Friday, February 7, 2014

Fiction Friday: Le Dieu Perdu

Sit, if you please, monsieur. You've that look about you—you want to hear of my part in the Mazarin affair, hm? Don't start so, that's what they all want who come to my fireside. But I think I give 'em something quite different, something they weren't looking after. I've a fine chocolate, if you like. Keep a good supply whenever I can, buy it up from the ships that come in at Calais through my agents. Have a cup. I assure you, I have plenty and my coffers won't be exhausted in my own lifetime, so there's no worry on that count.

It's all quite fine, is it not? You would hardly believe that my father lost our fortunes in the '20s before the war put us at blows and nearly sold our titles as well. Our debts kept mounting until I saw no other choice but to put on arms and armor and go into the service of Richelieu as a mercenary. I didn't really understand the causes of the damn thing, much as the old Comte tried to explain it to me, but I didn't need to comprehend the ins and outs of the Bohemian Revolt or any of that other Protestant nonsense. I know that Richelieu thought we were in awful trouble, with the Hapsburgs surrounding us on either side and poised to gobble up France, so to hell with co-religionists and we threw in with those Calvin-loving rebels.

So when I came back to Paris in the spring of sixteen hundred forty seven in the year of our lord, I'd had my fill of Protestants. I'd never been happier than to hear Mazarin was planning on forcing those Hugenots left in France to convert when I first visited the salons that year, though the word was that the Edict of Nantes must remain ironclad. And it was said that King Louis was equally hard on 'em, or more so, and he was nearing his majority. Three cheers for our roi, I thought. If I could have anticipated the effects revoking the Edict would have on France... but I was young, and stupid, and full of vigor. I hadn't achieved the great wisdom I was to find in later years.

I had no small fame in those days for my exploits, though the first time I saw a man die I must admit I nearly choked on snotty tears and I never developed a taste for the battlefield. The smell of powder was enough to shiver me right down to my heels. Not that I was a coward, you see, for I still knew my duty. Anyway, the salons were all abuzz with my name. You can't even really imagine what it was like, I know. You see an old wrinkled man, caked with powder and hiding behind his titles and a lifetime of roguery. That's not who I was back then. I implore you, monsieur, to imagine me young and virile, stupid and headstrong. That was the boy I had become. I do not say man, for though I'd already had my fair share of women, I was not yet in any sense a man. That came later, with Monsieur C—.

We met at the salon of Charles de Neufville de Villeroy, Marquis of Villeroy et d'Alincourt. He was Grand Quartermaster of France and a Chevalier of the Holy Spirit, and also old as sin by then. But he ran a most excellent salon in his house in Paris which was frequented by all the great minds of the nation at that time. You'll have undoubtedly heard that l'Hôtel de Rambouillet was the center of all social life in Paris; if it was, l'Hôtel de Villeroy was as an orbiting wanderer. I came there by the invitation of some friend or other who was in the Marquis' good graces. Everyone found it quite commendable to have me—what with being something of a celebrity in those days. I was no slouch at conversation either, I can promise you that. I held converse with some of the finest statesmen and poets of our time.

I remember meeting him very vividly, yes. I was seated in a window overlooking a garden... no, I don't recall where exactly the residence of the Marquis was. Paris was different in those days, you'll excuse me for saying so. More refined and somehow more brutish as well. It was already autumn by then, and the wind was exquisite cold. My breath was frosting the pane and most of the leaves were already off the trees. There was a Lenten feeling to the air, and even the priests were starting to behave more soberly at gatherings. That's how you could tell that Christmas was coming, you know; the closer to it, the less they drank right until the mass was over and then they fell back into their cups, all a-clatter.

At that time I had become somewhat tired of the Paris set, I must confess. I was bored of their chattering, which always seemed to revolve in circles without making any accomplishments or ever coming to conclusions. They drank too much, and they fucked far too often for my liking. I've never shied away from the libidinous pleasure, you know, but after a while it just seems excessive. I come off as a prig now, I'm sure, but let me tell you—I had my fare share of belles across the city! But truly by then the idea had begun to exhaust me and I was looking for one woman to settle down with and remain peaceable. Perhaps I could parlay my skills into a commission for the crown and earn myself a living through the army. I thought I would quite like that, as long as it didn't take me to the front again and away from the civilized comforts of France.

