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Je veux dormir! dormir plutôt que vivre! Dans un sommeil aussi doux que la mort… C. B.
Shunned by family and friends, rejected by my class, reduced to frequenting the low establishments still willing to take my coin: I visit public houses slopping wretched ale, their filles de joie offering the most desultory of embraces. Life had become a desperate search, a stultifying circuit from that gloomy mansion where once our laughter reigned, to those scabrous beds, and back: to weep at the ivy-bound tomb where my Helaine sleeps.
Yet, this wretched half-life soon may end!
My carriage slows to turn—we pass through wrought-iron gates to wend our way along the drive to reach the columned portico. I sense excitement in the woman huddled next to me, though nothing like my own—to hear your dulcet voice again, my sweet Helaine!
Helaine! The brightest butterfly to dance among Spring’s flowers, where we as lissome youths wandered, innocent of love. Would that we had died then, in that natural, supple state of grace! But we matured, and scales fell from our eyes; and when we knew each other to be clothed, we craved to tear those clothes away.
We wed, but only to ordain the amatory joy we’d already tasted in each other’s arms. With power and wealth, accoutered lavishly, we swept society into our train without a thought beyond the latest titillation we might find, in wine, in opium, in Passion’s house. Season after season passed this way, the world beyond us burning in wars and revolutions, while nightly we consumed each other in the human flame.
Helaine! In full flower, voluptuous and daring, flaunting everything—but yielding to none but me!—teasing and denying all who dared to plead for her caress, her laughter bright as knives…
Entwined in passionate embrace one evening, fingers wandering her raven waves, I chanced upon a streak of brilliant white, emerging at her brow and sweeping sinistral. In days, a lush ivory coil graced her midnight mane. Had we known the meaning of this portent, would anything have changed? Would penitence and prayer have followed, with remission from above?
Then came the fateful night when, late for some debauch, I burst into our chamber unannounced to chastise my Helaine. She stood before her cheval mirror, in knickers and perfume, closing down her lamp as I approached—I thought, in feigned modesty. I clasped Helaine to my chest, our plans forgotten; and bending to her mane, murmured at her ear:
“Je plongerai ma tête amoureuse d’ivresse Dans ce noir océan où l’autre est enfermé…”
Leading me to our canopied retreat, Helaine took me with a fearsome appetite, seeking respite from her nascent fears. My eyes had not perceived the subtle transformation of her flesh my hands revealed: as half her tresses faded, so the left side of her perfect form regressed.
We dismissed her maid, to keep the secret through the sun-kissed summer. I helped Helaine rouge her pallid cheek, stuff half a soutien gorge within her corset to pad her thinning breast. She wore long sleeves despite the heat, to hide her wasting limbs. Her now-crooked smile was forced; insisting our nightly revels continue unabated, we danced, though less and less. But when her left eye’s cornflower blue darkened to the zaffre of a winter dusk, we could no longer conceal her transformation from a voyeuristic world. For a time Helaine appeared masked, defiant, flaunting a braid of black and white. As her left side withered, she lost the will to move her right. Her speech, once voluble, faltered into silence. No physician could restore Helaine to her health.
As autumn painted the landscape in splendid decay, we withdrew to our estate, then our manse, our chambers…our bed: our first and final pleasure. Albeit speechless, Helaine still could sing, regaling me with songs sweet and sensual, expressing all the emotions she could not utter. She drew her strength from our impassioned coupling, and found her only peace exhausted in my arms.
We could not deny the looming end. My ardor fed her spirit, yet bound her to her half-dead flesh, this world of suffering and decay. My selfishness brought me nightly to her side, expending myself, renewing her imprisonment.
I cleared the mausoleum, long-ignored, preparing for our last repose. I drove the workmen with Pharaonic cruelty, evicted its moldering occupants, and sumptuously refurbished it: this temple to great Thanatos! The finest artisans crafted a marble sarcophagus of double width, crowned with a divided lid of burnished bronze. Beneath its pedestal, a cunning clockwork drive would raise this roof. Its single chamber was readied for our occupancy with down-filled pillows and duvet, covered in finest crimson satin. In death, as in life, I meant us to remain entwined forever: for I would take my life when hers had lapsed.
My health was near collapse. On our last night, I passed into a drugged, sedated sleep, resigned to Death, Helaine curled within my arms.
Of the days that followed I have no recollection; and when I did awake, it was to find Helaine gone—gone!
Retainers said that my beloved wife was being borne to her final rest. I struggled to my feet, and throwing on greatcoat and boots, tottered out across the field to where the granite house of Death crouched against the blank October sky. I received no sympathy from her family, but hate-filled glances, muttered imprecations. I collapsed upon her bier, only to be rudely pulled away. I would have joined her within the vault even then! Restrained by rough hands I watched, helpless, as she was brought inside, the massive outer door closed, the tomb sealed. My Helaine—immured, alone!
