Obscurity, The Thirty-Fifth Chapter
In which a gentle haunting awaits the widow.
The servants waited by the windows for their mistress to arrive. The hour was late, the candles burned to their last, and her dinner grew colder. Each held their breath in anticipation of the moment that would startle them from their waiting. Wondering when, if ever, it would arrive.
They waited in a spare but furnished room hidden from the remainder of the inn by a door that appeared to be a broom closet. The innkeeper was a friend of the captain’s, who had rented the entire inn and settled Séverine’s servants within it, establishing a room for each of the inn’s inhabitants.
The servants fidgeted with their gloves and inspected their shirts. They filled and refilled the water pitcher and tenderly touched the leaves of an alligator fern that bathed leisurely in a shallow vase. They peered from the windows, fogged by night and obscured by botany. They paced the floors and checked the locks.
They listened for the sound of a hinge or a footstep on the stair, and worried that whoever occasioned such sounds might not be the person they expected. There seemed to be so many sounds in that silence, and each of them lacking some salient cause. There was no person roaming the attic, and yet steps could be heard nonetheless. There was no hand running the length of the hall and yet a woman’s glove appeared on the bureau.
The innkeeper was a retired privateer himself and kept in his company those compatriots in need of a room. So, he ran an inn of sorts, a common escape for erstwhile sea captains—one that appeared a most reputable establishment from the front, and yet hid an entirely separate one at the back. One with shrouded tables, secret stairways, hidden attics, and a hallway that reached in one direction toward sin and in the other toward salvation.
In that inn was kept the secrets of a century. The ghosts of shipwrecked sailors and forlorn lovers. Of those who were so scorned by life that they could not keep from living some semblance of it even after their earthly lives were through. They were unable to turn from the darkness that had swallowed them for in that despair dwelt also their delight. The last caress of a lover lost.
The servants had lived in that place a fortnight and none found solace in it. Two claimed to have seen a maiden ascending the stairs into an unused chandelier. Another claimed to have seen a man in the hallway with a patch upon his eye. These were naught but flickers, visions seen and yet unseen as only ghosts can be—assuring their obscurity among the living by the mere fact that anyone who could claim to have seen them, could in the next moment doubt whether they had seen them at all.
The unease wrapped around them, the darkness deepened, and then the door opened. A small commotion drew each of their idling minds to attention, gulping fear down their throats as they willed the silence to sustain so they might discern which patron entered the establishment below. They exhaled as voices were heard and recognized: the captain and the ménagère returned from the opera. The innkeeper greeted his guests and took their coats before establishing them in a private booth where they might take their supper.
Though the servants could not see within in that booth, so shrouded by red velvet curtains and concealing a red velvet settee, they could eventually hear the child sneak from his own chamber to join them, the sounds of their silverware clinking against aged china, and the sounds of whispered voices filled with worry.
A long hour stretched after as fires were stoked and rekindled, candles replaced and relit, and then the door opened anew. This time the sound of the couturière filled the inn. She had returned from her errand drenched in errant rains, the sound of the storm sprinkling upon the herringbone floors as the boards creaked from age and angst beneath their new visitor.
She was greeted by the captain and the ménagère and the child, their whispers hesitant and tired, until at last they ceased and the hours stretched forth for an indefinite amount of time. The inn mustered itself for another period of waiting, her wretched body fortifying itself against the rain and settling into its ire as her inhabitants waited for the remaining three.
At a quarter past midnight the mercenary too returned to the inn, shaking the rains from his cloak as his boots thudded dimly against the floor. By then each party was haunted by an unattainable sleep, sipping shallow coups of absinthe as they lounged against the velvet tapestries, waiting for the sounds of their remaining guests.
The mercenary nodded at the group, poured himself a measure of absinthe, and drew himself a pitcher of water before mounting the creaking stairs to the room which the servants had so solemnly prepared. Greeting each of them in turn, he released them to their respective beds and sat at the desk, settling various paper around him as his restlessness dissolved into the silence.
There was a gentle ticking, and it began to trouble his mind so much so that he retrieved his pocket watch from his coat and tucked it beneath the mattress, returning another sip of absinthe to his lips before settling at the desk once more. This time a small tapping took hold of his attention, as though someone rapped at the wall behind the desk.
He had not the time for his imagination, he thought at first, before realizing that he had far too much time for it. Seeking some reprieve from his waiting, from the agony of a moment which was outside of his control, he moved the desk out from the wall and peered into a crack behind it.
There was nothing there, of course, and he made to return the desk against the wall when the tapping returned and once more caught his attention. The mercenary was not a man who believed in spirits or specters, thus far he had attempted to comfort the servants by telling them so, and yet it is altogether possible for a man who does not believe in ghosts to see one.
