The Return of Scaramouche

PREFACE

There is something haunting and otherworldly about silent film stills.  With their stark woodcut contrasts and the pools of shadows beneath their silvery surfaces, they offer a glimpse of magic, a window into a bygone world.  Caught between flickers of darkness even briefer than the blinking of the eye, they freeze and preserve the action, a cellular microcosm of the artform itself, which was a new technology for capturing light and preserving time.  Each still is a relic of an age when that new artform was coming into full flower, just before the instant in which it would be eradicated by another technology, the invention of synchronized sound recording. 

It was an age, not entirely unlike our own, when a burst of creative energy over the world was redefining and transforming reality, mediating between the real and unreal, the dream and wakening.  That is part of the function of art, and it has always has been.  But here, the new technological artform was fusing all of the other existing artforms for the first time— painting, dance, theater, poetry, novels, and music, and doing it on a scale that required combined human effort and a coordination of artistic talent that had been unseen since the building of the great cathedrals.

A peculiar, ghost-like aura emanates from silent film stills when the rest of the film has been lost.  And then– there is an even more eerie aura from stills where the movie started production, and then was halted.  The stills from these cancelled motion pictures are particularly arresting in the way they tease the imagination with poignant glimpses into an infinite variety of final products they might have become; conjuring dreamlike masterpieces for the viewer, though they might as easily have devolved into catastrophic failures, or they might have been a blend of everything between masterpiece and total crap; though the reality is, what they became is nothing, and forgotten nothing at that. 

Here are two such stills.  They came from the legendary (and nonexistent) “Return of Scaramouche, or A Rogue in the Henhouse.”  

Following the enormous success of Rex Ingram’s “Scaramouche”, which made a star of Ramon Navarro, the public was clamoring for a sequel.  The project was fast-tracked, sight unseen, on the basis of the mere concept.  Rex Ingram agreed to once again act as producer and director.  The author, the famed Raphael Sabatini, penned a treatment.  But Ingram didn’t care for the treatment, and backed out.  Sabatini also backed out, though he would later turn his treatment into a novel, “Scaramouche the Kingmaker,” which appeared after a considerable delay, only to be greeted by the public with far less enthusiasm than the original. 

Still, the studio owned rights to the concept of a Scaramouche sequel, along with rights to use the fantastic character of Andre-Louis Moreau—the chimerical polymath—attorney, statesman, playwright, poet, master swordsman, masked adventurer, and eternal archetype, along with his alter-ego, Scaramouche. 

In 1925, the studio turned the project over to two newcomers to the industry, Miriam C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who worked as a team on both production and direction.  They recruited special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien to provide a darker, gothic version of one of his early shorts— “Prehistoric Poultry—The Dinornis; or Great Roaring Whiffenpoof.”  From there, production veered into the peculiar realms dominated by the great German expressionists, like Paul Leni, Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, and F.W. Murnau.

Willis O’Brien quit the project early on to work on his adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World”.  But the sword and sorcery genre would nag at him for years afterward, and he considered making a film version of involving a different “Conan”, the sword wielding barbarian created by Robert E. Howard.  Alas, that project also died shortly after its conception, but that is a different dream, and a different tragedy.    

A new treatment came from a writer whose true identity is still unknown.  One might suspect the handiwork of Robert E. Howard, yet 1925 would have been very early in Howard’s career.  A more likely candidate might be Lord Dunsany, soldier, polymath, chess and pistol champion, nobleman, poet, and playwright, whose real life shockingly resembles that of Andre-Louis Moreau. Lord Dunsany is also one of the fathers of modern fantasy fiction, and is often credited with having written the first modern sword-and-sorcery story, “The Fortress Unvanishable, Save for Sacnoth.” 

The Scaramouche sequel treatment also greatly resembles the setting of Lord Dunsany’s first novel, “Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley,” set in the golden age of Spain, which can’t be determined with any precision, owing to the effects of magic. 

Yet, it is far more likely that the screen treatment for the never-filmed silent Scaramouche sequel came from the unidentified author who would ten years later create “The Twilight Patrol” pulp magazine.

With only a few scenes shot, Ramon Navarro also abruptly quit the Scaramouche sequel to dedicate himself completely to starring role in “Ben-Hur.”  He rode off to become a legend, while the film he abandoned became a mere dream. 

          

The Rogue in the Hen House

“He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad”—   From “Scaramouche”, by Rafael Sabatini

Gaston De Vilmorin’s brief but urgent plea for rescue included a detailed map of a tower in distant Andalucía, and a schedule of internal and external guard movements.  It was either a precise recipe for a quick and effortless escape, or else an obvious trap. 

De Vilmorin asked Andre-Louis Moreau to again take up the mantle of Scaramouche and come to Spain. 

The handwriting undeniably belonged to De Vilmorin, and the message contained codes and secret symbols known only to the sender and the recipient.  There was no doubting the letter’s authenticity.  

Andre-Louis was certain that neither torture nor duress would compromise De Vilmorin’s unshakable honor.  If ever there were a man Moreau could consider his equal in all matters, in integrity, bravery, honor and prowess, it would be Gaston De Vilmorin, the youngest brother of the late Phillipe de Vilmorin, who had been Moreau’s closest friend.  He loved the man as a brother, or a son.  Even the most horrid of threats and torments would never persuade De Vilmorin to compose an instrument of betrayal.

