Early in the morning, considerably earlier even than is fashionable to pay visits in the town of Smolensk, the door of an orange painted house, with balconies and sky-blue pillars was suddenly thrown open, and a lady, wrapped in a long silk cloak of a chess-board pattern, rushed hurriedly into the street, followed by a servant in livery, who wore a cloak with numerous little collars, and a large gold-laced band ornamented his round and carefully brushed hat.
The lady slipped hastily over the steps, and into the open carriage, which had been waiting for her already for some time before the principal entrance of the house. The servant in livery immediately after shut the lady up in the carriage by closing the carriage-door after her, and having put up the steps, he seized the straps, which were fixed behind the carriage, and shouted to the coachman, “drive on!”
The lady in the carriage, being the bearer of the latest news, was, of course, particularly anxious to arrive at her destination with the least possible delay. Every moment she kept peeping out of the window of her carriage, and found to her apparently great annoyance that he had still the other half of her journey to make. Every house which the carriage passed seemed to her to be unusually longer than ordinarily; the chalk coloured workhouse, with its narrow and low windows, stretched itself in the most tiresome length, so much so indeed, that the fair occupant of the carriage could no longer repress her impatience, but exclaimed, “how provoking, this miserable edifice seems to have no end at all!”
Her coachman had already twice received instructions to drive on quicker, and she herself shouted twice to him saying: “you are unbearably slow this morning, Karpuschka! for heaven’s sake hasten, hasten on!”
At last she had arrived at her destination. The carriage stopped before a building of wood, only one story high, but very extensive, painted of a dark slate colour, with white plaster-work ornaments on the top frames of the windows, with a wooden railing projecting as far as the pavement, behind which a few scanty-looking poplars were growing, the leaves of which were covered with imperishable dust, heaped upon them by continual winds. In every one of the numerous windows, flower-pots with Dutch tulips, pleasantly relieved the gloomy slate-colour of the house, a parrot was balancing himself to and fro in his cage, trying to catch with his beak the ring in it; and two lap-dogs were lying on a cushion in one of the windows, enjoying the early rays of the rising sun. In this house dwelt the very intimate friend of the lady who had just arrived in her carriage.
The author feels considerably embarrassed as to the names of the two ladies, because in the Russian language it happened that the real names of the two ladies conveyed the most fitting idea of their character, and which it would be nearly impossible to render properly in English. Many an author is often embarrassed for a name, and many another not at all, as for ourselves, we must confess, we feel really considerably so. There are persons that say: “What is there in a name?” Nothing! With those persons we beg to differ considerably, because we are of the opinion, and maintain it, that there is much, if not all in a name. To wit, the name of Nicholas! does it not convey the idea of the most, barbarous, if not the most unchristian potentate of Europe? reigning over sixty-two millions, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine other unfortunate barbarians! (since we are in free England, we beg to exclude ourselves from making up the even number of sixty-three millions, at which enormous amount the faithful subjects of his Imperial Majesty have been computed, according to the latest statistics of the Empire.)
Again, the name of Victoria! does it not convey an idea of the most Christian and lovely Queen that reigns over the most enlightened, and most liberal nation in Christendom? And since the prestige of these two names cannot be denied, we feel still more confirmed in our opinion that there is much, if not all in a name.
And for this reason we will also christen in the most conscientious, and in the most fitting English expression, the two ladies we ye now about to introduce to our fair readers.
Without any further apologies and preliminaries, then, we will call the lady who received the early morning visit of her friend, simply and thus, as she was well known in Smolensk: “the in every respect amiable lady.” This name she had acquired in the most legitimate manner indeed, because she stood on no sacrifices to be always amiable to the highest degree of amiability. Though, of course, her passionate feminine character made but too frequent incursions upon her reputation of perfect amiability; and though in each of her amiable qualities, and especially words, there seemed pins and needles hidden; and, good Heaven! preserve that lady who would dare to presume in anything to be the first, for such presumption was sufficient to make the blood boil in the very heart of the in every respect amiable lady.
But all these amiable qualities were hidden under the most exquisite taste and fashion. Each of her movements was impregnated and executed with much gracefulness and taste, she was even very fond of poetry, and knew also how to incline her head into a musing attitude in a word, all were of opinion that she was really and in every respect, the most amiable lady in Smolensk.
The other lady, namely, the one that had arrived in her carriage, was not of such a polyhedrical character, and for that reason we shall call her; the simply amiable lady. The arrival of the latter lady awakened at once the little lap-dogs that were lying in the sun; the longhaired Adèle that was always entangled in her own wool, and the proud Popuri upon his fine high legs. Both dogs barking, rushed with their tails in the air towards the ante-room, where the visiting lady was at once disembarrassed of her silk cloak of a chess-board pattern, and she appeared now in the reception-room, dressed in the latest fashion for a morning visit. She wore a light-coloured muslin dress, also of a fashionable colour and pattern.
Scarcely had the in every respect amiable lady heard of the arrival of her intimate friend, the simply amiable lady, when she hurried out of her bed-room to receive her. The ladies seized each other’s hands, kissed one another most affectionately, and exclaimed both at the same time, like two young girls will do on meeting again after having left the imperial institution, and when their dear mamma has not yet had an opportunity to whisper to them, that the father of the one is poorer and lower in rank than the other.
