Obscurity, The Fourteenth Chapter
In which someone is alive who was thought to be dead.
We last read The Thirteenth Chapter, in which the widow had something the philanthropist wanted.
In the silence left behind by the storm, the mercenary awoke to a small sound. It was a gentle creaking, he thought, followed by a very soft thud. Without lighting a candle, he stepped from his room, opening the tall doors that once belonged to the proprietor, and peered out into the hall.
Though the estate was entirely dark and entirely silent, the hall was flooded with moonlight. A large window looked out upon the river; its shutters opened to let the sky fall in as the curtains rustled against an imperceptible wind. He saw the captain first, silently returning to his bedchamber, only the closing of his door visible amidst the shadows, then he saw the widow, standing in the moonlit glow.
She appeared pale, pensive—a silhouette perfectly captured in the rectangle of light that fell through the window frame. She did nothing but stand perfectly still and, for a time, the mercenary wondered whether she really stood there at all or whether there were some other monument casting a shadow upon the sky. Then at last, her lashes closed against the night and her hair stirred delicately in the breeze, reviving his assurances of her presence once more.
He wondered if she knew of his presence, if she could feel it behind her, if she could perceive, as she looked out on her plantation grounds, that there was someone who looked at her-who was moved by her and was tantalized by her. But then, a hand reached toward one shutter and another toward the other, closing them tightly against the night and sealing them into the darkness with a soft thud.
The mercenary did not know whether she walked away, for he never heard her footsteps against the floor. Instead, he wondered if she remained where she stood. Standing in the darkness. No longer visible to him in that absolue nuit, and yet aware of his presence, nonetheless.
We must be forgiven for an omission made on our part. For we have neglected to mention until this very moment that the ménagère we have come to know and love was not so dead as she seemed. Through sleight of hand, the widow had whisked her confidant away from the scene so that she might recuperate in peace within the walls of the plantation St. Vincent.
That those members of the city presumed her dead was merely a precautionary measure. For the widow had become far too prominent a fixture in society and needed a way to escape the prying eyes of her enemies. When that enemy struck, poisoning the ménagère at the ball, a strategically placed henchman had been there to remove her from the scene, placing a sheet over her head as the contents of that ballroom spilled out into the night.
The widow had known that her life, and the ones protecting that life, would be in danger if she attended a ball so publicly announced, and so she called upon the captain to help them. That evening he held the ménagère in his arms, carried her to the infirmary, and spent the evening devoted to her care. The widow visited her in secret to ensure her wellbeing, then three days later, when she was well enough to travel, the entire party made their way to the plantation.
There was no police case opened against the widow as there was no murder to be investigated, but those details remained little known by the general population. Their searching minds were left to discover fault which the aforementioned funeral only served to confirm. There was indeed a funeral, lest we deceive the reader further. For the mother of the child, we will not soon forget, passed away only shortly before and the widow had arranged to hold funerary services for she who had raised that now orphaned son.
The boy wept, the couturière threw a dash of salt over the dead woman’s body, and the widow reached her hand into the casket to place upon that corpse a rose from the convent gardens and a letter promising love and affection for the boy now in her care. She tucked those sentiments into the woman’s heart and promised deeply within her own that she would never cease to love he who was without a mother.
The widow held the child in her arms as that casket lid was sealed against the light of day, and it was this sequence of events which led the plantation St. Vincent to house the matriarch herself, the child in her care, the couturière in her employ, the ménagère still recovering, and the captain attending to her care.
And it was this party the mercenary would come to discover when he awoke the morning after the storm in the residence of the widow St. Vincent.
There was a scream—if we remember that morning clearly. The one bestowed upon them by the young maid who, only moments prior, had discovered the back door to the estate unhinged and unaccounted for. This led all parties to assemble themselves in the library, attempting to discover the cause for that most disturbing alarm.
The room was most storied—with pasts that had long preceded its owner and would long succeed her. Hundreds of portraits hung from high walls, each in decorated gilt frames, and even more leaned against the walls covered in cloth and dust and dimming rays of light. Each image contained the commissioned image of some famous French lord or lady whose death, by whatever means it had come to them, had rendered their titles quite useless.
Books lay opened on tables, their contents spilling about the room in sketches of science and knowledge and healing. Stacks of odds and ends were scattered about them—little bones and odd keepsakes, relics of dead saints, remnants of holy sepulchers, and among them an assortment of distilled spirits, bitter tonics, and aromatic herbs.
Shadows fell across marble busts, light catching their unliving eyes as cobwebs wept from chandeliers in dire need of dusting. A curling stairwell climbed into stories unknown. All of it was awash with the memories of poets and philosophers and doctors and scientists. Those who had made the most fervent study of the meaning of life, and yet who found of it nothing but a blank tapestry upon which one could create something beautiful—if only for a fleeting moment around the sun.
It was an interesting experiment, much like the gathering who assembled within it. An assemblage of things that were somehow separate, and yet congregated together in an amalgamation of curiosities. The widow looked about the people in that room and saw the fragments of her new life. Pieced together from the old one like shards of shattered glass that had been dyed and assembled to create a beautiful framework of stained glass.
There had been a time when she believed a woman’s only lot in life was to take a husband, submit to his will, produce for him an heir, and so die a woman of great virtue and piety. But marriage to the Comte had hardened her to that life and forged in her the determination to live her own version of it. And now it appeared, he was her adversary.
She had not known how far she would deviate from the path once set before her, but now she found some semblance of solidarity and lived determined to keep it.
We next read The Fifteenth Chapter, in which we meet the Comte, and discover him in the rather unfortunate company of his wife.