The Compleat Kepler: The Confessor

cover-smallThe Confessor

The final story in this collection is “The Confessor,” about a man in Antebellum New Orleans who is mistaken for an Episcopal priest. The man, a wine trader named Jack Lucas, does nothing to correct this perception because he recognizes the old man who wants to unburden himself. See, Jack came to America from Italy and assimilated as a way of fitting in. And he remembers tales from his youth in Tuscany of “crazy old Montressor.”

How crazy is crazy old Montressor? Well, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story about him, “A Cask of Amontillado.” For those of you rusty on your Poe or who have never read the story, Montressor is a man explaining how he lured a man named Fortunado to his death over some perceived insult that is never explained. While reading the story, I got the impression that the slight was all in Montressor’s mind. One other question arose the last time I read it.

Who in the hell is he talking to?

What follows after the jump is the answer.

The Confessor

by Jim Winter

based on “A Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen poe

Crazy Montressor.  That’s what they called him when I was a boy in Tuscany.  I never understood why.  The man did not wander the streets shouting like some of the more bizarre beggars.  As I grew older, I began to notice it was his servants.  They feared him for some reason.  When I became an adult, I realized they not only feared their master.

They pitied him as well, said he woke up at night screaming from nightmares.  I could understand that.  My father died when I was eight.  Before my mother married Signor Luchresi, who raised me as his own son, I had nightmares of what might have happened to Papa.  The Inquisition had long since faded in our part of Italy, but the tales of torture had not.  Some nights, I believed they had dragged Papa off to prison, placed hot pokers against his skin until he confessed heresy, and executed him when he did confess to stop the pain.

I suppose it was Papa’s fault.  He liked to tell me those stories as a way of getting me to do my lessons or my chores.  I did the same to my children later in life, and they do the same to theirs now.  No one really believes them until something happens.  Maybe something happened to Signor Montressor.

Italy, like anywhere else in Europe, was no place to be for a young man of my generation.  Unless one emigrated to London or Stockholm, he could count on war, followed by disease and poverty, disrupting his life.  If one of the privileged crowned heads felt threatened, a young man might even find his life shortened in some sort of royal infantry.  Soon, even Britain offered no guarantees.  Like many of my generation, I left Europe behind for America, settling in New Orleans just in time to see Napoleon’s war reach across the Atlantic.

I needn’t have worried.  General Jackson turned back the invaders.   I settled into a life my Papa and Signor Luchresi had chosen for themselves, that of a wine trader.

They say America is a land of opportunity.  What they never say is that it’s a land of opportunity for the Anglo-Saxon and his cousins: the Scot, the German, and the French.  Italians, Spaniards, and especially the lowly Irish need not bother.  To increase my chances, I learned to speak English as an Englishman would and left not only Tuscany behind forever, but the name Luchresi.  To all New Orleans, I was “Mr. Lucas,” the wine trader.

I thought I had left Montressor behind as well, but no.  Crazy Montressor had also fled the wars in Europe.  Someone later told me he fled to London, then Philadelphia.  Following the expansion of this rough, new nation, he eventually settled in New Orleans.

None of this I knew nor suspected until one morning, decades after I had established myself.  I had breakfasted at Mrs. Worthington’s boardinghouse since I first arrived in the city, and continued to eat there twice a day even after I bought a house on the outskirts of the city.  On an ordinary morning, like any other, I saw him.

Age had not been kind to him.  Hair flew from his skull in thin, white wisps.  His eyes seemed perpetually rimmed in red.  Though, as in Tuscany, he spoke and behaved pleasantly, his face seemed dark and shadowed.  No wonder, I thought after seeing him a few times at the boarding house, we thought he was crazy.  It was as though two Montressor’s occupied the same space, one fighting the other to be the true Montressor.

I kept to myself, discreetly asking Mrs. Worthington or her servants – I could never bring myself to call them slaves – about him.  Never once did I approach him.  Signor Luchresi had always been wary of the man.  Also, I had no way of knowing how Montressor would react when he learned Jack Lucas, wine merchant and civic leader was really little Giacommo Luchresi who would sometimes lose his foot ball in his hedges.

We did business, Montressor and I, always through an intermediary.  A young boy who frequently ran errands in the neighborhood often brought a list of wines the old man wanted.  Judging by his tastes, it appeared Napoleon’s men had made off with some of his prized collection.  The rest had been sold to finance his escape to England, then America.  Some of the wines required waiting months at a time to procure.  The South of France still reeled from Napoleon’s fall, and the more obscure Italian and Spanish vintages had always proved hard to come by in the best of times.

