Soundlessly, as if by magic, the high gilded door flies open and we sail forth into the light. Everything is excessive, extravagant and out of this world. Yet all this pomp is neither insolent nor out of place. It is an answer to the legitimate human longing for an existence better than it is; smoother, brighter and more harmonious.
Under the decorous beating of the drums, we advance to the centre of the dance-floor. The enchanting beauties look proudly up from their escorts’ arms like Renoir’s ladies from their Opera boxes. Leo and I hold still until the other couples line up behind us. The drums stop beating. The eyes of the spectators are focused on us. Leo’s growing impatience and the tenseness of his muscles signal that something is getting out of hand, that he waits for a cue which I won’t give. Looking around for assistance, I catch a glimpse of Milan’s urgent gesticulation, demonstrating me to unhook my arm from Leo’s, and give him a chance to bow to me and to ask me for the pleasure of this dance. I do as I was shown, acknowledge Leo’s claim with a routine smile and let me be taken into his arms to perform the most accomplished waltz of the season. In the nonchalant whirling of the dance my anguish is falling off my shoulders. Weightless and sublime, we perform the waltz in all its perfection, free from the tremolos and stumbling caused by feelings, unpaired by emotions.
The waltz ends in a splash of applause. Mr. Mirak declares the Medical Ball open and invites the other guests to the dance-floor. Leo kisses my hand and escorts me to the family table where we are hailed and given a toast of champagne. I wallow in the enjoyable sentiment of being everyone’s darling. For once, even my father seems to be proud of me. I avoid Egon’s eyes. It is the first time I see him after the “accident” and I am not sure how to handle him. Outwardly, Egon seems to be his old self, deadly stylish in his designer tuxedo, his disability hidden under the damask tablecloth. His upper lip tight, he looks past me as if in doubt whether to accept the present or remain in the past. Suddenly, with the clash of swords in battle, our eyes meet, and I shudder under Egon’s naked longing.
“Take a seat, children! You must be completely exhausted after your splendid waltz. You were the most exquisite, the best tuned-up couple on the dance-floor!” Exchanging melting glances with my grandmother, Leopoldine von Zwettler praises us fondly.
“Your wedding will be announced after the break.” My grandmother’s voice is shaky with emotion.
“Better recover until then to put up with all those congratulations! I’m so proud of you, my little one!”
“We all are, aren’t we, Frantisek? Our Irenchen is the Queen-of-the-Ball!” Grandmother pats my hand supportively, using this occasion to snatch my glass away and I reckon I have had my last drop until the wedding toast.
Set in his best Mirak’s assistant composure, Milan appears at our table. After having been granted Leo’s permission, he bows to me and his outraging polite “May I have the pleasure of this dance, Gnadiges Fraulein?” puts me on edge.
“You danced like an angel! You’re my proud and joy, babe!” Milan’s white gloved hand shoots down in flames my intention to sulk and punish him for having been too tame.
Lights fade down. The heartbreaking voluptuousness of a tango permeates the air with unbearable longing. “I Know I Can Never Call You Back Again”, the violins are sobbing the story of the man who after having written this song then shot himself through the heart when, coming back from his mistress, he found his wife lying on their marital bed soaked in blood.
“It’s heavenly to dance the tango with you, babe! It was elegant of Leo to let me have it.” Clasping me tighter, Milan performs a vertiginous figure.
“Why wouldn’t he? Leo and altruistic! You must be joking! He doesn’t care too hoots about a tango with me! The only girl who turns him on just now is Bessie. Though itchy as he may be, he’d never dare ask her for a dance and flaunt their romance in the face of our families.”
Soaring up from a floor-low bow, I brace Milan for the shock, accounting for the absolute insignificance of my wedding, still more meaningless in this moment of bliss. Fused with my lover’s body, I follow him blindly, flowing and ebbing under him like the sea under the moon. Milan and I, both ecstatically happy, both cut to the quick by the reaching after more, even if conscious that we have achieved the height and peak of the human condition and that we can’t get any nearer to the absolute.
The music stopped playing. I open my eyes. We stand alone on the dance-floor encircled by a spell-bound crowd aware that they have witnessed something never to be repeated, bigger than life. In total silence, Milan releases his hold on me. This is THE moment to put his arms around me and lead me away. I shall follow him blindly and stay true to him come what may, never doubting the righteousness of my decision, accepting anything that it brings, no price too high to pay, no word spiteful enough to touch me.
The lights flame up at full blast. I see my grandmother urging Leo to get up and bring me back. Everything is still possible. Nothing has been yet settled. Our lives are at stake. We cannot afford to it play safe.
Leo bars our way with a bow and a smile: “Your grandmother wants you, Irene,” he says aloofly and reaches after me.
“Thank you for this dance, Gnadiges Fraulein,” offering no resistance, Milan passes me on Leo. Changed into a pillar of scorn I don’t look back. I follow my match made in Heaven heading for Hell.