Petersburg The Ball

What is a drawing-room during a merry waltz? It is merely an appendage to the ballroom and a refuge for mammas. But the cunning Lyubov’ Alekseyevna, taking advantage of her husband’s good nature (he had not a single enemy) and her enormous dowry, taking advantage, further, of the fact that their house was profoundly indifferent to everything – everything, that is, apart from dancing, of course – and was therefore a neutral meeting place – taking advantage of all this, the cunning Lyubov’ Alekseyevna, leaving it to her husband to direct the dancing, conceived a desire to direct the meetings of the most varied persons; here meetings took place between: a zemstvo official and a civil service official; a publicist and the director of a government department; a demagogue and a Judophobe. This house had been visited, and even lunched in, by Apollon Apollonovich.

And while Nikolai Petrovich wove the contredanse into unexpected figures, in the indifferently cordial drawing-room more than one conjuncture was woven and unwoven.

People danced here, too, in their own way.

This evening, as usual, drawing-room visitors made their way through the ballroom from time to time; the second to do so was a man of truly antediluvian appearance with a sugar-sweet face that was absentminded to an atrocious degree, with a crease in his frockcoat that had ridden up on his down-covered back, making his unpretentious black half-belt protrude indecently between the tails; he was a professor of statistics; from his chin hung a ragged yellowish beard, and on to his shoulders fell, like thick felt, a mane that had never seen a comb. One was struck by his lower lip, which looked as though it were falling away from his mouth.

The fact was that in view of mounting events there was in preparation something akin to a rapprochement between one of the groups of supporters of, so to speak, if not radical, at any rate thoroughly humane reforms, and the truly patriotic hearts – a rapprochement that was not fundamental but rather conditional, temporarily brought about by the rumbling of the avalanche of mass meetings that was descending on everyone. The supporters of, so to speak, gradual but at any rate thoroughly humane reforms, shaken by the thunder of this terrible avalanche, suddenly in fear began to draw closer to the supporters of the existing norms, but did not make the first move; the liberal professor13 had taken it upon himself, in the name of the common weal, to be the first to step across a threshold which was, so to speak, a fateful one for him. One should not forget that he was respected by the whole of society, and that the latest protest petition had been signed by him; at the latest banquet his goblet had been raised to greet the spring.

But, as he entered the brightly lit ballroom, the professor lost his composure: the bright lights and shimmerings evidently dazzled him; his lower lip fell away from his mouth in surprise; in a most good-natured manner he contemplated the exultant ballroom, jibbed, faltered, took his unfolded handkerchief out of his pocket in order to remove from his moustache the moisture he had brought in from the street, and blinked at the couples who had fallen quiet for a moment between two figures of the quadrille.

Now he was approaching the drawing-room, and the shimmering light of the azure electric chandelier.

The editor’s voice stopped him on the threshold:

‘Do you understand now, madam, the connection between the war with Japan and the Jews who threaten us with a Mongol invasion and with sedition? The antics of our Jews and the emergence of the Boxers in China14 have a most clear and obvious connection.’

‘I understand, now I understand!’

This was Lyubov’ Alekseyevna exclaiming. But the professor stopped in alarm: he, at any rate, remained to the marrow of his bones a liberal and a supporter, so to speak, of thoroughly humane reforms; this was the first time he had been to this house, and he had expected to find Apollon Apollonovich here; of him, however, there was apparently no sign: there was only the editor of a conservative newspaper, that same editor who had just, to express it humanely, thrown at the twenty-five years’ enlightened activity of the gatherer of statistical facts a coagulation of the most indecent filth. And the professor suddenly began to puff and pant, to blink angrily at the editor, began to snort into his ragged beard in a rather ambiguous way, picking up the moisture that hung from his moustache with his bright red lower lip.

But the hostess’s double chin turned first to the professor, then to the editor of the conservative newspaper and, pointing each of them out to the other with her lorgnette, she introduced them to each other, which caused them both to be taken slightly aback, and then each thrust his cold fingers into the hand of the other, pudgy, sweaty ones into pudgy dry ones, liberal-humane ones into ones that were not humane at all.

