Best Russian Short Stories/Dethroned
WELL?" Captain Zarubkin's wife called out impatiently to her husband, rising from the sofa and turning to face him as he entered.
"He doesn't know anything about it," he replied indifferently, as if the matter were of no interest to him. Then he asked in a businesslike tone: "Nothing for me from the office?"
"Why should I know? Am I your errand boy?"
"How they dilly-dally! If only the package doesn't come too late. It's so important!"
"Who's an idiot?"
"You, with your indifference, your stupid egoism."
The captain said nothing. He was neither surprised nor insulted. On the contrary, the smile on his face was as though he had received a compliment. These wifely animadversions, probably oft-heard, by no means interfered with his domestic peace.
"It can't be that the man doesn't know when his wife is coming back home," Mrs. Zarubkin continued excitedly. "She's written to him every day of the four months that she's been away. The postmaster told me so."
"Semyonov! Ho, Semyonov! Has any one from the office been here?"
"I don't know, your Excellency," came in a loud, clear voice from back of the room.
"Why don't you know? Where have you been?"
"I went to Abramka, your Excellency."
"The tailor again?"
"Yes, your Excellency, the tailor Abramka."
The captain spat in annoyance.
"And where is Krynka?"
"He went to market, your Excellency."
"Was he told to go to market?"
"Yes, your Excellency."
The captain spat again.
"Why do you keep spitting? Such vulgar manners!" his wife cried angrily. "You behave at home like a drunken subaltern. You haven't the least consideration for your wife. You are so coarse in your behaviour towards me! Do, please, go to your office."
"If the package comes, please have it sent back to the office and say I've gone there. And listen! Some one must always be here. I won't have everybody out of the house at the same time. Do you hear?"
"Yes, your Excellency."
The captain put on his cap to go. In the doorway he turned and addressed his wife.
"Please, Tasya, please don't send all the servants on your errands at the same time. Something important may turn up, and then there's nobody here to attend to it."
He went out, and his wife remained reclining in the sofa corner as if his plea were no concern of hers. But scarcely had he left the house, when she called out:
"Semyonov, come here. Quick!"
A bare-footed unshaven man in dark blue pantaloons and cotton shirt presented himself. His stocky figure and red face made a wholesome appearance. He was the Captain's orderly.
"At your service, your Excellency."
"Listen, Semyonov, you don't seem to be stupid."
"I don't know, your Excellency."
"For goodness' sake, drop 'your Excellency.' I am not your superior officer."
"Yes, your Excel—"
But the lady's manner toward the servant was far friendlier than toward her husband. Semyonov had it in his power to perform important services for her, while the captain had not come up to her expectations.
"Listen, Semyonov, how do you and the doctor's men get along together? Are you friendly?"
"Yes, your Excellency."
"Intolerable!" cried the lady, jumping up. "Stop using that silly title. Can't you speak like a sensible man?"
Semyonov had been standing in the stiff attitude of attention, with the palms of his hands at the seams of his trousers. Now he suddenly relaxed, and even wiped his nose with his fist.
"That's the way we are taught to do," he said carelessly, with a clownish grin. "The gentlemen, the officers, insist on it."
"Now, tell me, you are on good terms with the doctor's men?"
"You mean Podmar and Shuchok? Of course, we're friends."
"Very well, then go straight to them and try to find out when Mrs. Shaldin is expected back. They ought to know. They must be getting things ready against her return—cleaning her bedroom and fixing it up. Do you understand? But be careful to find out right. And also be very careful not to let on for whom you are finding it out. Do you understand?'
"Of course, I understand."
"Well, then, go. But one more thing. Since you're going out, you may as well stop at Abramka's again and tell him to come here right away. You understand?"
"But his Excellency gave me orders to stay at home," said Semyonov, scratching himself behind his ears.
"Please don't answer back. Just do as I tell you. Go on, now."
"At your service." And the orderly, impressed by the lady's severe military tone, left the room.
Mrs. Zarubkin remained reclining on the sofa for a while. Then she rose and walked up and down the room and finally went to her bedroom, where her two little daughters were playing in their nurse's care. She scolded them a bit and returned to her former place on the couch. Her every movement betrayed great excitement.
