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One of the most beautiful tales ever written. A gem of world literature.
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Edition 2017 by David De Angelis – all rights reserved
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
THE STRANGE FRIEND
JACOB FLINT'S JOURNEY
CAN A LIFE HIDE ITSELF?
THE EXPERIENCES OF THE A. C.
FRIEND ELI'S DAUGHTER
MISS BARTRAM'S TROUBLE
MRS. STRONGITHARM'S REPORT
A STORY OF OLD RUSSIA.
We are about to relate a story of mingled fact and fancy. The facts are borrowed from the Russian author, Petjerski; the fancy is our own. Our task will chiefly be to soften the outlines of incidents almost too sharp and rugged for literary use, to supply them with the necessary coloring and sentiment, and to give a coherent and proportioned shape to the irregular fragments of an old chronicle. We know something, from other sources, of the customs described, something of the character of the people from personal observation, and may therefore the more freely take such liberties as we choose with the rude, vigorous sketches of the Russian original. One who happens to have read the work of Villebois can easily comprehend the existence of a state of society, on the banks of the Volga, a hundred years ago, which is now impossible, and will soon become incredible. What is strangest in our narrative has been declared to be true.
We are in Kinesma, a small town on the Volga, between Kostroma and Nijni-Novgorod. The time is about the middle of the last century, and the month October.
There was trouble one day, in the palace of Prince Alexis, of Kinesma. This edifice, with its massive white walls, and its pyramidal roofs of green copper, stood upon a gentle mound to the eastward of the town, overlooking it, a broad stretch of the Volga, and the opposite shore. On a similar hill, to the westward, stood the church, glittering with its dozen bulging, golden domes. These two establishments divided the sovereignty of Kinesma between them.
Prince Alexis owned the bodies of the inhabitants, (with the exception of a few merchants and tradesmen,) and the Archimandrite Sergius owned their souls. But the shadow of the former stretched also over other villages, far beyond the ring of the wooded horizon. The number of his serfs was ten thousand, and his rule over them was even less disputed than theirs over their domestic animals.
The inhabitants of the place had noticed with dismay that the slumberflag had not been hoisted on the castle, although it was half an hour after the usual time. So rare a circumstance betokened sudden wrath or disaster, on the part of Prince Alexis. Long experience had prepared the people for anything that might happen, and they were consequently not astonished at the singular event which presently transpired.
The fact is, that in the first place, the dinner had been prolonged full ten minutes beyond its accustomed limit, owing to a discussion between the Prince, his wife, the Princess Martha, and their son Prince Boris. The last was to leave for St. Petersburg in a fortnight, and wished to have his departure preceded by a festival at the castle. The Princess Martha was always ready to second the desires of her only child. Between the two they had pressed some twenty or thirty thousand rubles out of the old Prince, for the winter diversions of the young one. The festival, to be sure, would have been a slight expenditure for a noble of such immense wealth as Prince Alexis; but he never liked his wife, and he took a stubborn pleasure in thwarting her wishes. It was no satisfaction that Boris resembled her in character. That weak successor to the sovereignty of Kinesma preferred a game of cards to a bear hunt, and could never drink more than a quart of vodki without becoming dizzy and sick.
"Ugh!" Prince Alexis would cry, with a shudder of disgust, "the whelp barks after the dam!"
A state dinner he might give; but a festival, with dances, dramatic representations, burning tar-barrels, and cannon,—no! He knitted his heavy brows and drank deeply, and his fiery gray eyes shot such incessant glances from side to side that Boris and the Princess Martha could not exchange a single wink of silent advice. The pet bear, Mishka, plied with strong wines, which Prince Alexis poured out for him into a golden basin, became at last comically drunk, and in endeavoring to execute a dance, lost his balance, and fell at full length on his back.
The Prince burst into a yelling, shrieking fit of laughter. Instantly the yellow-haired serfs in waiting, the Calmucks at the hall-door, and the halfwitted dwarf who crawled around the table in his tow shirt, began laughing in chorus, as violently as they could. The Princess Martha and Prince Boris laughed also; and while the old man's eyes were dimmed with streaming tears of mirth, quickly exchanged nods. The sound extended all over the castle, and was heard outside of the walls.
"Father!" said Boris, "let us have the festival, and Mishka shall perform again. Prince Paul of Kostroma would strangle, if he could see him."
"Good, by St. Vladimir!" exclaimed Prince Alexis. "Thou shalt have it, my Borka! 1 Where's Simon Petrovitch? May the Devil scorch that vagabond, if he doesn't do better than the last time! Sasha!"
A broad-shouldered serf stepped forward and stood with bowed head.
"Lock up Simon Petrovitch in the southwestern tower. Send the tailor and the girls to him, to learn their parts. Search every one of them before they go in, and if any one dares to carry vodki to the beast, twenty-five lashes on the back!"
Sasha bowed again and departed. Simon Petrovitch was the court-poet of Kinesma. He had a mechanical knack of preparing allegorical diversions which suited the conventional taste of society at that time; but he had also a failing,—he was rarely sober enough to write. Prince Alexis, therefore, was in the habit of locking him up and placing a guard over him, until the inspiration had done its work. The most comely young serfs of both sexes were selected to perform the parts, and the court-tailor arranged for them the appropriate dresses. It depended very much upon accident—that is to say, the mood of Prince Alexis—whether Simon Petrovitch was rewarded with stripes or rubles.