De Vilmorin had been lured to far Andalusia by a potentially lucrative business proposition.  Chickens were a rarity in California, where De Vilmorin had settled, and the price of eggs remained dear, so much so, it was actually cheaper to import them from far off China and Chile.  The markets were starved, and willing to pay a premium.  De Vilmorin foresaw what he called a California gold rush, not based on precious metals or ores, but golden yolks. 

De Vilmorin visited Moreau in England before departing for Spain.  He shared a series of letters from a family of farmers.  They took over what had once been an ancient convent, predating even the Church, in a wild region of Spain, far from any city.  They proudly proclaimed their special expertise, gained by careful scientific study and deep monastic contemplation, resulting in unprecedented, sophisticated poultry farming techniques.  Their secrets had been passed from generation to generation, over the course of centuries.  The family worked in extreme isolation.  Their cloistered devotion to their focused tasks gave rise to a fusion of spirituality and animal husbandry, or so they claimed.  These were the finest chickens ever produced, or so they also claimed.

The religious fervor of this family of poultry farmers proved infectious to De Vilmorin.  He was caught up in a dream of the spiritual pursuit of excellence, the attainment of perfection, here applied artistically to all aspects of breeding, tending, raising and consuming chickens and their eggs.  De Vilmorin hoped to blend this ancient spirit with the entrepreneurial spirit of the New World to produce transcendent wealth.

The letter from De Vilmorin did not say how the mission had gone wrong, nor why he had been taken prisoner.  There was only the plea for aid, and the recipe for how to deliver it. 

Andre-Louis Moreau had entered a comfortable middle age.  His reputation earned him great respect.  His identity as Scaramouche was well known throughout Europe, as were his many exploits under that guise, but Scaramouche was not as well known in far off Spain, and especially not in the wild countryside.  Andre-Louis took down his old rapier from the wall.  He was not yet past his prime, and he was still game for great adventure—particularly when the stakes were so high.

When Andre-Louis arrived at his destination in Andalusia, he found a walled compound, an enclosure considered cursed by the surrounding villages, a vast estate with black towers and turrets. The ground was splattered everywhere with grey and white runny guano. Despite this wealth of dung, nothing green grew here.  The foul-smelling pits seemed to lack the right nutrients.  The guano was searing and horrid, like the excrement of buzzards, giving birth to obscene fungoid eruptions; a sinister sentinel statuary— with prominent purple mushrooms, and moist scarlet clefts in shameful positions.

Upon hearing Andre-Louis’s inquiries, a peasant woman proffered a St. Francis medal.  “Wear this,” she said, “for your mother’s sake.  Never forget what it means and what it stands for.  You would go into desecrated grounds that were once holy, but fell to the worst abuses of the Inquisition.  This place is a terrible reminder that every kind of zeal and devotion can lead to excess and horror.”    

 On this urgent mission to rescue his captive friend, Andre-Louis Moreau charged into the Andalusian tower.  Moreau had adopted the traditional raiment of Scaramouche to achieve greater stealth– black Spanish robes burlesquing a don, rather than the striped garments of a clown. 

With rapier outthrust, Moreau soon found the map he’d been given was all but useless.  He became hopelessly lost in a maze of winding corridors.  There was no one there to fight, nothing but confused, twisting passages, haunted pools of ink, flicking candles, and pale stretches of yellow, dim light.

And women. 

He had come prepared to face armed guards, but found instead disarming beauty.

Each of the women occupied her own sumptuous chamber; and each chamber was hung with feathered curtains and equipped with a beckoning feather bed and a table set with cakes and wine.  The women recited poetry and sang, strutting about, immodestly clad, save for feathery capes, scarves and headdresses, exposing tender flesh.  Such breasts, such thighs, boasting of a long line of voluptuous breeding.  It might have been some extravagant, aristocratic house of ill-repute, yet for all the bared skin, each of the women possessed a quality of unaffected shyness that seemed purely natural, as if it were as much a part of breeding as their striking beauty.  They exuded an aura of genuine innocence, like a collection of Eves, fresh from creation, and unashamed of their natural states. 

Perfumes from an unseen sensor sweetened the air, though the views were entirely uncensored.

Scaramouche had taken De Vilmorin’s letter at its word.  It was a matter of faith, a matter of absolute trust.  He had memorized all directions unfalteringly, reciting them over and over again, like a prayer committed to his heart. 

He had followed the directions exactly.  How could he have possibly lost his way?  Where were the armed guards?  Who were these women?  Their calls, poems, siren coos and murmurs were distracting Scaramouche from what should have been a singular purpose. 

Into what manner of trap had Scaramouche fallen?

He was forced to approach one of the women.  He assumed they were adversaries, lovely as they might be, aligned with the powers who controlled the compound and imprisoned De Vilmorin.  But perhaps the women might provide some aid, or direction.  Perhaps they were prisoners themselves. 

“I am searching for my friend, Gaston De Vilmorin.  I was told to find him here.  Perhaps you know where he might be.”

“I know him.  We all know him.  A jolly fellow.”  The woman smiled pleasantly.  Her golden skin was on opulent display in a manner that would embarrass most women.  It surely embarrassed Scaramouche.  Sensing his discomfort, she adjusted her cape and scarves, but did so in a way that teased and made the view even more tantalizing.   The feathers that adorned her were magnificent, with shimmering colors that rivaled opals and put peacocks to shame, though Scaramouche suspected they had come from exotic chickens. 

“My friend needs me.  I have come a great distance…”  Despite the mask and black cape, despite the rapier in hand, Scaramouche resorted to playing the clownish indifference of his stage character.

