The wine-cheap. The chairs-itchy, and guaranteed to pinch the thighs. Only the crystal chandelier relieved the severity of the tone, but it couldnâ€™t be helped. One canâ€™t always have a room as miserable as one would like it.
They had drawn up the white sheet over poor Harryâ€™s face, and the widow considered that there was nothing much left to live for. She had no use for cards, flowers, and the common sorts of well-meaning visitor. Instead, she much preferred to throw an old fashioned pity party.
The guest list for this party was exclusive. In the drawing rooms of her late husbandâ€™s acquaintances, she had listened, fascinated, to the stories of the centuryâ€™s most tragic figures. These stories held a weird obsession for her. She believed that these people had suffered, and through their suffering passed through a sort of gateway that led them to a deepened understanding of life. Now that life had dealt her a cruel blow, she planned to deprive herself off sensual comfort, and enter a material desert. Since she could no longer be young and beautiful, she meant to be wise.
Ferdinand and Paula were the first guests she selected. As young people, this pair had met on the steps of the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia in Barcelona. At a glance, they loved; at the first word exchanged, they were bonded for a lifetime. However, Ferdinand was the son of a tailor, and Paulaâ€™s family had amassed great wealth. The marriage was impossible. Out of respect for the other, each remained celibate, though it was said, when hearing the news that he could not marry her, Ferdinand nearly starved himself to death, and poor Paula wept so long, for so many days, that she was temporarily blind. Eventually, Paula was forced into marriage with a lecherous and abusive Count. Through many years the pair was separated; the Count took poor Paula to Germany, and placed her under guard in a secret section of a great castle. Eventually, through drinking and debauchery, the Count spent his health, and died, leaving Paula a great fortune. She sent for Ferdinand immediately, but when he saw her he was repulsed by her appearance, so changed from the lovely girl he once knew. They retained a sort of contact, but it was said that each was conscious of the loss of a great love, and that Paula had even traveled as far as America seeking a fountain of youth that would return the years to herâ€”but alas, alas.
Next, there was the case of Monseigneur Pucello, from Rome. This manâ€™s piety was notorious. Once he nearly caused a riot in Budapest, when thousands mobbed the streets to touch the hem of his robe. It was said that had even raised a man from the dead. However, that must have been just a story, because this man, so pious and inspiring to others, had lost his faith entirely. Secretly, he prayed to regain it, and his body was covered in scars, where he mortified his flesh. However, it was to no avail. This spiritual leader feared death as he feared nothing else, lacking hope in redemption.
Finally, there was the case of Miss Parker, an Englishwoman. This woman was a brilliant writer and a talented musician. She had penned twelve novels, and a jazz symphony. However, for many years she suffered from an incurable illness that slowly was paralyzing her. Eventually this illness would reach her throat, and stop her breathing, but not before she suffered the frightening reality of being trapped in her own body. As a result of this, she had developed an addiction to laudanum. The opiate blurred the edge of her pain, and gave a sort of pastel glow to her existence. However, soon the effects of this drug would overtake her, and she would lose her intellect as well. A sad, sad taleâ€¦fitting with the others. She would be quite at home on the third floor of the widowâ€™s rambling mansion, and a welcome addition to the Pity Party.
At the appointed hour, the old chandelier was lit, and the guests were ushered into the room where the widow, resplendent in her grief, received each in turn. Miss Parker, in her wheelchair, was positioned to the widowâ€™s right hand. The other guests were in a kind of semi-circle, facing her.
â€śPaula,â€ť began the widow. â€śI am so glad you could come. How is it with you and Ferdinand?â€ť She reached out to place her hand on Paulaâ€™s knee. â€śWe are all friends here.â€ť
Paulaâ€™s appearance was as dowdy as one would expect. Her hair was dyed black, and pulled up hastily. She wore a simple tweed suit, and sensible walking shoes. Her vision was poor, so she was obliged to wear thick glasses. Her skin was a ghostly white, almost transparent, and she could not stand the sun, finding the glare intolerable. Blue veins radiated from her elbow to her hands, and along her calves. Truly, she her appearance was not only plain, but a little disturbing.