April 21, 1905
My dearest Charles:
How unfortunate that this missive should reach you after you have, no doubt, already heard the dreadful news from other, less sympathetic or well-informed sources. Can you imagine my grief? My melancholy? My empathetic response to what must be, for you, the very worst of times? Your own sister fleeing from the gendarmes, her life's work and reputation in ruins, the prospect of an old-fashioned hanging looming large in her future! My poor brother, my heart bleeds for you.
Those tedious journalists can be so tenacious, digging for every scandalous crumb with the stubborn willfulness of a bull terrier. And half the time they manage to get everything wrong, for they will assign such motives as please them, rather than subject the public to the truth. I really should pay a visit to the editorial office of the Times one of these days. Wouldn't that cause much wailing and gnashing of teeth! But here, sweet Charles, I will not keep you in suspense any longer. It is time you heard the story from my own lips. The unvarnished truth will not provide you with much comfort, alas! but when the time comes, you will be glad, I think, to have this written shield to protect you and yours from the slings and arrows of Dame Gossip and Lady Rumor.
Before I begin, however, I feel I owe you an apology. I swear I would have written to you sooner, but my position is not - as you can well imagine - conducive to such civilized conduct. And I pray you to excuse the poor quality of the paper, as well as the unfortunate stains here and there. The previous owners of my hiding place were quite objectionable to harboring a fugitive in their midst, and I fear I was forced to be quite strict with them. But there you have it; one cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs... or in this case, a more apropos saying might be, one cannot find refuge without spilling a bit of blood.
Well, in all honesty, it was more than a bit.
But that is, I believe, quite enough of my unwilling hosts, Monsieur and Madame Polllinard.
Casting my mind back over the past torturous months, I can point out to you exactly when the whole troublesome business began. As you know, I came to Paris following my exhibition in London; oh, how the biting remarks of the critics stung! Like fearsome, vindictive wasps that constantly pump their poison into the veins of artists, seeking to destroy them... can you imagine, they had the temerity to call me mad? To say that my magnificent paintings were nothing more than tormented visions of death most horrible, springing from a sick and delusional mind!
My chiefest sin was, in their eyes, to use the faces and figures of some of London's prominent citizens, men and women who had - at some time or another - offended me in some way. My vengeance was to break their bodies in ingenious ways - but only in my paintings. Although I admit, I had burned to revenge their slights with more concrete methods, but my Muse's head was much cooler than my own. It was she who had inspired me to sneer at them, destroy them in oils and brushstrokes, grind them to bits on a canvas. And for this I was called mad!
Faugh! I was tired of London and it's officious, priggish, prim and proper ways. I longed to get away, to cleanse my soul of the city's bleakness, to lick my wounds in a more congenial atmosphere. So off to Paris I went, determined to start afresh among the Bohemians of Montmartre.
I obtained a flat in a rather filthy little building run by an odious landlady who, regardless of the French national propensity for gossip and prying, showed no interest in her tenants' business beyond the limits of their purse. I soon established myself with canvases, paints, brushes and all the paraphernalia so dear to an artist's heart, and settled myself down to pay heed only to my Muse.
My first attempts were too feeble to bear; my spirit had been lashed to the core and bled nearly dry by the London critics and their petty jealousies. Nevertheless, I persevered, and soon had a small collection of finished canvases scattered throughout the flat, waiting to dry. You would have been proud of them, dear Charles. My Crucifixion Series was well on its way to becoming the most important work I had ever produced. How unusual to portray two women affixed to their cruel wooden crosses, one dark, the other fair! I labored far into the night, heedlessly burning handfuls of expensive candles as the Muse spurred me on. When I tired of crosses, I began imagining other fates for my twin beauties; tortures rare and sublime, their bodies broken by a black clad executioner whom it pleased me to portray with my own face and form. Exquisite!
All too soon, however, my passion dried up, my wellspring of inspiration died. I looked at what I had wrought and despaired. Can you conceive of how heart-wrenching this was for me? I looked in vain for a shred of inspiration from my Muse, but she remained silent and uncommunicative. I wept bitter tears and came close to slashing my paintings to shreds, so deep was my despair. I shouted to the heavens, I raged and beat my breast... nothing. The depth of my gloom and depression was beyond my poor ability to describe. The voice of my Muse - that cool, mocking voice that had guided me from childhood - was gone. When I closed my eyes, I saw only spangled darkness; those delicious visions had disappeared. I could not paint, I could barely function without my Muse. She who had been my mentor, who had selflessly taught me the ways and methods of revenge, who had provided me with the strength to defeat my enemies, who had instructed me in the ancient secrets of our house, whose very name I bore... the Muse wrapped herself in silence and refused to answer my pleas.
O, beloved, why did you desert me?
My desperate cries went unheeded.
But then, just when I was on the verge of self-destruction... it happened.
I was taking my usual morning walk down the Place Pigalle, to fetch a few croissants for breakfast, when I saw Her.
She was standing on the corner, a shawl covering her head, her long skirt of an unfashionable dark green and tattered to boot. I dismissed her from my conscious mind - the streets are full of these whey-faced waifs - when she removed the shawl from her head. At that precise moment, a shaft of sunlight pierced the early morning gloom; as if directed by a heavenly hand, this bright light shone directly upon her and my heart skipped a beat.