Weekly the boy brought Montressor’s orders and his money, taking back what orders I could fill.  Daily, Montressor dined at the boarding house, a fixture in the dining room like some common drunk who never left the saloon.  I never spoke to the man, only watching him from afar until one day…

“Pardon me, Father,” he said.

I looked up from the remains of my bacon and eggs at him, startled that he would approach.  “May I help you?”

He took a seat at my table, staring at me with a desperation I had not seen since the war threatened to overwhelm the city.  “I’m sorry, Padre.  I do not wish to impose, but I wondered if you would hear an old man’s confession.”

Padre?  I had not heard anyone called that in years.  Yet here was Montressor, not recognizing Signor Luchresi’s adopted son, calling me “Father” in our native tongue.  Not only was I not a priest, I had not even been a Papist for almost twenty years.

“I realize you are not in your habit,” he continued, “but I can see by your demeanor and your dress that you are indeed a priest.”

I looked down at myself, clad in a black coat, tunic, and trousers.  My wife had nagged me about dressing so dour, but for some reason, the black clothing seemed to suit me, part of my persona as Jack Lucas.  Rather than explain this to Montressor, I simply said, “I am not a Papist.”

Montressor seemed taken aback at this.  “Oh, I meant no offense, Father.  I have great respect for our Anglican brethren.  This is a new land.  No?  Free and open to all.”

Alice, the tired negro girl who came to Mrs. Worthington’s service as a wedding present, cleared my plates and poured me another cup of coffee.

“And you wish to confess to me?” I said.  As a matter of fact, I had become an Anglican, though hardly with the zeal required to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.  “We do not hear confessions in our rite, Signor Montressor, but I am a man of Christ. I will listen if your soul is burdened.”

I have no idea why I said that, but curiosity stopped me from correcting Montressor’s mistake.  Alice stood behind Montressor, grinning.  I nodded at her, silently giving her permission to go tell her mistress the prank I was about to play on her resident.

“Then perhaps you will indulge an old man’s ramblings.  Unlike you, I am a stranger in this land.”  Montressor leaned back and began his tale.  “Long ago, Father, when I lived in Italy, I met a woman, a fair young peasant girl named Maria.  She brought my blood to boil.”  He looked at me for either reproach or approval.

“We are men,” I said, “and our flesh is often weak in youth.  Pray, continue.”

“This girl, not quite yet a woman, came to my estate in Tuscany to deliver wine from the vineyard her family worked.  She so excited me.  I took her to a festival when she grew old enough to leave her family.  She was too poor for her family to give me a dowry, but I did not care.  She was my Venus, my Lucretia.”

I hesitated to tell him Lucretia had been raped, that Mr. Shakespeare had written about it.  “Go ahead.  I’m listening.”

“I proposed to her,” he said, “right at the festival.  It was perfect, I tell you.  The moon was fat and full.  Music filled the air. The bishop himself had come, and if she accepted my proposal, he would have married us that night.”

I had actually heard this story before, but not from Montressor’s point of view.  He had my full attention.  “She said no?”

“She did.”

“What happened next?”

A sigh escaped the old man, and he seemed to deflate like a balloon.  Only then did I see his true age.  I knew Montressor to be at least fifteen years older than myself.  Seeing him like this put him at more like twenty or thirty years older.  It amazed me the old man had survived this long, particular with the arduous journey that had brought him across my path.

“In my anger and my drunkenness,” he said weakly, “I took liberties with her.  I shamed her.  I used her for a common whore.”

A cold rock settled in the pit of my stomach.  I prayed silently that I had not already heard what came next, that Montressor’s crime had a different outcome.

Instead, he said, “And when she learned she was pregnant, my rival swooped in to take her away from me.  That man.  That bloody man.  That Judas Iscariot!  We had been friends in childhood!  Friends!”

I did not want to hear anymore.  How I maintained my calm demeanor to this day I cannot remember.  I simply said, “That is enough for today, Signor Montressor.”  When he looked up, I added, “Oh, don’t look so surprised.  We have dined here together for years.  Did you not think Alice or Chester or Mrs. Worthington would not have mentioned you to me?”

