Chapter XIV

A few days later, the ball was held at the Governor's, and Matvei Ilyitch figured thereat as the guest of honour. For his part, the President of the Provincial Council (who was at loggerheads with the Governor) explained at large that only out of respect for Matvei had he deigned to be present, while the Governor continued, even when stationary, his usual process of orders-giving. With Matvei's suavity of demeanour nothing could be compared save his pomposity. Upon every man he smiled—upon some with a hint of superciliousness, upon others with a shade of deference; whilst to the ladies he bowed and scraped en vrai chevalier français, and laughed, throughout, the great, resonant, conspicuous laugh which a bigwig ought to do. Again, he clapped Arkady upon the back, addressed him loudly as "young nephew," and honoured Bazarov (who had been with difficulty coaxed into an ancient tail-coat) both with a distant, yet faintly condescending, glance which skimmed that individual's cheek, and with a vague, but affable, murmur in which there could be distinguished only the fragments "I," "Yes," and "'xtremely." Lastly, he accorded Sitnikov a finger and a smile (in the very act, turning his head away), and bestowed upon Madame Kukshin (who had appeared minus a crinoline and in dirty gloves, but with a bird of paradise stuck in her hair) an "Enchanté!" The throng present was immense; nor was a sufficiency of cavaliers lacking. True, most of the civilian element crowded against the walls, but the military section danced with enthusiasm, especially an officer who, being fresh from six weeks in Paris, where he had become acquainted with daring cries of the type of "Zut!" "Ah, fichtrrre!" "Pst, pst, mon bibi!" and so forth, pronounced these quips to perfection, with true Parisian chic; while also he said "Si j'aurais" for "Si j'avais," and "absolument" in the sense of "certainly." In short, he employed that Franco-Russian jargon which affords the French such intense amusement whenever they do not think it more prudent to assure their Russian friends that the latter speak the tongue of France comme des anges.

As we know, Arkady was a poor dancer, and Bazarov did not dance at all; wherefore the pair sought a corner, and were there joined by Sitnikov. Summoning to his visage his accustomed smile of contempt, and emitting remarks mordantly sarcastic in their nature, the great Sitnikov glanced haughtily about him, and appeared to derive some genuine pleasure from thus striking an attitude. But suddenly his face underwent a change. Turning to Arkady, he said in a self-conscious way: "Here is Madame Odintsov just entering."

Looking up, Arkady beheld, halted in the doorway, a tall woman in a black gown. In particular was he struck with the dignity of her carriage, and with the manner in which her bare arms hung beside her upright figure. From her gleaming hair to her sloping shoulders trailed sprays of fuchsia flowers, while quietly, intelligently—I say quietly, not dreamily—there gazed, with a barely perceptible smile, from under a white and slightly prominent forehead a pair of brilliant eyes. In general, the countenance suggested latent, but gentle, kindly force.

"Do you know her?" Arkady inquired.

"I do—intimately," replied Sitnikov. "Shall I introduce you?"

"If you please; but only when this quadrille has come to an end."

Bazarov's attention also had been caught by this Madame Odintsov.

"What a face!" he exclaimed. "No other woman in the room has one anything like it."

As soon, therefore, as the quadrille was over, Sitnikov conducted Arkady to Madame Odintsov; and though at first—whether through the excessive "intimacy" of Sitnikov's acquaintance, or whether through the fact that he happened to stumble over his words—she gazed at him with a shade of astonishment, she no sooner heard Arkady's family name than her face brightened, and she inquired whether he was the son of Nikolai Petrovitch.

"I am," replied Arkady.

"Then I have twice had the pleasure of meeting your father. Also, I have heard much about him, and shall be most glad to know you."

At this point an aide-de-camp sidled up, and requested the honour of a quadrille: which request she granted.

"Then you dance?" exclaimed Arkady, but with great deference.

"I do. What made you think that I do not? Is it that I look too old?"

"Oh no, pardon me! By no means! Then perhaps I too might ask for a mazurka?"