“You don’t need to hunt for him.  Instead, stay here with me, and we will have a merry time together.  Gaston De Vilmorin will turn up, eventually.  He always does.”  The woman had an absolutely lovely face, even if her nose was a bit sharp.  The eyes were wide and childlike, though she was clearly not a child.  Even her overt coquettishness seemed naive and unintended.  Yet Andre-Louis had seen many men fall prey to the charms of such seemingly submissive innocents, only to end their married years hopelessly henpecked.

“Perhaps you might join me in my quest for De Vilmorin. and the three of us might do something merry.”

“There is no point in searching, for here, every spot offers the same delights as every other.  It is all the same, and all wonderous.”

“All right, then.  Not that I don’t trust you… not that I don’t have faith… but let me find out for myself.”

Scaramouche swirled his black cape about him and turned.  

The women called to Scaramouche as he proceeded down the corridor.

“Why look for De Vilmorin when I’m right here out in the open and not hiding myself, or anything else?”

“Gaston used to be fun, but that was so long ago, I’d almost forgotten about him.”

“Rest assured— the reason you can’t find dear Gaston is he’s off someplace where he wants privacy.”

“Have a glass of wine with me…”

“Have a slice of sweet pie…”

One of the women simply proffered a plate of succulent coq au vin, then poured wine upon her breasts.

An older woman with silver hair wore capes and scarves of black feathers possessed of a nacreous sheen.  The black attire was a bit more modest, and bestowed upon her the look of a widow.  Or perhaps a mate for Scaramouche.  She fanned herself with tarot cards, stirring her feathers with agitated air.  “Let me tell your fortune,” she said.  “Be guided by the voice of experience.  There’s nothing to be gained by exploring this maze or trying to deduce its hidden course.  This isn’t a regular maze like the one Dedalus solved with string.  There are unseen eyes watching your every step.  The hallways move in an ever-shifting puzzle.”  She spoke in English, which Scaramouche understood well enough, though none of the other women seemed to comprehend.  The accent was distinctly Irish. 

Scaramouche stopped.  He lowered his sword, pressing the point to the ground.  He leaned toward the silver haired woman.  “You make a most compelling offer,” he said, smiling wistfully.  “I am suddenly very hungry.  I will dine with you…”  At once he made a sudden sweeping movement of his black clad arms and a broad smile danced the tips of his lips.  “I am a man of great appetites.  But before thinking of my own needs, my own selfish wants and desires, there is a sacred duty I must first perform.”  His voice boomed now, resounding through the stony, dark maze.  “I promise to sit down to dinner and wile away the hours with the woman who unites me with my missing friend, the good Gaston De Vilmorin!”

The women all charged at one another, each one now demanding the honor of assisting Scaramouche.  A furious fight erupted.  Claws were out, raking the air.  Feathers flew.  The capes and shawls were rent, ending the last scant vestiges of modesty in a violent, bloody display. 

“Stop at once!” shouted Scaramouche.  His rapier loudly cut the air.  He danced, whirling his sword, interposing himself in the midst of the battling women, forcing them to separate and cease their vicious squabbling. 

Scaramouche said, “Obviously, this is a challenging task.  Obviously, it demands that each of you apply your own special gifts.  Your own special talents.” Scaramouche put on a delighted grin as feathers poured upon him, as if he had been caught in a blizzard of birds.  “It is the kind of task that requires all of to work together in a great festival of cooperation, yes?  We will all apply ourselves to the single goal of finding De Vilmorin.  We will find him together, and then we will all dine together.  And then… and then indeed… what a merry time we shall all have together.  In truth, all of you are so lovely, I could never choose between you.  And so, it would be my greatest pleasure to know you all.”

Somewhat mollified, the women fanned out in all directions, their lanterns and their large, eager eyes questing into the shadows.

With all of their concerted efforts, the search did not take long.  Excited shouts trumpeted their discovery throughout the tunnels.

De Vilmorin lay collapsed in a darkened corner.  Since last Scaramouche had seen him, De Vilmorin had swollen to grotesque proportions such that his form scarcely looked human.  His bloating seemed more profound that mere fat.  He had inflated like a bladder.  Perhaps he suffered from an advancing buildup of funereal gases, even though the man yet lived.  Alive, he was, but barely.  His flesh strained against the bonds of dirty clothes that threatened to rip under pressure, a mockery of a feat De Vilmorin used to perform by flexing his sinews.  Beneath a nose gone yellow with jaundice and puss, his cracked lips and chin were interlaced with blackened gangrenous veins.  He seemed unable to raise himself as Scaramouche approached.

“Quick, fetch broth and bread,” shouted Scaramouche.  He shuddered to contemplate the horrors that wrought this transformation.     

“Broth and bread?  Nay!” protested De Vilmorin.  “Wine!  Strong wine!  And cake!”

The silver-haired tarot reader flew to De Vilmorin’s side.  She quickly lifted the lid of an ancient-looking crock and took out a foul-smelling morsel.  “This will serve him better than bread or broth or wine or cake” 

Scaramouche winced at the stench, pulling the tarot-reader away from his friend. 

“Don’t defile his deathbed with witchcraft,” said Scaramouche. 

