Obscurity, The Thirty-Seventh Chapter
In which the philanthropist meets his fate.
The governor returned to his study and settled himself at his bureau. The wedding had been a lavish scene, the aspirations of that groom most grandiose, and yet the man was so unaware of his own hauteur. Out for the benefit of his own ego, he could hardly have noticed the detriment of his fellow man.
The governor pondered these mild provocations as he made a pipe for himself and set a match to it. The air sparkled and fizzled, the long allure of tobacco scented the room. Sitting back in his chair, he looked at the portrait above his desk. He and his wife had sat for the portrait on their wedding day with all the honor and regality they received from the Spanish Court.
He looked about the room. They lived in a modest home now, and yet it was quite amenable to their circumstances with all the furnishings befitting of that era. A fireplace warmed his skin as he enjoyed the drag of his pipe, the mantle was fitted with a brass clock, the walls paneled and adorned with gold gilded frames, a plush carpet piled high beneath his feet.
He looked at the painting again. They appeared as royalty, and yet he was an orphan. Now he was the governor of a town that was filled with orphans. Death ravaged that place and revolution pursued them. Perhaps humans were not meant to live in a place as wild as this, he thought, and yet how much worse had it been among the great civilizations of Europe.
He fell into a vision of the future. Some betterment for humanity. Some longing for peace.
It was war and conflict that created such a place as America. Patriots from thirteen colonies rose up against their country and claimed for themselves independence. France tore the heads off their kings and queens and still ravaged the cities in their anger. In the West Indies, natives and slaves woke up in bouts of rebellion, slaughtering settlements and eviscerating plantations.
He thought back to the most recent massacre. How troublesome it had been to see an entire town murdered with hatchets. Their skulls cracked open and their meals uneaten. Their children hidden beneath beds and in barrels.
Still, he could not shake the haunting visage of the woman. She stood naked, a hatchet in her hand, having hacked her husband to pieces for breaking his treaty with the French. The governor had been on horseback, leading the militia to the settlement when he saw her. She looked up at him for a moment, and their eyes locked. Then he blinked, and she was gone.
She was to him a spectre. Some vision of what would befall them if they could not find it within themselves to find some means of peace between them.
He turned these thoughts over and over in his mind, sitting with them in discomfort. They had needed to be angry to rid themselves of tyranny, he reasoned. They had needed revolution to throw off the blankets of oppression. They had needed to get bloody to fight for their freedom. And perhaps they had need of that anger still as they brought about an entirely new continent and established within it entirely new ideals.
But there would come a point where they would need to develop an entirely different skillset, he thought. Not to burn to the ground, but to build. Not to rip apart, but to piece together. Not to fight, but to work together. To start from scratch and build something new, and that would require casting aside the anger and aggression that had gotten them this far and replacing it with the ideals and progression that would take them into the future.
They would need to remove themselves of the inclination to fight problems and instill within themselves the inclination to come up with solutions, the governor thought, and that was something that thus far had never been achieved in the whole of humanity.
Of course, the reader is well aware of the Moorish times of Spain, the Renaissance in Italy, when great civilizations enjoyed periods of advancement in art and architecture, philosophy and literature, music and science and technology, and all aspects of intellectual inquiry. But those times came with the benevolence of the wealthy. When the rich poured their prosperity into art and libraries and monasteries and thinking. When men who might have been lost to poverty, were instead endowed to become Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo.
The affluence that allowed ordinary men to become writers, philosophers, inventers, and thinkers was lost when greed returned and hoarding proliferated. When the Medici’s became corrupt and then bankrupt and the monarchies did much the same. It was thus that the gap between the rich and the poor widened, and the Leonardo da Vincis and Michelangelos were left to become farmers. It was thus that they were forced to rise up in revolution.
His wife knocked on the door, wondering whether he might come to bed.
In a moment, he replied, for he needed another moment to quiet his thoughts—to wonder whether there might ever come a day when there would peace. Whether it might be achieved if certain initiatives were installed. Whether by thinking through the problems at hand he might stumble upon some methods of solving them.
It was a problem of humanity, he thought. For humanity was filled with greed. It was all about hoarding one’s riches and flaunting them with spectacular balls and lavish weddings. By what methods could they be urged to spend more benevolently, the governor wondered? Not on cathedrals that would bear their name, but on institutions that would give every individual an opportunity to do something great.
He sighed, thinking of things he might never be able to affect, no matter how many hours he spent contemplating them.
The governor wrapped himself into the last smoke from his pipe, pondering the very inefficiencies of the wealthy, and the missed opportunities of the lowly. And then a servant entered into the room and presented him with a package. A brown leather ledger wrapped in cloth and a letter newly arrived from the convent.
The philanthropist woke to a knock at his door. For a moment he did not stir until, disoriented by the evening’s events he coughed into his pillow, snorting boisterously as he groped with his waking reality. Relieved to have breath in his lungs, he blinked his eyes deeply before sitting up, suddenly unnerved.
He was in his bedchamber alone, and everything was as it was before he left for his wedding the evening prior. Someone had undressed him. His hair was combed and cared for. His room was arranged with all the splendor of beautiful trousseaus and boudoirs filled with velvet things. The tassels hung from his bedposts just as they always had, and then there was the sound of a servant banging at the door.
The philanthropist turned his attention to the door. “Come in, come in!” he shouted, attempting to compose himself.