The matter thus settled, the Prince rose from the table and walked out upon an overhanging balcony, where an immense reclining arm-chair of stuffed leather was ready for his siesta. He preferred this indulgence in the open air; and although the weather was rapidly growing cold, a pelisse of sables enabled him to slumber sweetly in the face of the north wind. An attendant stood with the pelisse outspread; another held the halyards to which was attached the great red slumber-flag, ready to run it up and announce to all Kinesma that the noises of the town must cease; a few seconds more, and all things would have been fixed in their regular daily courses. The Prince, in fact, was just straightening his shoulders to receive the sables; his eyelids were dropping, and his eyes, sinking mechanically with them, fell upon the river-road, at the foot of the hill. Along this road walked a man, wearing the long cloth caftan of a merchant.
Prince Alexis started, and all slumber vanished out of his eyes. He leaned forward for a moment, with a quick, eager expression; then a loud roar, like that of an enraged wild beast, burst from his mouth. He gave a stamp that shook the balcony.
"Dog!" he cried to the trembling attendant, "my cap! my whip!"
The sables fell upon the floor, the cap and whip appeared in a twinkling, and the red slumber-flag was folded up again for the first time in several years, as the Prince stormed out of the castle. The traveller below had heard the cry,—for it might have been heard half a mile. He seemed to have a presentiment of evil, for he had already set off towards the town at full speed.
To explain the occurrence, we must mention one of the Prince's many peculiar habits. This was, to invite strangers or merchants of the neighborhood to dine with him, and, after regaling them bountifully, to take his pay in subjecting them to all sorts of outrageous tricks, with the help of his band of willing domestics. Now this particular merchant had been invited, and had attended; but, being a very wide-awake, shrewd person, he saw what was coming, and dexterously slipped away from the banquet without being perceived. The Prince vowed vengeance, on discovering the escape, and he was not a man to forget his word.
Impelled by such opposite passions, both parties ran with astonishing speed. The merchant was the taller, but his long caftan, hastily ungirdled, swung behind him and dragged in the air.
The short, booted legs of the Prince beat quicker time, and he grasped his short, heavy, leathern whip more tightly as he saw the space diminishing. They dashed into the town of Kinesma a hundred yards apart. The merchant entered the main street, or bazaar, looking rapidly to right and left, as he ran, in the hope of espying some place of refuge. The terrible voice behind him cried,—
"Stop, scoundrel! I have a crow to pick with you!"
And the tradesmen in their shops looked on and laughed, as well they might, being unconcerned spectators of the fun. The fugitive, therefore, kept straight on, notwithstanding a pond of water glittered across the farther end of the street.
Although Prince Alexis had gained considerably in the race, such violent exercise, after a heavy dinner, deprived him of breath. He again cried,—
"But the merchant answered,—
"No, Highness! You may come to me, but I will not go to you."
"Oh, the villian!" growled the Prince, in a hoarse whisper, for he had no more voice.
The pond cut of all further pursuit. Hastily kicking off his loose boots, the merchant plunged into the water, rather than encounter the princely whip, which already began to crack and snap in fierce anticipation. Prince Alexis kicked off his boots and followed; the pond gradually deepened, and in a minute the tall merchant stood up to his chin in the icy water, and his short pursuer likewise but out of striking distance. The latter coaxed and entreated, but the victim kept his ground.
"You lie, Highness!" he said, boldly. "If you want me, come to me."
"Ah-h-h!" roared the Prince, with chattering teeth, "what a stubborn rascal you are! Come here, and I give you my word that I will not hurt you. Nay,"—seeing that the man did not move,—"you shall dine with me as often as you please. You shall be my friend; by St. Vladimir, I like you!" "Make the sign of the cross, and swear it by all the Saints," said the merchant, composedly.
With a grim smile on his face, the Prince stepped back and shiveringly obeyed. Both then waded out, sat down upon the ground and pulled on their boots; and presently the people of Kinesma beheld the dripping pair walking side by side up the street, conversing in the most cordial manner. The merchant dried his clothes FROM WITHIN, at the castle table; a fresh keg of old Cognac was opened; and although the slumber-flag was not unfurled that afternoon, it flew from the staff and hushed the town nearly all the next day.
The festival granted on behalf of Prince Boris was one of the grandest ever given at the castle. In character it was a singular cross between the old Muscovite revel and the French entertainments which were then introduced by the Empress Elizabeth.
All the nobility, for fifty versts around, including Prince Paul and the chief families of Kostroma, were invited. Simon Petrovitch had been so carefully guarded that his work was actually completed and the parts distributed; his superintendence of the performance, however, was still a matter of doubt, as it was necessary to release him from the tower, and after several days of forced abstinence he always manifested a raging appetite. Prince Alexis, in spite of this doubt, had been assured by Boris that the dramatic part of the entertainment would not be a failure. When he questioned Sasha, the poet's strong-shouldered guard, the latter winked familiarly and answered with a proverb,—
"I sit on the shore and wait for the wind,"—which was as much as to say that Sasha had little fear of the result.
