Though the Earth Do Tremble
Joseph Nathaniel Baron
"No, no ... .do you not see, he was 'imprisoned' in this America, enfant terrible of the world, perpetually adolescent venue of so transcendent a soul," protested Charles Baudelaire, his champion at the lecture on the occasion of publication of The Raven, the very cover of which had been drawn by the painterly establishment's own pathfinder, Eduoard Manet himself.
Le Chambre Publique in Marseilles proved much too small to have contained the throng, that evening of 1868, anxious to audit the nice divinings of the late purveyor of the macabre, Mssr. Poe en Francais.
A boy of 17, Marcel M'Ordant had heard of this Poe, much adored by the emerging Symbolists; far less drawn by the movement and its presumed subtleties than the advertisement for 'free' refreshments for the first one hundred attendees, Marcel's mouth gaped cavernously still less for the repast than the brain feast upon beholding the majestique Baudelaire and Manet, both in attendance.
Baudelaire's opposition was none other than Poe's very literary executor, who, known to have derided his charge scandalously, Baudelaire, kindred soul that he was, castigated, to the delight of young M'Ordant, Poe's enthralled acolyte, it seemed, at least to him, of 'old.'
"Sir, you dance as though upon some ignoble grave, that of he who scaled Parnassus without the sweat upon brow which you display here, in plain view, in your vain enterprise to denude your former master of his mind's ambrosial garb!" mused Mssr. Baudelaire, rhetorical chronicler this day, to raucous applause. "I put it to you, sir ... his words shall march on through Heaven's Gates, though the Earth do tremble ...." So pronounced the mighty voice of letters.
This mere rover of the port's streets, once petit scofflaw, now, not so, M'Ordant had tasted Poe's detective genius, thanks to Baudelaire, his effete coterie. Having been magistrated into a more disciplined life, young M'Ordant had opted for the Legion rather than pestilent imprisonment. His new station was a revelation, even to him.
That departed's partial ouvre had been his prized possession while encamped in various exemplars of remotenesses; thanks to Baudelaire, the translations, often dually set downAnglais/Francais, juxtaposedhad shared his humble bedding for some two years. He longed, somehow, in a not-too-distant day, to detect the 'impishly perverse' lurking within the breast of humankind.
Opportunity, that door-knocking, throat-seizing caller, appeared on discharge, honorable, with distinction, on a dank liquid day with which Poe himself might have fraternized. Murderous mayhem in Paris would supply the stage for his entrance.
Highly decorated for selfless couragewhich he knew but as a private rage versus cruel life, itselfin several desperate engagements with the Bedouin tribes of Arabia over trivial colonial interests, before oil's hegemony, the seemingly ambitious M'Ordant had been accepted into the Ecole Gendarmerie in Paris, in deft timing coincident with a series of so-called 'touche' slayings in Place Pigalle and Montmarte's street artiste districts.
"M'Ordant, Marcel ... come forward and present!" intoned the commandant of police affairs. Owing to his borrowed imagination, the weathered old-young man had vaulted past his classmates, most of them sons of better, albeit softer, families of France. His family, the street, had nurtured him well for his new role. Even Dr. Proust's renowned pronouncements on healthful living (they had fallen on fallow ground with his hypochondriacal famed scrivener son), later crowned with the dedication of a clinic in Marseilles, did not speak to that peculiar manifestation of dysfunction to be found within the inorganic, ineffable self at the loss of biologic nurturers, both of M'Ordant's now demised for some years.
Pierre Toutant M'Ordant had met his end in the doomed motley regiments accompanying the brief reign of Emperor Maximillian of Mexico, when the extant head of France's Second Empire failed to remain true to the persuasive words of unstinting military support showered upon the late brother of Franz Josef of Austria and his importuning poseurs on behalf of the Catholic Church and the autocratic elite.
It was, then, passing strange and otherwise of cruel bemusement to Marcel M'Ordant when the Church had called upon the prefect of Paris to 'curb these unholy excesses' committed upon the very grounds of Notre Dame herself. The absence of hypocrisy from the endless proscriptions of the Vatican only added to the numberless sins of the cardinals, it seemed, and was fittingly inversely proportional to the intensity of her self-interested outcry. The coup de main accomplished by the Mexican forces of Benito Juarez in dealing death to his na•ve father had also obliquely destroyed his mother, afforded a pauper's grave by her munificent faith. Unaware of his hostile mindset toward these 'pillars' of established France, M'Ordant had been problematic for these embodiments of such arrogant malefaction.
