Great Catherine/The First Scene

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Great Catherine by George Bernard Shaw
The First Scene
1776. Patiomkin in his bureau in the Winter Palace, St. Petersburgh. Huge palatial apartment: style, Russia in the eighteenth century imitating the Versailles du Roi Soleil. Extravagant luxury. Also dirt and disorder.
Patiomkin, gigantic in stature and build, his face marred by the loss of one eye and a marked squint in the other, sits at the end of a table littered with papers and the remains of three or four successive breakfasts. He has supplies of coffee and brandy at hand sufficient for a party of ten. His coat, encrusted with diamonds, is on the floor. It has fallen off a chair placed near the other end of the table for the convenience of visitors. His court sword, with its attachments, is on the chair. His three-cornered hat, also bejewelled, is on the table. He himself is half dressed in an unfastened shirt and an immense dressing-gown, once gorgeous, now food-splashed and dirty, as it serves him for towel, handkerchief, duster, and every other use  to which a textile fabric can be put by a slovenly man. It does not conceal his huge hairy chest, nor his half-buttoned knee breeches, nor his legs. These are partly clad in silk stockings, which he occasionally hitches up to his knees, and presently shakes down to his shins, by his restless movement. His feet are thrust into enormous slippers, worth, with their crust of jewels, several thousand roubles apiece.
Superficially Patiomkin is a violent, brutal barbarian, an upstart despot of the most intolerable and dangerous type, ugly, lazy, and disgusting in his personal habits. Yet ambassadors report him the ablest man in Russia, and the one who can do most with the still abler Empress Catherine II, who is not a Russian but a German, by no means barbarous or intemperate in her personal habits. She not only disputes with Frederick the Great the reputation of being the cleverest monarch in Europe, but may even put in a very plausible claim to be the cleverest and most attractive individual alive. Now she not only tolerates Patiomkin long after she has got over her first romantic attachment to him, but esteems him highly as a counsellor and a good friend. His love letters are among the best on record. He has a wild sense of humor, which enables him to laugh at himself as well as at everybody else. In the eyes of the English visitor now about to be admitted to his presence he may be an outrageous ruffian. In fact he actually is an outrageous ruffian, in no matter whose eyes; but the visitor will find out, as everyone else sooner or later fends out, that he is a man to be reckoned with even by those who are not intimidated by his temper, bodily strength, and exalted rank.
A pretty young lady, Yarinka, his favorite niece, is lounging on an ottoman between his end of the table and the door, very sulky and dissatisfied, perhaps because he is preoccupied with his papers and his brandy bottle, and she can see nothing of him but his broad back.
There is a screen behind the ottoman.
An old soldier, a Cossack sergeant, enters.

THE SERGEANT [softly to the lady, holding the door handle]. Little darling honey, is his Highness the prince very busy?

VARINKA. His Highness the prince is very busy. He is singing out of tune; he is biting his nails; he is scratching his head; he is hitching up his untidy stockings; he is making himself disgusting and odious to everybody; and he is pretending to read state papers that he does not understand because he is too lazy and selfish to talk and be companionable.

PATIOMKIN [growls; then wipes his nose with his dressing-gown]!!

VARINKA. Pig. Ugh! [She curls herself up with a shiver of disgust and retires from the conversation.]

THE SERGEANT [stealing across to the coat, and picking it up to replace it on the back of the chair]. Little Father, the English captain, so highly recommended to you by old Fritz of Prussia, by the English ambassador, and by Monsieur Voltaire (whom [crossing himself] may God in his infinite mercy damn eternally!), is in the antechamber and desires audience.

PATIOMKIN [deliberately]. To hell with the English captain; and to hell with old Fritz of Prussia; and to hell with the English ambassador; and to hell with Monsieur Voltaire; and to hell with you too!

THE SERGEANT. Have mercy on me, Little Father. Your head is bad this morning. You drink too much French brandy and too little good Russian kvass.

PATIOMKIN [with sudden fury]. Why are visitors of consequence announced by a sergeant? [Springing at him and seizing him by the throat.] What do you mean by this, you hound? Do you want five thousand blows of the stick? Where is General Volkonsky?

THE SERGEANT [on his knees]. Little Father, you kicked his Highness downstairs.

PATIOMKIN [flinging him down and kicking him]. You lie, you dog. You lie.

THE SERGEANT. Little Father, life is hard for the poor. If you say it is a lie, it is a lie. He FELL downstairs. I picked him up; and he kicked me. They all kick me when you kick them. God knows that is not just, Little Father!

PATIOMKIN [laughs ogreishly; then returns to his place at the table, chuckling]!!!

