The Life and Times of LaFontaine the Mesmerizer
by Tom Bradley
[ fiction - november 06 ]
"The pointed finger of the stage hypnotist was the same finger used by ancient healers in the Temple of Sleep." - John-Ivan Palmer
It's 1874, and he is having one of his usual triumphs. Huge and perfect, a demigod with a mountain of shining black curls on his head, he stands on the stage of the freshly built Paris Opera House.
The place is a neo-baroque marvel, with marble statues, jewel-studded arches, crystal chandeliers and gold-leafed pillars gleaming everywhere. The vast dome overhead features a fresco of God in his Heaven, being serenaded by hundreds of plump, rosy angels.
Several princes are in the audience, along with marquises, duchesses and various other continental glitterati of the time, each dressed more beautifully than the next. It's a capacity crowd, and they're all on their feet, loudly expressing their amazement, and their love, for Monsieur LaFontaine, the greatest of all mesmerizers.
He bows gracefully as red roses rain down on him. He waves massive, white-gloved hands through the air like a magician or a priest.
Stretched out before him is a young noblewoman, completely under his power. She looks like an angel in a white satin gown. Her body is suspended between two intricately carved rosewood chairs which touch only the back of her neck and her ankles.
"You hear only my voice," LaFontaine tells her, and what she hears is magnificent. "Your will is not your own, but has merged with the vital fluid that emanates from my mind..."
* * *
He stands majestically in the middle of the floor in an opulent Parisian parlor, furnished in the most elaborate style of the day.
It's a soirée of late 19th-century Europe's most brilliant intelligentsia, including a poet, a few artists, a couple of philosophers and their aristocratic hangers-on. The host is a fabulously wealthy nouveau riche from the world of international finance, who knows just enough to keep his mouth shut. Also present, of course, are several of the world's most beautiful women. They stare at LaFontaine, enrapt, flushed with spiritual aspirations.
Remaining aloof is Baron Dupotet. Plump and swarthy, with a cruelly sensual mouth and serpent's eyes, he simmers with envy.
"Monsieur LaFontaine!" says one of the philosophers. "I heard you were languishing in a southern prison."
"And so I was. The king of Naples allowed me to roll the stone from the sepulcher and come forth."
A painter says, "Surely you mesmerized his Neapolitan majesty to gain such clemency."
"He did set one condition," says LaFontaine.
"That I cease restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf."
"But, Monsieur LaFontaine," says the poet, "why would the king have you behave so uncharitably toward the wretches of this world?"
"A small matter of the all-too-faithful imitation of Christ."
Everyone titters at this near-blasphemous remark, except Baron Dupotet.
"You imitate Christ, LaFontaine?" he bellows. "Bah! Mesmerism's pretensions toward healing were pooh-poohed a hundred years ago by no less a personage than Doctor Guillotine..."
"...who deserved to be consulted on the topic of staying healthy," says a beautiful woman. "Right up till the moment of death."
More titters are heard.
LaFontaine looks at her with chaste appreciation, and she nearly melts under his eyes. He turns to deal with the baron.
"It's a matter, my dear Dupotet, of psychologizing - or 'animal-magnetizing', as you would inaccurately say - the astral body, which is poised intermediate between the spiritual and physical..."
"I don't require schooling on the rudiments of our art."
"But I'm afraid you do. I wouldn't call it 'our' art, in any case."
Baron Dupotet swells with anger.
The poet looks as though he'll expire like a delicate flower if this conflict escalates any further. He withdraws from the inner circle and approaches a purple couch situated in the corner among exotic potted ferns.
Sitting upon this couch is a seven-foot-tall Punjabi Hindu. Curled up next to him is a Roman Catholic cardinal, capped and robed in red satin, an envoy from the Vatican. He's almost as tall as the Hindu, and is obviously his lover - for tonight, at any rate.
The Hindu wears a vast white turban with a fist-sized ruby pinned at the helm. Wrapped in the serpentine hose of an exquisite jade hookah, he shares slow sips of soup-thick narcotic smoke with the Cardinal. The two of them listen to LaFontaine with a pleased look in their eyes.
The poet tries to appropriate some opiated hashish from an alabaster box which the Hindu holds in the palm of one gigantic hand.
"That's soma," says the Hindu. "Or something near enough. It's not intended for profane consumption. Aryans only."
"But," replies the poet, "those two megalomaniacs are going to draw stilettos any moment. It's so unpleasant to have corpses bleeding underfoot at soirées this time of year."
