The night time custom of wearing masks had become a commonplace, as it once was in medieval Venice, in the claustrophobic rabbit warren of the Old City of my grandfather’s youth. It provided a measure of discretion that covered for human frailties in so crowded a space in judgemental times. Business, romance and crime had all taken to them. Fashion had turned them from a means of hiding an identity into a way of building another. There were well known figures in all parts of society who were only ever known by their masks. Women, and especially men, who worked the red light district always wore them, often elaborate “stage masks” in public, with a more practical one underneath. Their clients likewise would not want their interests and identities widely known. Business of more or less legitimate sorts was also conducted in the coffee houses and masks made the deals and the deal makers less obvious.
For the fashionable and for feast days masks were about fun and parties. During the major festivals you would see masks of all kinds from simple Pierrots to lions with feather manes, peacocks, grotesques and gargoyles. Many people made or adorned their own, as part of the festival fun. Others went to the shops that specialised in masks.
The owners of these places probably had a keener nose for gossip than anyone else in the city, recognising their own creations instantly. They also had to be discreet, the mask shops had become a place for trysts and assignations, enter as one person, leave as another. I enjoyed the frivolity of the places and the wit and exotic colouring they managed to get into their creations.
My favourite shop, and home of the chief gossip, was Bowyer’s. Aristotle Bowyer was a small spry man with thinning hair, round glasses and boundless enthusiasm for his trade. His window was always a riot of feathers and gilding, bright paint and glitter. The shop itself was long, narrow, high ceilinged, with changing rooms at either side and masks and carnival outfits hanging from every available space. At the back was the workshop where he and his assistants made everything.
A strong smell of warm glue, feathers and new fabric hit me in a wave as I entered. A cheerful clatter from the brass bell above the door, produced Ari from the workshop, like the genie from his lamp.
‘Ah Mr Fuller, so nice to see you again,’ his voice, high and camp, filled the shop. The breeze from the door shook the sequined scales of a mermaid mask above Ari’s head, though the voice would have better suited the parrot beside him.
‘Ari, this year I’m coming early for the party season, I have to get a better outfit.’
‘You did leave it late last year dear. The day before the biggest ball of the year and you expect me to have better than a tabby cat? This year,’ he swept an expansive gesture around the room, ‘I can do you proud. What can I interest you in? Carry on with the cat motif? I’ve got hyenas, a leopard, a half dozen tigers and this beautiful lion. What you think?’
I was impressed, a huge lion mask with a full mane and soft fur.
‘It’s beautiful Ari, fantastic,’ he preened gently, ‘but a bit impractical for drinks and dancing don’t you think?’
‘Never mind any of your other goings on,’ he bit back tartly, clearly a little affronted at my rejection of his masterpiece. ‘How about this?’ He carried on pointing at a large fish head, ‘Seems appropriate.’
‘Not very cuddly Ari, I’m looking for something classic, chic, sophisticated.’
‘Going upmarket are we? Let me see.’ He minced around his domain for a few minutes and came back with a simple-looking three quarter face mask, lined in soft black suede, with wide black silk ribbons to hold it on.
‘The design is based on the villain in a kabuki play,’ Ari said, ‘it has to fit spot on or it will be nothing but trouble.’ He fussed around me and offered it up to try on. The ribbons tied, Ari poked and pushed for a minute or two and pronounced himself satisfied. I looked in the mirror he held up. The wrathful demonic expression, exaggerated eyebrows and savage leer were beautifully painted. I realized as I looked closer that the colours weren’t solid at all but a lacquer, built up with flecks of metal powder to give it a sheen and glow.
‘It’s expensive,’ Ari warned, seeing the gleam in my eye. Too bad I thought, the Bishop is paying and this is just right for Seraph.
‘But utterly beautiful.’ He glowed gently. ‘I shall just have to economise on the others Ari.’ I bought two very simple plain masks which covered most of my face, anonymous and unremarkable, very disappointing for our Aristotle. He cheered up again when I was unable to restrain myself from a splendid gargoyle. It’s hideous leer and wrinkles had the added charm of a pointed moustache. Ari bowed me out of the shop, my purchases beautifully wrapped in brown paper, wishing me a happy party season.
A visit to a good tailor provided an excellent evening shirt, lace crisp and thick at the throat and cuffs, the cravat was also superb, the lustrous lace and fabric subtly patterned in matte silk embroidery.