Two chaste young nuns had been found in mock crucifixion, their arms curiously outstretched yet unbound, after the fashion of the form of the cross, at right angles to their torsos, their necks broken in seeming simulation of the haggard Lord himself, aureoles of dead flowers wreathed around their frail brows; they had been hung from a flying buttress of the Cathedral. No wounds, no blood, however slight, not so much as a bruise upon their cloistered flesh. One apparent clue, left rather deliberately, was itself a seeming sacrilege: a page from the Vulgate which spoke gently of the 'touch' of Christ, as healer, had perversely been torn from the holy book, and pinned to the undergarments covering the virginal vulvae of the women.
Even the 'protestant' M'Ordant had been shocked. The crime's daring and the Biblical irony of the passage in question pointed his intuitive powers to the Church herself, with its hidden history of perversions. His audience with the prelate of Paris had been granted, grudgingly.
"Your excellency, I am your humble servant," M'Ordant uttered as he mock-bowed before the seeming hermaphrodite, whose overly elaborate costume betrayed such a facile conclusion as to that confusion which was his makeup.
"Rise, rise, my son; we must to business, without ceremony," was the cleric's bloodless sacrifice to the most useful instrumentality of his deception, humility.
"Thank you most kindly; as you instruct, to business. Cardinal, who found these unfortunates?" M'Ordant probed, seeking only to learn of the personnel and their duties at the Cathedral.
"Our abbot, who lives upon the grounds. I must tell you that he is in a state of horror as to...." M'Ordant interrupted, gracefully: "Cardinal, how could anyone have managed to transport two habited nuns of the Order to so public and inaccessible a place as that where they were found without any knowledge prior to its accomplishment?"
He seemed to hesitate, M'Ordant intuition counseled.
"Inspector, you are tutored in such matters, not I or my fellow unworldly clerics," the cardinal offered.
"But of course. Nevertheless, it is a simple matter of physical limitations having to do with time and space. May I interview these clerics who may have been performing their duties at the times in question?" he pressed.
"Yes ... of course, but this will take time to arrange. You see, some are on pilgrimage to Rome" he had been evidently self-conscious, M'Ordant deduced.
"Ah, certainmonte. May I know their names so as to indicate in my reportage to my superiors? ... .they are most insistent upon such details." M'Ordant meant to subtly entrap.
"They are known only by their Christian names once ordained, but if that will suffice, you will be furnished them by my secretary ... shall we say in a few days?" came the Cardinal's final offer as he stood, indicating his obvious intent to depart their conference.
"With your indulgence, your eminence, please inform your secretary to arrange for my meeting with them," Marcel smilingly demanded, knowing that his department had, after all, been invited into this netherworld of one-named somewhat hidden beings.
Two engirdled corpses, somehow hoisted well into the air, unnoticed ... unmolested save for a general and slight inflammation of the labial regionthis was the sort of paradox which characterized that which is covert in Nature Herself. Here, it was the peculiar nature of the institutions of the Church that piqued M'Ordant's secularized instincts by way of naturalistic 'angles' (his cryptic smile, noticeable only by its author, occasioned by 'their' wordplay with his playful mind) were divining the ways and means of the grisly business that preyed upon prayerfulness itself.
"As you may wish," the prelate's snapping jaw's latest issue had brought him light years back from reverie; "but, beware, Mssr., our people loathe the world and its ways. They are unaccustomed to intercourse ... with it."
And he was gone, leaving the precise choice of words echoing in his auditor's ears, not unlike Poe's bells, tolling, rolling, resonating.
On returning to his rooms above Rue Danton, his family abed, M'Ordant began his report this way: 'Having gained the halting cooperation of Church officialdom, I fear that the well has been, or soon will be, poisoned, thus rendering any formal direct questioning of the abbot and other monastics less than useful. I recommend that a non-local nun of some standing within the Church be enlisted in our necessarily surreptitious delvings, she preferably to have relations who may vouchsafe her sympathy for our secular work irrespective of loyalties.'
"You have sent for me, sir?"
"Yes, yes, sit down, M'Ordant. I am approving your suggestion, shall we call it, not, mind you, on its merit, but because the press is relentless! She arrives on the afternoon train from Avignon. Her nephew is prefect there and tells of her uncompromising integrity; as a young girl she is said to have seen the Virgin Mary daily, for years. Of course, it helps that here family is distantly related to the old French Papacy," the Commissioner advised, appearing to cling to any edge his fingers could detect above the abyss of failure.