"I'm enjoying their contretemps," yawns the Cardinal.
"LaFontaine is quite good."
"But the Baron needs mollification," says the poet.
The poet and the Hindu have a friendly mock battle over the narcotic morsel, slapping one another's hands away. The poet prevails, and comes away in triumph with the prize.
The cardinal calls after him, "Don't mollify our two wonder-workers too much. His Eminence, the Holy Father in Rome, has a very important job for both of them."
The poet lays the hashish on the green marble mantelpiece and proceeds to knead it together with some potent-looking herbs from his waistcoat pocket. The resulting concoction is nestled in golden spoons and passed around on a silver tray.
Baron Dupotet gobbles two helpings, then three. His eyes grow red and aggressive with intoxication.
"So, LaFontaine," he leers, "do you have your way with those lovely young subjects of yours?"
Glancing at Dupotet's plump belly, LaFontaine replies, "I'm not quite so comfortably confined in my coat of flesh as you are in yours, Monsieur le Baron."
Dupotet is enraged by that remark. He snatches a golden spoon of the hashish mixture and brandishes it in LaFontaine's face like a poisoned dagger.
The great mesmerist turns aside in revulsion.
"Unlike yours, Dupotet, my body plays host to no demons that demand nourishment."
* * *
At the bottom of a hole in a Victorian London graveyard lies a woman. She's dead, as it happens, but is being rousted from her eternal repose by a couple of Cockney resurrectionists, whose illegal vocation is to supply the medical community with bodies to dissect.
"Right, Jasper. Be so pleasant as to grab that trotter. Heave-ho."
A dark, plump figure hovers in the shadows behind a nearby gravestone, supervising these two louts - though they are unaware of his existence. Baron Dupotet has not bothered to introduce himself to his subjects.
"Gin and pies tonight, as they say at Buckingham Palace."
The two resurrectionists carry the dead woman through the darkness, discreetly stuffed in a burlap bag. They approach the back door of the Royal College of Surgeons, giving wide berth to a paid-off bobbie who stands in their path, very obviously paying no attention.
A white-coated surgeon admits the resurrectionists with their load, whispering, "Make haste, make haste, you two... er, three."
An entity slides out of the shadows and slips unnoticed into the college on the resurrectionists' heels. Before the door can close, he glances back over his shoulder, revealing himself to be Baron Dupotet.
* * *
In no time the cadaver's delivered to a dissection room, and a professor goes to work, soberly and respectfully. His interns gather around, paying clinical attention. Few of them ogle her bosom, and none sees Monsieur le Baron creep past the door.
He moves down a corridor softly gas-lit and quiet as a temple, past a series of chambers where macabre but useful studies are being pursued.
Baron Dupotet sneaks into a lecture hall, unseen, and leans against the back wall. He has come to heckle his rival, LaFontaine, who stands at the podium, delivering a formal lecture.
The great mesmerizer has dressed himself a bit more soberly for this occasion than he does for his public performances and soirees. His manner and voice are modulated for the academic circumstances. But he is no less impressive for that.
The lecture hall is full of frowzy old physicians of various specialties. In their outdated frock coats, wire-rim spectacles and bushy gray beards down to their watch-chains, these codgers look as though they wouldn't crack a smile if LaFontaine were to levitate the whole building, or cause elves to materialize.
They listen to him carefully, anyway. It's clear, from the sceptical look in their eyes and the sardonic way they stroke their whiskers, that they want only to dissect his ideas and expose them as unscientific. But LaFontaine seems to be getting through to a number of their younger colleagues, who stand at the back, unaware of the baron's presence among them.
"Gentlemen," LaFontaine is saying, "please be aware that mesmerism entails the conscious or, indeed, unconscious projection of the vital fluid. Certain deluded amateurs insist on describing this process as 'animal-magnetism.'"
He glances at Dupotet, who swells with anger, and screams, "We'll see who's deluded!"
Nobody but LaFontaine heard that.
As if nothing has happened, LaFontaine continues his lecture. "The potency of the vital fluid is determined by the mesmerist's spiritual status and moral condition. Herein lies the danger of the practice. For if the mesmerist is corrupt of heart, foul of mind, and diseased of soul..."
Dupotet bows, as if acknowledging a compliment and accepting applause.
"...the vital fluid which he projects will be tainted. Under such influence, the subject can become morally and spiritually weakened. And this will constitute a grave danger to the subject's life."
