The Naturalization Of Lady Aeron
“Teach the sweet coquette to know
Heart of ice in breast of snow…”
—Thomas Pennant, Ode To Indifference
It was midday and the thunderheads dragged their pall across the earth, making midnight of the afternoon. Mr. Thenton and I were in the coach, quietly awaiting our arrival at the manorhouse of that infamous poet, Lord Aeron. Mr. Thenton had been trying to scratch ink on parchment, to no avail, and I busied myself with ignoring the dread I felt as we entered that Welsh province. The road was rugged and unruly. It rattled the coach as a toddler might a music box that refused to play. Nothing boded well for this misbegotten adventure.
While attempting to wet his quill, Mr. Thenton spilled the inkwell onto the butchered scrawl that marred the parchment’s surface. With a disgruntled sigh, he set aside his ruined parchment and covered his inkwell. He once again opened Lord Aeron’s poetry collection, The Gale Between Passion And Pain and read through another of its poems. At length, he closed the book.
“Certainly, he is a confessed bacchant,” he said. “These poems are superb in execution and style, yet shameless in subject. His poem ‘Caligula’s Reins’ celebrates so many depravities that I should think Ovid would demand restraint.”
Much to my relief, he extinguished the candle that burned nearby on its holder. I had feared for the last hour or so that the candle would topple and set flame to the coach’s interior, and to ourselves.
“I have always adored Wales,” Mr. Thenton continued, attempting optimism against his frustration. “Were it a woman it would be a belle with a disposition towards leisurely activities outdoors. Indeed, a comely nymph given to quiet walks and tending to the roses. And, of course, the flora and fauna are endearing. There is much to admire in these prospects.”
“It is idyllic,” I agreed, though it was difficult to see anything in the darkness beyond the window of the coach. “A perfect place for a stroll.”
“It would have been lovely to bring my wife with me,” he said, “but it is the unfortunate nature of a man’s work that it is woefully impaired by the presence of the fairer sex. That is, of course, unless the man in question happens to be the esteemed Lord Aeron. It is the happy situation of poets, novelists, playwrights and the like to always find inspiration in the company of women. Alas, a Naturalist’s office is one of minutest observation concerning explicit detail and not expressed emotion, otherwise Emma would have been a welcome adventurer in our party.”
“Gossip suggests to me that a young lady should not wish to visit Lord Aeron’s castle,” I observed.
“Of course,” Mr. Thenton said, adjusting his powdered wig. “I would not invite the rumors on my wife. Everyone is well aware of Lord Aeron’s scandalous reputation as a debauchee. If not for my national reputation as a gentleman among English society I would not have requested an audience with such an infamous rogue.”
“You did not hesitate to invite me,” I noted, watching impassively as the golden cuffs on his overcoat’s sleeves gleamed in the shadow-shrouded coach. “Were you not concerned with the effect on my reputation?”
The coach was tossed slightly to one side and I heard the coachman admonishing the horses with a few select profanities.
“Mr. Sheridan,” he said, “you are my esteemed colleague. True, you are Irish, and so are not afforded the defenses of English rank such as are privileged to my station, but you are protected by association. Moreover, what good would my best observations be in writing without your keenly drawn illustrations? The English audience demands word and image, the two working upon one another like two wizards conjuring wonders in the cauldron of their imaginations.”
“I have noticed you always become verbose when you are nervous,” I said.
“Indeed?” he said, surprised. “I never knew myself other than a very succinctly spoken man. It hardly conforms to my humble ego, such a revelation. Were you not my colleague, and thus known to me from profession, I would think it a captious assertion.”
“I do not theorize or opine,” I said. “I report what I see.”
“Verily?” he said, with a smile. “Then, may your keen observation skills prove their worth in this endeavor.”
He said no more, but smiled out the window at the passing scenery which, like his parchment, was a messy pool of inky blackness.
When I first saw the manorhouse— in the dim distant light of that dark day—I thought it a castle, for it was so large and constructed of such grandstanding stone masonry that a castle could well be its claim. Beneath the umbra of the clouds the red stone appeared almost vermilion, like dried blood on a healing wound. From the bottom of the hill I saw the terraced gardens, staggered like the steps of giants up a hill crowded with flowery bushes and strangely-pruned yew trees. Indeed, the latter were a bizarre multitude of abstract shapes growing together heedless of human considerations of geometry or form. To walk those layered terraces would be to suffer vertigo, I was certain, for there was such a tumult of abnormal undulations in the greenery that a perambulator’s feet could hardly convince his eyes of level ground or walkways.
“It is a strange place,” I remarked.
“As natural as they come,” replied Mr. Thenton. “Natural for the residents, truly.”
“I may be a simple man,” I said, “but even I am aware of what is unnatural by human estimations.”