“True enough, she’s a witch, that one,” said De Vilmorin.  “But she’s the best of all of them.  Brigid.  Saint and Goddess.  This one has wisdom that goes beyond good and evil.  This one has knowledge of what sets the world right.  She has the magic to fulfill your deepest desire.  You can trust her completely, I swear.  I would trust her with my life… whatever is left of it.  I’d trust her with…”

The woman pushed back, and thrust the morsel– whatever it was (for now it appeared to be wriggling) — into De Vilmorin’s mouth.

De Vilmorin gasped.  His cheeks flushed.  The light flickered in his eyes.  He seemed to immediately gain strength and energy, so quickly and so surprisingly, it seemed the sudden shock would kill him more certainly than his previous dissipation. 

“Now bring wine and cake!  I’m finished, no matter what.  I don’t want to die with the taste of bitterness in my mouth…”

Scaramouche cried, “By all that is holy, I swear you shall be avenged.  Who has brought you to this ghastly end?  Who rules this… this… this monstrous place?”

“My old friend… there is no villainy here.  Alas, I die of my own excess.  And I die happy.  It is a grand and glorious death.  As deeply fulfilling and purposeful a death as any man can ask.  And as for this place—can’t you see what it is?  It is a utopia!”

“But your letter… your desperate plea for rescue…”

“I knew it was the only way to get you here.  I had to appeal to your selfless nature—a chance to do a noble deed for someone else.  But in truth, I brought you here as a reward for all the good you have done for others.  Can’t you see, there is a paradise of delights here.  Not only are there pleasures beyond your wildest imaginings—there is moral purpose here as well.  There is a sense of fulfillment, the performance of sacred duties.”

“Have you gone mad?”

“I have been performing a vital function here.  Pleasurable, to be certain, but absolutely essential to maintaining a vanishing way of life.  But I fell ill, and I’m dying—my own fault, I admit it—but I am dying none the less.  I could think of no one more worthy and no one more fit to take my place than my oldest and dearest friend.”

“Now, I think I understand exactly what you propose.  I pray I am wrong.  I would wish for a better final judgement of you, De Vilmorin.”

“There is a very old family in charge of this estate.  The perfect chickens they produce have brought them untold wealth and hidden power.  They work in the shadows, zealously guarding their secrets.”

“I want no part of this…”

“There is a deep and moral purpose in pursuing perfection.  Perfection in art.  Perfection in science.  Perfection in swordplay.  Perfection in making love.  It doesn’t matter what form perfection takes.  There is virtue and unity in all manner of perfection.  And in the end, it is the striving that matters, even more than the perfect end it produces. 

“To achieve perfection, one must shut out the rest of the world.  The ancient monks who first built this place understood the way to achieve perfection– perfect communion with the infinite and the way to rise above the hostile nature that lies outside these walls.”

Scaramouche said, “Life thrives on that which has been shut out from this tower.  All the uncertainties, the discomforts, the pains and eternal, the confusing contradictions and paradoxes—the constant changes that are the only constants.” 

“Life thrives… And death thrives! But both change their meaning in pursuit of perfection!  Even very nature of time itself changes in pursuit of perfection!”

“Oh, Gaston!  You are speaking to a man who has seen countless horrors undertaken by the Revolution in their pursuit of perfection.”   

“Part of the secret to breeding the perfect chicken– an important part of the secret—is the steadfast loyalty and devoted care of the finest men and women trained from birth for that single-minded goal and selectively bred to pursue it.”

“So, these women…”

“All of them bred for breeding…”

“And this is my reward?  To play the part of a prize cock?”

“You’ll thank me, once you surrender your old notions of how life should be led.”

“I have loved you like a son, De Vilmorin.  I have given so much, and risked everything I have to travel to your rescue, trusting, blindly, in your good faith.  Oh, you have broken my heart.”

“You will thank me, in the end.  I did this for love, Andre-Louis.  In truth, I have delivered you to paradise.”

“So said the inquisitors, whose crimes still taint this tower.”

The words seemed to wound De Vilmorin.  He winced with agony at their utterance.  The pain showed in his eyes, even as they glazed over.

The man was finished.  No sooner death had finished its grim theatrics, and taken its final bow, then Scaramouche was at once besieged by chattering women and ruffled feathers.

“You promised to dine with us,” protested a woman caped with cuckoo patterns. 

Scaramouche was weak with hunger and heartbreak.  He burned with thirst and confusion.  He was completely surrounded, and his weapon was useless, for there was surely no way to wield it without harming the lovelies who blocked his way.  He surrendered.  He had made a promise, and Scaramouche was a man of his word.

The women conducted Scaramouche to a grand banquet hall, where a feast had been laid out upon a long table. 

Scaramouche ate and drank, biding his time, but ever studying his surroundings, seeking an escape route. 

The women plied him with wine.  There was nothing else to drink, and his thirst would not abate.  The women cooed softly to him.  They lulled him with sweet reassurances, striving for a deeper surrender than the one he’d already made.

Silver-haired Brigid waited until Scaramouche was very drunk, then she nudged aside the beauties who flanked him.  She engaged his attention with her enchanting emerald eyes.  Again, she spoke in English.  “I can give you something none of the others are capable of giving.  I can give you the very thing you most passionately desire.”  She spread out before him her deck of Tarot cards.

“Card tricks?  A hypothetical future based on educated guesses about the type of man I might be?”

“I know exactly what kind of man you are.  And I know what you want, whether you will admit it or not.”

“What secrets have the cards revealed?”

“Escape!”

“Ah!  You read me well.”

