Episode 23 - ABSINTHE and BLOOD!


          Not long ago, a friend in the Office of Strategic Service remarked that it was perhaps Washington's greatest fear that the physicist Planck... or students of his, for he is a very, very old man... would develop weaponry based on the discoveries of the modest Zuricher student who, in the last decade, has developed quite the reputation in his own name... Einstein.

          "Were it not for Hitler's absurd prejudice against Jews," Roosevelt's man sighed, "who knows what deviltry might have found its way into Germany's arsenal?" The man was right... but also wrong, Hitler's Germany could not have existed without its loathing and hatred of its Jews... the documents Haeckel provided giving proof of the Nazis' intentions well before National Socialism even came into being.

          And beyond? Well, Nazism has been bombed into oblivion. Winnetou is dead by his own hand and, of course, Basil Zaharoff went to his reward many years ago... but does the Vehm endure, like the root system of a great poisonous weed, a few of whose leaves have been lopped off? That is what we must hold the future to account for... and our children after us...

          But... back to a more innocent and pleasant time. I had reached Paris without incident and, on the recommendation of a porter (and perhaps the memory of those sharp-fanged hounds of Viereck's Ossuary), proceeded to the Alsatian Hotel near the Seine, whose English-speaking concierge handed me my key with an amused disdain. "You are a light traveler, even for an American..."

          "The Germans exploded and burned my belongings," I apologized.

          "They are in the habit of doing such things! I can recommend three competent tailors or perhaps the Englishman in the back room can loan you a suit while yours is cleaned," Monsieur Dupoirier suggested. "He has a substantial wardrobe."

          "I shall keep that in mind. But first, it is imperative I locate the Gallery and Temple of the Wound in the Left Shoulder of Our Lord Jesus Christ..." I replied, memorizing Haeckel's instructions.

          "The Assyrian's place?" Dupoirier scowled. "Are you another painter seeking the patronage of the Sar? You're in luck... his is the least discriminating of all Parisian galleries, though also the tightest. Most would find his rate of commission unacceptable if he sold anything. But perhaps you can find paying work at the Exposition construction, we have several young Spaniards here with such ambitions. See it for yourself on the way to Peladan's."

          Dupoirier gave me directions and I did take his advice, drinking in the sights of Paris of the fin du siecle from a horse car. Across the Seine, foundations of the Exposition were rising on both banks. A paradise of pavilions in cheap wood and plaster, even cardboard... Arab minarets and Russian domes and plenty of gaudy electric lighting... my English speaking driver foresaw, however, only tragedy.

          "Look," he scoffed, "...a cardboard citadel that scarcely will improve when it opens next April. President Faure who died last February would have made these foreigners toe the line, but Loubet doesn't even have the stomach to guillotine traitors... he is a Mason, did you know?... and all of those are no better than the Socialists..."

          "A traitor," I remarked, "...would that be Dreyfus? I heard he was convicted, then pardoned just before I came over here."

          "The very man! Loubet is making the Exposition an open sore to entice all the flies of Europe," my driver spat, " was said the sky itself shed silver tears at Faure's funeral. He was our last politician who knew how to dress well."

          Presently the carriage stopped before an unprepossessing gallery on a shabby street... Peladan's Temple, I was informed... my driver quite sympathized with the patron's politics but warned I might find the gallery contents challenging. "Peladan's version of Islam is a Martinist Catholicism of extremes," he advised me... I paid him, disembarked and entered, finding innumerable garish, often bloody paintings crowding the walls, others piled up in great stacks... and finding a familiar face too...

          "Harry... no," I struggled to match face and name, "it's Henry, isn't it... from the boat?"

          "Well it is but..." he said, looking over his shoulder as if some wrathful deity might manifest from, of course, the East, "...I've taken the name Meroduk since I started working for the Sar. I would rather not let our past episode be known, Mr. Cameron, I realize now that the end, the au-dela as Peladan calls it, must be enforced by God and not ourselves... my father didn't pay you to retrieve me, did he?"

          "Your secret is perfectly safe, Monsieur ah... Meroduk, now I have an important matter to discuss with Joseph Peladan. Is he about?"

          "The Sar is in his temple, praying to Baal... I can notify him but it might be a few moments, he detests interruptions..."

