FictionForest

PART TWO : Chapter 6

Leo TolstoyAug 22, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

Light off Small Medium Large

Princess Betsy drove home from the
theater, without waiting for the end of the last act. 
She had only just time to go into her dressing room,
sprinkle her long, pale face with powder, rub it,
set her dress to rights, and order tea in the big drawing
room, when one after another carriages drove up to
her huge house in Bolshaia Morskaia.  Her guests
stepped out at the wide entrance, and the stout porter,
who used to read the newspapers in the mornings behind
the glass door, to the edification of the passers-by,
noiselessly opened the immense door, letting the visitors
pass by him into the house.

Almost at the same instant the hostess,
with freshly arranged coiffure and freshened face,
walked in at one door and her guests at the other
door of the drawing room, a large room with dark walls,
downy rugs, and a brightly lighted table, gleaming
with the light of candles, white cloth, silver samovar,
and transparent china tea things.

The hostess sat down at the table
and took off her gloves.  Chairs were set with
the aid of footmen, moving almost imperceptibly about
the room; the party settled itself, divided into two
groups:  one round the samovar near the hostess,
the other at the opposite end of the drawing room,
round the handsome wife of an ambassador, in black
velvet, with sharply defined black eyebrows. 
In both groups conversation wavered, as it always
does, for the first few minutes, broken up by meetings,
greetings, offers of tea, and as it were, feeling about
for something to rest upon.

“She’s exceptionally good
as an actress; one can see she’s studied Kaulbach,”
said a diplomatic attache in the group round the ambassador’s
wife.  “Did you notice how she fell down?…”

“Oh, please, don’t let
us talk about Nilsson!  No one can possibly say
anything new about her,” said a fat, red-faced,
flaxen-headed lady, without eyebrows and chignon, wearing
an old silk dress.  This was Princess Myakaya,
noted for her simplicity and the roughness of her
manners, and nicknamed enfant terrible
Princess Myakaya, sitting in the middle between the
two groups, and listening to both, took part in the
conversation first of one and then of the other. 
“Three people have used that very phrase about
Kaulbach to me today already, just as though they had
made a compact about it.  And I can’t see
why they liked that remark so.”

The conversation was cut short by
this observation, and a new subject had to be thought
of again.

“Do tell me something amusing
but not spiteful,” said the ambassador’s
wife, a great proficient in the art of that elegant
conversation called by the English, small talk
She addressed the attache, who was at a loss now
what to begin upon.

“They say that that’s
a difficult task, that nothing’s amusing that
isn’t spiteful,” he began with a smile. 
“But I’ll try.  Get me a subject. 
It all lies in the subject.  If a subject’s
given me, it’s easy to spin something round
it.  I often think that the celebrated talkers
of the last century would have found it difficult
to talk cleverly now.  Everything clever is so
stale…”

“That has been said long ago,”
the ambassador’s wife interrupted him, laughing.

The conversation began amiably, but
just because it was too amiable, it came to a stop
again.  They had to have recourse to the sure,
never-failing topic ­gossip.

“Don’t you think there’s
something Louis Quinze about Tushkevitch?” he
said, glancing towards a handsome, fair-haired young
man, standing at the table.

“Oh, yes!  He’s in
the same style as the drawing room and that’s
why it is he’s so often here.”

This conversation was maintained,
since it rested on allusions to what could not be
talked of in that room ­that is to say, of
the relations of Tushkevitch with their hostess.

Round the samovar and the hostess
the conversation had been meanwhile vacillating in
just the same way between three inevitable topics: 
the latest piece of public news, the theater, and
scandal.  It, too, came finally to rest on the
last topic, that is, ill-natured gossip.

“Have you heard the Maltishtcheva
woman ­the mother, not the daughter ­has
ordered a costume in diable rose color?”

“Nonsense!  No, that’s too lovely!”

“I wonder that with her sense ­for
she’s not a fool, you know ­ that
she doesn’t see how funny she is.”

Everyone had something to say in censure
or ridicule of the luckless Madame Maltishtcheva,
and the conversation crackled merrily, like a burning
faggot-stack.

The husband of Princess Betsy, a good-natured
fat man, an ardent collector of engravings, hearing
that his wife had visitors, came into the drawing
room before going to his club.  Stepping noiselessly
over the thick rugs, he went up to Princess Myakaya.

“How did you like Nilsson?” he asked.

“Oh, how can you steal upon
anyone like that!  How you startled me!”
she responded.  “Please don’t talk
to me about the opera; you know nothing about music. 
I’d better meet you on your own ground, and
talk about your majolica and engravings.  Come
now, what treasure have you been buying lately at
the old curiosity shops?”

“Would you like me to show you? 
But you don’t understand such things.”

“Oh, do show me!  I’ve
been learning about them at those ­what’s
their names?…the bankers…they’ve some splendid
engravings.  They showed them to us.”