Her hair was reddish gold and the errant sunbeam burnished those luxurious locks to jeweled brightness, creating an aura of such beauty that I was dry mouthed in wonder. I stopped in my tracks, ignoring the rudely muttering pedestrians who brushed past me with impatience, and frankly stared at this unexpected picture of sizzling glory. When she turned around to face me, I nearly fainted, such was the intensity of my feelings. For this girl was the very picture of my visions!
Her eyes were emerald green; her face sweet in its curves and planes, her generous lips tinted a becoming blushing rose. She looked this way and that, and her eyes fell upon me. Again, I nearly swooned! Oh, Charles... she was perfection itself, and for the first time in so very long, I heard at once the voice of my Muse whispering in my ear: "This is the One."
Taking firm hold of my seething emotions - chiefest among those, relief! - I hastened up to this wonderful creature and made so bold as to introduce myself. We struck up a conversation, during which I learned several facts which I shall now relate to you.
One: her name was Gabrielle d'Orsay and she had been born in a small village in Provence. Hating the repressive atmosphere, she had fled to Paris to seek her fortune.
Two: she had no family in Paris, nor friendly contacts, nor even bare acquaintances. Her few pitiful possessions had been confiscated by her landlady when Gabrielle had proved unable to pay her bill. All she had left in the world were the clothes on her back and a few centimes concealed in a shoe.
Three: she was in such desperate straits that she had come to the Place Pigalle that morning in order to solicit whatever sordid employment she could find from such men as pay for their pleasures.
To say that I was ecstatic would be an understatement!
I immediately offered to put her up in my flat. I could see that she hesitated, but my air of confident friendliness, my fashionable clothing, my unmistakable aura of financial security, finally drove all doubts from her mind. With a smile, she accepted my offer and I inwardly rejoiced! This was the One!
I carefully cultivated the innocent Gabrielle. I hid my paintings - for I knew the subject matter would distress her - and was all sisterly solicitude. I pretended to be a worldly Englishwoman of means who had come to Paris to experience "Life." This rather vague explanation satisfied Gabrielle and she never expressed curiosity about my former state. I introduced her to the fact that I was a painter and she was delighted by my profession, although somewhat taken aback by the fact that I had no completed canvases to show her. Nevertheless, several days passed in contented bliss - Gabrielle happily taking on domestic duties and I sitting in my corner, watching her and savoring each graceful movement, every bubbling laugh, each moment of simple delight.
Gradually, I began to work my wiles upon her sympathetic nature. I pretended to be dolorous, heaving great sighs and rolling my eyes up in an act meant to convey despair. When she finally asked me what was wrong, I sighed some more and refused to speak of it. She pressed; I retreated. In such a way, I lured her into "forcing" me - her benefactress - to confess my troubles.
With great reluctance, I told her that my painting was, sadly, at an end. Lacking a suitable model, I was unable to continue. I moaned and made much of the fact that if I could not paint, I would have to return to London. Then I subsided and waited; having thrown out the bait, I patiently allowed my gullible girl to swallow the hook.
Gabrielle tried to hide her distress but could not; her feelings were transparent. If I returned to London, she would be out on the street once more. Besides that, she had grown fond of me and would miss me terribly. So, with many blushes and tremblings, she shyly asked if, perhaps, I thought she would make a suitable model.
It was difficult to hide my glee. I affected to be surprised and reject her offer. As I predicted, Gabrielle persisted, and finally, I pretended to resist no more. I put on a serious mien and explained to her that I only painted nudes; would she feel comfortable exposing herself in such a bold fashion?
I could see that this information caused more blushing and more trembling, but eventually, my sweet Gabrielle overcame her natural modesty and agreed. I congratulated her for being so selflessly sacrificing, but inwardly I gloated. From step to step, I planned to guide the One along the course I - and my Muse - had determined. Slowly - ever so slowly and carefully - she would be led to further boldness. I would break down the walls of convention which her provincial upbringing had installed; I would, with as much painstaking patience as a sculptor - mold her into the perfection of my choosing. She would be eventually be broken and reformed by my hands, by my art, by whatever means necessary. Gabrielle d'Orsay would cease to exist; only my creation would remain, forever bound to me, forever subservient, always obedient. She would be mine; I would own her soul, her heart, her mind and her body as surely as if I'd purchased her in the old slave markets of Alexandria. A living work of art, an abject Galatea to my triumphant Pygmalion. How sweet it was!
And my Muse chuckled in approval at the thought.
At first, I insisted she remain draped with a cloth while I stood behind the canvas, wielding brush and oils with skill. I painted her as a maiden of old Greece wearing virginal white; I created imaginary landscapes of blues, golds and coppers, lush greens and yellows, and set her down within these settings as if I were placing a valuable jewel in a platinum frame. These paintings I showed to her and seethed in secret while she gushed with praise. Wait until she saw my true colors - crimson and scarlet, ruby and vermilion; the acid green of corruption, the flat black of despair and the searing white of agony. But I cautioned myself to go slowly... it would not do to affright my prey and lose her so soon.
