By BARRY VAN-ASTEN
THE GREAT DOOM BALL
It was the day of the Great Masked Ball and preparations were underway for its success. Here, someone was bust fastening the gold chains to each of the seventy-two stone pillars that dominate the Great Hall of Doom. And there, someone was tirelessly hanging the one-thousand-one-hundred-and-sixtieth silver lamp with a remaining eight-hundred-and-forty to be hung, all of which to satisfy his Lordship’s whim of outshining the moon! Servants in black velvet tunics with black stockings and black shoes were slowly moving across the floor, like disordered pawns in a one-sided game of chess as they swept and polished the marble floor. And in other rooms (for there are over a thousand rooms at Doom Hall) many hands were busy beating the curtains and folding and unfolding sheets in between the never-ending task of making ancient heirlooms and decorative antiques shine like never before.
Below stairs, the kitchen maids were weeping because the head butler, under the influence of several bottles of his Lordship’s brandy, was taking a little too much pleasure in killing the two large salmon, or ‘unburdening them of life’ as he liked to call it. One met its end under the heel of his shoe as it tried to flap itself across the floor. ‘What a magnificent fish!’ he said as his heel came thundering down upon its head! The other was unceremoniously ‘drummed to death’ on the kitchen table as he sang some filthy bar-room song, dancing quite suggestively with the sorrow-struck salmon and kissing the fish during the choruses! And at the other end of the kitchen, the cook’s were on their knees praying to the great chef in the sky that the stardust pudding would taste of actual stardust! In the corner, a fat boy stirred the honey and in another, an old woman sat picking an almost ceaseless supply of creepy-crawlies from the sauce and the spice bowls. And under the table a little boy was being violently ill, while being hit about the head with a ladle, after tasting nine-hundred different varieties of jam and all before the sun had set over the great stone walls of Doom!
And so it seems that another Great Masked Ball is destined to succeed, despite the fact that Grizzle, the famous mouse-catching cat had fallen into the soup for the third time and that the cooks were wearing more of the culinary delights than actually cooking it, for it is a strange spell cast over Doom on the night of the Great Masked Ball and nothing short of a resounding triumph will do.
Meanwhile, in the garden, Pegamina and the gardener, Grudge, were making their way towards the Hall, stopping at all the lovely flowers that still had the strength to push through the snow. ‘I don’t know what I would do without my little children!’ said Grudge tearfully, referring to the flowers. ‘Each one gives me something that nothing else can! I know them all, and when they die I die a little too, inside!’ And slowly they walked up the stone steps of Doom for the gardener was such an old and frail man, until they came to its impressive entrance. A large stone arch prevailed over the doorway with terrible depictions of souls in torment carved upon it. Grudge led Pegamina to a side entrance where they suddenly emerged into a narrow hallway. Showing her to a small room, the gardener whispered into her ear: ‘do not open the door to anyone but me!’ and she agreed as he shuffled down the passage and was gone.
It was approaching the hour for the Ball to begin, but having no such thing as time it had become a tradition for the mechanical owl (who, having some sort of remembrance of time, though not very accurate) to announce the Ball open, and so, in his official capacity, he hooted: ‘Let the Ball begin!’ as he slid down the banister of the Great Stair followed by a succession of eminent figures, making their entrances from rooms where many nights and days had been devoted upon their personal attire. All the guests wore masks of course, not little fanciful masks shaped like butterfly wings, but large, uninteresting masks without expression or emotion, which covered the whole face. White masks were worn by the ladies and red by the gentlemen and all the other attendants wore black; even the drunken head-butler’s eyes were busy spinning and revolving behind a black mask! In fact, to appear wearing the wrong coloured mask would invoke his Lordship’s intense displeasure, and death would surely follow, as swiftly as night follows day. In making sure all the guests were in their correct masks, a simple rhyme was devised:
‘A white one for the moon;
A red one for the sun
And a black one for the universe
Before it had begun!’
Yet, it was solely his Lordships’ privilege that he should wear a blue mask.
Now, in another part of the Great Hall of Doom an old man was silently shuffling through its corridors that wound through the Hall like veins in a vast corpse, for Grudge was returning to the room in which Pegamina had been waiting, carrying two masks, one white and one red. After entering the little room, Grudge handed Pegamina her white mask and he put on his own red one.
‘Must I wear it?’ said Pegamina.
‘Aye, if you value your life?’ answered Grudge.
‘But why? It feels so uncomfortable to wear!’
‘Because his Lordship will not look upon any face except his own! Some say he is the handsomest man that ever lived and to look at him is to fall in love with him beyond all comprehension! Others say that he is so ugly that to see his grotesque face is to spoil one’s eyes for beauty, forever!’
‘Then I think the truth is better covered by a mask!’ said Peg and they both walked along the corridor, entering many doors, crossing many suites of rooms and descending many flights of wooden stairs.