It was in such a mood as this that Monsieur C— found me for the first time. He has an instinct, a sort of knack, for knowing when people are at their weakest points, non? He approached me and I admit that for a moment I thought I saw a double of myself: a young, handsome, dark-haired man with pale green eyes that trembled like emeralds bedecked with dew. But as he drew nearer the illusion vanished and I saw he was far my superior in looks and grace. He wore a finely slashed doublet of gold and deep maroon breeches that ended in a cavalcade of golden tassalry just above his high boots. He had the natural fluidity about his movements that spoke of long training at the épée.

"And you too," he asked me, "find this gathering tedious, yes?"

I snorted and sloshed the wine in my glass. I can recall the feeling of the warmth spreading through me, realizing that I was already somewhat tipsy, perhaps because I had taken so little for luncheon. "How can you tell, monsieur? Surely I thought it well disguised." I spoke sarcastically, of course, for I had my back to the twittering women and expounding philosophers and had been focused on the gardens and their leafless greenery for quite some time.

"We-e-e-ell," he said, and he joined me upon the seat. He didn't make eye contact, just sat beside me and examined the horizon. "If I had wanted to discuss the price of joint-stocks I would have visited a grocer's."

"And if I'd wished to debate the likelihood of the Trinity, I'd have taken orders," I added with a smirk. Of course, no one would be quite so harebrained as to debate theology of that level at a salon, but it served my point and Monsieur C— laughed heartily. I look back now on that genuine and pleasant belly laugh and wonder if he meant it. Probably not. Appearing to care deeply and truly was one of his myriad gifts, and probably the chiefest of them all.

I decided that I liked the company of Messr. C— and he evidently liked my company as well. I told him where I had my lodgings, but he never returned the favor. I didn't think it odd then, but I wonder now where he lived during my time in Paris. Never once did I see a dormitory, a room at an inn, or anything even resembling living quarters for Messr. C—. But that never seemed to matter and I only realized it when I looked back on those years in light of the things that were still to come. C—, as I began to call him, was expert in finding the finest soirées and the most important houses.

We fell in with one another like old amis, drinking and whoring together once the slow circular conversations of the salons became too much to bear. We were bon amis together as though we'd known each other our whole lives. C—felt like my oldest and greatest friend, though I'd only known him for a few weeks. We were inseparable, he and I; wherever I went he came as well. Wherever he went, he invited me along. It all seems so hollow now, looking back on it, a sham put on for my benefit. He was too friendly, and we got along too well. I couldn't tell at the time, of course. Who can? It was a little like being in love. You may find that strange, perhaps, but I don't. Not after what I've seen. C— could make you feel that way, like the rest of the world had simply stopped existing.

Best were the times when we were snidely mocking the cream of Parisian society to their faces. Le reine was still regent in those days, but Mazarin had the rule of the nation—and for good reason. But everyone was slurring him in their parlors, as though they had a better grasp of foreign policy than our own Italian genius in the Louvre. While the peasants outside were growing more and more discontent with the crown and Mazarin particularly, the fops were dancing and laughing at the plight of the Bohemians. So we sneered at them and made them into jokes in their own salons.

The town began to talk about us. Those hellions, those rapscallions we became. Yet somehow, C— always got us into the chic gatherings anyway. I thought we'd be blackballed, but people actually seemed to like us. One night at the Marquis' we each put on the airs of one of Paris' famous socialites: the Mme de Sévigné, who'd just fled the city to get married to Henri de Sévigné a few years prior. She was a nasty letter-writer and some of her claptrap against Mazarin's niece, Mme Mancini, had just come out in society. I flounced across the room, dashing off mimed letters one after the next in an orgy of laughter while C— pretended to be Mazarin himself, fretting over what they portended; "Ees-a thees-a plot?" he gargled in perfect imitation of the statesman. We'd become social satirists, the toast of the town.

One evening, when I'd gotten quite a lot of champagne and port down, C— convinced me to imitate the abbé d'Aubiniac, François Hédelin, who I did a passable impression of. We were at l'Hôtel de Rambouillet, which was obviously not the best choice of venue for the occasion. Indeed, even Mme Sévigné was there, scowling at us as though we'd killed one of her prized pets. In a sense, we probably had; her reputation was a shambles, at least for a few weeks. Anyway, what I didn't know then was that Richelieu himself was watching when I, as the abbé, pretended to grapple and fuck C— in the ass while he pranced about proclaiming himself the duc de Fronsac. You maybe don't know enough about France back then. You see, Fronsac was one of Richelieu's nephews and Hédelin was his tutor.

