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End of the Masquerade

In late Elizabethan England, the poet John Donne is poised to make a life-changing choice...

In 1600, John Donne, (1572 - 1631) poet and minor diplomat, secretly courts Ann More, niece of his influential patron.

He thought he’d be in love before, but he was quite wrong. He knew that now.

Donne leant against a stone pillar in the shadows of the Great Hall, glass of wine in hand, apparently laconically surveying the elaborately masked dancers in their extravagant costumes moving in the bright candlelight.

Abutting the palace of Whitehall, the grand riverside mansion, York House, was en fete tonight. Torches flamed at the main entrance on the bank of the River Thames to welcome revellers arriving by boat.

There had been an entertainment earlier, a masque play, in which the younger family members of the party had performed, wearing masks and fanciful outfits suitable for their characters as they recited and sang their interlude.

Donne had been in the audience, a spectator of this exclusively aristocratic masquerade, a watcher not a participant, as always. By now, further guests had swelled the numbers in the hall, the musicians struck up and the dancing began. By choice, he withdrew, deliberately an observer on the edges of society.

He only had eyes for one slight figure twirling in the throng. She might be masked and in costume from the earlier masque but she was instantly recognisable to him. His heart missed a beat every time he sensed her presence.

Every so often, she dared to glance towards him from beneath her mask, and the darts of pure love he felt from her, for him alone, quickened his pulse. It was as though their souls soared above the melee, meeting in their own rhapsody, echoing the patterns of the dancers below.  ‘A fine Metaphysical conceit,’ he thought to himself, smiling wryly.

His patron, Sir Thomas Egerton, the host of this splendid gathering, nodded to him from the dais with his new, third wife, and Donne made his bow, like an obedient junior diplomat should, not giving away an inkling of his feelings. If that important man, a senior member of the governing Privy Council to the elderly, failing Queen Elizabeth, would guess that his niece, a great lady in her own right, had a tendre for his secretary of dubious background then Donne would be bodily thrown out in an inkling and the doors barred behind him. And more importantly, he would lose his Ann forever.

‘When did she become his Ann?’ he thought. Following his return to London from abroad, two years ago, he had concentrated on his diplomatic career, despite the stain of his Roman Catholic family colouring his prospects. However mixed his private feelings might be about his faith, publicly, he had to make his way in the world. So Donne had been grateful to be shielded in the service of a great statesman and start to be able to make a name for himself in court circles.

For his own political survival, he had ignored the Egertons’ female relatives; pretty, noble young women of marriageable age, who seemed to constantly visit, enlivening the public rooms of the great house with their chatter and laughter. Not that they paid much attention to him, just the odd curious gaze or a stifled flirtatious giggle at the presence of a young man not of their entourage. But gradually, Ann had become more than a face in the youthful crowd. His initial liking and respect for her had grown to much deeper feelings over the past months.

Her intelligence, her wit, her warmth, her very way of being had worn down his reserve and warnings of self-preservation. What was a glittering career if he could not be with her? This was the conundrum he faced.

He withdrew a little further into the shadows, the pillars shielding him like a cloister. It seemed fit in this ancient building, of ecclesiastical origin, imbued with the invocations of long-dead monks, to pray to his God. But, unlike those unworldly, cowled brothers, he did not pray for redemption or self-denial, for his God was a reflection of his own spirit, complex, passionate and tempestuous. Silently, he sent up a heartfelt, soul-deep plea that he did not have to part from Ann.

He opened his eyes, still shaken by the depth of his turmoil. As he watched the whirling couples, the elaborate patterns of their dance echoing that of courtship and seduction, he remembered his past. He had gone through those rites of passage, the normal difficult pangs that accompanied the enjoyment of love affairs; including jealousy, frustration and rejection. But compared to how he felt now, in retrospect, these past loves were simple, merely attraction and pleasure going hand in hand, mouth on mouth, body to body.

 Donne recollected the celebrated poetry he had written about his amours. Nights of lovemaking in a favourite courtesan’s bed, waking with the sun streaming through the bed curtains as the lady’s luxuriant, unbound hair streamed across the pillows. Then that the heat of a second awakening to mutual passion, seeking fulfilment in his mistress's warm, writhing body, thrusting between a pair of willing wide-parted thighs. Encouraged as she moaned his name and clutched at his back. Eagerly meeting thrust for thrust in an explosive release together in a bright sunbeam of delight.