“Escape is all you want right now.  It is the sole focus of your being, letting you shut out all the tempting distractions that would otherwise undo your purpose.  But for you, my prize, there is only one way to escape this place.  You must do exactly everything I say—no matter what.”

“There must be limits to our bargain.”

“Absolutely not.  You must trust me completely.”

“No doubt there will be a price to pay, in the end.”

“Trust to it.”

“Trust is especially difficult right now, since I had so lately trusted De Vilmorin completely, and found that trust completely betrayed.”

“Still, this is my demand.  You have no other means to leave this place.  Take my word for it.”

“Trust you?  De Vilmorin had counselled me to trust you, for whatever that is worth.  My own instincts are confused as to your trustworthiness, yet those same instincts tell me that you are indeed my only means of escape.  It seems a choice that is only an illusion of choice.  But you are right, and escape is all I desire, and the sole focus of my very being at the moment.  I would say I would not sell my soul to escape—not an unreasonable limit, otherwise, for it is the highest risk of all– but my every instinct says my soul would be lost were I to remain in this place.  I am completely in your hands.  I am committed to your care.  And so, we have an agreement.”

“And you are a man of your word.”

“Trust to it,” said Scaramouche, and he laughed.

From the woman’s feathery cloak, she extracted a dagger.  “I want your oath in writing.  I want it in blood.”  She carved words upon the oaken tabletop, then with a flick of her wrist, sliced the forefinger of Scaramouche’s right hand. 

“We both know who demands a contract signed in blood.”

“I do,” said Brigid.  “I do!”

Scaramouche sighed.  With a quick gesture, he painted his name in bloody letters beneath Brigid’s carved words. 

She replaced her dagger and withdrew a flask.  “Hold your breath,” she whispered to Scaramouche.  As she pried loose the cap, green fumes churned upward in a foreboding shade.  It reeked of alchemy and witchcraft, a stink that penetrated the eye and infected the mind.  The effects were instantaneous.  The surrounding women twisted around, stunned, then staggering.  A plague of weariness weakened their knees. 

Scaramouche and Brigid took flight.  Some of women attempted to block their way, but quickly collapsed in a deep sleep.  Others tried grasping with claws outstretched, but slumber overtook them as well.

Brigid hustled Scaramouche to a hidden passage. 

Scaramouche said to Brigid, “It was you who lured De Vilmorin here.  You sent him the letters.  I recognized your handwriting when you carved our contract upon the table.”

“In truth, he got what he most desired.”

“You are still in league with the powers that control this place.”

“And you swore an oath—in blood—to trust me completely.”

“How can I trust you when everything I see shows me that I should not.”

“Close your eyes to the deceits that are everywhere, and search your heart for faith!”

Scaramouche grew quiet and thoughtful, then he said, “I swore an oath, and I am a man of my word.  But I am the kind of man who will not let even unquestioning devotion go unquestioned.”

“Yes.  The kind of man who is clever with words, capable of twisting plain meaning into witty nonsense.”

“Touché,” he said.  “If this were swordplay instead of mere banter, you’d have drawn blood.”

“I am in deadly earnest.  It is no mere banter when I speak of trust and faith.  And I have already drawn blood.”

“I would not have taken you for a woman of faith.  Let me know you better that I might not be so hard pressed to fulfill my oath– in spirit and not just in conduct, for the two are ever twined.”

“Think you not that I am spiritual?  I am named for a saint.”

“An Irish saint.  So, you are Irish?”

“I was born right here, and raised right here, and this has ever been my only nation.  But I am sensitive to things about the world outside.  Sensitive in ways my sisters are not.  Because of my mother.  She was Irish, and she was cast out of her own country.  Because of me.  And because of the powers she believed in.”

“Ah…”

“Those powers brought about a spiritual awakening.  She asked them for paradise.  Divinations and magics brought her here.  She taught me her tongue, and her ways.  She taught me to sing a song composed by the saint herself.”

Brigid began to sing:   

“I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.
White cups of love I’d give them
With a heart and a half…

         “I was named for the patron saint of…”

    “Bastards,” said Moreau bitterly, for it was the saint who presided over his own birth.

“Bastards.  And sailors.  And chicken farmers.  Think you not that I am deeply spiritual?”

“I meant only…”

“I know what you meant.  Brigid is also the name of an Irish goddess, who also represents chicken farmers.  But also, poetry. 

“…I’d sit with the men, the women and God
There by the lake of beer.
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.

My mother told me that the saint and the goddess were the same.  What think you of that kind of spirit?”

“I think… I think I don’t have words for what I think.”

“There’s poetry in silence.  The goddess would approve.”

At the end of the dark passage, the pair arrived at a gigantic oaken door.  The lock was tarnished, and obviously long unused, for it was choked with centuries worth of dusty spiderwebs, all dirty with the sucked-out bulbs and fragile legs of uncountable victims.

Brigid reached within her dark cloak.  She smiled cunningly, and extracted a key.  She seemed very pleased with herself, though the key seemed more rust than iron, and hopelessly misshaped by time.

Scaramouche said, “Heaven help us if this key represents our greatest hope of freedom.”

“Your promise!”

He raised an eyebrow sardonically.  “I would trust that the oath in which I am locked will have a trustworthy key.”

She defiantly stabbed her key into the lock and twisted as if it were a dagger questing for bowels.  It crumbled into dust the color of old blood.

Scaramouche then tested the lock with an actual dagger.  The lock yield for a moment, and seemed to click open.  Then there was a grinding, horrible sound, and the ancient tumblers jammed upon one another. 