Of course no one said anything, they just let us make complete asses of ourselves. That night, when we were wandering drunken through the city, C— laughed and told me that he'd known Richelieu was there all the time. "I saw him from the minute we stepped in!" And then he laughed. That stupid, ugly, beautiful charming laugh that threatened to draw me in and disarm me. But I wasn't to be disarmed. No, I was furious, seething. My chances at advancement had just been shot in a single go. I railed at him, I nearly cuffed him. I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't restrained myself. He might have killed me. I didn't know then that he could have, just like that.

"I'm going home," I said sullenly. He laughed at me and assured me everything would be alright. Just come for another drink, ami, just one more. "I'm going home, damn it," I replied, to show him I was serious.

Didn't I just? He took me by the shoulders and looked into my boozy eyes. "You think they didn't deserve it?"

"Deserve it? You've sunken my hopes for a captaincy, you god-forsaken fiend!" I railed. "The cardinal! In front of the cardinal, we as much as said that his nephew was raped daily by that bloody lawyer!"

"Come with me," he said, and he grabbed me roughly by the arm and began to walk in a very determined manner away from the Île de la Cité. I wanted to fight him, but his grip was iron-strong. His fingers bruised my flesh and I glared occasionally at him to let him know I wasn't having a good time any longer. He didn't seem to care, for his face was all pale and trembling with anger.

He took me into the darker quarters of the city. When I asked where we were going, he refused to answer. It was clear that he knew his way—he took no turn at random, but every step was purposeful and determined. At last we slowed. I knew were we were: one of the roughest patches of Paris in our day. "Why are we here?" I demanded of him. He just piloted me into an alleyway and pointed at the lean gentilhomme at the far end. Some nob getting sucked off, it seemed to me, until the moon caught his face. By God! It was the abbé d'Aubiniac, may the Lord strike me down if I'm mistaken! And the little figure attending to his cock was a boy of no more than twelve. Some street urchin. "How did you—?"

C— cut me off. "I know everything that goes on this city, ami. You just don't understand that yet, to your loss."

Over the next few days, C— took me to gambling hells and showed me how to make money. Not that I could replicate the feats he pulled off. He simply told me where to place my silver or when to draw cards and I did as he said. My money began to rapidly multiply. "In exchange for losing you Richelieu's favor," he explained. All very well, save for the mysterious manner in which my sous seemed to come pouring in. But you don't look a gift horse in the mouth, unless it's brought to you by Greeks.

I used the money to buy better lodgings, better clothes, and better perfumes. C— complimented me on my taste often, and we bought a shared stake in a brothel off the Rue de Temple, ironic as that may sound to you now. We continued to attend parties and salons. Though I wanted to reduce the number of shows of "witticism," C— would have none of it. We burned our bridges as fast as they were made, lampooning the great and small alike.

Around this time the crowds were starting to get ugly. Winter was in full swing, and the price of bread had come down again thanks to Mazarin's price controls, but people still complained about his taxes. They didn't understand, I suppose, that the taxes were what enabled the cardinal to release food and subsidize the city granaries and flour. It didn't matter, for no one at the salons seemed to care in the slightest.

I was sleeping off a terrible gueule de bois from the night before when C— had plied me with three bottles of port, a jaunt in our own bordel, and a midnight hack ride at high speeds around the city. The driver was mortified but we just laughed and laughed, the freezing Parisian air stripping our throats dry as we leaned from the windows to howl at the moon. C— came to my lodgings the very next afternoon and roused me from my stupor. I cursed him and threw a mug at him, but he only laughed and got me to my feet. "You remember Mme de Sévigné?" he asked me. Of course I did, I told him, how could I not? After our little joke, the Madame had scuttled three engagements of mine to meet fine young women.

"You know I was trying to settle down," I told C—, to which he only grinned fiercely, like a baboon.

He tapped me on the forehead with the silver grip of his stick cane. Now they're all the rage, but back then I think he was one of the only people who had one. "Her husband has come to the city, and I think it's time we take a look at his parlor."

