I received the invitation on Thursday last. There could be no question as to my reply; there never was. To perform before the Baroness was an opportunity beyond compare. Still, I withheld my reply, as was my custom, and first found occasion to call upon my friend Sir William Benedict in order to at length discuss the upcoming event. I donned my mask and coat, and then set out to meet him.
Upon arriving at the table we had reserved at the Piazza del Umbre I scarcely recognized my friend. He had, he explained, purchased a new mask in anticipation of the upcoming ball. He had felt ‘unfit for such a grand public appearance as the ball of the Baroness de Mesphista’ in his mask of old. Thus he had cast it away, as was appropriate for un-venerated objects of age. He was about to continue this train of thought until he gave himself pause, saying it was ‘best to leave that off.’ I pressed him, but to no avail. Our conversation drifted onto other, more inane topics: light matters such as recent politics and the wars across the sea. Throughout this discourse, a mere lead up to the entrée of the conversation, I examined his mask.
It was a beautiful thing, constructed of porcelain far finer and fairer than his previous adornment. The mouth was etched, not painted, and its teasing smile was the finest of his features. One eyebrow arched aristocratically and the eyes themselves were so finely painted they looked to have been dyed. No, they were dyed and further ornamented so that each held gold flecks floating in a viridian sea. I mentioned how I could not imagine how he could ever bear to repaint it, to which he replied that he had no intention of ever doing so.
I stood in shock and uttered perhaps the most ridiculous notion ever to pass my lips. “You will then appear everywhere as you do now?”
He laughed, and rightly so, at my proposal. “Nay, of course not. We have purchased another of this quality, only sans etching. That mask will be my wear on all occasions for which I deem this inappropriate.”
Not noticing his use of the plural pronoun, I turned the conversation towards the much anticipated gathering. A quicker woman than I may have picked up on it, but I have always found myself to be possessing of an average mind, albeit one that is more than sufficient for most things.
I enquired as to various details only to be impressed time and again both at the quality of the preparations and the depth of my friend’s insight. At last I requested to know precisely who else was expected to attend the event.
“Everyone,” said my friend. The magnitude of the statement was entirely beyond my comprehension, and hence my reply was highly skeptical.
“The Baroness intends to allow anyone off the street to attend?”
“No, of course not. Only all of the Finest People.”
This might not be saying as much as it would seem. Mesphista is not for no reason called ‘The City of the Finest.’ The ball would be the largest I had ever attended. The Queen might hold larger, but the Queen had never invited me.
“What is the occasion? Why so many people?”
Sir William Benedict leaned across the table conspiratorially. Involuntarily, I mimicked his action. Confidence breeds confidence, and caution is much the same.
“I hadn’t intended to tell you yet, but I am, in part, the reason behind this.” He paused.
“But how?” I murmured.
“It was meant to be a secret until the ball, but as you are my friend of old I see no harm in telling you. I am engaged to the Baroness.”
I knew not what to say. It explained, of course, how my intimate friend could afford to purchase such fine masks. Even in a world where all children painted their own masks from near infancy, such artistry was rare. I realized now that he could not possibly have painted the mask himself. It also explained the grandeur of the ball to come. Such a host of people would attend the party as would make it the ideal medium for the announcement of the engagement.
It was impossible, however, for me to understand why this was the first I had heard of the matter. The engagement itself must have taken place at least a week before in order to allow time for the necessary preparations to be made. And how long had they been meeting before the engagement, holding tête-à-têtes in the midst of parties and soirees, masking their intentions? I could no longer see how I could fully trust Sir William, given what he had hidden from me. He now moved in a society higher than mine– he had made that very clear.
I gave him the most sincere congratulations I could muster and tactfully changed the subject.
All meaningful conversation thus concluded, I soon returned to my abode in order to prepare my mask. I began by using an acetate solution to cleanse from it any remnant of the paint that had previously adorned it. I knew that it would be best to have a fresh start for the grand event, especially considering the recent falling out with my compatriot. I would need to be forming new associations, and falling back on old ones. Such was the purpose of the event, after all. If the primary purpose had really been a celebration of the engagement, none would attend. Then again, the hosts would not wish other company for the true celebration.