••••••• Tatyana Grigoryevna Zarubkin was one of the most looked-up to ladies of the S—— Regiment and even of the whole town of Chmyrsk, where the regiment was quartered. To be sure, you hardly could say that, outside the regiment, the town could boast any ladies at all. There were very respectable women, decent wives, mothers, daughters and widows of honourable citizens; but they all dressed in cotton and flannel, and on high holidays made a show of cheap Cashmere gowns over which they wore gay shawls with borders of wonderful arabesques. Their hats and other headgear gave not the faintest evidence of good taste. So they could scarcely be dubbed "ladies." They were satisfied to be called "women." Each one of them, almost, had the name of her husband's trade or position tacked to her name—Mrs. Grocer so-and-so, Mrs. Mayor so-and-so, Mrs. Milliner so-and-so, etc. Genuine ladies in the Russian society sense had never come to the town before the S—— Regiment had taken up its quarters there; and it goes without saying that the ladies of the regiment had nothing in common, and therefore no intercourse with, the women of the town. They were so dissimilar that they were like creatures of a different species.
There is no disputing that Tatyana Grigoryevna Zarubkin was one of the most looked-up-to of the ladies. She invariably played the most important part at all the regimental affairs—the amateur theatricals, the social evenings, the afternoon teas. If the captain's wife was not to be present, it was a foregone conclusion that the affair would not be a success.
The most important point was that Mrs. Zarubkin had the untarnished reputation of being the best-dressed of all the ladies. She was always the most distinguished looking at the annual ball. Her gown for the occasion, ordered from Moscow, was always chosen with the greatest regard for her charms and defects, and it was always exquisitely beautiful. A new fashion could not gain admittance to the other ladies of the regiment except by way of the captain's wife. Thanks to her good taste in dressing, the stately blonde was queen at all the balls and in all the salons of Chmyrsk. Another advantage of hers was that although she was nearly forty she still looked fresh and youthful, so that the young officers were constantly hovering about her and paying her homage.
November was a very lively month in the regiment's calendar. It was on the tenth of November that the annual ball took place. The ladies, of course, spent their best efforts in preparation for this event. Needless to say that in these arduous activities, Abramka Stiftik, the ladies' tailor, played a prominent rôle. He was the one man in Chmyrsk who had any understanding at all for the subtle art of the feminine toilet. Preparations had begun in his shop in August already. Within the last weeks his modest parlour—furnished with six shabby chairs placed about a round table, and a fly-specked mirror on the wall—the atmosphere heavy with a smell of onions and herring, had been filled from early morning to the evening hours with the most charming and elegant of the fairer sex. There was trying-on and discussion of styles and selection of material. It was all very nerve-racking for the ladies.
The only one who had never appeared in this parlour was the captain's wife. That had been a thorn in Abramka's flesh. He had spent days and nights going over in his mind how he could rid this lady of the, in his opinion, wretched habit of ordering her clothes from Moscow. For this ball, however, as she herself had told him, she had not ordered a dress but only material from out of town, from which he deduced that he was to make the gown for her. But there was only one week left before the ball, and still she had not come to him. Abramka was in a state of feverishness. He longed once to make a dress for Mrs. Zarubkin. It would add to his glory. He wanted to prove that he understood his trade just as well as any tailor in Moscow, and that it was quite superfluous for her to order her gowns outside of Chmyrsk. He would come out the triumphant competitor of Moscow.
As each day passed and Mrs. Zarubkin did not appear in his shop, his nervousness increased. Finally she ordered a dressing-jacket from him—but not a word said of a ball gown. What was he to think of it?
So, when Semyonov told him that Mrs. Zarubkin was expecting him at her home, it goes without saying that he instantly removed the dozen pins in his mouth, as he was trying on a customer's dress, told one of his assistants to continue with the fitting, and instantly set off to call on the captain's wife. In this case, it was not a question of a mere ball gown, but of the acquisition of the best customer in town.
