Weekend Fiction: The Mask-Maker of Manhattan

I had arrived in New York in the late summer of 1883, having crossed by the Guion Line with the Liverpool and Great Western Company. At once, I had set myself up with digs near the Christopher Street Pier in Lower Manhattan by the Hudson River. At the time, it was a dark nest of competing factions, and I received no great welcome from the Land of the Free.

In my second week, once I had presented my credentials, I received my invitation from Mrs Holland van Schuyler, then one of Manhattan’s premier socialites second only to the famous Mrs Astor. It was always the Mrs Astor, and the same went for Mrs Holland Van Schuyler. By asking, one revealed one’s ignorance for the definite article was as great as any noble title.

As I learned, neither were so vulgar as to indulge in rivalry nor prone to admit any supremacy. Both were from the same Dutch stock of old New York that had long remained unchallenged in its dominance of Society, and any observer only had to a few generations back to uncover their shared heritage.

So I put on a clean collar and coat, and travelled to the van Schuyler mansion on Fifth Avenue and 77th Street on the Upper East Side. At the time, the mansion was the largest on Fifth Avenue. Despite my short tenure, I had already heard stories that a pliant Senator Van Schuyler had requisitioned whole quarries, emptied bronze mines and dedicated railway lines for its rapid construction.

The result was an eight story, rambling monstrosity. But it was unforgettable and indeed, lionised by her peers.

I was shown into a vast rotunda on the second floor and told to expect Mrs Holland van Schuyler. When she arrived, I saw a towering woman, thickly set with a unattractive face. Her voice was thin and almost absurdly high. She was nothing like I had been expecting of a patron.

After tea, she showed me around the gallery. I commented “Very fine” at the twisted faces of family portraits in whose line I was now commissioned, and then a second gallery of Constables, Goughs, Géricaults, Rothermels and the Milanese Fidanza.

The art shown off, we went into a large reception room where practicalities were arranged with a private secretary. Mrs Holland van Schuyler retreated. I left with my first commissions on American soil.

*  *  * 

A few weeks later, as I was working in my studio I heard a sharp knock on the door. Putting aside my tools, I answered to see a man in his late thirties, perhaps two or three inches taller than me; he was dressed in frock coat of loud check, a dazzling waistcoat and bright cravat, with violently purple spats and a silk top hat, tipped to the left of his head. His face radiated warmth and friendship despite a large walrus moustache that covered his slightly ruddied cheeks.

Before I could say anything, he had put a monocle in his right eye and began speaking.

“Forgive me for not sending in advance,” he thrust a visiting card into my hands. “I am afraid I am unacquainted with the manners of Bohemia.”

I looked down at the card. In a florid font it read:

CORNELIUS E. CHANCE
38, BOND STREET, NY
NEW YORK

“Please, come in, Mr Chance. I am afraid I have nothing to offer you.“

“Meeting the famous artist who has come to our new Rome is offer enough. Besides, I only drink champagne.”                 

The unusual creature had walked straight past me, and as he spoke was peering into rooms before he advanced towards my studio.

“This is what we have come for. The workplace of the great artist. Mrs Holland van Schuyler assures us.”

He surveyed the room, taking off his monocle and using it to inspect the dust on the surfaces.

“I am afraid that I only have someone in once per week.”

“Please, do not apologise. It is me who should be prostrate before you to have come unannounced. Are these -?”

He picked up a series on sketches.

“Yes. They are for my commission.”

“You work from sketches.”

“From both. It depends on the stage.”

“Interesting. And what did you make of your patron?”

“I enjoyed meeting her very much.”

“Ha! I love it! Because nobody enjoys meeting the Mrs Holland van Schuyler. Never has a more popular hostess found herself more unpopular! And what did you make of the great vanity?”

“Sorry?”

“The house! The eyesore!”

“Excuse me, Mr Chance, but may I ask why you came? Besides to meet me of course.”

For a moment, his face lost some of its shine.

“Quite right. May I?” He indicated a chair and sat down upon my assent. “I have a simple commission for you.”

“I am afraid until I have finished - “

“You are taking on no new work. I know! But this is such a simple commission. It is just one thing.”

I said nothing but sat down.

“No doubt, you have heard of Mrs Vanderbilt whose masked ball was the talk of the last season. She even forced the Mrs Astor to pay homage such was its opulence. She also - and I am sure this was not her intent - set a challenge.”

“How do you mean?”

“The greatest ball Manhattan has ever seen cannot be given by a woman whose husband made his fortune in railways and who herself comes from Alabama. The 400 - that gilded few - will reassert themselves. I have heard that both Mrs SchermerhornAstor and Mrs Holland van Schuyler will themselves be hosting grander events.

