Childhood/Preparations for the Party
Preparations for the Party
To judge from the extraordinary activity in the pantry, the shining cleanliness which imparted such a new and festal guise to certain articles in the salon and drawing-room which I had long known as anything but resplendent, and the arrival of some musicians whom Prince Ivan would certainly not have sent for nothing, no small amount of company was to be expected that evening.
At the sound of every vehicle which chanced to pass the house I ran to the window, leaned my head upon my arms, and peered with impatient curiosity into the street.
At last a carriage stopped at our door, and, in the full belief that this must be the twins, who had promised to come early, I at once ran downstairs to meet them in the hall.
But, instead of the twins, I beheld from behind the figure of the footman who opened the door two female figures-one tall and wrapped in a blue cloak trimmed with marten, and the other one short and wrapped in a green shawl from beneath which a pair of little feet, stuck into fur boots, peeped forth.
Without paying any attention to my presence in the hall (although I thought it my duty, on the appearance of these persons to salute them), the shorter one moved towards the taller, and stood silently in front of her. Thereupon the tall lady untied the shawl which enveloped the head of the little one, and unbuttoned the cloak which hid her form; until, by the time that the footmen had taken charge of these articles and removed the fur boots, there stood forth from the amorphous chrysalis a charming girl of twelve, dressed in a short muslin frock, white pantaloons, and smart black satin shoes. Around her, white neck she wore a narrow black velvet ribbon, while her head was covered with flaxen curls which so perfectly suited her beautiful face in front and her bare neck and shoulders behind that I, would have believed nobody, not even Karl Ivanitch, if he, or she had told me that they only hung so nicely because, ever since the morning, they had been screwed up in fragments of a Moscow newspaper and then warmed with a hot iron. To me it seemed as though she must have been born with those curls.
The most prominent feature in her face was a pair of unusually large half-veiled eyes, which formed a strange, but pleasing, contrast to the small mouth. Her lips were closed, while her eyes looked so grave that the general expression of her face gave one the impression that a smile was never to be looked for from her: wherefore, when a smile did come, it was all the more pleasing.
Trying to escape notice, I slipped through the door of the salon, and then thought it necessary to be seen pacing to and fro, seemingly engaged in thought, as though unconscious of the arrival of guests.
BY the time, however, that the ladies had advanced to the middle of the salon I seemed suddenly to awake from my reverie and told them that Grandmamma was in the drawing room, Madame Valakhin, whose face pleased me extremely (especially since it bore a great resemblance to her daughter's), stroked my head kindly.
Grandmamma seemed delighted to see Sonetchka, She invited her to come to her, put back a curl which had fallen over her brow, and looking earnestly at her said, "What a charming child!"
Sonetchka blushed, smiled, and, indeed, looked so charming that I myself blushed as I looked at her.
"I hope you are going to enjoy yourself here, my love," said Grandmamma. "Pray be as merry and dance as much as ever you can. See, we have two beaux for her already," she added, turning to Madame Valakhin, and stretching out her hand to me.
This coupling of Sonetchka and myself pleased me so much that I blushed again.
Feeling, presently, that, my embarrassment was increasing, and hearing the sound of carriages approaching, I thought it wise to retire. In the hall I encountered the Princess Kornakoff, her son, and an incredible number of daughters. They had all of them the same face as their mother, and were very ugly. None of them arrested my attention. They talked in shrill tones as they took off their cloaks and boas, and laughed as they bustled about--probably at the fact that there were so many of them!
Etienne was a boy of fifteen, tall and plump, with a sharp face, deep-set bluish eyes, and very large hands and feet for his age. Likewise he was awkward, and had a nervous, unpleasing voice. Nevertheless he seemed very pleased with himself, and was, in my opinion, a boy who could well bear being beaten with rods.
For a long time we confronted one another without speaking as we took stock of each other. When the flood of dresses had swept past I made shift to begin a conversation by asking him whether it had not been very close in the carriage.
"I don't know," he answered indifferently. "I never ride inside it, for it makes me feel sick directly, and Mamma knows that. Whenever we are driving anywhere at night-time I always sit on the box. I like that, for then one sees everything. Philip gives me the reins, and sometimes the whip too, and then the people inside get a regular--well, you know," he added with a significant gesture "It's splendid then."
"Master Etienne," said a footman, entering the hall, "Philip wishes me to ask you where you put the whip."
"Where I put it? Why, I gave it back to him."
