Valancy Snaith stole an ashamed peek at the Social Announcements calendar of the Muskoka Herald. Beneath the marriage banns and new residents were 12 cm boxes announcing lavish parties, dances and soirees--- meant to catch the discerning eye and hopeful attendance of the cottaging elite: glistening, bejeweled, stately folk who willingly marooned themselves from the city throng at the first thaw of April through the hint of November's torrid winter chill.
Secretly, Valancy hankered after visions of Chinese lanterns strung aloft fir bows; endless champagne; music; laughter; ladies sparkling like ice frosting beneath the moon's vantage.
Sensing Barney's approach, Valancy shuffled the paper to the International News section.
"I never knew," said Barney drily, peering over her shoulder, "The Romanian economy held such fascination for you, Moonlight."
"You jest, Barney!" Valancy rolled her eyes and tucked her knees beneath her.
"Barney, do we know of our neighbours?"
Barney's straight eyebrow went up: "Eh?" he prefaced quizzically before emitting a lackadaisical laugh, " My dear, we live on an island. Our neighbours consist of Nip and Tuck", here Barney referred to their adopted crows, "and the erstwhile Leander", their whimsical owl.
"I meant from neighbouring islands, Barney."
Barney looked at her as if she had just dropped from the sky. "Why?" He alighted his pipe and sank into the one chair left vacant by their reclining and regal felines.
"May I make a request?" Valancy wondered.
Barney's eye sparkled. Valancy was far from the docile girl caged on Elm Street, slouching meekly after her blue blood clan; yet he rarely knew her to request anything: save sugar or tea or a cut of fish for dinner: not in their blissful months at Tom MacMurray's cabin; not since she first asked him to marry her.
Barney liked to see Valancy's eyes grow expectantly wide; a flush on her cheek; her lithe body bouncing slightly on her folded knees.
"Anything" he said recklessly; feeling, as he had often lately, that his heart spoke before his head could keep up. Valancy sheepishly unfolded the newspaper to the society column. She quietly passed it to him; cuticle pressed to the social events box; lashes down to save from seeing his inevitable scoff of disdain.
"Masquerade" read Barney straightly; with no smirk.
Valancy shot up and perched herself on the arm of his chair. She leaned in; heard his easy breathing, smelled the spring on his homespun shirt; reveled in his nearness.
" I thought it might be fun to go to a party. A real party!" she caressed the corner of the newspaper. "Once before…."
Barney suddenly snapped the newspaper vehemently and turned away. His body erect in his chair and his face turned.
"Of course, if you don't want to" she began, startled.
"I just wish you'd…." Barney whipped his face and stared at her a moment. A shard of her straight black fringe had fallen over her eye. His fingers twitched to reach and brush it then stilled in resigned repose.
"We'll go." He acquiesced. He loathed when she alluded to her illness; her impending and almost certain future; one leaving him callously behind. He cleared his throat:
" You should have a new dress." He dug in his pocket and fished a few, crumbled bills
"Barney!" Valancy started,. "Where did you…" She stopped. She never asked questions so unflailing was her blind trust of his inherent goodness. Barney stole her white hand and clasped the money in it; Cognizant of the odd; persistent feeling that stole into his veins; wondering if she felt the same buzz. He focused on the sensation a moment: warm and cold at once. He watched her with a strike of awe as she smiled her response.
"Barney," she said lightly after a silence.
"Eh?" He shot up distractedly, her hand still melting in his. She laughed. It wrinkled her nose.
"Are you going to let me go?"
"Oh!" he grinned in a rare, sheepish moment and released her hand. His still tingled.
"Daydreaming about the ball!?" she quipped
"What? Certainly not. You know I cannot abide throngs of complacent rich folk who wouldn't know the glory of the woods if it didn't offer up bottomless champagne and loud, raucous music."
Valancy hopped up gleefully, reciting the date and time of the party; clutching the paper to her chest and performing an unguarded pirouette before sprinting to the kitchen.
"I'm taking the boat!" she called sing-song " I'm going to buy a dress!"
She returned, coat-in-hand, hat on head; hair tucked behind her elvin ears. Barney sat stewing in his chair.
"What colour of dress should I buy?" she asked breathlessly.
"Purple." He announced, unblinkingly.
"That was quick"
Barney reddened at his prompt response. " I've thought about it before" he waved it off.
"Men don't think of such things…. At least I thought they didn't." she giggled. "But what do I know?"
"Some men do."
