles had been placed throughout the infirmary, flicking away the darkness as diligently as they were able. The other patients were asleep, small children checked on by the nuns as they said small prayers for their charges.
The ménagère too was tucked into the familiar white bed sheets of the convent. She was stripped to her chemise, her body damp with perspiration and fever. She felt weak and chilled, her body simultaneously hot and cold, and her skin took on the slightest blue complexion, as the moon can do against the backdrop of a twilit sky.
Her eyes were closed and still she could see the women by her bedside as her consciousness clouded and her cognizance waned. She looked at the women by her bedside, four nuns draped in the dark vestments of the Ursulines praying the words of their order. Their mouths appeared to move in blurred unison. Their eyelashes wavered in mesmerizing content.
The vision fell into fits of mirage as she watched their heartbeats quiver gently in their eyelids, coloring them with the purple hue of their hearts. How their cheeks were flushed by their aliveness and their lips stained with vitality. How beautiful that sentience existed within them. How strange that it occupied them at all.
Just as the ménagère fell into the cold clamor of fever, the first Marie looked up into her eyes, a certain ferocity kindling within them. Her eyes were like a wolf, their color amber and gold. She appeared so alive, so sharp, so vibrant—her picture clear against the blur. She knew about her mother, the ménagère thought. She remembered.
It was so long ago, it was so deep within the jungle. The storm had come for her and it possessed her to take a knife into bed with her master. She had raised the hilt above her head even as she tore it toward her master’s heart. She hadn’t known he would be in bed with his lover, that the tip of the knife would not reach his heart but the head of her mother. She had not remembered the things she had done while drunk on the madness of fury and wrath.
And then the nun blinked and the ménagère fell into the blackness of death, never to remember such horrors again.
We next read The Tenth Chapter, in which daughters must atone for the sins of their fathers.