          "Baal? Aren't they followers of Mohammed in Syria?"

          "I think," said young Henry, tentatively, "but Sar is an Assyrian... they are a far more ancient tribe. So ancient in fact that they are extinct... rather, the Sar is the last..."

          "Then I certainly won't object to waiting for such a person of rare distinction," I parried, "...just give him my name, I'll have a look at these and when he's finished we'll talk. Oh... my name may mean nothing so do also tell him that I come on the recommendation of a mutual friend in Berlin, Dr. Haeckel..."

          "Haeckel," whispered Meroduk, repeating the name under his breath, "Haeckel, right... I'll be back..."

          Crowley's recovered suicide was some minutes in conveying my presence to the Sar, so I actually did pass some minutes looking over the wares of the wounded Gallery which, with few exceptions, reflected the workings of disturbed minds... frightful yet badly rendered. A forest of clumsy ghouls and asymmetrical satyrs bent to my touch; bejewelled temptresses with vacant stares brazen as any tart of Pigalle, a compendium of bad, banal art was the stuff of this Temple! Some of it, despite the inexpertise, revolted on a level of the viscera, so I was visibly relieved when Peladan... an imposing figure in a long, curling black beard, flowing robes and Turkish slippers manifested in the doorway.

          "You seek audience with the Sar, Joseph Peladan? Here he stands!"

          I extended a hand which the Assyrian regarded rather like an offer of rotten fish, and I drew back with, instead, a little nod. "As you wish. Actually Dr. Haeckel said you could put me in touch with a Doctor Encausse... Papus as I understand he may be known... I have a package for him which Haeckel called the Protocols. Not sure what they are... seem to be written in Russian but, if it's anything to you, I'm also on a mission for Aleister Crowley and his patron Mathers."

          Peladan lifted his hands... somewhat later Crowley told me that he was given to soliciting advice from the sun, I presume it did not matter that we were indoors. "The Praemonstrator Mathers can vouch for you?" he asked.

          "Well actually I haven't been to Temple Ahathoor on the Rue de Mozart yet but Crowley will, and Mathers sent Crowley so... well..." I again strove to explain.

          "Give me the Protocols!" demanded Peladan.

          "Well actually, I left them back at my room in the Hotel Alsatian... Haeckel did say they specifically were for Papus..."

          "You may give them to me. Encausse and I are both Martinist proteges of Barbey, de Guaita and Eliphas Levi, so the Protocols will be quite safe with me until I convey them to him."

          Something... perhaps the pricing of these repugnant canvases implied avarice in the Sar and it occurred to me to take refuge in the sort of cowardice bureaucrats practice. "All the same... orders, you know, you are ah... not going to tell me where to find Papus? Well, then, I'll ask Mathers himself what to do. I mean... you're all part of that same crowd, aren't you?"

          "I am the Sar!" Peladan replied importantly, "... Mathers a common British drunk. Encausse is learned but of a Mediterranean race upon whom the hourglass of time has all but run out. There shall be a final debauch, and then the ravishers from beyond the Elbe will pour in and..."

          "The au-dela?" I tried to help.

          "You are not meant to know of such things - some novice has been loose with his tongue, it seems," remarked the slippered broker in artistic curiosities. "Now... give me the Protocols!"

          "Like I said, don't have 'em. I'll talk to Mathers and be back," I said, "or not... it depends... nice stuff!" I added, turning over a large canvas to find a medieval torture cellar depicted, badly of course, but with enough blood to make the intent of the artist known by force, if not by craft...

          "Just as Religion has made itself into art in order to speak to the masses," Peladan intoned, "so art must make itself into religion in order to speak to Adepts. The Protocols..."

          At this repeated request I bowed, backing out of the Temple of the Wounded Shoulder etcetera; half expecting to be chased down the street by the lunatic in his slippers and robes. Peladan, however, stopped at the door as if suddenly fearful of injury from exposure to his God above, he glowered while I walked off briskly, looking for a carriage. None were to be found in this unkempt arondissement so I was gradually pulled back towards the Seine by the gravity of a crowd forming.

          "What's going on? Is a riot beginning..." I asked one stranger, than another, "do you speak English, monsieur... you?" Finally a well-dressed woman of evident breeding and means took pity upon me despite the cloying entreaties of her young escort.

