Below is the first catacombs scene from Floats the Dark Shadow – inspired by an actual event. The American artist heroine, Theo Faraday, has agreed to go to a midnight concert in the necropolis with her cousin, Averill, with whom she’s unfortunately fallen in love. They’ve joined some of the other poets in their group, the Revenants.
The year is 1897.
I am a cradle
Swung in a cavern
Of sadness and night….
A thousand candles burned in the darkness of the catacombs.
A thousand flames wavered, golden lights bending and rising with the doleful ebb and flow of the music.
Repelled and fascinated, Theo watched their flickering glow caress the curved domes of the skulls. Tinted by candlelight, the naked bones took on a sepia patina like sacred reliquaries carved from amber. A shiver swept her. Nothing—not her delight in the outrageous, nor the wickedly delicious thrill of the forbidden, not even the inspiration the images would bring to her art—nothing overcame her sense of oppression. They were deep in the earth. Room after endless room of bones surrounded them.
The black hollows of the eye sockets seemed to watch the concert as attentively as the audience of chic Parisians still clothed in mortal flesh and fancy silks, still breathing the dank, stifling air of the chamber. As the last notes of Chopin’s Marche Funèbre echoed, the gathering applauded with fervent solemnity, saluting the musicians’ skill and their own daring in coming here. Elegant in their tuxedos, the orchestra lowered their instruments with a flourish and rose, first bowing to their guests, then once again to their skeletal hosts. Theo smiled and clapped with them, fighting off her apprehension.
“They call this the Empire of Death.” Averill leaned close and Theo bent to meet him. In the eerie light, the smile hovering at the corners of his mouth shifted from sweet to sinister and back again. His breath caressed her face and she caught a hint of absinthe. The scent churned up a chaos of emotion—concern, frustration, anger, yearning.
A pang of jealousy.
How perfectly Parisian, she thought, to be jealous of a liqueur.
When had his flirtation with the green fairy become a love affair? Two months ago, four? He called absinthe his muse, but she stole as much as she gave. Under her influence, Averill’s moods grew ever more erratic and his exquisite, fantastical poems ever more bizarre.
A fierce impulse surged through Theo’s turmoil—to paint Averill as he looked now, bitter and sweet, taunting and tender. She envisioned him almost emerging from the canvas. Strands of dark hair tumbled over his eyes, pale blue flames glowing too bright within the shadows. Patches of rose madder made a fever flush on both cheeks. Her fingers twitched eager to render mustache and beard in quick, narrow strokes of lamp black touched with indigo, a frame for the quick twist of a smile that mocked the world and himself.
Theo forced a smile in response. “The Empire of Death. So you’ve said.”
“Three times at least, Charron,” Paul Noret sneered from the seat on her other side. “Before, during, and after your nightly tryst with the green fairy.”
Slouched in his chair, Paul looked too much at home in this underground kingdom, like a strange insect god, half man and half praying mantis. His body was long and bony, his face cadaverous. Shadows carved crescents into his lean cheeks and scooped out circles under his eyes, which bulged slightly, and glistened. His hair was prematurely grey, the color of ashes, and aged him a decade or more. Paul was thirty-four—thirteen years older than she was, and ten years older than Averill.
“You should sip the green ambrosia, Noret, and cavort with her yourself,” Averill said.
Paul scowled. “Absinthe rots the brain.”
“Ahh…but your poetry will soar.”
“Not if your twig-bound twitters are any example.”
There was a heartbeat of silence. A stinging retort sprang to Theo’s lips, but she bit it back when she felt Averill’s light pressure on her arm. He leaned across her to taunt Paul in turn. “Twitters? When people hear twitters, they pause. They smile. They listen. If they hear barking, they shut their ears—or throw shoes.”
Paul examined his scuffed boots. “These were acquired just so. They cost but a single barking couplet.”