Although Abramka wore a silk hat and a suit in keeping with the silk hat, still he was careful not to ring at the front entrance, but always knocked at the back door. At another time when the captain's orderly was not in the house—for the captain's orderly also performed the duties of the captain's cook—he might have knocked long and loud. On other occasions a cannon might have been shot off right next to Tatyana Grigoryevna's ears and she would not have lifted her fingers to open the door. But now she instantly caught the sound of the modest knocking and opened the back door herself for Abramka.
"Oh!" she cried delightedly. "You, Abramka!"
She really wanted to address him less familiarly, as was more befitting so dignified a man in a silk hat; but everybody called him "Abramka," and he would have been very much surprised had he been honoured with his full name, Abram Srulevich Stiftik. So she thought it best to address him as the others did.
Mr. "Abramka" was tall and thin. There was always a melancholy expression in his pale face. He had a little stoop, a long and very heavy greyish beard. He had been practising his profession for thirty years. Ever since his apprenticeship he had been called "Abramka," which did not strike him as at all derogatory or unfitting. Even his shingle read: "Ladies' Tailor: Abramka Stiftik"—the most valid proof that he deemed his name immaterial, but that the chief thing to him was his art. As a matter of fact, he had attained, if not perfection in tailoring, yet remarkable skill. To this all the ladies of the S—— Regiment could attest with conviction.
Abramka removed his silk hat, stepped into the kitchen, and said gravely, with profound feeling:
"Mrs. Zarubkin, I am entirely at your service."
"Come into the reception room. I have something very important to speak to you about."
Abramka followed in silence. He stepped softly on tiptoe, as if afraid of waking some one.
"Sit down, Abramka, listen—but give me your word of honour, you won't tell any one?" Tatyana Grigoryevna began, reddening a bit. She was ashamed to have to let the tailor Abramka into her secret, but since there was no getting around it, she quieted herself and in an instant had regained her ease.
"I don't know what you are speaking of, Mrs. Zarubkin," Abramka rejoined. He assumed a somewhat injured manner. "Have you ever heard of Abramka ever babbling anything out? You certainly know that in my profession—you know everybody has some secret to be kept."
"Oh, you must have misunderstood me, Abramka. What sort of secrets do you mean?"
"Well, one lady is a little bit one-sided, another lady"—he pointed to his breast—"is not quite full enough, another lady has scrawny arms—such things as that have to be covered up or filled out or laced in, so as to look better. That is where our art comes in. But we are in duty bound not to say anything about it."
Tatyana Grigoryevna smiled.
"Well, I can assure you I am all right that way. There is nothing about me that needs to be covered up or filled out."
"Oh, as if I didn't know that! Everybody knows that Mrs. Zarubkin's figure is perfect," Abramka cried, trying to flatter his new customer.
Mrs. Zarubkin laughed and made up her mind to remember "Everybody knows that Mrs. Zarubkin's figure is perfect." Then she said:
"You know that the ball is to take place in a week."
"Yes, indeed, Mrs. Zarubkin, in only one week; unfortunately, only one week," replied Abramka, sighing.
"But you remember your promise to make my dress for me for the ball this time?"
"Mrs. Zarubkin," Abramka cried, laying his hand on his heart. "Have I sad that I was not willing to make it? No, indeed, I said it must be made and made right—for Mrs. Zarubkin, it must be better than for any one else. That's the way I feel about it."
"Splendid! Just what I wanted to know."
"But why don't you show me your material? Why don't you say to me, 'Here, Abramka, here is the stuff, make a dress?' Abramka would work on it day and night."
"Ahem, that's just it—I can't order it. That is where the trouble comes in. Tell me, Abramka, what is the shortest time you need for making the dress? Listen, the very shortest?"
Abramka shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, is a week too much for a ball dress such as you will want? It's got to be sewed, it can't be pasted together. You, yourself, know that, Mrs. Zarubkin."
"But supposing I order it only three days before the ball?"
"Only three days before the ball? A ball dress? Am I a god, Mrs. Zarubkin? I am nothing but the ladies' tailor, Abramka Stiftik."
"Well, then you are a nice tailor!" said Tantyana Grigoryevna, scornfully. "In Moscow they made a ball dress for me in two days."
