The Houseguest (a playlet)
AN ELDERLY ARISTOCRAT
HIS YOUNGER MALE HOUSEGUEST AND BIOGRAPHER
(THE MALE HOUSE GUEST SITS IN AN ANTIQUE CHAIR AND DOES NOT SPEAK THROUGHOUT, WHILE THE ARISTOCRAT PACES ACROSS THE STAGE DELIVERING A MONOLOGUE. WHEN THE HOUSEGUEST IS NOT ACTIVELY LISTENING OR ACKNOWLEDGING WHAT IS BEING SAID, HE WILL BE WRITING DOWN WHAT HE HAS HEARD)
Tell me, my friend, have you ever loved someone so completely, so passionately that when they departed this life, you wished you had the courage to follow them, though you dreaded what might await you? I am not ashamed to confess that I have loved this intensely, with every fibre of my being. And though the loss of such a love has brought me acute anguish, the like of which you cannot imagine, I have not regretted having loved and lost, as the poets would have it.
I can’t imagine anyone having been as ill-used as myself, but I want you to know that there was a time when I knew true happiness and the memory of that blissful union is what has sustained me. Though I had lived a full twenty years before my beloved and I met, it was only from that day that I felt truly alive. Before then I merely existed.
Love is the very reason for living. Is it not? Without companionship, affection and the unspoken understanding that binds two souls who are in complete accord, we are merely sleepwalking through life. And I should know, for I have been in that wretched state now for what seems like an eternity. And yet, I could not follow the one who was so dear to me into the unknown. The one who gave meaning to my life. Oh, believe me, I tried. More than once during those empty days that followed my bereavement when I thought that sorrow weighed upon me so heavy that it would stop my heart from beating and the blood from coursing through my veins. No living thing should have to endure being left alone in the dark after the very breath of life has been extinguished; when all that one has believed in ceases to have significance, leaving only memories. And what are those but vapour, a vague impression, a vivid dream that is glimpsed and is gone?
With their parting the loved one ceases to be real. Like those words you are writing so furiously lest you miss every element of my confession. And yet, despite my grief I could not summon the courage to end it. At the critical moment I could not make that leap of faith into the abyss.
It was not a question of fear or of belief. For if there is a heaven—and we have only the word of the clergy that there is (and this from those who do not seem over eager to forgo their terrestrial wealth and power for the promise of celestial reward)—, if there is a heaven, I know there is no welcome for me there. For I have been unfaithful to my love, having sated my hunger and desire with others. At first I was ashamed and cursed myself for my weakness, but then I realized that I could not help myself. I was at the mercy of a compulsion. Once you have known such desire, you must satisfy the craving. There is no denying it. Once you have drunk from the wellspring, from the fountain of youth, you must quench your thirst again and again, or you age more rapidly than if you had not known love in the first instance. If you are a passionate being as I am, you cannot live without it. It is an addiction.
I trust I am not shocking you. I have been alone for so long I have become somewhat indifferent to the sensibilities of others. And besides I have not entertained a guest – not since…
…but it has not always been so. In my youth I had a most enviable reputation as a socialite and a gracious host renowned for my lavish soirees on which I spent a considerable part of my not inconsiderable fortune. The remainder I squandered in empty and extravagant revelries after my bereavement in a vain effort to assuage my grief.
And over the ensuing years as my house fell into disrepair my fortune depleted to the point where I now condescend to accept employment to keep body and soul together. Yes, as demeaning as it is to one of my station, I have acceded to necessity and now ply a trade of sorts.
And inevitably, the years have also taken their toll upon my body as they did upon my house. I have aged and decayed none too well, I confess. But I bear up. A little rouge to bring a blush to these pallid cheeks, a touch of greasepaint to mask the lines etched in my face and I have taken twenty years off my life. Ah, if only–
You remain unmoved? Greedily recording my confession in that immaculate copperplate hand that betrays a clinical detachment to the specimen you have chosen to study. But then this admission is precisely what you have travelled so far to hear, is it not? And, after all, I have much to confess.
How I envy you, your life among the gay whirl of society. And would gladly exchange it for my seclusion were it not for the bitter sweet memory of that love I speak of. The love that haunts me. I know that I am doomed to live alone and estranged from bustling humanity. I have paid a most dreadful price for my dissolute ways and excesses, but now I must endure the solitude that only the insane and the inconsolable must suffer. To experience the bitter-sweet longing of love and lose it once is torture, but to suffer the loss over and over again, as I have in my vain attempts to relive the one great love of my life, is a pain that gnaws at the very fabric of my being, at the burning ember that is all that remains of my soul.
But here I am again, playing to the gallery, wringing every wretched line of this pathetic melodrama that has been my life. And for whom? An audience of one. I think it best that we part here, my friend. I am due to take the stage in a few minutes. You have seen my act once and I must confess, I stick pretty much to the same ‘business’ every performance. The locals are easily amused. They leer at the lithesome dancers in the neighbouring tent and they stare like frightened children at the exhibits, our carnival of horrors, our circus of freaks of which I—it appears—am the principal attraction. But once a man of the legitimate theatre, such as yourself, has seen our tawdry little entertainment, there is no profit in sitting through it again.
So I bid you farewell and a safe journey back to England. I trust you enjoyed your stay in our country. Oh, and good luck with your book, should you finish it. Though I’m still not convinced that your choice of title is a wise one. You would be better using my real name. Though I must say, I cannot imagine those genteel ladies of London pouring over such horrors no matter what title you give it. You’ll be hounded from your lodgings before the ink on the first reviews are dry.
Mark my words, Mr Stoker, you will regret the day you met me.
© Paul Roland 2013