He had assumed, in his ignorance, that was all it could be, that love was an uncomplicated physical exchange. But this affair, reaching the deepest chambers of his being, was quite different. Even his initial intimacies with Ann had not been so much about sensual gratification, at least not at first, but a meeting of minds, of feelings.

He remembered the occasion earlier this year when he came across her in a corridor of this great palace, his arms full of papers and books for his master and had seen her crying and alone. Her aunt, Egerton’s second wife, was dying and Ann’s genuine, raw grief touched him.

He had stopped briefly, said no more than a few kind words, just to give a little passing comfort. The next time he saw her, this time in a crowd of young women, he had expected to be ignored, her momentary vulnerability to an underling put aside, but her eyes had sought him out and she smiled her thanks.

As he surveyed the dancers, the music came to its end and he saw Sir Thomas looking for him. Not showing any sign of his inner reluctance, he came out into the gathering. The music struck up again, and Sir Thomas gave him a discreet nod to join the revels and make himself useful.

He dipped his head in assent, had a sip of good wine for fortification and ventured out of the gloom to join the glittering throng. His feet moved as the music commanded and he wryly noted that his progress echoed the dance of love he had been mulling on.

Moving in the formal patterns of rehearsed shapes, he had partners who smiled, partners who frowned, partners who ignored him because he was beneath their notice, partners who didn’t see him as they were too busy trying to attract the attention of another.

 But Ann, his paramour, could barely look at him at all, even through her shielding mask, in case her eyes showed her naked love for him. Although she avoided his glance, he felt no rejection, no sense of doubt, just a pang of his own heart for her carefully covered emotions.

They came together tentatively in the dance and were parted after only a few seconds. Donne found that he lived for the moment when the music would bring them back together again, if only briefly. Her delicate beauty dazzled him.

He wondered what on earth she saw in him.

Other women had found his dark good looks attractive, he knew. And he had the air of a clever, witty, poet and self-made man who had seen military action and had buccaneering adventures overseas. But, despite these modest charms, he knew well he was no match for an heiress. Ann was the relative of important families and the daughter of a great man. From birth, she was destined to marry well and cement the careers and coffers of her family.

How could it be that she wanted only him? He felt great humility that he had been so showered with her affection. A rare and precious gift indeed.

As their initial, brief and coincidental meetings had grown over the past months to snatched and pre-planned assignations, so their initially courteous words between strangers had grown to those of love.

 Donne was keenly aware that although his lady was young in years, she was not naïve in the ways of the world. She knew her own worth, did Ann. She might be only sixteen, but she had a keenness of mind that matched his own.  

She was fully aware of the courtly dance of preferment, of marriages arranged, of alliances forged between ambitious and well-established families. Yet she was prepared to rebel and throw this all away. And for him, a social non-entity.  A mere struggling courtier from a disgraced recusant family who doggedly followed the old religion despite punitive laws. He was humbled, brought almost to tears due to her faith in him, her belief in what they had between them.

Although their feelings had grown, they had barely touched. They had only dared to share the odd stolen kiss and fleeting caress in this busy office of a palace where they could be discovered at any moment.

As their attachment had grown, so Donne had felt increasingly uneasy for her. Despite his own emotions, he put her position first. And this unselfishness, this caring for another more than for himself was a new sensation too. Against the own best interests of his heart, he had tried to persuade her to see that they had no future together.

A few days before, he had put this to her. He had not chosen his moment well. They were walking together outside York House on the raked gravel path between the spiked lavender bushes of the formal garden. There was a little privacy, at least for a while and Donne had steeled himself to speak to Ann, not with his heart but with his head.

“But you are young,” He had said. “This might merely be the stirrings of a first love that was never meant to be. You could easily change your mind in time and wish you had taken the path your parents chose for you. I would not want you to live a life of want and regret.”