“I would say you are simply prejudiced by your vocation,” Mr. Thenton said. “An artist is always seeking to better the aesthetics of another man, especially when he cannot understand such aesthetics. And you condescend from what you presume to be superior sensibilities.”
“Beg your pardon, sir,” I said, “but your being a Naturalist prejudices yourself as well. You wish to think everything natural, even when it is not. And this place is not natural. Nor are its tenants, if rumor proves true.”
“Then we must naturalize,” he said, with his dauntless child-like smile. “That is what we do, is it not? Record the natural world, in word and in picture, so England can familiarize herself with it. And Lord Aeron’s otherworldly visitor shall be naturalized. You will see. At the end of the day the most unnatural thing we will have encountered will have been the Welsh accents. Nothing more.”
I relented and so we rode the rest of the uphill journey in silence. At length, the coach halted and the coachman called out to someone. There was the rattling of iron gates, the shriek of hinges, and the coach continued along its path, though now the wheels rolled easily over a cobblestone road. A few moments later the coach stopped and the coachman opened the door. Mr. Thenton, being most eager, stepped out first, and I followed after a moment of hesitation. My misgivings abounded as I saw Lord Aeron’s majordomo approach. He was an old man, senile and frail and leaning upon a cane, trembling as he spoke to my congenial patron.
“We only have a few effects,” Mr. Thenton said, “but they are crucial to the enterprise. My associate’s art supplies and my parchment and ink. Take especial care with the latter, for I am afraid I have ruined a considerable amount on the way here.”
“I will see that they are taken inside with care, sir,” the old man said. “For now, please enter and wait in the parlor. Lord Aeron will be with you shortly.”
Thus bidden, obeyed. We sat in the wainscoted parlor and patiently awaited our host. Or I should say, I patiently waited our host, and dreaded him. Mr. Thenton was anxious, his hands restlessly fidgeting with his collar and cravat and wig. I was grateful for being a tradesman, then, and thus simply attired in accordance to my vocation. Even were I more renowned as an artist I would shun a gentleman’s elaborate trappings. It has been my observation that such trappings do nothing but cause endless fuss and frustration.
“A lovely parlor,” Mr. Thenton remarked. “Indeed, fit enough to receive royalty, I believe. Or, I should say, provincial royalty. His Majesty would expect better, but this is a summering home, after all.”
The room was dark at its corners, and otherwise lit vaguely by candlelight. If there was finery to be admired it was obfuscated by layered shadows. My colleague’s nerves were speaking through him. His nerves were afire for excitement, and my blood was cold for fear.
“Do you really believe she is of the Fay?” I said.
“Or some other manner of visitor, to be sure,” returned Mr. Thenton. “The original Lady Aeron died years ago. It is rumored that she succumbed to some complication resulting from syphilis. God knows the two of them were notorious for their rampant promiscuity, often indulging in brothels and scandalous trips to Amsterdam. For years following her burial, Lord Aeron disappeared from society and ceased writing his renowned poetry. His closest friends were shunned and he refused to admit any visitor, including those representing his Majesty. I dare say, his Majesty would have been insulted had Lord Aeron not continued paying his taxes. Practically minded, our king.”
I merely nodded, harboring no love for that imperial tyrant. Mr. Thenton continued.
“And then, quite unexpectedly, the reclusive Lord Aeron arrived at a ball with none other than a woman whose features and semblance were, to all authorities on the matter, an exact doubling of his deceased wife. Either she is a resurrected phantasm, or she is a changeling using glamor to mirror his memory. Regardless of origin, we shall naturalize her to the rest of England’s consciousness. For, as you know, being the Irishman you are, that all realms belong to England, and the first step toward domestication is to understand a species or race in natural terms.”
I should have refuted Mr. Thenton’s errant rationalizations outright. The Lady in question was neither wildlife nor wilderness to tame, nor some primitive peoples disadvantaged by technology or numbers. But I was well aware of my colleague’s character and how singularly affixed he was in this misguided endeavor and his patriotic fealties. At his heart, Mr. Thenton was a harmless jingoist. Thus, I forgave him much.
“Did not the Lady Aeron have a twin?” I asked, trying to be more reasonable about the matter.
“No, she did not.”
The voice came abruptly from the inner door. There, standing with a determined and grim expression upon his face, was a man of obvious standing in the house.
“Nor would I have disgraced her memory with such a mundane substitution,” he said. “Indeed, you wrong me, sir. I am a man of greater imagination than that.”
Mr. Thenton stood up and bowed. “Lord Aeron! Allow me to apologize on the behalf of my colleague,” he said. “He is a simple Irishman unaccustomed to the social graces of higher status. Yet, you will see that his skill with a pencil and a brush can compensate for what he lacks in etiquette.”
“It is all well,” Lord Aeron said, “for I jest, of course. As a poet, I am naturally inclined in kinship to any artist dedicated to his craft.”