And it is here that I need your help. A grand party needs a grand costume. Just one mask, that is all I ask. Heavens! For you, it would not even be an afternoon’s work. And you will be rewarded.”

“Mr Chance, thank you for your offer but I am afraid that I must decline.”

Chance then stood up. He took from an inside pocket a thick envelope.

“I know money is not going to persuade you,” he said as he dropped the package on the table in front of him, “So I will offer you something far more enticing. The chance to see how New York really lives.”

He strode purposefully from the room without looking at me. It was not until he reached my front door that he again spoke.

“Refusal is not an option. You may call on me in three weeks.”

He was gone. Inside the envelope there was $100.

 *  *  *

For weeks, the newspapers had been full of tit bits of information. Select journalists had been given admittance by Mrs Holland van Schuyler to the mansion to see previews of the decorations; society columns wrote about what costume she was to wear, including details of where the materials were purchased, and how she had supervised its fabrication strictly to ensure its authenticity.

The champagne bill alone was $100,000 as the hostess asserted her dominance and she promised a menu never seen before by Manhattan Society.

I waited at the northern gateway of Washington Square Park. Just before dawn a young man in a cap and thick coat spotted me. Without speaking he turned towards 77th Street, and it was only when we reached the van Schuyler mansion that I caught up with him.

“Look confident,” he said without turning in my direction.

I followed him into the house which, although it was early, was already being transformed. There must have been at least one hundred tradesmen working in various rooms. He took me up to the second floor where through various arches, guests could look down onto the ballroom. He pulled back the curtain and open a secret door into one of the pillars.

I was to wait inside during the day. I could watch the ballroom through the secret peep holes. When the coast was clear, he would give me three knocks so I could watch the first arrivals. Then when the formal dances were over, he would give me another three knocks.

All day I spent in darkness of the tight confines. The bustle around me was relentless: servants dashing forth, then workmen. Occasionally, I thought I heard Mrs Holland Van Schuyler’s high-pitched voice. Time went slowly. My body ached. I had long eaten the cheese and bread I had brought for lunch, and had no idea of the time. Then, I noticed the hubbub had turned to silence.

Three knocks.        

Mrs Holland van Schuyler had arranged for decorated Venetian barouches to be sent to guests’ houses, timed so that each would arrived to be received by Senator and Mrs van Schuyler in a correct order. Police had closed off Fifth Avenue between 49th and 99th street for only guests of the party.

I watched the carriages arrive and the outrageously dressed guests walk up the fire-lit stairs to the mansion’s grand entrance until an unseen tap on my shoulder told me it was time to return to my hiding spot.     

The ballroom was perhaps one of the largest rooms I had ever seen: it could easily fit one thousand people, maybe more. Never had I seen such opulence, such richness of fabrics.    

Even in this sea of reds, blacks and purples, it was impossible not to notice Mrs Holland van Schuyler, not only because of her height but she was dressed from toe to top in a radiant gold. With her vast wig she towered over the proceedings. Only the quadrille in matching colour equalled the hostess. Even Senator van Schuyler was a pale moon to her reigning sun.

It was then that I first saw him. He was dressed in white and somehow stood out in the ocean of colours like the crest on a wave. However, it was only after the final quadrille and the army of kings, queens, jungle animals and myths sprayed out into forests, jungles, palaces and temples that the lady of the mansion had created for them, that I saw his face. Behind the crowd, he dropped his mask for an instance and, through my glasses, I saw the saddest but most beautiful eyes I had ever seen.

I masked my face and left my hiding spot to join the throng of party-goers. I knew I must either find him or Chance whose mask I would surely recognise, having made it myself.

Yet as I wandered from deserts to oceans in an atmosphere increasingly Bacchanal, I could glimpse neither of them. I was just giving up hope when I saw the white of a back walk towards the grand staircase. Gently pushing past the throng of guests, I caught up with him. Without thinking, I placed my hand on the back of his shoulder.

“Excuse me,” I cried out. He turned and dropped his mask. That tragic face stared at me.

It was impossible but he recognised me.

The sea of revellers was pushed by the fierce stream coming from behind me. As he tried to stop, I felt my body dragged away until he was gone.

“You need to go, sir. Now!”

I protested but my contact pushed me through the crowds until I was at the back door of the mansion.

He shut the door in my face and my exile complete. I waited in the darkness for him to leave the van Schuyler house, or Chance. But nothing. At about 2 o’clock, two policemen walked past me.

“They say she’s just called dinner. What a party!” said one.