So I bore all her foolish babblings and excitement, forcing myself to smile when I really longed to slap her silly face. Sometimes my hands shook, so strong was the desire to punish Gabrielle for her unthinking ignorance. My Muse aided me in maintaining my composure. I created several insipid paintings in this manner; I nearly retch to think of how pretty, how bucolic and uninspired these works were!
Soon, however, my self-imposed torture was nearly at an end. I began introducing darker elements into my painting, coaxing Gabrielle to exhibit herself more and more shamelessly, punishing her with my displeasure and coldness when she balked at some particularly offensive pose. She would plead with me tearfully but finally surrender to my wishes when it became clear that I would brook no rebellions. With my Muse constantly whispering, I worked from dawn until deep in the night, forcing Gabrielle to maintain her poses until the girl shivered and wept, suffering from cramps and exhaustion, her naked flesh slick with sweat and salty tears. Bliss!
I prided myself on the fact that there were no bonds holding her to me, no chains, no locks. She remained of her own volition and I quickly realized that she was beginning to enjoy my forcefulness, my sadistic disregard for her comfort, my expectations of instant obedience to my wishes. For why else would she cringe in servitude when I barked my orders? Why else would she cast her eyes down, fearing even to glimpse the power in my own? Why else did she creep about the house like a frightened mouse, silently performing her duties until it was time for her to pose again? Why else would she ask my permission - in the most timorous of voices - to allow her to go on simple errands to the market?
My corruption of the innocent Gabrielle was proceeding apace; my enjoyment knew no bounds.
It was at this moment of supreme delight that some outside force crept in, threatening to destroy my paradise.
It so happened that I had graciously granted Gabrielle permission to leave the flat and go on some errands. However, in the past few days, I had noticed some alarming changes in the girl. Resentful glances when she believed I paid no attention; a certain slowness in her obedience to my commands; an air of almost defiance when she reluctantly, finally obeyed. I was determined to curb this outbreak of independence, but only after I'd determined the source.
It was to this end that I followed Gabrielle discreetly, observing all she did and in particular, those she spoke to... or those who seemed to take a more than business-like interest in my succulent morsel.
After gathering a few vegetables in her reed basket, she tripped daintily along to the boulangerie to obtain a loaf of fresh bread for dinner. It was here that she had an encounter with the baker's boy - a weedy, horse-faced idiot who seemed all knees and elbows and bulbous brown eyes.
My precious, perfect Gabrielle - oh! how I grind my teeth in rage to think of it even now! She smiled, she simpered, she dimpled at his stammering conversation; she bestowed glance after glance of her emerald eyes upon that gangling fool. That he was thoroughly charmed and besotted, I had no doubt. And when she walked away with her bread, he came out from around the wooden counter to watch her go. I turned pale; I blushed crimson. My hands itched to fasten themselves on the boy's throat and squeeze the life out of him right then and there! My Muse supplied me with a few visions of his eyes bulging even further from their sockets as I slowly, ever so slowly, crushed his neck between my hands; in the depths of my imagination, I could even hear the rattle of his final breath as it fled his dying lungs. Knowing I could not yet act, I remained in my place of concealment for another moment, allowing the anger to simmer in my breast.
It was clear to me that Gabrielle's infatuation with the baker's boy was the reason for her defection. I did not place the blame on her, however; clearly, this boy had woven some sort of spell around her, a kind of hypnotic link, using arcane powers which I could not perceive. While he did not look the part of a Svengali, nevertheless... to free my property from his thieving clutches, it was clear that I would have to destroy Jacques Serre.
Next, I followed Gabrielle to the charcuterie, where she purchased a nice piece of lamb. To my astonishment, the girl who helped her - a winsome blonde whom I knew to be the butcher's daughter - was lively, talkative and extremely flirty. The dirty little slut was actually flirting with my Gabrielle! And to make matters worse, Gabrielle was flirting back! Swinging her head and gesturing, smiling so broadly that her emerald eyes nearly disappeared... even caressing the blonde slut's finger when she handed her a package! I saw it with my own eyes, and the sheer gall of the butcher's daughter made my blood fairly boil. She, too, would have to be eliminated. I would rip handfuls of her explosively curly blonde locks out of her scalp; I'd claw those brown cow's eyes out of her skull; I'd tear open her chest with my bare hands and drink deeply of her life's fluid before she died. Oh, yes... the dirty butcher's slut, Mademoiselle Effané, had to go as well.
And the same fate awaited the patisserie owner, a dark haired and dark-eyed solemn man named Pierre Dykous who nevertheless managed to make Gabrielle laugh; a youthful seller of oranges, Zoe Lonne, whose bone-straight blonde locks gave him a girlish air; the older gentleman - Monsieur M. Leager - who sharpened knives and scissors in his tiny market stall; a buxom brunette harlot called Mademoiselle Aponén who sold harticots verte and apricots; the mad beggarwoman who believed she was a Queen, whom they called Madame Lowsa; the suave cut-purse with the magnificent mustaches, Otto Le Kus - they would all pay the price for attempting to lure my Gabrielle away.