The tables were spread in the great hall, where places for one hundred chosen guests were arranged on the floor, while the three or four hundred of minor importance were provided for in the galleries above. By noon the whole party were assembled. The halls and passages of the castle were already permeated with rich and unctuous smells, and a delicate nose might have picked out and arranged, by their finer or coarser vapors, the dishes preparing for the upper and lower tables. One of the parasites of Prince Alexis, a dilapidated nobleman, officiated as Grand Marshal,—an office which more than compensated for the savage charity he received, for it was performed in continual fear and trembling. The Prince had felt the stick of the Great Peter upon his own back, and was ready enough to imitate any custom of the famous monarch.
An orchestra, composed principally of horns and brass instruments, occupied a separate gallery at one end of the dining-hall. The guests were assembled in the adjoining apartments, according to their rank; and when the first loud blast of the instruments announced the beginning of the banquet, two very differently attired and freighted processions of servants made their appearance at the same time. Those intended for the princely table numbered two hundred,—two for each guest. They were the handsomest young men among the ten thousand serfs, clothed in loose white trousers and shirts of pink or lilac silk; their soft golden hair, parted in the middle, fell upon their shoulders, and a band of gold-thread about the brow prevented it from sweeping the dishes they carried. They entered the reception-room, bearing huge trays of sculptured silver, upon which were anchovies, the finest Finnish caviar, sliced oranges, cheese, and crystal flagons of Cognac, rum, and kummel. There were fewer servants for the remaining guests, who were gathered in a separate chamber, and regaled with the common black caviar, onions, bread, and vodki. At the second blast of trumpets, the two companies set themselves in motion and entered the dining-hall at opposite ends. Our business, however, is only with the principal personages, so we will allow the common crowd quietly to mount to the galleries and satisfy their senses with the coarser viands, while their imagination is stimulated by the sight of the splendor and luxury below.
Prince Alexis entered first, with a pompous, mincing gait, leading the Princess Martha by the tips of her fingers. He wore a caftan of green velvet laced with gold, a huge vest of crimson brocade, and breeches of yellow satin. A wig, resembling clouds boiling in the confluence of opposing winds, surged from his low, broad forehead, and flowed upon his shoulders. As his small, fiery eyes swept the hall, every servant trembled: he was as severe at the commencement as he was reckless at the close of a banquet. The Princess Martha wore a robe of pink satin embroidered with flowers made of small pearls, and a train and headdress of crimson velvet.
Her emeralds were the finest outside of Moscow, and she wore them all. Her pale, weak, frightened face was quenched in the dazzle of the green fires which shot from her forehead, ears, and bosom, as she moved.
Prince Paul of Kostroma and the Princess Nadejda followed; but on reaching the table, the gentlemen took their seats at the head, while the ladies marched down to the foot. Their seats were determined by their relative rank, and woe to him who was so ignorant or so absent-minded as to make a mistake! The servants had been carefully trained in advance by the Grand Marshal; and whoever took a place above his rank or importance found, when he came to sit down, that his chair had miraculously disappeared, or, not noticing the fact, seated himself absurdly and violently upon the floor. The Prince at the head of the table, and the Princess at the foot, with their nearest guests of equal rank, ate from dishes of massive gold; the others from silver. As soon as the last of the company had entered the hall, a crowd of jugglers, tumblers, dwarfs, and Calmucks followed, crowding themselves into the corners under the galleries, where they awaited the conclusion of the banquet to display their tricks, and scolded and pummelled each other in the mean time.
On one side of Prince Alexis the bear Mishka took his station. By order of Prince Boris he had been kept from wine for several days, and his small eyes were keener and hungrier than usual. As he rose now and then, impatiently, and sat upon his hind legs, he formed a curious contrast to the Prince's other supporter, the idiot, who sat also in his tow-shirt, with a large pewter basin in his hand. It was difficult to say whether the beast was most man or the man most beast. They eyed each other and watched the motions of their lord with equal jealousy; and the dismal whine of the bear found an echo in the drawling, slavering laugh of the idiot. The Prince glanced form one to the other; they put him in a capital humor, which was not lessened as he perceived an expression of envy pass over the face of Prince Paul.
The dinner commenced with a botvinia—something between a soup and a salad—of wonderful composition. It contained cucumbers, cherries, salt fish, melons, bread, salt, pepper, and wine. While it was being served, four huge fishermen, dressed to represent mermen of the Volga, naked to the waist, with hair crowned with reeds, legs finned with silver tissue from the knees downward, and preposterous scaly tails, which dragged helplessly upon the floor, entered the hall, bearing a broad, shallow tank of silver. In the tank flapped and swam four superb sterlets, their ridgy backs rising out of the water like those of alligators. Great applause welcomed this new and classical adaptation of the old custom of showing the LIVING fish, before cooking them, to the guests at the table. The invention was due to Simon Petrovitch, and was (if the truth must be confessed) the result of certain carefully measured supplies of brandy which Prince Boris himself had carried to the imprisoned poet.
