Inside Drops of Crimson

 
 
   
 

In This Issue

 
 
 
 

Heart's Issue

 
 

by Kenneth Mark Hoover

In the year of Our Lord 1793 Madame Volmarre entered my boudoir and bade me hurriedly dress.  "Prepare for a late sojourn into the countryside, Colombe," said she, snuffing out the candles in my room.

The autumn moon shining through the window provided enough illumination to dress.  "I shall accompany you," Volmarre went on in her abrupt way.  She ran a quick comb through my coiffure.  "We've little time, and the Duc, I am told, is not a patient man."

I trembled at this unexpected intrigue.  La Guillotine was rumored to be in our quarter of the city.  When I voiced concerns for our safety Volmarre snapped, "I promised to deliver you before midnight, dear girl, to a man of great wealth and power, and deliver you I shall.  For five hundred crowns.  Imagine it!"  A cold smile crossed her pinched face.  "I would tempt a dozen decapitations for such a sum, Colombe.”  She put down the comb.  “Besides, do you doubt the lengths I shall go where money is concerned?"

My heart sank.  My simple clothes and meanly furnished boudoir were evidence enough of Volmarre's uncompromising avarice.  "Indeed not, Madame," I mumbled, cowed.

Well did I know Volmarre's insatiable hunger for garnering wealth by brokering sinful pleasure in that clean, little ground-floor apartment that had been my home for three years. Hers was the most profitable establishment on the rue Soli in Paris.  Her girls were tall, healthy, very pretty, and infamous for their willingness to engage in the most libertine and base debaucheries imaginable.

Nevertheless, I had no wish to meet La guillotine if it could be avoided.  Though no aristocrat, I was nonetheless of good birth, and this was often just cause to feed the Widow.

"Whither are we going, Madame?"  I adjusted my traveling cloak.  "Anyway, Laurette has done nothing today, not even the laundry, while I have not only sewn winter blankets, I've entertained five men in the last three hours."

The older woman shook a gnarled finger under my nose. "Thank your fortunes you are in such demand," she said.  "A woman's youth is her only natural gift.  She must wield it for whatever coin she can."  She grabbed my hand.  "Now, follow me, and keep silent."

We crept from Volmarre's house into the cobbled street.  A black carriage awaited, driven by a valet sent by his master to transport us to an unknown destination.  Unknown only to myself, for I had little doubt Volmarre knew exactly where we were going.

The trip was uneventful.  After an hour we passed from the city, entered the moonlit countryside, and approached the Duc's mansion.  This Duc must be powerful indeed, I thought, to have such wealth and escaped the Widow, unlike the hapless King.  A liveried manservant with a thin face and narrow shoulders welcomed us as we entered through a side door.

"What an attractive creature," the manservant said, his eyes lighting upon me.  "My Lord the Duc will be pleased."

"My girls are the best Paris has to offer," Volmarre replied.  "Colombe is the pride of my heart."

The manservant nodded his appreciation.  "Well can I see that, Madame.  What an angelic face!  And her skin; she has no mark, no flaw whatsoever?"  He pressed his fingertips together and lowered his voice to convey the seriousness of the transaction.  "The Duc is very exacting on this point.  The girl must be clean in every way.  We must not fail him."

"I promise upon my soul this girl is completely flawless in both mind and body, despite her time spent in my employ."

The manservant bade me undress.  This I did, even loosening my coiffure so my hair might hang loose and free.

"Superb!" he exclaimed after examining me in dishabille.  "A perfectly exquisite girl."

Volmarre smiled.  "As I promised, good sir."

"Indeed, Madame, you shall be well recompensed for finding us this delightful jewel.  Colombe, now that you are prepared to meet the Duc, I must allay any fears you may have.  You will not suffer the least hurt, other than what might transpire through the usual nature of your profession.  Do you understand?"

"Yes, Monsieur."

"My Lord the Duc is a libertine of the most wild and lubricious sort.  There is no debauchery he does not allow himself either to contemplate or act upon, if such be his wish.  He has nothing but scorn for both the laws of men and of God.  He is his own law unto himself.  Therefore, you must do whatever he commands, immediately and without hesitation, or the fee for your time will be forfeited."

My mouth was dry.  Volmarre would not like that.  "I understand, Monsieur, and I will comply."

