Princess Betsy drove home from the theater without waiting for the end of the last act. She had just time enough to go into her dressing room, sprinkle her long, pale face with powder, rub it off, set her dress to rights, and order tea in the big drawing room, when one after another carriages drove up to her huge house on the Bolshaia Morskaia. Her guests dismounted at the wide entrance, and the stout porter, who used to read newspapers mornings behind the glass door, to the edification of the passers-by, noiselessly opened the immense door, letting the visitors pass by him into the house.
Almost at the same instant that the hostess, with freshly arranged coiffure and freshened face, entered at one door, her guests entered at the other, into the drawing room, a large room with dark walls, downy rugs and a brightly lighted table, gleaming with the light of candles, the whiteness of napery, the silver of the samovar and the tea service of transparent porcelain.
The hostess sat down at the samovar and took off her gloves. Chairs were set with the aid of footmen, moving almost imperceptibly about the room; the party settled itself, divided into two groups: one round the samovar near the hostess, the other at the opposite end of the drawing room, round the handsome wife of an ambassador, in black velvet, with sharply defined black eyebrows. In both groups conversation wavered, as it always does, for the first few minutes, broken up by meetings, salutations, offers of tea, and, as it were, seeking for some point in common.
"She's exceptionally fine as an actress; one can see she's studied Kaulbach," said a diplomatist in the circle of the ambassador's wife. "Did you notice how she fell down?..."
"Oh, please, don't let us talk about Nilsson! No one can possibly say anything new about her," said a fat, red-faced, flaxen-headed lady, without eyebrows and without chignon, wearing an old silk dress. This was Princess Miaghkaia, noted for her simplicity and the roughness of her manners, and nicknamed enfant terrible. Princess Miaghkaia was seated halfway between the two groups, and, listening to both, took part in the conversation first of one and then of the other. "Three people have used that very phrase about Kaulbach to me today, just as though they had conspired. And I don't know why that phrase should be so much to their liking."
The conversation was cut short by this observation, and again a new subject had to be thought of.
"Do tell us something amusing, yet not spiteful," said the ambassador's wife, a great proficient in the art of that elegant conversation called by the English small talk. She addressed the diplomatist, who was now at a loss just what to begin upon.
"That is said to be a difficult task- only that which is spiteful is supposed to be amusing," he began with a smile. "However, I'll make the attempt. Give me a theme. it's all a matter of the theme. If the theme be but given, it's easy enough to embroider it. I often think that the celebrated conversationalists of the last century would find it difficult to talk cleverly now. Everything clever has become such a bore...."
"That has been said long ago," the ambassador's wife interrupted him, laughing.
The conversation had begun amiably, but just because it was too amiable, it came to a stop again. They had to have recourse to the sure, never-failing remedy- malicious gossip.
"Don't you think there's something Louis Quinze about Tushkevich?" he said, glancing toward a handsome, fair-haired young man, standing at the table.
"Oh, yes! He's in the same style as the drawing room, and that's why it is he's so often here."
This conversation was kept up, since it depended on allusions to what could not be talked of in that room- that is to say, of the relations of Tushkevich with their hostess.
Round the samovar and the hostess the conversation having, in the meanwhile, vacillated in precisely the same way between the three inevitable topics- the latest piece of public news, the theater, and censuring the fellow creature- had finally come to rest on the last topic- that is, malicious gossip.
"Have you heard that even the Maltishcheva- the mother, not the daughter- has ordered a costume in diable rose color?"
"Impossible! No, that's just charming!"
"I wonder that with her sense- for after all she's no fool- she doesn't see how funny she is."
Every one had something to say in censure or ridicule of the hapless Maltishcheva, and the conversation crackled merrily, like a blazing bonfire.
The husband of Princess Betsy, a good-natured corpulent man, an ardent collector of engravings, hearing that his wife had visitors, had come into the drawing room before leaving for his club. Stepping noiselessly over the thick rugs, he approached Princess Miaghkaia.
"How did you like Nilsson?" he asked.
"Oh, how can you steal up on anyone like that! How you startled me!" she responded. "Please don't talk to me about the opera; you know nothing about music. I'd rather come down to your own level, and discuss with you your majolica and engravings. Come, now, what treasure have you been buying lately at the rag fair?"
"Would you like me to show you? But you don't understand such things."
"Yes, show me. I've been learning about them at those- what's their names?... those bankers... They have some splendid engravings. They showed them to us."