After the sterlets had melted away to their backbones, and the roasted geese had shrunk into drumsticks and breastplates, and here and there a guest's ears began to redden with more rapid blood, Prince Alexis judged that the time for diversion had arrived. He first filled up the idiot's basin with fragments of all the dishes within his reach,—fish, stewed fruits, goose fat, bread, boiled cabbage, and beer,—the idiot grinning with delight all the while, and singing, "Ne uyesjai golubchik moi," (Don't go away, my little pigeon), between the handfuls which he crammed into his mouth. The guests roared with laughter, especially when a juggler or Calmuck stole out from under the gallery, and pretended to have designs upon the basin. Mishka, the bear, had also been well fed, and greedily drank ripe old Malaga from the golden dish. But, alas! he would not dance. Sitting up on his hind legs, with his fore paws hanging before him, he cast a drunken, languishing eye upon the company, lolled out his tongue, and whined with an almost human voice. The domestics, secretly incited by the Grand Marshal, exhausted their ingenuity in coaxing him, but in vain. Finally, one of them took a goblet of wine in one hand, and, embracing Mishka with the other, began to waltz. The bear stretched out his paw and clumsily followed the movements, whirling round and round after the enticing goblet. The orchestra struck up, and the spectacle, though not exactly what Prince Alexis wished, was comical enough to divert the company immensely.
But the close of the performance was not upon the programme. The impatient bear, getting no nearer his goblet, hugged the man violently with the other paw, striking his claws through the thin shirt. The dancemeasure was lost; the legs of the two tangled, and they fell to the floor, the bear undermost. With a growl of rage and disappointment, he brought his teeth together through the man's arm, and it might have fared badly with the latter, had not the goblet been refilled by some one and held to the animal's nose.
Then, releasing his hold, he sat up again, drank another bottle, and staggered out of the hall.
Now the health of Prince Alexis was drunk,—by the guests on the floor of the hall in Champagne, by those in the galleries in kislischi and hydromel. The orchestra played; a choir of serfs sang an ode by Simon Petrovitch, in which the departure of Prince Boris was mentioned; the tumblers began to posture; the jugglers came forth and played their tricks; and the cannon on the ramparts announced to all Kinesma, and far up and down the Volga, that the company were rising from the table.
Half an hour later, the great red slumber-flag floated over the castle. All slept,—except the serf with the wounded arm, the nervous Grand Marshal, and Simon Petrovich with his band of dramatists, guarded by the indefatigable Sasha. All others slept,—and the curious crowd outside, listening to the music, stole silently away; down in Kinesma, the mothers ceased to scold their children, and the merchants whispered to each other in the bazaar; the captains of vessels floating on the Volga directed their men by gestures; the mechanics laid aside hammer and axe, and lighted their pipes. Great silence fell upon the land, and continued unbroken so long as Prince Alexis and his guests slept the sleep of the just and the tipsy.
By night, however, they were all awake and busily preparing for the diversions of the evening. The ball-room was illuminated by thousands of wax-lights, so connected with inflammable threads, that the wicks could all be kindled in a moment. A pyramid of tar-barrels had been erected on each side of the castle-gate, and every hill or mound on the opposite bank of the Volga was similarly crowned. When, to a stately march,—the musicians blowing their loudest,—Prince Alexis and Princess Martha led the way to the ball-room, the signal was given: candles and tar-barrels burst into flame, and not only within the castle, but over the landscape for five or six versts, around everything was bright and clear in the fiery day. Then the noises of Kinesma were not only permitted, but encouraged. Mead and qvass flowed in the very streets, and the castle trumpets could not be heard for the sound of troikas and balalaikas.
After the Polonaise, and a few stately minuets, (copied from the court of Elizabeth), the company were ushered into the theatre. The hour of
Simon Petrovitch had struck: with the inspiration smuggled to him by Prince Boris, he had arranged a performance which he felt to be his masterpiece. Anxiety as to its reception kept him sober. The overture had ceased, the spectators were all in their seats, and now the curtain rose. The background was a growth of enormous, sickly toad-stools, supposed to be clouds. On the stage stood a girl of eighteen, (the handsomest in Kinesma), in hoops and satin petticoat, powdered hair, patches, and highheeled shoes. She held a fan in one hand, and a bunch of marigolds in the other. After a deep and graceful curtsy to the company, she came forward and said,—
"I am the goddess Venus. I have come to Olympus to ask some questions of Jupiter."
Thunder was heard, and a car rolled upon the stage. Jupiter sat therein, in a blue coat, yellow vest, ruffled shirt and three-cornered hat. One hand held a bunch of thunderbolts, which he occasionally lifted and shook; the other, a gold-headed cane.
"Here am, I Jupiter," said he; "what does Venus desire?"
A poetical dialogue then followed, to the effect that the favorite of the goddess, Prince Alexis of Kinesma, was about sending his son, Prince Boris, into the gay world, wherein himself had already displayed all the gifts of all the divinities of Olympus. He claimed from her, Venus, like favors for his son: was it possible to grant them? Jupiter dropped his head and meditated. He could not answer the question at once: Apollo, the Graces, and the Muses must be consulted: there were few precedents where the son had succeeded in rivalling the father,—yet the father's pious wishes could not be overlooked. Venus said,—
"What I asked for Prince Alexis was for HIS sake: what I ask for the son is for the father's sake."
Jupiter shook his thunderbolt and called "Apollo!"