I crept back to the flat and when Gabrielle returned with her full basket, I listened to her breathless babbling as she recounted the usual gossip and market news. Then, again as was my usual wont, I instructed her in the day's work, using my harshest and strictest tones. She scurried about to obey... was that a trace of fear I saw reflected in those green eyes? I smiled to myself in satisfaction and felt my painting that day went exceptionally well. Then, when I at last released the exhausted girl and allowed her to seek her narrow bed, I washed my brushes, blew out the lights... and stepped out into the moonlight, accompanied only by my Muse, to seek out those who had offended me and work my particular brand of justice upon them all.
I returned home just as the sun was creeping over the horizon, banishing the comforting velvet darkness which had been my friend for so long. I was bone weary, covered in filth, but my self-appointed task of removing all obstacles between myself and Gabrielle had begun well. Only three had been dispatched, owing to my propensity for imagination over expedience, but my Muse told me I had done a good night's work and I was content.
If my sweet morsel wondered why I was so tired, content merely to recline upon the couch and sip absinthe while perusing the day's papers, she did not inquire. Instead, after finishing her chores, she again requested my permission to visit the market. I granted it absently, pretending to be absorbed in the newspaper, but the moment she stepped out of the house, I was on her heels.
My list was growing longer by the moment, for it seemed as if the entire world had congregated in the marketplace for the sole purpose of stealing away my prize. My Muse bade me take heart; although the task of eliminating my rivals may have seemed impossible to complete, nevertheless I could rely on her strength, cunning and support. My Muse had never failed me, and as her whispers soothed away my aches and weariness, I became more determined than ever to vanquish those who were not respectors of other people's property.
A farm girl named Lyla, fresh from the countryside, selling honking geese, accompanied by her mother and father, Hecubé and Hero Dautis - I noticed Gabrielle avoided them, even going so far as to cover her head with a shawl and scurry away, so I assumed they must have done something to hurt her (and that privilege is mine alone!). Then the raddled tavern keeper's wife called Madame Sirén, who had been a great beauty in her day, gave my thirsty girl a tankard of ale and thus earned herself a place on my rapidly expanding list. Then Gabrielle turned a corner and... oh, Charles, I can hardly speak of such disaster!!
A woman was standing there, obviously waiting for Gabrielle. She was wearing a simple blue dress and cowled cloak with the hood thrown back to reveal her features. For the second time in my life, I was stricken dumb, paralyzed and nearly blinded with shock and astonishment. This mysterious woman, whose night-black hair swirled around her shoulders... whose eyes were so pale and intense a blue as to be patently impossible... she, too, had been shown to me by my Muse! It was she who had been Gabrielle's companion in agony in my paintings, she who had haunted the tantalizing visions I received from our ancestress.
Gabrielle tripped up to the stranger, her face wreathed in smiles. While I seethed and writhed in jealous rage, she greeted the dark-haired woman in a manner that indicated an amount of familiarity - dare I even say intimacy?! - that made me grind my teeth in frustration. Only the intervention of my comforting Muse prevented me from making the hideous mistake of rushing upon her immediately.
The two of them, hand in hand (oh, horror!), chatting and smiling, went to the stranger's flat. A bribe to the landlady ensured both her complicity and her silence as I stealthily followed the pair. They were obviously not strangers to one another; indeed, considering the easy way they touched and spoke, little casual gestures that might never have been noticed except by me, it was clear that my property had been usurped, snatched from beneath my very nose, by the tall, beautiful woman.
I took the additional liberty of crossing the landlady's palm with more francs in order to obtain information on the dark beauty. Her name was Xena Labrousse, a painter of some little renown, who had recently relocated from Calais to Paris. Unmarried, of peasant stock, coming from a background devoid of social prominence, wealth or title of any kind. More francs were exchanged and the landlady informed me that she had seen Gabrielle going up to Mademoiselle Xena's flat on several occasions over the past few weeks. The unpleasant leer on that fat French hussy's mole-speckled face when she spoke these words made it perfectly clear what she believed the two women were doing.
Emptying my purse into the landlady's greedy palms, I was able to obtain the key to the flat next door to Xena's. The landlady gave me a knowing wink when she imparted, with much shoulder shaking and obscene gestures, that there was a strategic hole that had been drilled into the wall between the two main rooms of the flats. As I trudged up the grimy stairs, my stomach twisted and burned as if I had swallowed hot coals, such was the level of my rage at being betrayed.
I wasted no time entering the filthy, cockroach ridden pesthole and applying my eye to the hole. I had a clear view of Xena's flat, there being only a single room which must serve as bedroom, dining room, parlor and kitchen. She had few possessions - a brass bed held together by string, a thin quilt thrown across to serve as both sheet and coverlet; a battered kitchen table with one chair; a dresser, upon which I observed a loaf of bread and a chunk of cheese; and an easel. A number of canvases were scattered here and there. Holding my breath, I strained to make out the image that had already been partially painted on the otherwise pristine canvas propped up on the easel.
To my astonishment and utter, choking fury, Gabrielle - with no hesitation whatsoever - promptly removed her clothing, draped herself in a demure pose on the bed, and indicated that she was ready. Xena began to paint rapidly, with what I grudgingly admitted was a master's touch and an uncanny eye for color, shadow and light. Her sure strokes filled the canvas, creating an image of Gabrielle, draped in wispy silks and crowned with flowers, her eyes half-closed as if in ecstasy, lower lip caught between her teeth, a shower of rose petals floating down to the tigerskin she lay upon.
