The Great Performance of Kadir Bey

By Ekaterina Sedia

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When one’s every day starts with the tortured howling of the inmates of an insane asylum, one becomes quite resistant to surprise. At least, Abbé de Coulmier flattered himself with the thought that very few things, be they of divine or secular origin, had the power to rattle his calm demeanor. Smiling as cheerfully as ever, he headed outside to the garden, where a visitor was waiting for him.

The visitor was a small, wormy man of the variety that had proliferated to alarming numbers after the Revolution and continued to grow during the Republic. His poorly-fitting clothes had an air of disregard about them, even though they were quite new. But the collar and the cuffs had an unclean feel to them, and the buttons seemed to remain attached to the fabric of his waistcoat via pure strength of will. The too-closely-set eyes of the man darted from the Abbé’s face to his hunched back and a slow smile spread on his face like an oil stain. “Good morning, Father,” he said. “I have a business with you.”

“So you’ve said in your letter,” the Abbé agreed. “You have a friend who is in need of Charenton Asylum’s services?”

“Whatever you wanna call ’em,” the man said. “This friend…it’s a delicate situation. He’s a foreign dignitary from Algiers and the strain of his work must’ve gotten to him, see? He has been negotiating the sea trade treaties or some such. He just needs a quiet place to rest…to become himself again, as it were. But we insist on utmost secrecy.”

Abbé de Coulmier knew better than express surprise. The Barbary privateers have been demanding outrageous prices for staying away from the French ships, but, whatever the motive, the Abbé hoped that the piracy would cease. He, for one, was willing to get any help needed to the dignitary. “Of course,” the Abbé said. “You will find, I’m sure, that our establishment is quite humane. Is your friend, perchance, a patron of the arts?”

At this question, the Abbé’s interlocutor tittered with a nervous laughter. “Indeed, he is.”

The Abbé ignored the outburst. “And may I ask, how do you know this gentleman?”

The guest ceased his tittering, exchanging it for a ragged yellow smile. “I happen to be working for the benefit of the Republic. Let no one say that we do not treat our visitors well; let no unkindness mar the negotiations with the Barbary Coast. He asked for a treatment and you are going to provide it.”

“In this case, he will much benefit from our therapy. We have been quite successful in using arts to instill greater peace of mind and tranquility into our clients.”

“Yes,” the man said. “Tranquility is all he needs.” He handed Abbé a sheaf of papers in a foreign tongue the Abbé could not possibly hope to understand, despite his extensive training in the languages alive and dead. “He will be arriving this afternoon; hope you are ready for him.”

***

The man who entered the Abbé’s office had a striking appearance, even if one ignored the fact that his entry coincided with the cacophony of howling and wailing of the inmates. His skin, a pale olive color, seemed rather dull offset by his long black robes that swept the floor of the office. There was a strange fluidity to his motions; as he walked, he seemed almost a woman gliding across the dance floor.

He sat in the proffered chair and smoothed the length of his robe across his knees. A wave of howling that was beginning to die down resumed again.

“My apologies,” the Abbé said. “Usually, they are not quite as vocal.”

The man’s face expressed neither surprise not annoyance as he gave the Abbé a grave nod and motioned for him to continue.

“We are pioneering a new treatment for mental anguish and exhaustion,” the Abbé said. “One of our inmates is a talented novelist and playwright, and he has been staging a number of plays. We also have a resident chamber orchestra and a few of the inmates are reasonably-effective painters.”

“Madness,” his visitor said. His voice was hoarsely-accented and his words fell from his lips like frozen pebbles. “Madness goes hand in hand with artistic temperament.”

“Indeed,” the Abbé agreed. “There’s a thin line between genius and madness, as they say.”

“Also, mediocrity and madness. Tyranny and madness. Boredom and madness. Love and madness. Hate and madness. Madness surrounds you like an ocean in which the flimsy raft of your sanity is tossed from wave to wave and yet, you believe this raft to be a continent.”

The Abbé stammered for an answer as his newest inmate rose to his feet. “You can call me Kadir Bey. I would like to see my rooms now.”

“The nurse will show you your room,” the Abbé said. “Madeleine, will you please….”

A young woman, not yet seventeen of age, entered the office from the atrium where she waited, and greeted the foreigner. “Follow me, Sir,” she said.

And in the swirl of the black hem, Kadir Bey exited the office, his hidden shoes clacking on the hardwood floor of the hallway.

“A very disturbed mind,” the Abbé said to himself. “Quite remarkable. I should talk to Marquis and find out what he’s planning for his next production.”

