The host rushed at the stately butler

“Our forefathers were leisurely souls,
Right leisurely did they dine,
And they ladled slow from their silver bowls
The foaming beer and wine.”

I must introduce you, gracious reader, to Gavril Afanassievitch
Rjevski. He came of an ancient noble race, owned vast estates, was
hospitable, loved falconry, had an enormous retinue, and was, in a
word, a good old Russian gentleman. In his own words he could not bear
anything foreign, and in his home he tried to maintain the customs of
the good old days he loved so well. His daughter was seventeen. In
childhood she had lost her mother, and she had been brought up in the
old-fashioned way, amid a crowd of governesses, nurses, companions, and
children from the servants’ hall. She could embroider in gold and was
illiterate. Her father, in spite of his dislike to all things foreign,
could not oppose her wish to learn German dances from a captive Swedish
officer living in their house. This worthy dancing master was about
fifty; his right foot had been shot through at the battle of Narva,
and therefore it was not very active at minuets and courantes; but
the left was very dexterous and agile in the more difficult steps.
His young pupil did credit to his teaching. Natalia Gavrilovna was
celebrated at these soirees for her dancing, which was partly the cause
of Korsakoff’s proceedings. He came next morning to apologise to Gavril
Afanassievitch. But the young dandy’s manner and fine dress displeased
the proud _barin_ who nicknamed him the French monkey.

It was a holiday. Gavril Afanassievitch expected a number of friends
and relations. In the ancient hall a long table was being laid. The
guests were arriving with their wives and daughters, who had at last
been released from their domestic prison by the order and by the
example of the Tsar. Natalia Gavrilovna handed round a silver tray
laden with golden cups, and each guest, as he drained one, regretted
that the kiss which accompanied it on such occasions in olden times was
out of fashion.

They sat down to table. In the place of honour next the host sat his
father-in-law, Prince Boris Alexeievitch Lykoff, a boyar in his
seventieth year. The other guests were placed in order of descent, and
thus recalling the happy times of precedence by office, sat down, men
on one side, women on the other. At the end of the table, the companion
in the old-fashioned dress, a dwarf,–a thirty-year-old infant,
affected and wrinkled,–and the captive dancing master in a shabby dark
blue uniform, took their accustomed seats. The table, covered with a
great number of dishes, was surrounded by numerous and busy servants,
distinguishable among whom was the butler, with severe mien, big
stomach, and pompous immobility. The first few moments of dinner were
devoted entirely to the dishes of our time-honoured Russian cookery.
The rattle of plates and the activity of spoons produced a general
taciturnity.

At last the host, perceiving that the time had come for entertaining
the guests with agreeable conversation, turned and asked:

“Where, then, is Ekimovna? Let her be summoned!”

Several attendants were about to rush off in different directions,
when an old woman, painted white and pink, decorated with flowers and
tinsel, in a silk damask gown with a low neck, entered, singing and
dancing. Her advent occasioned general delight.

“Good-day to you, Ekimovna?” said Prince Lykoff. “How are you getting
on?”

“Well and healthily, gossip; all night dancing, my suitors awaiting.”

“Where have you been, fool?” asked the host.

“Dressing, gossip, to receive the dear guests, on the Lord’s festival,
by order of the Tsar, by command of the master, to the derision of the
world in the German style.”

At these words there was a loud burst of laughter, and the jester took
her place behind the host’s chair.

“And folly talks foolishly, and sometimes tells the truth in her
folly,” said Tatiana Afanassievna, eldest sister of the host, and much
respected by him. “Naturally the present style of dress must seem
ridiculous to everybody. When you, my friends, have shaved your beards
and put on a short coat, it is of course no use talking of women’s
rags; but really it is a pity the sarafan, the maiden’s ribbons, and
the povoinik [a head-dress] should be discarded. It is really sad and
comic to see the beauties of to-day, their hair frizzed like flax,
greased and covered with French powder, the waist laced in so tight
that it seems on the point of snapping–their bodies encased in hoops,
so that they have to go sideways through a carriage door. They stoop;
they can neither stand, sit, nor breathe–real martyrs, my poor dears.”

“Dear mother Tatiana Afanassievna!” said Kirila Petrovitch, formerly a
_voievod_ at Riasan, where he acquired 3,000 serfs and a young wife,
neither by strictly honourable means. “But my wife may dress as she
likes as long as she does not order new gowns every month and throw
away the previous ones, while still quite perfectly new. Formerly the
granddaughter included in her dowry the grandmother’s sarafan; but
now you see the mistress in a gown to-day and to-morrow it is on the
maid. What is to be done? Nothing but ruin confronts the Russian noble.
Very sad!” he said, with a sigh, looking at his Maria Ilienitchna, who
seemed to like neither his praise of olden times nor his disparagement
of the latest fashions. The rest of the ladies shared her displeasure,
but they said nothing, for modesty was in those days still deemed
essential in young women.

“And who is to blame?” asked Gravril Afanassievitch, frothing a mug of
_kissli shtchi_ (sort of lemonade). “Is it not our own fault? The young
women play the fool and we encourage them.”

“What can we do? We cannot help ourselves,” replied Kirila Petrovitch.
“A man would gladly shut his wife up in the house, but she is summoned
with beating of drums to attend the assemblies. The husband follows
the whip, but the wife runs after dress. Oh, those assemblies! The Lord
has sent them upon us to punish us for our sins.”

