The Blue Star
Chapter 10: Prelude to the Servants' Ball
Under the colored lanterns swinging from trees, there were already a score or more carriages lining the side drives. Coachmasters talked in groups. The doors of the hall stood open, a wide bar of light silhouetting those who came on foot from the opera-hall, and turning to a more vivid green the tender grass. Violins sounded piercingly; as Rodvard joined the throng at the entrance, striving to walk with Cleudi’s slight strut, he saw how all the floor beyond was covered with jewels and flashing feet, while nearby the mingled voices were so high that only the rhythm of the music was audible, with women’s laughter riding on all like a foam. Right behind him a bearded Prophet of Mancherei showed the slim legs of a girl through an artfully torn silken robe, and tossed at him a rouge-ball which marked his white jacket; he must weave his way to the foot of the stairs around a group gaily trying with tinsel swords to attack an armored capellan, pausing to bow before one of twenty queens.
Halfway up the stairs in the dim of the balustrade, an archer of the guard, with his star-badge picked out in emeralds, was kissing a sea-witch in flowing blue. They disembraced at his footfalls; the sea-girl leaped up and threw her arms around Rodvard’s neck, crying; “Snowlord from Kjermanash, I will melt you. Did I not tell you, ser archer, that witches are all fickle?”
“But are tamed by those who battle for them,” said the archer, as Rodvard gave her the kiss she sought. (Behind her eyes was nothing but reckless pleasure.) “My lord of Kjermanash, I challenge you; will you duel or die for her?”
“Oh, fie!” cried the sea-girl. “No one shall ever tame me,” and giving them each a box on the ear in a single motion, ran lightfoot and laughing down the steps to throw herself on the capellan, shouting that he was her prisoner.
“Lost! Lost!” cried the archer in mock agony. “Come, my lord, let us make an alliance for the conquest of witches less fickle than the marine. I will provide the arm and you the purse, from that secret gold-mine which all Kjermanash keep.”
“Ah, ser archer, it is magic gold, and at the touch of a witch, would vanish.” Rodvard bowed and turned up the stairs.
For most, it was still too early to retire to the boxes, the corridor behind them was empty of all but one small group of masks, laughing together. Rodvard waited a moment with beating heart, turning to toss one of his snowballs of perfumed fabric at random into the crowd below. He thought someone down there in the group might have cried, “Cleudi!” as the people at the end of the corridor entered their box and he was alone. The handkerchief was in place; it was more than a little dim for him to be sure of the color, but as he took it from its place with a little tear, there could be no doubt that the perfume was rose.
Eight paces counted in automatic nervousness carried him to the door of Cleudi’s box. Music and voices were muted from within, it was an island of alone, the feeling deepened by everything in view. Other servants than Damaris had been busy; the reek of flowers was heavier than ever, even the chairs were garlanded and the odor enhanced by a tall candle which stood on the sideboard, left of the entrance, sending a tiny curl of perfumed smoke into the still air. Around the candle were viands; beyond the sideboard against the wall, a divan with rolling edges; round chairs facing the panels where the box would look out over the dancing floor if the panels were let down and the curtains drawn back. There were two chairs facing the table and it was laid, but in the center, only the bottle of fired-wine, its cork already drawn. Rodvard poured himself a dram and drank it rapidly, savoring the warm shock as it coursed down his throat.
He wondered if he dared take a second draft and decided against, he would need clear wits to play his part. A slice from the ham made him realize hunger, but again he forebore to go further, it would be ungentle to disarrange the meal before the arrival of his guest. He walked slowly across and seated himself in one of the chairs, looking outward toward the blank paneling, twisting his back into the comfort of the seat, but without finding rest. From below the high note of a violin in crescendo pierced the hangings; one might be one of those gods of antique legend, who sit on the Shining Mountains, with heads above the clouds, and control mortal destinies to whom all below would be what he heard now, a babble with an occasional note of agony. Ah, but to be the controller instead of the controlled—
The door was tapped.
So rapidly that the chair was overset, Rodvard leaped to his feet, picked it up, cursing his clumsiness, strode swiftly to the door and threw it open. On the threshold stood the Prophet of Mancherei, who had teased him with the rouge-ball. He bowed over her hand, drawing her in, and as the door closed, declaimed:
“Now that winter’s gone, the earth has lost Her snow-white robes, and now no more the frost Candies the grass or casts an icy cream Upon the silver lake or crystal stream; Now do the choir of chirping minstrels bring In triumph to the world the youthful spring: The valleys, woods and hills in rich array Welcome the coming of the longed-for May. Now all things smile, only my love doth lower Nor hath the scalding noon-day sun the power To melt that marble ice, which still doth hold Her heart congealed and makes her pity cold. How shall we call it spring when she doth carry June in her eyes, in her heart January?”
—in a half-whisper, yet joyously, with laughing lips, as Cleudi might have done it, passing one hand around her shoulders, with the other holding tight to her hand.
“A northern lord to complain of the cold? And to instruct the Prophet of Love in love?” she said, in Countess Aiella’s thrilling voice. (If it were only this one.) “I will not grant your right to sue until you have proved love your prophet.”
“Ah, that would be epicene,” said Rodvard (the fired-wine working in him; but it was too dim to wring truth from her eyes). “You must convert yourself to a woman before you can convert me to your sacred love.”
“Oh, love does not remain true love when its longings are satisfied; therefore the sacred, which can never be satisfied, is above the profane,” she said, stepping to one of the chairs at the table with a graceful play of ankle. Her hands went up to slip off the head-mask, and she sat back, hair falling round her shoulders. “I am a little weary, my lord of Kjermanash; give me something to drink that will warm your wintry wit.”
Her fingers toyed with a goblet, but he took one of the festival-cups from his belt, poured it full, then as she drank, disengaged it from her fingers and finished it himself, lips carefully at the place where hers had touched the edge.
“Not worthy of you, my lord. Is this the promised originality? Go catch servant-girls with such tricks.”
“Alas,” he said, using the same half-whisper (the voice was the danger-point). “True love and longing has no tricks, only the expression by every means of its desire. Let us contest your heresy that satisfied longing is the end of love; for in love, the momentary assuagement only leads to further longings.”
He poured her more from the bottle, and this time took the other cup himself. (The glint of her eye, momentarily caught, held some slight anticipation of pleasure, but there was more in it of weariness with the world.)
“Ah, if it only would,” she said, and turned her lovely head aside. “I am hungry, my lord.”