LaFontaine is mildly distressed to see the baron vanish.
* * *
Seven huge, blond, blue-eyed Swiss guards, in elaborate ceremonial armor and helmets, shouldering lethal-looking halberds, march down a splendiferous hallway.
The ceilings are gold-leafed, and burnished bronze statues stand in niches every few yards. The walls are covered with frescoes of magnificent saints, as befits the Vatican's papal residence in the Year of Our Lord, 1882.
At the end of this fabulous hallway is a pair of cast-bronze doors which depict grandiose and grotesque scenes from Dante. Two more colossal Swiss guards stand sentry to the left and right.
An old man, short and stooped, hobbles along in the Swiss guards' midst. Wearing a full-length white satin robe and skull-cap, it's none other than His Eminence, Pope Pius IX. His Grace is an obese old lecher, with puffy lips and swollen lower eyelids, heavily made up. There's an expression perpetually fixed on his face which makes him look as though he just had an orgasm or two.
Pope Pius IX arrives at the big bronze doors, and the guards swing them open to reveal the private papal audience chamber, a mighty room straight from the glory days of Michelangelo. It's full of marble statuary and boasts a coffered mahogany ceiling with a vast chandelier. On an alabaster table is a selection of five different kinds of wine in crystal carafes.
Standing at that table is Baron Dupotet. Seeing the pope, he quickly puts down a glass of gravy-thick burgundy that he's been swilling without permission. He begins to cross himself with great fervency.
Standing nearby, mildly amused, is LaFontaine.
A fat, gore-colored ruby weighs down the flounder-pale forefinger of Pope Pius IX. Baron Dupotet falls promptly on his knees and commences fellating it.
Soon it's LaFontaine's turn. Choosing not to kneel, but only to bend slightly at the waist, LaFontaine brings his lips correctly close to the tasteless bauble, but no closer.
The Holy Father says, "Gentlemen, let us wish and hope that, for the good of humanity, animal-magnetism may soon be generally employed for the benefit of..."
"I prefer the term 'mesmerism'," says LaFontaine.
Baron Dupotet, still on his knees, pretends to be shocked at his rival's rudeness. The pope reddens, but chooses to ignore the interruption.
"I encourage you, my sons, to continue your magnificent work, in the confidence that it will enhance the spiritual well-being of all Christendom. The blessings of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, be with you."
"Amen," says the baron.
Pope Pius IX pauses for LaFontaine to say, "Amen." It going to be quite a wait, if the look on his face is any indication.
His Eminence fondles a sapphire and emerald rosary that would make Marie Antoinette want to use the bidet. He looks into LaFontaine's eyes.
LaFontaine looks back into his - not hypnotically, not even in defiance, but with disdain. The Amen doesn't seem to be forthcoming.
Five delicious altar boys, all golden curls, sapphire eyes and pudgy pink dimples, suck with pouting lips on almonds and grapes. They lounge languidly on purple velvet cushions strewn about the pearl-encrusted taffeta slippers of Pope Pius IX.
The Holy Father seats himself upon a throne that would make Nero feel like the Whore of Babylon. Baron Dupotet and LaFontaine take up positions before him, the former ogling the altar boys, the latter fastidiously averting his gaze.
His Holiness observes LaFontaine's eyes alighting upon one child who sits apart from the rest.
"Can either of you wonder-workers mesmerize a smile onto that gloomy little wretch? As you have probably guessed, he's the reason I summoned you."
The boy, dark and severe, sits up straight, spine locked. He shrinks from contact with the corrupted altar boys, preferring the hard marble floor to a velvet cushion in their scented midst. Perhaps a tad frail, but handsome, even at his tender age he is revolted by the decadence that surrounds him.
"As you can see," says the pope, "he's a Jew from the countryside. Son of a bailiff. A Christian servant girl baptized him in secret, but left him otherwise untouched."
"Wasteful girl," leers Baron Dupotet.
The pope snickers. LaFontaine does not respond.
"The baptism was performed in a papal state, so, according to church law, he must be raised a Catholic. I've taken him under my wing, so to speak."
The altar boys giggle.
"That's a funny thing to call it."
"I've heard you call it many names, Your Holiness, but never a wing."
"Silence! In the knotted bowels of Christ, I adjure you to hold those pink tongues!"
The Holy Father flings a massive, bejeweled, solid-gold chalice at the smart alecks, braining one of them in a splash of purple wine. This strikes the baron as quite funny. He suppresses laughter. His plump belly jiggles, and he holds one hand over his mouth.
