This morning I read the story ‘The Mask’ from the King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. I expected it to go in a rather different direction and therefore felt unsatisfied with the ending. This is the story I imagined after reading the first few pages. It borrows the characters of Boris, Geneviève and the Narrator. It also keeps their relationships as well as the liquid that turns living things to marble. You do not need to have read the original story before reading this one, but I did write this assuming that the working of the strange liquid and the personalities of the characters have already been established.
“My Geneviève is beautiful today, is she not?” Boris asked me.
“Toujours” I answered immediately, sincerely, for truly she was the most beautiful sight in this world, the physical manifestation of all of nature’s beauty. She was life itself made flesh. Music in human form.
“And the Madonna, it is also beautiful, I believe”
“Your most beautiful piece”
“And yet their beauty is not the same. The sculpture is imperishable, unchanging. Artificial. Geneviève, by the very fact that her beauty will one day fade, is more beautiful than any sculpture could hope to be. That very impermanence is essential to her beauty, in the same way that youth is valuable because it so quickly comes to a end. In this way, all art is the same: it is inspired by natural beauty, but in trying to capture it and make it permanent, it instead destroys it. This is what I am missing in in my work. Every piece I create, I try to capture the spark of life I see in my Geneviève’s eyes.”
He looked angrily at the marble sculpture in the corner of the room, the Madonna. The sculpture that had so shook the art world last year when he had presented it. A masterpiece.
“I thought I had succeeded with the Madonna. The likeness to Geneviève is perfect. I am sure I saw it for a second, the spark of life finally captured in a piece of marble, but as soon as I stepped back to look at the piece as a whole it disappeared, faded out and left yet another cold block of stone.
“What of music?” I asked. “When you write music on a piece of paper, the music is captured, is it not, and comes back to life when the musician reads and performs what you recorded?”
“The musician, in reading and performing the music, creates a new piece of art, art which dies the second the sound fades from the room. The written music is a shadow of the living music.”
“I see. I believe you are right. Such is the curse of the artist, to always strain to equal the beauty of nature.”
“Yes, a curse indeed. I wish to surpass nature. Would the most perfect art not be a combination of these two beauties? The impermanence of youth and life, made imperishable.”
“Truly that would be art brought to its highest potential, but as you say, such a thing is impossible. The two ideas are in clear contradiction.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps there is a way”
The conversation stuck with me through the rest of the day, as I whiled away the hours with these two people I loved most. It sat at the back of the mind uncomfortably, never allowing me to fully relax. Something in the conversation bothered me, made me uneasy, although I was not sure why.
The next day Boris called me to his house again. He was in the garden with a bowl of clear liquid. He explained the science behind the liquid, his search for the formula, and how he had finally succeeded in creating such a thing.
He plucked a rose from the garden and dropped it into the bowl. Immediately the liquid lost its crystalline clearness. The rose was enveloped in a white foam which disappeared, leaving the fluid opalescent. Tints of orange and crimson played over the surface, and then what seemed to be a ray of pure sunlight struck the bottom where the flower was resting. In that instant he plunged his hand into the basin and drew out the flower. “It is safe, if you choose the right moment”.
He handed me the flower. It had turned to stone. To the purest marble.
“It is perfect” he said, “flawless.” The marble was white as snow, with veins of the palest azure, and a faint flush lingering deep in its heart.
“As to the goal you told me of yesterday, the making permanent of the beauty of impermanence. Does this flower succeed in reaching your goal?”
He held the thing up to the light, allowing the sun to shine through the impossibly fine marble that made up the petals. “No.” he said, as I knew he would.
That evening Boris and I were in the smoking room when Geneviève returned from town. She swept into the room as though she did not see me, without her usual gay greeting. It was only when Boris pointed out her impoliteness that she turned to me, as though seeing me for the first time, and smiled thinly “Oh, yes. Do stay for dinner” she said, and wandered out as though in a daze.
I looked at Boris with concern, and he took her by the arm. “My god, you are burning up” he exclaimed, and took her at once to her room and summoned the doctor. I visited her every hour, watching her grow ever whiter as she lay in that bed, twitching and shaking with fever. By the morning I could take it no longer, and I returned to my quarters, leaving Boris to watch over her.
I fell into a worried sleep, and dreamt of the day some weeks before when I had confessed my love to Geneviève. “I love you” she had said, “but I love Boris more”. She had announced their engagement the next day. I saw the scene repeated a thousand times, as she slowly became pale and weak, then shattered and fell to dust. I awoke covered in sweat and rushed to Boris’ house to see her.
He was pacing in the smoking room, and grabbed me as soon as I entered. “She has requested to see you” he said “she told the doctor that she is dying of a broken heart, and that she has not much longer to live”, then he took me to her room.
I believe she had become delirious, and did not know that Boris stood beside me, for she told our secret then, in front of him. Of my confession, and her love of me. My face blazed with shame, for I knew how this must hurt Boris, my dearest friend. After she had finished talking, she fell into a deep sleep, and Boris took my arm “It is not your fault that she loved you” he said.
For the next few nights I was unable to sleep, every time my eyes closed I saw that same scene of Geneviève shattering to dust, except now Boris was there, watching us, he eyes judging us, blaming me for her destruction. Finally the exhaustion became too much and I slept as though in a coma. The next morning I awoke certain of what I must do.
Geneveive’s condition had been worsening as the days passed, so I went to Boris’ house with great urgency, for now that my path was clear, I did not want to miss our opportunity. I practised what I would say on the ride over, repeating again and again the conversation with Boris in my head until I was certain of every argument against my idea he might make. As I saw his eyes on entering the house I knew that no argument would be necessary, however, for he too had arrived at the very same conclusion.
“She has worsened again in the night” he said.
“Then we must do it today” I said.
We carried her gently to the bathing room, and he filled the deep square bath in the centre of the temple-like chamber with the dreadful liquid. We carried her together, Boris holding he head, myself supporting her legs, and descended into the crystal clear solution.
The statue was eventually installed in the Musée d’Orsay. As outlined in the artist’s will, a plaque was installed beneath.
Impermanence made permanent, through our sacrifice.
In the original, Geneviève turns herself to stone, and Boris then kills himself. Finally it is revealed that the living things turned to stone will return to their living state after a period of time, and Geneviève wakes up again. A twisted Romeo and Juliet story? The original is excellent, but I was rather expecting the liquid to be a metaphor for the attempt of an artist to capture life in his work, hence this version.