Maria Ilienitchna sat on needles; her tongue itched. At last she could
bear it no longer, and turning to her husband inquired with a little
acid smile what he found to object to in the assemblies.

“This is what I find to object to,” replied the irritated husband.
Since they began, husbands cannot manage their wives; wives have
forgotten the teaching of the apostles–that a wife shall reverence her
husband. They trouble themselves not about their domestic affairs, but
about new apparel. They consider not how to please the husband, but
how to attract the officers. And is it becoming, madam, for a Russian
lady–wife or maid–to hobnob with German tobacconists and with their
workmen? Who ever heard of dancing till night and talking with young
men? If they were relatives, all well and good–but with strangers and
with men they do not know.”

“I would say a word, but there is a wolf near,” said Gavril
Afanassievitch, with a frown. “I confess these assemblies are not to my
taste; at any moment you may jostle against a drunken man, or perhaps
be made drunk yourself to amuse others. Then there is the danger
that some blackguard may be up to mischief with your daughter; the
modern young men are so spoilt, it is disgraceful. Take for instance
the son of the late Evgraff Sergueievitch Korsakoff; who at the last
assembly made such a fuss about Natasha, that he brought the blood into
my cheeks. Next day he coolly drives up to my gate. I was wondering
whether it could be Prince Alexander Danilovitch. No such luck. Ivan
Evgrafovitch! He would not stop at the gate and take the trouble to
walk up to the door, it is not likely! Korsakoff rushed in, bowing
and scraping, and chattered at such a rate, the Lord preserve us! The
fool Ekimovna mimics him most comically; by-the-bye, fool, give us the
foreign monkey.”

Foolish Ekimovna seized the cover off a dish, tucked it under her arm
like a hat, and began wriggling, scraping with her feet, and bowing
in all directions, saying _monsieur_, _mademoiselle_, _assemblée_,
_pardon_. General and prolonged laughter again showed the delight of
the guests.

“Exactly like Korsakoff,” said old Prince Lykoff, wiping away his tears
of laughter when the noise had gradually subsided. “It must be owned,
however, he is not the first nor the last who has come from foreign
parts to holy Russia a buffoon. What do our children learn abroad? To
scrape their feet, to chatter the Lord knows what lingo, not to respect
their elders, and to dangle after other men’s wives. Of all the young
people who have been educated abroad (the Lord forgive me) the Tzar’s
negro most resembles a man.”

“Oh, prince!” said Tatiana Afanassievna. I have–I have seen him close.
What a frightful muzzle he has. I was quite frightened of him.”

“Certainly,” added Gavril Afanassievitch. “He is a steady, decent man,
not a brother of the whirlwind. Who is it that has just driven through
the gate into the courtyard? Surely it is never that foreign monkey
again? What are you animals doing?” he exclaimed, turning towards the
servants. “Run and keep him out, and never let him in again.”

“Old beard, are you dreaming?” foolish Ekimovna interrupted. “Are you
blind? It is the royal sledge. The Tsar has come.”

Gavril Afanassievitch rose hurriedly from the table. Everybody rushed
to the windows; and positively saw the emperor ascending the steps
leaning on the arm of his orderly. There was a great commotion. The
host rushed to meet Peter; the servants flew hither and thither as if
mad; the guests were alarmed, and some wondered how they might escape.
Suddenly the thunder voice of Peter resounded in the hall. All was
silence as the Tsar entered, accompanied by his host, in a flutter of
joy.

“How do you do, ladies and gentlemen?” said Peter gaily.

All made obeisance. The Tsar’s sharp eyes sought in this crowd
the host’s young daughter. He beckoned to her. Natalia Gavrilovna
approached rather boldly, but blushed not only to her ears but to her
shoulders.

“You grow prettier every hour,” said the Tsar, and according to his
custom kissed her on the head. Then turning to the guests he exclaimed:

“Why, I have interrupted you! You were dining? I beg you will sit down
again, and to me, Gavril Afanassievitch, give some aniseed vodka.”

The host rushed at the stately butler, snatched from him a tray,
and himself filling a small golden goblet, handed it to the Tsar.
Peter drank it, ate a piece of bread, and again invited the guests
to continue their dinner. All resumed their seats but the dwarf and
the companion, who did not dare to remain at the table honoured by
the presence of the monarch. Peter sat down beside the host and asked
for some shtchee (a cabbage soup). The Tsar’s orderly handed him a
wooden spoon inlaid with ivory, a knife and fork with green bone
handles–Peter never used any others but his own. The dinner table
conversation, which a moment before had been boisterously merry,
ended by being forced and scanty. The host from respect and delight
ate nothing; the guests, too, became ceremonious and listened with
reverence to the Tsar as he discussed in German the campaign of 1701
with the captive Swede.

The fool, Ekimovna, several times interrogated by the monarch, replied
with a sort of cold timidity, which, by-the-bye, did not in the least
prove her natural folly.

At last the dinner ended. The monarch rose, and after him all the
guests.

“Gavril Afanassievitch!” he said, addressing the host. “I want a word
with you alone.” Taking his arm, he led him into the drawing-room and
locked the door. The guests remaining in the dining-room whispered
about the unexpected visit, and fearing to intrude, dispersed speedily
without expressing to their host the usual after-dinner thanks. His
father-in-law, daughter, and sister accompanied each in silence to the
door, and remained alone in the dining-room awaiting his Majesty’s
departure.

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