“Welcome young master,” the stooped servant said. “You have arrived at a most fortuitous moment. The ceremony is just about to begin.”
“Thank you. The Signora Cat–“
The servant held up a hand cutting off the new arrival. “Begging your pardon young master. We don’t use names at the Comte’s revels. Except of course for the host’s name. Everyone simply calls the host Malfait. Or The Malfait.” The servant laughed. “And we use my name as well. I am Jacques.”
Isabel nodded stiffly. Had Jacques recognized my voice? she wondered. She stood silently waiting.
“Well, since this seems to be your first time attending one my master’s revels, I shall lead the way.” Jacques turned and started down a path into the darkness of the villa’s gardens. “Follow me if you please, my young master,” he said over his shoulder.
Following after Jacques, Isabel smiled. Everything was happening just as she had planned it. She had found clothes that fit her in her brother’s wardrobe, and she had even found an old carnival mask of his. Once she was sure the household had retired to their bed chambers, she donned the masculine garb and slipped into the garden. It was a significant walk to the Comte’s villa, but she was accustomed to long walks in the hills surrounding Villefranche and the moon was bright. When she had arrived, she had discovered the house quiet and dark. Remembering the Signora describing the Comte’s revels as Bacchanalian, Isabel reasoned the festivities might be taking place in the gardens behind the villa. She had just reached the rear of the house when she had been met by Jacques. Who was now kindly leading the way to the other guests.
As they walked, they passed a collection of classical statues, their nude, marble skin gleaming in the moonlight. The statues, mostly of fawns, satyrs, and nymphs drinking and frolicking licentiously, only confirmed that the Comte was a dedicated libertine. Isabel was still contemplating the statues when she realized that they were very far from the house, and yet there was still no evidence of any revels whatsoever.
Had the Signora been wrong? Was there no revel at all tonight? But then, why had Jacques welcomed her as if indeed there was a revel in progress? A wave of panic washed over Isabel. Was this a trap?
Presently, Jacques stopped at a large outcropping of rock. He took hold of a curtain of ivy and pulled it to one side. “Here we are my young master. Follow this passageway and it will lead you to the main Grotto,” Jacques said. “Most of the guest are gathered there.”
Isabel nodded again and entered the passage way. “Enjoy the festivities, my young master,” Jacques said and then released the curtain of ivy which fell back across the entrance and blotted out the view of the garden. Isabel looked around and listened. The passageway slopped downward and was illuminated by the orange light of touches ensconced on the rough-hewn walls. The atmosphere was dense with the smoke from the torches, the aroma of spilled wine, and incense. A swell of laughing and cheers emanated from somewhere deeper in the cavern. Making sure that her mask was secure, Isabel proceeded downward.
Before long, openings in the walls of the passageway appeared to her left and right. Isabel peered into each one as she passed by. Some of the openings were cloaked in an inky darkness and others were lit by torches that revealed small alcoves. Close to the entrance, these alcoves were empty, but the deeper down the passage she went, the more often Isabel found them occupied. At first, the revelers in these alcoves were only engaged in drinking and whispering conspiratorially. Isabel continued on, and as she glanced into the next alcove she found a woman sitting on a man’s lap. The woman was giggling and tearing furiously at the man’s coat. Isabel’s eyes were drawn downward and she perceived that the man’s right arm, up to his elbow was somewhere under the woman’s gown. The woman leaned backwards. This motion combined with the position of the man’s arm caused the hem of the woman’s gown to rise, and presently Isabel could see the very tops of the woman’s stockings. A moment later, Isabel perceived the location of the man’s hand and surmised the activity the hand was engaged in.
This realization propelled Isabel away from the alcove’s opening. “I pray they did not see me,” she said quietly to the rocky walls that surrounded her. She paused to take a few deep breaths, and contemplated going back to the alcove. She could approach the alcove slowly and quietly. Thus, by listening, and perhaps peeking in, Isabel could assertion if the couple had seen her. Finally, she decided against it and continued on her way. If she had any hope of avoiding being shackled to the Comte in marriage, she had to find Malfait and personally witness his debaucheries.
For a short while, Isabel did not pass any more alcoves. The passageway stopped descending and there ahead of her she saw a bright light and heard the cheer of a large number of people. This must be the grotto Jacques spoke of. Malfait would certainly be there.
Isabel increased her pace and soon the entrance into the grotto loomed before her.