"You don't own any purple." He shrugged " And when you go out on your flower sprees; you pick thistles and crocuses first. They litter the house. You might as well match."
The night of the Masquerade, Barney pressed his undershirt and collar with a relic of an iron: one of the artifacts from Tom MacMurray's tenure in the cabin.
Valancy was adorning her crown with some fragrant wreath of white blossoms; her dress was a deep purple which reminded Barney of a shade of sunset they only saw "up back."; settling mellowly over the lake and amber mist.
Valancy chewed her lip in concentration before the mirror. Happy with the white buds against the ebony canvas of her bobbed hair, she turned this way and that before her reflection; lips pursed in contemplation.
Barney placed the iron aside and stared at her a moment.
"That dress is perfect."
"It's suited to you, moonlight. Like a muskoka sunset."
She laughed " I feel like a queen in such a regal colour."
Flakes of pink warmed her cheeks as she savoured Barney's appreciative glance. Valancy gingerly fingered the black silk mask she had made to complete the outfit. She was proud of the beaded touches she had sewn to distinguish it from the others. She brushed past Barney to wait for him in the sitting room. Too tired to sit still, she examined the long, black line she had penciled around her eyes: it gave her slanted lids a cat-like appearance she hoped looked like those on the girls in the train station billboards.
She laughed to herself; holding her mask to her face so that smoky, alluring eyes peered through beaded slits.
The Valancy of yesteryear: with flannel and rubbers and outdated pompadours and drab, uncoloured eyes seemed years away.
Valancy was just standing on tip-toe to admire her mask at a different angle when Barney returned, fingering his cufflinks.
His mask was stationed on an ivory stick of sorts and he kept it dropped by his side.
"Oh Barney!" Valancy was aghast at his transformation. Her eyes scanned from his sleek, black collar to his well- lined suit; over gold and pearl cufflinks; down to polished spats."Wherever did you get that suit?"
Barney shrugged. "It was stowed in Bluebeard's chamber. A relic from my foolish youth."
"You look so elegant." She breathed.
Barney laughed " Don't look so shocked. You'd think I was born in overalls and flannel."
"well…" Valancy hedged. She had rarely seen him in other attire.
"I had to be presentable!" he said with mock exasperation. "Walking in with a goddess on my arm"
Valancy playfully swatted at him as they slid out the front door; but the clouded moon hid her jubilant smile.
Magic was just beginning to touch the boughs with lumiscent twilight and the music of crickets and mournful loons as Barney slipped their disappearing propeller boat over the lake. Valancy spread her palm to glide over the water's smooth ripples. As they edged nearer their destination; they heard muffled laughter and distant music; loud syllables unformed and lost in the near bustle. Echoed bursts that fell on the breeze.
Barney cleared his throat. Crowds always unsettled him. He steered up to a long dock where a boatman waited to store their vessel. Barney slipped out with swift ease and pulled Valancy up to the dock. He tipped the boy and scooped her hand in the crook of his elbow. They ascended the jagged rock steps to an illuminated pavilion: bordered by a screened veranda; set near the dark, enchanted forest edge. Valancy drank in the scene: the chandeliers inside catching phantom spasms of moonlight; coloured lanterns cresting their walk way; winking and dancing as the shore breeze stirred them. She held tight to Barney and they motioned along; nodding and smiling as revelers spilled into the open air fingering amber liquid in long-stemmed crystal: cheeks flushed with dancing: eyes alight with music and wine.
Two gentlemen ushered them into the ballroom and Valancy was met by a sea of masked faces: a whirlwind of kaleidoscope colour as couples carouselled around the dance floor. In the corner, a full band pouted loud, rhythms at a joyous pace.
Valancy noticed male guests eye her with appreciation: even with her mask covering her eyes: the feature she had believed to be her only redeeming one. In turn, she observed women watching Barney whose cool demeanor commanded the room without his awareness.
"I'll get you a glass of wine." He offered, letting go of her hand. "Feel free to dance if you're asked." He leaned low against her ear "Just don't spirit off with any of these rakes without my permission."
Valancy smiled and watched him disappear in the crowd. She found a place against the wall where she could feel a part of the pandemonium. Her Blue Castle held dozens of masquerade; for what other kind of ball allowed for mystery, romance and intrigue: stolen identities and stealthy lies?
She heard erupted applause as a ditty ended and the band shuffled the music on their stands. She caught Barney's tawny head amidst a spill of strangers inching toward the refreshment area. She was watching him from afar when a gentleman sided up to her.
