Anna karenina, p.40
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       Anna Karenina, p.40

           graf Leo Tolstoy
 

  Chapter 6

  Princess Betsy drove home from the theater, without waiting for the endof 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 torights, and order tea in the big drawing room, when one after anothercarriages drove up to her huge house in Bolshaia Morskaia. Her guestsstepped out at the wide entrance, and the stout porter, who used to readthe newspapers in the mornings behind the glass door, to the edificationof the passers-by, noiselessly opened the immense door, letting thevisitors pass by him into the house.

  Almost at the same instant the hostess, with freshly arranged coiffureand freshened face, walked in at one door and her guests at the otherdoor of the drawing room, a large room with dark walls, downy rugs, anda brightly lighted table, gleaming with the light of candles, whitecloth, silver samovar, and transparent china tea things.

  The hostess sat down at the table and took off her gloves. Chairs wereset with the aid of footmen, moving almost imperceptibly about the room;the party settled itself, divided into two groups: one round the samovarnear the hostess, the other at the opposite end of the drawing room,round the handsome wife of an ambassador, in black velvet, with sharplydefined black eyebrows. In both groups conversation wavered, as italways does, for the first few minutes, broken up by meetings,greetings, offers of tea, and as it were, feeling about for something torest upon.

  "She's exceptionally good as an actress; one can see she's studiedKaulbach," said a diplomatic attache in the group round the ambassador'swife. "Did you notice how she fell down?..."

  "Oh, please, don't let us talk about Nilsson! No one can possibly sayanything new about her," said a fat, red-faced, flaxen-headed lady,without eyebrows and chignon, wearing an old silk dress. This wasPrincess Myakaya, noted for her simplicity and the roughness of hermanners, and nicknamed _enfant terrible_. Princess Myakaya, sitting inthe middle between the two groups, and listening to both, took part inthe conversation first of one and then of the other. "Three people haveused that very phrase about Kaulbach to me today already, just as thoughthey had made a compact about it. And I can't see why they liked thatremark so."

  The conversation was cut short by this observation, and a new subjecthad to be thought of again.

  "Do tell me something amusing but not spiteful," said the ambassador'swife, a great proficient in the art of that elegant conversation calledby the English, _small talk_. She addressed the attache, who was at aloss now what to begin upon.

  "They say that that's a difficult task, that nothing's amusing thatisn'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 spinsomething round it. I often think that the celebrated talkers of thelast 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, itcame 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?" hesaid, glancing towards a handsome, fair-haired young man, standing atthe table.

  "Oh, yes! He's in the same style as the drawing room and that's why itis he's so often here."

  This conversation was maintained, since it rested on allusions to whatcould not be talked of in that room--that is to say, of the relations ofTushkevitch with their hostess.

  Round the samovar and the hostess the conversation had been meanwhilevacillating in just the same way between three inevitable topics: thelatest piece of public news, the theater, and scandal. It, too, camefinally to rest on the last topic, that is, ill-natured gossip.

  "Have you heard the Maltishtcheva woman--the mother, not thedaughter--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 shedoesn't see how funny she is."

  Everyone had something to say in censure or ridicule of the lucklessMadame Maltishtcheva, and the conversation crackled merrily, like aburning faggot-stack.

  The husband of Princess Betsy, a good-natured fat man, an ardentcollector of engravings, hearing that his wife had visitors, came intothe drawing room before going to his club. Stepping noiselessly over thethick 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!" sheresponded. "Please don't talk to me about the opera; you know nothingabout music. I'd better meet you on your own ground, and talk about yourmajolica and engravings. Come now, what treasure have you been buyinglately 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 theirnames?... the bankers ... they've some splendid engravings. They showedthem to us."

  "Why, have you been at the Schuetzburgs?" asked the hostess from thesamovar.

  "Yes, _ma chere_. They asked my husband and me to dinner, and told usthe sauce at that dinner cost a hundred pounds," Princess Myakaya said,speaking loudly, and conscious everyone was listening; "and very nastysauce it was, some green mess. We had to ask them, and I made them saucefor eighteen pence, and everybody was very much pleased with it. I can'trun 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 thoughshe spoke not always appropriately, as now, she said simple things withsome sense in them. In the society in which she lived such plainstatements produced the effect of the wittiest epigram. Princess Myakayacould never see why it had that effect, but she knew it had, and tookadvantage of it.

  As everyone had been listening while Princess Myakaya spoke, and so theconversation around the ambassador's wife had dropped, Princess Betsytried to bring the whole party together, and turned to the ambassador'swife.

  "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 asmile, and she went on with the conversation that had been begun.

  It was a very agreeable conversation. They were criticizing theKarenins, husband and wife.

  "Anna is quite changed since her stay in Moscow. There's somethingstrange about her," said her friend.

  "The great change is that she brought back with her the shadow of AlexeyVronsky," said the ambassador's wife.

  "Well, what of it? There's a fable of Grimm's about a man without ashadow, a man who's lost his shadow. And that's his punishment forsomething. I never could understand how it was a punishment. But a womanmust dislike being without a shadow."

  "Yes, but women with a shadow usually come to a bad end," said Anna'sfriend.

  "Bad luck to your tongue!" said Princess Myakaya suddenly. "MadameKarenina's a splendid woman. I don't like her husband, but I like hervery much."

  "Why don't you like her husband? He's such a remarkable man," said theambassador's wife. "My husband says there are few statesmen like him inEurope."

  "And my husband tells me just the same, but I don't believe it," saidPrincess Myakaya. "If our husbands didn't talk to us, we should see thefacts as they are. Alexey Alexandrovitch, to my thinking, is simply afool. I say it in a whisper ... but doesn't it really make everythingclear? Before, when I was told to consider him clever, I kept lookingfor his ability, and thought myself a fool for not seeing it; butdirectly I said, _he's a fool,_ though only in a whisper, everything'sexplained, 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 withhis wit.'" The attache repeated the French saying.

  "That's just it, just it," Princess Myakaya turned to him. "But thepoint is that I won't abandon Anna to your mercies. She's so nice, socharming. How can she help it if they're all in love with her, andfollow her about like shadows?"

  "Oh, I had no idea of blaming her for it," Anna's friend said inself-defense.

  "If no one follows us about like a shadow, that's no proof that we'veany 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 AlexeyAlexandrovitch," said the ambassador's wife with a smile, as she satdown at the table.

  "Pity we didn't hear it!" said Princess Betsy, glancing towards thedoor. "Ah, here you are at last!" she said, turning with a smile toVronsky, as he came in.

  Vronsky was not merely acquainted with all the persons whom he wasmeeting here; he saw them all every day; and so he came in with thequiet manner with which one enters a room full of people from whom onehas only just parted.

  "Where do I come from?" he said, in answer to a question from theambassador's wife. "Well, there's no help for it, I must confess. Fromthe _opera bouffe_. I do believe I've seen it a hundred times, andalways 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 thelast minute, and enjoy it. This evening..."

  He mentioned a French actress, and was going to tell something abouther; 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 correctthing, like the opera," chimed in Princess Myakaya.

 

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