Chapter 6

Princess Betsy drove home from the theater without waiting for the end of the last act. She had just time enough to go into her dressing room, sprinkle her long, pale face with powder, rub it off, set her dress to rights, and order tea in the big drawing room, when one after another carriages drove up to her huge house on the Bolshaia Morskaia. Her guests dismounted at the wide entrance, and the stout porter, who used to read newspapers mornings behind the glass door, to the edification of the passers- by, noiselessly opened the immense door, letting the visitors pass by him into the house.

Almost at the same instant that the hostess, with freshly arranged coiffure and freshened face, entered at one door, her guests entered at the other, into the drawing room, a large room with dark walls, downy rugs and a brightly lighted table, gleaming with the light of candles, the whiteness of napery, the silver of the samovar and the tea service of transparent porcelain.

The hostess sat down at the samovar and took off her gloves. Chairs were set with the aid of footmen, moving almost imperceptibly about the room; the party settled itself, divided into two groups: one round the samovar near the hostess, the other at the opposite end of the drawing room, round the handsome wife of an ambassador, in black velvet, with sharply defined black eyebrows. In both groups conversation wavered, as it always does, for the first few minutes, broken up by meetings, salutations, offers of tea, and, as it were, seeking for some point in common.

`She's exceptionally fine as an actress; one can see she's studied Kaulbach,' said a diplomatist in the circle of the ambassador's wife. `Did you notice how she fell down?...'

`Oh, please, don't let us talk about Nilsson! No one can possibly say anything new about her,' said a fat, red-faced, flaxen-headed lady, without eyebrows and without chignon, wearing an old silk dress. This was Princess Miaghkaia, noted for her simplicity and the roughness of her manners, and nicknamed enfant terrible. Princess Miaghkaia was seated halfway between the two groups, and, listening to both, took part in the conversation first of one and then of the other. `Three people have used that very phrase about Kaulbach to me today, just as though they had conspired. And I don't know why that phrase should be so much to their liking.'

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

`Do tell us something amusing, yet not spiteful,' said the ambassador's wife, a great proficient in the art of that elegant conversation called by the English small talk. She addressed the diplomatist, who was now at a loss just what to begin upon.

`That is said to be a difficult task - only that which is spiteful is supposed to be amusing,' he began with a smile. `However, I'll make the attempt. Give me a theme. it's all a matter of the theme. If the theme be but given, it's easy enough to embroider it. I often think that the celebrated conversationalists of the last century would find it difficult to talk cleverly now. Everything clever has become such a bore....'

`That has been said long ago,' the ambassador's wife interrupted him, laughing.

The conversation had begun amiably, but just because it was too amiable, it came to a stop again. They had to have recourse to the sure, never-failing remedy - malicious gossip.

`Don't you think there's something Louis Quinze about Tushkevich?' he said, glancing toward a handsome, fair-haired young man, standing at the table.

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

This conversation was kept up, since it depended on allusions to what could not be talked of in that room - that is to say, of the relations of Tushkevich with their hostess.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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