The appearance of our hero at the ball of the Governor of Smolensk created considerable sensation. Every one present turned round to receive him, some even held their playing-cards in their hands, whilst others stopped short in the most interesting part of their conversation, they deserted all and everything to rush forward and greet our hero.
“Pavel Ivanovitch! Good Heavens! here is our Pavel Ivanovitch! Amiable Pavel Ivanovitch! Most worthy Pavel Ivanovitch! Pavel Ivanovitch my soul! Here you are at last, excellent Pavel Ivanovitch! Allow me to embrace you my dear Pavel Ivanovitch! Give him up to me, let me embrace him most passionately, my own dear Pavel Ivanovitch!”
Tchichikoff felt himself suddenly embraced on all sides, without the least chance of preventing it. He had not quite liberated himself from the affectionate embrace of the President, when he found himself already in the arms of the clever Commissioner of Police; the police-master passed him over to the hands of the Inspector of the Medical Institutions; the Inspector of Hospitals gave him up to the arms of the Imperial Contractor, the Contractor to the Architect.
The Lord-Lieutenant, who was standing at that moment and conversing with several ladies and presenting them with some bonbons, left them hurriedly to go and greet his guest, nearly crushing the favourite lap-dog of his lady; in a word, Tchichikoff spread joy and pleasure all around him. There was not a face present that did not express satisfaction, or at least reflect the general gratification that suddenly prevailed over the company assembled. Our hero returned thanks and compliments to every one individually, and felt unusually versatile and cheerful; bowed right and left, as was his habit, slightly inclining towards on side, but with perfect ease, so that he charmed everybody.
The ladies, too, surrounded him like a garland of flowers, and spread as it were a cloud of a thousand perfumes over him: the one was scented like a rose, another like a violet, a third was strongly perfumed with patchouli.
Tchichikoff at first, did nothing else but raise his nose and smell about him. In their dresses there was immense taste; the muslin, satin, and other silk dresses were of such pale and fashionable colours, that it was impossible to find them a proper name, to such a degree had the perfection of taste risen. Ribbon-favours and artificial bouquets, were strewn in great profusion and in the most picturesque disorder all over their dresses, though this disorder must have cost some weary hours to some intelligent dressmaker. The light and graceful headdresses only rested on the tips of the ears, and they seemed to say: “oh, I am flying away, a pity it is that I cannot carry off my fairy herself!” Their waists were exceedingly well laced, and presented to the eye the most solid and well-proportioned forms (we must not forget to observe here, that the ladies of Smolensk were generally inclined to embonpoint, but used to lace so tightly and ingeniously, and were of so very agreeable manners that it was perfectly impossible to notice their fulness of body.)
All was with them, studied and preconcerted with unusual carefulness; their neck and shoulders were uncovered as much as was absolutely necessary, and not a hair’s-breadth farther; every one of them displayed her powerful charms so long until she felt perfectly convinced they had succeeded to ruin the peace of a man; as for their other treasures they remained hidden with much ingenuity; either under a light silken fichu or some Brussels lace surrounding their graceful neck, and called by the ladies “modesties.”
These modesties, wound before and behind, all that which was not calculated to effect the perdition of their admirer, but they allowed him to guess that it was really there that his perdition was hidden. Their long white kid gloves were not drawn up as high as the elbow, but were allowed to remain carelessly wrinkled a little above the hand, which thus displayed to greater advantage the fulness of a charming arm; the long gloves of some of the ladies had even become torn, in consequence of the charming roundness of their arms; in a word, all seemed to be impressed with the idea: no, this is not a provincial town in Russia, it is the capital itself, it is a second Paris.
Nevertheless, here and there an old-fashioned head-dress, never seen before on earth, or an extravagant plume would suddenly appear in the midst of fashion, as it were, to keep up contrast, and follow its own inclination. However, this could not be otherwise, such occurrences are inevitable in provincial towns, they will make their appearance in spite of any precautions. Tchichikoff thus standing and admiring, thought: “I wonder which of them is the mysterious composer of that interesting letter?” and would have dearly liked to stretch forth his neck and nose; but before his very nose he beheld a long range of curls, headdresses, feathers, necks, ribbons, perfumed modesties, and dresses.
A polka-mazurka was just beginning: the Postmaster’s lady, the Capitän-Ispravnik, a lady in a blue plume, a lady in a white plume, the Tcherkessian Prince Chiphaihilidseff, officers, from the guards of St. Petersburg, and imperial employés from Moscow, foreigners and Russians—all started off in a mad dance.
“The whole province is whirling round,” said Tchichikoff, as he retreated into the background; but as soon as the ladies took their seats again after the dance was over, he immediately began to look about in all directions to try if possible, to discover by the expression of their faces or the sparkling of their eyes, who the authoress of the letter might be. Everywhere his eyes met with glances that betrayed a nearly imperceptible expression of captivating attraction, so very imperceptible.
“No,” said Tchichikoff to himself, “women are such subjects, that—” Here he could not help moving about his right arm in the air, and then he continued; “it is perfectly useless to speak of them. If anyone was to attempt to describe or define all that which flushes their faces, the serpentine movements of their muscles, the insinuating glances, all this, and much more, the result would be, that he could define nothing whatever. Their eyes alone, are in themselves an unlimited empire, in which to venture decides the fate of man. From those boundaries he is sure never to return, nor will any mechanical instrument, however cleverly contrived, hook him out of it again. Were I to venture, for an example, to give an idea of their glance: so dewy, velvety. Heaven knows what else their expression and colour conveys to the human mind; there are some looks full of harshness, and others again full of tenderness; some full of longing, or as some say, full of effeminacy, or devoid of this peculiar softness, but what is more dangerous than all these expressions, is to be caught and captivated by such looks, when they pierce the heart, and when you find yourself utterly enthralled. No, it is really impossible to find the right term: the half of the human race devote their lives to gallantry, and to nothing else but that.”
Meanwhile Tchichikoff became more and more bewildered, and incapable of deciding who the fair authoress of the letter might be. As he was trying to give a greater effect to the piercing glance of his eyes, he seemed to discover that the ladies on their part had also increased the expression of their glances, in which he fancied he beheld hope mingled with sweet torments, all calculated to destroy the peace of his tormented heart, so acutely did he seem to feel it, that he at last exclaimed: “No, tis of no use, I cannot guess which it is.”
This, however, did not completely destroy the excellent humour he was in. Unconstrained and with perfect freedom, he proceeded to exchange complimentary remarks with several ladies, approached them with a firm and easy step, or, as they say, he paced it gallantly, as old bachelor-fashionables do in their high-heeled boots, when they have all the appearance of racing mice, running and hopping in turn. Pacing thus gallantly, with graceful inclinations towards the right and towards the left, he executed at the same time with his foot, something like the tail of a shooting star, or uncommonly like a comma.
The ladies were, of course, not only delighted with him, but discovered a variety of more pleasing and fashionable manners in him, and they even thought they perceived in his face the undeniable signs of a high mind and something aristocratic and martial in his countenance, which qualities, as is well known, please ladies exceedingly. On his account there arose nearly a little scandal: it had been observed that Tchichikoff chose to take his position more generally close to the entrance door; some of the ladies having noticed this, hastened immediately a dance was over, to secure a seat in that part of the salon, and if one of them had been more successful than the others, there arose immediately a sensation among them, which threatened to become really serious, for such pushing conduct was pronounced by those who were too late, and of course disappointed, to be highly improper and importunate.