Theo relaxed, glad the jab had been too wide of the mark to cut Averill. They were all used to Paul’s forays but always en garde. They ignored him at their peril. What seemed to be a feint might suddenly pierce the heart. They’d look down to discover their idea, their verse—or their art—mercilessly skewered. But that same deadly skill made Paul chief critic to the group of poets and musicians who had invited Theo into their midst. Since the success of Le Revenant, Paul seemed to have doubled his criticism. Was it jealousy? Paul’s harsher poems had won praise too, but not as much as Averill’s. Perhaps Paul was forestalling vanity from the proclamations of Averill as the new Rimbaud, the new Verlaine.
Absinthe had destroyed Verlaine.
Averill gestured dramatically at the skulls crowning the wide pillar of tibias and fibulas. “We have set ourselves in the Empire’s heart, in the sanctity of the Crypte de la Passion.”
“It is so perfectly decadent,” Theo murmured. The word was a magic key that opened many intriguing doors in Paris. Yet when Averill nodded yes, another part of Theo’s mind whispered rebelliously, So perfectly horrible… So horribly sad….
“Yes.” Averill gave her another conspiratorial smile as if he heard and agreed with each silent pronouncement.
The undercurrent of longing pulled Theo forward. She started to reach out to him then curled her hand tight against her heart. Averill’s friendship was precious. She could not bear to shatter what they now had on a futile quest for a foolish amour. She made herself sit back.
“If you think this crypt was named for Christ’s Passion, you are wrong, Charron,” Paul reproved, his nasal voice smug. “The true meaning is more prosaic—and more profane. Whenever the gendarmes hunted the streetwalkers too aggressively, the women brought their customers down here. Whores have no hearts, and neither does this sepulchral maze.”
Averill shook his head. “You are the one with no heart, Noret.”
“Who needs such a soggy rag?” Paul rolled his eyes disdainfully.
“A poet, certainly,” Theo countered.
“Exactement.” Averill ruffled the boutonnière he had pinned over his heart. It was a curious concoction he had created from white paper cutouts. Today, yesterday now, was All Fools’ Day. For some obscure reason Theo had not discovered, the French nicknamed it Poisson d’Avril—April Fish Day. Their favorite prank was decorating the backs of unsuspecting passersby with paper fish. Averill collected these zealously, declaring the day Poisson d’Averill, and the paper fish a personal tribute. He wore the tattered little bouquet pinned to his jacket. Theo frowned. If she included that boutonniere in her portrait, should she attempt to show it was actually a paper fish, and not a white carnation? Unbidden, a tall glass of absinthe inhabited the bottom corner of her imagined canvas, glowing a malevolent chartreuse.
Would Averill be angry if she painted the absinthe? Theo felt a war begin—her not wanting to put the glass there and the glass insisting. I am truth, said the glass. And I am so deliciously, evilly green.
“I find a brain far more useful than a bleeding heart.” Paul arranged his lanky frame in the chair as best he could, crossed his arms and closed his eyes. His lips began to move silently. No doubt, he was composing a poem to prove his point—something perfectly cynical and as gloomy as their setting.
Averill sat up and looked intently about the candlelit crypt. Curious, Theo asked, “Searching for more Revenants?”
He gave her an oblique glance. “Just an acquaintance I thought might appear.”
“Someone from medical school?”
“Not from there.” His gaze scanned the crowd once more, but whoever the unnamed person was, Averill did not find him…or her. Turning back, he offered an enigmatic smile. “It’s not important, ma cousine.”
Theo was too startled to pursue the question of the mysterious someone. Her illegitimacy was an open secret, but propriety demanded she be presented as her father’s ward. Averill never called her cousin in public. He shrugged as if to say, “Everyone knows.”
Someone behind them commented on the performance and Averill turned, inviting himself into the conversation. Paul scribbled a note by candlelight. With her companions distracted, Theo watched the musicians. Their host, Casimir, gave her a brief salute with his violin bow. She smiled in answer. The baron looked both raffish and elegant. Artfully pomaded, his tawny hair curled slightly, glistening in the candlelight. His wide-set eyes were flecked with gold and alight with the same sly charm as his smile. Theo was glad she’d accepted his invitation to this curious event, but grateful only one piece remained to be played.