I wrapped my body in my thick coat and huddled in the corner. But even as dawn came and wigged men drunkenly walked down the streets, I did not see him again.

*  *  * 

I had not expected to hear from Chance again. I longed to go to Bond Street but what would it have achieved except embarrassment? Instead I began to investigate my secret patron.

Cornelius Chance was the second son of Theodore Elijah Chance, the chairman of the Chance Manhattan Banking Company. By the age of eighteen he was worth $100,000 from the breeding of thoroughbred horses, then on his 21st birthday he inherited $3 million from his late father. They said that by the time he was thirty that figure was - despite a studied lack of interest in finance - ten times as great.

They said that he never left his house unless he was dressed in a stiff collar, and frequently he only travelled with a spare carriage to carry changes of dress should it be necessary.

There was a famous story of his birthday party. Chefs and cooks had been lured from as far as Italy and France, some on loan, others simply stolen with impossibly large bribes. No chef was to cook outside his strict expertise, and each course required at least two.

In the weeks leading up to the celebration, Chance tested each of the chefs. They said that for every one accepted, there were at least three or four he rejected. For each course, he sampled a dozen champagnes until he had found the exact one he required. Even the cutlery and cloths he inspected himself until he was fully satisfied.    

Like any fisherman’s tale, the decade had allowed a certain exaggeration. I found, however, little variance in the telling, only in detail. A dozen Island Creek oysters from Maine, Chesapeake Diamondback terrapin soup, crayfish in savouryjelly and roasted Burford peafowl, followed by a table of desserts and pastries.

They said the cost would have housed several families for a year many times over. He was the only diner.

Although much of this was interesting, it did not get me any closer.

On the second week, Chance turned up at my studio. If anything his dress was more garish, yet his tone less gossipy. This time he requested three masks.

“Three?” I asked.

“I will not decide until the day itself,” he replied.

I worked on the pieces furiously and delivered them, in person, a week early. Yet Chance was not at home. I waited but he did not return. I returned home in hope but no message came.

As November became December, I received more commissions from Chance. Each time he became more specific about the materials he wanted used, the colours he required, and the numbers that I was to present to him. Every week, my night hours became later as I fitted in my extra commissions.

For New Year he commissioned thirty masks in silvers and bronze. When I delivered them, two days ahead of schedule, his valet at first declared Mr Chance not to be at home. It was not until I insisted that the man let me in, followed by my boxes of masks.

As I laid them out on his table, Chance followed me touching each one delicately and with a strange relief as if he were touching some rare Catholic relic. Occasionally, he would linger over one muttering to himself, “This one. Yes, this one.” Or something similar. Sometimes he would just close his eyes and feel the contours of the mask without speaking. Even though, I explained the specifications of each, I was certain that he was not listening but also that he wanted me to witness his curious reaction.   

“They are magnificent,” he declared. “Thank you.”

I stood defiantly, refusing to go.

“You have excelled yourself, and more than earned your price.”

And just as I wanted to name my price, I shied. What could I say? Even a man like Chance had his limits. He seemed to understand me even though I had expressed no words for his next words were spoken deliberately.

“I promise you. When I can. These are,” he paused, “All perfect.”

My body slackened in relief, the tension I had been feeling evaporated so that I nearly collapsed in tears.

With Mrs Astor’s ball coming up in January commission followed commission so that I had to employ certain assistants to help me acquire materials and to do basic preparation work.

I accepted job after job, my hope becoming more desperate. Mrs Astor’s January Ball passed, then as Lenten came Society became more sedate with charitable balls and smaller dinners but if anything Chance’s requests became more frequent that I struggled to cope, often surviving on two or three hours of sleep a night, sometimes missing appointments at the van Schuyler residence. Soon the frenzy of activity meant almost daily deliveries of masks to Bond Street.  

When the first signs of summer came, I was near nervous exhaustion. Even when I was alert enough to go to Fifth Avenue and 77th Street, I looked at myself in the mirror and knew I was no healthy company. Every time my disbelief or exasperation came close to breaking to the surface, I would think I saw him turning a corner; alternatively, Chance would hint at something. As I reflected later, I realised I could never quite pin his promises to any reward.

Before the van Schuylers decamped to Newport for the summer season, I received a summons to the residence. It was not Mrs Holland van Schuyler who received me but her private secretary. Although polite, it was a dressing down: Mrs Holland van Schuyler would make no allowance for artistic temperament. She had given me a commission and expected it to be completed as agreed. He could not convey the seriousness of failure. Sheepishly, I conveyed my remorse and promised that the five portraits would be ready for the next season as requested.