“Monsieur,” the man said with great haste, “the bishop is here to see you.”
“The bishop?” the philanthropist asked with great surprise. Quickly he adorned himself with his cloak and hurried to the door, anxious to discover what events led the holy man to appear at his door. Indeed, the very fact that he was not yet dead deeply surprised him, and he found he could not contain his incredulity, his madness at what had occurred the night prior. If, that is, it had even occurred at all.
He found the bishop seated in the salon, the col romain nearly choking the man’s most wrinkled throat as a harrowing gleam passed through his eyes.
“Monsieur,” the bishop said firmly. “Madame l'abbesse wishes to thank you for your generosity. She wishes also to commend you for your most noble conversion.”
The philanthropist was bewildered, uncertain as to what the priest was implying.
“Rest assured,” the man continued, “that your wealth has secured a most honorable position within our order, and certainly Divine Providence will see fit to reward such a considerable donation. But know also that the road before you will be long and harrowing. I tell you truly, it is easier for a man to enter into the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
The philanthropist could not grasp the words the old man was saying. Only moments ago, he had belabored the thought of his own inexistence. Had some charitable contribution been made in that state? Had he occasioned some donation? His poisoned mind was confused by this confronting reality and struggled to decipher from it any explanation. And now was he being lectured on his own impiety? Was the priest scolding him for his immorality?
The priest continued speaking, his wrinkles betraying decades of condemnation as they shook woefully in his priestly attire. He was dressed quite ornately for a man who vowed poverty, and the philanthropist wondered at the secretly excessive lives the priests of this town must live to afford lacy cuffs and silk stockings, a pocket watch at his waist, and a snuffbox on his person.
The old man spoke at length of retribution and penance, of perdition and damnation. He spoke the same destitution that was taught to him as a boy of eighteen and dwelt in the same lulling hells, but the philanthropist could not hear his blather nor comprehend his ire. He could only attempt to understand why the bishop brought with him a change of clothing, a black woolen cassock that hung at his door and the col romain that adorned it.
For hours after the priest left, the philanthropist was befuddled by the very words he had spoken. But then his circumstances grew stranger still when the governor arrived at his doorstep to evict him from his home.
“By what means!” the philanthropist shouted, “by what cause am I to part with my possessions and be removed from my home?”
“Why, by your very hand yourself,” the governor answered confusedly. He reached to the ground and picked up the morning paper, dusting it of the morning’s detriment and handing it over to the philanthropist. The philanthropist regarded the paper with suspicion, and there discovered upon its first page the most incredulous story. It read as follows:
A ledger sent to the governor’s attention last night contained proof that Monsieur the philanthropist, whose vast fortune is responsible for the construction of the new cathedral, cabildo, and presbyter, stole his riches from his former business partner, a prominent and well-respected man hailing from the south of Spain.
After committing extortion, it appears Monsieur fled to la Nouvelle-Orléans where he spent this money lavishly on hedonistic pleasures, hiding beneath his feigned benevolence a most perverted and lecherous nature.
His former business partner, once ruined financially, found solace in the priesthood, where he served at the monastery at Santa María de las Cuevas in Spain for several years. In his final days, with the intention of offering forgiveness and conversion to his betrayer, the priest traveled to la Nouvelle-Orléans, where he had the misfortune to meet his fate at the hand of fever. He was buried at la Cimetière Saint-Louis.
After discovering the ledger on her wedding night, and unable to offer restitution to her husband’s victim, Madame the philanthropist’s wife generously agreed to donate the entire sum of their vast fortune to the Couvent des Ursulines that it might be used finance an orphanage and school for boys. Their hope, she said, was that their immense financial support might offer a better life for children born into the same misfortune her husband had been.
Madame added that her husband was greatly sorrowful for his actions and deeply lamented his past. He has agreed to annul their marriage on the condition that he join the priesthood where he might spend the rest of his life in repentance for his sins.
The philanthropist felt as though he were teetering on the brink of a bad dream. As though he were trying to keep his mind from tipping into mental illness. He was ill at ease, confounded and confused. Unable to ascertain what aspects of life were corporeal and material and what were the effects of some psychoactive poison.
He slapped himself several times, he splashed cold water upon his face. He yelled at his servants and rang bells for more water. He fell into fits of fever, hallucinating about a boy and a puddle, a barren room and an errant priest. Hysteria swept over him as he begged and pleaded for the very things moments ago he had abhorred seeking. His wealth, his riches! His status, his prestige!
To no avail. Every remnant of comfort and prosperity were removed from his life and replaced with the austere reality of poverty. The beds were stripped of their red silken linens, the walls were removed of their pomegranate painted wallpapers, the peacock tapestries plumaged with pearls were retired of their decoration.
Oh, how the philanthropist lamented his fate. He shouted at the governor and wept at his feet. But though the governor pitied the philanthropist his lot, he also eyed the man with the vitriol reserved only for the leprous. There was nothing that could be done, he said with distain, save take up the mantle that was reserved for him.
When at last the home was empty of her positions and the sun waned in her position, the former philanthropist knelt in the shadow of the door and lay prostrate on the floor. With nothing left to him but a wooden cross that hung on the empty wall before him and the black cassock that hung from the door, he fell upon his knees.
The cathedral bell tolled five times, and then the philanthropist met his fate.
We next read The Thirty-Eighth Chapter, in which we learn the secrets of the third Marie. 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.