"But he says that you did not."
"Well, I laid it across the carriage-lamps!"
"No, sir, he says that you did not do that either. You had better confess that you took it and lashed it to shreds. I suppose poor Philip will have to make good your mischief out of his own pocket." The footman (who looked a grave and honest man) seemed much put out by the affair, and determined to sift it to the bottom on Philip's behalf.
Out of delicacy I pretended to notice nothing and turned aside, but the other footmen present gathered round and looked approvingly at the old servant.
"Hm--well, I DID tear it in pieces," at length confessed Etienne, shrinking from further explanations. "However, I will pay for it. Did you ever hear anything so absurd?" he added to me as he drew me towards the drawing-room.
"But excuse me, sir; HOW are you going to pay for it? I know your ways of paying. You have owed Maria Valericana twenty copecks these eight months now, and you have owed me something for two years, and Peter for--"
"Hold your tongue, will you!" shouted the young fellow, pale with rage, "I shall report you for this."
"Oh, you may do so," said the footman. "Yet it is not fair, your highness," he added, with a peculiar stress on the title, as he departed with the ladies' wraps to the cloak-room. We ourselves entered the salon.
"Quite right, footman," remarked someone approvingly from the ball behind us.
Grandmamma had a peculiar way of employing, now the second person singular, now the second person plural, in order to indicate her opinion of people. When the young Prince Etienne went up to her she addressed him as "YOU," and altogether looked at him with such an expression of contempt that, had I been in his place, I should have been utterly crestfallen. Etienne, however, was evidently not a boy of that sort, for he not only took no notice of her reception of him, but none of her person either. In fact, he bowed to the company at large in a way which, though not graceful, was at least free from embarrassment.
Sonetchka now claimed my whole attention. I remember that, as I stood in the salon with Etienne and Woloda, at a spot whence we could both see and be seen by Sonetchka, I took great pleasure in talking very loud (and all my utterances seemed to me both bold and comical) and glancing towards the door of the drawing-room, but that, as soon as ever we happened to move to another spot whence we could neither see nor be seen by her, I became dumb, and thought the conversation had ceased to be enjoyable. The rooms were now full of people--among them (as at all children's parties) a number of elder children who wished to dance and enjoy themselves very much, but who pretended to do everything merely in order to give pleasure to the mistress of the house.
When the twins arrived I found that, instead of being as delighted as usual to meet Seriosha, I felt a kind of vexation that he should see and be seen by Sonetchka.
XXI -- BEFORE THE MAZURKA
"HULLO, Woloda! So we are going to dance to-night," said Seriosha, issuing from the drawing-room and taking out of his pocket a brand new pair of gloves. "I suppose it IS necessary to put on gloves?"
"Goodness! What shall I do? We have no gloves," I thought to myself. "I must go upstairs and search about." Yet though I rummaged in every drawer, I only found, in one of them, my green travelling mittens, and, in another, a single lilac-coloured glove, a thing which could be of no use to me, firstly, because it was very old and dirty, secondly, because it was much too large for me, and thirdly (and principally), because the middle finger was wanting--Karl having long ago cut it off to wear over a sore nail.
However, I put it on--not without some diffident contemplation of the blank left by the middle finger and of the ink-stained edges round the vacant space.
"If only Natalia Savishna had been here," I reflected, "we should certainly have found some gloves. I can't go downstairs in this condition. Yet, if they ask me why I am not dancing, what am I to say? However, I can't remain here either, or they will be sending upstairs to fetch me. What on earth am I to do?" and I wrung my hands.
"What are you up to here?" asked Woloda as he burst into the room. "Go and engage a partner. The dancing will be beginning directly."
"Woloda," I said despairingly, as I showed him my hand with two fingers thrust into a single finger of the dirty glove, "Woloda, you, never thought of this."
"Of what?" he said impatiently. "Oh, of gloves," he added with a careless glance at my hand. "That's nothing. We can ask Grandmamma what she thinks about it," and without further ado he departed downstairs. I felt a trifle relieved by the coolness with which he had met a situation which seemed to me so grave, and hastened back to the drawing-room, completely forgetful of the unfortunate glove which still adorned my left hand.
Cautiously approaching Grandmamma's arm-chair, I asked her in a whisper:
"Grandmamma, what are we to do? We have no gloves."
"What, my love?"
"We have no gloves," I repeated, at the same time bending over towards her and laying both hands on the arm of her chair.