I lugged my gorgeous parcels back home through the livestock market. The auctioneer struggled to make his calling heard over the bellowing of the cattle and the sound of their heavy breathing and the ripe smell of them. A Hereford steer arched his neck over the stall and looked at me inquisitively, snorting gently, big brown eyes wide with huge lashes. He would be steak by the end of next week I thought.
At half past six on Saturday evening I presented myself formally at the outer lodge of the palace and was directed to a suite of rooms adjacent to the great hall. The long gallery was packed with people, brilliantly and flatteringly candlelit, overheated and heady with perfume and the thick scent of hot beeswax. As I entered a waiter offered sparkling wine. I made my way through the throng seeing faces that I recognised in flashes across the room. A few friends appeared and vanished in the whirling masses.
The First Minister of the city was surrounded by a small entourage. Doubtless they too had had talks with the Norman delegation on matters of hard business. Several of the elected members and junior ministers were also present; I knew several from the palace and as clients.
‘Ben, good evening, I assume that you are responsible for the stage design tonight?’
‘William! Good evening to you. Yes indeed, I hope it works out well, always a challenge to impress with a small space. Has the visit been a success?’ William was one of the junior ministers and a big farmer from the northern borders.
‘It appears so. The trade deals were all signed which is the main thing.’
‘What’s the news from the continent?’
‘Nothing too exciting. The mess in the German States seems to be more or less over; the Bavarians have finally reduced the Republic to the area around Vienna. They have had the city itself under siege for over a month, I can’t see it holding out without fresh troops from the Balkans and they think they can hold off the reinforcements with help from Baden and Thuringia. Without reinforcements it should be all over and the Hungarians have moved south to cut the supply routes. The Ambassador said that they had heard rumours that the President had been assassinated and that the Council was trying to persuade the Mufti to negotiate the best terms they could get for passage out along the Danube.’
‘Will the Bavarians agree?’
‘Probably. No point in a massacre. Though,’ he continued soberly, ’I’m not so sure the foot sloggers will see it that way after Passau and Bamberg.’
‘That was twenty years ago.’
‘And a hell of a lot of fighting since then’
I grunted noncommittally. The German States had had a long fight to subdue the Islamist enclaves and cut off the support flowing from the Turks and the Balkans.
‘What about the Med coast?’
‘Quiet, the republics down there are realists. They can hold what they have with support from Africa but they can’t get any further. Besides, business is good, their economies are doing well, why would they rock the boat? Anyway, how is your line of work? Or should I say lines? Are the rich and ugly queueing for your beautifying touch?’
‘No William darling, the poor and beautiful are getting a wonderful likeness done.’ Annabel had appeared behind him in a wave of heavy floral scent, Peter grinned shyly over her head and nodded to William. Annabel offered William a fragrant cheek for a kiss.
‘Hello old man,’ Peter said. ‘Good result with the talks?’
‘Good enough. You will have an easier run from the Brittany ports next year, even better now that they want to increase the wool shipment, you should get a good outbound cargo too.’
‘Your fleeces then! I should go into politics and get the tax taken off wine’
William made gentle protesting gestures and turned away as he was collared by another business man eager for news.
Peter bent down and murmured, ‘Robert and Liz Maida are here, did you know?’
I had expected it; Robert was one of the most important bankers in the city. He knew that Elizabeth and I had had a relationship before they met, he did not, I sincerely hoped, know about the mistaken events later on. ‘I assumed he would be.’
‘I suspect he is rather the jealous type.’
‘He might well be, but he has no reason.’ At least not any more I thought.
‘And I think I have seen Patience here too.’
Fantastic. Just what I needed to lighten the mood of the evening, ‘How come?’
‘Bella tells me that her new chap is a Colonel in one of the artillery regiments.’
Annabel returned to our conversation from noisy greetings to other wives. ‘Oh yes, Patience’s new man. Older than you by at least ten years, short and very definitely portly. Under the thumb already I would say.’
‘Bella!’ Peter tried to protest.
‘Well! I don’t see why I should pretend. I don’t like her. What I should do,’ she continued darkly, ‘is find you a proper replacement. I shall give it some serious thought. Good brain and nice tits should do it.’ With that she sailed off in search of more bubbles, kissing cheeks all the way.
‘You won’t get away you know, she never gives up.’ Peter grinned again, ‘Mind you she has got your number.’
I grinned too, a little wryly, ‘Thank you so much, may your claret curdle.’
He laughed and we turned as the major domo asked the company to take their places in the hall.