She had turned to him with fury in her eyes, small fists clenched in outrage and railed at him. “Do you think I only care about all this!” She swept an arm towards the noble façade of the mansion. “After what we have shared, do you imagine me to be a mere silly, shallow girl? Do you think so little of me that I would prefer to put my heart to one side and prefer a life of comfort? All to live a lie? Do you truly think so little of me?”

In her anger, she had never looked so beautiful to him, fierce in the defence of their love. The hurt in her eyes made him want to shower her sweet face with kisses. He desisted, not only because they might be overlooked from the windows above, but also to give her time to consider his carefully planned arguments. They had argued bitterly.

In his heart, he knew she had demolished his cleverly fashioned logic with her sharp arrows of piercing love.  They had parted moments later, frustrated with one another and with their circumstances. He had not seen her since. He had never felt so alone.

Donne’s mind returned to the present. As he smiled and bowed to each lady that the progress of the dance brought to him, he had a sudden urgent need to be alone with Ann. It was unbearable not to be. As the swirls of movement brought them together briefly, she squeezed his hand tenderly. Always, only she could perceive his feeling beneath his diplomatic mask. And in the secret code of lovers, he knew her feelings instantly. In that slight touch, he knew she needed him too.

The dance came to its whirling close and the music reached a finish with a grand crescendo. The dancers bowed and curtseyed to each other and began to disperse for refreshment and to catch their breath. In that brief moment of flurry where people mingled together in the crowd before the musicians began their next piece, he found her.

All attention was elsewhere, so, unseen by anyone in the momentary confusion, he clasped her fingertips and led her into the shadows. Behind the very pillar where he had made his fervent prayer to God, he lowered his lips on her in a fervent kiss.

It was not enough, could never be enough. Ann responded to him with a wildness that captured him. Their need was urgent, almost desperate. Donne drew back, his breath ragged with desire. He refused to take her in a brief rut like a common serving maid against the cold stone wall with laughing guests only a few feet away. Although his need was almost overwhelming, his love made him considerate. The music started again and that decided him.

“Come,“ he said and they used the moment of bustle, as groups of couples again made their way to the centre of the hall, to hasten along the pillared walkway. They reached the end of the passage, barred by a small oaken door that led into an empty vestibule.

Ann followed him, not just blindly accepting his lead but with foreknowledge. She knew the house as well, if not better than him and knew where he was taking her.

It was cold in the small chamber and dimly lit but brightened by their love. The room was almost bare of furniture and held just a solid oak settle on which Ann perched. He knelt before her on the stone flags as if he were a medieval knight paying homage to his adored lady. The music and murmur of voices could still be heard from the great hall, but faintly. Here they could be entirely alone, at least for a while. It might be a snatched moment of passion but Donne vowed he would make it special and meaningful.

Muttering words of endearment, he tenderly undid the ribbons that held her mask in place, feeling the knots in his heart loosen as he did so. Her exquisite, vivid face was revealed, enhanced by her inner emotions. She murmured, “My only love,” and her small soft hand cupped his cheek. He turned his head so that his mouth was against her warm palm, kissing her there. ‘How could it be that such a small, delicate touch could be more intimate than the physical act of having another?’ He wondered.

Her other hand cupped his chin and she leant towards him, deliberately bringing her mouth down on his. He smiled as she kissed him, knowing her desire was as at least as strong as his. The embrace gave him permission to be bolder, to discover her beautiful body.

His hands and lips began to rove down that delicate neck and over the wide expanse of bared flesh revealed by the low, square cut neckline. He admired swell of her bosom beneath the glimmering fabric of her costume. He marvelled that her skin was like the softest white velvet, so giving beneath his warm hands. Here in the half-light, in the gloaming, he slowly, carefully claimed his love, with his soft murmurings of appreciation accompanying each kiss, each touch.

She shifted around on her seat so he could reach her back and unfasten her gown a little. Turning back to face him, it was she, not he, who urgently pulled down her bodice so her high, young, infinitely precious breasts were revealed to him.

He could not resist such an offering.  He sucked hungrily on each pink nipple like a feast of wild strawberries and not for a second could he think her actions were wanton or unmaidenly. It was simply that they were both filled with the hunger of mutual love, the urge for physical joining that could express what they held in their hearts.