Where lies the border between life and death? After her demise, and my exile from society, I obsessed upon Helaine’s fate. Might gentle Thanatos abide a truce—accept Helaine’s sinistral half-death and permit half-life to recommence? Did she yet linger at his threshold, waiting in an undead trance? The frozen Earth Herself rose every Spring from Winter death, surrendering to Sol’s fiery embrace—
Helaine! My thoughts hearkened back to our last week, and how her strength and color seemed restored in our couplings. The notion possessed me: that sufficient passion could raise her to life once again! I set out to restore my health, consulting physicians, foreswearing the tincture that had become my crutch. I groomed, and set a wholesome diet, and walked in Autumn’s watery sun to build my strength. My lingering guilt—that my waning ardor had spelt her doom—drove me on. Clearly, my youth had fled, and could not be restored.
Could I supplement my passion with another’s? Foolishly I sought out wantons in public houses and maisons de passé, searching… I found lost creatures little healthier than I had been, lacking the heated spirit of arousal. Near despair, I sat one night in a distant inn, alone, when she flounced up to me.
What’s your pleasure, sirrah? came a buoyant voice. Raising my gaze, I regarded the serving girl: a flower fresh-blossomed, inviting as a Spring day. Blonde curls framed an open face, flushed in the fire-lit room. I placed my bejeweled hand upon hers—she did not withdraw!—for her eyes revealed a hunger I knew all too well.
A coin secured her companionship for the night. I rushed her to my coach and thence to home, ushered my young guest within and made her wait, still cloaked, listening to the fading sound of hooves. Then with torches lit I brought her back into the night, across the fallow field, beneath mute stars, to your resting place, Helaine!
Helaine! Not once since that devastating day have I dared look upon you, though I had secured—stolen—the key from your jealous kin. I turn it in the lock, swing the heavy door aside, and urge my companion forward. I light the candles in their sconces, as she wonders at the luxury surrounding us.
Fumbling at strings and stays we loose our clothes, embrace unfettered, my kisses hungrily returned.
She gestures at our crypt and asks, Shall I put my cloak upon’t, m’Lord?
No, I reply, and bend to my task, rotating the ornate wheel that works the massive lid. Protesting, the clockwork advances, the halves retract, revealing our consecrated bed. She peers about, catching but a glimpse of that altar profane.
Faintly from within, a sentimental lyric floats: is it my insane imagination? No—for the girl beside me laughs, exclaiming, Not unlike a music box!
The sacrament of life is nigh! Helaine feels it, as do I! Enflamed, I kiss my young guest’s face, her neck; release her hair from bondage—and secure the ribbon round her eyes.
A surprise, my poppet, I assure her; then usher my trembling acolyte up the marble steps, led by the seductive voice—the song—of my Helaine!
Quotes from Le Léthé and La Chevelure by Charles Baudelaire, who translated the work of Edgar Allan Poe and brought it to the attention of the French public.
“The Song of Helaine,” by J.L. Royce, was first published on October 1, 2020 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe: Volume 1, Issue 1. You can get a free copy by joining Love Letters to Poe.
Interview with J.L. Royce, Author of “The Song of Helaine”
What inspired your story?
Poe was one of the inspirations for my adolescent efforts at poetry. When I began writing this story, I knew I wanted to embrace the voice of Poe, incorporating the rhythm of his poetry in the narration. Thematically, the story reflects an interest in the intersection of life and death I share with him.
Can you tell us more about those beautiful lines of French and why you chose to include them in “The Song of Helaine”?
I browsed Les Fleurs du Mal for inspiration while developing ‘Helaine’. Imagining a sensuous yet educated narrator, it fit his personality to quote Baudelaire in the bedroom. And Poe was fond of setting the mood with a premonitory morsel.
It seemed a fitting shout-out. Poe’s stories came to occupy a special place in the hearts of the French reading public in no small part due to the nuanced translations of Baudelaire. His own poetry (censored in his lifetime) reveals a writer reaching for the macabre in his topics, with a sensitivity for the pathos of inevitable doom in mundane lives. That both men were afflicted with health challenges, substance abuse, and personal tragedy is no coincidence. (Curiously, Baudelaire did not attempt to translate Poe’s verse—other than a prose version of ‘The Raven’—despite his own lasting contribution to French verse.)
…one sometimes feels when reading the translation that Edgar Poe wrote his own stories both in English and French, and one is not sure in which language one prefers them.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, Paris, 1935
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
How to choose? The Moonstone is my favorite in the mystery mode, perhaps because it was one of my first encounters with Gothic. The Sound and The Fury, among other Gothics of the South (America’s natural home for the genre). Among shorter works, The Great God Pan, Frankenstein, etc. And of Poe, the difficult choice among so many being (perhaps) ‘Usher’ and certainly ‘Ulalume’; for all Gothic truth will be revealed during lonesome October.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
I’m a published author, primarily writing science fiction and macabre tales, though also noir, crime, romance, humor, non-genre…whatever else strikes me. I live and work in the northern reaches of the American Midwest. I’ve had pieces accepted by a few evolved editors at Allegory, Ghostlight, Sci Phi, Stupefying Stories, Utopia, etc. Some anthologized stories may be found on Amazon. There’s a Facebook author page, somewhere. And my Twitter handle is @AuthorJLRoyce.
A big thank-you to our readers, and to you, Sara, for creating this Gothic venue!