Abramka jumped up as if at a shot, and beat his breast.
"Is that so? Then I say, Mrs. Zarubkin," he cried pathetically, "if they made a ball gown for you in Moscow in two days, very well, then I will make a ball gown for you, if I must, in one day. I will neither eat nor sleep, and I won't let my help off either for one minute. How does that suit you?"
"Sit down, Abramka, thank you very much. I hope I shall not have to put such a strain on you. It really does not depend upon me, otherwise I should have ordered the dress from you long ago."
"It doesn't depend upon you? Then upon whom does it depend?"
"Ahem, it depends upon—but now, Abramka, remember this is just between you and me—it depends upon Mrs. Shaldin."
"Upon Mrs. Shaldin, the doctor's wife? Why she isn't even here."
"That's just it. That is why I have to wait. How is it that a clever man like you, Abramka, doesn't grasp the situation?"
"Hm, hm! Let me see." Abramka racked his brains for a solution of the riddle. How could it be that Mrs. Shaldin, who was away, should have anything to do with Mrs. Zarubkin's order for a gown? No, that passed his comprehension.
"She certainly will get back in time for the ball," said Mrs. Zarubkin, to give him a cue.
"And certainly will bring a dress back with her."
"A dress from abroad, something we have never seen here—something highly original."
"Mrs. Zarubkin!" Abramka cried, as if a truth of tremendous import had been revelated to him. "Mrs. Zarubkin, I understand. Why certainly! Yes, but that will be pretty hard."
"That's just it."
Abramka reflected a moment, then said:
"I assure you, Mrs. Zarubkin, you need not be a bit uneasy. I will make a dress for you that will be just as grand as the one from abroad. I assure you, your dress will be the most elegant one at the ball, just as it always has been. I tell you, my name won't be Abramka Stiftik if—"
His eager asseverations seemed not quite to satisfy the captain's wife. Her mind was not quite set at ease. She interrupted him.
"But the style, Abramka, the style! You can't possibly guess what the latest fashion is abroad."
"Why shouldn't I know what the latest fashion is, Mrs. Zarubkin? In Kiev I have a friend who publishes fashion-plates. I will telegraph to him, and he will immediately send me pictures of the latest French models. The telegram will cost only eighty cents, Mrs. Zarubkin, and I swear to you I will copy any dress he sends. Mrs. Shaldin can't possibly have a dress like that."
"All very well and good, and that's what we'll do. Still we must wait until Mrs. Shaldin comes back. Don't you see, Abramka, I must have exactly the same style that she has? Can't you see, so that nobody can say that she is in the latest fashion?"
At this point Semyonov entered the room cautiously. He was wearing the oddest-looking jacket and the captain's old boots. His hair was rumpled, and his eyes were shining suspiciously. There was every sign that he had used the renewal of friendship with the doctor's men as a pretext for a booze.
"I had to stand them some brandy, your Excellency," he said saucily, but catching his mistress's threatening look, he lowered his head guiltily.
"Idiot," she yelled at him, "face about. Be off with you to the kitchen."
In his befuddlement, Semyonov had not noticed Abramka's presence. Now he became aware of him, faced about and retired to the kitchen sheepishly.
"What an impolite fellow," said Abramka reproachfully.
"Oh, you wouldn't believe—" said the captain's wife, but instantly followed Semyonov into the kitchen.
Semyonov aware of his awful misdemeanour, tried to stand up straight and give a report.
"She will come back, your Excellency, day after to-morrow toward evening. She sent a telegram."
"Is that true now?"
"I swear it's true. Shuchok saw it himself."
"All right, very good. You will get something for this."
"Yes, your Excellency."
"Silence, you goose. Go on, set the table."
Abramka remained about ten minutes longer with the captain's wife, and on leaving said:
"Let me assure you once again, Mrs. Zarubkin, you needn't worry; just select the style, and I will make a gown for you that the best tailor in Paris can't beat." He pressed his hand to his heart in token of his intention to do everything in his power for Mrs. Zarubkin.
It was seven o'clock in the evening. Mrs. Shaldin and her trunk had arrived hardly half an hour before, yet the captain's wife was already there paying a visit; which was a sign of the warm friendship that existed between the two women. They kissed each other and fell to talking. The doctor, a tall man of forty-five, seemed discomfited by the visit, and passed unfriendly side glances at his guest. He had hoped to spend that evening undisturbed with his wife, and he well knew that when the ladies of the regiment came to call upon each other "for only a second," it meant a whole evening of listening to idle talk.
"You wouldn't believe me, dear, how bored I was the whole time you were away, how I longed for you, Natalie Semyonovna. But you probably never gave us a thought."
"Oh, how can you say anything like that. I was thinking of you every minute, every second. If I hadn't been obliged to finish the cure, I should have returned long ago. No matter how beautiful it may be away from home, still the only place to live is among those that are near and dear to you."
These were only the preliminary soundings. They lasted with variations for a quarter of an hour. First Mrs. Shaldin narrated a few incidents of the trip, then Mrs. Zarubkin gave a report of some of the chief happenings in the life of the regiment. When the conversation was in full swing, and the samovar was singing on the table, and the pancakes were spreading their appetising odour, the captain's wife suddenly cried:
"I wonder what the fashions are abroad now. I say, you must have feasted your eyes on them!"
Mrs. Shaldin simply replied with a scornful gesture.
"Other people may like them, but I don't care for them one bit. I am glad we here don't get to see them until a year later. You know, Tatyana Grigoryevna, you sometimes see the ugliest styles."
"Really?" asked the captain's wife eagerly, her eyes gleaming with curiosity. The great moment of complete revelation seemed to have arrived.
"Perfectly hideous, I tell you. Just imagine, you know how nice the plain skirts were. Then why change them? But no, to be in style now, the skirts have to be draped. Why? It is just a sign of complete lack of imagination. And in Lyons they got out a new kind of silk—but that is still a French secret."
"Why a secret? The silk is certainly being worn already?"
"Yes, one does see it being worn already, but when it was first manufactured, the greatest secret was made of it. They were afraid the Germans would imitate. You understand?"
"Oh, but what is the latest style?"
"I really can't explain it to you. All I know is, it is something awful."
"She can't explain! That means she doesn't want to explain. Oh, the cunning one. What a sly look she has in her eyes." So thought the captain's wife. From the very beginning of the conversation, the two warm friends, it need scarcely be said, were mutually distrustful. Each had the conviction that everything the other said was to be taken in the very opposite sense. They were of about the same age, Mrs. Shaldin possibly one or two years younger than Mrs. Zarubkin. Mrs. Zarubkin was rather plump, and had heavy light hair. Her appearance was blooming. Mrs. Shaldin was slim, though well proportioned. She was a brunette with a pale complexion and large dark eyes. They were two types of beauty very likely to divide the gentlemen of the regiment into two camps of admirers. But women are never content with halves. Mrs. Zarubkin wanted to see all the officers of the regiment at her feet, and so did Mrs. Shaldin. It naturally led to great rivalry between the two women, of which they were both conscious, though they always had the friendliest smiles for each other.
Mrs. Shaldin tried to give a different turn to the conversation.
"Do you think the ball will be interesting this year?"
"Why should it be interesting?" rejoined the captain's wife scornfully. "Always the same people, the same old humdrum jog-trot."
"I suppose the ladies have been besieging our poor Abramka?"
"I really can't tell you. So far as I am concerned, I have scarcely looked at what he made for me."
"Hm, how's that? Didn't you order your dress from Moscow again?"
"No, it really does not pay. I am sick of the bother of it all. Why all that trouble? For whom? Our officers don't care a bit how one dresses. They haven't the least taste."
"Hm, there's something back of that," thought Mrs. Shaldin.
The captain's wife continued with apparent indifference:
"I can guess what a gorgeous dress you had made abroad. Certainly in the latest fashion?"
"I?" Mrs. Shaldin laughed innocently. "How could I get the time during my cure to think of a dress? As a matter of fact, I completely forgot the ball, thought of it at the last moment, and bought the first piece of goods I laid my hands on."
"Oh, no. How can you say pink!"
"Light blue, then?"