As with the seating in the theatre later on there was a definite pecking order to the table plan. I must have been in good odour with the palace administration because I was on a wall bench in the second row from the high table.
The high table itself was empty but the quartet was already playing in the gallery above and there was a general hum of conversation and waves of acknowledgement as people took their places. Each table had its own waiter in the Bishop’s livery. As we came in they were attending to the lighting of the last of the huge candelabra on the tables. Soft, flattering, candlelight gleamed on the place settings and brought neighbours closer, huddling together out of the gloom.
We all stood as the Bishop and his honoured guest entered in a colourful candlelit procession. The Ambassador’s scarlet Cardinal’s robes bloomed in the doorway, behind him his train of clerics and advisors, sober in black. The Bishop invited his guest to sit before doing so himself. Floorboards and benches creaked and groaned as we all resumed our places. The Dean of the Cathedral said grace and the hum of conversation resumed as the waiters went about their business and the quartet struck up again.
As the kitchen staff brought the food in on trolleys for the waiters to dispense I surveyed the room and my immediate neighbours. High table was very well attended and they were already making a start on the soup. Huge display baskets of breads of all kinds were being carried along the tables. As my soup was served I turned to the lady on my left. Greying hair, tightly controlled, a firm mouth and a somewhat severe dress was lightened by a surprisingly frivolous pendant and earrings in the shape of dancing cats.
It turned out that she owned a textile business further up the coast and was the Chairman of her town’s chamber of commerce. She had had a modestly successful visit with the improved export terms on the cloth and leather goods that her home town relied on. I had no idea how patterns were woven or about the dying process so the first course passed quickly with a quick introduction to the business. Her firm’s speciality was tapestry. Had I thought of designing tapestries? The very best were based on paintings. I hadn’t, but I assured her that I would from now on.
On my right was a woman like a plump mouse, looking uncomfortable in a dress with large flowers embroidered on it. She eyed the waiters nervously and only relaxed as the fish course was laid in front of her.
‘I was so worried it would be a whole fish, you know, with the head on. Or something in its shell,’ she gabbled with relief. It was in fact a small fish pie in a strong cheese sauce that needed only a fork and patience, the jars they were in were very hot indeed.
I smiled, ‘What do you do?’
‘Oh. Nothing. Well, obviously I look after my family. I’m here with my husband. He is in shipping. What about you?’
‘I paint people.’
‘Really? Like those up there?’
‘I love painting, do a bit of watercolour when I get the time.’
‘What do you paint?’
‘Landscapes. Gives me an excuse to get out for the day on the train. Do you do landscapes too?’
‘No,’ I confessed ruefully, ‘I can’t get to grips with green. Every landscape I have ever tried has ended up as a confused green mess, I find people easier.’
She laughed and we chattered about her trips to paint places, her children and the trouble she had had decorating their home, how difficult it was to do the fashionable trompe l’oeil views. Her husband, she nodded at a beefy, grizzled, balding man with a short beard on the opposite side of the table a few places down, had not understood. ‘Why not paint it white he said, I said I wanted it to look nice.’ She shook her head sorrowfully.
I smiled. I had not been tempted to try the popular style. It suited larger houses than mine and I preferred my own pictures on the walls.
My textile guru had been engrossed by the thin bespectacled man opposite me through the fish course. Immaculately dressed he looked like he should be a lawyer, in fact what he did was far more interesting. ‘I arrange deals on import and export cargos,’ he said briskly when I asked. I must have looked blank because he explained a little more slowly. ‘A lot of places at the moment, especially our northern neighbour, can’t pay for the goods they need in our currency. They can get hold of commodities that we might want and are prepared to barter. The trouble is that say you make, oh, I don’t know, cheese,’ he paused to see if I was taking it in, I nodded carefully. ‘You need to be paid, guineas in the bank to pay wages and so on but they can only pay in fish.’ I nodded again. ‘You don’t know how to sell fish so it is no good to you. I, on other hand, know someone who sells fish. I buy the fish from you at a discount and sell it to my contact at the market rate. You overcharge the other party for your cheese to allow for my discount and everyone is happy.’
‘I see! Can you match any proposed payment medium to a suitable buyer?’
‘I try. I do get stumped occasionally,’ he grinned boyishly, ‘someone tried to pay with a barge load of frying pans not long ago.’
‘Honestly. I get all sorts. The stranger the products, the bigger the discount.’
‘Ironmongery? Nuts, bolts, washers that kind of thing?’