"Excuse me." She turned and was met by a dashing figure in coat tails and hat whose mask could not hide lucid blue eyes. " I had to approach the radiant woman in purple. Are you royalty?" His eyes shone with amusement as they swept the contours of her purple dress. "A duchess, perhaps?"
Valancy laughed: a throaty laugh which chimed in the same alto as her speaking voice and the gentleman, delighted, leaned into drink in more.
"No." she said.
"Pity. But are you sure? It is, after all, a night of white lies and forged identity." His hand did a demonstrative sweep of the room. " We have all left our real lives behind" he gave an emphatic bow in hopes she would join his charade., "My lady."
Valancy grinned. "Very well. I shall reveal my identity upon learning yours."
The gentleman smirked. "I like you. Every other woman in this congregation would swoon and giggle at the thought of spurting they were the queen of Sheba. You test the waters."
Valancy saw his pupils widen as they wandered the width of her neckline and stopped at the dent above her collarbone, Barney often called "kissable." Her shoulders felt suddenly bare as she realized she had left her wrap in the boat.
"I am Count Rodrigo Vasquez" the stranger announced. "Late of…. " he flailed a hand "Madrid. Here to recover my father's stolen fortune."
Valancy noted the glee and reckless abandon he gave to his quickly spun identity.
"Lady Jane Grey" she replied. "Duchess of Canterbury."
"Lady Jane." He swept her hand to his lips and brushed it.
"Tell me, would you permit me a turn about the room."
Valancy bit her lip. Was she, Valancy Stirling, actually being asked to dance by a masqued stranger at a fantasy ball? What would Olive think? She assented, wishing her cousin could see as her partner led her stately to the middle of the floor, spread his hand into the small of her back and propelled Valancy to fall into step as a the band began a waltz.
The stranger held her closely. Moreover, firmly so she followed his 3 beat measured with ease. He was a great leader, she noted, his arm directing her; his feet swift and confident as his eyes locked hers. He seemed not to notice---or care--- the wedding ring she was conscious caught the rays of the overhead chandelier. Of course, that was part of the game. Valancy tried to spot Barney from over the man's shoulder but the tune was a popular one and splayed with such gusto; dozens of couples fanned on the crowded floor. The stranger spun her in a vortex of close breath and whirling; weaving in and out; confidently dodging the closely knit group; spiraling away from their starting point. By the time the song ended, Valancy was sure they were at the opposing side of the large hall.
Valancy felt a cool breeze kiss her cheek. They were near the door. She paused to catch her breath.
"Come. " the stranger coaxed. " A breath of fresh air." He pulled her outside to the veranda. The crickets were humming; their wings drowned by laughter and loud engines and the dips of departing oars piercing the waer.
The moon painted a ribbon on the calm waves.
Valancy squinted to see if she could spot their island. She sighed and pulled her arms around her chest.
"Chilly night." remarked her companion.
"Summer is still a ways off. " Valancy explained.
"I haven't seen you before… Lady Jane."
Valancy smiled at the pretend name. "I just arrived. From England. With my husband."
"Husband?" the man clicked his tongue. " Disappointing. I was hoping to advance Spanish and English relations. Very few women of my esteemed acquaintance would dance with such competent grace."
"You are a competent leader." Valancy credited.
"Tell me, Lady Jane, are you the adventurous sort? Is that mischief that sparkles your eyes beyond the folds of that pesky mask."
"It depends on how you define adventure."
The man tugged her along the porch toward the lining brush.
"I think, perhaps…" Valancy protested. An owl hooted.
"Have you ever been to the cusp of woods in the brink of utter darkness?"
Valancy stifled a laugh. His tone omitted such seriousness and danger. Any woman of Barney Snaith's intimate acquaintance knew the woods like a harrowing old friend.
"Indeed." She replied, suddenly aware that he had not released her hand and time was elapsing: time she could have spent dancing with Barney. Sure, she and Barney had spun round the room to Abel's fiddle, but Valancy hoped for something more elegant; she wanted to feel his arms fold around her; laugh at his private sneers toward wealthy guest; watch his cufflinks catch the chandelier light. She gingerly retrieved her hand; suddenly remembering a different dance-- -at Chidley Corners when she still worked for Roaring Abel.
"I should be going in now." She turned toward the pavilion. " My husband will wonder at my disappearance."
"Perhaps you have no husband and it was an elaborate ruse to add to your charade."
"Alas" Valancy hedged.
"Surely he cannot be selfish enough to claim you all night--- you are so alluring in that gown. He cannot steal every dance."