“I would not know,” said Montressor.  “I don’t speak to slaves, and Mrs. Worthington only tolerates me as I pay my rent on time.  One day soon, I shall move into my home.  And then, Father, then I shall die in peace.”  He rose shakily to his feet.  “Forgive my outburst, Father…”

“Call me Jack,” I said.  “And that is a heavy burden of guilt to carry, Signor Montressor.  I should think you would be relieved to finally tell someone.  Surely, even at this late date, far from your native land, the law cannot give you the salve of punishment anymore.”

Montressor gave me a weak laugh.  “I’ve never thought of punishment as a salve, Father Jack.”

I put my hand on his wrist.  “Just Jack.”

We parted ways, and I went about my business.  Later, when I returned for dinner, Montressor was nowhere in evidence.  Mrs. Worthington, however, was.

“Jack,” she scolded, “you shouldn’t have let that old man believe you were a minister.”

I smiled at her.  “Why, Mrs. Worthington, if I needed to be corrected, I would have gone home to my wife for dinner.  As it is, Mr. Montressor probably recognizes me from his younger days.”

“When did you live in Italy, Jack?”

“As a child.”

“Was your father a diplomat?”

“A wine trader, like me.”

As she studied my face, the truth of my origins registered with her.  “Oh.  I had always assumed you came here from Boston.”

“I did, but I came to Boston from Tuscany.”

It occurred to me Mrs. Worthington probably didn’t remember Giacommo from Boston when she was a child.  In her memory, there had always been Jack Lucas.

Memory is a strange thing.  Until Montressor “confessed” to me, I had given little thought to why my parents, including Signor Luchresi, despised him.  Now I wondered about this peasant girl Maria, who had married a merchant when she became pregnant.  Who had she been?  And was Montressor’s rival a foreigner in Tuscany, like Montressor himself?  His family, I’d been told as a child, had a presence in our town for generations, the bones of some of Montressor’s ancestors lying in the catacombs beneath his villa.  Until Montressor himself, however, the family spent most of its time in France.  Even now, after nearly fifty years, Montressor had the trace of a French accent, laced as it was with Italian.  The old man probably fit in better in New Orleans than I did.

I did not go back to Mrs. Worthington’s boarding house for some time after that.  Business and family demanded my attention more.  I would have a quick breakfast at home, divide my time between my shop and the docks, and go home to tend to my wife, who had developed a bad cough.  We feared consumption.

Fall came soon enough, and the dry air gave my wife some relief.  I resumed my routine of breakfast at Mrs. Worthington’s boarding house.  Montressor was still there, still sitting in the same corner.  He immediately recognized me as “the Padre” and came to my table again.

“I’ve missed our little talks, Father,” he said, seating himself uninvited as Alice brought me my usual breakfast.  “Where have you been?”

It was one talk, but again, curiosity stopped me from correcting him.  “My wife took ill.”

“I thought priests could not marry.”

“Only in the Roman rite, Signor Montressor, not the Anglican.”

“How wise of your church to allow this.  It is not good to be alone.”

“So my mother once told me.”

We chatted, Montressor and I.  He told me of a fabulous wine shop owned by a Mr. Lucas, an Englishman who had lived in the city since 1812.  Alice had to leave the room when I told Montressor I was aware of the shop.  A loud burst of laughter erupted from the kitchen, and both Alice and Mrs. Worthington had to wipe tears from their eyes.

We spoke little of religion or confessions after that.  Instead, our chats revolved around many things.  We debated slavery and whether President Tyler was a pretender to the throne.  Both of us blasted Napoleon, though I shrewdly limited my complaints to my early experiences in the city. The more I thought about Montressor’s confession, the less I wanted him to know of my origins.

The more I talked with Montressor, the more dreams of my mother troubled my sleep.  Beyond his reputation as Crazy Montressor, I never understood her loathing of the man.  Papa had always loved the man.  My mother’s loathing grew to outright hatred after Papa died.  Marrying Signor Luchresi might have tempered her fury, but it did not eliminate it.  It left me without sleep many nights, but in the morning, I looked forward to our talks. 

Here I was, late in my middle years, confronted with a walking, talking part of my past.  Montressor could be openly Italian.  It allowed me to secretly slip into my Tuscan skin in plain view.  I never corrected his misperception of me as a priest, and he never questioned my lack of a collar.

One morning, I decided to make a present of my wares for Montressor.  I had recently come into possession of a case of amontillado, a dry Spanish sherry, which had been hard to come by in New Orleans.  The morning after I purchased the case, I took a bottle to Mrs. Worthington’s.  Montressor’s smile brought another confession, one that promised to reveal everything about my mother’s unease toward him.

