My dreams were elegiac but not amorous. That winter, when some business brought me to the city of Brno, I was a student of the University of Prague, in other words, a young man, but no one of females was on my mind and none of them could be a mistress of my heart; never a female’s fastidious personifications disturbed my heart which always was ruled by sober mind and sober thoughts, my own as well as borrowed. True, I wrote amorous songs, but it was not traditional romance, and my feelings, thoughts and ends could not be called chaste or fatally passionate or disinterested. I neither burnt incense nor idolized; I simply chose a living plaything and enjoyed till it pleased my eye and manhood. Life and borrowed thoughts taught me to look for neither anything ideal nor an ever-faithful heart. Life and time taught me to wish only something pleasing and ordinary which could be easily reached and easily left. From my tender age I learnt that Unfaithfulness could not hurt those who had the magic talisman in form of the simple rule: “Be the first to leave not to be left.” Death could not do any harm to my love affairs either, since those were but fleeting liaisons, as Death watched True Love alone, taking care of Unshared Love and disuniting Perfect Unions, and it hardly ever visited the prim and proper arrangement of society, knowing that the connections were ephemeral as they were, created by chance or vagary, easy conjugating, easy parting, and it hardly visited the small circle of my interests and enjoyments, maybe knowing that much in the circle was quite artificial and subjected to me alone. No, Death never robbed me of anything dear, and to my ex-lovers I was obliged only by beautiful instants, having no thought of crying or regretting of them. No, a reason of my melancholy and insomnia was that I could not finish my latest anacreontic.
Several cups of coffee, which I had had on the night, little helped my imagination, unless it got ready for accepting anything unacceptable, unexpected or weird, and yet – no inspiration, therefore I was about to read somebody else’s. So, picture me, my reader, alone and studious, when there was the knock on the door. I was about to call my manservant, but the guy snored so loudly in the kitchen that this sound didn’t permit to expect his quick help. I went to the door. “Who’s that?” I asked.
Believing that the knocking only seemed to me, I was about to return to my study, but the doorbell began ringing somewhere overhead, so suddenly and violently that I startled again, reached to unlock and unbolt the door, and opened it.
Before I had time to look round the dusky landing, something black and glossy slipped in, along with the frosty wind, rustled through the dark drawing-room and disappeared behind the door of my lit study. Shutting the door with a bang, I rushed after the strange phenomenon.
In the study, in one of my low chairs, a black-masked Capuchin was sitting. Although the countless folds of the glossy black satin hang on his shoulders like a cardinal’s gown on a hanger, but the shining black colour wonderfully matched to the ochre upholstery, and the Capuchin’s pose was so graceful, with his black gloved hands looking so shapely that his beautiful exterior could suggest that his mask covered a friendly face, perchance nice-looking.
“What’s going on?” I spoke on the move to the easy chair the Capuchin was leaning back in and crossing his legs, “Is it a mystification? Who are you, sir?”
“Mystification?” Lifting his head, he looked at my face, and his black mask and eyes twinkling in the eye-slits produced a chilling impression. “It’s Ball-Masquerade time in the town, and I am masked.”
“But sir…” I said dryly, because the visitor’s voice I heard never before, “…This is my apartment here and not the Town Hall or Gentry Assembly!”
“The ball is at Gentry Assembly, today, and I am from there,” he said letting me know the information as though I asked for it, “So crowded! Splendid revelry. At the exit, it was so crowded that I could not wait till my overcoat was within my reach again, and I came here, being wearing this costume and bareheaded. Luckily, sir, your house was nearby. Otherwise, I could catch cold. Tell me oh tell me why you are not at the Ball!”
“Tell me your name!” I said.
“What for?” Capuchin shrugged impatiently, “I’ve come neither for borrowing nor for proposing to your cousin, nor for introducing to your wife. However, you have nothing of the kind. You are a bachelor, alone tonight, that’s why I invite you to go to Ball-Masquerade. I guarantee the night will be full of fun. Let’s hurry, for time flies. Don’t waste your time on vain questioning.”
