Posted in Stories, Writing

The Masks of Misfortune (Part 1 of 4)

You are cordially invited to attend

The Grayson’s Masquerade Ball

31 October 1853

 

“Have you received your invitation yet?”  Daisy waved the white card in Harry’s face and leaned against the table in front of him.  He shrugged dismissively.

“I don’t know; I can’t be bothered to read the mail these days.  If it’s important, someone will tell me.”

“You must have gotten it; Emma adores you.”  Daisy tilted her head, smiling.  Harry only shrugged again.

“Doesn’t matter if she does.”  He looked at Daisy briefly and her smile faltered.  They sat in silence for a moment.  Daisy started fanning herself.

“What silliness are you thinking of now?” she said, with forced naturalness.

“Mm.  I’m trying to decide if I want cake badly enough to get up and find some.”  Daisy glared at him.  “What?  Cake is good.  But so is sitting.”  Harry stroked his chin thoughtfully.

“We don’t have any cake.”

“Shame.  Well that solves that problem then.”

“Harry, focus.  Masquerade, remember?”

“Right.”  Harry slapped his thighs.  “Are you and Tom going?”

“Yes, which means you are too!”  Harry remained quiet.  Daisy leaned forward and brushed his shoulder with her fan.  “Brooding does not suit you.  It will be fun!”

“Oh yes, of course, it always is.”  Harry was cheerful once more.  He rubbed his hands together and grinned.  “Where is that Tom anyway?  Mother Grace does not like to be late to the theatre.”  Harry was referring to Daisy’s mother, an inscrutable woman whose sole purpose was to be the high of society.

Daisy was now fanning herself excessively and examining her dress.  “He should be here any minute now!”  And just like that there was a loud knock on the door.  Daisy jumped to her feet and flattened down her hair.  “How do I look?” she whispered eagerly, her voice turning over girlish and excited.  Already her cheeks were turning red.

“As glorious as ever,” Harry remarked, smiling despite himself.

The door was opened and a tall gentleman was shown into the parlour by a well-dressed butler.

“Hello, Tom!” the girl gushed, smiling ever so brightly.  “Tristan, please tell Mother we are ready.”  The butler bowed himself out.

The tall gentleman was now crossing over to the girl, and kissed her hand upon reaching her.  “Daisy, you look beautiful.”  And indeed she did.  Her long black hair had been done up in a twist with little pearls weaved into the waving locks.  She wore a long dress that spread out at her hips and cascaded to the floor in flowing layers, with a fitted bodice, sweet-heart neckline, and draping sleeves.  It was royal blue with hints of purple mixed in, which made her own blue eyes shine all the more.  Daisy smiled and dipped her eyes at Tom’s compliment, wishing to run her hands through his blonde hair and rest her head against his strong chest.

“Alright there, Harry?”  Tom grinned.  Harry had sprawled himself out on one of the sofas and was casually resting with his hands behind his head.

“Cheerio, old chap,” he piped back.  “Dreary weather for the theatre tonight, hm?”

“All the more reason to go to the theatre,” Tom replied.

“Indeed.  Your logic humbles me.”  Harry wiggled his eyebrows.

“And your logic has always befuddled me.”

“Oh, Tom, look at this!  Won’t this be fun!”  Daisy waved the invitation before his face.

Tom took the card from her and looked at it dismissively.  “Masquerade, hmm?  Not really my style.  That’s more Harry’s scene.”  He put the card on the table and took up Daisy’s hand.

“Oh, please, Tom, please!  It will be fun, I promise!  Harry agrees, don’t you Harry?”

Harry scratched his chin slowly.  “Well, I always was the more entertaining one.”  He winked at Tom.  Tom rolled his eyes; he couldn’t help but smile at his friend though.  Harry continued, “I was always forcing Tom into fun situations – what a snooze he can be sometimes.”

“Situations that got us into trouble you mean.”  Tom tried to keep his face stern, but his mouth twitched up.  “You can be a real ignoramus.”

“And a dashing one at that.”  Harry grinned, bowing his head.  “I tip my hat to you, my friend.”

