Lake Swan

The Masquerade

The hills of Phyrwold are empty places. They are always empty, of life wild or domesticated to subservience, or of death pervasive in decaying roots and bleeding rivers – emptiness instead holds her pale, pliant hands around the sky, a terrarium of silent fog and silenter rain to paint the trees in silver. Empty roads carve straight lines through deserted wheat fields and barbarous fences; an empty hamlet lies in the valley of a long-dried tarn, where not even ice will find its way in February snows. The emptiness of Phyrwold makes the gray clouds seem as playful children in the sky, racing over the trees so quickly as to not see anything under their feet – there is nothing to see in any case, only the presence of trees is deceiving.

Softly, painfully, the sun crept up the hills towards the sky, where it was seen no more in the day, but cast white shadows through the peaks, and Phyrwold awoke. It was the waking up of a phantom, a giant still half-dozing in a subconscious hibernation; the eyes of it squinted like diamonds edging perilous mountain walkways, and brows of brush and curving pines were flecked in suggestions of waterfalls’ scars. It seemed to me that the most viral shout could, for a second, illuminate Phyrwold and thrust it into the sun, exposing it as it was, but that, just as quickly, it would recoil into itself. Perhaps, too, that was all it really was, and no noise or shattering intrusions could change it from its empty self.

The stagecoach crawled tediously up the slope. Plume, the capital of C, lay ninety miles behind us, and ahead, Phyrwold – as good as a nameless outpost – seemed to erase impressions of all past scenery. To be struck in a physical collision is one thing, and makes lost memory an expected consequence, but to journey in an empty conveyance over several days and become, as it were, transformed by nothing, this is a malady of its own, unique sort. I wrote, in vain, the events of each succeeding day in my folio, and yet to read it over later was to be watching a play, with myself as the chief actor. From one hour to the next, the curtain was drawn, and the next monotony was new and different, dull to every human sense. The clock alone seemed to grasp the movement of the coach in its arms, and still it seemed that every circling of the hands only showed how much each day was like the one before it. If there were no sleep in the onward motion, if the clock meant nothing had changed, there were no days at all.

I thought the coach was empty of other passengers, for an hour at least. Then, in the most insignificant stop on a cold January morning, the door was pried open by the grim coachman and another person entered therein. It all occurred with the rhythm of a single motion, and I was not sure that I was not hallucinating, at the first. The stranger made some protestations – silent ones, it seemed – but the coachman’s insistency rang through the glass: “You were falling asleep upright, miss, and what driver would I be to have you fall from the top! Our way lies much uphill. Get you inside and sleep without the wind blowing over you, miss.”

The woman, saying nothing, took a seat across from me in the opposite corner. The coachman climbed back up and resumed his unchanging pace. I faced the glass and lingered long over the one, small glimpse of the stranger I had had.

In my mind, she wore a heavy brown cloak, speckled in mud, and was scented faintly with lilac. The hem of her gown was just visible; it had been ice white but was gray with travel; it was as light as her cloak was stifling, and fluttered featherlike with the rolling of the coach. Her face was, of course, beautiful, to my eyes. It appeared my fortune in life to be brought together with my ideal of perfect beauty, whenever my circumstances were the meanest and my instincts set the hardest, to stoicism and not to poetry. This stranger was fit for a song, not a humanist’s sermon, and tender feelings were years dead within me. Of course at this moment the stranger would be beautiful, and I was almost incapable of the recognition of her presence.

It was possible she was not real at all. I was no vulgar lout to stare, and so to as much as glance at her again was to attempt conversation. I decided warmly against this, and my decision was futility. It began to gnaw at me that I must look at her again, to determine at least that she was not a ghost or remnant of a memory, concocted in subconscious musings under the black, ponderous roof of the coach. I argued it did not matter whether she were ghost or memory, but the counter was that it somehow mattered if she were human. My right hand clenched the back of my hair, but forced my empty face to face hers, and to madly repeat the coachman’s words of that morning: “It may snow yet; the temperature is fit for it!”

There was an answer of silence. Then, to my surprise, she gave a little laugh – a nervous, apologetic laugh. A plaintive sigh followed it, and her wonderful eyes bore tunnels into my own in a way that quite shocked me, and shook me out of ennui. It was necessary in my rational soul that the beautiful illusion must be broken, immediately, and so I introduced myself.

“September Sol,” I started, bowing ridiculously in my seat. “If it snows tonight, we may have some difficulty reaching the next two stops. It is all uphill from this point, and the last I came this way, the roads were in want of repair.”

