A Hero of Our Time May 22

The hall of the restaurant had been turned into the Club of the Nobility. At nine o’clock everyone arrived. The princess and her daughter were among the last to appear; many ladies looked at her with envy and ill will because Princess Mary was dressed in such good taste. Those who consider themselves local aristocracy hid their envy and attached themselves to her. What is to be done? Where there is a collection of women, there will instantly appear a higher and a lower circle. Grushnitsky stood by the window, in a crowd of people, having pressed his eyes against the glass and now not allowing them to leave his goddess. Walking past, she nodded her head toward him just perceptibly. He beamed like the sun . . . The dances started with a polonaise; then they began to play a waltz. Spurs started ringing, coattails lifted and twirled.

I stood behind one fat lady, overshadowed by pink feathers; the splendor of her dress reminded me of the times of farthingales—and the mottled colors of her rough skin, of the happy era of black taffeta beauty spots. The biggest wart on her neck was covered by the clasp of her necklace. She was saying to her cavalier, a dragoon captain:

“This young Princess Ligovsky is a highly intolerable girl! Imagine, she bumped into me and didn’t excuse herself, yes and she even turned and looked at me through her lorgnette . . . C’est impayable!12 . . . And what does she have to be proud of? Someone needs to teach her . . .”

“No sooner said than done,” the obliging captain replied and went off to the other room.

I then walked up to the princess, and invited her to waltz, employing the liberal local customs, which allow one to dance with unfamiliar ladies.

She could barely prevent herself from smiling and hiding her sense of triumph. She succeeded, however, quickly enough in striking a pose of complete indifference, even severity: she carelessly extended a hand to my shoulder, bending her head slightly to the side, and we were off. I haven’t known a more voluptuous and supple waist! Her fresh breath touched my face; occasionally a ringlet, which had come loose from its friends in the whirlwind of the waltz, slipped across my hot cheek . . . I did three circuits. (She waltzes surprisingly well.) She was out of breath, her eyes had grown dim, and her half-opened lips could barely whisper the obligatory: “Merci Monsieur.”

After a few minutes of silence, I said to her, with a very humble air:

“I have heard, princess, that though completely unacquainted with you, I already have the unhappiness of having earned your disfavor . . . that you found me to be audacious . . . is it true?”

“And would you now like to confirm that opinion for me?” she replied with an ironic grimace, which, however, well suited her animated physiognomy.

“If I have had the audacity to offend you somehow, then let me have the even greater audacity to beg your forgiveness . . . And, really, I would very much like to prove to you that you are mistaken with regard to me . . .”

“That will be very difficult for you . . .”


“Because you don’t visit us, and these balls, likely, will not be repeated very often.”

This means, I thought, that their doors are forever closed to me.

“Do you know, princess,” I said with a certain vexation, “one must never reject a penitent criminal: he might do something doubly criminal out of despair . . . and then . . .”

A guffaw and whispering in the people surrounding us forced me to turn and cut short my sentence. Several paces away from me stood a group of men, and in their number was the dragoon captain, who had just expressed hostile intentions toward the charming princess. He was especially pleased with something; he was rubbing hands, guffawing, and winking at his friends. Suddenly a gentleman in a frock coat with a long mustache and a flushed face separated from among them, and directed his unsure steps straight for the princess: he was drunk. Stopping in front of the embarrassed princess and putting his hand behind his back, he fixed his cloudy gray eyes on her and pronounced in a wheezy descant:

“Permetay . . . oh now what is it!? . . . Essentially, I’m reserving you for the mazurka . . .”

“What can I do for you?” uttered the princess in a trembling voice, throwing a pleading look around. Alas! Her mother was far away, and none of her friendly cavaliers were nearby; one adjutant, it seems, saw all this and hid behind the crowd, in order not to be caught up in the story.

“What?” said the drunken gentleman, winking at the dragoon captain, who was encouraging him with his gestures. “Aren’t you game? . . . Then I again request the honor of engaging you for the mazurka . . . Maybe you think I’m drunk? No matter! . . . I can assure you it feels a lot more free that way . . .”

I saw that she was ready to faint out of fright and indignation.

I walked up to the drunk gentleman, grabbed him rather firmly by the arm, and, looking at him squarely in the eyes, requested him to move off. “Because,” I added, “the princess long ago promised the mazurka to me.”

“Well, what of it! . . . Another time!” he said, laughing, and withdrew toward his ashamed friends, who immediately led him off to the other room.

I was rewarded with a deep and miraculous look.

The princess walked up to her mother and told her everything, and the latter sought me in the crowd and thanked me. She declared to me that she knew my mother and was friendly with a half dozen of my aunts.

“I don’t know how it has happened that we haven’t met before now,” she added, “but admit that you alone are to blame: you avoid people as I have never seen a person do. I hope that the air of my drawing room will chase away your spleen . . . will it not?”

I gave her one of those lines which every one of us should have prepared for such circumstances.

The quadrille went on for an awfully long time.

At last, the mazurka began to thunder from the balcony above; the young princess and I seated ourselves.

I didn’t once allude to the drunken gentleman, nor to my previous behavior, nor to Grushnitsky.

The effect of the unpleasant scene slowly dissipated in her. Her little face became radiant. She made sweet jokes. Her conversation was keen, without the pretension of witticisms, lively and free. Her remarks were sometimes profound . . . I led her to feel, with a very intricate phrase, that I had long ago taken a fancy to her. She bent her head and lightly blushed.

“You are an odd person!” she said then, lifting her velvet eyes to me and forcing a laugh.

“I didn’t want to be introduced to you,” I continued, “because there is too thick a crowd of admirers around you, and I was afraid of disappearing in it.”

“You needn’t have been afraid! They are all very tedious . . .”

“All of them! Not all of them surely?”

She looked at me intently, as though trying to remember something, and then blushed again lightly, and, finally, articulated decisively: “All of them!”

“Even my friend Grushnitsky?”

“Is he your friend?” she said, displaying a certain doubt.


“He, of course, isn’t included in the ranks of the boring . . .”

“But in the ranks of the unfortunate,” I said, laughing.

“Naturally! Is it funny to you? I wish that you were in his place . . .”

“What? I was once myself a cadet, and, really, that was the best time of my life!”

“Is he a cadet?” she said quickly and then added: “But I thought he was . . .”

“What did you think?”

“Nothing! . . . Who is that lady?”

Here the conversation changed direction and did not return to this again.

Then the mazurka finished and we bid each other farewell with hopes to meet anew. The ladies dispersed . . . I went off to dine and encountered Werner.

“Aha!” he said. “There you are! I thought you wanted to become acquainted with the princess only while saving her from certain death?”

“I did better,” I replied to him. “I saved her from fainting at the ball!”

“How is that? Tell me!”

“No, guess—o you who thinks he can guess everything in the world!”