Nathaniel found a card of invitation, and with heart beating highly went at the appointed hour to the professor’s, where the coaches were already rolling, and the lights were shining in the decorated saloons. The company was numerous and brilliant.
Olympia appeared dressed with great richness and taste. Her beautifully turned face, her figure called for admiration. The somewhat strange bend of her back inwards, the wasp-like thinness of her waist, seemed to be produced by too tight lacing. In her step and deportment there was something measured and stiff, which struck many as unpleasant, but it was ascribed to the constraint produced by the company.
The concert began, Olympia played the piano with great dexterity, and executed a bravura, with a voice, like the sound of a glass bell, clear, and almost cutting. Nathaniel was quite enraptured; he stood in the hindermost row, and could not perfectly recognise Olympia’s features in the dazzling light. He, therefore, quite unperceived, took out Coppola’s glass, and looked towards the fair Olympia.
Ah! then he saw, with what a longing glance she looked towards him, how every tone first resolved itself plainly in the glance of love, which penetrated, in its glowing career, his inmost soul.
The artistical roulades seemed to Nathaniel the exultation of a mind illuminated with love, and when, at last, after the cadence, the long trill sounded shrilly through the saloon, he felt as if grasped by glowing arms; he could no longer restrain himself, but with mingled pain and rapture shouted out, “Olympia!” All looked at him, and many laughed. The organist of the cathedral made a more gloomy face than usual, and simply said: “Well, well.”
The concert had finished, the ball began. “To dance with her—with her!” That was the aim of all Nathaniel’s wishes, of all his efforts; but how to gain courage to ask her, the queen of the festival? Nevertheless—he himself did not know how it happened—no sooner had the dancing begun, than he was standing close to Olympia, who had not yet been asked to dance, and, scarcely able to stammer out a few words, had seized her hand.
The hand of Olympia was as cold as ice; he felt a horrible deadly frost thrilling through him. He looked into her eye—that was beaming full of love and desire, and at the same time it seemed as though the pulse began to beat, and the stream of life to glow in the cold hand. And in the soul of Nathaniel the joy of love rose still higher; he clasped the beautiful Olympia, and with her flew through the dance.
He thought that his dancing was usually correct as to time, but the peculiar rhythmical steadiness with which Olympia moved, and which often put him completely out, soon showed him, that his time was very defective.
However, he would dance with no other lady, and would have liked to murder any one who approached Olympia for the purpose of asking her. But this only happened twice, and to his astonishment Olympia remained seated after every dance, when he lost no time in making her rise again.
Had he been able to see any other object besides the fair Olympia, all sorts of unfortunate quarrels would have been inevitable, for the half-soft, scarcely-suppressed laughter, which arose among the young people in every corner, was manifestly directed to Olympia, whom they pursued with very curious glances—one could not tell why.
Heated by the dance, and by the wine, of which he had freely partaken, Nathaniel had laid aside all his ordinary reserve. He sat by Olympia, with her hand in his, and, highly inflamed and inspired, told his passion, in words which no one understood—neither himself nor Olympia. Yet, perhaps, she did; for she looked immoveably in his face, and sighed several times, “Ah, ah!”
Upon this, Nathaniel said, “Oh, thou splendid, heavenly lady! Thou ray from the promised land of love—thou deep soul, in winch all my being is reflected!” with much more stuff of the like kind; but Olympia merely went on sighing, “Ah—ah!”
Professor Spalanzani occasionally passed the happy pair, and smiled on them, with a look of singular satisfaction. To Nathaniel, although he felt in quite another region, it seemed all at once as though Professor Spalanzani was growing considerably darker; he looked around, and, to his no small horror, perceived that the two last candles in the empty saloon had burned down to their sockets, and were just going out. Music and dancing had ceased long ago.
“Separation—separation!” he cried, wildly, and in despair; he kissed Olympia’s hand, he bent towards her mouth, when his glowing lips were met by lips cold as ice! Just as when he touched Olympia’s cold hand, he felt himself overcome by horror; the legend of the dead bride darted suddenly through his mind, but Olympia pressed him fast, and her lips seemed to recover to life at his kiss.
