It is thus that Tchichikoff entertained the ladies, or rather, and better, it is thus that the ladies entertained and surrounded him on all sides with their chit-chat, interspersing it with endless insinuations and fine allegories, which were left for him to guess and interpret to the best of his intelligence, which, however, caused the perspiration to appear in large drops on his forehead; he was so captivated by their amiability that he had entirely forgotten to pay his tribute of respect in the first instance to the lady of the house. He only bethought himself of his forgetfulness, when her ladyship had been already standing for a few moments before him.
Her Excellency, the wife of the Lord-Lieutenant, said in a more than flattering tone of voice, and with a graceful movement of the head; “Ah, Pavel Ivanovitch, at last I have the pleasure to meet you!” I cannot exactly remember the words her Excellency spoke on that occasion, but they were full of that peculiar affability, which is used in modern novels, describing the fashions in high circles. Our hero turned round, and was just on the point of returning the compliment of her ladyship, and perhaps with as much good taste as any other hero of a novel, when suddenly raising his eyes, he stopped short, as if from the effects of an electric stroke.
Before him stood her ladyship, but not alone. She gave her arm to a charming blondine, with fine and regular features, with a round yet pointed chin, a bewitching oval face, such a head as an artiste would have chosen as a model for his Madonna, and which faces are indeed very rare appearances in Russia, where a taste for strongly developed forms is prevalent in everything, in mountains, in forests, and in steppes, in faces, in lips and in feet; it was the same fair blonde with whom he met on his road when leaving Nosdrieff’s estate, and when, through the inadvertence of the coachmen, or the fault of the horses, their carriages had come into collision, and given so much trouble to the peasants to separate and bring them in order again. Tchichikoff became so much confused at seeing her that he could not utter a sensible phrase, and therefore stammered a few words, Heaven knows what, but something which a hero of a modern novel would never have ventured.
“You do not know my daughter?” said her Excellency; “she has just left, her Majesty’s institute at St. Petersburg.”
He answered, that he had had already the good fortune of making her acquaintance, accidentally; he then made an attempt to add something more, but that something more, would not pass his lips. Her ladyship, addressed a few more words to him, and then left him in leading away her daughter to the other end of the saloon, to introduce her child to her other guests; but Tchichikoff continued to remain on the same spot, as if riveted to it, like a man, who had left his house in the best humour, and gone into the street with the intention of taking a pleasant walk, with his eyes disposed to look at everything, but suddenly stops short and still, recollecting that he has forgotten something.
No one can look so foolish as a man in such a position; in an instant his careless thoughts desert his countenance, he tries to remember what it is he has forgotten; is it perhaps his handkerchief, but no, his handkerchief is in his pocket; perhaps his purse, but no, it is also in pocket; it seems to him that he has everything about him, and yet something whispers secretly, that he has positively forgotten something. And he will immediately look dull and distractedly upon the passing crowd around him, at the hurrying equipages, at the glittering helmets and arms of the passing soldiery, upon the gaily coloured sign-boards, but all will have lost its former charms for him.
Tchichikoff became at once a stranger to everything that passed around him. At that particular moment, also, numerous insinuations and questions full of a charming curiosity were addressed to him by the fair ladies.
“Are poor mortals of this world permitted to be so curious as to inquire a little, the subject of your meditations?”
“Where are those happy spots on which your thoughts seem to dwell?”
“Would you tell me the names of the one who has plunged you into these sweet meditations?”
Tchichikoff replied to all these phrases with the utmost indifference, and the pleasant phrases fell as it were into the water. He was even to such a degree uncivil, that he soon after left them and went away to the other end of the saloon, wishing to see in what direction her ladyship and daughter had gone. But the ladies seemed not inclined to part with him so soon; everyone of them resolved inwardly to use the most powerful means of aggression upon him, so dangerous to our hearts.