The festivities in the Great Hall had gotten underway. Wine was being poured from a huge heart-shaped ladle into beautiful crystal glasses, and the musicians began to play (though not completely in time of course and some would argue, the same key!) In one corner of the Hall, Julius the story-teller was entertaining the guests with a perfect rendition of some story about a ghostly skull with opal eyes that can only look at its own reflection in the mirror, until one day a magpie pecks his eyes away and the skull is happy not to see anything, ever again! And of course, there were the usual revelries, like the young earls kicking the courtiers down the steps and the eight sorrowful maidens who think themselves the prettiest things ever to have breathed, trampling over the gardener’s beautiful flowers which would have killed him instantly had he witnessed the slaughter of his ‘children’. And all because no beauty can compete with their own vanity! And then there were his Lordship’s noble cousins: Aquillegia and Alchemillia Despair who were busy rolling the fat boy from one end of the Great Hall to the other, flattening an old Duchess quite speechless in the process, in fact, she fell quite dead! And so this was how the aristocracy enjoyed themselves in Sleepy Sadness, yet never had a room been more full of broken hearts and broken promises!
On the great dining table, the mechanical owl had to be pulled from the punch bowl to perform his duty of announcing his Lordship, ‘Great citizens of Sleepy Sadness, we are gathered here to mourn...’ but before he could finish his speech, he was plunged back into the punch bowl, hooting and protesting. Then in swept his sombre Lordship, Magnus Doom, as if conjured by a wicked magician!
There he stood in his blue mask and elegant black dinner suit wearing the family insignia and official state regalia of various academic and fraternal institutions, including the famous pendent in the shape of a teardrop, bearing the words: ‘sorrow hath reigned and sleep shall soothe’.
Slowly, Lord Doom descended the stairs and not a sound could be heard except for the mechanical owl, splashing about in the punch bowl. All the guests bowed and his Lordship uttered just one word: ‘Welcome!’
During his Lordship’s grand entrance, Pegamina and Grudge had slipped into the ballroom, unnoticed, and as the music began again, they weaved through the guests, arm in arm, nodding, but never speaking. Pegamina was strangely fascinated by all the elegant costumes; in fact, she stood quite some time just admiring the beautifully dressed guests who talked of elegant things. Two gentlemen were of particular interest to her as she listened to their conversation:
‘In conforming to the single crease, I find that one eliminates all trace of natural character, and as you know, all trace of natural character must be suppressed!’
‘Oh undoubtedly’ said the other gentleman.
‘Individuality sir must be smoothed over for the sake of taste; for the sake of sartorial correctness!’
‘A good suit sir’ said the other gentleman in a loud voice, wishing to be overheard, ‘should contain the universe sir and nothing less! A good suit sir should have the secrets of the cosmos in every pocket and a good tie sir is the very epicentre of the illusion!’
‘Quite!’ was all that the other gentleman said. But Pegamina had lost interest in their talk and all talk for that matter, for Pegamina’s attention was now solely fixed on his Lordship, who sat in a corner, talking to no one yet admired by all.
Without a moment’s notice, all the guests were suddenly lined up and down one side of the ballroom as the great oak doors swung open to reveal a beautiful bird with elegant plumage, in a flood of tears behind its red mask. The bird was tied to a wooden wheel which was rolled into the centre of the ballroom. Then, one of the servants dressed in black velvet walked before the guests with a silver platter, on which were a heap of mouldy, rotten old apples and every guest took one in each hand. A man stepped forward into the centre and announced in a deep voice that the bird was guilty of trespassing on his Lordship’s grounds and that he had been sentenced to a ‘severe pelting’ for shooting at the Lily. Pegamina suddenly realised that the beautiful bird behind the mask was the Peacock, that ‘positive enigma’ whom she had met at the monument. But before anything could be done, the rotten apples went whizzing through the air, and all of them, well aimed found their target! The Peacock’s head hung low and the red mask tumbled to the floor and the sadness still there in his eyes, behind the tears, struck Pegamina most of all, as his little life began to flow away. Doctor Morose (who had participated in the apple throwing) was called and he pronounced that the miscreant Peacock’s heart had quite stopped and he recorded the cause of death as ‘died of shame!’ Pegamina went towards the Peacock’s lifeless body and she sobbed as she took its limp wing in her hand, as Grudge did his best to comfort her, but there was nothing he could do.
During the proceedings no one had noticed his Lordship’s exit from the ballroom, just as no one had noticed that the mechanical owl had drowned in the punch bowl.
‘Yes, a strange case indeed’ said the doctor ‘though nothing surprises me anymore! You know, only three moons ago I was called to the sick-bed of the woodland cuckoo. Very tricky business! Broke its back in a nasty fall! Sixteen breaks don’t you know! Well, there was nothing I could do so I broke it some more and put the poor fellow out of his misery!’ Just then, Glum the undertaker (who had also participated in the slaying of the Peacock) walked towards the dead bird, measuring a wing and tutting, then a leg and tutting some more. Finally, the poor Peacock was flung, without much care, onto the shoulders of the undertaker’s assistant and carried off to a little room in which it would be prepared in order to take pride of place in his Lordship’s collection of rogues and wrongdoers, behind a glass cabinet, beside the tattered remains of the Lily, next to the stuffed corpse of the Don’t Don’t bird!
Lord Magnus Doom