Obscurity, The Thirteenth Chapter
In which the widow has something the philanthropist wants.
We last read The Twelfth Chapter, in which a corpse was discovered behind the Cabaret St. Vincent.
The philanthropist was not so taken with the widow’s stories. He found them the consequence of idle minds and so became determined to unidle them. To this end, he invented an Easter feast, a happy occasion to forgo the fasting that had consumed most of the winter and once again enjoy the luxuries afforded by those most affluent in the city.
On the designated evening, a dinner table was set in the courtyard of his residence where guests could bask beneath the shadow of the Cathedral which towered high above them, its scaffoldings concealing the monument it would soon become. The philanthropist spared no expense in building the landmark and he wanted his guests to admire it. To see for themselves what this arriviste had built for his city, and to esteem the man who built it thanks to his boundless generosity.
The courtyard was embellished with every accoutrement: the table was draped with starched linens and inset with exotic floral displays, brass candlesticks, and freshly polished silverware. Vines crawled up the interior walls of the courtyard and heavy branches hung into it, candelabras suspended from them. It almost appeared to the guests a woodland paradise, a scene pulled from the pages of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where lush gardens flourished and fairies might be found secreted away amidst the leaves, whispering their whims to the unsuspecting guests who might hear them.
Guests dressed in their finery, thirsting for the coterie they had for so long forgone. Here they discovered an antidote for their monotony: pastries of every variety, confections that would satiate the most gluttonous king, and a large platter of meats the likes of which attendants had not consumed in some forty days.
Spirits were handed out on trays of gleaming silver and guests drank deeply from their goblets. After so many days without indulging, their intoxication came quickly, each of them wondering what libations were in their cups and what fairies might be manipulating their conversations.
There was, in fact, some sprite to blame. For the philanthropist had contrived of the event in such a way that his splendor could not go unnoticed. He paid attendants to circulate among the guests, talking of the philanthropist’s many accomplishments and the accolades for which he should be commended.
Guests nodded in response, though often they whiled away into more amusing conversations. As the evening settled in, guests laughed with uncontrollable ardor and wandered into the corners for pleasantries and mirth. It was as though the evening were enchanted by some otherworldly magic, inviting guests into an uninhibited world they wished would never end.
The philanthropist walked among them, watching as they took in every delicacy he offered to them. He was the richest man in town, he reminded himself, and they must be wooed by it. As he listened in on this conversation and that one, he thought he might hear some mention of his due. Perhaps how gracious he was to host such a gathering or how accommodating he had been to purchase streetlights for the city and pay lamplighters to light them.
Instead, he found the whole of them taken by the widow and her intrigues. Every hushed lip spoke of spilled blood, every drunken tongue wagged of the undead. The philanthropist grew steadily at unease. Why should they discuss a woman who was not even present? Who for all intents and purposes had left the town, fleeing from the words that were spoken of her, and yet somehow became the topic of high superstition?
He was baffled by their ignorance and angered by their obsession. Despite his attempts at distraction, the people remained entranced by the widow’s allure and ensconced by her mystery. He had to find a way to break this woman’s spell, he thought. To expose her for what she really was and make of her a mystery no more.
The next evening, the philanthropist sat on the balcony of his residence pondering the widow. He could not release her from his thoughts and so sat gripped by his anxieties.
At that moment, by accident or perhaps design, a woman stepped into the courtyard of the residence beside his. She was exotically beautiful, with dark skin that matched the night sky. She wore an exquisite gown but found herself alone and so removed it gently, her chemise the only barrier remaining between her skin and the moonlight.
The philanthropist recognized the woman, in fact, he had seen her with the very woman who so consumed his consciousness. The couturière made dresses for the widow, he knew, though she appeared far wealthier than her career would endow. Many men spoke of her behind closed doors. That she was known to keep an exclusive repertoire of wealthy guests and they frequented her salon with great discretion. These men were titled, honored, and well-endowed—certainly no more so than he—and they took advantage of their status and wealth to imbibe in the pleasures of her touch.
In the glow of the full moon, the philanthropist watched as the woman prepared a basin with warm water, fragrant salts, and exotic spices, steaming the moonlit bath with a sensory aroma. The perfume reached his perception and he was instantly besot with desire. Desire for passion, for pleasure, for a woman’s caress.
The woman, dressed only in her chemise, dropped it to the floor then dipped her toe into the warm water, testing it gingerly. He took in her body as though he had never seen something quite so mesmerizing before—sipping it in with his senses as he became so suddenly aroused by her naked form.
She sighed as she anointed her head with oils, smoothing it into her hair and onto her throat, shoulders, and breasts. She appeared wanting as she poured oil into her bellybutton and massaged it into her thighs, lifting one leg to the basin, and then the other.
The ritual bathed her skin in a soft glow as she smoothed the oil down her legs, lingering ever so slightly when her fingers slipped between her thighs. The hum of a hymn left her lips with a sultry sound, as she sung the words of her ritual into the night.
The philanthropist’s body thirsted, his heart hungered as the woman sank into the bath, oils pooling around her. She exhaled in the warmth, allowing the water to sink into every crevice of her body, soothing her spirit.
She untangled the dark mass of hair from her head, releasing it into the water as her fingers delicately graced her breasts before they slid between her thighs and into the water, free from his sight but not his imagination.
He could not believe his eyes. She seemed to sigh then, as though her hands eased her body into a simmering pleasure—and perhaps they did, for her sighs increased in intensity, sending audible whispers into the courtyard as she surrendered to her own touch.
The philanthropist gasped out loud as as her fingers slid to places he could not see but longed to touch. Just as she held herself in a most intimate moment, she gasped to discover the philanthropist standing in her doorway, his eyes burning with unsatiated desire.
She startled at first, as if caught in an unguarded moment, her body drenched in the cool reflection of the moon, then her eyes gleamed. She gestured to the man to join her and he dropped his robe to the floor.
We next read The Fourteenth Chapter, in which someone is alive who was thought to be dead.