Although I found the subject deplorable and pedestrian, I could not help but admire the way Xena had captured what I called the "essence" of Gabrielle; that indefinable luminous quality that emanated from her soul, danced within her glorious green eyes, made her smile a veritable slice of sunshine. Using common oils and the cheapest of brushes, Xena had created an image of her living subject that seemed so real, it nearly breathed.
Only the eyes of love can see so deeply, my Muse said in her insinuating whisper. Only love.
With those words, sudden comprehension flooded my entire being; it was as if I had been struck by lightning. I blinked my eyes, utterly dazzled, nearly reeling in drunken enlightenment.
Xena loved Gabrielle!
She could not!
Horror upon horror piled up and I suddenly felt ill to the core. Those individuals already on my list - those who had sought to steal my Gabrielle away with their wiles and smiles - were as nothing compared to this new threat. My property was being seduced before my eyes by a vile, poisonous beauty whom I now realized I hated - yes, hated! - with my entire being.
I had seen enough.
I left as quietly as I had come, the only witness to my shame being that horrible landlady, whose greasy chuckle echoed in my memory long after I had returned to my own home. She, too, would suffer at my hands someday. I swore it.
But what to do about Xena? Should I destroy her now, before Gabrielle was entirely tangled in her snares? Or should I wait, plan and plot her demise with all the cunning at my command? I beseeched my Muse for the answer.
Her reply took me aback.
Can't you see, fool?, she said in a whispery tone that nevertheless stung. Both of them must die! Xena dared to claim Gabrielle... and the little slut went willingly. Oh, yes... Gabrielle was ripe for it, her kind always are. Between the two of them, they've destroyed your honor, they've mocked you with their love, rubbed your nose in it and you stood there doing nothing! Stop sniveling and get rid of them! NOW!
As her crackling presence faded from my brain, I barely heard her final words:
Kill them before they destroy you... like they did long ago to me.
I pondered my Muse's words all the rest of the afternoon. When Gabrielle returned home, my distracted air and silence led her to inquire dully about the state of my health. I nearly laughed in her face and controlled myself with a mental wrench. Instead, I found myself studying her as she puttered around the flat, humming a song in her off-key manner.
Those features I'd once found so beautiful were now completely repugnant to me. I despised her so much that, when our fingers accidentally touched as she handed me a cup of coffee, I wanted nothing more than to spit on her in disgust. My flesh crawled... I now hated Gabrielle as violently as I'd once loved her - if you care to call it that - and had to strangle my impulse to do her serious harm.
I had no heart even to paint. She had taken that away, too.
Oh, Charles, is there nothing so perfidious as the infidelity of woman?
But I was clever. I concealed my dark emotions behind a facade, maintaining all my usual customs and airs, even making her pose for me and utilizing some pretty little toys I'd had made up by a nimble-fingered craftsman in the leather trade. I pretended to paint... I smiled and smiled... her cringing attitude and subservience to all my whims made me physically ill but I acted as if all was well.
And while the days rolled past, one after the other, I methodically took care of the members on my list, carefully crossing their names off when I'd finished delivering my retribution. The newspapers were full of contradictory accounts of a mad murderer stalking the streets of Paris; even Gabrielle felt sufficiently alarmed by this news to come scurrying home long before the sun was extinguished by night.
I returned a few times to that dingy flat and observed Gabrielle and Xena together, the Dark and the Light.
They were getting closer; the touches lingered in softness and sighs, there were sweet kisses and whispered endearments.
Raw anger stormed within my veins; my jaws hurt from clenching; I was sickened by what I saw but could not take my eyes away.
Enjoy your rendezvous. Coo like turtledoves and sweeten the world with your sugary love, I would think to them while I observed. Savor each little argument between lovers, every kiss to make up for hasty words. Paint and pose; drink wine; feed one another crusts and think them the finest pastries, crammed full of earnest, enduring, everlasting love.
The day of reckoning was coming.
Eat your fill of love, I murmured quietly. Stuff it into your bellies and brains until the surfeit makes you dizzy.
My sweet Charles! How vile, how loathsome, how disgusting, nasty and hateful is love!
And soon Gabrielle and Xena would pay for their crime, oh! Very, very soon.
They who were together in love would be together in death.
The bare thought of it made me so excited I could hardly contain myself.
If you wonder, darling Charles, why Gabrielle continued to remain with me when her spirit had not been broken, when she had found comfort and escape in Xena's arms, then you do not know me as well as you thought and you have absolutely no conception of human nature. But you always were a rather dull boy, you know.
I had swept Gabrielle off the street when she'd been in a desperate situation and despairing of her future. By alternating kind treatment with cruelty I kept her off balance; by reminding her of her obligations to me, I engaged her sense of honor, decency and "doing one's duty" - those tedious traits owned by most citizens of Britain. I would bring her an enormous bunch of roses one day, and the next berate her sharply over some trifle. I charmed her then rebuffed her. Mine was a courtship of extremes that rocketed her from gratitude to despair and back again with such rapidity that she never knew what to expect. Her fear of me was genuine and total, but so was her fear of abandonment, poverty, starvation. I was the rock to which she had clung in those early days; I was the one who had saved her from death or worse when her future had seemed so uncertain. In her mind I was a savior to whom everything was owed. She would never abandon me... or at least, not unless the intolerable situation in which she found herself was remedied by the interference of fate.