Smiling indulgently, she replied, "If you wish," and then looked at him not so much in a "superior" manner as in that of a married sister who is regarding a very, very young brother. Though she was not greatly older than Arkady (she had just attained her twenty-ninth year), her presence made him feel the veriest schoolboy, and caused the difference of years to seem infinitely greater than it was. Next, Matvei Ilyitch approached her with a majestic air and a few obsequious words; whereupon Arkady moved away a little, while continuing to observe her. In fact, not until the quadrille was over did he find himself able to withdraw his eyes from her bewitching person. Throughout, her conversation with her partner and the guest of honour was accompanied with small movements of the head and eyes, and twice she uttered a low laugh. True, her nose erred a little on the side of thickness (as do those of most Russian women), nor was the colour of her skin unimpeachable; yet Arkady came to the conclusion that never in his life had he encountered a woman so charming of personality. Continuously the sound of her voice murmured in his ears, and the very folds of her dress looked different from those of other women—they seemed to hang straighter and more symmetrically, and her every movement was smooth and natural.

Nevertheless, when the strains of the mazurka struck up, and, reseating himself beside his partner, he prepared to enter into conversation with her, he felt a distinct touch of diffidence. Nor, though he kept passing his hand over his hair, could he find a word to say. However, this timidity, this state of agitation, did not last long, for soon her calmness infected him, and within a quarter of an hour he was talking to her of his father, his uncle, and life in St. Petersburg and the country. For her part, she listened with kindly interest, while gently opening and closing her fan. Thus only at moments when other cavaliers came to ask her for dances (Sitnikov did this twice) did Arkady's chatter become interrupted; and whenever she returned to her place, to reseat herself with her bosom heaving not a whit more rapidly than it had done before, he would plunge into renewed conversation, so delighted was he at the fact that he had found some one to sympathise with him, to whom he could talk, at whose beautiful eyes and forehead and gentle, refined, intellectual features he could gaze at leisure. She herself said little, but her every word showed a knowledge of life which pointed to the fact that already this young woman had thought and felt much.

"Who was the man with you before Sitnikov brought you to me?" she inquired.

"So you noticed my friend?" exclaimed Arkady. "Has he not a splendid face? His name is Bazarov."

And, once launched upon the subject, Arkady descanted so fully, and with such enthusiasm, that Madame Odintsov turned to observe his friend more closely. But soon the mazurka began to draw to a close, and Arkady found himself regretting the prospect of losing the companion with whom he had spent such a pleasant hour. True, he had felt, throughout, that he was being treated with condescension, and ought to be grateful; but upon young hearts such an obligation does not press with any great weight.

The music stopped with a jerk.

"Merci!" said Madame Odintsov—then rose. "You have promised to come and see me. Also, bring with you your friend, for I am filled with curiosity to behold a man who has the temerity to believe in nothing."

Next, the Governor approached Madame with a distraught air and an intimation that supper was ready; whereupon she took his proffered arm, and, as she departed, turned with a last smile and nod to Arkady, who, in answer, bowed and stood following her with his eyes. How straight her figure looked under the sheen of her black gown!

"Already she will have forgotten my existence," he thought to himself, while an exquisite humility pervaded his soul. Then he rejoined Bazarov in their joint corner.

"Well?" his friend said. "Have you enjoyed yourself? Some man or other has just been telling me that the lady in question is—— But in all probability the man was a fool. What do you think of her?"

"The allusion escapes me," replied Arkady.

"Come, come, young innocence!"

"Or at all events your informant's meaning escapes me. Madame is nice, but as cold and formal as, as——"

"As a stagnant pool," concluded Bazarov. "Yes, we all know the sort of thing. You say that she is cold, but that is purely a matter of taste. Perhaps you yourself like ice?"

"Perhaps I do," the other muttered. "But of such things I am no judge; and in any case she wishes to make your acquaintance as well as mine, and has asked me to bring you with me to call."

"The description of me which you gave is easily imagined! On the other hand, you did rightly to offer her us both, for no matter who she may be—whether a provincial lioness or only an 'émancipée' like the Kukshin woman, she has at least such a pair of shoulders as I have not seen this many a day."

Arkady recoiled from this cynicism, yet, as often happens in such cases, started to reproach his friend for something wholly unconnected with the utterance which had given umbrage.

"Why do you refuse women freedom of thought?" he asked under his breath.

"For the reason, dear sir, that, according to my observation of life, no woman, unless she be a freak, thinks with freedom."

And here the conversation terminated, for supper had come to an end, and the friends departed. As they left the room Madame Kukshin followed them with a nervous and wrathful, yet slightly apprehensive, smile in her eyes. The reason of this was that she felt wounded in her conceit at the fact that neither of the young men had taken any notice of her. Nevertheless, she remained at the ball until most of the rest of the company had left; whereafter, it being four o'clock in the morning, she danced a polka-mazurka, à la Parisienne, with Sitnikov, and with this edifying spectacle brought the Governor's fête to a close.