I drove my mind from such morbid thoughts and instead considered the blank surface of what would become my new face. I traced shadows on the cheeks, causing the appearance of high, prominent bones and considered that, perhaps, a light blush would also be appropriate. But after that point I had very little idea as to how else I could decorate my façade.
I then recalled the popularity of rather more liberal, surrealist fashions, in some circles. These circles had not previously been my own, but if there had ever been an occasion on which to adopt their style, it was this. I had noticed that surrealists tended to be close-knit, and rarely interacted with those of more conservative adornment, myself included. Just at that moment the idea of not encountering my old friend at the ball seemed a rather auspicious proposal and with that in mind I began my design. I painted a tracery of green vines down from either temple, allowing a delicate flower to perch on the end of each. On my forehead I emblazoned the beady black eyes of a bird of prey and my jaw became the running river’s rage.
Upon adding a few final touches I looked with great satisfaction upon my work, and could find no fault in it. If any mask would gain me entry among these liberals, and astonish the rest, this was the one. I waited out the rest of the time before the ball in brooding silence.
When the time came and I stepped out of my carriage and into the manse of the Baroness, I was quite finely adorned. My dress – blue with a green ruff- was a match to my mask, and quite as elegant as any other present. Entering the ballroom, I moved around the crowded edge of the largely vacant dance floor searching for potential associates. It was not difficult to find the surrealists I sought; one had gone so far as to affix to his mask antlers several feet in height. I made my way towards them and passed several gentlemen and women I recognized and had chosen as my company in the past. None recognized me for, by all appearances, I was an entirely different personage than the lady they knew the month previous.
I reached the strangely adorned surrealists and, upon introducing myself, was soon accepted as one of their own. I fell into easy conversation with the lot of them and, simultaneously, allowed my gaze to wander the room. Soon enough my eyes found the dancers, and one pair in particular, leading the waltz. The mask of the Baroness was fine beyond compare, carved into soft wooden curves and delicately colored. Wooden masks were far beyond the expense of not only myself, but also of most of those present. The process needed to refine the material before it could be worn, as well as the difficulty in acquiring and aging the delicate material, placed the price beyond common reach. The wood itself was imported from overseas for no local tree aged to the same delicate luster. As they whispered across the dance floor, soft, wood-hewn lips glossed over porcelain as seeming proof of their engagement.
Both the Baroness and Sir William were more than adequate dancers, and this was soon shown as he led her into a complicated spin, soon lifting her into the air. This was far beyond the boundaries of the rondo the orchestra played, but a swift minded conductor increased the pace of the music and signaled a trill of the flute for as long as his mistress was airborne. At such encouragement, several other couples attempted the maneuver, with varied success. There was one failure however, so spectacular as to singularly outweigh all other events of the night.
One gentleman spun his lady partner and proceeded to attempt the lift. However he had unknowingly set one foot down on the hem of her dress, thus the overzealous attempt tore her hem and dashed them both to the ground. The man shortly stood with no apparent injury. His partner, however, was not so fortunate. She held the fragments of a shattered mask to her face, now mostly adorned by a growing bruise and scratches. When her partner of a moment ago looked away from the profanity she began to weep. The rest of the room stared on in mute horror as she allowed the last fragments of her mask to drop and shatter on the floor and cried openly, grasping the ruins of her dress. She did not even have the decency to cover her face with her hands.
A young man rushed from the crowd towards the scene, with a handkerchief to cover her face and end the obscenity. At least that is what I first assumed. The young gentlemen knelt down and whispered something to the girl, for I now realized that she was young, only to receive a response of sobs and shaking. He turned away for a moment, but did not produce a handkerchief. Instead, his hand rose to his own face and tore from it his mask, flinging it to the ground. He then took the girl in his arms and allowed himself a kiss, his lips to her cheek. This devilish deed done he carried her off, I know not where, and she appeared somehow comforted.
I looked away.