"Why, have you been at the Schutzburgs?" asked the hostess from behind the samovar.
"Yes, ma chere. They asked my husband and myself to dinner, and I was told that the sauce at that dinner cost a thousand roubles," Princess Miaghkaia said, speaking loudly, conscious that all were listening; "and very nasty sauce it was- some green mess. We had to ask them, and I made a sauce for eighty-five kopecks, and everybody was very much pleased with it. I can't afford thousand-rouble sauces."
"She's unique!" said the lady of the house.
"Amazing!" somebody else added.
The effect produced by Princess Miaghkaia's speeches was always the same, and the secret of the effect she produced lay in the fact that though she spoke not always appropriately, as now, she said homely truths, not devoid of sense. In the society in which she lived such utterances had the same result as the most pungent wit. Princess Miaghkaia could never see why it had that result, but she knew it had, and took advantage of it.
Since everyone had been listening while Princess Miaghkaia spoke, and the conversation around the ambassador's wife had dropped, Princess Betsy tried to bring the whole party together, and she addressed the ambassador's wife.
"Really won't you have tea? Do come and join us."
"No, we're very comfortable here," the ambassador's wife responded with a smile, and went on with the interrupted conversation.
It was a most agreeable conversation. They were censuring the Karenins, husband and wife.
"Anna is quite changed since her stay in Moscow. There's something strange about her," said one of her feminine friends.
"The great change is that she has brought back with her the shadow of Alexei Vronsky," said the ambassador's wife.
"Well, what of it? There's a fable of Grimm's about a man without a shadow- a man deprived of his shadow. As a punishment for something or other. I never could understand just how this was a punishment. Yet a woman must probably feel uncomfortable without a shadow."
"Yes, but women followed by a shadow usually come to a bad end," said Anna's friend.
"Bite your tongue!" said Princess Miaghkaia suddenly. "Karenina is a splendid woman. I don't like her husband- but her I like very much."
"Why don't you like her husband? He's such a remarkable man," said the ambassador's wife. "My husband says there are few statesmen like him in Europe."
"And my husband tells me just the same, but I don't believe it," said Princess Miaghkaia. "If our husbands didn't talk to us, we should see the facts as they are. Alexei Alexandrovich, to my thinking, is simply a fool. I say it in a whisper.... But doesn't it really make everything clear? Before, when I was told to consider him clever, I kept looking for his ability, and thought myself a fool for not seeing it; but directly I said, he's a fool, though only in a whisper, everything became clear- isn't that so?"
"How spiteful you are today!"
"Not a bit. I'd no other way out of it. One of us two had to be the fool. And, as you know, one could never say that of oneself."
"No one is satisfied with his fortune, and everyone is satisfied with his wit," the diplomatist repeated the French saying.
"That's it- that's just it," Princess Miaghkaia turned to him promptly. "But the point is that I won't abandon Anna to your mercies. She's such a dear, so charming. How can she help it if they're all in love with her, and follow her about like shadows?"
"Oh, I had no idea of censuring her," Anna's friend said in self-defense.
"If we have no shadows following us, it does not prove that we've any right to blame her."
And, having duly disposed of Anna's friend, the Princess Miaghkaia got up, and, together with the ambassador's wife, joined the group at the table, where the general conversation had to do with the king of Prussia.
"What were you gossiping so maliciously about?" asked Betsy.
"About the Karenins. The Princess gave us a character sketch of Alexei Alexandrovich," said the ambassador's wife with a smile, as she sat down at the table.
"Pity we didn't hear it!" said Princess Betsy, glancing toward the door. "Ah, here you are at last!" she said, turning with a smile to Vronsky who was entering.
Vronsky was not merely acquainted with all the persons whom he was meeting here; he saw them all every day; and so he came in with the quiet manner with which one enters a room full of people whom one had left only a short while ago.
"Where do I come from?" he repeated the question of the ambassador's wife. "Well, there's no help for it- I must confess. From the opera bouffe. I do believe I've seen it a hundred times, and always with fresh enjoyment. It's exquisite! I know it's disgraceful, but I go to sleep at the opera, yet I sit out the opera bouffe to the last minute, and enjoy it. This evening..."
He mentioned a French actress, and was about to tell something about her; but the ambassador's wife, with playful trepidation, cut him short.
"Please, don't tell us about that horror."
"Very well, I won't- especially as everyone knows those horrors."
"And we should all go to see them if it were accepted as the correct thing, like the opera," chimed in Princess Miaghkaia.