Locksley Hall 1885* *Excerpted from M.P.Stokes’s future work-in-progress, “The Lily and the Stone”
There were no secrets from him, not in all the world, and the moment he heard, he boarded a train, New York to Ohio. By midnight, he was in the foyer of Locksley Hall, swirling off his satin lined cape. He’d come dressed for the occasion, a masked ball.
Music poured down the grand staircase, and up he swept, almost bounding the full three floors. In the ballroom, he took a fluted glass from the long row of tables and relaxed. Sipping Champagne, he was just another vaporous being, wigged and masked and incognito, his purple robes vaguely conjured from some Gothic novel, perhaps magician, perhaps priest. Strolling the periphery, he watched the guests regarding themselves in the wall of mirrors. Fantastically costumed — bright harlequins, divas, and such — they danced, now going up on toe, their hands linked and held high, not minding in the least being caricature. Their glimmering props, jewels that needed locking away, gleaming swords with a passing acquaintance with real blood, were not the objects of tonight’s fascination. Tonight’s fascination was the mask.
Turning, the dancers broke into couples, arms taking waists, man to woman, mask to mask. Searching them, he found their hostess. She was winged, luminous, aptly dressed as an angel. Her partner was a beauty-spotted highwayman, long in tooth and looking ridiculous, be he in reality solemn poet, cutthroat politician, or (cutthroat) industrial financier. Oh, this hostess, her genius beyond mere beauty. Like a huntress, she went for the deep, deep pockets, fleecing them of gold. And more, her prey was willing. This was her charity ball, and even they, the powerful, had an inkling of that inescapable reality. The one that never bargained yet might keep score. The great equalizer, when the world would flow on merrily without them.
Fascinating, watching her sweep past, gown trailing, seeing her through the mask, eyes pale blue and so large they magnified the moment. Did he dare dance with her? No; she’d know him by touch, ruining this rare opportunity, the reason he’d come. No secrets were safe from him, true. Eyes watched; word always got back. But other eyes could not penetrate the gloss as his did. Who was she when he wasn’t around? Was she really so heart wrenchingly good?
The music ends, and, eyes wandering in the brief stillness, she notices him there in the corner watching her. Instantly, he raises his glass, bowing stiffly, as if he were twice his age. Her smile, gracious in response, hides all traces of puzzlement. It would be impolite not to place him, everyone here so very important. Most of all to themselves.
For a time, he pretended to lose himself in the crowd, and he almost didn’t notice when she so quietly left the room.
Tracking her to the first floor, he sees her slipping out onto the balcony, and keeping to the wall, he makes his way down the stone stairway after her. There’s a bright moon, nearly full, a hint of winter in its crisp light. And a silence so still that you hear the foliage about to fall, the leaves as they shrivel back into their source. She is standing on the flagstone path, her mask gone, and she is holding her breath. Listen: Is someone there, in the garden? Was that movement, out by the far wall?
No, it’s nothing; she is merely looking up at the sky, smiling. Come to stare at the moon.
Enjoying her little drama, he slips out from behind her, and making noise in opening and closing his cigarette case, walks down the path as if he’d been there all along, She startles; then laughs, gesturing with the hand that holds her mask. “I didn’t see you there.”
Her surprise is tantalizing, all the more so, because she sees him as a stranger. It was how she looked, their first meeting, the seeing him with new eyes. She, like a lily with her long white neck. Fragile, tender, pure.
“Astraea,” he whispers, pulling off his disguise, and stepping back, gasping, she breaks the spell. Springing forward, he grasps her by the waist, pulling her into the shadows with him, his breath in her ear. “Come, angel. Your guests will not miss you.”