“That would mean so much more if you were actually wearing a hat.”

“Ah, how sad must be the lives of those with no imagination.”

“But what about the ball?” Daisy pleaded, throwing up her hands and interrupting their laughter.  She was used to their teasing, but sometimes it made it impossible for a girl to get noticed.

“Yes, the ball.  Tom, don’t be a sourpuss and let’s go.”

“Fine.  But I don’t have a mask.”

“Actually,” Daisy tapped her finger to her lip, “I think we have some masks in a trunk up in the attic.  They were my great-grandmother’s and she brought them all the way from Venice.”  Daisy gave a little shake of excitement.  “Oh, how wonderful!  We can all have a real Italian mask for the ball!”  She gave a beaming smile and Tom and Harry nodded along with her.  “I’ll have them brought down and we can look at them tomorrow.”

At this moment, Daisy’s mother glided into the room.  “Come along, now, my dears,” she chimed, “the theatre awaits!  Harry, please, feet off the sofa, dear.”  Harry grinned and stood up, walking over to Tom.

“He never learns, does he?  The scallywag,” Tom chided, and he and Harry elbowed one another.  “Been like that since we were kids.”

“I could say the same for you,” Harry laughed.

“Are you joining us tonight?” Mrs. Whitman carried on.

“Oh yes, do come, please Harry!” bubbled Daisy.

Harry hesitated for a second, eyeing Tom and Daisy, then shrugged and agreed, and off the party went for their evening at the theatre.

But that is not what this story is about.  No, we are much more interested in the tale of the masks.  Venetian masks are some of the most beautiful and intriguing in the world, but the masks that have found their way into this particular London home’s attic are especially so, for they are the Masks of Misfortune.  Why misfortune, you may ask – well perhaps it’s best if you read on and decide for yourself.

Sitting in that very trunk poor Daisy spoke of just before were indeed three masks that had made the long journey over from Venice to London, carried by Daisy’s own great-grandmother, Isabella Pellini.  These masks were very old, far older even than Isabella herself, and they had been witness to much in their time before being shut away in that trunk.  Long have they sat in the dark, waiting for someone to come along, waiting for someone to show their world to.  But they would not have to wait much longer.

Tom cracked open the rusted lock of the large worn out trunk and threw back its lid.  It creaked loudly on its hinges.  Harry coughed at the dust that was released, and Daisy leaned in eagerly, curling her fingers over the edge of the trunk.

“Oh, there they are!”  She carefully pulled out each mask one by one and set them on the table next to the trunk.  “Aren’t they beautiful?”  She looked at them in awe, for in spite of the dust and grime that had settled on them over the many years they had been in storage, they were in fact quite beautiful.

The first one she had pulled was a half-mask that was made for the top of your face, from forehead to nose, so only your mouth would be showing.  It had a white face with big gaping spaces for eyes, and each cheek was painted a bright red, giving it a clown-like appearance.  Coming off the top of its head was a jester’s crown with seven curving points, each with a jingling bell at the end.  The crown was painted with golden flecks, and little musical notes dotted its surface.

The next was a delicate looking eye-mask.  Its eyeholes were curved and catlike and each was bordered by three golden strings braided together.  It was painted violet and it shimmered as Daisy moved it.  The left half was plain but the right half was covered in a floral pattern, each flower intertwined with the next.  From the top left of the mask, papier-mâché leaves sprouted and climbed over top of one another.

The last mask was by far the most intriguing.  It wasn’t brightly coloured like the others; rather, it was quite black and it didn’t have much in the way of decoration save for a tiny red ‘X’ that rested below the left eye.  What was most alarming was its shape.  It was a full mask, but there was no mouth, only a nose piece that reached down to where a mouth would normally be.  The nose too protruded far out and indeed the bottom of the mask simply melted straight into the nose.  The mask was really just a large beak, which curved slightly downwards and ended in a sharp point.  The top went far back on the forehead and the eyeholes seemed sunken and malicious.