I didn't know what he meant, because of course it was still light out and there would be no salons opening until later in the day. Besides which the Mme de Sévigné didn't keep a salon of her own—she preferred visiting others. But C— led me towards the Île de la Cité again and I realized that we were going to the townhouse the Sévigné's owned along the Rue Saint-Séverin. "We'll never get in there," I grumbled, pointing out the footmen, the gate, the high spikes of iron along the walls, and the well-tended garden. Once again, C— just smiled. It was then that I think my love of him peaked. I'm not ashamed to say that I felt a burning urge to kiss him on the mouth, and damn be to the consequences. I didn't, of course. Don't look at me that way, young man. If you'd known C—...

He took me around back, weaving through the side-alleys until we came to a servant's entrance near the stables. "She parades her marriage around, speaking of her husband as though he were a golden Adonis," C— said. "And meanwhile butter wouldn't melt in her mouth." He gave me a puckish glance, the twinkle in his eye that spoke of imminent evil and danger glimmering. "But we'll see about that, eh, mon ami?"

The servants appeared to know him, and let him in without a second question. We crossed through a back courtyard and went into the Sévigné house through the kitchens. Old women and young men alike bowed before him and greeted him with a deferential air. The head chef, a fat middle aged creature with dugs down to her waist, gave us both toasted almonds to eat and nearly fell over herself fawning on him. I was a little jealous, I'll admit. How did he know these people? He'd barely been out of my sight in months!

We walked through the twilight rooms of the house, passing drawn curtains and slender shafts of light as though they were a forest of silence. He pointed his cane at the staircase that swooped down into the main foyer. "Now we shall see the loving couple for what they are, hmm?" At the top of the stairs there was a grotesque trophy of the kind that Henri de Sévigné liked to keep. He was a hunter, both with bow and pike, and he apparently killed fifty or more Bretagne harts each year. There was a great stag's head right at the top of the stairway, uncouthly mounted upon the wall, its ugly little mouth partly open. I don't know what he was thinking or what person in their right mind would ever deign to be entertained in a house with such a gory keepsake on public display... but there it was, right against the fine Damask-style wall papering.

Quietly as church mice, we crept up the stairwell. C— stayed at its head, but pointed with his cane to the place where I should go and listen. There was a door part-way open, a pool of winter sunlight spilling from it. On soft feet, I slunk towards it. I could hear the murmuring of voices, one male and one female, on the far side. As I drew nearer, they resolved into words. "I can't help it, woman. It's not my fault!"

"Oh, truly? Is that it Henri? It's my fault then?"

I glanced back at C—. He gestured for me to peek inside. I did as he bid me, and I saw the elegant spread of the Marquis' bed, the unbolted windows, and the Madame de Sévigné sitting on the bedcovers. Henri was propped up against the crown of the bed, his cock flaccid in his Madame's hand. She was partly undressed, her breasts free and her gown part-way torn. I nearly choked at the sight. "I can't say this has ever happened to me before we were married," Henri said.

"And yet it seems every night and afternoon's occupation, no matter what steps we take," his wife replied acidly.

I wanted to flee, but I knew if I moved quickly I would draw attention to myself with the noise. I gave C— an imploring look. There was something strange about the way he stood, all outlined in the dim shadows of the hall. It took a moment for me to realize what it was and then: spreading horns. He was framed just so against the head of the stag. He seemed to tower nearly nine feet in height, and from his brow there sprouted the grim shadows of the stag's horns. The illusion vanished as I made my way toward him, but the whole scenario left a sour feeling in my gut for days.

Of course, C— hadn't just brought me there to give me a glimpse of the home life of the Madame. No indeed, for he began cajoling me just the following day that I must make use of our new found knowledge. "She has interrupted your pursuit of a bride," he said. "So now you must interrupt her marriage. She clearly isn't being satisfied in the boudoir."

I knew better than to ask him how he'd found that secret out. At the time I thought he must have half the servants of Paris on his payroll. There was no accounting for the things he seemed to know, otherwise. Ha! If only that had been true. But then, I wouldn't be so stinking rich now, eh? And I certainly wouldn't have been able to make myself a Duke.