Not knowing what to say, I imitated Mr. Thenton with a bow. Even so, I looked upon the famous, and infamous, poet to discern his attributes and winnow the reality from the chaff of fiction. Lord Aeron was a tall man, as pale and handsome as his reputation. Dark black hair hung slackly over his high forehead. His overcoat was a dandy’s shade of violet and his cravat was as black as his hair, his overcoat trimmed with arabesques of gold and his waistcoat beneath it in likewise scheme. I have known artists, poets and authors of eccentric tendencies, but Lord Aeron’s expression was less the madness of a man given to poetic passions and more the jaded indifference of a cynic aloof from his own soul.
“I have the privilege of owning many of your books, Mr. Thenton,” our host said, “and I notice that you are given to poetic exaggeration. While such embellishments inspire greater interest in the reader, I believe no embellishments will be needed in the subject you seek today. To the contrary, it would rather impoverish the subject. Know that I do not say this lightly, for, being a poet, I know the temptation toward hyperbolic adornment, and so I must insist that it would be mistakenly implemented. As mistaken as an Epicurean at Communion.”
“I will be as strict as a Mamluk with his blade,” Mr. Thenton said, bowing yet lower.
“An apt comparison,” Lord Aeron said. “Though I believe the Tawashi would be more appropriate.”
“I am afraid I am unacquainted with that term, my Lord,” Mr. Thenton said, smiling through his ignorance.
“You will come to know it in due time,” Lord Aeron said, mysteriously.
“Can you please elaborate on your wife’s…condition? I have heard that the inspiration of your new literary works has come in the form of what some would deem unnatural, or, dare I say, supernatural sources.”
“Mr. Thenton, I was of the belief that you were a Naturalist. Why would you come here when you suspect it to be anything other than natural?”
“Because I do not believe anything is unless it is natural,” Mr. Thenton said, “including what superstitious minds would deem the ‘supernatural’.”
A thin smile then spread across Lord Aeron’s face, almost imperceptible in its expanse and yet overbearing in its suggestion. “In that are we of the same mind,” he said. “For, as you will see, should you prove so brave, my Lady Aeron is the most natural of all things on this or any other plane of existence.”
He gestured that we follow him. He led us out of the parlor and into a long hall whose windows provided scarce light on account of the overcast day. Along the walls there were candelabrum punctuating the darkness with their ghostly haloes. The floor was hardwood, yet I felt my boots stick to it every now and again as if it was splattered with drying plaster or seeping sap. Not wanting to be rude, I said nothing of it, but noticed Mr. Thenton lifting his boots with abnormal effort as well.
“We are to see the Lady now?” he asked.
“My wife is not herself today,” Lord Aeron said, “so you must pardon her for now. Until she has regained her composure, I will lead you on a tour about my home.”
“That is an excellent notion,” Mr. Thenton said.
Feeling it incumbent upon me to sound agreeable, I also said it would be a pleasure. Truth be told, I did not know how successful such a tour would be with such scant light. Had we lanterns it may have been more feasible an idea. Nonetheless, our host was undeterred and so led us through that large palace that he called a “manorhouse”.
What I could see of the interior was decadent. There was a Baroque style molding, all bold brass and gold scrolling thickly around the most banal door. Thick marble coated much of the window recesses and the tabletops, the house being as much marble as brick and wood. The walls were frescoed and richly illustrated by what must have been a legion of master painters, all depicting gods ravishing women. Zeus and Leda. Zeus and Europa. Bacchus and Ariadne. Eros and Psyche. Apollo and Daphne. Yet, more surprisingly, there were in other rooms other frescoes that depicted the roles of victim and attacker reversed: men being ravished by women. Hippolytus being stripped by Phaedra. Adonis being pulled apart by Aphrodite, Persephone, and Artemis. Echo mounting Narcissus. The Maenads tearing King Pentheus and Orpheus apart and employing their mutilated bodies for…depraved passions. Lord Aeron had spent no lesser expense in assuring that the painters had captured these images with as much skill and detail as the others. Violence and sexual conquest were important to him, it seemed. I would have ventured to believe him an aspiring protege of that infamous deviant, the Marquis de Sade, if not for depictions of women in dominant roles.
We arrived at the inner courtyard and found that it was, curiously, not open to the sky, as courtyards often are. A dome had been constructed to cap its airy heights. Corinthian pillars remained arrayed around the spacious expanse, and each was neighbored by a brazier whose flames burned fiercely in the gloom. The ceiling itself spiraled with stucco ridges, all converging upon the glass-eyed oculus in the center of that large dome. Directly below the oculus was a bed large enough to accommodate a sultan’s harem of concubines.
“What is the purpose of this bed?” Mr. Thenton asked.
Lord Aeron offered a humorless smile. “The usual purposes of a bed,” he said.
“You sleep here, then?” my naive colleague asked.