I said, “Even if I had a slightest wish to be at the Ball tonight, which is against my habits by the way, then by the moment when I finish dressing…”
“…the Ball is finished,” the visitor caught up, “That’s why you’ll be wearing simply and lightly, only a domino and mask.”
“But I have not any,” I said, “And I am not about to wake up my manservant to send him for the costume, at this late hour.”
Before I finished speaking, the gumptious visitor jumped up from the chair like a cat, threw off his black gown and began dressing me. “It’s an excellent fit,” he murmured when fastening the hooks and tying ribbons. But something other surprised me much more than his act: the persistent inviter had another Capuchin on, a violet one.
“I am unshaven…” I said, “I can’t go there without a mask.”
In another instant, the visitor threw off his mask and gave it to me… with he himself remaining in another mask, crimson.
I said, “Well, that’s odd! You have one more mask on!”
“Everyone has more than one,” he said, “However, this idea is too old and developed by others, and we may leave it, today. Let me help you…” He put the black mask on my face, pulled a string on back of my head, and the mask got close fitting.
I said, “But I don’t feel certain that I’m going…”
“You’ll feel certain later on, and now, let’s go, sir!” Capuchin sounded so cheerfully, “Call your valet and tell him to lock up the door behind us!”
“I’d like to hear your name though…”
“All right, all right! My name is Monsieur Maupertuis.”
Believing it’s not his real, I was not about to call him by this strange name and I shall name him “Capuchin” in this story.
“Not real?” the stranger said as though in reply to my unspoken thought, “One may thing you would like the idea of being known as one of the notorieties of your home town!”
Appreciating his common sense, I said nothing in reply.
Shaken out of slumber, my manservant was scared seeing two strangers wearing the bizarre clothing, one black-faced and another crimson-faced. Eventually, I succeeded in making the guy understand that one of the strangers was his master and he had nothing to worry about unless taking care about my overcoat and then the door – but the guy glanced at my masked companion timidly and in an inimical manner while helping me to put on my raccoon coat and hat, and then he shut the door with a bang behind us.
As we quickly walked in the snow-covered street, with me realizing that my going out on the night was at most a folly, my companion Capuchin, who looked like a rascal or romancer, took my arm and began whistling gaily a song that sounded familiar. Next, he began talking, “Your valet…” He quizzed at my face, “…your valet took me for… I don’t know what, perhaps, for one of the prankish entities, who enjoy confusing humans in every extraordinary way, confusing, infatuating, enamouring, taking away a shoe thrown out gates at a Yule-tide divination, or saying a name of a hateful man to a sentimental damsel’s question ‘What’s your name?’, or making funny and monstrous grimaces from behind shoulders of a widow, who does a mirror-gazing exercise in the hope of seeing a face of her new husband, by night, in a cold bathroom. All this is misleading, I agree, and this often causes some imbroglios and funny misunderstandings, but -- nothing more serious. In short, this cannot cause any disaster therefore quite innocent, and simple people are wrong, fearing this. We are not like they, aren’t we?” Here we came up to the main entrance of Gentry Assembly, and he carried me in the spacious vestibule, where the door-keeper took my raccoon coat and hat, unwillingly, since there was no room for more clothes.
On the top of the banister of the broad, carpet-covered staircase a la Louis XIV, a bronze chimera held out her forepaws with lamps in her claws. Going up the stairs I stumbled, because my feet tangled in the skirt of my loose costume, and I leaned on my violet companion’s hand. He whispered in my ear, “Tonight, you should touch hand of masks as lightly as possible. Do you know why?”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“You’ll know, later on. Take a piece of advice… Act bravely and with confidence tonight, leaving all your ideas about good or evil geniuses, for a while. Your stature and given name is rather usual and quite usual for many, which may cause a lot of happy and funny coincidences. To score an advantage, answer all questions by uttering Humm. Do you take me, sir?”