VARINKA. Savage! Boot! It is a disgrace. No wonder the French sneer at us as barbarians.

THE SERGEANT [who has crept round the table to the screen, and insinuated himself between Patiomkin's back and Varinka]. Do you think the Prince will see the captain, little darling?

PATIOMKIN. He will not see any captain. Go to the devil!

THE SERGEANT. Be merciful, Little Father. God knows it is your duty to see him! [To Varinka.] Intercede for him and for me, beautiful little darling. He has given me a rouble.

PATIOMKIN. Oh, send him in, send him in; and stop pestering me. Am I never to have a moment's peace?

The Sergeant salutes joyfully and hurries out, divining that Patiomkin has intended to see the English captain all along, and has played this comedy of fury and exhausted impatience to conceal his interest in the visitor.

VARINKA. Have you no shame? You refuse to see the most exalted persons. You kick princes and generals downstairs. And then you see an English captain merely because he has given a rouble to that common soldier. It is scandalous.

PATIOMKIN. Darling beloved, I am drunk; but I know what I am doing. I wish to stand well with the English.

VARINKA. And you think you will impress an Englishman by receiving him as you are now, half drunk?

PATIOMKIN [gravely]. It is true: the English despise men who cannot drink. I must make myself wholly drunk [he takes a huge draught of brandy.]

VARINKA. Sot!

The Sergeant returns ushering a handsome strongly built young English officer in the uniform of a Light Dragoon. He is evidently on fairly good terms with himself, and very sure of his social position. He crosses the room to the end of the table opposite Patiomkin's, and awaits the civilities of that statesman with confidence. The Sergeant remains prudently at the door.

THE SERGEANT [paternally]. Little Father, this is the English captain, so well recommended to her sacred Majesty the Empress. God knows, he needs your countenance and protec— [he vanishes precipitately, seeing that Patiomkin is about to throw a bottle at him. The Captain contemplates these preliminaries with astonishment, and with some displeasure, which is not allayed when, Patiomkin, hardly condescending to look at his visitor, of whom he nevertheless takes stock with the corner of his one eye, says gruffly]. Well?

EDSTASTON. My name is Edstaston: Captain Edstaston of the Light Dragoons. I have the honor to present to your Highness this letter from the British ambassador, which will give you all necessary particulars. [He hands Patiomkin the letter.]

PATIOMKIN [tearing it open and glancing at it for about a second]. What do you want?

EDSTASTON. The letter will explain to your Highness who I am.

PATIOMKIN. I don't want to know who you are. What do you want?

EDSTASTON. An audience of the Empress. [Patiomkin contemptuously throws the letter aside. Edstaston adds hotly.] Also some civility, if you please.

PATIOMKIN [with derision]. Ho!

VARINKA. My uncle is receiving you with unusual civility, Captain. He has just kicked a general downstairs.

EDSTASTON. A Russian general, madam?

VARINKA. Of course.

EDSTASTON. I must allow myself to say, madam, that your uncle had better not attempt to kick an English officer downstairs.

PATIOMKIN. You want me to kick you upstairs, eh? You want an audience of the Empress.

EDSTASTON. I have said nothing about kicking, sir. If it comes to that, my boots shall speak for me. Her Majesty has signified a desire to have news of the rebellion in America. I have served against the rebels; and I am instructed to place myself at the disposal of her Majesty, and to describe the events of the war to her as an eye-witness, in a discreet and agreeable manner.

PATIOMKIN. Psha! I know. You think if she once sets eyes on your face and your uniform your fortune is made. You think that if she could stand a man like me, with only one eye, and a cross eye at that, she must fall down at your feet at first sight, eh?

EDSTASTON [shocked and indignant]. I think nothing of the sort; and I'll trouble you not to repeat it. If I were a Russian subject and you made such a boast about my queen, I'd strike you across the face with my sword. [Patiomkin, with a yell of fury, rushes at him.] Hands off, you swine! [As Patiomkin, towering over him, attempts to seize him by the throat, Edstaston, who is a bit of a wrestler, adroitly backheels him. He falls, amazed, on his back.]

VARINKA [rushing out]. Help! Call the guard! The Englishman is murdering my uncle! Help! Help!

The guard and the Sergeant rush in. Edstaston draws a pair of small pistols from his boots, and points one at the Sergeant and the other at Patiomkin, who is sitting on the floor, somewhat sobered. The soldiers stand irresolute.

EDSTASTON. Stand off. [To Patiomkin.] Order them off, if you don't want a bullet through your silly head.

