Saturday, January 23, 2010

We walk along dark, empty streets. It’s like the sudden cold has taken Paris hostage and its citizens with it. Cyril takes my hand, squeezing it. He pulls out a new cigarette and lights it with the other. A flame dances on its end, fanned by the wind, before moments later being snuffed out to a sizzle. We walk, huddled together, like a lonely couple on their way home from the cinema or an intimate dinner. It’s quiet and neither of us seems inclined to talk. Instead we walk silently through the streets, our only objective the warm apartment at a yet unknown destination.

Cyril pushes the key into the door. Two quick turns and it unlocks to the sound of a dull click. I look for a nameplate on the door but there is nothing. We walk inside the apartment. A large Renaissance-style console table adorns the entrance, above it hanging a late-17th-century painting of a stern-looking man cloaked in priestly vestments. The apartment has an old parquet floor which creaks when treaded upon. As we walk deeper into the hall there is a junction opening up to a large drawing room on the left and what appears to be a dining room to the right. Cyril has already left me and I hear his voice from a far distance.

“Justine: coffee, wine or something stronger?”

“Can you make me an Irish coffee?”

“Of course I can. With cream?”

“Yes please,” I respond.

I hear him working something in the kitchen, and in the meantime I decide to explore his bolthole. Just as he did mine. The apartment is vast, each room interconnecting with another. It’s almost like a maze, with several reception rooms and a library-cum-study. I make a mental note of returning to it after completing my impromptu expedition.

The library connects with an antechamber, which in turn connects to another room. It’s locked, but a quick search turns up an old key hidden in a flowerpot. I insert it into the keyhole and it fits perfectly. I turn the key and I’m just about to open the door when I hear footsteps behind me.

“Ah you found the theatre. Don’t worry, I’ll show you in a moment, but first your drink.” He is strangely animated. Not as dark and melancholic as on our last meeting. I take the drink and follow him into one of the sitting rooms. The furniture is an eclectic mix of old antiques, Scandinavian 50s and 60s functionalistic design along with a few pieces that look distinctly IKEA. Modern art flanks the walls, mostly abstract expressionism from the Cobra and Tachisme movement, I believe. He lights the fireplace and I sit down on a hard, but rather comfortable, leather sofa.

“How long have you lived here for?” I begin.

“Well technically it’s not my place. It belongs to a group of people, but you can say I am the custodian of it. I’m one of the few that has free access to it. “

I watch him, trying to figure him out. “So who are these people you are referring to?”

“Mmm, if I told you I would have to kill you, wouldn’t I?” A quick smile flashes before reverting to neutral. “Have you ever heard of the Hellfire Club?”

I know where this is leading. The Hellfire Club was an old establishment known for mocking (and often shocking) society in their times, taking part in immoral acts of debauchery. Or so the story goes. It was frequented by high members of British society, including, among others, the Duke of Wharton and Sir Francis Dashwood. It’s even been claimed that Sir Benjamin Franklin was a guest while he was living in London, and there are several masonic conspiracy theories tied to the legend.

Fais ce que tu voudras,” I reply.

Très perspicace, Madame! Do what thou wilt. A wonderful concept, don’t you think?”

“Well, it depends what that is, I would say. There are norms, laws…”

“Ah, you disappointment me Justine. Fuck the law! Some people are simply above it and you would be a fool to think you are living in a society upholding the rules of justice.” He stands up and walks away. He’s gone for maybe a minute or so before returning with a thick book, which he demonstratively kisses.

“My bible for esoteric societies – the Encyclopaedia of Secret Societies: history, myths and legends debunked. Who needs internet, eh?” He flicks through the pages until he finds what he’s searching for.

“Are you ready to hear about the real Hellfire Club?”

“Please, I can’t stand the suspense.”

The Hellfire Club was the name for a number of exclusive clubs for the high ranks of society in Great Britain and Ireland in the 18th century. Its original name, the Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, derived from a complex of grottos and caves at West Wycombe Park, which belonged to Sir Robert Dashwood.

The clubs were said to be used as meeting places for “persons of quality” who wished to take part in unethical, immoral and illegal acts. Although no definitive member lists have ever been published, the general consensus is that several high-profile politicians and members of the establishment took part. Most notable are Sir Francis Dashwood, Thomas Potter, Francis Duffield, Edward Thompson, Paul Whitehead and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, in addition to its founder, Philip, Duke of Wharton.

The first Hellfire Club was founded in London in 1719 by Philip, Duke of Wharton, together with some close friends and associates. The society grew, and several new clubs sprung up during the course of the 18th century.

The club’s motto, “fais ce que tu voudras”, was a philosophy attributed to François Rabelais’ fictional abbey at Thélème, and would later be used by Aleister Crowley’s Satanical Church.

