“You’re beautiful tonight, Irene. There’s something ethereal about you. You look like...”
“The shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver,” I bring out the best of Leo’s platitudinous compliment, aware that any hope he has ever read Oscar Wilde is a cry for the moon.
“May I help you arrange your exquisite gown, my dear? It would be sinful to crease it,” Leo smothers my literary ambitions and starts bustling about my ample skirt with the detached skill of a window-dresser trimming a dummy.
“Are you quite all right, Irene? You behave like being in a trance. Let me see your eyes!” Leo puts on his professional look, holds my head up and examines my pupils.
“Good Heavens! What did you take? Sleeping pills or still worse? What was it? Answer me!” He yells at me, appalled by my torpor.
“I haven’t taken anything, Leo, honestly!” He waves my denial away, stops in front of the first coffee shop, goes around the car, pulls me out, snatches my hand and drags me inside. He pushes me upon a chair at the entrance and goes to fetch two espressos. I drink them up wordlessly.
“This should put you on your feet, Irene.”
He leads me to the car, buckles my seat-belt and drives down Wenceslas Square. I stare in front of me with unseeing eyes, longing for the way things were, dreading the moments to come.
“Do you feel like dancing, Irene? Wouldn’t it be better to plead a sudden indisposition instead of causing a major scandal? Shall I turn round a drive you home?”
I am tempted to say “yes” fully aware that postponing a problem makes it only worse. Not to mention the ghastly consequences of my defection. Am I able to put up with this kind of a clash? I doubt it. Which is the lesser of two evils? Which of the two hearts shall be broken? My grandmother’s or Milan’s? Milan’s heart is young and strong. It will patch up. My grandmother’s heart is worn out, beyond repair.
“Better not tempting fate, Irene. Just imagine what a commotion it would cause in case you collapsed on the dance-floor!”
“Don’t worry, Leo, your coffee knocked me into shape. To plead “a sudden indisposition” would make waves and make follow rather nasty innuendoes. And then, how about your poor father who’d be shifted in for nothing?” I refuse firmly fate’s open hand.
“As you wish, my dear.” Leo shrugs his shoulders shunning any further responsibility for my deeds, and misdeeds, and speeds up towards “Répré” where all important Prague society balls take place. He brings the car to a halt in front of the imposing turn-of-the century building, passes the key onto the doorman and gives me his arm to lead me up the brilliantly lit staircase.
“Are you sure you’re well enough to perform, Irene?”
I am given one more chance before being released to powder my nose.
“Quite sure. Thank you, Leo. See you in a jiffy!” I laugh his worries off and disappear in the ladies’ room which reverberates with the feverish chatter of young beauties seized with a frenzied desire to impress and win. The last one to come in, I am eyed up and down, seized as a potential rival. I acknowledge the challenge with a fleeting smile, sit down in front of a wall-to-ceiling mirror and try my best to get absorbed in smart decorative tricks. Running a lipstick upon my mouth, I harden my heart for the fast approaching clash. I must achieve more than Milan’s acceptance of my wedding. I want his unconditional surrender.
There is a knock at the door. Mrs. Mirak’s head pops in. Her “Time is short, ladies,” roots the aroused beehive to the spot. Dizzy with stage-fright the Queens flutter their wings preparing for the nuptial flight.
The hollow rattle of shutting vanity bags echoes the insistence of a Destiny Call. Left alone in front of the empty mirror, I shrink back from the anguish in my eyes. Anything is better than to stay alone with my racking doubts. I pull myself up and go out.
“Here you are, babe!” A meteor emerging from the cosmic darkness, Milan is rushing to my help.
“They are waiting just for you and Leo is all wiry. Better hurry-up, Babe? Is anything wrong? Let me have a closer look. You’re ghastly pale! What is it? Tell me!”
Recovering my breath by Milan’s gentle caring I gather my strength to confront the storm screaming and whooping in front of me, threatening to smash me to pieces.
“I’m taking you home! Your hands are too cold, your brow is too hot, you’re running fever and you’d be better in bed.”
I stare at Milan paralysed by the sound of his suave voice, aware that it is only a question of time before I pull the trigger of the Russian roulette, mercilessly pointing at his heart. I suppress the urge to take his hand and run for life.
“You mustn’t risk your health; let me take you home, babe, please!”
Swept off my feet by the gushing speed of Milan’s love, I throw myself into his arms and press my lips on his in a kiss that may be our last.
“I love you, Milan! Whatever happens, never doubt it!” I assure him despairing of my inaptitude to make him see the reason of my treason.
“Have you gone raving mad? This is neither the place nor the time for your pathetic cuddle! You scared me out of my wits, Irene! I thought something happened to you when you failed to come to our meeting place!” Leo appears out of nowhere.
“Here, take my handkerchief and wash off that smear off your mouth! The same goes for the gentleman! You look like a couple of clowns!”
I do as told and follow Leo to the ball-room lamely.
“Do accept our apologies,” Leo says haughtily to the fretful crowd and we take our position in the front row to open the ball.