Petersburg A Scandal

Sofya Petrovna Likhutina, when she had handed over the letter, slipped away from her cavalier and sank helplessly on to a soft stool; her arms and legs refused to work.

What had she done?

She saw the red domino running past her into a corner of the empty intermediate room; and there, unnoticed, the domino tore the paper of the envelope; a note began to whisper in brightly rustling hands. The red domino, in his efforts to see the small, minute handwriting of the note better, involuntarily pushed the mask up on to his forehead, making the black lace of his beard reveal through two luxuriant folds the domino’s pale face, as if they were two flaps of a black silk cap; from the trembling flaps that face was thrust, waxen, frozen, with protruding lips, and his hand trembled, and the note trembled in his fingers; and a cold sweat appeared on his forehead.

The red domino did not see Madame Pompadour now, who was watching him from the corner; he was now entirely absorbed in reading; he began to fidget, threw open the satin skirts of his long garment, revealing his ordinary apparel – a dark green frockcoat; Nikolai Apollonovich pulled out his gold pince-nez and, putting it to his eyes, inclined his face towards the little note.

Nikolai Apollonovich jerked right back; his eyes fixed on her with horror; but he did not see her: his lips apparently whispered things that were quite inarticulate – and Sofya Petrovna wanted to rush to him from her corner, because she could no longer endure these widened eyes that were fixed on her. At this point people came into the room; the red domino nervously hid the note in his trembling fingers, withdrawing them into the folds of his garment; but the red domino forgot to lower his mask. Thus he stood, with the mask raised on his forehead, his mouth half open and his eyes unseeing.

Even faster than before did the young girl come rushing into the room again after the waltz in order to cool off; she almost knocked down the zemstvo official, who was for some reason dozing solitarily near the entrance, stopped in front of a pier-glass, set straight a ribbon that had settled in her hair and, putting one foot on a chair, tied her snow-white dancing shoe; she began a suspicious whispering with her female friend, who was also a young girl, hearing the torrent of sounds, the discordant rustling shuffling, the hoarse cries from the drawing-room, the laughter, the peremptory shouts of the master of ceremonies, hearing the barely audible jingling of cavaliers’ spurs.

Suddenly she saw the domino with his unlowered mask; and, having seen him, exclaimed:

‘So that’s who you are! Hello, Nikolai Apollonovich, hello: who could ever have recognized you?’

Sofya Petrovna Likhutina saw Nikolai Apollonovich smile long-sufferingly, dart away somehow strangely, and rush off back to the ballroom.

There stood two rows of dancers, floating away into the delicately blinded gaze in transfusions of mother-of-pearl pink, gris-de-perle, heliotrope, bluish and white velvets and silks: on the silks, on the velvets lay shawls, scarves, veils, fans and beads, on the shoulders lay heavy lace made of silver laminae; at the slightest movement there a scaly spine flashed; everywhere now one could see flushed arms, fingers uncontrollably playing with the laminae of fans, coarsening blotches in the white velvet, rising and falling décolletages and cheeks that were quite crimson, in a haze of coiffures disturbed by dancing.

There stood two rows of dancing couples, floating away into the gaze in black, greenish and bright red hussar cloth, gold collars that cut into chins, padded uniformed chests and padded shoulders, snow-white openings of frockcoat waistcoats that cracked when pressed, and the lustre of frockcoats the colour of ravens’ wings.

Nikolai Apollonovich impetuously flew past the maskers and the cavaliers, moving jerkily on his trembling legs; and his blood-red satin cape trailed after him over the lacquered tiles of the parquetry, only barely registering itself on the tiles of the parquetry like a flying, crimson ripple of its own reflections; crimson, that ripple, like an unsteady red lightning, licked the parquetry in front of the monstrous runner.

This flight of the red domino with the mask raised on to his forehead, beneath which the face of Nikolai Apollonovich protruded in front, caused a real scandal; the merry couples rushed from the spot; one young lady had a fit of hysterics; while two maskers suddenly revealed their bewildered faces in fright; and when, having recognized the fleeing Ableukhov, Leib Hussar Shporyshev grabbed him by the sleeve with the words: ‘Nikolai Apollonovich, Nikolai Apollonovich, for God’s sake tell us what’s the matter with you.’ Nikolai Apollonovich, like a wild beast brought to bay, grinned pathetically with a mad countenance, making an effort to laugh, but did not succeed in smiling; Nikolai Apollonovich, tearing his sleeve loose, disappeared through the doorway.

An indescribable confusion ran through the ballroom; the young ladies and cavaliers busily told one another their impressions; everyone was alarmed; the maskers who had, only just now, been mysteriously fleeting about, all these dark blue little knights, harlequins and Spanish girls, had lost their sense of intrigue; from behind the mask of a two-headed monster that ran up to Shporyshev came a disturbed and familiar voice:

‘For God’s sake explain what all this means!’

And Leib Hussar Shporyshev recognized Verhefden’s voice.

This commotion in the ballroom was instinctively transmitted through the two intermediate rooms and into the drawing-room; and there, there, where the azure globe of the electric chandelier burned, where in the shimmering azure light the drawing-room visitors somehow heavily stood, showing mistily through the suspended flocks of bluish tobacco smoke – these visitors looked with alarm in there – to the ballroom. Among this group the dried-up little figure of the senator stood out, his pale face, as if made of papier mâché, the lips firmly pressed together, his two small side-whiskers and the contours of his greenish ears: precisely thus had he been depicted on the front page of some wretched little street journal.

In the ballroom raged a contagion of surmise, excitement and rumour apropos of the strange, highly strange, exceedingly strange behaviour of the senator’s son; there it was said, in the first place, that this behaviour had been caused by some drama; in the second place, the rumour was started that Nikolai Apollonovich, who had visited the Tsukatovs’ house in secret, was the red domino who was creating a sensation in the press. The meaning of it all was discussed. It was said that the senator knew nothing of it; from afar, from the ballroom, heads nodded towards the drawing-room, where the little figure of the senator now stood and from where his dried-up face protruded indistinctly amidst the suspended flocks of bluish tobacco smoke.