Instantly the stage was covered with explosive and coruscating fires,— red, blue, and golden,—and amid smoke, and glare, and fizzing noises, and strong chemical smells, Apollo dropped down from above. He was accustomed to heat and smoke, being the cook's assistant, and was sweated down to a weight capable of being supported by the invisible wires. He wore a yellow caftan, and wide blue silk trousers. His yellow hair was twisted around and glued fast to gilded sticks, which stood out from his head in a circle, and represented rays of light. He first bowed to Prince Alexis, then to the guests, then to Jupiter, then to Venus. The matter was explained to him.
He promised to do what he could towards favoring the world with a second generation of the beauty, grace, intellect, and nobility of character which had already won his regard. He thought, however, that their gifts were unnecessary, since the model was already in existence, and nothing more could be done than to IMITATE it.
(Here there was another meaning bow towards Prince Alexis,—a bow in which Jupiter and Venus joined. This was the great point of the evening, in the opinion of Simon Petrovitch. He peeped through a hole in one of the clouds, and, seeing the delight of Prince Alexis and the congratulations of his friends, immediately took a large glass of Cognac).
The Graces were then summoned, and after them the Muses—all in hoops, powder, and paint. Their songs had the same burden,—intense admiration of the father, and good-will for the son, underlaid with a delicate doubt. The close was a chorus of all the deities and semi-deities in praise of the old Prince, with the accompaniment of fireworks. Apollo rose through the air like a frog, with his blue legs and yellow arms wide apart; Jupiter's chariot rolled off; Venus bowed herself back against a mouldy cloud; and the Muses came forward in a bunch, with a wreath of laurel, which they placed upon the venerated head.
Sasha was dispatched to bring the poet, that he might receive his wellearned praise and reward. But alas for Simon Petrovitch? His legs had already doubled under him. He was awarded fifty rubles and a new caftan, which he was not in a condition to accept until several days afterward.
The supper which followed resembled the dinner, except that there were fewer dishes and more bottles. When the closing course of sweatmeats had either been consumed or transferred to the pockets of the guests, the Princess Martha retired with the ladies. The guests of lower rank followed; and there remained only some fifteen or twenty, who were thereupon conducted by Prince Alexis to a smaller chamber, where he pulled off his coat, lit his pipe, and called for brandy. The others followed his example, and their revelry wore out the night.
Such was the festival which preceded the departure of Prince Boris for St. Petersburg.
Before following the young Prince and his fortunes, in the capital, we must relate two incidents which somewhat disturbed the ordered course of life in the castle of Kinesma, during the first month or two after his departure.
It must be stated, as one favorable trait in the character of Prince Alexis, that, however brutally he treated his serfs, he allowed no other man to oppress them. All they had and were—their services, bodies, lives— belonged to him; hence injustice towards them was disrespect towards their lord. Under the fear which his barbarity inspired lurked a brute-like attachment, kept alive by the recognition of this quality.
One day it was reported to him that Gregor, a merchant in the bazaar at Kinesma, had cheated the wife of one of his serfs in the purchase of a piece of cloth. Mounting his horse, he rode at once to Gregor's booth, called for the cloth, and sent the entire piece to the woman, in the merchant's name, as a confessed act of reparation.
"Now, Gregor, my child," said he, as he turned his horse's head, "have a care in future, and play me no more dishonest tricks. Do you hear? I shall come and take your business in hand myself, if the like happens again."
Not ten days passed before the like—or something fully as bad—did happen. Gregor must have been a new comer in Kinesma, or he would not have tried the experiment. In an hour from the time it was announced, Prince Alexis appeared in the bazaar with a short whip under his arm.
He dismounted at the booth with an ironical smile on his face, which chilled the very marrow in the merchant's bones.
"Ah, Gregor, my child," he shouted, "you have already forgotten my commands. Holy St. Nicholas, what a bad memory the boy has! Why, he can't be trusted to do business: I must attend to the shop myself. Out of the way! march!"
He swung his terrible whip; and Gregor, with his two assistants, darted under the counter, and made their escape. The Prince then entered the booth, took up a yard-stick, and cried out in a voice which could be heard from one end of the town to the other,—"Ladies and gentlemen, have the kindness to come and examine our stock of goods! We have silks and satins, and all kinds of ladies' wear; also velvet, cloth, cotton, and linen for the gentlemen. Will your Lordships deign to choose? Here are stockings and handkerchiefs of the finest. We understand how to measure, your Lordships, and we sell cheap. We give no change, and take no small money. Whoever has no cash may have credit. Every thing sold below cost, on account of closing up the establishment. Ladies and gentlemen, give us a call?"
Everybody in Kinesma flocked to the booth, and for three hours Prince Alexis measured and sold, either for scant cash or long credit, until the last article had been disposed of and the shelves were empty. There was great rejoicing in the community over the bargains made that day. When all was over, Gregor was summoned, and the cash received paid into his hands.
"It won't take you long to count it," said the Prince; "but here is a list of debts to be collected, which will furnish you with pleasant occupation, and enable you to exercise your memory. Would your Worship condescend to take dinner to-day with your humble assistant? He would esteem it a favor to be permitted to wait upon you with whatever his poor house can supply."
Gregor gave a glance at the whip under the Prince's arm, and begged to be excused. But the latter would take no denial, and carried out the comedy to the end by giving the merchant the place of honor at his table, and dismissing him with the present of a fine pup of his favorite breed. Perhaps the animal acted as a mnemonic symbol, for Gregor was never afterwards accused of forgetfulness.