At his urging I pursued the Madame de Sévigné until I had her in a cloak room. She purred for me, and C— fed me just enough information that I would always know what to say or do to keep her close. I was beginning to resent his interference just a little bit; it had started in good fun, but it seemed he was intent on being my guide through life, and each time he drew back the curtain to show me something sordid I felt a little part of myself drain away. The final straw came when he offered to let me take money from the coffers of Notre-Dame. "My God, C—! Does your wickedness know no bounds? Those are men of God!"

That was the end of our relationship. He scowled at me, snarled. "You think they're men of God, do you? Is that what you think? I'll show you what those men are!" I didn't want him to, I told him as much, but that night he dragged me all the same to the cathedral. I half expected it to be locked, but the doors sprang open to his touch. Damn, I thought, I wish he would stop! Just for a moment halt his relentless attack on everything around him. Society was corrupt, yes, everyone knew that! But it was still a place where people had to live—where I had to live. And he was making it nigh unlivable for me. I wanted to be ignorant, I realized then, I wanted to ignore the evil truths that made up the underpinnings of my station. Did I tell you that he showed me a slave market? No? Before that, a week or so before, when I was still bedding the Mme, he took me to a slave dock where Africans and some Europeans were chained up and sold off the coast to be bound for the Americas.

That night he led me through the maze of pillars, naves, aisles, and back rooms of Notre-Dame de Paris, I felt like I was going to be sick. The most beautiful building in France, le gloire de Paris, he was going to turn into shit around my ears. "You think these are men of God!" he scoffed again. His voice echoed through the sleepy cathedral but he seemed unafraid of being found out. "You still, after all I have shown you, believe that the world is worth caring about! Ha! You're a fool. Come this way. Come on! I will show you what everything is built upon. The beautiful stained glass stands in a mire of shit, mon ami."

He led me at last to a back room where a big ledger was kept. He opened it and showed me the lists of payments the cathedral had been making. I couldn't believe it—at the behest of Cardinal Mazarin, the canons of Notre-Dame had been engaged in the most heinous graft I had ever seen. There were a great many respectable nobles on the lists, investments in some south seas trading company, payoffs to mayors and comtes, and worst of all—slavery. The canons of Notre-Dame had assisted Mazarin in purchasing interest in a slaving company. I felt as though I was going to be sick.

"What's wrong with you, C—? You're no man! No man could bare to look the world in the face like this. So tell me!" My voice grew in volume until I was near shrieking. "Tell me why you would do this!"

"Pfffaugh," he said, shaking me off like a dog throws off a louse. "I thought you were different. I thought we shared something, that you could be made to understand."

It was then that I realized everything. C— drew himself up and I saw the shadow of those horns sprouting from his forehead. How could he have known the things he knew? How could he have charmed those servants in the household of the Sévignés? There was only one answer. "You are the Devil!" I gasped.

"The Devil!" he cried. "I have been here since before the Devil was born! I am Paris, I am the Boatman. Who are you, damn you? You have sucked from my teat, enjoyed my company, and done my bidding—who are you? I have not made this filthy city. You made it. Men like you, men who think and act and pretend at goodness. I should strike you down!" He raised his stick cane and the spars of stone in the ceiling cracked and leaked dust. He seemed stronger here, as though the very ground of the Île de Cité gave him strength. I cowered. "You ungrateful creature! Look at the ugliness you have made for your own glorification! Look at the edifice you have raised on bones and misery! This is your so-called civilization! This is your so-called France!"

He struck me and I blacked out. The blow should have killed me. I woke in my apartments. I never saw C— again after that, nor heard even a word of him spoken in the salons. Shortly, my invitations stopped coming and I was no longer one of the highlights of French society. But C— had taught me many things about human nature, yes? He had shown me where the levers were, and how to work them. I used his lessons well, my friend. That chocolate you're drinking; do you think I would be able to afford it if I had not been as devious as my old friend, Monsieur le Diable?

I hear they have found an old pagan relic in the earth beneath Notre-Dame. Some kind of obelisk? And it has a horned man dancing upon it, non, engraved in the stone? Yes, that is he, my one-time friend. The beautiful Monsieur C—. So, now you know why I refuse to visit Paris.


  1. Very nice!

    I really liked the bits about Paris society and the salons and the dialog you created. Good background as well. We've used both Neufville (the Marquis and his family) and Madame Rambouillet's salon in our games (set in the 1620s).

    I was wondering who M. C___ was all the way to the scene in the Hotel Sévigné.