As this thought crossed his mind, his hands caressed her ankles and he drew up the heavy skirts of her gown.  “Oh, my America, My new-found-land,” he muttered in awe and she gazed at him fearlessly, breathless with desire. As he continued his exploration, he knew he was not the conqueror in this voyage of discovery but completely conquered.  

He looked at her in wonder, her bare breasts quivering, thighs parted with his hands resting lightly on each. She sat back on the bench and tilted her hips forward in a gesture of offering, allowing him to view her secret treasures.

His mouth followed his eyes in a movement as natural as breathing. This was not just pleasuring an eager woman with his knowing tongue but somehow entirely new and pure. He felt like an Arthurian knight, on a pilgrimage, having at long last found the Holy Grail, and so he sipped from her precious cup. As he loved her, her hands tangled in his hair, and he sensed by the tension in her taut body that she was trying not to cry out in bliss. Like him, she could not bear to be discovered and desecrate this moment of joy into something tawdry.

His fingers searched for her as greedily as his mouth. Dear God, she was so wet, so tight, so perfect.  He lowered a hand to unfasten his breeches. She saw the movement and hissed her pleasure at seeing him bare and aroused just for her for the very first time.

One hand stroked his rigid cock, as the other venerated his beautiful mistress, his mouth worshipping her. She rocked instinctively against him, taking all that he could give and shuddered her joy into his mouth. He could not hold back for a second longer.

In this act, he was no assured man of the world but felt like an unschooled apprentice. As he heard her stifled moans, he came impossibly hard, his scalding heat spurting on the cold stone floor. He buried his face in her soft thigh to hide his desperate cry.

There was a moment, a lifetime of stillness. Then he raised his head from the precious pillow of her body to look at his love. They gazed at each other, as one being.

Then they both sighed. Ann had been away too long from the festivities and would soon be looked for. Their lips met briefly in a gesture that was both a pact and a promise. She put her small cool hand on his chest, sliding under the linen to touch the warm skin over his heart. “Mine,” she said simply. Donne felt his pulse beat faster at this acknowledgement. It was no idle statement of jealous possession but an absolute fact.

They buttoned each other up, not so much like new lovers but a long-married couple, and Ann stood, her mask dangling from her hand by its ribbons, ready to exit the vestibule before him. She turned back in the very doorway, looked directly at him, saying, “I wish with all my heart that I did not have to leave you, my love, but for now, it must be so.” He kissed her hand fervently and she left the room taking his soul with her.

He stayed in the little chamber, redolent with the aroma of stale dust and their fresh loving, her words echoing in his head and by some poetical alchemy turning into a verse of love. ‘Sweetest love, I do not go for weariness of thee, Nor in hope the world can show a fitter love for me,’ he thought and despite the weight of his emotions, his spirit soared.

He could not linger much longer here. It was also time for him to return to the great hall and join in with the evening’s festivities again. He knew he would have to lock away his feelings and put on his mask of obedience to laugh and feast. But now, after this precious moment, it was all as much a pretence as the performance of the masque play.

Donne slipped back along the cloister and joined the gathering smoothly, without any comment on his unnoticed absence. Ann was somewhere amongst the sea of finely dressed bodies, lost in the crowd. He was glad he could not see her or he would be altogether undone.

He felt like a sleepwalker, eating, carousing, dancing, making witty conversation and exchanging courtesies, for all the word a heart-whole, carefree young man.

Beneath that façade, he knew that after tonight, he could not manufacture any more clever arguments to dissuade Ann on their alliance. Now, they were pledged to each other, heart, soul and body. Only his God would know what the future would bring, but they had to be together. It was as inevitable as the waves of the Thames, crashing against the shore.

Before now, he realised that it was as though he had been on two parallel paths; one, his outer world of career and the other, the other, his inner, secret passion for Ann. Like a man holding back the tide, he had tried to stop these paths swerving in opposite directions as he thought he could not live without either.

Tonight had changed everything. He could no longer live a lie. Everything else, position, career, social standing, had dissolved with no sense of loss and now in his life’s journey, there was only Ann.

 

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