***

Abbé de Coulmier and Marquis de Sade walked along the shaded alley of the garden, crushed brick of the path crunching under their feet. It was a peaceful day, still cool as befits May but infused with the sweet promise of early blooms and the buzzing of the eager-but-still-sluggish bumblebees over the first sprays of lilacs.

“So, you see, Marquis,” the Abbé said, “I need your cooperation. I do not think Kadir Bey is a music-lover – especially not since he walked in on our wind quartet practice and all of them started playing this terrible tune.”

His companion, a still-lively man in his sixties, smiled. “How terrible?”

The Abbé shivered. “Quite awful, actually. It sounded like a roomful of cats trying to sing a funeral dirge.”

The Marquis laughed. “Oh, my dear friend. I always knew that our musicians were blessed with healthy lungs but very little talent to go along, but this is just too amusing. Do you think their exertions have scared the new arrival?”

“He seemed to enjoy it,” the Abbé confessed, perplexed. “But goodness me, I’m not adding another musician if I can help it. And I’m certainly not letting anyone encourage the ones we already have.”

Both men shook with laughter, until the Marquis, overcame with merriment, gasped and wiped a tear. “I suppose I could accommodate you and your swarthy protégé. I’m in the middle of a very whimsical play.”

“It’s not – ”

“No, of course not,” the Marquis interrupted. “I know your prudish bourgeois tastes all too well.”

“Not to mention that I am a man of cloth and it would be unseemly for me to support anything morally dubious.”

“Not at all; this play is about numbers.”

“Oh,” said Abbé de Coulmier. “I did not realize you were interested in science. Perhaps you should speak to Kadir Bey – like all Muslims, he seems very interested in sciences and electricity, and builds all sorts of contraptions in his rooms. The nurses refuse to enter it – his contraptions shoot lightnings and Madeleine has been stung pretty badly. Perhaps you could use one of them in your play?”

“Numbers, not galvanism,” the Marquis said irritably. “All numbers have a hidden meaning and my play tries to uncover some of their secrets. Take number 999, for example.”

“What about it?” the Abbé said and looked up into the transparent sky, washed clear by the recent rain. He then turned his gaze to the rows of cypresses lining the alley and the inmates and the nurses strolling across the greening lawns and along the shady alleys. He looked anywhere but at his friend, who once again seemed in thrall to his bizarre obsession. “What about 999?”

“It’s a combination of two prime numbers,” Marquis de Sade said heatedly. “Three, repeated thrice, and thirty-seven. I don’t need to explain the significance of three to you, do I? Especially repeated three times.”

“Of course not,” the Abbé agreed hastily. “Trinity thrice-blessed. I understand.”

The Marquis rolled his eyes, but didn’t argue.

“And thirty-seven?”

“It’s a factor of 666, the number of the Beast,” the Marquis said, lowering his voice. “And it also figures prominently in the Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth. And it is the thirteenth prime number.” He gave the Abbé a penetrating look and nodded significantly.

“But why 999?” the Abbé said. “What made you chose it among the myriad of other numbers, no matter also rife with hidden significance? Why not pick three, or nine, or twenty-seven?”

“I do not choose,” his friend replied with great dignity and turned toward the main hospital building. “It came to me in a dream and now, I must decipher what it means.”

“Of course.” Abbé de Coulmier hurried after his friend, trying to pacify his ire. “I was merely enquiring. So, do you think there’s a role for Kadir Bey in your play about numbers?”

The Marquis smiled. “Of course. He can play an Arab mystic.”

“That would be perfect,” the Abbé said, great relief written on his good-natured face.

***

Kadir Bey proved to be an uncomfortable inmate. He shunned fresh air, and seemed interested only in obtaining metal and glass pipes and vessels, and combining them into strange devices that left the Abbé doubtful not only of their purpose, but of their very right to exist. His room, no doubt owing to his almost-constant presence and his general reluctance to part from his black robes, had acquired a muggy climate that brought to mind malarial swamps and yellow fever.

Even more disturbing was his general effect on the staff and other inmates; the staff, resilient to all sorts of mental malaise, complained only of vivid nightmares every night after a chance encounter forced their eyes to meet Kadir Bey’s – coal-black, burning with a low smoldering fire of persistent madness. But the inmates, attuned as they were to many subtle influences beyond the recognition of a person in robust health, such as moon phases and the direction of the winds, howled and threw themselves against the bars guarding their windows and the walls that contained them; their blood smeared over the plaster where they banged their heads repeatedly and their speech, often uncertain to begin with, disintegrated into mad ululations and desperate sobs every time Kadir Bey left the confines of his rooms or fired up one of his devices.

