Sitting before you is a woman of enrapturing and unearthly beauty. In the flickering light of the candle near her, she seems for a moment to be in her twenties, then thirties, then perhaps a youthful forty. Her large blonde eyes are highlighted with black liner and vivid, but show age and pain too profound for any twenty-year-old. Kissable, pouting lips glisten with a trace of rose lipstick; you suspect it is exotically flavoured.
Salome's creamy flesh is modestly covered, but has a warm, ruddy tone and the smoothness of someone who does not see the sun; much like the Irish and their mist-softened complexions. The glossy mane of auburn curls fall from a widow's peak past her waist, pooling artistically around her on the chaise she lounges on. Perhaps to your surprise, you wonder how those curls would look spread across a pillow; in sleep or tousled in passion.
Male or female, you find yourself reacting oddly to this woman. You draw yourself up to your full height, perhaps suck in a hint of a paunch given you by too many nights of Dionysian indulgence. You hear yourself choosing your words with more deliberance than usual, perhaps words you have not used since your University admissions essays and college board exams. Language falls effortlessly from your lips: "tergiversation," "atavistic," "et hoc genus omne."
Even your gestures seem more measured, show more bearing. You must admit, she seems to bring out the best in you, but you cannot say whether it is to seduce her, impress her, or merely assert yourself in her nearly intoxicating presence. You might even wipe at your brow offhandedly when you do not think she is watching you... the heat emanating from this woman is intense, as if too close to some raging forest fire. At the same time, however, while she plays the perfect hostess and laughs appropriately at your humour; you know in your heart this is something like those crushes on school teachers years ago. Her sheer unattainable aura, however, draws you closer to her.
Salome is devastatingly beautiful, though perhaps not in any vogue manner. Though encased in a high-fashion silken poet's shirt and tailored leather slacks, she seems more at home in a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti or some other Pre-Raphelite master. You imagination unconsciously places her in an Empire gown of embroidered burnt umber velvet, seed pearls sprinkled in her curls. Looking closer, you might discern a voluptuous figure, high and full breasts, and a tiny waist gently flaring into Rubenesque hips.
She leans over the chair as she speaks to you in the manner of a jungle cat... even her gestures make you wonder if she might not purr should your words please her. It is sensual, but not in the least human. She does not seem very tall-- perhaps five five were she to stand-- but her movements have a grace and presence making her seem larger; royal or metempsychotic, perhaps.
She fixes her gaze evenly upon you, and lets out a quiet laugh, small wind chimes caressed by a May breeze. Her voice, when she speaks, has a timbre you have never before heard... not traditionally feminine, but sensual, evoking some meld of Bacall, Monroe, and the archaic bawdiness of Mae West. But beyond the obvious erotic value of her tones, there is something soothing about her words, how they run together like a brook over small stones. Her French is inflected with the accent of the finest Sorbonne education, her English that gentle, sophisticated London-BBC style Americans find so cultured.
"Bonsoir, enchantee, je sais. Je m'appelle la Viscomptess de Valmont. You might know me by one of my other names... I have been clept so many over the aeons. Lilith, Salome, Athena; I am the nightmare you wake from screaming, and the erotic dreams entrancing your sleep. I am deeply regretful neither I nor Trent have the time to entertain you right now, but do stay and look around... I shall soon return, and we have so much to speak on..."
Salome rises from the chaise preternaturally fluidly, each muscle stretching and lining her slacks in a Michaelangean bas-relief, curls falling fully around her in a halo. She pauses at the door, calling back over her shoulder and off-handedly gesturing for you to take the vacated couch.
I implore you rest, cheri, the night is so long...
You and your lover find yourselves wandering the side streets of Paris, as tourists so often do, perhaps looking for an open cafe to enjoy a merlot in the balmy auburn twilight, or searching for an antique store with the perfect painting to bundle up and ship to some friend back home. Winding aimlessly through the tiny alleys near the Seine, you pratter along the way of little things lovers or parents of small children might... the ducks sleeping by the banks, les bateaux mouches, the stars reflecting on the flat water, anything to avoid silence; a deep an nearly sacrophigan shroud that wrapped around you when you stepped off the main street. Even your footsteps seem muffled to your ears, and you subconciously speak in the low, confidential tones lovers use when they know they are alone.