“Among other things, yes.”
“It is quite unusual.”
The latter Mr. Thenton whispered to me with his habitual discretion. Naturally, Lord Aeron overheard him, but said nothing of it. I found it more than unusual. It’s implications were disturbing. Whereas many beds furnished their occupants privacy with a canopy and a thoughtful array of curtains, this bed flaunted no promises of privacy. There were a few pillows and a sheet, but no blankets for comfort or cover. Furthermore, it estranged expectation with long-bodied mirrors placed around the bed in a five-pointed star formation. The purpose of these expenses baffled me. Perhaps had I been more of a libertine I should have deduced the purpose more swiftly.
Lord Aeron paused at the door leading out onto the terrace and down into the garden, for his majordomo intercepted us at the threshold. His servant whispered a few words to his master.
“It is time for dinner,” Lord Aeron said, grinning at some secret amusement. “The tour of the garden grounds shall have to wait until after we have eaten.”
My patron, being always amiable to a fault, said that a walk outside after dinner would do his digestion good and that we would be glad to oblige Lord Aeron’s schedule.
“Will Lady Aeron be joining us for dinner?” I inquired.
I saw, then, Lord Aeron’s thin smile play about on his lips again. In all outward respects it was friendly, and yet it seemed in import to hint at mischief, and malice.
“My wife never feeds in the dining hall,” he said.
This I thought strikingly odd of our host to state, yet before I could question him further, my friend replied with his customary friendliness.
“My wife has very much the same reservation,” Mr. Thenton said. “Emma would prefer to dine where no one may observe her, for she is ever afraid that she may ruin her reputation with neglect of the most obscure rules for proper dining etiquette. No doubt it is a fear thoroughly haunting the minds of many among the fairer sex, including Lady Aeron.”
“To the contrary,” Lord Aeron said. “She is of a predilection that is wholly indifferent to observation while feeding. Mores and etiquette hold no sway over her, for her intelligence is unencumbered by such arbitrary conventions of Man.” Here his thin smile widened, though whether due to mirth or menace I could not discern. “She is simply not hungry at the present moment. Please forgive her this small disappointment.”
“But of course!” rejoined my friend, dauntless and doubtless in his amiability. “May we all be so faithful to the modesty of our appetites!”
We proceeded into the dining hall and found a rather exquisite meal awaiting us. It consisted of lamb and roasted vegetables with a fine wine, though I must confess that my appetite was not sufficiently agreeable at the time to enjoy it. Mr. Thenton, conversely, enjoyed it as readily as a beggar invited to a kingly banquet.
“Splendid,” he said, increasingly buoyed by the treatment and the prospect of a new book. “An excellent meal! Truly, I can see that you are a man of exquisite appetite, sir, and taste. These indulgences would induce a gourmand to question the reach of his education and experience.”
Lord Aeron regarded my friend’s praises coolly, sipping faintly at his wine and abstaining from much of his own plate. Lord, like Lady, seemed to be possessed of insufficient appetite. After sipping at his wine, he spoke in a rather complacent tone that betrayed condescension, which struck me disagreeably.
“The passions of a man may well begin in the stomach,” Lord Aeron said. “For the basic necessities of life must be appeased before the basic drives of life may be indulged. Yet, that is not to say that necessitated appetites cannot be foregone in favor of satiating less needful appetites. And, indeed, a seemingly inferior appetite may well define and prolong our species more than what is most needful for our immediate survival. I have myself known pangs of hunger that were sharply eclipsed by what many rationalists would consider trivial compulsions. Thus, I believe that until Man conflates his myriad appetites together as a unified compulsion these drives will always vie with one another for dominance, often at the cost of the species and its experience on this plane of existence. Thus, every act is as a feast. Every verse of my poetry is a banquet that feeds and sates. Every breath drawn is in pursuit of devouring the world and its variegated pleasures.”
I did not know what he meant by this long lecture, and he did not elaborate, nor do I believe that elaboration would have elucidated his perspective. It all seemed pretentious verbosity designed to impress rather than enlighten. Mr. Thenton, however agreed whole-heartedly, as was his inclination in all things concerning individuals of higher wealth and rank. That said, I doubted his understanding in the matter as much as my own. Had a duck been crowned King of England, and proceeded to quack vociferously in my friend’s ear, Mr. Thenton would have nodded his head in ready agreement with the waterfowl’s nonsensical noise, despite his vast reputation as a respected Naturalist.
Dinner concluded and Lord Aeron led us away from the dining hall, delivering us to the terraces on the South side of his manorhouse. The portal there opened onto the side of the great hill upon which the mansion stood, its terraces cut from the stone of the hill itself. The dark clouds thinned and relented for a time, allowing an early twilight to illuminate our jaunt down the terraces and into the lavish greenery and flowers sprawling on that side of the hill.