"Very well ... come with me."  He led us through somber corridors and immense rooms until we reached a stone well set in the center of a dark antechamber in the mansion.  Supported by heavy timbers over the black mouth of the well was a wicker bascule.  I stepped back, my face paling.

The manservant saw my nervousness.  "Remain calm, dear girl, but prepare yourself for an experience quite unlike anything you could imagine."

I turned to beseech Madame Volmarre, but her eyes were only filled with the gleam of promised gold.  "Be off with you, girl," she said, pushing more than helping me into the basket, "and mind your manners whilst in the Duc's company."

The bascule carried me down into a crypt hung in black satin and lighted by dim, wavering tapers set in stone.  A prie-dieu, a bizarre assortment of skulls and bones caked with dust, and stone walls lined with weapons: clubs, swords, poniards and lances, made up the terrible decor.  A black mattress lay on the floor.  Below each taper hung tapestries depicting the most immoral and utterly inhuman scenes imaginable: bestial demons and other unnameable supernatural creatures consorting with one another in obscene and indescribable ways.

I stepped from the basket, quaking, and stayed near the wall of the subterranean vault so I would have something firm against my back.  My hand fell to a steel dirk and, without thinking, I slipped it into my bodice.  The cold steel slowly warmed against my flesh as the basket rose into the inky darkness.  An iron grate scraped overhead, imprisoning me.

One of the tapestries moved.  A stooped figure, whom I took to be the Duc, entered the crypt.  He was dressed in a long black robe.  Upon his breast rested a gold emblem: a skull wreathed in fire.  Five more figures followed this singular being, each emerging from behind his own tapestry.  They were similarly dressed.  All had their hands held in orison; all wore black signet rings emblazoned with the symbol upon the Duc's breast.

Terror seized me.  My head swam.  I wanted to bolt from this horrible place and fly back to the house I had left on the rue Soli.  I feared I would never see my little warm bed again.

The first specter, the Duc, implored me kneel on the prie-dieu and pick up a rosary from a silver dish.  This I did with alacrity, happy to be as far away from them as   geography permitted.

"Pray, woman, for the salvation of your soul."

I bent my head to comply with the order, fingers shaking as the rosary beads moved through them.

The six specters formed a circle about the black satin mattress and locked hands.  "We are the damned," they intoned, "the Peculiar Ones made by God, as foretold in Deuteronomy.  We move through history like quicksilver, from time to time, moment to moment, death to death.  This is our mission, and our curse."

The specters disrobed and beckoned me.  Four were men, two women. Turning my back to them I shed my clothes, hiding the dirk in the material.

How can I tell, dear reader, what libertinage transpired without further sacrificing my immortal soul?  If I related only a tenth of the sickening debauchery I witnessed, the ink on this parchment would burst into Hellfire.  Yet I must admit when I stumbled away from the melee my face was flushed red as a bacchante's.  In all my dealings never had I experienced such heights of emotion, such an overwhelming empire of wanton lechery.  Satiated beyond words, I collapsed upon the stone floor until my consciousness fled.

Let me, then, describe with some detail the unusual physical characteristics each specter presented.  They were of human quality, true, but seemingly not possessed of human demeanor. Their pale faces were cold, emotionless.  They gave no recognition when they spoke either to one another or myself.

Their dry yellow skin was stretched tight over their muscles and skeletons.  One got the impression their organs and veins were about to burst through with a wet explosion.  Their eyes were black with no whites whatsoever, and their breath was deathly foul.  Yet, when they touched me, their fingertips emitted such pleasurable energy my body could not help but respond in kind.  Such was their cruel power.

When I awoke they were dressed and watching me.  I rose to my feet and dressed rapidly, again secreting the dirk.  I turned to regard them, backing away.  "What manner of things are you?"

"We use many names," the Duc said.  The specters around him bent their heads in agreement.  "Suffice it to say we come to points in history when we are most likely to find that which we crave: death and fear and hopelessness.  Some call us Horsemen,  or the Fates.  Still others name us incubi and succubi.  Yet we only metamorphose when humans realize their own dark natures and set them free.  Human iniquity draws us like moths to candles. And the remorse that is always the heart's issue, beckons us from the dark reaches between the stars where we lair."

"God save me!" I cried.