Scaramouche seized a carved mahogany side-table. He pulled off a leg and used it like a club to strike the unyielding lock.  There was a brief burst of red dust, and the old lock fell apart in much the same way the key had. 

A foul yellow-white and green-brown mush seeped through the hole in the door where the lock had been.  It reeked of poisonous sewage.  Scaramouche smacked it aside, using the table leg.

Scaramouche asked, “Is this still the best path to our salvation, since I trust you completely, and without question.”  He could not conceal an undercurrent of mockery.

Brigid grimaced, and hesitated.  “Yes.  This is the best way to go.”

Scaramouche pried the door open.

A gigantic mass of the foul substance slowly poured forth in a gelatinous crawl, interlaced with fluid rivulets.  Scaramouche and Brigid gagged at the stench.  They were forced to retreat, just barely outrunning the wretched tide.  Scaramouche overturned furnishings and drapery, putting obstacles behind them to block the rolling horror.

At last, the fleeing pair reached a narrow passage.  Scaramouche slammed a heavy door and bolted it, damming up the damnable.

Leaning against the heavy door, trying to catch his breath, though his chest was heavy and burning from the foul fumes, Scaramouche asked of Brigid, “So, am I now released of my oath, since you failed to deliver on your promise?”

“Your very question tells me you have already gone back on your word.  I have not failed.  We are both still alive, and there is yet another door, and another key.”

“Then, I trust you to get it.”

“Getting the other key is more fraught with peril.”

As they moved from tunnel to tunnel, searching for signs in the baroque maze, they found chickens crowded together in nesting boxes.  In some places, the chickens covered the floors, and it was a delicate matter to dance around them and their droppings. 

The further they went, the more the surrounding space opened up.  The chickens were becoming less densely packed.  It was easier to breathe.  Brigid lit a torch, and a pale, wavering light beckoned the way forward. 

She conducted Scaramouche through the maze.

Off in the distance, there were chickens and their attendants calling to one another, sounding alarms from tower to tower around the compound.  They could hear the sound of scuttling claws, and marching feet. Swords and spurs were being sharpened on whetstones.

The chickens roaming around seemed fatter, and larger, comfortably clucking, cooing, and boastfully crowing, with more oils shining on brightly-colored feather patterns.  The further they travelled, the differences became more and more pronounced.  The chickens began to appear in elaborate costuming.  The pampered birds regarded their surroundings with dull, benign indifference, not entirely unlike the flaccid expressions on De Vilmorin’s face on his deathbed, the cold floor.  Not even the passing of Scaramouche and Brigid seemed worthy of their attention.  It seemed a grotesque parody of the conditions in various quarters of Paris before the revolution— an unjust allocation of luxury and misery. 

Brigid conducted Scaramouche into the grandest bower of the enclosure.  On all sides, there were armed guards.

“Another door, you said.  Another key.  This is where complete unquestioning trust has brought me.”

“Here is the door,” said Brigid.  “Here is the key.”

 An enormous old bird, about four feet across, perched god-like upon a golden throne.  It was a sort of whiffenpoof, an unnamable creature born of imagination, far larger and grander than any chicken, though if it had to be given a name, it most closely resembled a rooster.  Scars shone through torn but opulent golden feathers.  His eyes were full of cloudy rainbows, obviously blind, but jeweled with dreams from ancient times.  He wore the spurs of a fighting cock, though all of the fight had gone out of him.

“He is the door.  He is the key.”

All around the old king rooster—the cock-god—an entourage of elite aristocratic chickens were greedily gobbling worms and other tidbits from the outstretched hands of servile attendants, the human chicken tenders. The birds were strutting, and pawing, displaying their finery and spurs, greedily clinging to the privileges of rank without putting forth any effort to earn it.      

Brigid drank from another of her many vials, then spoke to the old bird in a language of coos and clucks.  The bird answered her with similar sounds, and crowing.  At first Scaramouche thought she was trying to soothe him, but was astonished to find this exchange was supposed to represent a conversation.  She took another drink from the vial, which smelled even worse than any of the others. 

“What is this latest potion?” asked Scaramouche. 

“Something made from the mushrooms that abound outside.  Something that pulls back the curtains of the mind, something that worked miracles for oracles of ancient times… and poets.”

“Perhaps something that plays tricks as old as time upon the minds of poets and oracles.”

Brigid began to interpret for the cock.  Another sign of her witchery—or madness.

The cock was a god, of some manner, or so Brigid claimed, “He is a god who had been so much like the others of his kind until he awoke one day, to see a revelation, a bright new truth like the rising of the sun. 

“Perhaps he had eaten of the forbidden tree as man did at the dawn of time, or perhaps he conversed with a traveler from the stars come to give aid to his brethren.  He doesn’t even remember himself, for it was so very long ago.

“But he does recall a bargain being made between his kind and mankind.  Back then, this cock was of the same ilk as yourself— a bold, passionate, fearless warrior.  He understood his role as spokesman to mankind, for he was the only one capable of bridging the language gap back in those ancient times.    

“Man claimed sole authority for stewardship of world, and the power and insight to lord over all other creatures, granted to him by the one who made All.  And upon this foundation, and based on this understanding, thus, a bargain was struck.

“For his part, he thought it meant that man would carefully tend to him and his kind, and that his sons would be fighters, fierce and cunning.  True, they would have battle in bitter and bloody games, and to the death—but the fights would be fair, with untold rewards for the victors, and pleasuring with many hens.  It was promised that his kind would spread to all corners of the world and outnumber all other birds.  So, it was promised.  And thus, it has come to pass.  But not exactly as promised.