THE SERGEANT. Little Father, tell us what to do. Our lives are yours; but God knows you are not fit to die.

PATIOMKIN [absurdly self-possessed]. Get out.

THE SERGEANT. Little Father—

PATIOMKIN [roaring]. Get out. Get out, all of you. [They withdraw, much relieved at their escape from the pistol. Patiomkin attempts to rise, and rolls over.] Here! help me up, will you? Don't you see that I'm drunk and can't get up?

EDSTASTON [suspiciously]. You want to get hold of me.

PATIOMKIN [squatting resignedly against the chair on which his clothes hang]. Very well, then: I shall stay where I am, because I'm drunk and you're afraid of me.

EDSTASTON. I'm not afraid of you, damn you!

PATIOMKIN [ecstatically]. Darling, your lips are the gates of truth. Now listen to me. [He marks off the items of his statement with ridiculous stiff gestures of his head and arms, imitating a puppet.] You are Captain Whatshisname; and your uncle is the Earl of Whatdyecallum; and your father is Bishop of Thingummybob; and you are a young man of the highest spr—promise (I told you I was drunk), educated at Cambridge, and got your step as captain in the field at the GLORIOUS battle of Bunker's Hill. Invalided home from America at the request of Aunt Fanny, Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen. All right, eh?

EDSTASTON. How do you know all this?

PATIOMKIN [crowing fantastically]. In er lerrer, darling, darling, darling, darling. Lerrer you showed me.

EDSTASTON. But you didn't read it.

PATIOMKIN [flapping his fingers at him grotesquely]. Only one eye, darling. Cross eye. Sees everything. Read lerrer inceince-istastaneously. Kindly give me vinegar borle. Green borle. On'y to sober me. Too drunk to speak porply. If you would be so kind, darling. Green borle. [Edstaston, still suspicious, shakes his head and keeps his pistols ready.] Reach it myself. [He reaches behind him up to the table, and snatches at the green bottle, from which he takes a copious draught. Its effect is appalling. His wry faces and agonized belchings are so heartrending that they almost upset Edstaston. When the victim at last staggers to his feet, he is a pale fragile nobleman, aged and quite sober, extremely dignified in manner and address, though shaken by his recent convulsions.] Young man, it is not better to be drunk than sober; but it is happier. Goodness is not happiness. That is an epigram. But I have overdone this. I am too sober to be good company. Let me redress the balance. [He takes a generous draught of brandy, and recovers his geniality.] Aha! That's better. And now listen, darling. You must not come to Court with pistols in your boots.

EDSTASTON. I have found them useful.

PATIOMKIN. Nonsense. I'm your friend. You mistook my intention because I was drunk. Now that I am sober—in moderation—I will prove that I am your friend. Have some diamonds. [Roaring.] Hullo there! Dogs, pigs: hullo!

The Sergeant comes in.

THE SERGEANT. God be praised, Little Father: you are still spared to us.

PATIOMKIN. Tell them to bring some diamonds. Plenty of diamonds. And rubies. Get out. [He aims a kick at the Sergeant, who flees.] Put up your pistols, darling. I'll gIve you a pair with gold handgrips. I am your friend.

EDSTASTON [replacing the pistols in his boots rather unwillingly]. Your Highness understands that if I am missing, or if anything happens to me, there will be trouble.

PATIOMKIN [enthusiastically]. Call me darling.

EDSTASTON. It is not the English custom.

PATIOMKIN. You have no hearts, you English! [Slapping his right breast.] Heart! Heart!

EDSTASTON. Pardon, your Highness: your heart is on the other side.

PATIOMKIN. [surprised and impressed]. Is it? You are learned! You are a doctor! You English are wonderful! We are barbarians, drunken pigs. Catherine does not know it; but we are. Catherine's a German. But I have given her a Russian heart [he is about to slap himself again.]

EDSTASTON. [delicately]. The other side, your Highness.

PATIOMKIN. [maudlin]. Darling, a true Russian has a heart on both sides.

The Sergeant enters carrying a goblet filled with precious stones.

PATIOMKIN. Get out. [He snatches the goblet and kicks the Sergeant out, not maliciously but from habit, indeed not noticing that he does it.] Darling, have some diamonds. Have a fistful. [He takes up a handful and lets them slip back through his fingers into the goblet, which he then offers to Edstaston.]

EDSTASTON. Thank you, I don't take presents.

PATIOMKIN [amazed]. You refuse!

EDSTASTON. I thank your Highness; but it is not the custom for English gentlemen to take presents of that kind.

PATIOMKIN. Are you really an Englishman?

EDSTASTON [bows]!