Used to having his mind changed by evidence, he removed the plank from the wall and there discovered a small alcove containing a bundle of letters wrapped in twine, layers of dust sifted atop them with spindles of spider webs strung elegantly around them. The mercenary removed them from their lair, closed the wall of its secrets, and returned to the desk where he cleaned the letters of their age and set about unsealing them.
The letters contained a love story between a woman who was married and a captain who was seafaring. Their love story was dark and sordid, told in haltering moments of passion and aching moments of separation. They spent nights together at the inn, he read, and then they were apart for long months, she spending lonesome nights in bed with her husband as her lover spent lonesome nights at sea. Their love lived only in this small room and their lives lived away from it.
Perhaps, the mercenary thought, it was they who haunted that space, for it was the only place where they could love one another. Even if it was a doomed and disoriented afterlife, it was there that they had one another and that their love could live on in eternity, encapsulated within the walls that once sheltered them.
But then, perhaps his mind was weary from the poison. For days he had lain mostly dead in the room of the physician as the spectacled old man worked diligently to undo what harm was caused him. His muscles had since returned to their former strength, but his mind sometimes lapsed into visions, the world tilting sideways for a moment as though he might fall off it, until the world righted itself once more and gravity firmly affixed him to it.
Just then, there was a sound at the door. The one every one of them awaited.
At last, a breath inhaled as the door opened, and into that wasted waiting appeared the commander and upon his arm, Séverine. They were met with relief and happiness. Séverine held the boy in her arms and the commander kissed his wife. The captain and the ménagère embraced each of them turn.
M. Delacroix entered the scene, seeing in it all the poetry we have so far encountered. He saw the rise of his lover’s heart as she breathed a shuttered breath, and he scooped her into his arms, kissing her eyelashes as she began to weep with the relief. Séverine’s body shook as the years of sorrow left her. For so long she had been haunted. Now she was no more. Now, she felt, it was all over. She kissed Rémy on the lips, knowing he could have her heart, now that it could live only in light.
When the clamor and excitement had wound to its end, the candles burned to their last, and the refilled coups of absinthe dwindled to their dregs, their excited minds finally allowed them the reprieve of sleep. Séverine tucked the child into his bed with a kiss and released the last candle of its duty as the inn returned to its creaking silence and she wandered down the hall to her rooms.
Séverine entered her bedchamber, the one with the letters and the washbowl and the botany, and closed the door. Rémy stared at her a long while, her eyes deepened and beautiful, her hair long and unfurling, her skin incandescent and perfect. She was a thing of beauty from her head to her toes, a pearl in an oyster shell drenched in the light of an undersea opulence.
In a reprieve from his pensive mind, he touched her hand and held it in his, her outstretched fingers reaching for his touch in return. It was a strange and beautiful thing, the love the dwelt between them. For it came with all the longing of those haunted sailors, and all the passion of their lost lovers, and yet it would follow them from this inn and out into their lives. A love that would be lived for centuries and be sustained in their hearts even after. This, they felt, could at last be the truth.
She closed her eyes as he drew her into his chest. Her hair falling down her back like the waves, a tear slipping down her cheek, a sigh falling from her breath. And he, in his unbelief, could not help but let a tear fall down his. A relief that they were together at last, that the great tragedies of their lives was soon to be complete.
They touched one another’s fingertips and held between their hands some small happiness. Their dead hearts alive and awake, returned to life after such a sustained absence, rekindled from the crypts where for so long they had despaired. They might have spent hours that way, holding one another to their hearts, impassioned that they were even alive. But then their love evolved into something more desperate and desirous.
Rémy, who spent his life pondering the philosophies of life, could now find in it only two truths: that life remained a mystery and that this woman was his favorite one. He savored her on his lips as though he were the monk who sipped the very first glass of champagne, the man who drank deeply from the cup of life, her wine-red lips the most delectable delicacy. She was as a Bordeaux, grown from limestone crosses crushed underfoot and obscured by fog, all so that she could become something obsessed with mystery and alight with fantasy.
At times, in the night, they became so frenzied that her hair would fall in into her mouth, their lush lovemaking glistening like peeled oranges glacéed in the summer sun. Other times they were so tender and anguished it felt as though they were in whispering in a jungle, kneeling at the altar of a waterfall, feeling the ecstasy of God rain down upon them as they bathed in His splendor.
When at last they were satiated, their bodies redolent with wild palms, oiled as though by coconuts, and warmed by a waxing sun, they watched the dawn break on a new day. One that would mark the end of so many bad ones, so they might live anew, with only the good ones.
We next read The Thirty-Sixth Chapter, in which things go awry at the philanthropist’s wedding. We are nearing the end of our tale. To purchase the (very) first hardcover edition of Obscurity, signed by the author, become a Novelle Collector.