In the fresh air of the Upper East Side, I resolved to reject any further requests from Chance and devote myself to my original patron’s work. Even New York could not hold as many masked balls as he had job lots. Even Chance did not need such an array of choice.

As soon as the thought settled in my head, a carriage pulled up beside me.

“Mr Chance needs to see you now!”

At first, I thought about refusing until I realised that this the opportunity to confront him in person and put an end to his demands.

The carriage made the short journey to Bond Street and I practised every word of my refusal. On meeting him, however, he preempted my outburst.

“I know, sir, that you are angry with me. And I apologise. I am, though, at last able to fulfill my obligations to you.”

“You mean -?”

“Yes. This time, I think I can assure you not only the sight of New York’s Society but an even greater closer experience than before.”

“Do you promise me this?” I asked boldly.

“I am a man of my word,” came the reply.

“When?”

“I would tell you but at the moment it is too early.” As he spoke, he slid across a sheath of papers. At least a dozen a page, there were instructions for different masks: moretta, volto, pantalone, bauta in different materials, satins, silks, ebony, gold; kings, captains, heroes, with minute instructions, colours described exactly and measured perfectly.

As I did a rough calculation in my head of how much work this would require, I did not know whether to throw back the papers laughing at the absurdity of his pretension or to fall to my knees and weep in gratitude.

“I promise you. I will open the door to the gilded cage for you.”

That night, I slept my first sound night in months.

Slowly, I built enough material that I could begin work. My work was at first depressingly sluggish. Until I found a rhythm so that I was producing anywhere up to five masks a day. When each was finished I carefully catalogued, mystified as I boxed each one that a man could tell the difference - or wanted the difference - between two such similar pieces.

Rain poured down on the last night before his commissions were to be collected. There was no view from the window. Inside my rooms, the light flickered with the wind as it rattled through the windows. I had one mask yet to finish.  

As I stood at the head of the table, thunder clapped and lightning flashed throughout the room. The porcelain face stare back at me, its eye dead. It was nothing. I would give it meaning.

As I brushed on the first layer of gold, I heard the wind howl in delight. Each brushstroke became more intense as I decorated the face. From the thin porcelain I built with gold upon gold, then trimmed with silver. The mask became greater. It looked at me awakening.

The wind broke threw the windows, leaving them to bang against frame and wall, and rain to flood in. It was too late for me to stop though. The mask demanded that I finish. I could not escape. My brush curbed around the mouth until the twisted lips smiled back at me. More and more detail I added. Finally, lightning flashed into my rooms again and again like a heart beating life through a body: I was finished. In wild satisfaction, I looked upon my mask and my creation smiled back at its creator.

As the thundered rumbled, I collapsed upon the floor.

 *  *  *

The light of the rotunda was ideal. I had selected the room specifically to show the portraits to best effect.

Mrs Holland van Schuyler's expression seemed to confirm my suspicion as she inspected each piece through her lorgnette.  

Then she spoke:

“Perfect.”

It had been several weeks since I had turned up at Cornelius Chance’s house to collect my payment. Instead, I found myself amongst the dozen or so who watched the undertakers remove his body from 38 Bond Street.

My first inclination was to give up on my commission for Mrs Holland van Schuyler. If I returned home, my reputation could recover gradually. New York suddenly appeared a wasteland whose changes were too rapid leaving it, ultimately, with nothing.

There was no future for me here. Although Chance had paid me well, I had found my own extravagance and the precautions I needed to protect the works as they became more conspicuous, had eaten into my funds. I could, however, have afforded a First Class passage back to England and travelled in some comfort. I do not know what stopped me.  

Having pronounced her verdict, Mrs Holland van Schuyler sat and invited me to follow. Although not friendly, she began talking about details such as the official unveilings, who would attend et cetera; Senator van Schuyler would give a speech (there were rumours that he was to stand for Governor or even President); only select press this time, she thought. It was as if she were playing chess and, one one move, defending and attacking simultaneously.

Soon the conversation drew to a natural close. As we stood, I dared to speak.

“I was very sorry to hear of Mr Chance’s death, Mrs van Schuyler.”  

“Pardon?”

“Cornelius Chance was a friend of yours, I believe.”

“He had a private funeral so we did not attend.”

“My condolences.”

“I would not accuse you of insolence but Cornelius Chance was not a friend. None of us had received him for five years. He had given up calling. And never attended parties.”

Inside I jolted.

“He committed suicide which is another reason why reticence would be a better course. For once, nothing made its ways into the newspapers, not even details of his funeral.”

Her words were sharp.

“They say that when they discovered his body, the room was filled with nearly one thousand masks. Very queer.”

“I had no idea it was that many,” I said to myself.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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