I give you here her own words, spoken to Xena when the two of them were engaged in a lover's quarrel. Xena, who by now had become Gabrielle's complete confidante, was appalled by what she deemed my cruel disregard for her lover's feelings and welfare. She urged my property to run away, right now, this very instant, and they would find shelter in some other town, far away from Paris and its dangers... which of course, included me.
Gabrielle tore herself out of her lover's embrace and said: You don't understand. She's kind to me, in her own way. And without her, I'd have died of hunger or been raped or killed. I owe her, don't you see? I owe her my very life!
But you're so afraid, Xena coaxed. So afraid all the time...
That's my own problem, Gabrielle replied. She's a very passionate artist. Her work consumes her entirely. If she's rude, or snaps at me, then it's my fault because I interrupted her thoughts. If she forgets how uncomfortable I am when I pose for hours, that's because she's so caught up in her painting. She's a true genius, Xena. I must forgive her eccentricities; I must try and understand her moods, anticipate her whims, attempt to smooth her way so she can be free to work. Besides, she's been so very good to me... I must at least stay with her until she finished this series she's working on. I'm her only model and I can't desert her while she needs me. Maybe later...
So you see, Charles, how thoroughly I had indoctrinated my property.
Indeed, I had to clap both hands across my mouth in order to stifle my laughter.
Oh, Xena urged Gabrielle to flee, and the girl just as stubbornly refused. I wonder how long this state of affairs might have lasted had I allowed it to continue upon its course. Even as I write this letter, I speculate that perhaps Xena might have tired of Gabrielle and her inexorable stance... but of course, that would have changed nothing. My Muse was determined that they both should die, and I found it impossible to forgive Gabrielle's trespasses.
It wasn't easy to conceal the depth of my hatred. Whenever Gabrielle posed for me, and I looked at her sweaty, trembling flesh, took in each detail - the shadows that fell along the contours of her body, the leather bindings that chafed her tender skin, the wooden bit that distorted her pretty mouth - I felt emptied of any traces of affection I might once have harbored. I dreamed only of her destruction, and as my brush flew over the canvas, elaborating in broad swatches of color on the torturous theme, my Muse planned and schemed, pondered and plotted.
When I'd worked before, in the period before Gabrielle had entered my life, I'd been driven by the need to see my completed vision before me, laid out in meticulous lines and miraculous detail. I painted furiously, positively driven and hounded, tormented by my Muse's inspiration, spurred on until I dropped from exhaustion.
Now, however, my painting did not have such a desperate quality. Rather, my hands wielded the brush outside of my own volition while I dreamed of blood, rivers of blood, and such screams as the world has never heard. Vengeance is mine and it would be sweet.
Finally, the day came when I was finished. Twenty-four canvases had been completed. I knew that my time together with Gabrielle could be measured in hours; I could see she was gathering up the courage to tell me she was leaving.
I treated her oh, so very kindly. One could almost say I wooed her, paying delicate compliments, insisting on accompanying her to the marketplace, treating her as if she were a lady of substance and I, her most devoted cavalier. My gorge rose on many occasions when she smiled in grateful confusion, flattered by my attentions. She had no opportunity to slip away and seek Xena's company - I made quite sure of that. She was relieved by the cessation of my former strictness and did not question my intentions. Indeed, so soothed was she by my playacting that she even made overtures of her own, although hesitantly, attempting to probe my sincerity, determine the boundaries of acceptability. When I received her careful gestures of friendliness with joy - or so she thought - Gabrielle rewarded me with the widest of smiles.
In her mind, all conflicts were resolved. Fear was replaced by friendship. I was extremely careful not to shatter the fragile illusion I had created; I maintained the loathsome facade until Gabrielle was quite at ease with me. No doubt she attributed my former manner to the pressures of genius.
Smile and smile, and be a villain...
Little did she know that the end was near.
One morning I put down the newspaper and told Gabrielle that I had to return to London for a few days in order to make arrangements for my upcoming exhibition. This was, of course, a ruse. I casually asked if she would care to accompany me; I would be glad to put her up in a fine hotel, show her the sights - perhaps even a trip to the dressmaker's shop might be in order. I was not surprised when, with much blushing and stammering, Gabrielle rejected my kind offer, making excuses so feeble that even the most naive and trustworthy soul could not have believed them. Nevertheless, I graciously accepted and her relief was so palpable that I itched to box her ears.
Instead, with outward calm and inward gloating, I saw to the packing of my bags and set off to the train station, where I parted from Gabrielle - who had insisted on seeing me off - with many promises of postcards, a fond embrace and a few tears.
I watched Gabrielle walk out of the station... and abandoning my bags, I followed her at a discreet distance.
True to my predictions, she made a beeline for Xena's flat.
Although I had expected no less, I still burned at this evidence of her complete betrayal.
Nodding to the landlady as I walked up the steps, I entered the empty flat next to Xena's and settled down to watch and wait. It was only early afternoon; it would take all of my patience and forbearance to wait until darkness before making my move. I observed them for a little while - two sickeningly sweet lovebirds who billed and cooed after their enforced separation because Gabrielle had been too cowardly to leave me and Xena too honorable to confront me directly.
