A Hero of Our Time Part 25

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I HAVE seen Vera to-day. She has begun to plague me with her jealousy.

Princess Mary has taken it into her head, it seems, to confide the secrets of her heart to Vera: a happy choice, it must be confessed!

"I can guess what all this is leading to," said Vera to me. "You had better simply tell me at once that you are in love with her."

"But supposing I am not in love with her?"

"Then why run after her, disturb her, agitate her imagination!... Oh, I know you well! Listen--if you wish me to believe you, come to Kislovodsk in a week's time; we shall be moving thither the day after to-morrow.

Princess Mary will remain here longer. Engage lodgings next door to us.

We shall be living in the large house near the spring, on the mezzanine floor. Princess Ligovski will be below us, and next door there is a house belonging to the same landlord, which has not yet been taken...

Will you come?"...

I gave my promise, and this very same day I have sent to engage the lodgings.

Grushnitski came to me at six o'clock and announced that his uniform would be ready to-morrow, just in time for him to go to the ball in it.

"At last I shall dance with her the whole evening through... And then I shall talk to my heart's content," he added.

"When is the ball?"

"Why, to-morrow! Do you not know, then? A great festival--and the local authorities have undertaken to organize it"...

"Let us go to the boulevard"...

"Not on any account, in this nasty cloak"...

"What! Have you ceased to love it?"...

I went out alone, and, meeting Princess Mary I asked her to keep the mazurka for me. She seemed surprised and delighted.

"I thought that you would only dance from necessity as on the last occasion," she said, with a very charming smile...

She does not seem to notice Grushnitski's absence at all.

"You will be agreeably surprised to-morrow," I said to her.

"At what?"

"That is a secret... You will find it out yourself, at the ball."

I finished up the evening at Princess Ligovski's; there were no other guests present except Vera and a certain very amusing, little old gentleman. I was in good spirits, and improvised various extraordinary stories. Princess Mary sat opposite me and listened to my nonsense with such deep, strained, and even tender attention that I grew ashamed of myself. What had become of her vivacity, her coquetry, her caprices, her haughty mien, her contemptuous smile, her absentminded glance?...

Vera noticed everything, and her sickly countenance was a picture of profound grief. She was sitting in the shadow by the window, buried in a wide arm-chair... I pitied her.

Then I related the whole dramatic story of our acquaintances.h.i.+p, our love--concealing it all, of course, under fict.i.tious names.

So vividly did I portray my tenderness, my anxieties, my raptures; in so favourable a light did I exhibit her actions and her character, that involuntarily she had to forgive me for my flirtation with Princess Mary.

She rose, sat down beside us, and brightened up... and it was only at two o'clock in the morning that we remembered that the doctors had ordered her to go to bed at eleven.

CHAPTER X. 13th June.

HALF an hour before the ball, Grushnitski presented himself to me in the full splendour of the uniform of the Line infantry. Attached to his third b.u.t.ton was a little bronze chain, on which hung a double lorgnette. Epaulettes of incredible size were bent backwards and upwards in the shape of a cupid's wings; his boots creaked; in his left hand he held cinnamon-coloured kid gloves and a forage-cap, and with his right he kept every moment twisting his frizzled tuft of hair up into tiny curls.

Complacency and at the same time a certain diffidence were depicted upon his face. His festal appearance and proud gait would have made me burst out laughing, if such a proceeding had been in accordance with my intentions.

He threw his cap and gloves on the table and began to pull down the skirts of his coat and to put himself to rights before the looking-gla.s.s. An enormous black handkerchief, which was twisted into a very high stiffener for his cravat, and the bristles of which supported his chin, stuck out an inch over his collar. It seemed to him to be rather small, and he drew it up as far as his ears. As a result of that hard work--the collar of his uniform being very tight and uncomfortable--he grew red in the face.

"They say you have been courting my princess terribly these last few days?" he said, rather carelessly and without looking at me.

"'Where are we fools to drink tea!'" [271] I answered, repeating a pet phrase of one of the cleverest rogues of past times, once celebrated in song by Pushkin. "Tell me, does my uniform fit me well?... Oh, the cursed Jew!... How it cuts me under the armpits!... Have you got any scent?"

"Good gracious, what more do you want? You are reeking of rose pomade as it is."

"Never mind. Give me some"...

He poured half a phial over his cravat, his pocket-handkerchief, his sleeves.

"You are going to dance?" he asked.

"I think not."

"I am afraid I shall have to lead off the mazurka with Princess Mary, and I scarcely know a single figure"...

"Have you asked her to dance the mazurka with you?"

"Not yet"...

"Mind you are not forestalled"...

"Just so, indeed!" he said, striking his forehead. "Good-bye... I will go and wait for her at the entrance."

He seized his forage-cap and ran.

Half an hour later I also set off. The street was dark and deserted.

Around the a.s.sembly rooms, or inn--whichever you prefer--people were thronging. The windows were lighted up, the strains of the regimental band were borne to me on the evening breeze. I walked slowly; I felt melancholy.

"Can it be possible," I thought, "that my sole mission on earth is to destroy the hopes of others? Ever since I began to live and to act, it seems always to have been my fate to play a part in the ending of other people's dramas, as if, but for me, no one could either die or fall into despair! I have been the indispensable person of the fifth act; unwillingly I have played the pitiful part of an executioner or a traitor. What object has fate had in this?... Surely, I have not been appointed by destiny to be an author of middle-cla.s.s tragedies and family romances, or to be a collaborator with the purveyor of stories--for the 'Reader's Library,' [272] for example?... How can I tell?... Are there not many people who, in beginning life, think to end it like Lord Byron or Alexander the Great, and, nevertheless, remain t.i.tular Councillors [273] all their days?"

Entering the saloon, I concealed myself in a crowd of men, and began to make my observations.

Grushnitski was standing beside Princess Mary and saying something with great warmth. She was listening to him absent-mindedly and looking about her, her fan laid to her lips. Impatience was depicted upon her face, her eyes were searching all around for somebody. I went softly behind them in order to listen to their conversation.

"You torture me, Princess!" Grushnitski was saying. "You have changed dreadfully since I saw you last"...

"You, too, have changed," she answered, casting a rapid glance at him, in which he was unable to detect the latent sneer.

"I! Changed?... Oh, never! You know that such a thing is impossible!

A Hero of Our Time Part 25

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A Hero of Our Time Part 25 summary

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