“Why, have you been at the Schuetzburgs?”
asked the hostess from the samovar.

“Yes, ma chère
They asked my husband and me to dinner, and told
us the sauce at that dinner cost a hundred pounds,”
Princess Myakaya said, speaking loudly, and conscious
everyone was listening; “and very nasty sauce
it was, some green mess.  We had to ask them,
and I made them sauce for eighteen pence, and everybody
was very much pleased with it.  I can’t
run to hundred-pound sauces.”

“She’s unique!” said the lady of
the house.

“Marvelous!” said someone.

The sensation produced by Princess
Myakaya’s speeches was always unique, and the
secret of the sensation she produced lay in the fact
that though she spoke not always appropriately, as
now, she said simple things with some sense in them. 
In the society in which she lived such plain statements
produced the effect of the wittiest epigram. 
Princess Myakaya could never see why it had that
effect, but she knew it had, and took advantage of
it.

As everyone had been listening while
Princess Myakaya spoke, and so the conversation around
the ambassador’s wife had dropped, Princess
Betsy tried to bring the whole party together, and
turned to the ambassador’s wife.

“Will you really not have tea? 
You should come over here by us.”

“No, we’re very happy
here,” the ambassador’s wife responded
with a smile, and she went on with the conversation
that had been begun.

“It was a very agreeable conversation. 
They were criticizing the Karenins, husband and wife.

“Anna is quite changed since
her stay in Moscow.  There’s something
strange about her,” said her friend.

“The great change is that she
brought back with her the shadow of Alexey Vronsky,”
said the ambassador’s wife.

“Well, what of it?  There’s
a fable of Grimm’s about a man without a shadow,
a man who’s lost his shadow.  And that’s
his punishment for something.  I never could
understand how it was a punishment.  But a woman
must dislike being without a shadow.”

“Yes, but women with a shadow
usually come to a bad end,” said Anna’s
friend.

“Bad luck to your tongue!”
said Princess Myakaya suddenly.  “Madame
Karenina’s a splendid woman.  I don’t
like her husband, but I like her very much.”

“Why don’t you like her
husband?  He’s such a remarkable man,”
said the ambassador’s wife.  “My husband
says there are few statesmen like him in Europe.”

“And my husband tells me just
the same, but I don’t believe it,” said
Princess Myakaya.  “If our husbands didn’t
talk to us, we should see the facts as they are. 
Alexey Alexandrovitch, to my thinking, is simply
a fool.  I say it in a whisper…but doesn’t
it really make everything clear?  Before, when
I was told to consider him clever, I kept looking
for his ability, and thought myself a fool for not
seeing it; but directly I said, he’s a fool,
though only in a whisper, everything’s explained,
isn’t it?”

“How spiteful you are today!”

“Not a bit.  I’d
no other way out of it.  One of the two had to
be a fool.  And, well, you know one can’t
say that of oneself.”

“’No one is satisfied
with his fortune, and everyone is satisfied with his
wit.’” The attache repeated the French
saying.

“That’s just it, just
it,” Princess Myakaya turned to him.  “But
the point is that I won’t abandon Anna to your
mercies.  She’s so nice, so charming. 
How can she help it if they’re all in love
with her, and follow her about like shadows?”

“Oh, I had no idea of blaming
her for it,” Anna’s friend said in self-defense.

“If no one follows us about
like a shadow, that’s no proof that we’ve
any right to blame her.”

And having duly disposed of Anna’s
friend, the Princess Myakaya got up, and together
with the ambassador’s wife, joined the group
at the table, where the conversation was dealing with
the king of Prussia.

“What wicked gossip were you
talking over there?” asked Betsy.

“About the Karenins.  The
princess gave us a sketch of Alexey Alexandrovitch,”
said the ambassador’s wife with a smile, as she
sat down at the table.

“Pity we didn’t hear it!”
said Princess Betsy, glancing towards the door. 
“Ah, here you are at last!” she said,
turning with a smile to Vronsky, as he came in.

Vronsky was not merely acquainted
with all the persons whom he was meeting here; he
saw them all every day; and so he came in with the
quiet manner with which one enters a room full of people
from whom one has only just parted.

“Where do I come from?”
he said, in answer to a question from the ambassador’s
wife.  “Well, there’s no help for
it, I must confess.  From the opera bouffe
I do believe I’ve seen it a hundred times,
and always with fresh enjoyment.  It’s exquisite! 
I know it’s disgraceful, but I go to sleep at
the opera, and I sit out the opera bouffe to
the last minute, and enjoy it.  This evening…”

He mentioned a French actress, and
was going to tell something about her; but the ambassador’s
wife, with playful horror, cut him short.

“Please don’t tell us about that horror.”

“All right, I won’t especially as everyone
knows those horrors.”

“And we should all go to see
them if it were accepted as the correct thing, like
the opera,” chimed in Princess Myakaya.

 

Leave a Reply