PATIOMKIN. You are the first Englishman I ever saw refuse anything he could get. [He puts the goblet on the table; then turns again to Edstaston.] Listen, darling. You are a wrestler: a splendid wrestler. You threw me on my back like magic, though I could lift you with one hand. Darling, you are a giant, a paladin.

EDSTASTON [complacently]. We wrestle rather well in my part of England.

PATIOMKIN. I have a Turk who is a wrestler: a prisoner of war. You shall wrestle with him for me. I'll stake a million roubles on you.

EDSTASTON [incensed]. Damn you! do you take me for a prize-fighter? How dare you make me such a proposal?

PATIOMKIN [with wounded feeling]. Darling, there is no pleasing you. Don't you like me?

EDSTASTON [mollified]. Well, in a sort of way I do; though I don't know why I should. But my instructions are that I am to see the Empress; and—

PATIOMKIN. Darling, you shall see the Empress. A glorious woman, the greatest woman in the world. But lemme give you piece 'vice— pah! still drunk. They water my vinegar. [He shakes himself; clears his throat; and resumes soberly.] If Catherine takes a fancy to you, you may ask for roubles, diamonds, palaces, titles, orders, anything! and you may aspire to everything: field-marshal, admiral, minister, what you please—except Tsar.

EDSTASTON. I tell you I don't want to ask for anything. Do you suppose I am an adventurer and a beggar?

PATIOMKIN [plaintively]. Why not, darling? I was an adventurer. I was a beggar.

EDSTASTON. Oh, you!

PATIOMKIN. Well: what's wrong with me?

EDSTASTON. You are a Russian. That's different.

PATIOMKIN [effusively]. Darling, I am a man; and you are a man; and Catherine is a woman. Woman reduces us all to the common denominator. [Chuckling.] Again an epigram! [Gravely.] You understand it, I hope. Have you had a college education, darling? I have.

EDSTASTON. Certainly. I am a Bachelor of Arts.

PATIOMKIN. It is enough that you are a bachelor, darling: Catherine will supply the arts. Aha! Another epigram! I am in the vein today.

EDSTASTON. [embarrassed and a little offended]. I must ask your Highness to change the subject. As a visitor in Russia, I am the guest of the Empress; and I must tell you plainly that I have neither the right nor the disposition to speak lightly of her Majesty.

PATIOMKIN. You have conscientious scruples?

EDSTASTON. I have the scruples of a gentleman.

PATIOMKIN. In Russia a gentleman has no scruples. In Russia we face facts.

EDSTASTON. In England, sir, a gentleman never faces any facts if they are unpleasant facts.

PATIOMKIN. In real life, darling, all facts are unpleasant. [Greatly pleased with himself] Another epigram! Where is my accursed chancellor? these gems should be written down and recorded for posterity. [He rushes to the table: sits down: and snatches up a pen. Then, recollecting himself.] But I have not asked you to sit down. [He rises and goes to the other chair.] I am a savage: a barbarian. [He throws the shirt and coat over the table on to the floor and puts his sword on the table.] Be seated, Captain.

EDSTASTON Thank you.

They bow to one another ceremoniously. Patiomkin's tendency to grotesque exaggeration costs him his balance; he nearly falls over Edstaston, who rescues him and takes the proffered chair.

PATIOMKIN [resuming his seat]. By the way, what was the piece of advice I was going to give you?

EDSTASTON. As you did not give it, I don't know. Allow me to add that I have not asked for your advice.

PATIOMKIN. I gIve it to you unasked, delightful Englishman. I remember it now. It was this. Don't try to become Tsar of Russia.

EDSTASTON [in astonishment]. I haven't the slightest intention—

PATIOMKIN. Not now; but you will have: take my words for it. It will strike you as a splendid idea to have conscientious scruples —to desire the blessing of the Church on your union with Catherine.

EDSTASTON [racing in utter amazement]. My union with Catherine! You're mad.

PATIOMKIN [unmoved]. The day you hint at such a thing will be the day of your downfall. Besides, it is not lucky to be Catherine's husband. You know what happened to Peter?

EDSTASTON [shortly; sitting down again]. I do not wish to discuss it.

PATIOMKIN. You think she murdered him?

EDSTASTON. I know that people have said so.

PATIOMKIN [thunderously; springing to his feet]. It is a lie: Orloff murdered him. [Subsiding a little.] He also knocked my eye out; but [sitting down placidly] I succeeded him for all that. And [patting Edstaston's hand very affectionately] I'm sorry to say, darling, that if you become Tsar, I shall murder you.