They were both nothing more than sheep, blindly following conventions and morality instead of adopting their own mores, as I had done.
Baaa, baaa, baaa!
Soon, I promised, soon little sheep, you'll be led to the slaughter.
The minutes ticked by; the sun slowly - ever so slowly - crept towards the horizon, as if it knew of my murderous intentions and was determined to tantalize and tease me while I chafed at the bit. I had fallen asleep for several hours and woke up feeling refreshed and ready for my work. My Muse buzzed and whined like an annoying insect in my ear, gobbling horribly about retribution, justice and revenge. She showed me breath-taking vistas of death and decay, hot golden flames that licked and spat, splatters of rich, crimson blood. I could hear the screams for mercy reverberating in my head and had to stretch my lips in my cruelest smile. Mercy might droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, but tonight the skies were clear. No quarter given!
In further visions given by my Muse, steel swords slashed right and left, mowing down my/our enemies, for by now my Muse's vengeance against her ancient foes and my own quest had merged into one, single goal: the mortal punishment of Xena and Gabrielle.
At last, however, the silvery curve of the moon hung low in the sky - twilight. Not long now, and so I applied my eye to the peephole in order to ascertain what had been happening while I'd slept.
Xena and Gabrielle were seated at the table, sharing a glass of wine and some crusty bread. Or rather, Xena sat in the sole chair with the red-headed chit perched in her lap. I gagged as I watched Xena hand feed a morsel of bread to Gabrielle, who showed every evidence of pleasure and contentment. They kissed - sweet, brief minglings of affection; deeply passionate declarations of the soul. They murmured, their heads together, black tresses mingling with red-gold. Gabrielle had her arm about Xena's neck, and the dark beauty caressed Gabrielle's knee through the fabric of her skirt.
Such cozy domesticity!
Dearest Charles, this proof - absolute, undeniable evidence - of Gabrielle's total disaffection to the enemy camp was all the impetus I needed. If I had ever harbored doubts, if there had been even the single most infinitesimal thread of affection remaining, this sight would have killed it on the spot.
My limbs tingled as if they'd been electrified; my pulse thundered in my ears, as martial a sound as war drums beating soldiers to battle; my eyes opened wide as I panted for breath. Hatred - utter, implacable hatred - consumed me entirely. My Muse crowed her delight as I fetched the weapons and other tools I had brought in a small carpetbag. A selection of knives; a coil of rope; a packet of needles; candles; several of the more exotic toys I'd had my special leather worker create. I did not intend to kill them immediately; no, Xena and Gabrielle would suffer first. They would experience such pain - such sheer, scarlet-tinted agony - that they would wish for the surcease of death, but I would deny them that until I'd extracted every succulent drop of revenge possible.
At last, I was ready. The moon had risen, sailing majestically onto her heavenly throne, accompanied by her sparkling handmaidens, the stars. One last peek - Gabrielle and Xena were entwined in one another's arms on the narrow bed, sleeping peacefully. I shivered with delight and anticipation. This would be my finest hour, my greatest and most glorious achievement and I meant to savor it to the last.
As silently as a mouse I crept out of the flat and tried Xena's door. It was unlocked and I briefly sent up a heartfelt thanksgiving to Dame Fortune, who had so smiled upon my venture. Easing the door open, I slipped inside, a quiet ghost who was nevertheless composed of the most serious and horrifying substance. My Muse hissed instructions, cautions, imprecations and other nonsense; I firmed my concentration and ignored her for the time being.
The carpetbag swinging from my hand struck something in the gloom - the corner of the dresser, I think - and the items within clinked and clanked. I froze, my gaze never leaving the two figures in the bed. Xena stirred slightly; she had taken the outside of the cot and Gabrielle cuddled close to her on the side nearest the wall. I waited in an agony of impatience, every muscle taut, until I judged the danger had passed.
Reaching into my bag, I withdrew a fat length of ebony, polished and smooth. Leather thongs had been wrapped around the narrowest end to make a handle. I weighed the instrument in my palm for a moment, savoring the hefty feel. I planned to club Xena into unconsciousness - she was, I believed, the most dangerous of the two and the most likely to put up a fight - and then take care of Gabrielle.
A shaft of milky moonlight fell upon their faces. Gabrielle's sweet features were relaxed in sleep; the clear planes of Xena's face reminded me of the best Grecian art. I carefully placed my carpetbag on the floor and held my ebony club high. My first strike would have to count and I meant to make it my best. I did not want to damage Xena - not yet! - and so had to calculate the harshness of the blow in order to render her unconscious instead of dead.
The club swept down with a goodly portion of my strength behind it. My teeth were gritted, my eyes opened wide. My Muse shrilled and shrieked in excitement. I already imagined Xena trussed and at my mercy. Anticipation made me fairly glow. Then...
Xena's hand came up; the club landed with a fat smack in her palm. Her eyes opened and fastened on me.
Good evening, she said insolently, wrenching the club from my surprised grasp and bounding out of bed.
I backed up several paces, licking my lips in surprised consternation.
Behind her, Gabrielle awoke and gasped. What's this?, she asked, rubbing her eyes.
Xena's teeth were bared as she let the club bounce on her palm in a suggestive manner. She did not speak to Gabrielle, but addressed her remarks to me.