She saw Casimir quickly search for any other friends in the audience, but it seemed only the three of them had come. Not every poet felt bound to visit the catacombs at midnight. No, she was wrong. In one obscure corner stood the most shadowy Revenant, a young man named Jules Loisel. He seldom spoke and was so shy he had not pushed through the crowd to join them. Theo might not have noticed him at all, except that he looked more incongruous than anyone else—a shabby brown church mouse with pointed chin and darting brown eyes. She felt a twinge of sympathy. Jules subsisted on stray jobs Paul procured from the publishing company he worked for, drearily editing textbooks. Crumbs of crumbs.
Theo shifted restlessly. Despite the eager hum of the crowd and the blazing candlelight, she felt the murky shadows and musty odors of the crypt encroaching. She yearned to escape. Tomorrow she would ride again. Closing her eyes, Theo saw the fragrant green woods and pink cherry blossoms of the Bois de Boulogne. For an instant, she imagined the vital strength of the little mare surging beneath her, the cool wind a sweet current flowing around them. When she opened her eyes again, the shadows had retreated.
Theo lifted her chin and smoothed back the tendrils escaping her braid, adjusting the opal-studded comb that held it in place. Tonight she sported her recent flea market coups. She knew her antique frock coat of sapphire velvet deepened the light blue of her eyes. Beneath it, a fine linen shirt and jabot foaming with Chantilly lace topped trousers and leather boots. Theo wanted her clothes to be festive, but she had not wanted to fret about silk skirts and dainty shoes while picking her way through dank, claustrophobic tunnels.
Officially, the catacombs had been closed to the public decades ago. Visiting them was condemned. Unofficially, there was a thriving business in satisfying perverse curiosity. Averill had insisted on the full tour before the concert. Theo had been startled when their guide met them with his ten-year-old son, but the boy took even more delight in the ghoulish maze than his father did, lifting his lantern to illuminate the carved mottos along the pathway. When Averill intoned their warnings of mortality, Dondre laughed and intoned along with him. “They were what we are. Dust. Toys of the wind….”
With his curling hair and expressive brown eyes, Dondre reminded her of Denis, the laundress’ son who had vanished weeks ago. Theo’s heart gave a sudden twist. Other boys must be missing, else why was the detective in the alley still investigating such a hopeless case? That memory was far more depressing than the catacombs. She pushed it away and turned back to her companions.
Despite his scoffing, Paul knew the entire history of the place better than their guide. He had told her the quarries were first dug in Roman times. “For centuries, the tunnels burrowed ever deeper, creating this vast labyrinth far beneath the streets of the city.”
“Overhead the graveyards filled to bursting,” Averill elaborated. “The walls of charnel houses cracked open, and coffins pushed their way out of the earth to create breeding grounds of pestilence.”
Paul thrust forward, a verbal duel. “Louis the Sixteenth ordered the quarries consecrated and the bones of Paris began their journey. Napoléon and others continued the venture for decades.”
“Decades?” It should not surprise her. The heaps of bones seemed endless, and miles more were hidden beyond sight.
“Ah yes,” Averill answered, “for they had to dispossess the dead without disturbing the living. Working only at night, laborers excavated the cemeteries and carried cartloads of bones to their new abode—the mortal remains of six million souls.”
Paul stood, his long, thin arms akimbo. “Looking around, I cannot believe a single soul escaped—or that they ever existed.”
Theo believed in the soul, but Paul had captured the most depressing thing about the catacombs and their endless corridors of the dead. The heaps of silent bones not only decreed mortality, but seemed to deny immortality as well. Their silence echoed in her own bones.
Lantern aloft, the guide and his son led them ever deeper. When they reached the next large room, Paul turned around with a grim smile. “Victims of the Reign of Terror found their final resting place here.”
“Danton and Robespierre lie entangled with Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette,” Averill added. His hands entwined in a fluid gesture.
“In this room?” Theo gazed in horror at the mass grave of riot and revolution. All that fury and passion, that vicious violence and lofty hope, reduced to these bleak remains?
“Somewhere,” Paul said with relish. “No doubt missing their heads.”