EDSTASTON [ironically returning the caress]. Thank you. The occasion will not arise. [Rising.] I have the honor to wish your Highness good morning.

PATIOMKIN [jumping up and stopping him on his way to the door]. Tut tut! I'm going to take you to the Empress now, this very instant.

EDSTASTON. In these boots? Impossible! I must change.

PATIOMKIN. Nonsense! You shall come just as you are. You shall show her your calves later on.

EDSTASTON. But it will take me only half an hour to—

PATIOMKIN. In half an hour it will be too late for the petit lever. Come along. Damn it, man, I must oblige the British ambassador, and the French ambassador, and old Fritz, and Monsieur Voltaire and the rest of them. [He shouts rudely to the door.] Varinka! [To Edstaston, with tears in his voice.] Varinka shall persuade you: nobody can refuse Varinka anything. My niece. A treasure, I assure you. Beautiful! devoted! fascinating! [Shouting again.] Varinka, where the devil are you?

VARINKA [returning]. I'll not be shouted for. You have the voice of a bear, and the manners of a tinker.

PATIOMKIN. Tsh-sh-sh. Little angel Mother: you must behave yourself before the English captain. [He takes off his dressing-gown and throws it over the papers and the breakfasts: picks up his coat: and disappears behind the screen to complete his toilette.]

EDSTASTON. Madam! [He bows.]

VARINKA [courtseying]. Monsieur le Capitaine!

EDSTASTON. I must apologize for the disturbance I made, madam.

PATIOMKIN [behind the screen]. You must not call her madam. You must call her Little Mother, and beautiful darling.

EDSTASTON. My respect for the lady will not permit it.

VARINKA. Respect! How can you respect the niece of a savage?

EDSTASTON [deprecatingly]. Oh, madam!

VARINKA. Heaven is my witness, Little English Father, we need someone who is not afraid of him. He is so strong! I hope you will throw him down on the floor many, many, many times.

PATIOMKIN. [behind the screen] Varinka!

VARINKA. Yes?

PATIOMKIN. Go and look through the keyhole of the Imperial bed-chamber; and bring me word whether the Empress is awake yet.

VARINKA. Fi donc! I do not look through keyholes.

PATIOMKIN [emerging, having arranged his shirt and put on his diamonded coat]. You have been badly brought up, little darling. Would any lady or gentleman walk unannounced into a room without first looking through the keyhole? [Taking his sword from the table and putting it on.] The great thing in life is to be simple; and the perfectly simple thing is to look through keyholes. Another epigram: the fifth this morning! Where is my fool of a chancellor? Where is Popof?

EDSTASTON [choking with suppressed laughter]!!!!

PATIOMKIN [gratified]. Darling, you appreciate my epigram.

EDSTASTON. Excuse me. Pop off! Ha! ha! I can't help laughing: What's his real name, by the way, in case I meet him?

VARINKA [surprised]. His real name? Popof, of course. Why do you laugh, Little Father?

EDSTASTON. How can anyone with a sense of humor help laughing? Pop off! [He is convulsed.]

VARINKA [looking at her uncle, taps her forehead significantly]!!

PATIOMKIN [aside to Varinka]. No: only English. He will amuse Catherine. [To Edstaston.] Come, you shall tell the joke to the Empress: she is by way of being a humorist [he takes him by the arm, and leads him towards the door].

EDSTASTON [resisting]. No, really. I am not fit—

PATIOMKIN. Persuade him, Little angel Mother.

VARINKA [taking his other arm]. Yes, yes, yes. Little English Father: God knows it is your duty to be brave and wait on the Empress. Come.

EDSTASTON. No. I had rather—

PATIOMKIN [hauling him along]. Come.

VARINKA [pulling him and coaxing him]. Come, little love: you can't refuse me.

EDSTASTON. But how can I?

PATIOMKIN. Why not? She won't eat you.

VARINKA. She will; but you must come.

EDSTASTON. I assure you—it is quite out of the question—my clothes—

VARINKA. You look perfect.

PATIOMKIN. Come along, darling.

EDSTASTON [struggling]. Impossible—

VARINKA. Come, come, come.

EDSTASTON. No. Believe me—I don't wish—I—

VARINKA. Carry him, uncle.

PATIOMKIN [lifting him in his arms like a father carrying a little boy]. Yes: I'll carry you.

EDSTASTON. Dash it all, this is ridiculous!

VARINKA [seizing his ankles and dancing as he is carried out]. You must come. If you kick you will blacken my eyes.

PATIOMKIN. Come, baby, come.

By this time they have made their way through the door and are out of hearing.