“Not in the least.”
“You’ll take my meaning later on. I suppose you know the legend of the wise scholar?”
“What a scholar?”
“He was so wise that to any question he replied by saying, Humm.”
“Who knows… Now, hurry up!” Here, the violet Capuchin paused to give tickets to the porter, and I entered to the hall.
As though for the purpose, the orchestra greeted my coming with the deafening tutti. The sound of talking, shuffling, laughter and squeaky voices of masks blended with each other and merged with the music. At the door, the mingle-mangle of masks squeezed me on all sides, as though trying my bones’ endurance, and began moving me to the right, to the left, backwards and forwards -- till the fidgety movement brought me to a saving space between two pillars, where I could take my breath and look round.
The air was full of lights and it seemed steaming overhead. Although muffled up from head to foot, the most of the masquers stood aside, at the walls, hanging around the doors, shrinking into corners, less lit and more crowded, with the middle of the hall remaining almost empty. Anybody’s vivid poetic imagination could see an air of mystery in that, suspecting some fatal secrets, dramatic scenes and passionate talks, but not mine: however much I strained my ears, I could overhear nothing but the trivial phrase “I know you, oh beau masque!” or something of the kind, the same banal. Despite the dull, monotony and insipid chatter, the masquers seemed uncommonly cheerful and totally fascinated by their masked ladies and the Ball in whole; many roared with laughter, indulging in their childish delight. However impressive and curious the sight was, very soon, I got bored.
Even the good orchestra could not improve my low spirits, because, actually, it was a time in my life when my thoughts were only a little lighter than my black costume; in other words, I felt especially gothic-minded. Besides, I hardly could understand a reason of the excited laughter heard from all sides; eventually I thought that a reason was that the poor young men, who were pushed and elbowed on sides, almost continuously, became excessively sensitive to tickling, in this special place. In their midst, my eyes tried to find my companion’s crimson face. I was about to give a telling-off for his pulling me out of my den and slumberous state, which state could give me a dream or vision, which dream or vision could be of use and much more exciting than the masquerade. Here, I saw a black crêpe domino gazing at me from the shade of a pillar. Disliking the manner, I cast my eyes down, then looked up suddenly and began gazing at the masked stranger too.
The excessive pallor of her skin seen through the lace of her mask, the phosphorescent gleam of her eyes, her thinnest waist and strange motionless lent her image a fantastic oddity of an unearthly vision. Puzzled, I averted my eyes, but my attention was attracted by some golden glitter and I noticed another motionless masquer standing close against the wall, at a distance, to the right of me.
The masked figure was motionless but the golden stick jerkily moved in the gloved hand as thought it alone got impressions of all around, all what the eye and the ear brought to it, like the two enumerated messengers did to a human’s soul. The mask didn’t let read any thoughts but at least the golden stick hinted about some covert emotions of the masked stranger. At first, the stick was twirled like a sort of a scapegoat for its owner’s caprice, jocundity or vexation; now, it dangled along the masquer’s figure, glittering against the black velvet, as though obeying the order to give the place to the other plaything. I could not know whether the pictures of somebody else’s festivity touched the masquer’s soul or not, whether beauty or ugliness was behind the mask, but not all secrets of the world were known to the “mage with the magic wand”, since the entire figure and strained motionlessness showed a huge curiosity and intention to watch.
Meanwhile, the masked woman in black crêpe moved, came out of the shade and went towards me. Approaching, she lifted her hand and I saw a bunch of red camellias in her hand. Reckoning myself a gentleman, I accepted the offered flowers, and before I found the right thing to say, she took my arm. With my eyes I tried to find the masquer in black velvet with the golden stick, but in vain, the stranger was nowhere about -- and I had no choice but to lead the woman in black crêpe somewhere.