If this trick put the Prince in a good humor, some thing presently occurred which carried him to the opposite extreme. While taking his customary siesta one afternoon, a wild young fellow—one of his noble poor relations, who "sponged" at the castle—happened to pass along a corridor outside of the very hall where his Highness was snoring. Two ladies in waiting looked down from an upper window. The young fellow perceived them, and made signs to attract their attention. Having succeeded in this, he attempted, by all sorts of antics and grimaces, to make them laugh or speak; but he failed, for the slumber-flag waved over them, and its fear was upon them. Then, in a freak of incredible rashness, he sang, in a loud voice, the first line of a popular ditty, and took to his heels.
No one had ever before dared to insult the sacred quiet. The Prince was on his feet in a moment, and rushed into the corridor, (dropping his mantle of sables by the way,) shouting.—
"Bring me the wretch who sang!"
The domestics scattered before him, for his face was terrible to look upon. Some of them had heard the voice, indeed, but not one of them had seen the culprit, who al ready lay upon a heap of hay in one of the stables, and appeared to be sunk in innocent sleep.
"Who was it? who was it?" yelled the Prince, foaming at the mouth with rage, as he rushed from chamber to chamber.
At last he halted at the top of the great flight of steps leading into the court-yard, and repeated his demand in a voice of thunder.
The servants, trembling, kept at a safe distance, and some of them ventured to state that the offender could not be discovered. The Prince turned and entered one of the state apartments, whence came the sound of porcelain smashed on the floor, and mirrors shivered on the walls.
Whenever they heard that sound, the immates of the castle knew that a hurricane was let loose.
They deliberated hurriedly and anxiously. What was to be done? In his fits of blind animal rage, there was nothing of which the Prince was not capable, and the fit could be allayed only by finding a victim. No one, however, was willing to be a Curtius for the others, and meanwhile the storm was increasing from minute to minute. Some of the more active and shrewd of the household pitched upon the leader of the band, a simple-minded, good-natured serf, named Waska. They entreated him to take upon himself the crime of having sung, offering to have his punishment mitigated in every possible way. He was proof against their tears, but not against the money which they finally offered, in order to avert the storm. The agreement was made, although Waska both scratched his head and shook it, as he reflected upon the probable result.
The Prince, after his work of destruction, again appeared upon the steps, and with hoarse voice and flashing eyes, began to announce that every soul in the castle should receive a hundred lashes, when a noise was heard in the court, and amid cries of "Here he is!" "We've got him, Highness!" the poor Waska, bound hand and foot, was brought forward. They placed him at the bottom of the steps. The Prince descended until the two stood face to face. The others looked on from courtyard, door, and window. A pause ensued, during which no one dared to breathe.
At last Prince Alexis spoke, in a loud and terrible voice—
"It was you who sang it?"
"Yes, your Highness, it was I," Waska replied, in a scarcely audible tone, dropping his head and mechanically drawing his shoulders together, as if shrinking from the coming blow.
It was full three minutes before the Prince again spoke. He still held the whip in his hand, his eyes fixed and the muscles of his face rigid. All at once the spell seemed to dissolve: his hand fell, and he said in his ordinary voice—
"You sing remarkably well. Go, now: you shall have ten rubles and an embroidered caftan for your singing."
But any one would have made a great mistake who dared to awaken Prince Alexis a second time in the same manner.
Prince Boris, in St. Petersburg, adopted the usual habits of his class. He dressed elegantly; he drove a dashing troika; he played, and lost more frequently than he won; he took no special pains to shun any form of fashionable dissipation. His money went fast, it is true; but twenty-five thousand rubles was a large sum in those days, and Boris did not inherit his father's expensive constitution. He was presented to the Empress; but his thin face, and mild, melancholy eyes did not make much impression upon that ponderous woman. He frequented the salons of the nobility, but saw no face so beautiful as that of Parashka, the serf-maiden who personated Venus for Simon Petrovitch. The fact is, he had a dim, undeveloped instinct of culture, and a crude, half-conscious worship of beauty,—both of which qualities found just enough nourishment in the life of the capital to tantalize and never satisfy his nature. He was excited by his new experience, but hardly happier.
Although but three-and-twenty, he would never know the rich, vital glow with which youth rushes to clasp all forms of sensation.
He had seen, almost daily, in his father's castle, excess in its most excessive development. It had grown to be repulsive, and he knew not how to fill the void in his life. With a single spark of genius, and a little more culture, he might have become a passable author or artist; but he was doomed to be one of those deaf and dumb natures that see the movements of the lips of others, yet have no conception of sound. No wonder his savage old father looked upon him with contempt, for even his vices were without strength or character.
The dark winter days passed by, one by one, and the first week of Lent had already arrived to subdue the glittering festivities of the court, when the only genuine adventure of the season happened to the young Prince. For adventures, in the conventional sense of the word, he was not distinguished; whatever came to him must come by its own force, or the force of destiny.
One raw, gloomy evening, as dusk was setting in, he saw a female figure in a droschky, which was about turning from the great Morskoi into the Gorokhovaya (Pea) Street. He noticed, listlessly, that the lady was dressed in black, closely veiled, and appeared to be urging the istvostchik (driver) to make better speed. The latter cut his horse sharply: it sprang forward, just at the turning, and the droschky, striking a lamp-post was instantly overturned. The lady, hurled with great force upon the solidly frozen snow, lay motionless, which the driver observing, he righted the sled and drove off at full speed, without looking behind him. It was not inhumanity, but fear of the knout that hurried him away.