“Amontillado,” he told me.  “I have not tasted amontillado since I left Paris around the turn of the century.  How did you come by this?”

I smiled and gave Alice a look that told her she might want to head for the kitchen again.  “I have ties to Mr. Lucas.”

Alice did not make it to the kitchen before laughing.  Mrs. Worthington asked what now made the girl laugh, and Alice hustled out of earshot before Montressor could hear.

“I used to buy a cask of it every so often when I lived in Tuscany,” said Montressor.  “My rival insisted I share, not that the bloody Spaniard couldn’t get his own.”

The word “Spaniard” grabbed my attention, and it took every fiber of my being to contain my surprise.  “You’ve mentioned this rival before.  What was his name?”

“Oh, I doubt you would know him, Father,” said Montressor.  “I doubt Mr. Lucas has dealt with his family.  He’s been dead for fifty years and lived most of his life in Tuscany.”

My stomach began to sour.

“His name was Salvadore Fortunato,” said Montressor.  “And like our friend, Mr. Lucas, he was a wine trader.”

I made small talk for a few more minutes before excusing myself.

 

#

 

Spring came again, and with it, my wife’s cough.  I arranged for her sister to accompany her to the warm springs in Alabama, hoping the waters would ease her consumption.  Her absence provided me with a stunning opportunity to question Montressor in the privacy of my own home.

About a week after her departure, I had my usual breakfast with Montressor and invited him back to my place for wine.  “I have an extensive collection.”

“Surely,” said Montressor, “a priest cannot have afford even a modest wine collection worth mentioning.”

“I am Episcopalian,” I said.  “I’ve taken no vows of poverty.”

Montressor agreed, and I invited him to spend the night.  We shared a carriage.  At the house, he seemed not to notice the lack of priestly artifacts in my home.  I had nary a cross nor crucifix hanging.  I’m ashamed to admit my Bible also had gathered dust.

Montressor did not care.  He only wanted the wine, with which I gladly plied him.   When his tongue was sufficiently loosened, I asked, “So tell me about this Fortunato.  Why were you and he rivals?”

His face darkened, and for a moment, I thought he would be stricken.  His fists tightened at his sides.  Then, like a summer cloudburst, the fury passed.  “I suppose enough time has passed.  It was another time, another country, another world.  Shall we consider this a confession?”

“Why not?”  I took our glasses and refilled them with some fine Madiera I’d brought up from the cellar for this occasion.  When I returned, I said, “Tell me your sin, Signor Montressor.”

He leaned forward.  “Where shall I begin?  The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

Before he even continued, I knew what had happened to poor Fortunato.  I wanted to stop Montressor, but I could not.  So intent was he on telling his tale that I could not get in a word.

“You,” he said, drawing me closer, as though we were in a tavern sharing a secret, “who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance of a threat.”

And he didn’t.  Nor did he say what the injury was.  All Montressor could do was explain…  brag… how he lured Salvadore Fortunato to the catacombs below his villa in Tuscany.  I listened in horror and revulsion as Montressor gleefully admitted to binding and walling up poor Fortunato to die beneath that villa fifty years ago.

I was only eight when it happened.

“Against the masonry,” he said as he finished, “I re-erected the old rampart of bones.  For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them.  In pace requiescat!

I swallowed the rest of my wine.  “More?”

“Please,” said Montressor, smiling.  “Confession makes a sinner thirsty.”

“Then perhaps you’ll do me the honor of hearing my confession when I return.”  I rose and went into the other room for a fresh bottle of wine.  While pouring his, I spotted a vial of powder prescribed to my wife when her chest pains began.  I returned, careful to hand him the same goblet he used earlier.  He noticed his glass was fuller than my own.

“There is much more to hospitality than splashing wine in the glass of a guest such as yourself,” I said.  “Someone of your calibre requires so much more than the grape, something… special….”

“Indeed,” he said.  “I am honored.  Now, tell me your confession.”

Where to begin?  “I haven’t been completely honest with you.  I am not the local vicar.”

Montressor waved his hand at me and scoffed.  “You think I haven’t noticed that negress laughing at us whenever you try to cover your identity?  It is no confession, my friend, merely a game we have been playing.”

“I’m also not English.”