On our way, from time to time, she gave a start and constrained sigh; from time to time, she gazed round the playful and fussy crowd, and her eyes showed either fear or ill-will. Walking with her, I felt ill at ease, because my new companion seemed so mysterious that it seemed to me that she could fly away or fall through the floor, at any moment. My confuse mind could guess that the strange poetic occurrence was temporary, and the sad shadow was to vanish, soon, leaving only a vague remembrance or nothing. Meanwhile, walking slowly from one room to another, we reached a remote cabinet, and there, in a wall lamp light, the woman in black crêpe left my arm, stood in front of me and began talking in an emotional tone, “Constantine! Do you remember our past?” The voice rang with notes of despair, but it was not familiar to me.
“Beautiful mask!” I replied politely, “The one, who ever heard a word from you, could not forget you.” But futile was the beauty of the phrase, because, as soon as the masked woman heard my voice, she recoiled in horror, dashed out of the cabinet and disappeared in the dark steamy stream of masquers. “Well that’s odd!” I thought to myself, “The mysterious woman took me for somebody else.” My violet companion was right telling me to answer Humm to any question. Really, which woman was entitled to begin a talk about my past? For my past hardly had relation to a woman’s, unless it’s my late mother or some fine art procreations, at most. “If only I could reach the damned door to the staircase…” I said to myself, while maneuvering among masquers whose attacks became especially active and shrill for some reason, “…then nobody in the world will be able to make me return to the dubious feast.”
“Hello!” a masquer squeaked, “You’ve changed! So thin! Have you been flattened by your wife’s thumb?”
“What ugly flowers!” another masquer burred, pointing to the red camellias in my hand, “Did your wife drop them, and you picked up?”
“Really, where did the ugly red flower come from?” a small frisky domino turned up, as if from nowhere, or to be more exact, from behind my shoulder, snatched the flowers out of my hand and tore them in pieces. Before I had time to come to myself, the domino tiptoed and whispered in my ear, “I’ll come at 2, without fail. Wait for me!” Then the masquer slipped away merging with the crowd from where she came from.
“What a fidget!” I said and paused, because I heard the familiar whistling.
To be more exact, somebody whistled a song and I recognized it, remembering of it twice, if one may say so. Firstly, I had heard the whistling tonight, from my companion crimson-faced Capuchin. Secondly, I recognized the catchy melody. So-called “A Hanged Man’s Song”, the old English song whose refrain was “Your hat is lost…” which tells a story of a man, the vagabond who was sent to the gallows and whose only fault was that he lost his hat and walked bareheaded. The well-known melody whose gallows humour is lesser known. But the cheerful whistling either stopped or died away, and I never saw the familiar crimson mask in the crowd. But I saw the desirable door!
I began moving towards the door, but the music stopped and trumpets resounded all around which didn’t seem a great surprise for anyone but me. Looking up at the gallery, where the trumpeters showed their art, I remembered what day it was today.
The masquerade was one of the last balls before Lent. The trumpets announced midnight and it was the death knell for any public entertainments of the sort.
Oh Lent, the long train of days, colourless and insignificant in society, after the eventful and nosy hours of the crazy winter; the time when communication becomes less, parties hardly possible, when most of your fashionable friends are out of your sight, hidden under the cover of their hearth and nolens volens getting accustomed again to the abandoned shelter -- however, nothing is healthier than boredom and sleep; the sleep therapy is necessary, from time to time, especially to ladies and poets: somnolence in mind and boredom in heart obliterate weariness, physical as well as mental, and make ladies ready for new triumphs and poets for new aspirations.
And so, the trumpets announced midnight, the end of public entertainments and beginning of Lent. It took me some time to tread my way through the mobbing masquers, with me being about neither to listen to their false shrill voices, nor to catch their inviting words in the air or in my ear, nor to look for any images, unveiled and catchy. Eventually, at the staircase, I saw the mob was yet denser: black dominos and Capuchins seemed to be on every step, from top to bottom, looking like an army of onyx statues. Joining the army, I had to wait, before making the next step.
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