The artistic types fared worst of all – the musicians played plaintive, wild tunes, and the painters painted feverishly, depicting roiling fogs and stormy seas, with strange and gigantic monsters peering secretively from hidden depths; they painted the vortices in the very center of creation, where a bulbous, monstrous creature with the placid face of an idiot reclined in repose. The Abbé’s only hope was that once the rehearsals started, the strange Algerian’s attention would be drawn away from his electrical experiments – the Abbé was convinced that the galvanic discharges in the air, coupled with the sardonic demeanor and exotic appearance of Kadir Bey, were the cause of the unrest. That he was the cause of it, the Abbé had no doubt.

The suffocating malaise of his presence reached even outside of the Charenton Asylum; Abbé de Coulmier could not shake the suspicion that Napoleon’s proclamation of himself as an Emperor was the result of the sinister influence of Kadir Bey. The further betrayal of the First Council of the Republic shook the Abbé to the bone and he decided to insist on the early start of the rehearsals. If he had only one thing to believe in, it would be the unshakable conviction of the healing power of the arts. Perhaps if he succeeded in jolting Kadir Bey out of his dark and brooding melancholy and preoccupation with electricity, perhaps then his influence would lessen.

He went to visit Kadir Bey, studiously avoiding his malignant gaze. Kadir Bey had politely put aside the glass alembics that he was filling with green and pungent liquid, and sat down, preparing to listen. As he moved to situate himself in the chair with greater comfort, the hem of his robe billowed and the Abbé felt a quiet dread creep along his spine, trailing cold sweat in its wake. The foot of Kadir Bey, of which he caught only a passing glance, appeared to be a black and polished hoof.

The Abbé shook his head. Just an illusion, he thought; it’s just a narrow black shoe seen at an unfortunate angle. Still, the dread remained.

“What can I do for you today?” Kadir Bey said in his gravelly voice. “Although I do suppose that I should start by thanking you; this place is exactly what I needed. The collection of minds here….” He smacked his lips in mock-relish. “I wish I could stay here forever.”

“Do you mean that you will be leaving us soon?” the Abbé asked, all of his will directed at expunging any unseemly hope from his voice.

“Soon,” Kadir Bey said. “But not before I attend one of Marquis de Sade’s plays. I hear he is quite famous.”

“The circumstances of his fame are rather unfortunate,” the Abbé said. “While I do not approve of the subject matter of his books, I do not believe that they warranted imprisonment.”

“Imprisonment is just a matter of perception,” Kadir Bey said. “Why, if the prison is large enough, one might not even notice one’s unfortunate fate.”

The Abbé nodded. “But some prisons are small enough to notice. The Marquis’ work here, however, has been by no means scandalous. Would you like to participate? If you are as fond of plays as you say, you absolutely must delight in participation rather than simple observation.”

“It is a wise man who knows when to choose one over the other,” Kadir Bey said. “I believe I would like to participate, yes. Expect me at the rehearsal.”

***

Abbé de Coulmier did not have the heart to attend the rehearsal himself, but waited anxiously in his office for the Marquis’ report. He was too uneasy and distracted to read, although he did spend a few desperate minutes staring at the bookshelves, the leather-bound book spines all alike, the letters on them incomprehensible squiggles to his overburdened and anguished mind.

The Marquis knocked on the door earlier than expected, his usually pink and animated face sagging in a scowl.

“How was the rehearsal?” the Abbé said.

“Just awful, but on the other hand, interesting,” said the Marquis, and sank into an offered chair languidly. “It went well for a while, until your strange protégé showed up. And then….”

“They howled,” the Abbé guessed.

“No. They gibbered.”

“Gibbered?”

“Yes. Gibbered.”

“Did it stop?”

“Eventually,” the Marquis said and heaved a sigh. “Ah, my dear friend, it was a wonder to behold – he raised his hand and all fell silent; only one of the nurses, the one playing the Muse, sobbed a little. And he spoke his lines, only they were not the ones I gave him.”

The Abbé nodded sympathetically. “Indeed. Did you have any luck correcting him? He strikes me as a stubborn man.”

“No,” the Marquis said with a puzzled smile and played with a linen cuff of his shirt distractedly. “They were…better than mine. Although I would be damned if I could recall what they were about now.”