"Out there, in the naked sun and wind, our derrieres are ready to hang, along, Lord preserve their souls, those poor innocent creatures'. Do it, M'Ordant. I have faith in you."
Despite the vivid imagery that playful mind had conjured of his superior's abundant backside somehow nailed and perpendicular to the wooden axis, M'Ordant managed to appear the serious fact-finder: "I sense that this case shall be solved within the fortnight."
"In a fortnight you and I may share a foot patrol," was the cynic's reply.
"I know that faith, true and pure, is our ally." M'Ordant was confident beyond his junior years, indeed, beyond any factual or logical ground, much less evidence; he was, however, unfazed, by this paradox, the ultimate instance of the irony of Nature's hidden forces. She never revealed everything, despite her omnipotence ... perhaps because of it.
"You see my dilemma: your dear sisters, the very espoused of the Lord, enshroud the mystery by their very status," M'Ordant said, presenting his case.
Sister Angelique was silent for some time after his impassioned plea for her assistance.
Suddenly, he heard the unspoken pure energy of her thoughts, albeit encoded by Nature for deciphering by the truly disciplined mind, free of artifice: "The answer shall be revealed, as this act has defied God's nature." Her lips could not assist, for she was deaf and mute, as well as poorly sighted.
He had seen this at the Ecole: a man of Australia, an aboriginal tribal elder, proving that verbal speech was but a shadow of its parent, the mind. The elder black man, with eyes that also spoke truth, had told of how his kinsmen could so communicate over as many as twenty leagues or more!
Now, as they sat in relative comfort and isolation from the church or its lodgings, she began to weep, silently yet composed. M'Ordant wondered whether the daguerreotypes of the nuns, not more than teenage girls, truly, had been too much for the frail saint.
"You see," she began again, resolutely, "they had been exposed to perversity, deep perversion upon holy ground. As they read of historical accounts, in a book left alone at their breakfast table, of debauchery and orgiastic excesses unspeakable having taken place inside the Vatican itself at the instance of an early Pope, they went frantically to his eminence in abject horror. These accounts, rare in themselves, were the engraved property of that self-same ... man. To assuage their distress, he counseled them that they must to manipulate themselves, in his presence...." She paused from bone-crushing sorrow.
"He portrayed it as a rare form of exorcism, so as to rid their now-infested bodies of the dark one. This proved too much for their frail minds and bodies."
M'Ordant was stunned, oxlike, having audited from the unlikeliest of sources that which so far exceeded in its depths his already low opinion of the clergy, that his ears seemed to him worthy of a fate not unlike that fulfilled by poor Oedipus upon his own betraying eyes.
"So, Sister, he murdered them to conceal his blasphemy?"
"No," came the reply, without hesitation or embellishment.
He had exhausted them both, it seemed. Now, as he rose, making ready to take his leave after comforting her, she spoke again to his mind, clearest of all.
"These sweet children, Mathilde and Marie, sisters in the world before the church, you see, secretly vowed their mutual course; and after days of silent prayer for forgiveness for their soulsand his!they ascended the buttress at midnight, assisting elaborately and silently in hanging each other."
Was there no end to the profane, he mused. "What, then, of the Bible pages?"
"This was the subsequent handiwork of his ... eminence." Still using his undeserved title; such a one was she.
The headlines announced: 'CATHEDRAL TRIPLE MURDERER ELUDES DETECTION'
Triple murder; what an error, he thought. Then came the realization that sealed his fate and that of certain others.
His eminence was no more, found stabbed to death near the place where the bodies had been hanging ... with a knife in his back.
The commissioner retired; a month later he was dead of throat cancer, having never been seriously ill and never smoked so much as a pipe. He was 40.
M'Ordant knew the truth, now inadequate shield as well as sword. He was assigned to Scotland Yard on a pretext of learning the new fingerprinting technique. He returned to Paris in a casket, 29.
Sister Angelique, unmolested, returned to Avignon, and her vows' observance. She lived to 120; at the end, there had been rumors of her ancestor, the French Pope, having partaken of Templar rituals involving obscure cantations of the Dark One, even sexual deviancy, thus condemning his progeny to darkness. The killer(s) were never identified or spoken of again.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM