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 attaché 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 attaché, 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 maiolica 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 Schützburgs?” 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 attaché 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.
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