Sadness permeated Theo, one with the cold air that sank through skin to muscle, through bone to marrow. The longer they walked, the heavier the bleakness weighed. They crossed wet patches where mineral-laden water dripped continuously from the ceiling, forming small stalactites. The shiny fluid trickled over the heaped skeletons, embalming them in a foul resinous varnish. Damp gravel crunched underfoot like crushed bones. They entered a stretch of dry chambers, and Theo realized she could not hear their footsteps any more. The cold silence was unnerving. No one spoke. Even breath seemed to vanish.
Here the guide stopped them, holding a finger before his lips. “The chalk walls muffle sound.” Stepping back, the man raised the lantern high then shuttered the light.
They vanished into darkness absolute. No sight, no sound but the pounding of her heart in an eternity of utter smothering nothingness.
Fingers brushed hers, linked. A hand closed around hers, warm and firm.
“Averill,” Theo whispered. Emptiness swallowed the word, but warmth rushed through her, breath returning, blood returning. Life returning. Not alone in the dark. Her fingers tightened in answer.
Love filled her, pure and glowing, lighting her from within.
In the surrounding blackness, Dondre gave an eerie laugh, too theatrical to scare them as he obviously hoped to do. It made Theo want to giggle with relief. She heard a rasping of metal, and Averill released her hand just as the guide opened the lantern again. It glowed dimly, a fragile blessing lighting them on their way.
The memory of the tour sent icy rivulets coursing through Theo. She pressed her hand to her lips. After that blinding darkness, the watching skulls and bright candles in the Crypte de la Passion seemed positively cheerful, the murmur of human voices sweeter than music.
The master of ceremonies rose. “Fellow mortals, we offer the ultimate piece to complete our uncanny concert, from the brilliant composer Saint-Saëns—La Danse Macabre.”
“Your brilliant composer was inspired by a grotesquerie in verse by Cazalis,” Paul declared. Annoyed, the man seated behind him tapped Paul’s chair with his gloves. The leather fingers gleamed white as new bone in the gloom. Paul turned and glared balefully. “They even call the work a symphonic poem,” he added, then assumed an offended silence.
“The poet was inspired by a peasants’ legend.” Averill bent to her, his whisper barely audible as the musicians lifted their instruments. “Each year, on All Hallows Eve, the Grim Reaper appears at the stroke of midnight.” Twelve strokes of the harp strings sounded, quieting the rustle of skirts, the shuffle of boots. “Death flicks his bony hand and calls forth the dead from their graves. He sets his violin to his chin and tunes it…” Averill paused as strange, dissonant chords were plucked on the violinists’ strings.
Zig and zig and zag.
Death beats a cadence
Stamping a tomb with his heel
Just at midnight, Death strikes a dance tune
Zig and zig and zag on his violin….
Averill wove words into sound. Theo’s gaze darted to Casimir as the music built, his face intent, his bow flashing as the strident commands of the violin strings merged with the percussive clang of the xylophone, evoking the dry bones clattering in a frantic dance as Death compelled the dead to dance for him. Zig and zig and zag.
The winter wind blows in the blackest night,
Wailing shivers through the linden trees.
White skeletons dart through dark shadows,
Running, leaping under billowing shrouds.
Averill’s voice whispered like a winter wind rustling leaves, relentless and oddly insinuating. Shrouds fell away. Naked skeletons abandoned themselves to lust, hungering to taste the long-lost sweetness of the flesh. Dispossessed kings cavorted with peasants. Queens coupled with cartwrights. Dismay and delight spun inside Theo as the music quickened. The words licked at her. She trembled at the caress of Averill’s breath in the hollow of her ear, at the touch of his lips on the tender lobe. All around her, yellow candle flames leaped and quivered. Then the fervor stilled. The violins sighed, and the notes of an oboe rose—a cock crowing at dawn. Abruptly, Paul leaned forward, his voice joining Averill’s to finish the poem.
But hush. Suddenly they quit the dance.
They push all in a panic. They flee—for the cock has crowed.
Oh! The dark beauty of the night blesses the poor world.
Long live death! Long live equality!
Theo shivered, feeling strangely feverish as a final quiver of sound mingled with the teasing, almost taunting whispers.
Then silence fell.
Banner images composed of Parize by Zdenka Brauerova, At Night by Ludwik de Laveaux, and Photographic Collage of Tomb Figure