“For the nation of the cock has grown plump and stupid with pampering, forgetting even their soaring gift of flight, even in moments of crisis.  And the flock— all of their kind— is now prized less for the virtues of its cocks, and more for the virtues of docile hens and lifeless eggs.  And their kind now dies in parodies of bravery, surrendering, willingly, unafraid of the knife, as if it were yet another gift of feed, submitting so witlessly, their bodies scarcely know they have died. 

“And so, the old immortal god-cock schemed over centuries to undo the bargain wherein he traded wings and ferocity for pleasure and coddling.  He engineered a means to even out the bargain, to make it ultimately fair and reciprocal– to coddle and pamper humanity back, to set us as equals, with the same kind of paradise we dispensed.

“And so, what you see here has been wrought over generations…”

The human chicken tenders were gathering in greater numbers now, many bearing trays of seed and worms, but many others were bearing swords.  They were crowding around the corridors, blocking the last avenues of escape.

Brigid conveyed to Scaramouche a choice now offered by the old god-cock.  It was much like the choice the cock had been offered in ancient times. 

“Here is your choice.  You can surrender to a veritable paradise where all your worldly needs will be met and all manner of pleasure will be yours to demand.  Or you can attempt to fight your way out, though any such efforts will almost certainly result in your death.”

The guards of the compound—the armed chicken tenders—flung open doorways to the outside where beautiful sunlight beckoned.  Here was the way out—the true avenue of escape.  But it was blocked by legions of warriors with swords drawn.

Scaramouche regarded the peculiar march of the chicken tender warriors, a kind of strut with their heads thrusting forward, then backward with each step.  The sharp weapons looked dangerous enough, but the men who carried them were all pot-bellied, with concave chests.  They all seemed so bonded in spirit to the birds they served, Scaramouche wondered if they would run around lost and frantic if he cut off their heads.

Scaramouche had no need for mystical potions or preternatural charms or tarot cards or the otherworldly insight of oracles to piece out what had happened here, or the choice that was being offered, or what to do next.  The truth was right in front of him, but it wasn’t a rational truth.  It was a poetical truth.

The chickens had been treated as gods for long, it was no longer possible to tell if they were truly ancient deities, or only so in the minds of their worshipers.  Within this entombed environment, surrounded by a moat of poisons, the roles of the chickens and their tenders had blended into one another, each trading off functions of feeding, and functions of consuming. 

The entire system brought to mind the failures of perpetual motion machines that promise to last forever, but falter on that promise and run out of energy.  It was like Paris falling to the utopian promises of the Revolution. 

Within this walled garden, this shell served as a prison to both mankind and fowl, severing them both from the goodly exchanges of the natural world, the gains and losses that give rise to life and progress, the risks, the challenges.  In seeking only life’s rewards, and avoiding all of life’s punishments, they were killing themselves.  The system was collapsing.

The entire system revolving around the old god-cock had become an entombed environment, leaching its poisons into the surrounding moat of lifelessness, and that was starting to overflow its boundaries, and spread to the world beyond, not unlike the armies of Napoleon.  

Scaramouche lunged with his rapier outstretched to skewer the old bird, to throw the place into chaos and confusion.  Swiftly, Brigid interposed herself in the path of the blade, forcing Scaramouche to turn it aside at the last moment.

Instead of charging toward the open doorways, instead of daring to cross the avenue of escape that was also the avenue of death, Scaramouche swirled his cape around.  He grabbed Brigid by the hand, and dove back the way they had come, back into the dark hallways now chocked with chickens, and semi-nude women, armed chicken tenders, and a blizzard of feathers.

At once, the entire entourage gave chase after the couple.  The corridor became a horror, almost completely dark, with Scaramouche and Brigid nearly invisible in their black apparel.  The air was packed every step of the way with nervous, tiny, fidgeting feathered bodies, beating their flightless wings and scurrying between the walls, the ceiling, and the floor.

At first, Scaramouche was merely annoyed by the little sharp pecks.  But the pecking did not cease, and there were hundreds of sharp beaks.  He inched his way through a fog of feathers and wretched odors.              

Brigid counselled Scaramouche to crawl through the squawking mass, though the floor was slick with vile, runny dung.  Head first, he made his way through the foul flock of fowls. 

The passage became more and more crowded, the way ahead more uncertain.  And soon, the only way to keep moving was through a disciplined squirming, somehow repositioning bones, muscles, and ligaments without bending joints.  There wasn’t enough room for anything else.  It was nearly impossible to breathe.  Scaramouche could barely swallow his own spit, for his throat was dry and tight, and his Adam’s apple was caught, as if it suddenly decided to reject the forbidden fruit for which it was named.  His skin began to burn, as if he’d been splashed with hot oil, but it was a mass of bugs, too tiny to be seen in the dim light, leaping off the chickens.

Scaramouche and Brigid were caught in a river of sharp pecking beaks and raking spurs.  One thinks of chickens as seed eaters, but in truth, they are omnivores, having an appetite for worms, bugs, and even each other when feathers are stripped away and bared wounds seep blood.

The hallways were exploding into feeding frenzies, not unlike those of sharks.

The turmoil built and built.  The ancient walls could not contain the fury and the ever-increasing pressure.  The rotten walls cracked.  The ancient wooden doors shattered. 

The towers fell one after another.

***

Scaramouche—or more correctly, Andre-Louis Moreau, for his mask and black raiment had been stripped away– was roused from unconsciousness by an unspeakably loathsome stench.  Brigid was bringing to his lips yet another one of her ghastly potions. 

He turned his face away from her.

“Drink.  You need it for the strength to heal.”

He wanted to run, but he was far too weak.  His right femur was broken, and his leg had been immobilized with a wooden splint.

“Drink.”

“I can’t drink this witch’s brew, even if I wanted to.”

“It is ancient curative…”

“My very soul rebels against it.”

“I rebelled against the entire world in which I was raised.  I gave up all of my comforts, all of my prerogatives—my rank, my station… and I betrayed the very god I had worshipped all my life.  For your sake.” 

“I know why.  From the start, I knew it all along—from the moment we first met.”

“Then whatever you think is wrong.  You can’t possibly know the thoughts and feelings that have tested me.  Have you ever had a great insight—a sudden revelation that suddenly changed everything? Your entire view of the world?  That is what happened to me.  But not when we first met.  It was after that—when I saw you kneeling at Gaston De Vilmorin’s side; the two of you together.  I saw how you two had been of the same spirit once.  I saw in you what he had been, and then I saw the end I had brought him to

“At that instant, I saw him dying of all of the great comforts and pleasures he mistook for paradise.  These things that were killing him were the same comforts and pampering I took for granted all my life– all of the routines and familiar pleasantries.  All these things proved fatal to him.  As they were proving fatal to me, and would prove fatal to you unless I rebelled against them.

“I told you before that my mother had a spiritual awakening.  She asked the powers of nature to bring her to paradise, and they brought her here.  I believe I had much the same kind of awakening that my mother had, guided by the same powers, but those powers counseled me to flee the place my mother mistook for paradise.  I had to either change or die! 

“The truth is, the would-be paradise is dying.  The only world I ever knew is dying.  The only system of order I understand is dying.  I had to either change or die.

“My very god— the old alien cock— had a similar vision in ancient times, a moment when he knew he had to change his nature completely or die.  And he told us of his vision constantly.  He wove it into every aspect of our lives, which were spent caring for him and his kind.  And while we cared, he would be telling the same story in an infinite variety of ways, sometimes directly, sometimes masked in poetry, fables, and proverbs, such that it always seemed new and exciting, but it was always about the same thing.

“That was the secret of his immortality, and it would be the secret of keeping the changes he put in place in a way that that the change would always be changeless.  That flash insight was at the heart of it—that revelation, that vision.”

“The god bird, the king, then had a new revelation.  He knew our enclosed world needed new vitality.  Something essential was missing.  He commanded that I recruit a hearty, lusty soul, and I was given this task because I was the only one among the flock who had any semblance of knowledge of the world outside. 

“And so, I recruited Gaston.  Indeed, the tenders and the cocks had all but lost interest in mating with one another.  The entire population seemed to have become interested only in maintaining the pecking order and their respective positions within it— the positions themselves, and not what those positions meant.  And fighting for rank amongst themselves.  At least fighting and bloodshed and violence still interested them.  Nothing else seemed to have any meaning—except, perhaps paying homage to the grand old cock god, who himself was growing weary, bored and disillusioned.”  

Moreau wearily shook his head.  “Surely you don’t really believe that creature was a god, or immortal.  This simply isn’t true.  This creature has no intelligence or cunning of any kind. You’ve been lost in a kind of dream– because of stories and systems invented by a human being, and they only seem real because of stories and lies people shut off from the world keep repeating.  And if that old chicken creature had a preternatural vision… if that were actually true… if a chicken were actually capable of such a thing… perhaps it is what made him blind.”   

Brigid protested, “I understand much more of this than you do.  Perhaps what we see are different sides of the same truth with meanings that seem different but are really the same.  Somewhere in the midst of the familiar and reliable routines, the king and god you refer to as merely a creature is truly a king and god because everyone in the walled off world believes it, and so, he somehow conquered eternity by shutting out the world and creating a paradise.

“But whether he was truly a god, or whether he created that place and the order I was raised in, or if the bird was simply set there as an idol by misled men; none of that matters.  There is a much simpler and more direct reason why that walled off world suddenly became intolerable to me!

“You would not share me with the other women, yes?  You wanted me all to yourself.” 

“Right now, you cannot survive without me.”

“I fear, ‘tis true.”

“You, yourself, had said constant change is the only constant.  But I have created something eternal that cannot change, and this escape from the punishments of time owes to your nature.  You are bound to trust me forever, no matter what.  Because of your oath, in blood.  So, trust that I love you.”

“It seems I have fallen into another trap.”

“Love itself is a force that defies time.  Trust in my love.  Your very life is surely in my hands, just as my heart is in yours.”

“You had said there would be a price to pay if you delivered me from that prison.”

“And so, there is, and so I demand it.”

“That you would be my bride…”

“I ask only the same price that I demanded from the very start—that you trust me completely.  Perhaps with trust will come love, for love cannot survive without it.  And you must look to your own heart in matters of love.” 

“I trust you, Brigid.  As I have sworn.  So, I ask that you trust me in kind.  Trust to the judgements of my own heart to make whatever decision it will, and trust to the judgements of very soul– which pleads for you to remove your latest piece of witchcraft, this brew you have concocted, this horrid, foul potion have set before me!”

“It is only chicken soup.”