It must be observed that some ladies, I wish it to be understood, that some ladies, only, not all of them, possess a few foibles; if they are conscious that they have any high perfections about their persons, be it a fine forehead, a charming mouth, small hands, they will immediately fancy, that the handsomest part of their person is the first to attract general attention, and that all around on beholding it, will exclaim in one outburst of admiration: “Look here, behold, what a classic Grecian nose she has, or what a marble-like resplendent forehead!” Whoever of them has fine shoulders, is persuaded at first starting, that all the young men will feel perfectly bewitched by her charms, and whisper as she passes them! “heavens, what charming shoulders that lady has!” but as for her face, hair, nose, forehead, they will forget to look at all, and if they should happen to do so, it would be with indifference, as if upon something not forming parts of the same person.
Such were the thoughts of some ladies. Every lady vowed to be as charming as possible during the evening and the dancing, and to expose in all its glory that corporeal perfection, which was perfection itself. The wife of the Postmaster, as she was valsing round, bent her head so longingly on one side, that it was really unmistakeably charming. Another very amiable lady—who had arrived with the intention of not dancing at all, because the reason was the sudden apparition of a small pea-like exuberance on her left toe, in consequence of which she had been obliged to put on a pair of very easy boots—could not resist the temptation to valse once round in her easy boots, to stop as it were the foolish pretentions of the Postmaster’s wife.
But all these well laid out plans and manoeuvres did not produce the desired effect upon Tchichikoff. He even did not notice the circle they had been forming round him, but endeavoured to raise himself on tip-toes and look out if he could discover what had become of the fair blondine; he also tried his fortune in discovering by sitting down and looking across shoulders and heads. At last he was successful, and discovered her, sitting close by her mother’s side, upon whose head a plume fixed to a kind of Turkish turban, was balancing most majestically.
It seemed now, as if Tchichikoff wanted to take them by assault; was it sudden gratification at having found what he had been searching for that acted upon him, or did some careless person push him from behind, but he literally rushed madly forward, heeding no one. The Public Contractor received such a push from him, that the poor man shook, and nearly lost his equilibrium, which might have caused the downfall of a whole range of guests; the Postmaster also stepped back a few paces and kept looking after him with the utmost astonishment, mingled with a smile full of irony, he took no notice of either of them, but rushed quickly forward; he saw but the fair blondine in the distance, who was just putting her white and long kid gloves on, no doubt in preparation for the following dance.
As he passed along, he cast a hasty glance upon four couples who were delighting, as it seemed, in a mazurka; the gentleman’s heels dashed noisily against the floor; a cavalry colonel was dancing with body and soul, and hands and feet, and making such pas as no one perhaps ever executed even in a dream. Tchichikoff glided cleverly through the mazurka and between the high-heels of the dancers, and advanced straight towards the place where the Lord-Lieutenant’s lady was sitting with her daughter beside her. However, he approached them rather timidly, not pacing it so easily as before, nor tripping gallantly and fashionably; he even seemed confused, and a decided embarrassment was undeniably perceptible in all his movements.
It is impossible for us to affirm whether sensations of love had really taken possession, or had been awakened in the bosom of our hero, because it is a matter of some doubt whether gentlemen of his description, namely: not so very stout, and yet not too thin, are still susceptible of the impressions of love; but with all that, there was in his case something so very unusual indeed—a feeling for which he could not account for to himself. It seemed to him, and as he confessed it at a later period, that the whole ball, with all its noisy conversation and boisterous music, seemed for a few minutes to have been removed to some considerable distance from him; the violins and comets-a-piston seemed to be played behind a mountain, and, in fact, all appeared to be covered with a dim mist, not unlike that seen in an unartistic production of an extensive field in a Dutch landscape; and in the midst of this misty and carelessly painted field, appeared prominently, and distinctly, and beautifully finished the fine features of the enchanting blondine.
Her oval pretty face, her graceful and svelt stature, of which only a young girl that has just left the imperial institution may boast, after a short sojourn in the world of fashion, her white, almost too simple, muslin dress, encircling easily and freely her lovely form, which was defined in a peculiarly regular outline. It seemed to him that she resembled a pretty little puppet or plaything artistically carved in ivory; she shone alone, and appeared luminous and bright in the midst of this dismal and impenetrable crowd.