          "Stop whimpering Marcel," she turned, raising a gloved fist like an asp coiled to strike, "the gentleman's only American, not one of those Apaches... isn't that so..."

          "I have been called many things of late," I replied, "but never a Red Indian!"

          "See? This is Monsieur Proust who worries rather too much and you may call me Laura... Laura deSade..."

          "She is the Comtesse Chevigne..." appended the fellow called Proust, rather primly.

          "Americans do not set store by titles," replied the Comtesse with a wave of her parasol, "isn't that so?"

          "Only if it is considered polite to do so, Comtesse... or Madame Laura if you will. I am Arthur Cameron, and I was looking for... but what is all this excitement about?" I could not help asking, wholly distracted by the murmurs of the crowd which had, more or less, carried us along towards the river. The mass of humanity had quite thickened, like good Ulster County butter in its churn, eventually it ceased to move altogether.

          "They are raising the Siren of the Binet Gate," Monsieur Proust informed me.

          "The name she has been given is La Parisienne but, in her tight skirt and ermines, she is no more than a brazen whore," remarked the Comtesse with a voice rather more suited to the stage than to nobility. Laura deSade stretched her remarkably long neck which, under a formidable nose worthy of Rostand, gave the Comtesse the appearance of a predatory bird who, I gathered, regarded this Siren with less than total disapprobation. "Already they call her the Salamander."

          "It is sadly characteristic of this exposition that France should be represented by a streetwalker," Proust sighed.

          The Comtesse could not lift a hand in this crowd, but her glance sufficed to scourge the young dandy... I have heard he's become one of those authors often spoken of, seldom read, a literary fellow told me Proust modeled one of his characters, his Duchesse deGuermantes, upon the Comtesse, his "white peacock," his "hawk with diamond eyes", sharp enough to carve up such young fellows as we.

          "Well," remarked this avian effigy, "at least it appears less garish than the Russian pavilion and more inspired than that of the English..."

          "All of them are only going to attract more foreigners," Proust stood his ground, "and, with them, the Portuguese plague!"

          Laura deSade spat over our heads like any washerwoman. "Fah! A drink at the Irish Bar will kill any plague!"

          "Comtesse," Proust reminded her, " is the Cafe Weber now."

          "Of course it is. And since you are so concerned with your health... and I do not observe Monsieur Pasteur in this crowd, I propose we retire to that office for vaccination. Mr. Cameron, will you join us?"

          "I believe he was hurrying away to... what was the place?" remarked the little man, rather jealously as I recollect.

          "Actually I was looking for the Rue de Mozart..."

          "Well to reach it," explained the Comtesse, "you must pass the Cafe so we are all going in the same direction. There's nothing to see here... coming through!" And Laura deSade prodded the backs of gawkers with her parasol in a way quite recalling her sadistic ancestor. Once out of the throng, she commandeered a horse car away from a party of Germans, which carriage shortly deposited us at the door of the Weber.

          I had, of course, been deceived by deSade and Marcel Proust for Mathers' temple lay to the west by the Bois deBolougne while the Weber was one of those disreputable cafes that haunted the district of Montmarte. But, of course, what truth might an American expect from one descended from the author of "Justine" and "Juliette", works Wolves and Bonesman alike were careful to conceal from the prying eyes of proctors. "Were you aware," Laura remarked, "my ancestor was loosed from the Bastille to serve as Judge during the Terror, but proved so lenient he was fired and imprisoned again?"

          "Truly," I parried, "another example of the misfortunes of virtue overcome by the prosperities of vice."

          The blue eyes of the Comtesse sparkled with recognition as she guided my attention to a pair of tiny men at the bar. "There is Toulouse..." she said.

          "And he's drinking with Jarry!" Proust said disapprovingly. "One of his nags must have staggered across the finish line ahead of the knackers' hook. I am faint already... let us please go to the Hancourt."

          "Nonsense!" replied the Comtesse. "Marcel is very sweet, very sensitive... he doesn't like scenes and, as these little men are from the theatre, making scenes is a sort of livelihood for them. But they're only a pair of dwarves... don't be afraid!" and, observing that Proust glanced at me with the same distrust with which he regarded the two theatricals, she appended " will not spit tobacco here, will you sir?"