Devil Worship?

What is perhaps most interesting, and has been put down to legend, are the actual activities taking place. As very few sources exist, and most of those are based on hearsay and innuendo, it’s difficult at best to paint a clear picture. The general consensus, however, is that the clubs were rather innocent by today’s standards, although at the time they would have constituted a clear threat to particularly the Church of England as well as polite society at large. In contrast to that of Freemasonry, which has often been mentioned in the same breath due to crossovers in memberships going as high up as Grand Master level, both men and women attended the gatherings. It was said a great deal of wine was consumed and sexual innuendo appears to have set the tone. Mock processions of both Church and Freemasonry rituals have been recorded. Paul Whitehead, a well-known poet and Republican, once organised such procession of tramps and beggars in parody of a yearly Freemasons’ parade.

It has often been assumed that the society engaged in devil worship through the unsubstantiated link to Aleister Crowley’s organisation 200 years later. However, no evidence can be ascertained beyond the odd séance and occasional dabbling in the occult.

He closes the book. “Et voilà! The Hellfire Club – the official version anyhow. We have a book entirely dedicated to the subject, but I can’t find it anywhere. It, however, paints a slightly different picture. And as they say, no smoke without fire.”

“And no fire without a spark,” I retort.

“Exactly!”

“But let’s get back to the point. What is it exactly you are doing here? Re-enacting mock religious ceremonies, worshipping the devil and having unrestrained sex? Oh, and let’s not forgot the most important thing: being above the law.” I let out a frivolous laugh, but stop myself as I meet Cyril’s stare.

“I see you don’t believe me. Let me show you something now.” I half expect that he will take me to the locked room, but instead he leads me towards the main door.

“Take your coat. It might be a bit chilly where we are going.”

He walks briskly and hands me my coat. I follow him outside and he closes the door behind us. Impatiently he presses the button for the lift. It’s not reacting and we can see it is stalled somewhere between the second and third floors. It appears to be ancient, probably at least a century old, enclosed by an iron grille that exposes the shaft and mechanics.

He takes the lead and starts walking down the stairs encircling the lift. When we get to the bottom, he brings out a key and opens a door to the basement. Instead of offering me first right of passage, he charges ahead. A light is turned on. It seems to come from the same era as the lift and is attached to a manual clockwork. It’s ticking in the background, and I give it thirty seconds before it’s out. Cyril continues to walk ahead, leading us through a maze of boxed compartments made out of wooden planks. It wouldn’t take much to break into one of these, and a few seem to have indeed suffered such a fate, with their broken padlocks and doors ajar. But this is clearly not what my tour guide is about to show me.

At the end of the maze stands a brown door exposing remnants of green through a peeling layer of paint. Cyril unlocks it and whisks me in. There is hardly room for one, let alone two people. He brings out a torch, which he directs towards a wooden staircase. Without a word he descends into complete darkness. Not wanting to be left behind, I follow him in his decline. We arrive in what appears to be a cave, but I soon realise we are in the infamous catacombs that run underneath Paris like a cité des morts. Through my studies and subsequent profession I have been here numerous times before. The catacombes des Paris are home to the remains of over six million deceased and a few thousand light-evading living who, for whatever reasons, have sought their shelter.

Since the time of the Romans, Paris buried its dead outside its city walls. However, this practice changed as the pagan religion gave way to Christianity and the final resting place for the faithful came to be within church crypts and the adjourning cemeteries that sprung up. As the city population began to rise rapidly, the few resting places that existed became horribly overcrowded, and soon only the wealthiest of city dwellers could afford a proper church burial. The city was facing a real problem, which would eventually be resolved by the opening of mass inhumation. But this only shifted the problem onto a new dilemma far worse, as the residues resulting from decaying organic matter entered the earth, eventually reaching the groundwater and the connected city wells.

By the 17th century the sanitary conditions around Saints Innocents were beyond intolerable and it was decided to excavate the mass graves to create a sepulchre with lined walls. But even this reorganisation didn’t help much as the earth continued to be saturated with decomposing human remains.

Eventually the city had enough of the stench, protesting to great pandemonium, and after a series of ineffective decrees to control the situation, it was decided to open up three new cemeteries outside the city centre.  Montmartre in the north, Père Lachaise in the east and Passy in the west. These were finally to be consecrated in the early 1800s.

In the meantime, the city settled upon using the old underground mining tunnels in the south of Paris as the final resting place for the bodies in the mass graves in the city centre. The exhumation and transfer of the Paris dead began in 1786. The city had finally found a solution to its lethal problem, rather in time before heads were about to roll.