The garden grounds were paradisaical, the hedges and the yew trees primly shorn while the flowers bloomed in a jealous competition for attention. Marble statues adorned the grounds as well, standing high on elevating columns and pedestals. Yet, whereas most statues of gods were modest, even when nude, these unashamed figures boasted priapic endowments unfit for a vestal virgin’s eyes. Verily, many such Dionysian figures had become bereft of their phallic adornments due to their own hefty largess and the merciless barbarism of gravity. Thus, for every Aristophanean figure there was a eunuch in need of repair, his loins shattered upon the cobblestoned paths. Lord Aeron noticed my gaze and chuckled humorlessly.
“It is a lesson we all should take to heart,” he said. “Urchin and king alike, when we engorge ourselves on pride we may find ourselves soon emasculated by the expansion. It is only…natural.”
The clouds converged once again, like a routed army reforming its ranks, and prepared for a violent display of arms. Rain came upon us hard and we had to retreat into the manorhouse ere they hurl their fulgurous spears down upon us.
As we sat in the great hall— drying and warming ourselves by the hearth— Lord Aeron surprised me again while stoking the fire with a poker. He stared into the flames and spoke to us with more open candor than was his habit that day.
“Tragedy can change a man,” he said. “The confession shames me, but I became spiritual after the death of my wife. Not religious, certainly, but I did read religious books. The Torah, the Bible, the Koran. The Vedas, or as many as I dared, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Each proved useless in its own turn, but I did not recant hope. Obscurer books I sought and bought. Holy scriptures from around the world. I entertained any text, no matter how esoteric or illegitimized it was by what is known of the natural world. I learned cuneiform simply so I could read Babylonian tablets and translate them with my own understanding. These, too, disappointed me, and it seemed that the earth was too small to provide me the gateways of knowledge I sought.
“In time I grew more desperate. Arabia became my home for a year; a year of restless searching. I discovered there what would be the salvation for my wife. I purchased, at great cost, a book which owns as much as it is owned. A book of skin. A book of heresies, not only to Man’s religious pretensions, but to his premises for the natural world. This book I deciphered with grueling dedication. I ate little, and I slept less, but at last I came to understand the necessary spell. And when I performed it, a gateway opened to an icy plane. My wife awaited me there. She came back to me from beyond the shadowlands. My Malia returned to me, ageless. Deathless.”
“That is what we wish to document,” Mr. Thenton said, nearly losing his wig with excitement. “This new dimensionality of the natural world. The undiscovered country that would expand the British Empire to a new frontier, superior in resources and land than even that of the rebellious Colonies.”
“You said she came from an icy plane,” I said, ignoring my colleague’s impetuous patriotism. “Were there any others near her? Did you hear angels…or demons? Did God speak upon returning her to you?”
“Many Gods spoke,” Lord Aeron said. “The Old Gods. They returned her to me from the stars, and I received her with a grateful embrace.”
“Is she phantom or Fae?” Mr. Thenton asked.
“She is the Lady Aeron,” he answered, a dazzling light in his eyes. “She is my wife, my mistress. My raison d’etre.”
It was then that the majordomo entered, his cane clacking in front of him. “Master,” he said. “You must…see to your lady’s needs.”
Lord Aeron stood, then, and walked to door. He paused. “A while longer, sirs, and I will invite you further into my confidence. I am eager for your…shared intimacy. It would please each of us, assuredly.”
Lord Aeron left, then, but the majordomo tarried a moment longer. He spoke to us with words of courtesy, but a tone of gruff intolerance.
“I have had your effects taken and placed in the main bedchamber. Forgive me if I did not arrange your easel to your satisfaction, but I have little experience with them.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I am sure it is satisfactory.”
“And my parchment and ink?” inquired Mr. Thenton.
“They are prepared as well,” the old man said. “I have had a small writing desk fetched for you, and a chair.”
“That is most thoughtful,” Mr. Thenton said.
The majordomo bowed and then turned to leave. In the flickering light of a nearby brazier I saw, with no small astonishment, that the old man’s eyes were milky with cataracts. It seemed odd, truly, that a half-blind man with a cane should be the only member of the staff present. Stranger still was the realization that I had seen no other servants throughout the mansion, though I was certain this old, crippled man could not have prepared our effects or our meal without assistance. The absence of Lord Aeron’s staff puzzled me. Indeed, their absence crowded that dark palace with an emptiness pregnant with apprehensive misgivings. Disturbed, I voiced my concerns to my friend. He dismissed them outright, albeit in his unfailingly friendly tone.
“The best servants are never seen nor heard unless needed,” he said. “Just as the best subjects of Great Britain are to be devoted to orderly industry in the pursuit of the empire’s betterment without all that utterly French rabble and rebellion.”
“So we are to be as children,” I said, offended. “Neither seen nor heard, but always at beck and call?”