“I stop at the next,” she replied simply.

Her smile faded in an out like a candle, but it was her voice that ate at me. I was angry with myself for speaking at all. When words have no effect, cause no other reaction than some vague and startling reassurance that your eyes must not be deceiving you, then words are cruel means of punishing yourself with expectation. She was neither ghost nor memory of one, and her earthy voice made no pretense to creating an impression. This was the thing that held me intrigued, for a minute, yet I scorned intrigue with habit, habit that had become intrinsic in me. The beautiful woman must be a memory. It was preferable above all that she were not a stranger: only new pain has the ability to surprise.

She did not tell me her name; I scarcely noticed this omission, so struck was I by her resonant, unaffected voice.

“It is a desolate region. I have stopped there once before,” I replied, absently. “There are few inhabitants who winter at the foot of the Phyrwold hills. One of them, I had chance to meet – oh, two or three years past.”

“Not the prince – Prince Matthias?” she asked me hastily.

“Yes…that was the name. The very same – Prince Matthias. You know him?”

She smiled weakly again. “I knew the prince, some years ago. Not more than three.”

“I don’t believe we have met before. Yet surely you must have attended one of the prince’s masquerades – he was quite famous for them, if I remember correctly? I have been to just one.”

“I never was,” she said regretfully. “You see, my brother introduced me to the prince. That was the year they were at work on the Apollune plans. I often accompanied my brother, Julian, on his trips to confer with Prince Matthias, and though the project ended in disappointment, we became close friends, he and the two of us.”

“It was a different Matthias you knew, then,” I replied, without feeling.

“I hope not,” she returned. “I have always thought that though I knew him three years ago, still he was the same Matthias to me as to anyone else that could become – close to him.”

She reddened; the spell was broken; she had become a familiar story and nonthreatening. I exhaled, ran my hand over my face in nervous relief, and turned almost congenial.

“I claim no exclusive knowledge of the gentleman,” said I. “The ball was the only place I ever saw him; over wine, I spoke with him briefly, unknowingly, as he was in costume and I was a stranger; then I saw him as our host at the moment of unmasking. It is strange, is it not, how equalizing it can be – a true mask, a mask of unfamiliarity? I had no intention of forming opinions about our host, and yet throughout the evening I had built up an image of the person in my head, only to watch it fall under dispute when I saw him in plain reality. In the end, I barely spoke five words to the prince, yet between our conversation and the ball itself, so much became clear that was a blur, as well as uncertain that was a certainty.”

“I don’t understand you,” my companion replied. The hem of her white gown still shivered with each movement of the coach, and one hand gripped the ridged window frame as our conveyance climbed the uneven terrain.

“Are you going to see him?” I asked point-blank.

“Yes. I am not sure he will remember me – though could he truly forget? – yet I am going to see him.”

“And supposing he does not remember you?” I went on cruelly.

“I will see him,” she smiled wryly. “That will be enough.”

“No, it will not be enough. If he has forgotten you, it will not be enough for you to see him…” Forgetting myself, I crossed the coach and sat down beside her, so distraught was I by the illusion, or so anxious to inform her of the truth. “You will not be content with that! If he has forgotten you, then he is not expecting you, and what then? Silence, humiliation, polite dismissal. Polite words are poor comfort to anticipation of such a moment; it will not be enough, can’t you see – ?”

“No, I do not think you understand…I have wanted this for so long. The smallest glimpse of him is all I have wanted. Then I shall be gone, and it will be gone. You don’t believe me?”

“I have been as young as you once, and as certain of the fitness of what I wished for as you are now to see Prince Matthias. There are dreams,” I turned away, resumed my seat, and spoke half to myself, “there are dreams that are too beautiful to be realized in real life. Natural consequence cannot allow it. My dear, I fear you will be disappointed by – your meeting.”

She looked at me directly for the first time, and it was with effort that I wrestled with the dreams in my own mind. I sensed old instincts grappling for control within; a sudden sweat beat its way across my face, which was trying to recall the vestiges of an old friend, the only friend of my young life. His voice, his tone, his impeccable mien could not be erased by time or habits. I glanced from the window back to the stranger, and hid well the reassurance I felt to observe, without an absence of half-shame, that her own expression had changed, quiet suddenly. She seemed at once hesitant, even indecisive, on the verge of recanting her entire resolve.

“You speak just as my father did,” she said finally, incredulously. “The same words, the identical tone…forgive me, I have not been feeling well since yesterday morning, and I am wearying you with my thoughts and apprehensions. Look!”