          "If it will please you," I volunteered, "...not only shall I refrain from spitting, I'll allow the manager to hold my guns..."

          Laura deSade patted Proust on the neck as the party next to the two little men left, apparently complaining about tobacco smoke billowing up from the pipe of Lautrec. "See Marcel... Mr. Cameron is a gentleman, as such are reckoned in America. But here, here..." she chided, "is another form of trouble, I know when I see it. You are up to some conspiracy!" she accused the two little men, "it's all over your faces."

          Lautrec nodded warily, as if disappointed by the potency of his cocktail. Less then two years from death, his skin was already yellowish behind his black beard whereas Alfred Jarry was comparatively clean shaven, dark hair plastered down the sides of his head by some objectionable oil. Perhaps two inches taller than the painter, Jarry spoke with a certain affected mechanical monotone I have heard compared to a nutcracker.

          "Ma-da-me, we a-wait the il-lu-sion-ist Me-lies; he is to make a mov-ing pic-ture of our Chev-al du Phy-nance..."

          Lautrec exhaled a wreath of tobacco that brought a sickly frown to the countenance of Marcel Proust; the cocktails that Laura deSade had called for arrived, green and foreboding.

          "My, this is bitter!" I remarked at the first taste. "Packs a wallop, though..."

          "Absinthe is usually sipped... some prefer taking it through sugar," the painter volunteered.

          "Nice to see you back from the sanatorium, Lautrec," Proust acknowledged, not without an inkling of malice.

          "Yes, it looks as though I will live out the century... to which I'll have another... I have been fortunate at the track."

          Laura deSade now thought to make formal introductions. "These two disreputable little persons are Toulouse Lautrec, a painter of advertisements for nightclubs, and Alfred Jarry... he has a drama re-opening with Lugne-Poe, or is it comedy? A Symbolist offering..."

          "Mad-dam, We pre-sent a cym-ball-last di-ver-sion..." Jarry answered. I have since been assured his French was as execrable as his English... perhaps the scenarist only felt comfortable in the tongue of ancient Greeks. He clapped together a pair of saucers for emphasis, shattering one and cutting his thumb which he offered to the Comtesse who kissed it, chastely while quite lapping up and savoring the blood, chasing it with the rest of her absinthe while Jarry wiped the lacerated digit absent-mindedly on a velvet covered package that lay on the bar.

          "And this," the Comtesse said, "is Arthur Cameron, who's an American, of course, and I really don't know more than that... are you with their Pavilion?"

          "No, actually I am on a mission," I said, perhaps more jauntily than I should have for absinthe fumes had blighted my vision. "A rather confidential business..."

          "Our pass-sion is les Biz Arts..." Jarry replied. Blood had continued dripping from his hand to the oilcloth covering the bar; Toulouse had commenced smearing and daubing at it until it began to take the form of portraiture... suddenly I recognized the face resembled my own. Without my asking, another glass of green liqueur was set before me and a tall, balding gentleman joined our party.

          "Sorry to be late. I have equipment waiting in a carriage outside but if you've ordered... I will also... Comtesse?"

          "Monsieur... here is Arthur Cameron, an American... this is the former stage magician and, now, impresario of moving pictures, George Melies."

          I accepted the hand of the cineaste gratefully. "Could you presume to ask him, Comtesse, whether he is known to Edison?"

          "Unfortunately I have not had that pleasure," replied Melies, "I hope to rectify that next summer when the sorcerer of Menlo Park visits our Exposition. I was, for some years, an assistant to Maskelyne's Hall of Egypt; the magician's associate Devant's my London distributor. Another Englishman, Mr. Paul, sold me the camera outside, which also suffices as a film projector... quite efficient device, and safer than the usual ether lamps. Cinema has had a late start here as a result of the unfortunate fire two years ago at the Bazar de la Charite..."

          "Les dia-montes du ris-tew-crazy burnt to co-ahl!" Jarry remarked, favoring us with a smirk, rather like that of an evil marionette.

          "Some of those who consider themselves of the better class chose to dance upon the occasion," remarked the Comtesse Chevigne. "Leon Bloy was delighted... one of those Catholics who believes charity denies the poor their natural destiny, which is suffering and death. And he presumes to criticize my ancestry!"