Professor Spalanzani strode through the empty hall, his steps caused a hollow echo, and his figure, round which a flickering shadow played, had a fearful, spectral appearance. “Dost thou love me, dost thou love me, Olympia? Only this word!—Dost thou love me?” So whispered Nathaniel; but Olympia, as she rose, only sighed, “Ah—ah!” “Yes, my gracious, my beautiful star of love,” said Nathaniel, “thou hast risen upon me, and thou wilt shine, ever illuminating my inmost soul.”
Considering the ball had been put together on such short notice, Spalazani’s house was full of guests, and the normally austere house so blazing with lights and drenched with golden decorations that it almost hurt Nate’s eyes.
But none of the grandeur could compare to that of the ball’s shining star. Olympia sat on a mock throne at one end of the room, gazing serenely out over the heads of her courtiers. She was resplendent in white, like a bride, the slightly old-fashioned dress overlaid with golden lace. It had a high neck, sleeves covered the length of her arms down to her hands, and the skirts were so full, they clustered around her legs like the petals on a rose.
An urge crept over Nate to drop to his knees right there and then and beg for her just to look at him, to acknowledge him in some way. And he probably would’ve done just that, had Sieg not pushed a drink into his hand and steered him away. The moment she was out of his sight, his enthusiasm cooled, but only a fraction. Still, he was able to spend the next hour in polite conversation with the other guests and steal only the occasional glance at the stunning figure at the head of the room. As her guests enjoyed cocktail after cocktail, Olympia sat motionless, her expression composed and regal. The attendees tossed around murmured words like snobbish and stuck up, cold and haughty, but to be the center of attention at such a large gathering and remain so unruffled? She really was remarkable. Nate could think of only one other woman so self-possessed.
Confusion wreathed his brain like fog.
Clara. Olympia. Clara.
A hand tugged at his arm, rousing him. What had he been thinking about?
“Come on, Nate. It’s time to go to the recital room and hear the obligatory concert.” Sieg had managed to steal a tray from one of the waiters and loaded it down with as many drinks as it could carry. “If you can stay awake, I’ll even share my drinks with you.”
Nate followed him to the next room. The program among the debuts of Foxwept’s elite was always the same. First, the cocktail hour then the debutante’s recital where she would perform for the audience. Loth’s sister, Clara, had simply sat at the front of the room and glared at everyone for an hour. He and Loth had been in stitches at the audience’s palpable discomfort, but as she was both the debutante and her own sponsor, there was nothing the audience could do but sit for the full hour and applaud politely at the end.
A hush fell over the room as Olympia took her place stiffly on a dais before the audience. She struck up the first chord on the piano and as she opened her mouth, her voice transcended any human sound, lifting Nate from his seat and transporting him to the heavens. Through the clouds he soared with her, rising and falling with the notes, swelling with the final crescendo until his heart threatened to burst with feeling, an exquisite self-destruction he would’ve embraced with ecstasy.
The rest of the audience fell away, and Olympia played for him alone. Their eyes locked and as her fingers moved deftly over the keys, so they did over his spine, until, with the dying of the final note, Nate leapt to his feet, bringing his hands together in frenetic applause and shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” into the uninterested silence.
That got the audience to react, and they burst into a thunder of laughter.
Nate glanced around at them, all seated and dignified but himself, and his cheeks burned. How could they not be moved by her voice? Obviously, her performance had been too cultured for their vulgar tastes. They probably would’ve preferred a striptease. Rage built in him, a blind, hot anger that they should be so disrespectful. Well, he would tell them exactly what he thought about that.
He was saved from further embarrassment by Professor Spalazani, who materialized at the front of the room and offered Olympia his hand to rise from the piano and take her bow. The audience applauded then, so loudly and enthusiastically that the first words of Nate’s diatribe were drowned out, and his thirst for their approval sated.
He retreated to the wall to watch as members of the audience filed up to the stage and congratulated the young songstress. He could wait his turn. Soon the dancing would begin, and that was when he would make his move, screwing up his courage and asking her to be his partner. Did he dare? Would she say yes? If she didn’t, would he die right there on the spot? Or would his disappointment strangle him slowly in the night, as she, his puppeteer, tightened her strings around his neck?
Just as Nate could no longer stand the suspense, the first strains of orchestral music rose from the ballroom and there was a great rustling of skirts as the guests followed their host through the grand arches. Nate pushed his way through, not caring whose foot he crushed, or how much over-exposed cleavage he had to elbow past.
His perseverance paid off, and he was the first young man to stand in front of the glorious debutante. She stood, still cool and composed, none of the exertion of having just given an hour-long concert visible on her exquisite face.