The professor grew even more embarrassed; he bowed slightly, snorted ambiguously, sat down in an armchair, sank into it, and began to fidget restlessly there. As for the newspaper editor, he continued, as though nothing had happened, his conversation with the hostess that had been interrupted. Ableukhov could have come to the rescue, but … Ableukhov was not there.

Was all this really required of the professor because of a witty conjuncture, a protest petition he had just signed and a goblet that had flown to greet the spring at a banquet?

But the fat man continued:

‘Do you understand, madam, the activity of these Jews and Masons?’

‘I understand, now I understand.’

The liberally grunting and lip-chewing professor could hold out no longer; turning to the hostess, he commented:

‘Allow me, too, madam, to interject a modest remark of my own – a scientific remark: the information being given here has a perfectly clear source of origin.’

But the fat man suddenly interrupted him.

While over there, over there …

Over there the ballroom pianist suddenly and elegantly broke off his musical dance with a thunderous stab in the bass with one hand, while with his other hand he turned a page of music with an expert movement in the twinkling of an eye, and with his hand suspended in the air, his fingers spread expressively between the keyboard and the music, he turned the whole of his body somehow expectantly towards the host, flashing the enamel of his dazzlingly white teeth.

And then, to greet the ballroom pianist’s gesture, Nikolai Petrovich Tsukatov suddenly thrust his smoothly shaven chin out of his raging side-whiskers, making to the ballroom pianist a sign of encouragement and approval; and then with head inclined, as if he were butting space, he somehow hurriedly threw himself in front of the couples at the highlights on the parquetry, twisting the end of one greying side-whisker in two fingers. And after him an angel-like creature flew helplessly, stretching her heliotrope scarf in space. Nikolai Petrovich Tsukatov, having derived inspiration from his dancing flight of fantasy, flew like lightning to the ballroom pianist and roared, like a lion, to the whole ballroom:

‘Pas-de-quatre, s’il vous plait!’

And after him the angel-like creature helplessly flew.

Meanwhile servants appeared, running promptly into the corridor. For some reason tables, stools and chairs were carried out from somewhere and then carried in again; a pile of fresh sandwiches was brought in on a porcelain dish. There was also a chiming of forks. A stack of fragile plates was brought in.

Couple after couple poured into the brightly lit corridor. Jokes were scattered and laughter was scattered in a single, unbroken roar, and in a single unbroken rumbling chairs were moved about.

Puffs of cigarette smoke rose in the corridor, in the smoking room; puffs of cigarette smoke rose in the vestibule. Here, pulling a glove from his fingers and thrusting his hand in his pocket, a young cadet fanned his cheeks with a darkened glove; embracing, two young girls were telling each other some sacred secrets which had, perhaps, only just come into being; brunette talked to blonde, and the little blonde was snorting and biting her delicate little handkerchief.

If one stood in the corridor one could also see a corner of the dining-room, which was packed full with guests; and into there open sandwiches, bowls laden with fruit, bottles of wine, bottles of tart, nose-tingling fizzy drinks were being carried.

Now in the impossibly brightly-lit room only the ballroom pianist remained, gathering his music; thoroughly wiping his hot fingers, carefully passing a soft rag over the keyboard of the grand piano and putting the music into piles, this modest ballroom pianist, in whose presence the servants opened all the vents in the windows one by one, moved off indecisively through the lacquered corridor, resembling a black, long-legged bird. With pleasure he too was thinking of tea and sandwiches.

Through the doors that led into the drawing-room, out of the semi-darkness sailed a lady of forty-five with a fleshy chin that fell on to her corset-supported bosom. And looked through her lorgnette.

While into the ballroom after her sailed a rather fat man whose face was unpleasantly pitted with smallpox scars, and whose belly of respectable proportions was pulled in tight by a crease in his frockcoat.

Somewhere over there, at a distance, the professor of statistics, who until now had been sitting as at daggers drawn, was also plodding along; now he bumped into the zemstvo official, who was standing bored by the passageway, suddenly recognized that official, smiled cordially, and even began to pluck a button on his frockcoat with two fingers, as though he were grasping at a cast sheet-anchor; and now there resounded:

‘According to statistical information … The annual consumption of salt by the average Dutchman …’

And again there resounded:

‘The annual consumption of salt by the normal Spaniard …’

‘According to statistical information …’