The altar boys watch Dupotet's belly, and giggle some more.
This enrages the Supreme Pontiff further. "You little heathens find this humorous? I'll cause my most colossal guard to skewer all of you at once on his halberd! He'll flick you down to Hell like so many flies - though I know Satan will be angry with me for cluttering up his abode with such pallid trash!"
"Oh, Daddy wouldn't do that," says the plumpest altar boy. He eyes the colossal guard in question, who happens to be standing at attention against the nearest wall.
LaFontaine looks up in surprise, and is appalled to see this giant has precisely the same blue eyes, golden hair and ample pale flesh as the altar boys. It's obvious he's fathered at least three of them.
With pouting lips, on hands and knees like an infant, the plumpest altar boy starts sidling up to his daddy.
The colossal guard's sanctified job is to stand like a statue and never move except to shield the pope from assassination or abduction. Now he has broken into a sweat under his nine-pound helmet. He wears an agonized look on his table-sized face, and tries, with frantic eye movements, to tell his creeping brat to shut up and back off.
Caressing Daddy's big boot, the boy murmurs, "You wouldn't be so mean as to poke me with your big pokey thing, would you, Da-a-a-addy?"
He leers at his own reflection in his daddy's standard Vatican-issue shin-bone armor, then slowly gets up on his pudgy little haunches and starts to fondle the poor man's steel knee-spike.
Dupotet can contain himself no longer. Pointing first at the knee-spike, then to the brat who licks and tickles it, he explodes in belly laughs.
"The little... The filthy... Oh, Mother Mary hemorrhaging on a close stool!"
"You are dismissed, Monsieur le Baron," says the pope, icily.
No longer laughing, but quite unhappy, Baron Dupotet is escorted out.
LaFontaine has a brief moment to ponder the little Jewish boy. He is charmed by the lad, in a chaste, fatherly way.
Pope Pius IX says, "Your incontinent colleague - who will remain nameless throughout Christendom till the Day of Reckoning, if I have anything to say about it - once told me that young children are especially easy to, shall we say, put under one's 'animal-magnetic' power. Malleable little souls, and so forth. Can you do anything with this small son of Abraham, Isaac and so forth? I'll make it worth your while, Monsieur LaFontaine."
What little reverence there might have been in LaFontaine's eyes is gone now. With infinite tenderness, and without permission, he gathers up the little Jewish boy from the marble floor.
The latter allows himself to be lifted into LaFontaine's arms. But the stiffness of his posture indicates that it's only because he needs to be rescued, not because he submits to being loved. Not yet, anyway.
LaFontaine turns his back on Pope Pius IX, a grave offense in itself. He could be chopped to bits any moment. Without genuflecting, groveling, or even asking leave, LaFontaine vacates the papal audience chamber, taking the Jewish boy with him.
The colossal guard makes a lunge, as if to cut the mesmerist down in his tracks. But the Holy Father stops him.
"I wouldn't advise you to raise hands against that man."
Stunned by his god-like boss' warning, the colossal guard gasps, "Is he Satan's henchman, Your Eminence?"
"We should be so fucking lucky."
* * *
LaFontaine exits the Papal apartments, carrying the little Jewish boy. Gently, he deposits the boy in a carriage, says a few words to the driver, and gets in. They rattle off down the sanctified cobble stones of Saint Peter's Square.
* * *
There's a sea of pale faces at the London Zoological Gardens, including those belonging to Queen Victoria, her Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, her pet poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, and assorted other royalist big-wigs of 1884.
They're all seated comfortably in armchairs under a grand silken pavilion which shades them from the halfhearted English sun. Her Majesty seems to be enchanted, perhaps even mesmerized, by something that is taking place before her eyes in the lion's cage.
Inside the cage, whose bars have been gilded for the occasion and spiraled around with ribbons of red and blue silk, stands LaFontaine. At his feet, an enormous lion lies flat on its back, its four mighty legs sticking straight up in the air.
The Jewish boy is in the cage, too, grown a couple well-nourished and -loved years' worth. He looks much more comfortable in the company of a large carnivore than he was in the pope's.
He has been educated, trained, and splendidly dressed in a red velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit. This young son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is obviously having the time of his life. He possesses all the stage presence of a professional two or three times his age.
In his grandest manner, LaFontaine says, "The vital fluid fills all space and all beings."
The Jewish boy says, "Gauche!"
