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HOME > Classical Novels > The Queen of Spades and other stories > CHAPTER IV.
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(Verse from "Ruslan and Ludmila.")

"Our forefathers were leisurely souls,
Right leisurely did they dine,
And they ladled slow from their silver bowls
The foaming beer and wine."

I must introduce you, gracious reader, to Gavril Afanassievitch Rjevski. He came of an ancient noble race, owned vast estates, was hospitable, loved falconry, had an enormous retinue, and was, in a word, a good old Russian gentleman. In his own words he could not bear anything foreign, and in his home he tried to maintain the customs of the good old days he loved so well. His daughter was seventeen. In childhood she had lost her mother, and she had been brought up in the old-fashioned way, amid a crowd of governesses, nurses, companions, and children from the servants' hall. She could embroider in gold and was[Pg 242] illiterate. Her father, in spite of his dislike to all things foreign, could not oppose her wish to learn German dances from a captive Swedish officer living in their house. This worthy dancing master was about fifty; his right foot had been shot through at the battle of Narva, and therefore it was not very active at minuets and courantes; but the left was very dexterous and agile in the more difficult steps. His young pupil did credit to his teaching. Natalia Gavrilovna was celebrated at these soirees for her dancing, which was partly the cause of Korsakoff's proceedings. He came next morning to apologise to Gavril Afanassievitch. But the young dandy's manner and fine dress displeased the proud barin who nicknamed him the French monkey.

It was a holiday. Gavril Afanassievitch expected a number of friends and relations. In the ancient hall a long table was being laid. The guests were arriving with their wives and daughters, who had at last been released from their domestic prison by the order and by the example of the Tsar. Natalia Gavrilovna handed round a silver tray laden with golden cups, and each guest, as he drained one, regretted that the kiss which accompanied it on such occasions in olden times was out of fashion.

They sat down to table. In the place of honour next the host sat his father-in-law, Prince[Pg 243] Boris Alexeievitch Lykoff, a boyar in his seventieth year. The other guests were placed in order of descent, and thus recalling the happy times of precedence by office, sat down, men on one side, women on the other. At the end of the table, the companion in the old-fashioned dress, a dwarf,—a thirty-year-old infant, affected and wrinkled,—and the captive dancing master in a shabby dark blue uniform, took their accustomed seats. The table, covered with a great number of dishes, was surrounded by numerous and busy servants, distinguishable among whom was the butler, with severe mien, big stomach, and pompous immobility. The first few moments of dinner were devoted entirely to the dishes of our time-honoured Russian cookery. The rattle of plates and the activity of spoons produced a general taciturnity.

At last the host, perceiving that the time had come for entertaining the guests with agreeable conversation, turned and asked:

"Where, then, is Ekimovna? Let her be summoned!"

Several attendants were about to rush off in different directions, when an old woman, painted white and pink, decorated with flowers and tinsel, in a silk damask gown with a low neck, entered, singing and dancing. Her advent occasioned general delight.

[Pg 244]

"Good-day to you, Ekimovna?" said Prince Lykoff. "How are you getting on?"

"Well and healthily, gossip; all night dancing, my suitors awaiting."

"Where have you been, fool?" asked the host.

"Dressing, gossip, to receive the dear guests, on the Lord's festival, by order of the Tsar, by command of the master, to the derision of the world in the German style."

At these words there was a loud burst of laughter, and the jester took her place behind the host's chair.

"And folly talks foolishly, and sometimes tells the truth in her folly," said Tatiana Afanassievna, eldest sister of the host, and much respected by him. "Naturally the present style of dress must seem ridiculous to everybody. When you, my friends, have shaved your beards and put on a short coat, it is of course no use talking of women's rags; but really it is a pity the sarafan, the maiden's ribbons, and the povoinik [a head-dress] should be discarded. It is really sad and comic to see the beauties of to-day, their hair frizzed like flax, greased and covered with French powder, the waist laced in so tight that it seems on the point of snapping—their bodies encased in hoops, so that they have to go sideways through a carriage door.[Pg 245] They stoop; they can neither stand, sit, nor breathe—real martyrs, my poor dears."

"Dear mother Tatiana Afanassievna!" said Kirila Petrovitch, formerly a voievod at Riasan, where he acquired 3,000 serfs and a young wife, neither by strictly honourable means. "But my wife may dress as she likes as long as she does not order new gowns every month and throw away the previous ones, while still quite perfectly new. Formerly the granddaughter included in her dowry the grandmother's sarafan; but now you see the mistress in a gown to-day and to-morrow it is on the maid. What is to be done? Nothing but ruin confronts the Russian noble. Very sad!" he said, with a sigh, looking at his Maria Ilienitchna, who seemed to like neither his praise of olden times nor his disparagement of the latest fashions. The rest of the ladies shared her displeasure, but they said nothing, for modesty was in those days still deemed essential in young women.

"And who is to blame?" asked Gravril Afanassievitch, frothing a mug of kissli shtchi (sort of lemonade). "Is it not our own fault? The young women play the fool and we encourage them."

"What can we do? We cannot help ourselves," replied Kirila Petrovitch. "A man would gladly shut his wife up in the house, but she is summoned with beating of drums to[Pg 246] attend the assemblies. The husband follows the whip, but the wife runs after dress. Oh, those assemblies! T............
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