"But what is that?" she cried as she caught hold of my left hand. "Look, my dear!" she continued, turning to Madame Valakhin. "See how smart this young man has made himself to dance with your daughter!"
As Grandmamma persisted in retaining hold of my hand and gazing with a mock air of gravity and interrogation at all around her, curiosity was soon aroused, and a general roar of laughter ensued.
I should have been infuriated at the thought that Seriosha was present to see this, as I scowled with embarrassment and struggled hard to free my hand, had it not been that somehow Sonetchka's laughter (and she was laughing to such a degree that the tears were standing in her eyes and the curls dancing about her lovely face) took away my feeling of humiliation. I felt that her laughter was not satirical, but only natural and free; so that, as we laughed together and looked at one another, there seemed to begin a kind of sympathy between us. Instead of turning out badly, therefore, the episode of the glove served only to set me at my ease among the dreaded circle of guests, and to make me cease to feel oppressed with shyness. The sufferings of shy people proceed only from the doubts which they feel concerning the opinions of their fellows. No sooner are those opinions expressed (whether flattering or the reverse) than the agony disappears.
How lovely Sonetchka looked when she was dancing a quadrille as my vis-a-vis, with, as her partner, the loutish Prince Etienne! How charmingly she smiled when, en chaine, she accorded me her hand! How gracefully the curls, around her head nodded to the rhythm, and how naively she executed the jete assemble with her little feet!
In the fifth figure, when my partner had to leave me for the other side and I, counting the beats, was getting ready to dance my solo, she pursed her lips gravely and looked in another direction; but her fears for me were groundless. Boldly I performed the chasse en avant and chasse en arriere glissade, until, when it came to my turn to move towards her and I, with a comic gesture, showed her the poor glove with its crumpled fingers, she laughed heartily, and seemed to move her tiny feet more enchantingly than ever over the parquetted floor.
How well I remember how we formed the circle, and how, without withdrawing her hand from mine, she scratched her little nose with her glove! All this I can see before me still. Still can I hear the quadrille from "The Maids of the Danube" to which we danced that night.
The second quadrille, I danced with Sonetchka herself; yet when we went to sit down together during the interval, I felt overcome with shyness and as though I had nothing to say. At last, when my silence had lasted so long that I began to be afraid that she would think me a stupid boy, I decided at all hazards to counteract such a notion.
"Vous etes une habitante de Moscou?" I began, and, on receiving an affirmative answer, continued. "Et moi, je n'ai encore jamais frequente la capitale" (with a particular emphasis on the word "frequente"). Yet I felt that, brilliant though this introduction might be as evidence of my profound knowledge of the French language, I could not long keep up the conversation in that manner. Our turn for dancing had not yet arrived, and silence again ensued between us. I kept looking anxiously at her in the hope both of discerning what impression I had produced and of her coming to my aid.
"Where did you get that ridiculous glove of yours?" she asked me all of a sudden, and the question afforded me immense satisfaction and relief. I replied that the glove belonged to Karl Ivanitch, and then went on to speak ironically of his appearance, and to describe how comical he looked in his red cap, and how he and his green coat had once fallen plump off a horse into a pond.
The quadrille was soon over. Yet why had I spoken ironically of poor Karl Ivanitch? Should I, forsooth, have sunk in Sonetchka's esteem if, on the contrary, I had spoken of him with the love and respect which I undoubtedly bore him?
The quadrille ended, Sonetchka said, "Thank you," with as lovely an expression on her face as though I had really conferred, upon her a favour. I was delighted. In fact I hardly knew myself for joy and could not think whence I derived such case and confidence and even daring.
"Nothing in the world can abash me now," I thought as I wandered carelessly about the salon. "I am ready for anything."
Just then Seriosha came and requested me to be his vis-a-vis.
"Very well," I said. "I have no partner as yet, but I can soon find one."
Glancing round the salon with a confident eye, I saw that every lady was engaged save one--a tall girl standing near the drawing-room door. Yet a grown-up young man was approaching her-probably for the same purpose as myself! He was but two steps from her, while I was at the further end of the salon. Doing a glissade over the polished floor, I covered the intervening space, and in a brave, firm voice asked the favour of her hand in the quadrille. Smiling with a protecting air, the young lady accorded me her hand, and the tall young man was left without a partner. I felt so conscious of my strength that I paid no attention to his irritation, though I learnt later that he had asked somebody who the awkward, untidy boy was who, had taken away his lady from him.