"You can't call it exactly light blue. It is a very undefined sort of colour. I really wouldn't know what to call it."
"But it certainly must have some sort of a shade?"
"You may believe me or not if you choose, but really I don't know. It's a very indefinite shade."
"Is it Sura silk?"
"No, I can't bear Sura. It doesn't keep the folds well."
"I suppose it is crêpe de Chine?"
"Heavens, no! Crêpe de Chine is much too expensive for me."
"Then what can it be?"
"Oh, wait a minute, what is the name of that goods? You know there are so many funny new names now. They don't make any sense."
"Then show me your dress, dearest. Do please show me your dress."
Mrs. Shaldin seemed to be highly embarrassed.
"I am so sorry I can't. It is way down at the bottom of the trunk. There is the trunk. You see yourself I couldn't unpack it now."
The trunk, close to the wall, was covered with oil cloth and tied tight with heavy cords. The captain's wife devoured it with her eyes. She would have liked to see through and through it. She had nothing to say in reply, because it certainly was impossible to ask her friend, tired out from her recent journey, to begin to unpack right away and take out all her things just to show her her new dress. Yet she could not tear her eyes away from the trunk. There was a magic in it that held her enthralled. Had she been alone she would have begun to unpack it herself, nor even have asked the help of a servant to undo the knots. Now there was nothing left for her but to turn her eyes sorrowfully away from the fascinating object and take up another topic of conversation to which she would be utterly indifferent. But she couldn't think of anything else to talk about. Mrs. Shaldin must have prepared herself beforehand. She must have suspected something. So now Mrs. Zarubkin pinned her last hope to Abramka's inventiveness. She glanced at the clock.
"Dear me," she exclaimed, as if surprised at the lateness of the hour. "I must be going. I don't want to disturb you any longer either, dearest. You must be very tired. I hope you rest well."
She shook hands with Mrs. Shaldin, kissed her and left.
Abramka Stiftik had just taken off his coat and was doing some ironing in his shirt sleeves, when a peculiar figure appeared in his shop. It was that of a stocky orderly in a well-worn uniform without buttons and old galoshes instead of boots. His face was gloomy-looking and was covered with a heavy growth of hair. Abramka knew this figure well. It seemed always just to have been awakened from the deepest sleep.
"Ah, Shuchok, what do you want?"
"Mrs. Shaldin would like you to call upon her," said Shuchok. He behaved as if he had come on a terribly serious mission.
"Ah, that's so, your lady has come back. I heard about it. You see I am very busy. Still you may tell her I am coming right away. I just want to finish ironing Mrs. Konopotkin's dress."
Abramka simply wanted to keep up appearances, as always when he was sent for. But his joy at the summons to Mrs. Shaldin was so great that to the astonishment of his helpers and Shuchok he left immediately.
He found Mrs. Shaldin alone. She had not slept well the two nights before and had risen late that morning. Her husband had left long before for the Military Hospital. She was sitting beside her open trunk taking her things out very carefully.
"How do you do, Mrs. Shaldin? Welcome back to Chmyrsk. I congratulate you on your happy arrival."
"Oh, how do you do, Abramka?" said Mrs. Shaldin delightedly; "we haven't seen each other for a long time, have we? I was rather homesick for you."
"Oh, Mrs. Shaldin, you must have had a very good time abroad. But what do you need me for? You certainly brought a dress back with you?"
"Abramka always comes in handy," said Mrs. Shaldin jestingly. "We ladies of the regiment are quite helpless without Abramka. Take a seat."
Abramka seated himself. He felt much more at ease in Mrs. Shaldin's home than in Mrs. Zarubkin's. Mrs. Shaldin did not order her clothes from Moscow. She was a steady customer of his. In this room he had many a time circled about the doctor's wife with a yard measure, pins, chalk and scissors; had kneeled down beside her, raised himself to his feet, bent over again and stood puzzling over some difficult problem of dressmaking—how low to cut the dress out at the neck; how long to make the train, how wide the hem, and so on. None of the ladies of the regiment ordered as much from him as Mrs. Shaldin. Her grandmother would send her material from Kiev or the doctor would go on a professional trip to Chernigov and always bring some goods back with him; or sometimes her aunt in Voronesh would make her a gift of some silk.
