Petersburg Their Dancing Shoes Tapped

The doorbell rang and rang.

Some sort of angel-like creatures came through from the hallway into the ballroom, dressed in blue, white, and pink gowns, silvery, sparkling; they fluttered gauze, fans and silks, exuding all around a beneficial atmosphere of violets, lily of the valley, lilies and tuberoses; their marble-white shoulders, dusted lightly with powder, would within an hour or two be flushed crimson and covered in perspiration; but now, before the dancing, their little faces, their shoulders and their thin, exposed arms seemed even paler and thinner than on ordinary days; all the more considerably did the charm of these creatures somehow restrainedly flare into sparks in their eyes, while the creatures, sheer angelets, formed both rustling and coloured swarms of fluttering muslin; their white fans coiled and uncoiled, causing a light breeze; their dancing shoes tapped.

The doorbell rang and rang.

Cheerfully into the ballroom from the hallway came some kind of firm-chested genii in tight-fitting tailcoats, uniform jackets and pelisses – law students, hussars, high-school students and people who were nothing in particular – with moustaches and without them – all without beards; they exuded all around a kind of reliable joy and reserve. Unobtrusively they penetrated the circle of brilliant gauze and seemed to the young ladies more malleable than wax; and one had only to take one look, and there, here a light, downy fan was already beginning to beat against the chest of a mustachioed genius like a butterfly’s wing that had settled trustfully on that chest, and the firm-chested hussar would shyly begin to exchange his frivolous hints with the young ladies; with precisely the same caution do we incline our face to a gentle moth that has happened to settle on our finger. And on the red background of the hussar’s gold-textured attire, as against the magnificent rising of a fabulous sun, the slightly rosy profile stood out clearly and simply; the accumulating whirlwind of the waltz would soon turn the slightly rosy profile of the innocent angel into the profile of a fiery demon.

The Tsukatovs were not, strictly speaking, giving a ball: it was at most only a children’s party in which grown-ups wanted to take part; to be sure, there was a rumour that maskers would be coming to the party; the prospect of their appearance surprised Lyubov’ Alekseyevna, it had to be said; after all, it was not Christmas; but such, evidently, were the traditions of her charming husband that for the sake of dancing and children’s laughter he was prepared to break all the statutes of the calendar; her charming husband, the possessor of two silver side-whiskers, was even to this day called Coco. In this dancing household he was, it goes without saying, Nikolai Petrovich, the household’s head and the father of two pretty daughters of eighteen and fifteen respectively.

These charming fair-haired creatures were dressed in gauzy gowns and silver dancing shoes. Ever since eight o’clock they had been waving their feathery fans at their father, at the housekeeper, at the chambermaid, and even … at the venerable zemstvo official10 of mastodon-like proportions (a relative of Coco’s) who was staying in the house. At last the long-awaited timid ring was heard; the door of the brightly lit ballroom flew open; and tightly clad in his tailcoat, a ballroom pianist, resembling a black, long-legged bird, rubbing his hands, very nearly tripped over a passing waiter (who had been summoned to this glittering house on the occasion of the ball); in the waiter’s hands a cardboard sheet completely covered with cotillion trinkets began to rattle, began to tremble: medals, ribbons and little bells. The modest ballroom pianist spread out a row of sheet music, raised and lowered the wing of the grand piano, carefully blew the dust off the keys and, without visible purpose, he pressed a pedal with his gleaming shoe, putting one in mind of a conscientious engine driver testing the boilers of his locomotive before the train left the station. Having convinced himself that the instrument was working properly, the modest ballroom pianist gathered up the tails of his coat, sat down on the low piano stool, flung back his whole body, let his fingers fall on the keys, for a moment froze – and a thunderous chord shook the walls: as though a whistle had been sounded, summoning to a long journey.

And now amidst these raptures, as though he were his own man, not anyone else’s, Nikolai Petrovich Tsukatov began to turn round and round with supple movements and, spreading wide the silvery lace of his side-whiskers with his fingers, his bald patch and smoothly shaven chin gleaming, rushed from couple to couple, dropping an innocent joke to a blue-clad young man, firmly poking two fingers at a firm-chested moustache-wearer, saying loudly into the ear of a more respectable man: ‘Oh, let them enjoy themselves: they tell me I have danced my life away; but you know, this innocent enjoyment saved me in my time from many of the sins of youth: from wine, women and cards.’ And amidst these raptures, as though he were not his own man, but someone else’s, somehow idly, biting the thick felt of his little yellow beard, the zemstvo official clumsily stamped, trod on the ladies’ trains, loitered lonely amidst the couples, and then went off to his room.