I've been following you for days, she said. Watching your every move. I knew you were in the flat next door, spying on us. I also know you're responsible for the deaths of all those people. Murdering scum!
Gabrielle gasped again. No!, she said. What are you talking about?!
Xena was wiser than I thought; she obviously knew I was a formidable opponent and so kept her gaze locked to mine rather than be distracted by her lover's bleating.
She explained that she suspected I might have had a hand in the killings and so, to either verify or allay her suspicions, had taken to following me. Noticing that I, in my turn, followed Gabrielle, she realized that I had to have known all about their affair. Xena had a good grasp of my character stemming from the beginning of her association with Gabrielle and, with lightning deduction, had decided that I meant the two of them heinous harm.
My trip to London may or may not have been a ruse, so she'd followed Gabrielle and I to the station. Seeing me leave, she knew I had no intention of traveling. It had been a trick and, armed with that knowledge, she'd set up the scene in her flat, playing like a maestro. Gabrielle had remained ignorant of Xena's plan, the better to act naturally and not give the game away.
I saluted Xena's perspicacity. My Muse whispered desperately, urging me to action. My hand was concealed within a fold of my skirt and I carefully - how carefully! - inserted it through a slit in the seam. Strapped to my thigh was a long, razor sharp blade. I eased it out while Xena pontificated.
She continued to speak, telling me that she had made arrangements with the gendarmes. A group of them had concealed themselves outside and were watching the sole window in the flat. While she spoke, she crossed the room - keeping me in clear view all the time - lit a candle and passed it thrice across the window, explaining that this was the pre-arranged signal. The Paris policemen would now come up and arrest me.
I admit, I was scornful. Arrest me for what? Gabrielle and I were known to live together and I was a woman of some means. If I explained that I had come to the flat to escort Gabrielle home after she'd posed for Xena, then who was to say nay? The two of them had hardly enough clout with the authorities to make them accept their word over mine. I curled my lip and dared them to go ahead with the sordid business; I would be released in no time.
Xena's black brows drew together in a frown. Gabrielle seemed alarmed. But then Xena's eye lit upon my carpetbag.
Here's evidence enough, I wager!, she cried.
This slight distraction was enough. I thrust my knife at Xena, catching her high on the shoulder. Another inch and I'd have sawn through her neck. As she fell to the floor, I drew back my foot and kicked her hard in the stomach. Stooping down, I grabbed a handful of her hair and brought the knife to her throat, prepared to slice through that pulsating column of flesh.
The one thing I did not anticipate was my undoing. Seeing her lover's life so threatened, Gabrielle rocketed off the bed like a shot, fastened herself to my back and began beating me with her fists. Her teeth were small but sharp, as I learned when she sank them into my upper arm. Her nails scored my cheeks and her heels drummed painfully on my ribs.
I tried to throw the annoying red-head off but she stuck like a leech. I managed to give her a long scratch down her leg with the point of my knife but that was all.
In another moment, a squad of gendarmes burst into the room, blowing their tin whistles fiercely.
Galvanized by fear, I hurled Gabrielle to the floor and leaped out of the window. Xena's flat was on the third floor and I might have been killed, but a friendly hedge saved my life. Scratched, bitten, defeated and sore, I slunk away and vanished into the night.
Now, I lick my wounds and drink the late Pollinard's excellent coffee while writing you this letter. My carpetbag, left behind in extremity, did indeed contain important evidence. My list was within, as well as the weapons I had used on my enemies. I'd also taken a few souvenirs from their bodies, which I preserved in small jars filled with alcohol. I read in the morning's newspaper that I am quite the wanted woman, so I suppose I will have to adopt some disguise in order to leave the country.
As for Xena and Gabrielle, I assume they are both recovering from the wounds I inflicted - mental, emotional and physical. My Muse has remained silent, a harsh punishment for failing. The canvases I created using Gabrielle as my model have been burned at Xena's instigation. And to add insult to injury, she and my betrayer have - following all this sordid publicity - been offered a gala exhibition at one of Paris' premier galleries.
One cannot trust journalists at all.
So, my darling Charles, you have had from my lips - so to speak - a genuine account of the troubles plaguing your sister. What are my future plans, you may ask? For the moment, I have none, except to get as far away from Paris as possible. Hempen nooses are so chafing, don't you think, when fastened tightly around one's neck!
I do not, however, intend to allow Xena and Gabrielle to escape scot free. My Muse, once she recovers from her sulks, will no doubt devise a cunning plan. We shall have our revenge! We will not be denied our just retribution! We will stalk them to the ends of the earth if necessary, march to the very gates of Hell! Our rage is not diminished, nor our hatred; as long as Xena and Gabrielle exist, so we will, too, be born again and again to dog their footsteps, spill their blood.
Vengeance is ours!
Not time, nor distance, nor circumstance shall stop us.
We are as eternal as Love!
The only people on my list who escaped me were the goose girl, Lyla, and her parents. They live in Provence, I understand, in a small village. Perhaps, if I can get out of Paris, I will pay them a visit.
I will write again if I can.
Be well, my darling Charles. In those moments that are not consumed with
plotting and revenge, I will think of you.
Your beloved sister,