The Delta Statement

Noble Mask

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Bubbly suds cover the floors as my bristle brush scrub the dirt. The heat in the air evaporates the soapy water before I finish even a small square of the floor. My hands look like prunes from dunking them in the water so often. Leaning back to stretch my muscles, I wipe my hand across my face, hoping the droplets of water can cool the sweat from my skin.

This room of the manor house faces the sun’s evening glare, heating the stones beneath my hands and knees. The calluses on my skin keep the stones from burning me. In the winter, the evening warmth was welcome in accompaniment of the fire that would burn in the grate against the far wall. But during the relentless summer months, it was all I could do to not lose consciousness in the sweltering heat.

The door behind me flies open and bangs against the wall, the sound like a canon in the stone room. It was accompanied by the voice I hate most in this world. “Lazy girl! These floors are miles from being clean! Your mother may have been a lady, but you are my property now.”

The dark-haired, steely-eyed man who controls my life through physical force and emotional blows shoves my face closer to the brick floor. “You quit when I say you quit, child.”

I scrub the floors until he walks away, satisfied that I am subdued. At eight years old, my life changed from being Lady Anielle Galbraith to a peasant serving girl wearing rags to keep warm. After being sold to Master Thane from the orphanage, I cried every day. It had been ten years, and I just quietly think about what may have happened if my parents had not gone missing. I will not be free until I have worked long enough to pay the price Master Thane paid for me. I fear I will be a servant until the day I die.

“Psst,” a voice from the window sweeps in.  “Lady Anielle.”

I would know that voice anywhere. Moira, an elderly lady and the head cook for the manor house, had taken me under her wings from day one. She refuses to call me anything other than my proper title. She always tells me, “Your current place in this world don’t define you, honey. You are noble from birth and deserve the respect your blood calls for.”

Looking over to the hunched woman, I see that she is carrying a plate of food. I listen to be sure Master Thane will not be coming back before pushing away from the floor to walk to the window.

“I noticed you didn’t come down for breakfast this morning. Have you been here all night, love?” she asks, the concern in her voice visible in her wrinkled face.

Silently, I nod my head in affirmation. She tuts and hands over the plate. It has a meager offering of food, just one slice of stale bread and a small cube of cheese. It is the meal I have been eating every day since coming here. This is what servants eat, while upstairs, Master Thane and his family feast on the finer things in life. If I ever gain my title back, I will not have servants, but actual workers. And they will not be treated this way.

Distantly, footsteps echo down the stairwell. I motion to Moira with a flick of my wrist to hurry back to the kitchen, handing her the plate to get rid of.

“Happy birthday, my lady,” she whispers as she hurries away from the window.

Two long strides, and I am back in my position on the floor, scrubbing furiously. My heart beats faster with each growing step. Master Thane usually does not come back unless he suspects I am not working.

Please don’t be Master Thane. Please let it be anyone else.

The door slowly squeaks open, and a timid voice hovers into the air, “Anielle, are you in here?”

I let out a breath and turn my face around to face Lady Ria. Though she is a few years younger than me, I found her to be a friend in my lonely position. Master Thane is her father, but she is nothing like him. She quietly steps forward, seeming to listen to the revelry happening upstairs with her father.

“know today is your birthday, so I brought you a present,” Ria breathes in her soft voice.

I give her a small smile and wipe my hands as she comes closer. She hands me a small velvet box wrapped with a ribbon, and I tentatively take it. From the outside, it looks to be expensive. If it is, I know that I cannot accept it. If Master Thane were to find it in my room or on me, he would accuse me of stealing it; that would result in a lashing.

Slowly opening the box, my eyes tear up, but no sound escapes my lips, as had been the way since that fateful night ten years ago. It is the necklace I had worn that my mother had given me on my eighth birthday. A small locket, engraved with my initials: ATG.

“My father gave it to me to do as I pleased a few years ago. At first, I kept it because it was pretty. When I figured out it used to be yours, I kept it to give back to you.”

I nod my thanks at her, slipping it into my pocket. I give Lady Ria a small curtsey and wait to see if she needs anything else. For a few moments, she just stands there, smiling at me. Nervously, I fidget with my tattered apron, hoping she will allow me to continue my work. Finally, she takes a step back, waving, and disappears through the door she came down to the servants’ hall from.

As I continue scrubbing, I occasionally check my pocket to reassure myself that the necklace is real and back in my possession. Before today, I had no sentimental item from my childhood. While I am grateful to Lady Ria, I cannot help but to worry that Master Thane will come back and discover my treasure.

*******

Later that night, after I finish my work, I return to my meager room in the cellar. Most servants share quarters upstairs, but Master Thane wanted to show me how far I had dropped from nobility when he purchased me. So, it was the cellar that I made my home, among the rats, grain, and wine barrels.

My eyes widen and my step falters as I spy an elegantly wrapped box waiting on my mattress. Who would have come down to this dank room to leave such a present? Perhaps it is a gift I am meant to give Lady Ria or the lady of the house. I creep closer to inspect it, and find my name written in script on a small piece of parchment wedged under the ribbon.