He frowned, either because he noticed something different about his wine or because of my admission.  “So you are Irish.  There’s no shame in that, despite what the English will tell you.”

“I’m actually Italian,” I said.  “It may surprise you to learn I have been known as ‘Jack Lucas’ for only the past thirty-five years.”

Montressor put his glass aside and pointed at me, laughing.  “You!  You’re Mr. Lucas?”  His laugh became a belly laugh.  “My dear Father Jack, you have been playing quite the game with me.”  He took his glass and raised it in toast.  “I commend you, sir, for your stealth.  How did you get the slave and Mrs. Worthington to go along?”

“Mrs. Worthington can scarcely remember a time when I was not Jack Lucas,” I said.  “As for Alice, I make her laugh.  It amuses them all to keep up the charade.  I hope you don’t think any less of me for keeping my identity a secret.”

“Jack, you have spent most of your adult life in this new land that respects only the Englishman and only tolerates his poor cousins.  You did so by changing your name and stealing their religion.  You could be forgiven for carrying the ruse a little further with a friend.  So what part of Italy were you born?”

I felt the smile slide away from my face.  “Tuscany, Signor Montressor.”

He raised his glass again.  “To Tuscany.  So tell me, Mr. Jack Lucas of New Orleans, allegedly from London, what was your original name?”

I could not wait to see Montressor’s face when I said it.  “My name when I came to America was Giacommo Luchresi, but people would rather buy their wine from ‘Jack Lucas,’ so Jack Lucas I became.”

It pleased me to no end when he responded with a spasm.

“Are you all right, Signor Montressor?” I asked.

“I am fine,” he said.  “Too much wine.  So tell me, did your father happen to be Giovanni Luchresi?”

“Indeed he was.”

Montressor began coughing, but managed a smile.  “I remember you.  Little Giacommo.”  His eyes widened.  “Wait.  You weren’t Luchresi’s son.  He adopted you.”

“Yes, he did.”  I rose and began to pace.  “See, my father died when I was only eight, leaving my mother alone.  Do you remember my mother?”

Montressor’s breathing became labored.

“My mother’s name was Maria, a peasant girl who caught the eye of a local merchant.  They were so in love.”

His cough became more pronounced and his face turned red.

“But my father died,” I continued, “and my mother believed he had been murdered.  I never believed it.  She was an emotional woman, and I blamed her grief for her insistence Papa had been killed.  Fortunately, Signor Luchresi took pity on my mother and brought us into his house.  Some say he did it for money, but I believe there was another reason.  Can you imagine what that might be, Montressor?”

“Help me,” he croaked.

“I remember you as well, Montressor,” I said.  “Crazy Montressor we called you.  Signor Luchresi didn’t trust you, and my mother hated you.  I always wondered why.  Then I remembered my Papa, who considered you his friend.”

“Your…  Papa?”  The spasms had subsided momentarily.

“Papa was quite wealthy,” I said.  “And I do remember he spoke of you fondly.  Said it was a shame your family had fallen on hard times.  Why, Montressor?  Why did you wall up Papa in the catacombs under your home?”

“You…”  He hacked, clutching his chest again.  “Who was your birth father?”

“You didn’t know?  The peasant girl you ‘took liberties with’ married Papa when she was scared and afraid her own family would cast her out.  Like Signor Luchresi, Papa raised me as his own.  But it was you, Montressor, who brought me into this world.  It was you who robbed me of my birth name.  I should have been called Giacommo Fortunato, not Giacommo Luchresi.”  I grabbed him by the collar and hauled him to his feet.  He trembled in my grip.  “And thank God I was never burdened with the name Giacommo Montressor.”  I dropped him.

He looked up at me, unable to speak, mouthing why.

“Why?” I sneered.  “I’ve been asking myself why my Papa disappeared, leaving me and my mother alone.  I asked why we never knew how he died, only that he wandered off one night during Fat Tuesday.  For five decades, Montressor, I wondered where my Papa went.”  I sat back calmly in my seat, watching his death throes the way one might watch a flatboat pass on the Mississippi.  “But we are friends, Montressor.  You have become my best customer, and I have become your confessor.  For that, I promise you your body will not lie there for fifty minutes, let alone fifty years.”

I crouched down next to him, listening for his last breath.  “Old men die every day. That’s all anyone will think happened to you.  But everyone will know what you have done.”

He died.

I swore I heard Papa laughing, the sound bouncing off the walls of some forgotten catacombs.

THE END

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