He bowed low before her. “Dear Olympia, would you please do me the great honor of allowing me to escort you for this dance?” He held his breath, his entire existence dependent on her answer.
She said nothing but raised her hand to accept his.
Nate’s heart swelled with joy. She had deigned to dance with him!
Olympia was a woman of contradictions. She’d sung so warmly, but her hand was cold and stiff in his own. Her nerves were understandable, however, and the chill of her skin didn’t bother Nate.
I’ll soon warm her up.
As he spun her around, the glittering room passed in a blur of lights and laughter, of flashes of every color under the sun. Sure enough, Olympia’s hand soon warmed in his, and she gazed at him with such love and longing that it became his heart’s greatest wish to have her as his partner for the rest of the night. Surely, looking at him the way she did, she didn’t want a different partner?
And for Nate, the stars seemed to align. Under Nate’s withering gaze, only a few other men approached Olympia that night, and those who did soon decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Indeed, the only time Nate was forced from her side was when she stepped out for the obligatory dance with her father, the professor. For the rest of the evening, she was Nate’s alone.
Like most young men of his pedigree, Nate had learned to dance at an early age and considered himself quite proficient at it. Next to Olympia’s perfectly timed and executed steps, however, he bumbled like a fool. Not once did she miss a step or fall out of time, but turned and stepped with a clockwork precision, often leaving Nate rushing to catch up.
His clumsiness seemed to be a source of great amusement, if the whispers and titters of the crowd were any indication. Or, more likely, it was the resentful laughter of the jealous. Well, they could laugh all they wanted. He distracted Olympia as best he could, whispering little jokes and compliments, and describing all the wonderful places he could take her, if she only she’d let him.
But still, the cruel behavior of the crowd must’ve gotten to her, for she didn’t speak the entire time they danced, merely sighing as she stared deep into Nate’s soul. Round and round they danced, stopping only when the orchestra took a short break. As they sat, watching the crowd milling around the buffet table, Nate professed his feelings to her.
“Olympia, I understand that we barely know each other, but you’re not like any woman I’ve ever met. And it sounds crazy, but I think I adore you.” He held his breath. She didn’t smile, but instead sighed and looked away.
She’s so modest.
Most women would’ve giggled coquettishly and given a smug toss of their heads.
Yet another thing to admire about her. Then she gazed back at him, and within her eyes was a wisdom and depth of emotion so profound, it took his breath away.
Professor Spalazani passed them once or twice with a contented grin. And why wouldn’t he be happy? Nate was wealthy, from a good family, and with unlimited prospects. He was more than a match for a professor’s daughter. And even if Spalazani did discover a fault with him, Nate would overcome it.
When the orchestra fired up again, Nate led Olympia out on the dance floor and they twirled, faster and faster as the crowd, the room, the music blended together until, eventually, everything but Olympia’s face ceased to exist. Had he ever been so happy before?
But exhausted at last, Nate had to admit he could no longer dance. They stopped, Nate gasping for breath and grinning as sweat poured down his face. Olympia, on the other hand, remained as cool as ever, with not a hair out of place.
The ballroom was empty. No soul remained but Olympia’s father, who watched the couple from one of the empty tables. When had the people, the orchestra gone? Neither he nor Olympia had noticed when the music and the laughter fell silent.
All we saw was each other.
And now came the moment Nate had dreaded the entire night—it was time to leave Olympia and go home. Disentangling his hands from hers brought an almost physical pain, as though he were tearing off a layer of his own skin. As she and Spalazani walked him to the front door, he had to know.
“Olympia, do you love me?” As he gazed deep into her eyes, his heart seemed to pause as it waited for her answer.
She didn’t speak, but sighed, as she’d done the rest of the evening.
It didn’t matter. He understood her well enough by now to know her answer was yes. So, as Spalazani looked on approvingly, Nate leaned over and kissed her.
He was met by a shocking chill. Her lips were like ice, and a shiver of revulsion passed over him. He pushed it quickly away. Of course she was going to be cold after expending all her energy dancing. She was probably exhausted.
And she had nothing to eat or drink. Guilt lashed at him. It’s my fault. I can’t believe I was so thoughtless.
“A good night’s sleep will soon bring the warmth back to those lips,” he said fondly to her, and she sighed again then turned and left the room.