These Vicious MasksBy: Kelly Zekas & Tarun Shanker
Our conversation died in the din of the storm, but the unnatural image of those four wheels suspended in the air stayed with me as we rolled up the narrow dirt path to the congested entrance of Feydon Hall. Though there was surely a rational explanation, my nerves were now on edge, making Feydon’s familiar details seem sinister. At the crest of the hill, the mansion loomed over the rest of the country, and thick clouds roiled menacingly over the magnificent estate. Cracked stone statues of Hades and Charon welcomed visitors in, while gnarled trees reached out to capture all who dared to veer off the path. Towering gargoyles stretched upward as if to attract an ominous flash of lightning. This was ridiculous. Was my mind so tired of Bramhurst that it was conjuring up these gothic images? This must be how girls go mad: It’s the only alternative to boredom.
Shaking the absurd thoughts away, I followed Rose and my parents out of the carriage. Umbrella-wielding footmen led us to the front door and into the bright, breathtaking vestibule that set the tone for the rest of the mansion. Though our home was rather large and well kept, Sir Winston’s home of Feydon was still awe-inspiring. Vivid paintings glowed in the gaslight against the dark wood paneling. Lush oriental rugs covered the floor, and the ceiling reached toward the sky, providing room for the second-floor balcony—a place where guests wanting for conversation topics had a steady supply of people below to scrutinize.
Still, in spite of the main hall’s enormous size, the waves of fashionable men and women rendered it impossible to navigate. This looked to be by far the biggest ball our small town of Bramhurst had seen in years, which unfortunately meant I didn’t have to worry about a sea of suitors, but an ocean. We had not gone three steps when my mother fixed her eyes on a boy frozen in perfect imitation of the bronze statue beside him.
She leaned in confidentially. “Evelyn, see there. The eldest from the Ralstons. I hear they have a lovely collection of stained-glass windows.” Ah, yes, just my type: a stiff, prideful lord-to-be with impeccable, cold deportment to prove his perfect breeding.
“Set a date,” I declared solemnly with a wave of my hand. “I shall marry him immediately.”
Rose choked back her giggle, but Mother was far less amused. “Not this childish behavior again,” she said through her teeth, which were still arranged in a polite smile for the guests. “You will give these men more than a second’s thought or deeply regret this attitude in a few years’ time.”
“Yes, when I’m crying next to, God forbid, a plain window,” I said with a sigh.
As we slowly made our way inside, my sister caught my arm and flashed me a commiserative smile. Only Rose seemed to understand how unbearable these evenings were for me. If I could just make Mother see that, or annoy her enough, perhaps she would pack me off in frustration. I reaffirmed my plan to show her how joyless a ball could be. For everyone.
She, however, seemed to have her own plan and reinforcements, leading us to Sir Winston at the foot of the grand stairs. With his round face, sizable nose, and wide smile, our host’s jovial nature was easily apparent as he greeted his guests. But lurking beneath the surface was a slyness that most people missed; he was a Machiavelli who plotted marriages. Mine, mostly.
“My dear Wyndhams,” he greeted, giving me a quick wink. “I’m so glad you could come! I am the picture of health, thanks to you, Miss Rosamund, and of course your sister, Miss Wyndham! You are so very welcome tonight. What a pleasure!”
“The pleasure is ours,” I said carefully, wondering what he could be planning—for the man was always planning something.
“Sir, I am simply glad to see you so well recovered. The ball is beautiful.” Rose, of course, was all sincerity.
“A wonderful evening, indeed. I am sure you have many new friends gathered here tonight,” my mother said, stealthily shifting the subject. “Is there anyone of special acquaintance we should be sure to meet tonight?” They shared a mischievous look.
“Why indeed, Lady Wyndham, I must confess that tonight’s ball is a particularly special one. For we are celebrating the arrival of my nephew, Mr. Sebastian Braddock. Sebastian! Come meet the prettiest girls I know, Miss Evelyn Wyndham and Miss Rosamund Wyndham!”
With another wink at me, Sir Winston stepped aside to reveal his nephew behind him. Good Lord. His appearance was nearly a caricature of the dark and brooding hero from every gothic novel. He stood very tall, even more so than my gawky frame, arrogance oozing from every inch of his broad-shouldered form. Alert, hooded eyes scrutinized me fiercely, as if trying to turn my blood cooler. His lips were drawn into a slight frown, presumably a permanent state, while the crease in his brow gave the absurd impression of perpetual deep thought. With a gloved hand he brushed away a strand of mussed, straight black hair to afford us a better view of his captivating face. I felt sure he knew exactly the effect this would have on most young women.
Standing as far from us as was possibly acceptable, he shifted awkwardly, eyes held on Rose, and murmured, “Good evening.”