Gingerly, I take the parchment and read it.

Lady Anielle,

Do forgive me for not presenting this gift to you in person. I did not want to risk Master Thane seeing me carrying this around the manor, so I have left it here for you to discover upon your return.

Inside, you will find a gown and mask, along with a pair of slippers. Attend the ball this evening. I know you will protest, but I insist. The ball will be well under way upon your arrival, but nowhere near being finished. Come in at the strike of midnight. I will be waiting at the foot of the stair for you.

The mask will protect your identity, unless you choose to revel yourself. You are a lady now, your eighteenth birthday upon you. It is time you reclaim your birthright and become the woman your parents wished you to be.

                                  Signed,

                                  Your Protector

Trembling, I set the note down to untie the ribbon around the box. My fingers slip under the edges of the lid, lifting and gently setting it to the side. Inside, an exquisite gown the color of the sea after a storm is folding, silk sheeting between the creases to protect it. Matching slippers are found underneath the dress, as if already positioned for wear. In a small compartment to the side of the dress houses a black velvet mask with shimmering crystals dancing in swirls. It resembled the night sky; and like that night sky, it would keep my identity hidden. I want dearly to grasp the fabric between my fingers, to feel the luxury I had not known for ten years. But it would become too real if I did. It is not possible to attend the ball. Too much is at stake.

Resounding gongs echoed through the floor from the clock in the hall above me as it struck eleven. If I were to attend, I would have only an hour to prepare myself. My fingers stroke against my collar bone as I pace the floor. Who is this mysterious “Protector” and would they protect me this night?

Finally, pushing my anxieties aside, I strip the rags from my body and don the gown. The silkiness of the underskirt and bodice feel foreign after wearing the scratchy rags for so long. The ties in the back are difficult to maneuver, and my arms are tired before I can finish. Not wanting to waste time, I move on to my slippers and minor adjustments of the dress before returning to the complicated knotwork that holds it together. Tying the last knot at the dip of my spine, the air in my lungs streams out in a long sigh. My hair is in knots, but I deftly work through them with my fingers and a small comb Moira had given me a few years ago. to release my natural curls. Knowing I have no proper hair accessories, I decide to use the long ribbon from the box to tie my hair back. A few curls fall loosely around my face, but I leave them. Gingerly, I lift the mask from the compartment it is wedged in and put it on.

I do not know what I look like. It will have to be enough. I know that I am running out of time if I am to reach the stairway by midnight. Before I leave, I pull my necklace out of the pocket of my tattered apron that is draped across the now empty box and slip it around my neck, hiding the locket in the bodice of my dress. As I climb the stairs out of the cellar, I keep a keen ear to listen for footsteps. I cannot be seen until I reach the main stairway into the ballroom. I hurry through the halls, glancing at the clock. Five minutes until midnight.

My heart is racing as I reach the doors to the ballroom stairway. My breath hitches as I worry what will happen. As the clock strives twelve, I push the doors open and step onto the landing. The music fades as every eye in the room turns toward me. Feigning indifference, I step forward.

For ten years, I had been nameless, a peasant in rags. Now, as my footsteps against marble stone echoed across the silent chambers, I felt power. My eyes search for my mysterious protector at the foot of the stairs. My step falters as I glance from man to man, none of whom seem to be expecting me. Was this a mistake?

The crowd at the foot of the stairs parts, ladies exclaiming in shock and men grumbling with annoyance, as a single man emerges and holds his hand up towards me. His gloved hand does not shake as he waits for me to come closer and take it. Crystal blue eyes with a ring of gold drill into me as I descend the last step and place my trembling hand in his. His steadiness calms me instantly, giving me the confidence I need. As he leads me to the center of the crowd, the music slowly starts to play again, and couples start dancing. The weight of hundreds of stares droops my shoulders until the man pulls me closer, straightening my spine as he does so.

“Let them wonder,” he breathes into my ear. “Let them wrack their memories to find who this mysterious, beautiful girl is that just crashed their party. They will know soon enough. As soon as you are ready.”

“Who…” I cannot get the words out and start again. “Who are you? Why are you doing this?”

“It took me many years to find you again, and I sincerely ask your forgiveness for allowing you to live this way, my Lady. Let us not discuss this tonight. Tonight is for you to revel in your nobility and know that you can have it all back. Just say the word.”

My voice sticks in the back of my throat, and I do not utter another word. I can still feel the pinpricks of the others’ gazes on my back and neck. For now, I would dance. Taking back my name and lands could wait another day.

To these people, I was unknown. A mystery, perhaps a threat. But as I danced the night away amid suspicious glances and curious gazes, I changed from Anielle the scullery wench to Lady Anielle, at long last.

No one had cared who I was until I put on the mask.


 

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About the Writer
Kjirsten Whitsell, Editor In Chief

Kjirsten Whitsell is a 5th year senior at Delta State University, and is originally from Holcomb, Mississippi. She started reading at the age of four and...