Prince Boris looked up and down the Morskoi, but perceived no one near at hand. He then knelt upon the snow, lifted the lady's head to his knee, and threw back her veil. A face so lovely, in spite of its deadly pallor, he had never before seen. Never had he even imagined so perfect an oval, such a sweet, fair forehead, such delicately pencilled brows, so fine and straight a nose, such wonderful beauty of mouth and chin. It was fortunate that she was not very severely stunned, for Prince Boris was not only ignorant of the usual modes of restoration in such cases, but he totally forgot their necessity, in his rapt contemplation of the lady's face. Presently she opened her eyes, and they dwelt, expressionless, but bewildering in their darkness and depth, upon his own, while her consciousness of things slowly returned.
She strove to rise, and Boris gently lifted and supported her. She would have withdrawn from his helping arm, but was still too weak from the shock. He, also, was confused and (strange to say) embarrassed; but he had self-possession enough to shout, "Davei!" (Here!) at random. The call was answered from the Admiralty Square; a sled dashed up the Gorokhovaya and halted beside him. Taking the single seat, he lifted her gently upon his lap and held her very tenderly in his arms.
"Where?" asked the istvostchik.
Boris was about to answer "Anywhere!" but the lady whispered in a voice of silver sweetness, the name of a remote street, near the Smolnoi Church.
As the Prince wrapped the ends of his sable pelisse about her, he noticed that her furs were of the common foxskin worn by the middle classes. They, with her heavy boots and the threadbare cloth of her garments, by no means justified his first suspicion,—that she was a grande dame, engaged in some romantic "adventure." She was not more than nineteen or twenty years of age, and he felt—without knowing what it was—the atmosphere of sweet, womanly purity and innocence which surrounded her. The shyness of a lost boyhood surprised him.
By the time they had reached the Litenie, she had fully recovered her consciousness and a portion of her strength. She drew away from him as much as the narrow sled would allow.
"You have been very kind, sir, and I thank you," she said; "but I am now able to go home without your further assistance."
"By no means, lady!" said the Prince. "The streets are rough, and here are no lamps. If a second accident were to happen, you would be helpless. Will you not allow me to protect you?"
She looked him in the face. In the dusky light, she saw not the peevish, weary features of the worldling, but only the imploring softness of his eyes, the full and perfect honesty of his present emotion. She made no further objection; perhaps she was glad that she could trust the elegant stranger.
Boris, never before at a loss for words, even in the presence of the Empress, was astonished to find how awkward were his attempts at conversation. She was presently the more self-possessed of the two, and nothing was ever so sweet to his ears as the few commonplace remarks she uttered. In spite of the darkness and the chilly air, the sled seemed to fly like lightning. Before he supposed they had made half the way, she gave a sign to the istvostchik, and they drew up before a plain house of squared logs.
The two lower windows were lighted, and the dark figure of an old man, with a skull-cap upon his head, was framed in one of them. It vanished as the sled stopped; the door was thrown open and the man came forth hurriedly, followed by a Russian nurse with a lantern.
"Helena, my child, art thou come at last? What has befallen thee?"
He would evidently have said more, but the sight of Prince Boris caused him to pause, while a quick shade of suspicion and alarm passed over his face. The Prince stepped forward, instantly relieved of his unaccustomed timidity, and rapidly described the accident. The old nurse Katinka, had meanwhile assisted the lovely Helena into the house.
The old man turned to follow, shivering in the night-air. Suddenly recollecting himself, he begged the Prince to enter and take some refreshments, but with the air and tone of a man who hopes that his invitation will not be accepted. If such was really his hope, he was disappointed; for Boris instantly commanded the istvostchik to wait for him, and entered the humble dwelling.
The apartment into which he was ushered was spacious, and plainly, yet not shabbily furnished. A violoncello and clavichord, with several portfolios of music, and scattered sheets of ruled paper, proclaimed the profession or the taste of the occupant. Having excused himself a moment to look after his daughter's condition, the old man, on his return, found Boris turning over the leaves of a musical work.
"You see my profession," he said. "I teach music?"
"Do you not compose?" asked the Prince.
"That was once my ambition. I was a pupil of Sebastian Bach. But— circumstances—necessity—brought me here. Other lives changed the direction of mine. It was right!"
"You mean your daughter's?" the Prince gently suggested.
"Hers and her mother's. Our story was well known in St. Petersburg twenty years ago, but I suppose no one recollects it now. My wife was the daughter of a Baron von Plauen, and loved music and myself better than her home and a titled bridegroom. She escaped, we united our lives, suffered and were happy together,—and she died. That is all."
Further conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Helena, with steaming glasses of tea. She was even lovelier than before. Her closefitting dress revealed the symmetry of her form, and the quiet, unstudied grace of her movements. Although her garments were of well-worn material, the lace which covered her bosom was genuine point d'Alencon, of an old and rare pattern. Boris felt that her air and manner were thoroughly noble; he rose and saluted her with the profoundest respect.