"Lately have we come to this country to wallow in the overwhelming fear and hate that bestrides the souls of men.  We are here, because men have currently become like us, and we need to be with men and women who share our dark nature."

"What vile, contemptible creatures you are!"

"Speak you, rather, against the nature of man.  He calls us; we simply come at his bidding."

I threw myself before him and clutched the hem of his robe, weeping.  "I wish to leave this place.  Please, dread Lord, allow me this so my soul might not be sacrificed under your shadow. Never have I wished for your existence or called upon you with any part of my heart.  I beg you to release me!"

The Duc put his hand in my hair and jerked my head upright. "And so you shall be.  We wanted one of your nature, clean and incorruptible, so that we might prepare for the work ahead."

"What work?" I spake with a strangled voice.

"You will see us again, if you but look."

I screamed.  The bascule descended out of the darkness.  The specters returned to their respective tapestries and it was then I saw they were like windows opening onto inky space blazing with a multitude of white stars.  I crawled into the only conveyance out of that black chamber and shrieked for the manservant to lift me toward freedom.

I cried and gibbered with hysteria as Madame Volmarre led me from that terrible mansion.  Once we were safely ensconced in the carriage and clattering toward Paris I began to calm down. Slowly, the red fingers of dawn began to light the sky.

We were only a mile from home when we rounded a corner and came upon a gathering of people surrounding the towering and imposing shape of a guillotine.  Men jumped from the bushes and grabbed our horses' reins.  They pulled the manservant from his perch and quickly manacled him.  Madame Volmarre and I were accorded little better treatment; we were stripped to our undergarments though our hands remained free.  Bright gold spilled from Volmarre's purse and this further angered the crowd.

"See how these whores miser their wealth while our children eat straw," one of the men, a heavy-jowled farmer, claimed.  "See their dress and the fancy livery of their manservant.  How fine their clothes are!"

"Give them to the Widow," cried a toothless crone, her dress in tatters.  "How many of our own families languished in the Bastille four years ago while these fancy whores and their gentlemen stole bread and wine from our mouths?"

Shouts for our deaths met this old crone's speech.  The manservant went to his death without a word.  My legs were numb; I could hardly stand.  Madame Volmarre begged for her life, promising them more gold if they would but grant her succor from the fate that awaited.

"You are not one of us," they jeered.  "Dressed in your finery, and your plump flesh filled with good food."

Volmarre continued to argue with them as they dragged the limp body of the manservant from the bloodstained plank.  I felt as if I might be sick when, without thinking, I grabbed the steel dirk from my blouse and, turning, plunged it into Volmarre's breast.  She screamed, clawing at the knife handle.  I wrenched the knife free and held the blade high above my head.  Volmarre's innocent blood ran down my white arm.

"I am one of you," I cried.  "For years this execrable creature imprisoned me in her vile brothel."  I then spun a falsehood of how I had been sold from an abbey to Volmarre and forced to serve her establishment.  I showed them how the miserly Volmarre kept me dressed in coarse cloth.  I ended my rant by clasping my bloody hands over my breast.  "My sympathies are with the revolution, my dear Parisians.  Thank you, and thank the Heavenly Host for succoring me in my final hour of need!"

So successful was I in tweaking their emotions they lifted me upon their collective shoulders, cheering.

I looked at the crumpled body of Volmarre.  Hot, shameful tears welled in my eyes.  I had betrayed her so I might live.  Her end had been authored by my own falsehoods.  But, dear reader, I wanted to live.  I offer no other explanation for my actions, and beg understanding and compassion for my predicament.

I was set down.  The ground was damp with innocent blood.  Someone thrust a wineskin towards me.  I drank, spilling wine on my bodice.  People linked arms and began to dance around the corpses.

Laughing at my good fortune, I wiped my lips with the back of a hand.  It was then I espied six robed figures standing on a distant crown of a hill, silently watching me.  They nodded and I returned their acknowledgment.

 After a space, they too followed as I, and I alone, led everyone down into the sleeping city.

                           -- The End --

 

About the Author

 

Kenneth Mark Hoover

Kenneth Mark Hoover has sold over thirty short stories and articles to professional and semi-professional magazines.  His science fiction novel, Fevreblau, was published by Five Star Press in 2005.  He currently lives and
writes in Dallas, TX.

   
Copyright (c) 2008 Drops of Crimson. All rights reserved.