“Oh, my dear friend…,” the Abbé started with a genuine remorse. “I should’ve warned you of this man’s unholy influence.”

The Marquis looked through his friend to some infinitely-removed point far beyond the asylum’s walls. “You know what else he said? He said he studied numerology. He said 37 was a prime factor of my death. What do you make of that?”

“Gibberish,” the Abbé said without conviction. “Perhaps we could hurry the play; he said he would leave as soon as it is over.”

“Perhaps,” the Marquis said. “Or perhaps there are secrets he could share with me.”

The Abbé put a calming hand on his friend’s elbow. “I believe that he is a disturbed soul and perhaps you would do well not to inflame his neuroses further.”

A pale smile twisted the Marquis’ lips. “You’re afraid that we will be like two madmen, urging each other to howl at the moon. But do not worry – he is like me, a political prisoner, no doubt trying to escape the vile tyrant who has recently usurped the abolished throne. It was an asylum or prison for me, and I suspect that it is the same for him.”

“You’ve seen the effect he has on people.”

“Weak souls, no doubt shaken by a great mind. He told me of his experiments.”

The Abbé shook his head. A great sadness filled his heart, the sadness he felt every time he realized that his pleas and warnings would have no effect. “I will not be distraught when he leaves,” he said. “And I only hope he does not destroy your mind while he’s staying here. Just be careful at your rehearsals.”

The Marquis did not answer, his faraway gaze trapped in places strange and unreachable by a sane mind. The Abbé prayed that Kadir Bey leave without causing further harm.

***

On the day of the premiere, the Abbé was galvanized by the air of anticipation that permeated the hospital. Several visitors and inmates’ families had arrived that morning, and the grounds rang with female laughter and the delighted squeals of the children. The Abbé could not remember the last time the Charenton hospital had felt so animated, so alive, and so close to normalcy.

The inmates involved with the production had gathered in the main hall, becostumed and jittery with anticipation. The Marquis, clad in his military uniform, commanded the proceedings with his usual air of purposeful intensity. But the Abbé’s gaze was drawn to the tall figure of Kadir Bey, who stood by himself on the stage still bare of decorations, with the exception of a small table upon which Kadir Bey erected an elaborate contraption. The device bristled with copper piping and dark, green mass bubbled within the round glass vessels. The contraption hummed and discharged sparks as Kadir Bey, dressed as an Arab mystic, a tall conical hat sitting upon his high brow, his robes decorated with alchemical symbols, fiddled with the device, making it produce smoke and lightning at the twisting of the metal knobs embedded in its sides.

Apparently, the Marquis had given in to an urge to allow Kadir Bey use one of his devices as props. The Abbé himself was less enamoured of the idea, even though the inmates seemed calm. The Abbé could not shake the suspicion that the contraption was somehow responsible for the good spirits of the inmates, and that a mere twist of a knob would send them into a howling frenzy or a tortured marionette dancing. Kadir Bey seemed a true magician then, a real wizard pulling the strings of human hearts and minds with the same ease as he manipulated the shining knobs of the infernal device.

The inmates started to set the stage, and the actors dispersed, mumbling their lines. The Marquis seemed deep in conversation with Kadir Bey. The Abbé had no other recourse but to take a seat and to prepare for the premiere to commence; he prayed for it to go quickly and not to cause further anguish.

The visitors and the inmates not employed in the play took their seats and the attendants blew out the lanterns in the hall and lit the ones surrounding the stage. The Abbé did not pay attention even though he usually relished the Marquis’ wit and his gift for dialogue, but right now, he was too preoccupied with anticipation of Kadir Bey’s entrance.

Halfway through the first act, the attendants dimmed the lanterns set by the stage, and several inmates dressed in all black, their faces hidden behind dyed gauze, wheeled Kadir Bey’s contraption onto the stage. It shone with a sickly-green light that fell across the faces of the spectators like the pall of death. The Abbé felt the same dread he had felt before as the faces around him were transformed by this unearthly glow into hungry, ghostly apparitions, who stared at the stage with black holes carved in their faces.

Kadir Bey entered, still costumed as an Oriental mystic, but the Abbé knew that the play had been abandoned, and the patrons and the inmates were in thrall to his terrible machine and his heavy gaze. Kadir Bey started to speak and the dark sound of his harsh voice scraped at the Abbé’s heart. He covered his ears with his hands, but they had as little power to stem the tide of loathsome voice as a grass blade could resist a hurricane. Tears streamed down the Abbé’s face as the musicians in the audience rose to their feet and played a soul-rending, piercing melody on their flutes.