          "Laura is not only a Sade but directly descended from that Laura to whom Petrarch dedicated his verses," volunteered the energetic Proust. I've also heard it said that he used to linger on the Rue de Miromesnil waiting for the Comtesse to pass, so as to situate her in his novel... or, rather, a chapter of the one long novel of his life in which he exhibited his passion for Laura thusly:

"The greatest happiness I could have asked of God would have been that He should overwhelm her under every imaginable calamity and that, ruined, despised, stripped of all the privileges that divided her from me, having no longer any home of her own or people who would condescend to speak to her, she should come to me for refuge..."

Now one who stalked a gentlewoman of New York would quickly have attracted the attention of policemen... further, I think it most unlikely a descendant of the Marquis ever to have acted so... but, in those days, Europeans had different attitudes than either we, or they, enjoy now.

          "I met Maskelyne in London," I endeavored to change the subject, "in Egyptian Hall... where he is preparing an adaptation of Lord Lytton's novel, 'The Coming Race'."

          There was a collective inhalation... even Lautrec ceased his bloody portraiture.

          "He ought not be doing this!" Marcel Proust finally rebuked, "...we must inform the Grandmaster..."

          Laura deSade had lifted her absinthe to nose - inhaling its vapors, perhaps seeking a clue in the swirling enticements of that which Parisians call the Green Fairy. "Perhaps Sir Neville has his reasons," she said finally, "...these are perilous if fruitful times..."

          Proust remained unconvinced. "Still, it is not his right to bring to light..." and the remainder he whispered into her ear in quite inaudible French.

          "Sorry," Melies told me, but without translation, "...bit of a local row as they say in London."

          "I don't feel well," Proust repeated in English. "I think that I must retire early, if the Comtesse pleases..."

          "He is somewhat frail," apologized Laura, "...and we have a long tomorrow ahead... Axel and, no doubt, some function for Madame Sarah after. Marcel wishes it presumed he does not care to venture out onto the boulevards after the sun has gone down," the Comtesse added wickedly.

          "Cameron... there's room in our wagon if you don't mind sharing your space with my new machinery. We can take you as far as the Theatre Lugne-Poe by Clichy and the Moulin Rouge..."

          "Is that near the Rue de Mozart?"

          Again, all the French pretended disinterest. "It's, well... thereabouts," Melies allowed. "Or I can drop you off on the way to my Theatre Robert Houdin on the Boulevarde des Italiens after having a look at Monsieur Jarry's horse and taking a few measurements..."

          "Our chev-val du phy-nance..." the playwright remarked, gathering up his package under his arm. The velvet covering fell away, and an enormous stone phallus blinked in the dim twilight of the Cafe Weber.

          "How marvelous," Laura deSade said admiringly. "Is it a cast?"

          "Non mad-ami, c'est ree-duc-sione!" Whatever more Jarry intended to say deserted him, whether for reason of drink or loss of blood... wrapping his hand in a napkin, Jarry allowed Melies to steer him outside with Lautrec waddling behind. Proust and the Comtesse deSade followed, but only to admire Melies' new projection device and then, squeezing into a space next to the machinery, we proceeded to the Theatre Lugne-Poe and descended into its basement, filled with strange puppets and canvases, some of the former larger than life and most of the latter larger than the marionettes who'd birthed them. A thin man with straw-colored hair and the pale complexion of the Far North was drawing counterclockwise spirals on cloth and, at the sight of this, Jarry revived... more properly one could say he became enraged...

          "Non Mon-sieur Munch, like so!"

          And, with Lautrec also shouting, waving his cane in drunken fury, Jarry seized the brushes and traced a clockwise spiral on his shirt... Munch roaring back a few Norwegian oaths, causing the playwright... whether understanding or not... to pull a revolver from his trousers and fire past Munch into the wall. The shot and spray of brick caused a grizzled donkey to give an anarchical sneeze and flick its tail, to which brushes had been attached. A dark horizontal smear violated a rather peaceful frieze of vertical stokes caused by the waving of the tail of the beast... at the sight of this Jarry put down his pistol and half a dozen assistant set decorators swarmed to view the masterpiece. "Magnifico," the youngest declared, and began chattering in what appeared Spanish... the choler faded from the face of Toulouse-Lautrec, and the little painter inclined his head towards Melies.

