Obscurity, The Third Chapter

In which the widow enters society and rumors about her become a rather ghastly thing.

We last read The Second Chapter, in which the ménagère of the Estate St. Vincent had a disturbing premonition.

Where the great river met the land, the water struggled to seep through the murk that was determined to stall it. Only a pole sent into its depths could row them toward their idling destination, the flat-bottomed boat heaped high with trunks of personal effects, large quantities of Rhum Agricole, and one portrait of the Virgin Mary weeping. 

The land was strange and wild, just as the captain had foretold. Large overgrowths of trees and roots sunk into the mud as if summoned by it. Wild ferns and palms crawled over one another in a gnarled attempt to reach the sun. The air was humid and thick and the insects that swam in it so large they might have crawled over the corpses in the valley of Gehenna.

Tropical rainstorms poured down upon them, giving the impression that they were swimming their way to the city more so than rowing to it and dark scaly creatures blinked their eyes above the surface as if waiting for one of those precarious rafts to overturn. Indeed, Séverine had the creeping feeling their small party was navigating the river Styx, avoiding at every turn the lures of the underworld.

At long last, they made it to la Nouvelle-Orléans, a strange and beautiful place with cobbled streets, wooden sidewalks, and two and three-story buildings built in the Spanish Style. Though tropical groves reached out to meet it, the city rose up in fortitude against the nature that would attempt to swallow it—with buildings leaning to one side or the other, depending on the inclinations of the wind, and ferns clinging to the balconies in spilling piles of leaves.

If we were to compare the city in those times, we might have recalled the ruins of a forgotten Mediterranean isle, ever haunted by the ghosts of its French past, and yet overcome by its Caribbean present—and it is here that we shall see the widow settled at last, and entering into a society as unruly as the tropical landscape they lived in.

For a time, it might do us good to remember, France sent only her discards to the city. Prostitutes, hedonists, sodomizers, gamblers, opium dealers, and all other manner of the morally depraved were sentenced to a life of harsh realities. Wooden cabins became their lot and freedom their intoxicant—and then there were the Catholics.

As the city ravaged itself into ruin, France placed amidst it a small contingent of nuns. It was the country’s hope that such morality would influence the land’s depravity, and thus, crowning the edge of that town stood a convent both enriching and imposing. A living testament to the beauty of Divine Providence amidst the treachery of men.

Séverine eyed that sanctuary with longing. How simple the life of a nun must be, she thought—as we all do when the burdens of life become too difficult to bear—how wonderful it must be to spend decades perfecting their voices only for the joy of lifting them up. More than anything else, however, she longed for their innocence, for an innocence that might never be returned to her; and what a beautiful thing that innocence had been.

Their destination thus achieved, the captain and his men heaved their baggage onto the wooden banquets as the ménagère saw to all the particulars. As he settled about securing shipments of Rhum St. Vincent from the plantation she secured its mean of distribution, purchasing an abandoned hotel in the Vieux Carre where the widow established a cabaret on the first floor and a private residence on the second and third.

The Cabaret St. Vincent was furnished with seclusion in mind, harkening the attendant to a particular establishment in Paris where secrecy was spent as currency and a lover’s touch spoken as its native language. The apartment above was adorned in much the same taste, its darkened interior crusted with all the finery of black marble, brass fittings, and crystal chandeliers, and most harrowing among its effects, one portrait of the Virgin Mary weeping, installed above the mantle where she would forever mourn the mistress who beheld her.

There did remain some vestige of the building’s former life, which shall come to be of particular interest to us as we further our tale: the check-in counter remained on the ground floor, admitting entrance to the cabaret; and in the widow’s quarters there was one door that would not open, a hotel room without a key and no longer any means of entering it.

In those days, in that place, we must remind the reader that one’s reputation was considered social currency—a means by which one could elevate their rank or stature. For the Veuve St. Vincent and her retinue, there was no reputation to precede her, and so her entrance into society incited rumor instead.

Society watched her most closely as she built the most elegant cabaret in the city and established her residence above it. She did not subject herself to social niceties nor did she accept favors from those who requested her company. Even the governor was turned down from meeting the illustrious widow, his calling card so quickly returned.

Furthering speculation, no one spoke to the widow apart from those who lived with her. During the day, she disappeared into the convent. Then at night, she entered into the cabaret where, concealed within the confines of red velvet booths, she drank a glass of red wine and listened to the piano play as smoke twirled across the lounge in lingering shadows. And all the while, she wore the black veil of mourning, shrouding her in yet another layer of secrecy.