“With gratitude, too, of course,” my friend said. “That is the best arrangement, yes. But if you dislike that comparison, you may think of your Ireland as being a wife to the empire. Ever devoted to the King and awaiting his loving embrace with her domestic duties quietly fulfilled.”
“It is no wonder,” I said, “that Emma attends so many balls during your prolonged absences.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, utterly oblivious.
“Nothing,” I said, “except that the Natural order of things must take precedent.”
“Indeed!” he said, blithely and oblivious. “For I am a Naturalist.”
“And so is Emma,” I said, “in her own way.”
Mr. Thenton and I sat thereafter in silence until Lord Aeron returned. I felt that I had sufficiently been dried by the fire, and that my wit had never been drier. But irony is always lost on the patriotic, so I felt it a futile enterprise to endeavor it anymore. And, to the point, the gleam in Lord Aeron’s eye sobered me of my resentful jests soon enough.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “my wife is ready to meet you now.”
With a sense of great foreboding I followed Lord Aeron through his manorhouse. Once again I was confronted by those strange murals on the walls with their predatory gods and goddesses. I felt myself shrivel as a man and shrink away inside myself, not unlike a mouse in the looming shadow of a cat.
The winds bellowed through the halls like restless spirits. Lightning clapped and crackled. Thunder boomed like the angry roar of a god. Lord Aeron escorted us again to the central courtyard, that strange bedchamber with its spiraling stucco ceiling and glass-eyed dome. It seemed to somehow have grown colder in that palace, despite the warm gales invading the halls with their summer-storm breath.
Arriving into the domed room, we were met by a startling and improper sight: a woman standing denuded near the large bed. Propriety demanded that I look away, and yet the woman’s command of my gaze was stronger. Seeing her there was to see Botticelli’s Venus standing upon her clam, ensorcelling the mind with her nymphal figure. Her skin was unnaturally pale and her eyes wholly black— otherworldly black. Her hair was long, trailing like a black and silken veil down her back, undulating as if alive. She was comely, I could not deny; perhaps the comeliest woman I had ever beheld. Nor do I say that lightly, for I am ever faithfully fond of my wife and her pretty make. Yet, the Lady Aeron was of another class of beauty, frankly one which she inhabited in unrivaled solitude. The old masters would have wept for her embrace—philanderers, sodomites and pederasts alike. Even I found myself hungering for her embrace, hot beneath my clothing while a bitter coldness emanated from her pale, lissome form. My whole being wished to warm her flesh with my own flesh, to entwine her frigid essence with my warm-blooded body, even while I instinctively sensed the mortal dangers therein entailed. Her whole being was a siren song sweetly beckoning me toward the craggy rocks. I knew of the rocks and yet my flesh did not care to be shredded if it meant caressing that pale bosom, however briefly.
Clutching me back from the impulse was the image of my wife and my children. My Irish temper, ironically, was the vice that proved my virtue, and I ripped my eyes from her body with a violent jerk of my head, resentful that I should be tempted to the brink of my character. So weak was I afterwards, however, that I had to lean against a column, shivering as I recovered my self-control and my steady pulse.
As to my colleague, Mr. Thenton, I dared not look at him for fear of an eye alighting again on that carnal sorceress; that Snow Queen.
“This is my wife, gentlemen,” Lord Aeron said, his eye gleaming in mad triumph. “She is whom I lost and won from a cold and indifferent star beyond the light of our own. She is the love of flesh. She is the pain of loss. She is the queen of meaning in the barren womb of existence. I call her desire. I call her bliss. You may call her Malia, for her love is a ‘bitter sea’. Now tell me, and tell me true— do you sincerely believe you can capture her beauty by ink or paint or word or song?”
We retired from the Lady Aeron’s bedchambers in distraught retreat. I was distressed to my core as we left that blasphemous bordello. Lord Aeron assured us that we would eventually inculcate ourselves to his Lady’s overwhelming effect, given time and exposure. I did not believe this. A man may acclimate himself to the icy bite of winter, or the balmy kiss of summer, but not to that season that exists within and apart of the two: desire.
Mr. Thenton and I were shown to our rooms. The guest rooms were comfortable and pleasant, each with a fire stoked in their hearths and a few candles lit on their holders. I assumed that the fleet-footed servants of the manor had prepared everything while we were otherwise preoccupied. A decanter of wine awaited me on the table next to the canopied bed. This I gratefully drank from, albeit sparingly, and then readied myself for bed.
Through the window I noted that the clouds had parted and the moon appeared in her full white glow, disrobed of the storm like Lady Aeron of her modesty. I used the lavatory to wash my face, but the splash of cold water did not awaken me from the enchantment of the Lady’s black eyes. She haunted me even then, and I worried that she would haunt me for the rest of my life.