In spite of the singular delight which her presence occasioned him, he was careful not to prolong his visit beyond the limits of strict etiquette. His name, Boris Alexeivitch, only revealed to his guests the name of his father, without his rank; and when he stated that he was employed in one of the Departments, (which was true in a measure, for he was a staff officer,) they could only look upon him as being, at best, a member of some family whose recent elevation to the nobility did not release them from the necessity of Government service. Of course he employed the usual pretext of wishing to study music, and either by that or some other stratagem managed to leave matters in such a shape that a second visit could not occasion surprise.
As the sled glided homewards over the crackling snow, he was obliged to confess the existence of a new and powerful excitement. Was it the chance of an adventure, such as certain of his comrades were continually seeking? He thought not; no, decidedly not. Was it—could it be—love? He really could not tell; he had not the slightset idea what love was like.
It was something at least, that the plastic and not un-virtuous nature of the young man was directed towards a definite object. The elements out of which he was made, although somewhat diluted, were active enough to make him uncomfortable, so long as they remained in a confused state. He had very little power of introversion, but he was sensible that his temperament was changing,—that he grew more cheerful and contented with life,—that a chasm somewhere was filling up,—just in proportion as his acquaintance with the old music-master and his daughter became more familiar. His visits were made so brief, were so adroitly timed and accounted for by circumstances, that by the close of Lent he could feel justified in making the Easter call of a friend, and claim its attendant privileges, without fear of being repulsed.
That Easter call was an era in his life. At the risk of his wealth and rank being suspected, he dressed himself in new and rich garments, and hurried away towards the Smolnoi. The old nurse, Katinka, in her scarlet gown, opened the door for him, and was the first to say, "Christ is arisen!" What could he do but give her the usual kiss? Formerly he had kissed hundreds of serfs, men and women, on the sacred anniversary, with a passive good-will. But Katinka's kiss seemed bitter, and he secretly rubbed his mouth after it. The music-master came next: grisly though he might be, he was the St. Peter who stood at the gate of heaven. Then entered Helena, in white, like an angel. He took her hand, pronounced the Easter greeting, and scarcely waited for the answer, "Truly he has arisen!" before his lips found the way to hers. For a second they warmly trembled and glowed together; and in another second some new and sweet and subtle relation seemed to be established between their natures.
That night Prince Boris wrote a long letter to his "chere maman," in piquantly misspelt French, giving her the gossip of the court, and such family news as she usually craved. The purport of the letter, however, was only disclosed in the final paragraph, and then in so negative a way that it is doubtful whether the Princess Martha fully understood it.
"Poing de mariajes pour moix!" he wrote,—but we will drop the original,—"I don't think of such a thing yet. Pashkoff dropped a hint, the other day, but I kept my eyes shut. Perhaps you remember her?—fat, thick lips, and crooked teeth. Natalie D—— said to me, 'Have you ever been in love, Prince?" HAVE I, MAMAN? I did not know what answer to make. What is love? How does one feel, when one has it? They laugh at it here, and of course I should not wish to do what is laughable. Give me a hint: forewarned is forearmed, you know,'"—etc., etc.
Perhaps the Princess Martha DID suspect something; perhaps some word in her son's letter touched a secret spot far back in her memory, and renewed a dim, if not very intelligible, pain. She answered his question at length, in the style of the popular French romances of that day. She had much to say of dew and roses, turtledoves and the arrows of Cupid.
"Ask thyself," she wrote, "whether felicity comes with her presence, and distraction with her absence,—whether her eyes make the morning brighter for thee, and her tears fall upon thy heart like molten lava,— whether heaven would be black and dismal without her company, and the flames of hell turn into roses under her feet."
It was very evident that the good Princess Martha had never felt—nay, did not comprehend—a passion such as she described.
Prince Boris, however, whose veneration for his mother was unbounded, took her words literally, and applied the questions to himself. Although he found it difficult, in good faith and sincerity, to answer all of them affirmatively (he was puzzled, for instance, to know the sensation of molten lava falling upon the heart), yet the general conclusion was inevitable: Helena was necessary to his happiness.
Instead of returning to Kinesma for the summer, as had been arranged, he determined to remain in St. Petersburg, under the pretence of devoting himself to military studies. This change of plan occasioned more disappointment to the Princess Martha than vexation to Prince Alexis. The latter only growled at the prospect of being called upon to advance a further supply of rubles, slightly comforting himself with the muttered reflection,—
"Perhaps the brat will make a man of himself, after all."
It was not many weeks, in fact, before the expected petition came to hand. The Princess Martha had also foreseen it, and instructed her son how to attack his father's weak side. The latter was furiously jealous of certain other noblemen of nearly equal wealth, who were with him at the court of Peter the Great, as their sons now were at that of Elizabeth. Boris compared the splendor of these young noblemen with his own moderate estate, fabled a few "adventures" and drinking-bouts, and announced his determination of doing honor to the name which Prince Alexis of Kinesma had left behind him in the capital.
There was cursing at the castle when the letter arrived. Many serfs felt the sting of the short whip, the slumber-flag was hoisted five minutes later than usual, and the consumption of Cognac was alarming; but no mirror was smashed, and when Prince Alexis read the letter to his poor relations, he even chuckled over some portions of it. Boris had boldly demanded twenty thousand rubles, in the desperate hope of receiving half that amount,—and he had calculated correctly.
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