"Abramka is always ready to serve Mrs. Shaldin first," said the tailor, though seized with a little pang, as if bitten by a guilty conscience.
"Are you sure you are telling the truth? Is Abramka always to be depended upon? Eh, is he?" She looked at him searchingly from beneath drooping lids.
"What a question," rejoined Abramka. His face quivered slightly. His feeling of discomfort was waxing. "Has Abramka ever——"
"Oh, things can happen. But, all right, never mind. I brought a dress along with me. I had to have it made in a great hurry, and there is just a little more to be done on it. Now if I give you this dress to finish, can I be sure that you positively won't tell another soul how it is made?"
"Mrs. Shaldin, oh, Mrs. Shaldin," said Abramka reproachfully. Nevertheless, the expression of his face was not so reassuring as usual.
"You give me your word of honour?"
"Certainly! My name isn't Abramka Stiftik if I——"
"Well, all right, I will trust you. But be careful. You know of whom you must be careful?"
"Who is that, Mrs. Shaldin?"
"Oh, you know very well whom I mean. No, you needn't put your hand on your heart. She was here to see me yesterday and tried in every way she could to find out how my dress is made. But she couldn't get it out of me." Abramka sighed. Mrs. Shaldin seemed to suspect his betrayal. "I am right, am I not? She has not had her dress made yet, has she? She waited to see my dress, didn't she? And she told you to copy the style, didn't she?" Mrs. Shaldin asked with honest naïveté. "But I warn you, Abramka, if you give away the least little thing about my dress, then all is over between you and me. Remember that."
Abramka's hand went to his heart again, and the gesture carried the same sense of conviction as of old.
"Mrs. Shaldin, how can you speak like that?"
"Wait a moment."
Mrs. Shaldin left the room. About ten minutes passed during which Abramka had plenty of time to reflect. How could he have given the captain's wife a promise like that so lightly? What was the captain's wife to him as compared with the doctor's wife? Mrs. Zarubkin had never given him a really decent order—just a few things for the house and some mending. Supposing he were now to perform this great service for her, would that mean that he could depend upon her for the future? Was any woman to be depended upon? She would wear this dress out and go back to ordering her clothes from Moscow again. But Mrs. Shaldin, she was very different. He could forgive her having brought this one dress along from abroad. What woman in Russia would have refrained when abroad, from buying a new dress? Mrs. Shaldin would continue to be his steady customer all the same.
The door opened. Abramka rose involuntarily, and clasped his hands in astonishment.
"Well," he exclaimed rapturously, "that is a dress, that is—— My, my!" He was so stunned he could find nothing more to say. And how charming Mrs. Shaldin looked in her wonderful gown! Her tall slim figure seemed to have been made for it. What simple yet elegant lines. At first glance you would think it was nothing more than an ordinary house-gown, but only at first glance. If you looked at it again, you could tell right away that it met all the requirements of a fancy ball-gown. What struck Abramka most was that it had no waist line, that it did not consist of bodice and skirt. That was strange. It was just caught lightly together under the bosom, which it brought out in relief. Draped over the whole was a sort of upper garment of exquisite old-rose lace embroidered with large silk flowers, which fell from the shoulders and broadened out in bold superb lines. The dress was cut low and edged with a narrow strip of black down around the bosom, around the bottom of the lace drapery and around the hem of the skirt. A wonderful fan of feathers to match the down edging gave the finishing touch.
"Well, how do you like it, Abramka!" asked Mrs. Shaldin with a triumphant smile.
"Glorious, glorious! I haven't the words at my command. What a dress! No, I couldn't make a dress like that. And how beautifully it fits you, as if you had been born in it, Mrs. Shaldin. What do you call the style?"
"Ampeer?" he queried. "Is that a new style? Well, well, what people don't think of. Tailors like us might just as well throw our needles and scissors away."
"Now, listen, Abramka, I wouldn't have shown it to you if there were not this sewing to be done on it. You are the only one who will have seen it before the ball. I am not even letting my husband look at it."