He grinned, ‘Surprisingly often, especially from the Emirate, bricks is another popular one. I once had a load of toilets.’ Amazed at the things that people did for a living and interested by this possible means of getting large amounts of odd goods from strange places without comment. I let the subject drop. I made a mental note to mention the idea to Robert.
At this point my eye was drawn to a table on the next row down, on the far side of the room. Patience was sitting facing me. She was working hard at charming the people around her, leaning forward, concentrating, focusing on their conversation. She looked up and caught my eye. Her face instantly hardened. Where I was sitting had been noted. I had done a better job of catching her character in that picture than I had realised, or wanted to realise, at the time. Without intending it I had caught an echo of that bitter expression even when she was smiling, unmasked by the mane of red gold hair and the feline eyes. Ancient history; possessive, jealous, intense and destructive, I was very fortunate to be where I was. I needed to remind myself of that whenever my home felt too quiet and empty. She looked away and, smiling widely, deliberately leaned far forward and touched the hand of a man with his back to me, her neckline swooped in the candlelight. I smiled to myself and looked up at the carved angels on the roof corbels and wondered which one was looking after me.
A meat course followed, then extravagant desserts, cheeses and a short round of speeches. Eventually it was over and with charged glasses we made our way through to the theatre. At the entrance the crowd converged and I was suddenly face to face with Elizabeth. As ever she looked poised, elegant.
‘Elizabeth, lovely to see you. I hope you are well.’ I stumbled slightly through the polite social forms, aware both of her and her husband just behind her shoulder. His face was poker still. Flashbacks, fragments of our past flitted through my mind. I thanked God that no one could actually see the images behind my eyes.
‘Wonderful, thank you, it has been a long time.’
‘Benedict, do you know my husband, Robert?’ The huge engagement ring on her slender finger flashed brilliantly in the dimness of the doorway. We shook hands briefly, without enthusiasm. Thankfully the crowd urged us to move on and we went separate ways, they had places on the balcony, I was placed near to the front at one side of the pit. This meant I could get a look at a good part of the balcony and the majority of the guests. Elizabeth must have been seated above me because I could not see her, my view of the Cardinal, on the other hand, was perfect.
His slabby, square, face was lightened considerably by the amount of wine the Bishop had plied him with during dinner and he was talking animatedly, shovel hands gesticulating emphatically and enthusiastically. His delight in the sweetmeats that arrived just before curtain up was obvious. Well done Johnny.
As Johnny had said the plot and moral of the story was heavily handled but the cast worked well with what they had been given. Crispin gave a truly sulphurous Devil and Lucia glowed throughout, decidedly the star of the evening. At the end I made my way backstage, accepting friendly comments about the stage and costumes on the way. The cast and crew had gathered, in good humour. Everything had gone well and there was a general air of celebration. Johnny was even larger than life, relief and triumph in equal measure putting a spring in his step and an extra boom in his voice.
‘Ben, everything worked perfectly, excellent look to the whole thing, couldn’t be better.’ There was a pop in the background as Olly opened a bottle of bubbles, which might have been liberated from the reception earlier.
Order was briefly restored when the Bishop and the Ambassador arrived to congratulate the cast. The Cardinal was especially effusive toward Lucia, his huge paws enveloped her delicate hand for far longer than necessary. The Bishop hid his amusement, but caught my eye where I waited with the stage crew.
After a loud couple of hours with some impromptu dancing and more wine the party broke up and I left the now silent palace and made my way home through the dark and empty streets. The moon was bright and lit the way. The sharpness of the night sobered me; the hard glitter of a clear winter night sky was already here. I stopped and gazed up at the vast depth of space, the myriad of flickering lights, looking up as the first man must have looked up, awed by their calm and permanence.
A gentle breeze chilled my face and the small sounds of the sleeping City came out of hiding; distant drunken singing, a flowing drain, an argument going on in one of the rooms overlooking the street. My party mood evaporated and a wave of loneliness seeped in with the cold into my bones. I had always thought that things would be different, a wife, children, a full house to come home to. Yet here I was, solitary in the middle of the night. I shook myself, trying to shrug off the self-pity. I was lonely, alone in a crowd, no more than that. I supposed that I had taken on the Bishop’s job as much as a distraction as anything else. It might yet need a physical courage that I wasn’t sure that I possessed.
More coming next week. Extract from ‘Renaissance’ an adventure thriller by Jeremiah Hope. Copyright Jeremiah Hope 2019.