I laid myself down in bed and stared out the window at the cold, indifferent stars. Had I been more an Irishman, and less a man of the Age, I might have prayed. Then again, I wonder even now whether I would have prayed to the Trinity or to that bewitching creature with her pale skin and black eyes. One deity seemed more real than the other, and that was not simply because I was an apostate who valued what his eyes shown him more than what any holy man might postulate. My eyes closed, I could see her still, her visage unbroken behind my eyelids. She was branded upon my mind, a scorched scar in the more bestial region of my brain. My thoughts sought her like the Holy Grail, and dreaded her like the kiss of Circe.
For an hour or more I tossed and turned, and to no avail. I sat up in bed, blinking my eyes in earnest, and yet never dismissing the image of Lady Aeron…Malia…from either eyelid or waking eye. I stood up and drank a draught of wine. It burned hot and sweetly and my anxiety only intensified. I had to exercise this possessive demoness lest it overrule my restraint with her goatish passions.
My easel and paints remained in the domed courtyard—with a canvas covered in my preliminary painting—but my bag of sketching materials had been brought into the guest room by the unseen servants. I rummaged through the bag for adequate materials. I required something dark and menacing and strong in its contrasts, so I fetched out the charcoal and the parchment. Then, with a memory branded unto scarring with her image, I attempted to exorcize the demoness and capture her upon the page. I translated her physical features with dutiful accuracy, but found I could not capture her exotic expression. Upon further reflection I realized that the eyes were rendered incorrectly. Indeed, I had failed to record the eyes with the same hollow, alluring depth of hunger that burned so lividly within Lady Aeron’s black orbs. I set aside the sketch and drank again from the wine decanter. My brain was afire with intense restlessness. There was something akin to hysteria upon me, and it would not abate nor could I abide it. I knew I would not sleep restively that night; not without hurling myself into the sea and cooling those lusty fires with cold, suffocating saltwater.
Suddenly there came, with startling clarity, the sounds of groans through the mansion. They were a strange, bestial volley of sounds, not unlike goats or horses in rut. I would have deemed the sounds aberrations of my fevered mind had not they come again, more loudly than before.
Disturbed, I went to my door and pressed my ear there, straining to hear. To my dismay, I could hear something akin to beasts given to the breeding season. Cautiously, I pushed the door open and peered out, listening to the grunts and snorts echoing down that dark hallway. Stepping out of my room, I crossed the hall and rapped on my colleague’s door, knowing that I would be less fearful in seeking out the source of the ruckus while accompanied. But Mr. Thenton did not answer me. I assumed he was fast asleep. He was, after all, a man known to sleep better than dead men, however inhospitable the conditions. In the midst of an Indian expedition he had slept a whole night without ever rousing, despite the jungle’s otherworldly sounds and discomforts. A tiger had roared in the night, and set the locals to trembling, and yet, as we all huddled near the fire for mutual protection, he remained in his tent, oblivious to the dangers stalking between the trees.
Nonetheless, I knocked at his door once more, hoping that he was as restless as I and so disturbed beyond his normal routine. But he did not answer. Unheeded, I turned away.
The manorhouse was eerily silent except for the voices. The voices redoubled, their urgency frightening. Alone, I followed them through the hall, coming to the domed courtyard at its center. I stood by the door to that expansive room, my eyes once again enchanted by that perfect female form as it gyrated in the moonlight shining down through the oculus; moonlight showering her figure and the figure pinned beneath her on the bed.
Merciless illumination! Maddening revulsion! Shameful fascination! My mind was at war with my loins. Lady Aeron was straddling Mr. Thenton in amorous congress, and Lord Aeron stood to the side of the bed, feverish in his onanism.
I felt horror, and I am ashamed to confess that I felt lust, too, and the hollow ache of envy. How I yearned to be the one beneath her! To be conjoined to her beauty, however briefly! She was desire itself. She was lust and appetite and base instinct unified. Yet, even in my ardor for her I noticed, with some bafflement, that her face was utterly devoid of expression. There was no ecstacy or pleasure, in either human or animal form, nor did she make the same bestial noises that Mr. Thenton and Lord Aeron issued in their passions. She was as unfeeling as the winter’s snow, and as horrifically cruel. A sumptuous paradox of
There came a nausea as I watched her, and a dawning terror, for my keen eyes were meticulous in the minutiae of form, even while my conscious mind had yet to observe and recognize the transmogrification that was taking place. It was Mr. Thenton’s reaction that corroborated my leaping fear. His mad smile of joy and his groans of pleasure abruptly exploded into a howl of pain. He fought to push Lady Aeron aside, and yet he could not. She held him fast beneath her quivering thighs like the talons of a hawk upon the sparrow.