          "His mood worsens as presentation nears... this is nothing extraordinary, it was much worse five years ago. Yvette and LaGoloue were like that, stage fright's common among all of the dancers at Moulin Rouge. The only person who can calm him down is Rachilde and I think she's gone back to the Mercure with her husband. We will get by," sighed the muralist, "but I do not know how he will react to the camera..."

          Melies had already withdrawn a cloth tape of the sort that tailors use to circumscribe a thigh for a pair of pants.

          "Then I shall simply take these measurements," declared the cinematographer " as to be ready to set up at the premiere. I am attempting something wholly new," he addressed me, "...a stage play filmed from curtain to curtain. If Edison can match that... let him try! I can take you as far as the Boulevard des Italiens, it shouldn't be hard to find... what do they call it in London... a Victoria? To the Rue de Mozart, yes..."

          I could be no further from Mathers than if I had gone to the moon, but there was nothing more I could do... it was quite dark by now so I followed Lautrec and Melies to the waiting carriage and its admirable cargo.

          "That is an impressive device!" I forced myself to admit.

          "It serves both as camera and, in the twilight or dark, as a film projector," its proud owner said with a smile I thought rather sinister... although it might have been the gaslight of that still rather poor arondissement, or perhaps from my later recollections of Melies in his surviving films. In several of these, the producer took apparent delight in playing Satanic roles. "I have tested a new application for the Exposition... a film accompanied by sound. The subject, which would have delighted Moreau, not to mention Old Death... which is what we call the composer Saint-Saens hereabouts... well, the Surete has invited me to record the execution of an anarchist by electric current... as they do in progressive States of America... rather than by our beloved guillotine."

          "Our Parisian executioner will be disappointed... he's a merry fellow," Lautrec remarked, "...he frequents the cafes and bars all night so it is well that his black hood conceals the ravages of his debauches..."

          "Since Vaillant and Ravachol anarchists have been put to death in secret," Melies confided, "but there's a difficulty in claiming misadventure when one returns a corpse without a head. For a while it seemed the government would put all we Parisian artists who do not follow Boulangerism on the chopping block, but since Loubet ascended I have... despite my documentation of the Dreyfus trial... been given a more or less ceremonial status as cinematographer to the Republic. Unfortunately this experiment did not go well - the fellow veritably roasted to death like a goose and his screams were such as to evoke terror even in the hardest hearts of Boulangerism. I will hand the film over to Surete next week, but I think its effect will be the survival of the guillotine well into this new century. Perhaps our Executioner thought so too... at times the thought occurs to me that powerful and conflicting forces toy with our ambitions.

          "'Barbarisme!' Monsieur Deibler remarked!" added Melies, speaking of the Paris executioner. "Did you know the Symbolist author Huysmans was Director of the political branch of the Surete... one of those few who enjoyed blood as much in the here and now as in the abstract?"

          Melies stopped at the Boulevard des Italiens, where I hailed a carriage for Hippodrome in the Bois de Boulogne and sauntered towards the tenement on the Rue Mozart where Mathers maintained his Temple Ahathoor. I knocked politely... at first... then called out for the proprietor, pounding rather more sharply in the manner Crowley had attacked the door of the Isis-Uranians. No answer was given, not even a light shone... dispirited and tired, I made my way back to the Alsatian Hotel to be presented with an envelope by Monsieur Dupoirier.

          "A friend apparently considers you worth a valuable gift." I nodded, removing that ticket to Villier's "Axel" at Theatre Montparnasse. "It is quite coveted here, all performances have been subscribed to for weeks."

          "It is for tomorrow afternoon," I observed. "Who brought this by?"

          "A boy," Dupoirier replied... one of those anyone could have hired for a couple of centimes." He glanced over my hand at the ticket. "A fine seat... up in the boxes. Are you an admirer of Madame's."

          "Bernhardt? I've heard about the lady but never seen her... well, this is another mystery which can only be solved one way." And, thanking the hotel manager, I retired immediately to bed and wasted the following morning strolling the banks of the Seine on which the palaces of the Exposition were rising... took a long lunch which precluded a return to the Temple Ahathoor and arrived at the appointed hour at the Theatre Montparnasse.


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