Presently, her progress was arrested by the distinct crack of a riding crop followed by a cry. Immediately to her left was an alcove and the scene taking place within, transfixed Isabel. In the center was a large wine cask on it side. Draped over the cask was a man in the prime years of his life. His breaches and stockings had been pulled down and now shackled his ankles. There were two women in the room. Neither wore a dress or a gown. Rather, they were adorned only in shifts, stocking, shoes, and the make-up of actresses. One of the women held the man’s hands, or rather the silk cravat that now was tied tightly around the man’s writs. The other woman stood on the opposite side of the cask and was using a switch to whip the man’s exposed flesh.
The scene caused a tumult to whirl inside Isabel. On the one side of the cask, Isabel saw a growing number bright red line rise on the man’s bare skin. The welts looked painful beyond words. On the other, she saw upon the man’s face an expression of pure ecstasy. With each blow a wordless sigh passed his lips as if he was thoroughly enjoying his torment. Indeed, when one of the women demanded to know how wicked he was, the man eagerly confessed that he was thoroughly wicked.
“Then you deserve more lashes?” the woman asked.
“Yes, mistress. Yes!” the man cried out. “More!”
The woman with the switch proceeded. At that moment, the other woman looked up and noticed Isabel intently watching the trio. She released the man’s bound hands and approached Isabel.
“Begging you pardon my lord,” she said very sweetly as she put a hand upon Isabel’s coat. “But ’tis rude to watch when not invited. Perhaps you need some punishment as well?” The woman ran her hand down the coat and stopped at Isabel’s waist. Ever so slowly, the hand began to snake around Isabel’s waist.
Isabel looked over her shoulder towards the grotto. “I have,” she started but stopped cleared her throat and started again. “I have been summoned by the Comte.”
The woman let her hand fall away. “Very good my lord,” she said and looked over Isabel deliberately moving her gaze from Isabel’s feet up to the mask that hid Isabel’s face. “After the Comte is finished. We shall still be here, my lord. If there is a need.” She smiled and then returned to the man draped over the wine cask.
Isabel hurried down the passageway and entered the grotto. A multitude of torches provided more light than was present in the dim cavern she had just quitted. To go along with the multitude of torches there was a multitude of revelers. They were all gazing at the far end of the grotto, but Isabel could not see what their gazes beheld. The host of revelers blocked her view.
However, before Isabel had a chance to decide what to do next, a hand grasped her shoulder. She looked up expecting to see Malfait, convinced that somehow she had given herself away. But it was not Malfait. Rather, it was an elderly man with a broad smile.
“Well met, well my young signor!” he said. “It warms my heart to see young men such as yourself joining our ranks.” He looked around the assembled host. “We must have young vital blood if we are to maintain our very existence.” He laughed and his laugh was jovial, but Isabel shivered.
She felt she should say something, but could think of nothing. The man’s speech did not seem to require a response, but even if it had, Isabel’s mind was lingering on what she had witnessed in the last alcove and she doubted she could have formed a coherent statement.
The old man continued speaking saving Isabel from having to master her thoughts and form them into words. “What an old fool I am,” he said. “A young man like yourself cares not for the worries of the old. You are here to see the ritual.”
Before she could say or do anything to protest, the old man had taken hold of her arm and was guiding her to the front of the gathered guests. As the last of her fellow revelers parted to make way for her, Isabel was treated with a sight that would not have been out of place at the court of some decedent Roman emperor. On a dais sat a larger-than-life statue of a satyr who was holding a nymph on his lap. The loins of the two figures were pressed together and their heads were thrown back, expressions of pleasant death upon their faces. It took little to imagine what the pair was doing. And Isabel possessed more than the requisite imagination.
What was taking place before the dais required no imagination at all. Before the dais was a handful of young men and women. One of the men was bereft of all clothing except for his mask and a small goat skin that had been thrown over his shoulder. Standing close to him was a young woman wearing a shift, stockings and a mask. A man and a woman – perhaps the age of Malfait – stood on either side of her. The man crouched down, took hold of the woman’s ankle and ran his hands up under her shift. A moment later, his hands reappeared holding the woman’s garter. He stood up triumphantly and tossed it towards the revelers.
Isabel, who could not help but look back and forth between the disrobed man and what was happening to the young woman, felt something brush against her chest. Her hands instinctively went up and looking down, Isabel realized she had caught – very much by chance – the woman’s garter.