And then the change came. There unfolded from her womanly form a monstrous array of corpulent tendrils belying her lithe dimensions, spreading profusely with a serpentine elasticity. These appendages wrinkled as they writhed, the smooth skin spoiling like curdling milk, and there arose a terrible odor that both aroused and repulsed my most primitive instincts. It permeated my rational mind and infected the deeper folds of the brain, arresting the fight or flight response that Nature has given all animals with the sufficient evolutionary adaptations.
Immobilized, I stood as if struck to stone by a chance glance from Medusa. I was unable to look away and so bore unwilling witness to her terrible transformation atop her wretched victim. What she became invoked conflicted images of a beast of unknown fathoms and even more mysterious heights. The appendages coiled about my patron and were working beastly contortions upon him while the great maw fed upon his yet-living body. His howls of pain were choked with hemorrhaging from his mouth. Elsewhere he hemorrhaged likewise, the white sheets of the bed stained crimson beneath Lady Aeron’s vestigial thighs.
And all the while Lord Aeron watched eagerly from the side of the bed, engaged in onanism while his nightmarish wife coiled about the helpless man and fed.
I must have screamed— surely I screamed— for Lord Aeron looked to me while still engaged in his self-gratification.
“She is a gift of the Old Gods,” he said. “Commune with her. Become one with her!”
I fled then, running through that dark country manor, heedless of where I went so long as it was far away. So swept away was I that I took a wrong turn and found myself along the terraces. The open air restored to me some semblance of clear-eyed sanity as I stared down the disorienting pathways into the gardens.
Then came the servants of the Aeron household. They stumbled together, like a gaggle of blind geese. They were boys, their lolling heads sightless as they listened for me. Each had been scarred across their foreheads and noses with wounds consistent with frost-bite. They moved as one, as if puppeteered by a single mind. Their mouths opened, as one, and uttered my name with an inhuman voice.
I hurled myself down the paths and the terraces, fleeing past those strangely shorn yew trees and those gleefully unmanned statues. I came to the hedges and flung myself through them. Onward into the night I ran, like a dog stricken mad by moonlight.
By the time I stopped running I was on the rugged country road that led into the village. This I followed until I came to the town’s inn. I awoke the innkeeper by pounding on the door and told him what I had witnessed. Thinking back on it, I doubt he understood half of the words I sputtered, but my affrighted condition must have informed him enough. He told me that all of the villagers knew of Lord Aeron’s unholy visitor. Many of them had lost children to the house, each child branded by the Lady’s touch. Many more feared that their older sons would be selected for the “honor” of her congress. I asked them why they had not slain that terrible creature.
“What can we do,” he asked, “when it fears neither fire nor blade nor bullet nor holy word?”
“Then send word to Court,” I said, made too desperate by what I had witnessed to think rationally. “Notify the authorities. Notify the King if you have to!”
The innkeeper merely shook his head. “You are an Irishman, sir,” he said. “Do you truly think anyone of rank in Great Britain would care for us in our time of need?”
I relented, then, though my mind was frenzied with fear. The innkeeper allowed me to stay in one of his unoccupied rooms that night. I could not sleep, and every shadow seemed to roil with protean horrors.
On the morrow I left that cursed province and returned home, to Dublin, as swiftly as the winds could usher me by boat. Upon my return, I kissed my wife and hugged my children and strolled through my beloved countryside to ease my soul. I did not report the incident to anyone for fear it would not be received credibly, and would impugn my reputation and, by extension, damage my family’s well-being. I sought only to cleanse myself of the terrible encounter. To forget, I thought, would be to save myself.
Yet, the thing that was Lady Aeron haunted me. I could not appease that horrible recollection except in rendering her monstrous visage in inks and paints. Even so, there have been times when no amount of exorcism could rid me of her nightmarish assemblage. I have seen her with my eyes closed, in the dead of night when the shades lay heavy on my house. I have seen her with my eyes open, in the glow of midday while my children play and my wife kisses my cheek. I see her still, even now. I cannot escape the image of her.
This is the account you have asked me to write. I must confess that I did not think you would believe me, yet I am compelled to chronicle it regardless of the credence you lend it. You have seen my paintings, and I swear that my paintings cling to truthful representation. Hang me, if you so desire it, but know that I did not kill my colleague, Mr. Thenton. Know that you hang an innocent man and that you leave my children fatherless and my wife a wretched widow. And know that Lord Aeron is a liar. People disappear daily in his province and yet the Crown does nothing to depose him. He mocks you all in his poetry and rejoices in the iniquities of his home, yet you refuse the confessions written boldly in his own hand; his boasts of peopling the earth with his wife’s offspring. I hope it comes to pass that you are readying yourselves for bed at night and you pick up one of his books and you remember my paintings as you read his verse. I hope you see the ink writhe and the letters crawl and you glimpse Lady Aeron’s pale face haunting you inescapably within the margins. I hope you see her black eyes and her alabaster bosom and her quivering thighs and you feel the hunger of her embrace!