"Oh, Mrs. Shaldin, you can rely upon me as upon a rock. But after the ball may I copy it?"
"Oh, yes, after the ball copy it as much as you please, but not now, not for anything in the world."
There were no doubts in Abramka's mind when he left the doctor's house. He had arrived at his decision. That superb creation had conquered him. It would be a piece of audacity on his part, he felt, even to think of imitating such a gown. Why, it was not a gown. It was a dream, a fantastic vision—without a bodice, without puffs or frills or tawdry trimmings of any sort. Simplicity itself and yet so chic.
Back in his shop he opened the package of fashion-plates that had just arrived from Kiev. He turned the pages and stared in astonishment. What was that? Could he trust his eyes? An Empire gown. There it was, with the broad voluptuous drapery of lace hanging from the shoulders and the edging of down. Almost exactly the same thing as Mrs. Shaldin's.
He glanced up and saw Semyonov outside the window. He had certainly come to fetch him to the captain's wife, who must have ordered him to watch the tailor's movements, and must have learned that he had just been at Mrs. Shaldin's. Semyonov entered and told him his mistress wanted to see him right away.
Abramka slammed the fashion magazine shut as if afraid that Semyonov might catch a glimpse of the new Empire fashion and give the secret away.
"I will come immediately," he said crossly.
He picked up his fashion plates, put the yard measure in his pocket, rammed his silk hat sorrowfully on his head and set off for the captain's house. He found Mrs. Zarubkin pacing the room excitedly, greeted her, but carefully avoided meeting her eyes.
"Well, what did you find out?"
"Nothing, Mrs. Zarubkin," said Abramka dejectedly. "Unfortunately I couldn't find out a thing."
"Idiot! I have no patience with you. Where are the fashion plates?"
"Here, Mrs. Zarubkin."
She turned the pages, looked at one picture after the other, and suddenly her eyes shone and her cheeks reddened.
"Oh, Empire! The very thing. Empire is the very latest. Make this one for me," she cried commandingly.
Abramka turned pale.
"Ampeer, Mrs. Zarubkin? I can't make that Ampeer dress for you," he murmured.
"Why not?" asked the captain's wife, giving him a searching look.
"Oh—h—h, you can't? You know why you can't. Because that is the style of Mrs. Shaldin's dress. So that is the reliability you boast so about? Great!"
"Mrs. Zarubkin, I will make any other dress you choose, but it is absolutely impossible for me to make this one."
"I don't need your fashion plates, do you hear me? Get out of here, and don't ever show your face again."
"Mrs. Zarubkin, I——"
"Get out of here," repeated the captain's wife, quite beside herself.
The poor tailor stuck his yard measure, which he had already taken out, back into his pocket and left.
Half an hour later the captain's wife was entering a train for Kiev, carrying a large package which contained material for a dress. The captain had accompanied her to the station with a pucker in his forehead. That was five days before the ball.
At the ball two expensive Empire gowns stood out conspicuously from among the more or less elegant gowns which had been finished in the shop of Abramka Stiftik, Ladies' Tailor. The one gown adorned Mrs. Shaldin's figure, the other the figure of the captain's wife.
Mrs. Zarubkin had bought her gown ready made at Kiev, and had returned only two hours before the beginning of the ball. She had scarcely had time to dress. Perhaps it would have been better had she not appeared at this one of the annual balls, had she not taken that fateful trip to Kiev. For in comparison with the make and style of Mrs. Shaldin's dress, which had been brought abroad, hers was like the botched imitation of an amateur.
That was evident to everybody, though the captain's wife had her little group of partisans, who maintained with exaggerated eagerness that she looked extraordinarily fascinating in her dress and Mrs. Shaldin still could not rival her. But there was no mistaking it, there was little justice in this contention. Everybody knew better; what was worst of all, Mrs. Zarubkin herself knew better. Mrs. Shaldin's triumph was complete.
The two ladies gave each other the same friendly smiles as always, but one of them was experiencing the fine disdain and the derision of the conqueror, while the other was burning inside with the furious resentment of a dethroned goddess—goddess of the annual ball.
From that time on Abramka cautiously avoided passing the captain's house.