I did not have to face Jasper the next morning, much to my relief. I had been dreading having to serve him coffee with Arabella’s cries of ecstasy still ringing in my ears. Fortunately he’d gone out early, no doubt to escort his lover home, so it was just Sebastian in the dining room.
“Would you like a roll, sir?” I asked him bringing in a basket of freshly baked ones from Maggie’s oven. He stared at me blankly for a second.
“A roll? Good heavens!”
“Yes, Father, a roll, some bread?”
“Oh, a bread roll!” he laughed, “for a second there I thought you were propositioning me.”
“No Father, I wasn’t,” I said primly, and plonked the basket on the table. “Perhaps you should talk to Mr. Donne about things like that.”
Sebastian stopped smiling and peered at me more closely. “Are you feeling quite well today, Mercy? You look slightly peaky. Has Jasper said something to upset you? By jove, I’ll give him what for if he has.”
His kindness, as always, touched me, and I was still so hurt by the events of last night that, to my embarrassment, a single tear overflowed and ran down my cheek. Sebastian was up like a shot.
“He has done something, that imbecile. Wait until he gets home.” He shepherded me into the adjacent chair and patted me on the shoulder before taking his seat. “Now tell me, Mercy, what has my idiotic friend done? Was it something to do with that letter I gave you?”
I didn’t know what to say. The idea of telling anyone seemed such a relief but I couldn’t bear Sebastian knowing that Jasper was toying with my affections and to have him feel pity for me. So I just nodded and briefly told him that Jasper had asked me serve him and Arabella dinner last night and that she had been none too polite to me.
“Ahh, I see,” said Sebastian, “Yes, Arabella is beautiful but deadly. She’s Lord Bradnor’s niece who visits him on occasion from London, and she and Jasper have known each other for years. It’s, shall we say, an interesting relationship. Personally, I can’t see how he can stand her.”
“But she’s so beautiful Sebastian, how could he not stand her?” I blurted.
Sebastian looked at me thoughtfully as if grasping some of my dilemma. “She is nice to look at on the outside, but beauty is more than skin deep. Her character has some serious flaws that mar her truly being a beautiful person inside and out.”
“But how can a person with….with outside flaws ever be seen as beautiful? How could anyone ever look past that when the flaws are so…so...” my voice dropped to a whisper, “grotesque”. Sebastian patted my hand.
“I feel for you child, I do. You’ve been given a heavy cross to bear, but bear it you must. God knows your heart, and so do I. You are a beautiful person, Mercy, but I know not many in this society will see that, and you will be passed over for those with perhaps superior looks but not superior characters. But you have strength and courage, my dear, and those will see you through”.
At that I buried my face in my hands and could not stifle my sobs. “But Father, what if no one ever sees me for who I am? What if I’m never loved, only despised?”
Sebastian leaned forward to lay a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Then you go on until you find someone who will love you and not despise you. There will be someone, I promise you, but the choice is yours. Unrequited love is not something I would wish on my worst enemy. Now, dry your tears. That’s the way. Now, I have something that may or may not be of use to you. Another book on Venice. Perhaps it may help you to read about a society that is pleased to know each other by who they are, and not by seeing each others faces? For they wear masks for some months of the year at the Carnevale.”
“Sir, I would be pleased to live there, if it meant people knowing me without seeing my face.” I said this so solemnly that Sebastian chuckled, “I’m sure you would, and myself also but for other reasons of anonymity.”
“Now take this,” he handed me the book he'd been reading, a slim, green novel entitled The Most Serene City of Masks. “And I’ll ask Jasper to take care who he invites for dinner in future if he wants to stay here.”
“Oh, sir, no…”
“I’ll be discreet, don’t worry, and you can be at ease. Jasper has enough to worry about without his dinner guests terrorizing young maids.”
I wondered if he was referring to Jasper having to deal with being an orphan, but he didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask. I could only hope that he was right and Jasper didn’t consider terrorizing one young maid in particular as being a high priority.