From the somber folds of her cloak, she drew out a pale, stiff piece of fabric, covered over with a hundred downy feathers that were not unlike the ones that trailed from the hem of her skirt. The fragments of two large quill feathers fanned out from each side of the thing, like the translucent, drooping wings of a cherub; down the center of it, a row of diamonds divided the two halves and traced patterns across a faint overlay of gray lace. With unshakeable hands, the fair stranger held the mask up to her face, surveyed her wispy reflection in the window for a moment, and laughed again wryly, with no affectation of consciousness that she was the perfect image of beauty, notwithstanding a ghostly one.

Even at this moment, my inner exaltation at having succeeded in my ruse was combating all warmth of feeling. I folded my hands and hardened my voice, remarking only, “Another masquerade?”

She nodded. Her fingers ran down the feathers on each side of the mask, which she had dropped to her lap in silent thought. “Yes. It was my intention to wear it.”

“And now?”

“Oh, not now!” she looked at me, in mixed consternation and sudden humor. “Now you, sir, have unmasked my resolve, with your strange words and, if I may say so, your forward, yet necessary, observations. Now I cannot wear this mask, for you have stirred that strain of doubt in my mind like no one else could have done, and I have not lived so long as to squander another moment in uncertainty and half-attempts. I am leaving this mask here – here, keep it if you like! – and I will not use it to hide… I will go to the masquerade without a mask, and go up to Prince Matthias, and – ”

The coach had thundered to a stop, perched yet on a steep incline; the stranger left the thought unfinished, aloud. I had said not a word throughout all of this; indeed, my eyes had reverted to their former place at the window, peering out through the gray into the grayer beyond. At such a time, it was simpler to look away than to remain engaged with the stranger and stifling natural instincts, particularly those instincts which had already exerted their doleful effects, uncalled for and, in this instance, unanticipated. There was no right on earth of anyone to forcefully interfere in this person’s private affairs, and my hapless disinterest had done just that, with the efficacy of a disastrous reaction. Even so, the thing was done, and my intentions could scarce deny what my mind was pursuing alone.

“We have arrived,” I said, speaking to the glass. I felt the frail frame of the mask in my fingers – she had given it to me – resisted the urge to toss it from the window, and placed it instead gently on the velvet seat, where it stood out, bright and glittering, on the black, dusty covering. The stranger was staring at me anxiously, with eyes that tried to apprehend my own, but I disregarded it and stepped brusquely out of the compartment, the instant the coachman threw open the door. I allowed him to assist her in descending; I could not touch the stranger.

“Wait for us,” were my words to him; then to her, “You are mad.”

She started. “Why do you say that?”

“No one enters a masquerade ball without this,” I picked up the mask again, with a frown. “Shall you be remembered as the one who spoiled the prince’s gala?”

“Shall I be remembered at all?” she replied.

I shook my head and handed it back to her, half-shuddering as our fingers brushed together. “Wear it until midnight, and I will make you to be remembered. Did we not both know Prince Matthias those years ago, yet at nearly the same time? Perhaps two old memories will make each other the more vivid, by common association.”

I let myself look down at her, somehow eager to see if she understood and would accept this fragile attempt at reparation.

“You will come with me?”

“If it can do your cause some good – yes, I will come.”

She smiled again; how alive she looked in Phyrwold, a brightening sea wave in the middle of that dead, empty, cold wasteland! It was a smile of relief, for she acquiesced and put the mask, quite hideous in comparison, upon her lovely face, tied there by a black ribbon that disappeared in the curling shadow of her hair. The thing could not be avoided: I offered her my arm, and we began the long walk through the wood, past the gates, and up Prince Matthias’s graveled drive.

This path had not changed in three years. It branched out and forward, slightly to the right, from the coach’s stop, and with a gradual incline it ascended the hill for about a quarter of a mile, before it plateaued and stretched straight onward to the house. The black gates were ornamental only. There were no gamekeepers nor fences nor hedges of note, since there was no game to poach and no neighbors, or transients, to trespass upon the prince’s property. As a matter of fact, the straight drive to the house – an old and exquisite mansion – this drive, as it ever had been, was continuously lit by twelve glittering lamps on each side. These lamps were painted black like the gates, though were peeling a little now with age, and from each of them were extended several ornate branches, giving them the air of fractal trees. Beyond the lamps were, indeed, great oaks that were worth as much as any heirloom in the house; their century-ridden fingers traced patterns in the clouded sky, and at times of deep fog they were especially impressive. All of this worked strangely upon my mind, recalling striking memories that, at one time, I had been certain I could not forget.

