"This is rather indiscreet, but it's so charming that one is awfully tempted to tell the story," said Vronsky, looking at her with laughing eyes. "I don't intend to mention any names."
"But I shall guess them- so much the better."
"Listen, then: two festive young men were driving along..."
"Officers of your regiment, of course?"
"I didn't say they were officers- just two young men who had been lunching."
"In other words, drinking."
"Possibly. They were driving on their way to dinner with a friend in the gayest of moods. And they catch sight of a pretty woman in a hired sleigh, who overtakes them, looks back at them, and- so it seemed to them, at any rate- nods to them and laughs. They, of course, follow her- galloping at full speed. To their amazement, the fair one alights at the entrance of the very house to which they were going. The fair one darts upstairs to the top floor. All they got was a glimpse of rosebud lips under a short veil, and of exquisite little feet."
"You tell this with such feeling that it seems to me you yourself must have been one of the two."
"But what did you tell me just now?... Well, the young men enter their comrade's apartment- he was giving a farewell dinner. There they certainly did take a drop too much, as is always the case at farewell dinners. And at dinner they inquire who lives at the top in that house. No one knows; only their host's valet, in answer to their inquiry whether any 'young ladies' are living on the top floor, answered that there were a great many of them. After dinner the two young men go into their host's study, and write a letter to the fair unknown. They composed a passionate epistle, really a declaration, and then carry the letter upstairs themselves, so as to explain whatever might prove not altogether clear in the letter."
"Why do you tell me such nasty things? And then?"
"They ring. A maidservant opens the door, they hand her the letter, and assure her that they're both so enamored that they'll die on the spot at the door. The maid, stupefied, carries on the negotiations. Suddenly a gentleman appears- with side whiskers like country sausages, he is as red as a lobster and, informing them that there is no one living in that flat except his wife, he sends them both packing."
"How do you know he had side whiskers like sausages, as you put it?"
"Ah, do but listen. Recently I went to make peace between them."
"Well, and what was the upshot?"
"That's the most interesting part. This couple turned out to be a most happy one- a government clerk and his lady. The government clerk lodges a complaint, whereupon I become a mediator- and what a mediator!... I assure you Talleyrand was a nobody compared to me."
"Just what was the difficulty?"
"Ah, do but listen.... We make fitting apologies: 'We are in despair; we entreat forgiveness for the unfortunate misunderstanding.' The government clerk with the country sausages begins to melt, and he, too, desires to express his sentiments, but no sooner does he begin to express them than he gets heated and says nasty things, and again I'm obliged to trot out all my diplomatic talents. 'I agree that their action was bad, but I beg of you to take into consideration the misunderstanding, and their youth; besides, the young men had just come from their lunch. You understand. Their repentance is heartfelt and they beg you to forgive their misbehavior.' The government clerk was softened once more. 'I consent, Count, and am ready to forgive but you must understand that my wife- my wife!- a respectable woman is subjected to annoyances, and insults, and impertinences by certain milksops, scou-...' Yet, you understand, the milksop is present, and it is up to me to make peace between them. Again I trot out all my diplomacy, and again, just as the matter is about to be concluded, our friend the government clerk gets heated and turns red while his country sausages bristle up, and I once more exert diplomatic finesse."
"Ah, you must hear this story!" said Betsy, laughing, to a lady who was entering the box. "He has made me laugh so much... Well, bonne chance!" she added, giving Vronsky the one finger free from holding her fan, and with a shrug of her shoulders letting down the bodice of her gown, that had worked up, so as to be fittingly and fully nude as she moved forward, toward the footlights, into the lights of the gas, and within the ken of all.
Vronsky drove to the French theater, where he really had to see the colonel of his regiment, who never missed a single performance there; he wanted to talk over his peacemaking, which had been occupying and amusing him for the last three days. Petritsky, whom he liked, was implicated in the affair, as well as another fine fellow and excellent comrade, who had lately joined the regiment- the young Prince Kedrov. But, mainly, the interests of the regiment were involved as well.
Both culprits were in Vronsky's squadron. The colonel of the regiment had received a call from the government clerk, Venden, with a complaint against his officers, who had insulted his wife. His young wife, as Venden told the story- he had been married half a year- had been at church with her mother, and, suddenly feeling indisposed, due to her interesting condition, found that she could not remain standing and drove home in the first sleigh with the mettlesome coachman she came across. It was then that the officers set off in pursuit of her; she was alarmed, and, feeling still worse, ran home up the staircase. Venden himself, on returning from his office, had heard a ring at their bell and voices, had stepped out, and seeing the intoxicated officers with a letter, he had pushed them out. He was asking that the culprits be severely punished.
"You may say what you will," said the colonel to Vronsky, whom he had invited to come and see him. "Petritsky is becoming impossible. Not a week goes by without some scrape. This clerk chap won't let matters drop- he'll go on with the thing."
Vronsky saw all the thanklessness of the business, and that a duel was out of the question here; that everything must be done to soften this government clerk, and hush the matter up. The colonel had called in Vronsky precisely because he knew him to be an honorable and intelligent man, but, above all, one to whom the honor of the regiment was dear. They talked it over, and decided that Petritsky and Kedrov must go with Vronsky to this government clerk and apologize. The colonel and Vronsky were both fully aware that Vronsky's name and insignia of aide-de-camp were bound to go a long way toward softening the government clerk. And these two influences proved in fact not without effect; though the result of the mediation remained, as Vronsky had described, uncertain.
On reaching the French theater, Vronsky retired to the foyer with the colonel, and reported to him his success- or lack of it. The colonel, thinking it all over, decided not to go on with the matter; but then, for his own delectation, proceeded to question Vronsky about the details of his interview and for a long while could not restrain his laughter as he listened to Vronsky's story of how the government clerk, after subsiding for a while, would suddenly flare up again, as he recalled the details, and how Vronsky, at the last half-word of conciliation, had skillfully maneuvered a retreat, shoving Petritsky out before him.
"It's a disgraceful scrape, but a killing one. Kedrov really can't fight this gentleman! So he was awfully wrought up?" he asked again, laughing. "But what do you think of Claire today? She's a wonder!" he went on, speaking of a new French actress. "No matter how often you see her, she's different each time. It's only the French who can do that."