You arrive on a small side street you never normally would have noticed, marked by a tiny weathered bronze and porcelain sign reading "Rue Plumet." Something steers you down the street, obviously little travelled but extremely posh, and you halt before a wide expanse of white marble stairs leading to what must be called a mansion, number 55.
55 Rue Plumet is a home unlike any other on the avenue, a gray stone fortress-cum-castle complete with turrets and leaden glass windows. Unable to resist, you climb the black marble stairs and rap on the heavy brass lion door knocker. The door slowly and silently opens.
Stepping inside you see a welcoming hall of stone, hung with Renaissance tapestries of unicorns and kings. There is a suit of armour in the corner, and a darkwood staircase carpeted in crimson spirals off into the shadows. The hallway appears to be a tromp l?oeil?it cannot be this large with the Seine so close behind, and the ceiling cannot possibly be so high. Two flags hang from the beams of the high ceiling: the fleur-de-lis of Napoleon?s army and the Gryphon rampant. They stir on the beams high above your head as though caressed by a slight breeze, though you feel no draft.
Walking across the inlaid parquet floor, you enter the gentleman's salon to the rear of the house. A crackling blaze burns in a huge stone fireplace, nearly the length of the back wall. It burns some aromatic fruitwood, popping and crackling occasionally. On the ornate mantelpiece are an antique clock and a matched pair of porcelain Chinese pug dogs. Above are a crossed sabre and riding crop below a golden gilt coat of arms bearing the gryphon on the flag in the welcoming hall.
As you turn to regard the rest of the room you are greeted with a gothic-style gentleman's salon whispering "d'argent ancien" ... the arm chairs are aged Italian leather, the couch is upholstered in burgundy velvet, and the rug before the hearth is antique Persian. There is a rosewood billiards table in the corner; complete with woven leather pockets, coated in green flocking and hand-painted balls already racked for a game. Tiger maple cues lay deliberately crossed in the centre of the table.
Small wrought-iron sconces provide the little light in the room, paneled in gleaming russett mahogany. There is a large but friendly Mastiff-- Excelsior-- before the fire, looking too old and too comfortable to concern himself with you.
On the left wall are floor-to-ceiling bookcases with a movable ladder. You mount the first stair and take one volume down... a leather-bound first edition of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Slipping it back on the shelf?next to what appears to be a full set of Poe?s works?you take another from a higher shelf? a first edition of Pierre Ambroise Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Opening to the fly leaf, you find the inscription "To my beloved ?fictional? Viscount de Valmont? Immortal Deception, Pierre."
A scent catches your attention throughout the house? first sandalwood, then clove, now the tinge of apples? it constantly shifts, but it pleases you, so you do not dwell on it.
Returning to the main hall, you look around, noting a silver tray with calling cards on it? Mme. de Tourvelle, Madame du Velange, le Chevalier Dulcany. The parquet floor gleams like glass, as does all the furniture, giving off a light whiff of linseed oil and lemon. There are fresh flowers in every room, and if you strain your ears you can hear harpsichord music? perhaps Vivaldi's Primavera... playing from hidden speakers.
The open doorway on your right leads to a ladies? parlour, damask armchairs, a silk toille couch, delicate end tables. Everywhere are small, subtle hints of wealth? the Faberge album on the coffee table, a Louis Comfort Tiffany lamp? is that an authentic Monet on the wall? The scent here seems to dwell on summer-warmed roses and afternoon high tea. In the corner is a Steinway baby grand piano draped with an antique Spanish shawl. Walking closer, you see the sheet music to Don Giovanni on the stand. Heavy brocade curtains cloak the windows, parting to reveal a tiny pocket garden with a fountain and a rose arbor, bowing beneath huge sanguine blossoms.