Our way down the drive seemed slow and laborious, each footstep crackling over the gravel like a monstrosity. The stranger’s arm was weightless upon my own, and together, under the lamps, we seemed more like two pilgrims mutually supporting each other towards a hopeful end, rather than two uninvited masqueraders, one without a mask. The house ahead stood alight with the glow of movement and sound from within, but silently it waited for us, and silently the carriages at its door waited in the growing dusk. It infused me with the feeling of a checkers piece in movement, for without rational thinking of my own, I was accompanying this woman, a stranger, to the house of Prince Matthias, when it had nothing to do with my purpose in coming to Phyrwold, nor could foreseeably accomplish anything for her. My footsteps resounded as if of their own accord; she seemed almost happy as we neared the door, but I was too disturbed by my autonomous actions to scarce notice the change that was transforming her.

The door opened for us as if we were expected. Guests were expected, at any rate, and it was with absentminded cordiality that the butler took her cloak and my hat without so much as a question. He shut the door softly behind us, though not before a sudden draft struck our faces with the sole living native of Phyrwold, the January wind.

Turning round again in the vestibule, I saw her, for a moment, standing in the center under the chandelier, hesitantly looking down the hallway to the door of the room, where by virtue of a cello and viola, a weak polonaise led the dancers and just reached our ears. The white ruffle about her shoulders fell back gently behind her, resting as a light mantle beneath her charry hair. The feathers upon the hem of her gown were likewise imitated by the ruching of her train and the lace on her sleeves – the mask, now splendidly vibrant in the light, fit her noble face well, yet obliterating all of her characteristic expression that I had, by chance, come to know in our brief meeting. She looked back at me and became small again in the seconds of self-doubt.

I offered her again my arm and led her up to the door. She seemed anxious, of a sudden, and pushed it further open with ungraceful haste.

It was a new crowd of attendees that filled the room. I should not have been surprised, but for some illogical reason, I had been expecting to see only old faces, to match our own. True it was, the décor of the ballroom was unchanged – as old as the house and as ever, grossly ornate – but every image I could recall painted a different aspect of the room entire, so completely had my impressions been formed by its former occupants. The fashions of the decade had changed; they made my companion’s garb appear quaint, though not less beautiful. I watched her move slowly into the murmur of the crowd; I looked down at my own attire and realized that I, too, was antiquated, and age could not have bestowed any favors on my general appearance. The new people were so vivid in their blur, so vogue in their uninteresting, essentially uniform apparel: a competition of sameness, colorlessness, and cost. I seemed to remember having similar feelings about the old crowd, but by comparison the old counterparts were dazzling, and even original.

Where had she gone? The new people began to stare at me, one by one like a contagion. Affably, I moved to accept a glass of champagne, but not a drop of it crossed my lips. The new people resumed their dance, as quickly as they had paused; they had supposed I must be a doctor or some other omen of ill tidings, and if not that, then certainly I was a nouveau riche professional who had the gall to attend a masquerade as my maskless self. My concern was only for my friend, however, and, over the rush and din of the music and treading feet, I walked carefully around the room, straining for a glance of her.

“There he is!”

I jumped. She stood beside me.

“The prince?”

“Yes, by the mantel.”

Following her line of sight, I glanced towards the great fireplace, where stood our host the prince. It was on the opposite side of the room, but I felt, with no little embarrassment, that the man was quite aware of our presence and, indeed, studying us from that distance as if to ascertain who we were. I took a sip of the glass thoughtfully.

“I shall speak to him – ”

“No, do not do that,” she interrupted me, with concern.

“Why not? I must give some pretense for why I am here.”

“He has seen us together. He is sure to ask you who I am. I do not wish for it to go that way…don’t you see? I must speak to him first, and as myself.”

“It is another four hours until midnight,” I replied, intently. “That is a lengthy time for me to try to avoid him, and for you to wait.”

“I am not going to wait longer. And remember – you and I, we are strangers. Though,” she added, reddening even around her mask, “you must know that I am, and will always be, exceedingly grateful for your assistance today. If it were not for you, I might not have got up the courage to come in here! It was a foolish undertaking, until I met you.”

Stupefied, I followed her ethereal figure as it wound its way around the ballroom, not so suddenly as to seem coarse, but not so slowly as to forgo the moment, the timing that was so critical. In peripheral vision, I watched with fascination, and a blink of envy, as she seated herself near Prince Matthias, close to the hearth, and made an appearance of adjusting her mask. She went so far as to remove it entirely, and I could not mistake the glance the prince gave her as she did so; it seemed impossible he could have not seen her face in that moment.

