PRINCESS BETSY drove home from the theatre, 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 the 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.
Oh, please dont 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 Myaky, noted for her simplicity and the roughness of her manners, and nicknamed enfant terrible. Princess Myaky, 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 to-day already, just as though they had made a compact about it. And I cant see why they liked that remark so.
Do tell me something amusing but not spiteful, said the ambassadors wife, a great proficient in the art of that elegant conversation called by the English small-talk. She addressed the attaché, who was at a loss now what to begin upon.
They say that thats a difficult task, that nothings amusing that isnt spiteful, he began with a smile. But Ill try. Get me a subject. It all lies in the subject. If a subjects given me, its easy to spin something round it. I often think that the celebrated talkers of last century would have found it difficult to talk cleverly now. Everything clever is so stale
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 theatre, and scandal. It, too, came finally to rest on the last topic, that is, ill-natured gossip.
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 Myaky.
Oh, how can you steal upon any one like that! How you startled me! she responded. Please dont talk to me about the opera; you know nothing about music. Id 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?
Yes, ma chère. They asked my husband and me to dinner, and told us the sauce at that dinner cost a hundred pounds, Princess Myaky said, speaking loudly, and conscious every one was listening; and very nasty sauce it was, some green mess. We had to ask them, and I made them sauce for eighteenpence, and everybody was very much pleased with it. I cant run to hundred-pound sauces.
The sensation produced by Princess Myakys 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 Myaky could never see why it had that effect, but she knew it had, and took advantage of it.
As every one had been listening while Princess Myaky spoke, and so the conversation around the ambassadors wife had dropped, Princess Betsy tried to bring the whole party together, and she turned to the ambassadors wife.
Well, what of it? Theres a fable of Grimms about a man without a shadow, a man whos lost his shadow. And thats his punishment for something. I never could understand how it was a punishment. But a woman must dislike being without a shadow.
And my husband tells me just the same, but I dont believe it, said Princess Myaky. If our husbands didnt 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 doesnt 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, hes a fool, though only in a whisper, everythings explained, isnt it?
Thats just it, just it, Princess Myaky turned to him. But the point is that I wont abandon Anna to your mercies. Shes so nice, so charming. How can she help it if theyre all in love with her, and follow her about like shadows?
And having duly disposed of Annas friend, the princess Myaky got up, and together with the ambassadors wife, joined the group at the table, where the conversation was dealing with the king of Prussia.
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 ambassadors wife. Well, theres no help for it, I must confess. From the opéra bouffe. I do believe Ive seen it a hundred times, and always with fresh enjoyment. Its exquisite! I know its disgraceful, but I go to sleep at the opera, and I sit out the opéra bouffe to the last minute, and enjoy it. This evening