The contraption belched lightning and spat out long tongues of greenish light. As if by command, the audience stood, staring at Kadir Bey as he stepped to the center of the stage, raising his hands palms up. The eyes of children, women and men saw nothing but the terrible apparition.

The Abbé broke through the fog of the spell with a great mental effort. “Who are you?” he shouted, his voice too weak to rise above the electrical crackling and Kadir Bey’s words.

But the Algerian heard, and turned to face the Abbé. He walked to the edge of the stage with his usual fluid motions, the hooves concealed under his alchemical robes clacking on the dry wood with quiet clarity. The humming of the contraption fell to a barely audible hiss, and Kadir Bey’s voice boomed, amplified by the sudden silence. “I have a thousand names and nine hundred and ninety-nine aspects. I am the Crawling Chaos, the Dark Demon, the Black Wind. I hold great knowledge, and I want sacrifice.”

“Go away,” the Abbé pleaded. “These people have nothing to offer and no use for your knowledge. Seek those who take interest in such things, not the poor lunatics who have nothing to give you!”

“I want your knowledge.” The Marquis, clear-eyed among the blind throng, stood next to the Abbé.

The Abbé grabbed his friend’s sleeve. “My friend, do not believe this monster! Haven’t you learned? These creatures never keep their promises and once you let them into your mind, they never leave you alone.”

Kadir Bey listened to their argument and the madmen gathered around them started to whimper, followed by those who were sane. The Marquis pushed his friend away. “What knowledge can you give me?” he spoke to Kadir Bey.

“I can give you the second prime of your life,” Kadir Bey said.

The Marquis laughed. “Child’s play. It’s two – two by thirty-seven is seventy-four. I will die in ten years. What else?”

The Abbé could stand it no longer. Not just his friend but the inmates entrusted to the Abbé’s care, their friends and relatives, would fall prey to the unholy creature if the Abbé did not do something. While Kadir Bey’s attention was diverted, the Abbé scrambled up onto the stage, reaching for the device.

Kadir Bey moved to stop him, but already, the Abbé heaved the contraption above his head and smashed it into the narrow face of the demon. The glass splintered and the tubes popped, spilling the foul liquid. Kadir Bey stood for a moment, stunned, and slowly sank to the floor – at least, the Abbé thought so at first, before he realized that Kadir Bey was not sinking but disintegrating into great clouds of black acrid smoke.

“What have you done?” The Marquis tried to grab at the fog, but it slithered between his fingers and filled the entire room. “You’ve ruined my play!”

People cried and coughed, and the insane music of the flutes resumed again, as the dense wisps of the fog wound about people’s faces, stealing the last shreds of their sanity, and slithered out of the windows, below doors, through the chimneys, until it was gone, and the Abbé was left face to face with his sobbing friend and the room filled with howling, gibbering madmen.

Abbé de Coulmier took the Marquis’ elbow and pulled him to his feet. “Get up, my friend,” he whispered. “Get up; this is not the way for a director to behave.”

The nurses rushed in, attracted by the noise, and stood at the doorway like statues, terrified by the visions of devastation wrought. The inmates and their families wailed and sobbed, scratched their faces and violently attacked anyone who moved too close. A young woman screamed and tore at her child’s eyes with a clawed hand, as an elderly gentleman, whose clothing betrayed a distinguished position in life, banged his head on the marble tiles of the floor, and thin streams of blood ran between clumps of his thinning gray hair and across his face.

Two well-dressed children grasped each other’s throat and despite their yelps of pain, their eyes remained hollow; so did the eyes of everyone else in the hall, turned from the theater to a battlefield.

The Abbé waved at the nurses. “Help them!” he commanded and, as the women bustled around, trying to pacify the inmates and their families, he kneeled down next to the Marquis.

The Marquis looked about him as if he had just woken up from deep sleep. He then turned to the Abbé. “How was the play?” he asked, his pale eyes wide.

“It was quite a performance,” the Abbé answered.

THE END

Ekaterina Sedia resides in the Pinelands of New Jersey. Her critically-acclaimed novels, The Secret History of Moscow and The Alchemy of Stone were published by Prime Books. Her next one, The House of Discarded Dreams, is coming out in 2010. Her short stories have sold to Analog, Baen’s Universe, Dark Wisdom, and Clarkesworld, as well as Haunted Legends and Magic in the Mirrorstone anthologies. Paper Cities, an anthology she edited, won the World Fantasy Award. Visit her at www.ekaterinasedia.com.