It is said that Renarhim is a gloomy land, the realm of night and shadowed shores. You will learn that love has many faces, that deepest dark can bring forth light, and that the loving heart does not heed time's passage, all in the story to be told.
In an almost forgotten time, testifying to the saddest yet truest romance that our countries have known, these lines grant to their reader the last guardianship of the knowledge conveyed from generation to generation: the story behind the opulent festivals held once a year at the de Beaumont manor, that no living soul remains who had the honor to attend. Collective memory has preserved the ambience of the great masked ball held every year at the heart of February, but very little about its strange host. Though it is still oft told that the guests arrived by the hundreds at dusk, some of them not hesitating to travel a thousand leagues to take part in the event, the name of Baron de Beaumont is hardly mentioned.
Of a solitary nature - some would have said fierce - the old Mïnousha never left his domain. The night of this ball was the only time of the year in which he allowed himself company, under the strict condition that each of his guests covered their face with a mask and, once on his property, did not remove it under any pretext. This demand was taken for a foible of the baron's, and, delighted to enjoy his hospitality for an evening, each guest was pleased to comply. But some saw it as more than mere eccentricity and, though unable to be sure of the precise cause, believed the rule originated from the great tragedy which, in youth, had broken the Baron's heart.
The most memorable of these masked balls was undoubtedly the 50th. The air was surprisingly gentle that year, and we enjoyed the most lenient winter that we could remember. Believing it was already spring, the flowers eagerly bloomed in the gardens of the manor, adding their pastels to the brilliant colors of the guests' costumes. Under the glow of the stars and full moon, the fine metallic threads in the ladies' dresses gleamed, and the precious jewels worn by the guests glittered brilliantly. Inside, the enormous ballroom welcomed a flood of nobles who came to see and be seen, some eager to enjoy the luxury of the venue, others simply curious to meet its mysterious owner.
During the weeks preceding the festivities, the servants had stayed busy day and night to supply enough fine food for refined palates, enough wine to keep everyone cheerful, and music so tender that no one would wish to do anything but dance, dance again, and so on until the next day dawned.
Like every year, suppositions and wagers about which mask was hiding the baron were well in train. Could it have been him in that beautiful multicolored wolf mask with a Harlequin motif? Of course not. Look here - a man of such distinction could only wear a costume covered in gems! Unless one of his quirks made him opt for this odd hairstyle with ostrich feathers ...
Actually, few people knew what he looked like, and the baron took advantage of this to play the guest at his own ball. He provoked the interest of few people, and those few he only answered vaguely when they addressed him, refusing conversation, not even small talk like commenting on Lord Ernest's jacket, every year a little more old-fashioned, or on the flavor of deviled crab on toast, seasoned with tarragon, while three years earlier the blinis with partridge pâté had benefited from the more subtle flavors of coriander and cardamom. As for the ladies who gave him hint after hint in hope of being invited to waltz, he politely gave them to understand that due to his arthritis, and that was his great misfortune, please believe, did not allow him any more dancing without him needing to spend the rest of the month on bed rest.
But whoever might have had the sense to observe critically would soon have understood that the old feline, unable to remain in one place and constantly casting his gaze around, was searching for somebody, for one particular individual.
Deep down, Baron de Beaumont hardly cared about the hundreds of guests in party clothes that crowded under his roof every year. If he was so fixated on holding this great dance every February, it was for a single being, the expectation of meeting whom was the only thing that invigorated his long years. To glimpse her briefly of an evening he would have traded all his fortune; to be able to approach her, speak to her, he would have given his life. For nothing and no one was dearer to him, and yet he had only one night of the year to realize his desire.
Thus, amid all the dresses which fluttered to the rhythm of the dances, all the finely gloved hands holding goblets of wine, and all the masks that disguised every face, he ceaselessly searched for his beloved. The orchestra had begun to play a minuet when the baron, as a ruse to extricate himself from a dance, said that he thought he ought to spend a few moments outdoors. Through the windows of the ballroom he could see the garden, where the roses, already in bloom, shimmered under the silver glow of the moon. It was then, while he felt himself yielding to the garden's sweet invitation to serenity, that he saw her. He would have recognized all the finesse of her dress, the subtle tastefulness of her attire, but, still more, it was the sublime grace which permeated her every gesture that made her so unmistakable to his eyes. Utterly unique. There, on the new grass of the great gardens, she waited for him.
Invigorated, the baron strode across the ballroom and was soon outside. In the next moment she had seen him, and she too wanted nothing but for them to be together, and yet: it was slowly that the two lovers approached each other, so that the delicious moment of their reunion -- those few precious instants when their hearts rejoiced, their breathing raced, and nothing existed except their mutual regard, shining with emotion under the masks -- lasted an eternity.
"Belle..." the baron murmured, when he was at last close to his sweetheart and he could clasp her paws in his. "Belle, this year without you has been even longer than the ones before. "
A smile, as soft as it was sad, came to Belle's face.
"I missed you too, my love. Every second. We must savor this moment that is given to us, take this chance to be together once more... even for only tonight ... "
From out in the garden, the airs played by the musicians inside the manor were barely audible. The Baron knew that Belle had always loved dancing, and tenderly, taking great care as if she were immensely fragile, he drew her into a slow waltz. With the night sky as their only witness, the two lovers danced without thinking about anything else, as if the world around them had ceased to exist and only their two souls, vibrating in unison, remained.
"Time has taken my youth," whispered the old baron, "taken my beauty and my strength, but it has never had the slightest grasp on my feelings. My love for you is the same as it was on the first day, the same as on that February 14th fifty years ago when death took you from me, and it will be the same in a thousand years, when the world has ceased to be the world and our names have been forgotten."
The image of that fatal night which had carried Belle away suddenly passed before his eyes: the masked ball they had arranged to announce their engagement, the joyful music, the smiles of the guests, then the fire, the stampede that followed overwhelming Belle as she returned inside to help the weak and elderly. And the smoke, black as the vapors of hell, that had spread as if ...
A tender caress drew him suddenly from his gloomy thoughts. It was Belle who had just wiped away the tear that had dripped on her cheek, from the velvet of her paw.
"No, don't think about it."
"Impossible. Since that night, we have been condemned to see each other again only on this sad anniversary, only enough time for a dance and a few promises before you return to the infinite heavens, leaving me alone in the heart of this masquerade, this depravity of laughter and color, of indecently happy people, and of the masks which I require them to wear to replicate the ball, to deceive time and death in order to resurrect this same evening ... the only one that can bring you back to me. "
"Don't talk that way. Just be grateful that the hereafter that took me did not completely separate us. Look at me. I am here. "
"Indeed, my love. And this hereafter of which you speak will soon unite us. I'm getting old, you know. Too old and too tired to carry my burden any longer. I fought fate with dignity, even when existence was cruelest, and I believe now I have earned the right to be happy, as I can only be by your side."
Sealing his words with a kiss, the Baron de Beaumont took the eternal promise of her in his arms one last time. He felt the warmth and glow of her resting against his heart, whose beating became slow, spaced gradually wider apart until it ceased altogether. His body collapsed, but his soul continued to hold on to his great love.
All the while, in the ballroom, the last masquerade ball was still in full swing, and no one thought to look out of the window at the moment when eternity finally agreed to reunite two incandescent spirits.