“Say something, then!” I muttered inwardly, watching the pair through the muddled blur of the crowd. The one was so uncertain and full of doubt, while the other remained motionless, scarcely animated. Yet, it was evident, through the din, that even this standing, self-composed figure was concealing a struggle against surprise behind his plain demeanor and glinting spectacles. Not a word did either speak.

Furious, with what irrational reaction I knew not, I exited the room abruptly, half-flinging myself over the threshold, forward several strides, and out the front doorway, choking the music off with a dulled clatter of the heavy doors. The night had come on quickly; it was cold and starless. I could yet see my breath condense thickly in the air, and the long, warm shadows of the lighted windows made strange patterns over the stranger, rock-strewn lawn. Yes, winter was indefatigable; time was old; words were left in sorry neglect. For several minutes, I walked back and forward, between the door and the dead fountain, at times looking down the long drive with the notion of leaving altogether. Why I did not, and could not, was a conundrum for which I could give no reason, not a one.

“Say something!” I repeated to them. “Of course, they could not hear me, even if I were to run back to them and shout it to the room. But how many days and years are wasted by silence, how many mistakes been committed and bred to maturity through the dire commands of silence? Has all this been for nothing, that you will not go the final meters and forgo the wall of courtesies, of apology – of time? You, Prince Matthias, you have not grown so old that you cannot remember her, and you, nameless woman, are not so frail you cannot speak! Of course you are not; you are the embodiment of words; your face itself is a story that I have pried from you too far this evening…and still I do not know you, only that you have the words, somewhere inside you. Think hard on what you have sacrificed to come here, and how infrequently will the opportunity come for you again! Even I, a stranger entirely, was willing to help you on your way; I brought you to the house and would have set everything in motion, but you insisted, and I believed you, that you yourself could bring it about. Throw down the mask, then! make no pretense of wearing it at all; just as your host, you have earned the right to uncover your face and approach him as yourself. Speak, or let us be on our way from here, forgetting it as it may be he has forgotten us.”

For a quarter of an hour, I railed again them in my mind, then against myself, all to no purpose and with fluctuating levels of sincerity. This was my nervous habit, one which had, with irony, proved instrumental in all my efforts to practice self-control. If I had returned to the ball room at that moment, I should have been as calm and uncaring as any decent guest ought to be, by virtue of this lonely tirade, one to redirect my difficulties into the earless unknown. Indeed, in the midst of these ruminations, over and over I regained determination to return to that room, walk divisively through the crowd like Moses in the Sea, and exert my, admittedly unnatural, influence over them, in bringing matters to a tidy head. Yet, as often as this temptation struck me, it was countered firmly by no better brother than the one that had kept me often from small vice – the influence of experience.

Experience was a tell-tale inhibitor. It was true that my range of human experience, concerned as it was with so much out of the way of ordinary encounters, was by that reason itself extraordinary, and through few efforts of my own. What it chiefly consisted of was a recollection of old events, fleeting blinks in memory, in which I had been vehemently engrossed and come out the worse for it. It is nothing I can be proud of, and it only came to me in this moment as a warning – a soft, quiet, unobtrusive warning to ensure the mistake would not be repeated. Even so, at the moment of truth, it was a projection of experience to come that finally convinced my mind to stay out of the house. I could see well the future if I were to force the scene, and the warning, trussed up with the facts and realities of the moment, only served to strengthen the brake upon my inclinations.

At half-past eight, the door re-opened suddenly. A rush of relief came to me as I saw my travelling companion step out upon the steps. It was a selfish relief; that I could not deny.

“Did you speak to him?” I asked immediately.

She nodded; a painful expression crossed her eyes.

“What, then?”

“He said,” she smiled, without meaning it. “He said it was very nice of me to come to his masquerade ball.”

“He remembered you after all?”

“No, no, he did not.”

Half-tripping on her gown, she stepped onto the gravel where I stood. In her hands she held a slice of spice cake, which was crumbling in her fingers of its own accord.

“I think I will just go feed the lake swans,” she said passively.

“If there are any to be seen…”

“There must be. Otherwise, surely I have come to the wrong place!”

She smiled again, bitterly this time, and turned her face away from me to conceal her emotion. My hardening resolve – another trace of cold experience – prevented me from displaying sympathy; still, in an odd way, it crept into my head and made me look at her with a shadow of concern, even empathy, my guarded gift.

Copyright © 2020 Marian H. Rowe

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