"Sir," Valancy kept her voice light, " we are not dancing."
The man spread his hands so his palms fanned her bare shoulders then lined their way down her arms. He leaned in, face titled, eyes in the dark unseen. Before his lips could meet hers, Valancy threw his hands off.
"Are you trying to kiss me!" she spat incredulously.
"Tomorrow" he began by way of explanation., his breath so close she could taste it, " we will forget this ever happened. Tonight we are not ourselves."
He grabbed her arms and leaned in again.
"You may not be yourself." She yelped "But I am certainly mine. You let go or I'll scream and they'll hear it to the Port!"
Valancy wiggled but the stranger held a tight grip. He planted his lips on her rigid ones. Valancy flew back and swatted at him. Then, eyes wide, lips trembling and hands shaking uncontrollably, she screamed.
They were close enough to still the crowd. She screamed again before his hand covered her mouth and silenced her to a whimpering bleat. With his free hand, he wrung her arm to keep her still. She was feisty! He hadn't anticipated a struggle. Valancy kicked at his shin with her kid shoe.
"Stop squirming!" he pleaded. His face fearful for approaching footsteps which, unsurprisingly, manifested themselves in the shaded dark. The band had stopped for an intermission and Valancy hated the eerie silence. But the footsteps moved closer; breaking twigs and squelching leaves in the dusky dew. The stranger's grip relaxed. Relieved, Valancy turned to flee but the figure blocked her path. The shadow was holding something the moonlight outlined as amber liquid in a crystal glass.
"A little spilled." the shadow explained, his voice low, raising the glass "I heard a scream and ran to get here. My coordination was never exceptional ….except…" and at this, the figure stepped affront her, "When it came to those juvenile boxing matches we practiced after calisthenics in school"
Valancy watched as the speaker's free hand pulled into a fist and landed smartly on the stranger's jaw. The masked man flew backward near toppling over a log. The wine rocked slightly in the glass.
"Shall I unmask the wretch, Valancy?" Barney asked, his breath short and voice irate.
"No thank you."
"I got your wine." He said deflatedly; handing her the glass. He gently cupped her elbow and steered her back toward the crowd. " I wondered where you got to. I saw you dancing. You're the only woman here in purple. And then you disappeared. I asked around and a couple had seen you leave. Then I heard you scream. Believe me, it is not a pleasant feeling to be winding through a crowd of complacent, stuffy strangers only to hear your wife scream from beyond the darkness. I thought my throat drop to my chest."
"You know my scream?" queried Valancy.
"Remember that mouse Nip brought into the kitchen?"
Barney led her slowly up the rock steps and to a well-lit but secluded part of the veranda.
"He kissed me." She blurted.
"he did what?"
"He really did. He kissed me. I kicked at him!"
Barney's face was white as he scoured the dark. "Perhaps I should go back and…."
Valancy stayed him with her hand. It still shook a little.
"He wasn't real anyways, Barney, just some masked villain." She rubbed her arms.
Barney looked concerned. "Did he hurt you?"
Valancy examined her arms under the light; white fingerprints branded evidence of her struggle. Barney shrugged out of his coat and tucked her into it.
"It is not the first time you've given me your coat."
Barney gave a half-smile.
"Nor the first time you've saved me from unwanted attention at a party."
Barney shook his fist." It smarts", he confessed. " I have to stop punching people every time we go out in society."
Valancy fingered her untouched drink. "I think I'll need a fresh glass."
"You're okay to go in?" he asked gently.
"We'll dance this off." Barney avowed, " until this unsavoury blip is but a hiccup in a magical evening."
She thought he looked comical holding the mask to his face, so she flitted it away.
"No fair!" he quipped. "Now you know who I am!"
"Prince Charming!" she guessed.
"John Foster!" she joshed
"Oh come now, I don't deserve that. Not after my knightly errand."
"No. You deserve the hand and heart of a fair maiden."
"Indeed?" Barney's straight eyebrow shot up. " And who might she be?"
"Lady Jane Grey, Duchess of Canterbury."
Barney staged a bow and leaned to kiss Valancy's hand. But she was slight and spry. She countered his action, stole his hand and flung her lips on his.
After a moment, reluctantly apart and staring stupidly at each other, Barney caught his startled breath. He whisked his mask back from her unsuspecting grip and pressed it to his face.
"I think we should dance!" he announced. So he caught her hand in his and joined her laugher as they sprinted through the screen door and to the middle of the dance floor.