Returning to the entrance hall, you take the left door to the dining room?well, Hall, more honestly? you quickly count seating for at least 20 at the banquet table. The table is set with Wedgewood, Baccarat crystal, and Irish linen, with an elaborate arrangement of roses and lilies at the centre. The chandelier above is scintillating Austrian crystal.
On the sideboard?Chippendale, you note?is a Waterford decanter set filled with a robust porter, two snifters, and a small collection of Royal Doulton and Quimper. There is also a filigree sterling wine chiller? turning the bottle, you find it to be a Dom Perignon from the late 1890s.
Wandering into the front hall once more, you take the staircase to the upstairs corridor. On your left is a hardwood door to Salome and Trent's room. Testing the knob, you find it open?
The room before you is cavernous, painted in a blue-gray with plaster crown molding of the fleur-de-lis. As you step inside, you note the ink-black Berber carpet muffles your steps completely, and its thick pile invites you to remove your shoes and feel it between your bare toes. In the centre of the ceiling is an antique medallion with a wrought-iron chandelier hanging from it; still lowered for bee's-wax candles, you note, by an elaborate pulley system. As before, there is a subtle but delectable scent here, this time you guess it bayberry.
The centerpiece of the room is a four-posted king-size bed crafted of ebony and draped with an opalescent netting. Pushing back the drapery, you find it to be carefully made with a downy gold satin comforter inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones, and velvet throw pillows to match. At the head of the bed is curled a mammoth onyx Persian cat, who opens one evergreen eye to regard you before returning to his nap. On the wall near the bed is a signed Marc Chagall in a slate frame.
The far wall, you note suddenly, is draped completely in black velvet. Tugging on the satin pull, you draw these drapes back to reveal french doors. You swing them open and step out onto a balcony offering what must be the finest view of the Seine in all Paris, the Rose Window of Notre Dame across the river glittering in the auburn light of dusk. There are a small vergris table and two chairs set on the balcony, and window boxes filled with red geraniums hang over the railing.
Regretfully returning indoors, on the opposite wall is a Chippendale armoire (concealing, you learn, a large television and entertainment centre, complete with DVD). Atop this is an arrangement of fresh red and white roses in what appears to be-- gasp!-- a Ming Dynasty vase.
Crossing to the third wall, you note two carved-ebony doors on the far wall. The first opens to reveal a cedar closet the size of most bedrooms, neatly divided between Trent and Salome. If you were to push aside the Versache and Givenchy evening gowns, you would reveal a padlocked trapdoor leading to a stone tomb, complete with three luxuriant sarcophagi lined in velvet and riches to make King Solomon jealous. But you do not?you quit the closet, noting the slightest scent of heather beneath the cedar? just enough to call to mind springtime in some distant Scottish highland.
The other door gives way to the master bath (the only bath, you realise, you have seen in the mansion). It is replete with a sunken Jacuzzi, green marble, and hammered brass wash basins and fixtures. You marvel at the attention to the smallest detail, down to tiny soaps shaped as cameos, a daffodil-coloured rubber ducky, and scented bath crystals in a frosted jar. The thick Egyptian cotton towels and velvet robes bear the insignia VTV and VSV? Vicompte Trent Valmont and Vicomptess Salome Valmont, you suppose. It is not until you turn to leave that you note the absence of a chamber pot or... similar device.
Drawing the door to this suite closed behind you, you cross the stairs and approach the far door.
This is the bed chamber of Sebastión, the fallen angel of legend. He is away from Paris right now, on "business" in New York with Gabriel and Uriel, I believe. I might tell you of his rooms, decorated in a lavish and Bohemian style showing taste and reckless eternal youth, with treasures to shame those you have yet seen?
But 'Bastión guards his privacy closely in these modern times. The crystal knob does not give when you try the door. I respect his wishes, and shall fall silent here.
~ Vicomptess Valmont
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My Poetry: The Byronic Postmodern