The cabaret became known for keeping all kinds of company, both moral and amoral, and the Veuve St. Vincent was seen as a masquerader of both. She never appeared to eat, and never appeared to drink anything save a glass of red wine. It was this trait, most of all, that caused them to wonder whether she was a member of the undead. She had drunk the life from her husband's veins, they said, and lived as the inheritor of it.

We, being a more sophisticated and educated sort, no longer believe in such stories, but in 18th-century Nouvelle-Orléans, there were a plethora of odd phenomena that contributed to the tale’s vibrance. As the reader will see, at that time it was difficult to discern whether or not a person was truly a member of the deceased. Some merely suffered excessive trauma or became so ill with fever they appeared to be dead—at least for a time. After funeral ceremonies were held and the victim had sufficiently recovered from his ailments, he would rise from his coffin and attempt to remove himself from it.

Of course, this led to fear and uncertainty among the living and they would not open the coffin lid for the sheer terror the knocking and screaming that came from beneath it occasioned. They encapsulated those poor men in heavy sarcophagi and enclosed them in mausoleums, praying they would not rise from their graves in the middle of the night. Of course, they wouldn’t. For if these poor souls were not dead from trauma at the first, they were surely dead by suffocation at the last.

So it was that society watched from the corners as the widow entered the convent each dawn, convinced that she there hid herself away from the light of day until night could once again take her. We may know all of this to be heresy, but the villagers at that time were not concerned with such piety. What concerned them most was that this woman threatened their own place in the world and so they secured it with tales and obscurities.

The widow’s own household was not exempt from the reaches of rumor.

The ménagère entered the widow’s chambers one night to find the woman standing before a portrait of the Virgin Mother weeping. Her dark hair fell in reckless waves down her back, two pearls sat perched upon her ears, and her neck was the sweetest shade of peach, adorned by a simple strand of diamonds.

Among those who now lived and worked for the Estate St. Vincent, there was great fear of the woman who was now its heiress. For it was naught five years prior that her husband, Monsieur le Propriétaire, arrived in la Louisiane without kin or acquaintance, the sole survivor of a ship wrecked at sea.

Speculation among those living in la Nouvelle-Orléans at the time maintained that his wife must have perished in the crossing, and her husband left by the grace of God to mourn her memory. Alas, the proprietor himself never sated such curiosities and said not a word to those gentlemen who once retrieved his body from the turbid waters.

As it were, Monsieur le Propriétaire cared not for la Nouvelle-Orléans and he took great care to seclude himself away from it. He purchased a large tenement of slaves and built the most wealthy sugar plantation in all of la Louisiane before setting himself to the task of running it. The master himself was seldom to be seen thereafter, save by the slaves who attended to his every eccentricity.

Throughout the years, his slaves came to disagree with what public opinion determined was the Madame St. Vincent's fate. As they soon discovered, their master had such a foul temperament about him that it was quite common to find a gold mirror shattered over the head of some well-intentioned cook or a candlestick struck through the eye of some malfortuned maid.

Indeed, we are inclined to agree, for if there ever were such a person as Madame St. Vincent, Monsieur her husband would surely not have mourned her demise, but more than likely been the harbinger of it—her ghost left to wander the abyss until at last she emerged from the sea, an effigy in search of the one who had brought about her most sorrowful fate.

These thoughts thus considered, the ménagère wondered whether the woman had spent any time in the sea—and whether her soul remained waterlogged by her secrets. When the widow turned from the painting the ménagère found her eyes the most startling shade of blue—almost indigo—as though they were tiny prisms that reflected another world, one long ago drowned by the realities of this one.

For a moment, the ménagère was frightened and wondered whether the widow had noticed the wound at her husband’s chest, or at least speculated as to its cause. Indeed, the implement of the proprietor’s destruction was held in the hands of a slave one room away from his deathbed, a wooden trowel carved into a point and discarded to the floor once the widow had entered the estate.

But the widow gave no inclination of her suspicions nor had she fretted of theirs. In the days to come, the Widow St. Vincent would only don the dress of mourning and gaze upon one portrait of the Virgin Mary, her eyes dark with an empty torment. The portrait appeared to mourn some unseen peril, the ménagère thought. Her hands were outstretched against it, her eyes pleading with an unjust heaven, her countenance overcome by a terrible darkness.

The Virgin Mother took on an almost apocalyptic quality—a harrowing portent at the end of the world—and the ménagère wondered briefly if the death of that woman’s son could atone for the anguish of her own soul. And then in a moment of madness, she wondered whether she saw a drop of water fall from that Holy Woman’s eye.

“Madame,” she said then, shaking herself from her reverie. “Bienvenue à la Nouvelle-Orléans.”

We next read The Fourth Chapter, in which a rather mysterious figure appears to know the widow’s secrets. (Available Friday at midnight, to paid subscribers only.)