The Brothel Beneath Vauvert
That evening, after an hour or so drinking at The Mule, I excused myself from my table and went south, down Rue de la Harpe. I’d heard the expression — “Go to the Devil of Vauvert!” many times, as if it were the home of a particular, local malevolence. So I wondered if the whole thing weren’t just a hoax — a rude joke to get me out in the middle of the night for no good reason.
When I arrived at Vauvert, the stones glowed with a cold, gray light. Beside them, the trail was no more than a dirt path more suitable for goats than horses.
As I turned a corner, a young man dressed in furs hurried through a small hole, which had once been some sort of secret passage. It was no more than an average man’s height and barely wide enough for one individual to pass through at a time.
Within the blackness of the hole I could see the faint glimmer of torchlight. Outside the moonlight was embedded in the ruins such that the stones seemed to carry more radiance than the sky.
Above the entry was an old beam that didn’t belong to the original doorway. It was the length of two men, with long, splintering pieces tearing off from its sides. There were markings on it which were hard to interpret.
At first they seemed merely natural and coarse, but as I looked at them, I came to realize they were text.
Everything is Permissible Below Ground.
Good Brethren, you may well imagine the alarm with which I considered this phrase once you remember the full depravity of its connotation. It was, in fact, the welcome sign to the Devil’s playground.
I stood upon the threshold for a moment, thinking that I should leave immediately for the comfort of my home back in town.
But youth and curiosity conquered the beginnings of wisdom, and I went forward with a lump in my throat.
I walked down a long, winding corridor built of loose stone that opened up to become drier, wider and more finished. Torches lodged in the walls illuminated every other section followed by a band of darkness, and then another sphere of torchlight.
After awhile the hall widened yet again.
I came across tables laden with objects and food, as if a feast had been interrupted and then petrified after the participants, whoever they were, had vanished. Desiccated figs, cherries, pomegranates, chestnuts, cherries, sorb apples and damsons — some eaten, some not, were left in a condition of luxury on golden plates surrounded by a linen serving cloth. There were meats and cheeses that looked fresh, but which on closer inspection turned out to be hard and dry. The same was true of the tarts, flauns and frumenty.
Even the wine residue in the golden goblets smelled stale.
The corridor, with its decaying feast, broadened to reveal a stone staircase wide and green with mold, which could have been as old as Rome, itself. At its base, a stream wove its way through the stones — water that would never see the light of day.
Beyond the stream lay a great cavern filled with people and sounds, as if an underground city were holding its version of a festival. The music of multiple performers, each playing different songs, added to the noise and the chaos.
I was reminded of my lateness as I proceeded through a crowd of several hundred or so people who were already drinking and eating. I wondered– Who were they? Why had they come? What did they expect?
The very ordinariness of their appearance is what struck me at first. They were not, after all, demons with capes and wings. These men and women were well fed and comfortable, dressed in the cloaks, jewels and furs that aside from the still privileged nobility, only successful lawyers and merchants could afford.
At the back of the cavern, which was the length of two Parisian blocks, I saw a wooden platform, about ten-paces square, covered on its sides by tapestries of unicorns and flowers.
A single individual dressed more like a fisherman than an actor, so simple were his clothes, stood at the center of the platform. As I walked in he began to request the crowd’s attention. He kept yelling “About to start!… About to start!” in an awkward, monotone.
Not wishing to be any more intrusive, I sat on the cool, stone floor.
Scarcely had I taken my place when the event began with the slow beating of drums.
The sallow gentleman dressed like a fishmonger stumbled to the front edge of the stage. His gawking and uncertain demeanor suggested that he had been lured into the public eye rather than volunteered. He was someone who had stepped forward without any confidence in his abilities.
He held a long piece of paper rigidly in his hands and looked at it several times to remind himself of his lines, which caused the crowd to laugh.
Good gentlemen and ladies, too
We have an evening planned for you
To stir your heart and ease your mind
With foolishness and pleasure blind…
As the performer stumbled stiffly over his script, he looked down more than once to his far right as if to gauge how well he was doing. The clumsiness of this gesture only added to his comedy and the audience expressed its appreciation with laughter.
I soon traced the source of the actor’s attention to a cluster of people below the stage. There, seated in black as if he were the director of the event, was Philippe Sermoyse. He was surrounded by several fancy companions older than himself.
Sermoyse seemed to be enjoying what he must have viewed already as a success.
We’ll have three ladies and a fourth
Whose aim it is to cause no force
Of manly good to stay subdued
But turn all organs into wood…
The rhymes were false, that was my first thought. And then, as if it followed, everything surrounding the poor performer might also be false.