Naturally, Daisy chose the eye mask, while, less naturally, Tom went for the jester’s mask and Harry was drawn to the beaked mask.

“We’ll have to get these touched up,” remarked Tom, vigorously examining his mask.  “They’re a little scratched up, but nothing a bit of paint won’t fix.”

The others agreed, and Harry said he knew where they could take them.

The three of them jumped into a hackney and were whisked away to Hester Restoration and Curio Shop.  They entered the shop and Mr. Fessip, the owner, hurried over to them.  When he heard what they wanted him to do, he about danced for joy.  He loved restoring antiques and it was always a pleasure when he got to see rarities such as these from other countries.

When he had pulled the three masks from their boxes to get a better look at them, there came the tinkling of a bell as the door to the shop was opened.  A long dark figure entered, wearing a black cape and top hat.  He slinked into the store with almost soundless footsteps.  He waited in the shadows for Mr. Fessip to finish.

Mr. Fessip, at that moment, hurried to the back of the store to fetch his glasses.  The man, still standing in the corner, scowled at the three of them, seeming annoyed with their presence.  Then he noticed the masks.  The man creeped forward, eyeing the masks with a greedy hunger.  He approached them and stood up straight.  With the shadows no longer covering him, they saw that he was very pale and his skin looked rather dry; it was stretched so tightly across parts of his face that it was like looking straight through to his skull.  He had sunken cheeks and hollow eyes.

“What a rare find you have here!”  The man’s voice was raspy, and it seemed to cause him grief to use but he spoke quickly anyways.  He reached a hand out as if to touch one of the masks, but coiled back with an inward shudder.  His fingers were long and boney, and his yellowed nails were filed down to claw-like points.  “A special find, indeed,” he whispered, his eyes practically popping out of his head and his voice teetering off into a shuttering coughing fit.  He slipped his hand into his coat pocket.  He pulled out a small card and handed it to Tom.  “I will gladly buy these off you, young man, gladly, gladly!”

“Um, right.”  Tom looked uneasily at the man then glanced down at his card.  Daisy clutched Tom’s arm.  “Sorry, Mr…um, Rathgowl, but these aren’t for sale.”

Rathgowl’s eyes narrowed.  “Surely, I can make it worth your while.”  He pulled out a wad of cash and began licking his fingers and counting out the bills.  “How much would you like?  Name any price.”

“No!” Daisy cried out, but immediately shrunk back again when the man turned his intimidating stare to her.  “Th-they were my great-grandmother’s.  I’m not s-selling them.”

“Mm.”  The man slowly moved his eyes up and down along Daisy’s figure.  “Such a pretty girl; there must be something I can offer you.”  He reached his hand out suddenly and grabbed Daisy by her arm.  She squeaked.

“Hey!”  Harry stepped up, forcing his way between Rathgowl and Daisy.  Tom pulled Daisy back and she cowered in his arms.  “The masks aren’t for sale, so back off.”  Harry took a step forward, forcing the man back.

Rathgowl scowled.  “Very well.  My sincerest apologies.”  He bowed, sneering still, then turned sharply and marched out of the shop.

The three relaxed.  Mr. Fessip returned and began to eagerly examine the masks.  He kept muttering excited exclamations.  He picked up the beaked mask.  “Ahh,” he said, drawing in a deep breath, “the death mask.”  He continued turning it over in his hands in silence.

“What?” Harry prompted.

“Plague doctors used to wear masks like these when going to visit plague victims.”  Mr. Fessip turned the mask around and pointed into the hollow of the beak.  “It was once believed that the plague was spread through the air, so doctors put herbs and other sweet smelling things in here to protect them and to keep out the smell of rotting flesh.”  He nodded.  “Dark history, that.”  He put the beaked mask down and rubbed his hands together.  “Well!  These are lovely finds!  I’ll just clean them up for you, and they’ll be ready in a couple of days.  Wonderful?  Wonderful!”  He walked them to the door.

As they made their way home, discussing the masks and the upcoming masquerade, none of them noticed a dark shadow creeping along behind them.

 

Read parts 2, 3, and 4

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