While the disrobing proceeded, Isabel examined the garter now in her possession. Beautifully embroidered on it were the words, ne plus ultra. Isabel knew enough Latin to know that it literally meant, “Not further beyond,” and less literally, “the highest point one could attain.” It was a versatile phrase. Louis XIV, The Sun King himself, christened a collections of fortresses along his frontier ne plus ultra. And Isabel knew that it was not uncommon for ladies to embroider this phrase upon their garters to remind so-called gentlemen of the highest point their hands could roam.
A cheer from the assembled notables brought Isabel out of her reverie. She looked up and the young woman was now devoid of all covering, save for that which her mask, hands and arms could provide. Clearly, the injunction ne plus ultra has failed, Isabel thought.
“Huzzah for the nymph of Bacchus! Long live the God of Wine!” The crowd cheered as one, and then drained their goblets. From the shadows, servants appeared and began refiling the empty cups.
The pace of events seem to quicken. The other young men and women before the dais were stripped of every bit of clothing save for their masks, and given bundles of fennel staffs tipped with pine cones.
Presently, a most outrageous and debauched pantomime ensued. The evening’s nymphs and satyrs ran amongst the throng of guests passing out the staffs to some – but not all – of the guests. As the last of the fennel staffs were given out, Isabel discerned that the guests without a flower had all received one of the pine-cone tipped rods while those who wore a white flower had not. Isabel furtively glanced around the room. She was not wearing a flower of any kind, but neither nymph nor satyr had given her a staff. But before she could contemplate this mystery further, the next act of this play opened.
Those holding these scepters of Bacchus began chasing those who wore a white flower – amid roaring laughter and light giggling. Sometimes the pursued capitulated quickly. Sometimes the pursuers found themselves in possession of someone other than the one they had initially pursued.
Eventually, the satyrs – for it seemed to Isabel that those holding the pine-cone tipped staffs were cast in this role had captured all the nymphs – those wearing a white flower. Then in pairs, or trios, or even in pairs of pairs, they retired into one of the many alcoves, or simply collapsed onto one of the many convenient divans placed about the grotto.
The final act began. Dresses and gowns were raised and breeches were lowered, and a repetition of what Isabel had seen just before she entered the grotto, commenced. Some begged for the lashes to be harder and other begged to be given more of them. Others delivered or received the merest of taps, before the satyrs and nymphs fell into pursuits that Isabel could recognize from Ovid’s descriptions in his Ars Amatoria.
During the chase, Isabel had been able to swim through the waves of satyrs and nymphs, and found what seemed a safe place with her back against the rocky wall. As she watched the debauchery take place before her eyes, Isabel clutched at the tight, lace cravat about her neck. I shall surely swoon if I do not get out of this place, she thought.
However, she did not move from where she stood. She was transfixed by the riot of bare and intertwined limbs.
Then a man loomed before her. Isabel’s eyes were at the height of his chest, and rooted to the spot, all she could do was stare at his waistcoat.
Suddenly panic seized her for she recognized the waistcoat. Her eyes flew up and were met by the deep, dark eyes of the Comte du Malfait. The Comte held one of the cone-tipped fennel staffs. Later, she would scold herself for doing so, but at that moment she could not feel her legs and fell into the Comte’s chest in a swoon. With the speed of a cat pouncing upon a mouse, Malfait had his arm tightly around Isabel’s waist and was easily holding her up.
Isabel was still sensible enough to hear a fellow reveler say, “Ha! Malfait, you old libertine! What will your young innocent bride-to-be, the Lady Isabel, say if ever she finds how you treated with that young lad you’ve captured there?”
The Comte returned the laugh. “Signor, the Lady Isabel is a faithful follower of the Holy Church. She shall follow Christ’s example grant me forgiveness!”
The two laughed even louder until the good signor became distracted by a young woman a short distance away, whose bodice had come undone. “Adieu Malfait!” he said over his shoulder as he moved toward the young woman with the falling bodice.
Malfait leaned down and whispered into Isabel’s ear. “Come my young signor. Let us retire to the garden for a bit of night air.” Isabel fearing the sound of her voice would give her away remained silent. Malfait gripped her wrist tightly, “Come! I shall introduce you to the pleasures of the god Bacchus.” And he lead her down the torch-lit cave.