On that command, the lion's paws move left, and Queen Victoria murmurs in admiration, as do the members of her entourage.
LaFontaine says, "To control the vital fluid is to control all things, and all beings."
"Droit!" cries the Jewish boy.
The beastly paws move to the right, and Alfred Lord Tennyson begins to applaud, even before his sovereign sets the precedent.
"Will is limitless!" says LaFontaine.
The Jewish boy cries, "Epées mortelles!" causing the lion's huge claws to pop out.
Her Majesty gasps, "Jesus Christ! Look at those big sharp cock-suckers!"
The royalist big wigs begin to applaud, thinking the claw display to be LaFontaine's climax. They are unable to imagine anything more spectacular. But then the great mesmerist nods at his little assistant.
"You may do the honors, my esteemed colleague."
When the Jewish boy flicks an index finger in the air, the lion leaps to its feet and claws the red and blue silk ribbons off the gilded bars.
Queen Victoria squawks, soils her regal drawers, and faints.
* * *
Incognito, caped and hooded, a perfumed handkerchief shielding his nose, LaFontaine disapprovingly observes a poor performance of Baron DuPotet in a Victorian London working-class dive.
The baron's audience is composed of Ripper-bait streetwalkers, pickpockets, housebreakers, waterside characters and other sundry wretched members of the Dickensian lumpenproletariat. Unwashed, very pale, everybody's swilling gin, bellowing sea shanties and mostly ignoring Dupotet.
He stands on a stage contrived of broken boat planks laid across empty gin barrels. Looking the worse for wear, clothes rusty and rumpled, face unshaven, the self-styled "animal-magnetizer" seems to have fallen on tough times since pissing off Pope Pius IX.
Dupotet has selected, or coerced, an old whore to be his subject – rather, victim. To the dull amusement of the sodden clientele, he grabs a pepper shaker from a fat Cockney who's gobbling meat pies, and shoves a handful up the old whore's nose. She doesn't react at all. Due to post-hypnotic suggestion, her body remains insensate.
He bows, giving a flourish of the pepper shaker, and gets nothing but a few burps in response. He determines to escalate his assaults on the old whore, because he is starved for applause. Dupotet approaches her with a loaded and cocked pistol in his hand, and fires it right up next to her ear. She flinches not at all.
Dupotet commences stitching the old whore's lips together with carpet thread. She utters no complaint.
Bobbies, tin whistles shrieking, come in and close down Baron Dupotet's show, taking him into custody, respectfully. He is a baron, after all. They permit him a final bow, to which nobody responds.
On the way out, manacled, he tries to engage LaFontaine one last time. "Come for the gin and pies, Monsieur?"
LaFontaine, keeping his perfumed handkerchief to his nose, doesn't even look at Dupotet. To the bobbies, he says, "I am sorry to say that the baron is, loosely speaking, my colleague. I'm obliged to linger here and repair his damage."
LaFontaine waits for them to escort Dupotet away. Then he approaches the makeshift stage. With infinite gentleness, he reaches out a hand toward the old whore's ruined face.
"Your will is not your own," says LaFontaine, "but has merged with the vital fluid that emanates from my mind..."
The old whore has powder burns on the side of her head from the pistol DuPotet discharged next to it; she has blood coming from her nostrils, due to the caustic pepper he forced into them; her lips are a mass of carnage, held together with coarse sutures of carpet thread.
LaFontaine passes his right hand over her three times. On the third pass, his hand stops, covering her poor face.
"Universal forces hold your astral body in suspension, like a pearl dissolved in ocean water... I transmit the vital fluid from my mind to your body."
When LaFontaine withdraws his hand, we see that the old whore's nose has stopped hemorrhaging. Not only the blood and powder burns, but the dirt, scars and pock marks of her previous depraved existence are all smoothed away. She still has plenty of wrinkles, but they're the laugh-lines of someone's sweet old granny having an afternoon nap.
In a gentler, more intimate tone, LaFontaine says, "And, of course, my good woman, you instinctively know the other name for the vital fluid."
Dreamily, she shifts her dear head to one shoulder. When she smiles, the carpet thread puffs away like so many filaments of angel hair. Just barely audible, her reply is more of a sigh than a syllable.
* * *
At the Paris Opera House, the angelic noblewoman in the white satin gown is suspended between the two rosewood chairs.
The great mesmerist is absorbing all the admiration and love of a standing ovation, delivered by the most beautiful human beings on the earth. He takes a final bow.
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.