Once again, I have to bow to my grandmother’s inspired mind. Her bright idea not to leave me alone, yet not for long, before the decisive moments tipped the wavering scales in her favour.
Grandmother opens her arms and folds me into her embrace.
“We have to make the best of the last minutes we’re still together, Irenchen. They will get sparse and sparser still. Once you’re married, we shall make do with what we can get. Well, that’s life. I’m blissfully happy for you and Leopold. Sit down by my side, sweetheart. Here, make yourself comfortable, my little one. Put this cushion behind your back and set your feet upon the footstool. You don’t need to talk if you don’t feel like it, Irenchen, just relax.”
My grandmother’s caring hands massage the stiff nape of my neck so tenderly and lovingly that I am glad fate prevented me from breaking her heart. She rounds the massage off with lavender-scented oil, wraps a cashmere shawl around my shoulders and gets up to pour a verbena infusion into the frail Japanese cups which show a rose-bud at their bottom once you have finished your tea.
I watch my grandmother perform the banal everyday gestures with her usual grace. My grandmother! The portrait of a lady, with her smooth, luminous face, her hazel eyes gleaming with gentle care, her shiny silver hair spun into a flawless bun. She stirs a tea-spoon of acacia honey into my cup and hands it to me with a couple of almond biscuits on a filigree plate.
“Drink your infusion, sweetheart, it’s soothing for overwrought nerves. I ordered our tea earlier than usual so that you’ve digested it before the dancing. Better not to wait until supper at the Ball. Your opening waltz is so very demanding. No need worsen your strain with butterflies in your stomach, is it?”
Overwhelmed by my grandmother’s kindness, I throw myself into her arms.
“I’ll never stop loving you, grandmother, I swear! I can never love anybody else as much as I love you!”
“My dear child! How sweet of you! Of course nobody can love two persons in the same way. Each love is unique, never-to-be repeated, with its own rights and rites to be equally respected.”
I stare at my grandmother, utterly nonplussed. Does she know about my design for love, and sanction it?
“There is one exception: the love of a wife for her husband, this sublime, sacred devotion that moves heaven and earth.
I listen to my grandmother elaborating her marital love’s conception, widening the gap between us. What a fool I was to believe she could give my unholy trinity her blessing!
The time goes by. Our tea is brought in. We eat it in a companionable silence. I feel so calm, so blithe! Is it due to my grandmother’s soothing presence or something else? I can hardly believe that my infusion might be doped!
“Time to get ready, Irenchen. If you need anything, let me know. Otherwise we’ll meet in the drawing room at a quarter to seven. Leopold will come at seven and escort you to the Ball. I’ll join you later with your parents. Zita will bring her husband in before the others start to come not to embarrass him by indiscreet glances. Poor Egon! How tragic to be confined to a wheel-chair for the rest of one’s life. He can thank God for such a loyal, considerate wife! I don’t know what he would do without her. Most probably spend the rest of his life in an institution for physically handicapped. His poor mother, alas, is too frail to put up with such a burden. My Goodness! I’m talking and talking and don’t see how late it is! We have to hurry up, sweetheart!”
I am dismissed on a hasty kiss and totter to my room. Shaky and woolly-headed, I sink on the brocade-covered stool in front of my dressing table. The glazed face of a total stranger is staring at me from the mirror with huge unblinking eyes. I turn my back on her and start to dress. I shudder under the cool touch of the gown sliding along my body like a silk coffin. It will rip apart on the stroke of midnight and let the vampires in.
“They are waiting for you, Liebchen! Oh Liebchen! You’re so chic! Not at all like you! More like a model from a magazine!” Mary marvels at my new image.
I enter the drawing room sporting a glamorous smile. Leo gets up and offers me his arm.