The friendly kiss was a loud one, because of the renewed barking of the two dogs, who were frightened away with a shawl, and both ladies proceeded at once into the boudoir, which was of course decorated with sky-blue coloured paper-hangings, curtains and furniture, with numerous rocking chairs and easy sofas, with an oval table inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a rich mantel-piece, decorated with malachite nick-nacks, relieved in bronze, while here and there stood a few sky-blue screens; the ladies were followed by the woolly Adèle and the proudly stepping legs.
“Here, here, my dear, in this snug little corner!” said the mistress of the house, whilst seating her guest into the very corner of her elegant sofa. “That is right! take this cushion to lean upon, and now I am sure you will feel comfortable!”
Saying this, she placed a cushion, embroidered in wool behind her friend’s back; it represented a troubadour with a guitar slung around his neck, such as are usually embroidered upon canvass: his nose resembled a ladder, and as for his lips, they were regular squares.
“How very glad I am indeed to see that it is you. I heard a carriage stopping before the door, but could not for a moment imagine whoever could come so very early; my chambermaid thought it was the wife of our Vice-Governor, and I said immediately: how provoking, she is such an insipid woman; and I was on the point of giving orders to say that I was not at home.”
Her guest was just on the point of plunging at once in medias res, and communicating to her friend the important news she had brought; but the sudden exclamation of the in every respect amiable lady, gave at once another direction to their conversation.
“What a gay-coloured muslin!” exclaimed the in every respect amiable lady, as she cast a glance upon the dress of the simply amiable lady.
“Yes, a very lively-coloured one indeed. My cousin, Praskovia Fedorovna, however, thinks, that it would have been prettier, if the checks in it were smaller, and the little dots in them blue instead of brown. By the bye, I sent the other day, a dress for my sister, which was really so very charming, that it is quite impossible to describe it in words; imagine only, my dear, small stripes, as small as human imagination can possibly fancy them, on a blue ground, and across these stripes, little eyes and paws—eyes and paws—eyes and paws. In a word, charming! incomparable! I may really say that anything similar has not yet been seen before.”
“My darling love, that is too showy.”
“Oh, no, my angel, it is far from being showy.”
“I can assure you it is!”
We must observe here, that the in every respect amiable lady, was in many other respects also a great materialist, inclined to contradictions and doubts, and fond of questioning a great many other things in this world.
As for the simply amiable lady, she simply explained to her friend, that the dress she had sent to her sister, was far from being showy at all, and continued: “by the bye, allow me to compliment you on a change in fashion; volants are to be worn no longer!”
“Good gracious! what do you say, out of fashion?”
“Yes, indeed, and instead of them we are to wear festoons.”
“Surely, that cannot be pretty, festoons?
“Festoons, all and nothing but festoons; the mantles are worn with festoons, the sleeves have festoons, the epaulettes are made of festoons, below festoons, everywhere festoons.”
“Oh, I’m sure it won’t be nice, my dear Sophia Ivanovna, if all and everything is to be worn with festoons.”
“It is really charming, my own Anna Grigorievna, incredibly charming; they are sewn in two rows: and above—oh, really, you would be amazed if I was to describe to you all the particulars. Now then, listen to me and be astonished: imagine only, the waist is worn still longer, the body very full over the chest, and as for the corset and the whale-bones in it, it is really passing belief; the skirt is made very ample all around, as they used to wear phisms in former days, a little wadding is discreetly introduced behind so as to make of you a perfectly belle femme.”
“I must confess, this is rather too much!” said the in every respect amiable lady, with a dignified movement of the head.
“I say as much; it is really going too far!” replied the simply amiable lady.
“Please yourself as to adopting this novelty; for my own part, I am determined not to submit to this ridiculous innovation.”
“I thought of doing as much. Really, when you come to consider it, to what absurdities fashion may lead you; it is perfectly ridiculous to think of it! I asked my sister to send me the pattern from St. Petersburg just to look and smile at it; Mélanie, my dressmaker, however, insisted upon making me a dress like it.”
“Have you really got the pattern of it, my dearest?” asked quickly the in every respect amiable lady, not without visible emotion.
“Indeed, I have, since my sister sent it me the other day.”
“My darling pet, pray give it to me, I entreat you by all that is sacred.”
“Alas, I have promised it already to my cousin, Paskovia Fedorovna. Would you like to have it afterwards?”
“Surely, you don’t expect me to accept of it after Paskovia Fedorovna has had it? Really, that would be rather strange behaviour on your part, were you to give the preference to others but me.”
“But my dear Anna Grigorievna, you seem to forget that she is my cousin.”
“Heaven knows what cousin she is to you! on your husband’s side perhaps. No, Sophia Ivanovna, I will not even listen, this is exceeding all bounds. You wish to slight me; it seems you are tired of me, you wish to break up our acquaintance and friendship.”
Poor Sophia Ivanovna was completely at a loss what to do. She felt acutely, between what burning fires she had placed herself. How silly it was of her to have boasted of her pattern! She was now ready to prick her indiscreet tongue with a needle. Fortunately, however, the conversation was suddenly changed to an even more interesting topic, and she was relieved from her painful position.