I strut to the right…” (the man did so)
And then turn ‘round
To see what new bright
Joys I’ve found.
At this point the man stopped and looked in all directions.
Three completely naked young ladies emerged, astonishing the ill-prepared actor and amusing the general audience.
The three women bowed and began dancing in a ring.
Clutching his script as if it were his one remaining link to dignity, the bewildered performer read:
Three Graces here from ancient time
Sathan’s minions, yet sublime
They come to tempt to joy and fun
They come to engage everyone.
The son of God through death and birth
Still reigns in heaven, not on earth
Down here we seek a separate view
The cross we kiss on our ecus.
At this point the performer reached into his purse and pulled out a coin, an ecu, and kissed it, obviously following instructions written on the parchment.
Dear Fathers, forgive me for presenting this blasphemy. I do so only because it is a part of my story. And forgive me a second time for what I must now continue to describe.
The naked dancers, who had shown great confidence and pleasure at displaying themselves, began teasing each other’s breasts and other parts, all the while moving in a ring.
The audience of men than women had taken notice of this, and there was in fact some activity occurring between the sexes at scattered points throughout the cavern. I guessed that these weren’t husbands and wives for the most part, but more likely men and their mistresses, or paid companions from the fancier brothels.
Sermoyse turned in my direction with a look of intoxication. Instantly his eyes caught mine. His contemptuous face became a mask floating through the space of the cavern towards the now shaken privacy of my soul.
Once again I thought of leaving, and yet I still did not.
As you may imagine, I had become too curious about the outcome of the performance.
Brevet, Tartas, Revel, Guli
Corp-Diable, Lapis la Zuli
Prometheus is now unbound
Do what you will below the ground!
The poor performer continued.
Come hither maidens of the rock
Pull down my pants and take my cock
Give me spittle, lick and sass
Pull my fingers down your ass.
As the perplexed man read his lines, he paused with renewed shock at the requests he had just made. He was probably some poor fellow barely educated enough to read, who was told he would be paid only if he could finish his lines in the face of all the distractions that followed.
The three ladies, who were quite comfortable in their public eroticism, took down the man’s pants, bared his astonished organ, and made it quickly engorge through their arts. As they did this, the gentleman did his best to continue with his script, which made for the real source of the drama, stumbling through several quatrains of encomiums to what I know now to have been many of Joliz’s best commercial associates.
The man had become so pathetic in his breathless attempts at speaking that the final scene came almost as a relief.
And now — a maid who’s ripe and waitin’
Spread upon a stretcher laden.
Tied, she is, for comfort soft,
Virgin ready to be boffed.
A stretcher was brought out with a naked woman on it. She had long blond ringlets and plump breasts. The three Graces proceeded to strip the male performer, teasing his body with their tongues. Once he was picturesquely lost to his arousal, they directed him to the girl tied to the stretcher.
At first the girls’ groans of desire mixed with fear seemed to be the only genuine thing in all of Vauvert. She squirmed upon her stretcher made of wood and cloth, as small rings of rope held her wrists and ankles.
It was at this point that she winked, revealing her true professional status.
The three Graces lifted the hapless performer and placed him on top of the girl while he tried to continue with the script, addressing the angels and archangels of Hell. He babbled on about the virtues of the new Kingdom of Ecus, which had superseded that of Our Lord, and his words echoed Sermoyse so closely that I wondered if Sermoyse hadn’t written them himself.
The age upon us, bright with gold
Not humbly tearful as of old
Will take us where our purses go
And take us fast, where once was slow…
At this point the performer finally conceded defeat and dropped his script, devoting his full attention to the girl who, by now, was so aroused herself as to shamelessly invite him forward.
One of the three Graces, in a parody of modesty, dropped a blanket upon them to cover them during the cries of consummation. Another picked up the script and read from what turned out to be, the last verse — written not for the drained performer in any case — but for herself.
Let’s print the coinage with its shield
Each thrust will make a better yield
And then for better or for worse
Deposit coinage in each purse.
The breathless wonder of the year
With all its joy and all its fear
Will spur a prayer between our lips
And drive the thrill between our hips.
With this invocation, pandemonium broke out within the cavern, bringing with it lusty actions of all kinds.
I couldn’t see Joliz, who had hidden himself.
But I saw Sermoyse.
His tiny hawk eyes were on fire. His face was drawn, angular and taut, the very ugly side of desire.
I hastened towards the exit, pursued by the covetous image of Sermoyse, a haunting bird of prey that followed me past the remains of Sathan’s feast and out into the winter’s night.