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Beauty and The Beast(Chapter10)

2006-08-22 23:03

  Chapter X.

  When Prince Alexis received his son's letter, an expression of fierce, cruel delight crept over his face, and there remained, horribly illuminating its haggard features. The orders given for swimming horses in the Volga——one of his summer diversions——were immediately countermanded; he paced around the parapet of the castle-wall until near midnight, followed by Sasha with a stone jug of vodki. The latter had the useful habit, notwithstanding his stupid face, of picking up the fragments of soliloquy which the Prince dropped, and answering them as if talking to himself. Thus he improved upon and perfected many a hint of cruelty, and was too discreet ever to dispute his master's claim to the invention.

  Sasha, we may be sure, was busy with his devil's work that night. The next morning the stewards and agents of Prince Alexis, in castle, village, and field, were summoned to his presence.

  "Hark ye!" said he; "Borka and his trumpery wife send me word that they will be here to-morrow. See to it that every man, woman, and child, for ten versts out on the Moskovskoi road, knows of their coming. Let it be known that whoever uncovers his head before them shall uncover his back for a hundred lashes. Whomsoever they greet may bark like a dog, meeouw like a cat, or bray like an ass, as much as he chooses; but if he speaks a decent word, his tongue shall be silenced with stripes. Whoever shall insult them has my pardon in advance. Oh, let them come!——ay, let them come! Come they may: but how they go away again"——

  The Prince Alexis suddenly stopped, shook his head, and walked up and down the hall, muttering to himself. His eyes were bloodshot, and sparkled with a strange light. What the stewards had heard was plain enough; but that something more terrible than insult was yet held in reserve they did not doubt. It was safe, therefore, not only to fulfil, but to exceed, the letter of their instructions. Before night the whole population were acquainted with their duties; and an unusual mood of expectancy, not unmixed with brutish glee, fell upon Kinesma.

  By the middle of the next forenoon, Boris and his wife, seated in the open kibitka, drawn by post-horses, reached the boundaries of the estate, a few versts from the village. They were both silent and slightly pale at first, but now began to exchange mechanical remarks, to divert each other's thoughts from the coming reception.

  "Here are the fields of Kinesma at last!" exclaimed Prince Boris. "We shall see the church and castle from the top of that hill in the distance. And there is Peter, my playmate, herding the cattle!

  Peter! Good-day, brotherkin!"

  Peter looked, saw the carriage close upon him, and, after a moment of hesitation, let his arms drop stiffly by his sides, and began howling like a mastiff by moonlight. Helena laughed heartily at this singular response to the greeting; but Boris, after the first astonishment was over, looked terrified.

  "That was done by order," said he, with a bitter smile. "The old bear stretches his claws out. Dare you try his hug?"

  "I do not fear," she answered, her face was calm.

  Every serf they passed obeyed the order of Prince Alexis according to his own idea of disrespect. One turned his back; another made contemptuous grimaces and noises; another sang a vulgar song; another spat upon the ground or held his nostrils. Nowhere was a cap raised, or the stealthy welcome of a friendly glance given.

  The Princess Helena met these insults with a calm, proud indifference. Boris felt them more keenly; for the fields and hills were prospectively his property, and so also were the brutish peasants. It was a form of chastisement which he had never before experienced, and knew not how to resist. The affront of an entire community was an offence against which he felt himself to be helpless.

  As they approached the town, the demonstrations of insolence were redoubled. About two hundred boys, between the ages of ten and fourteen, awaited them on the hill below the church, forming themselves into files on either side of the road. These imps had been instructed to stick out their tongues in derision, and howl, as the carriage passed between them. At the entrance of the long main street of Kinesma, they were obliged to pass under a mock triumphal arch, hung with dead dogs and drowned cats; and from this point the reception assumed an outrageous character. Howls, hootings, and hisses were heard on all sides; bouquets of nettles and vile weeds were flung to them; even wreaths of spoiled fish dropped from the windows. The women were the most eager and uproarious in this carnival of insult: they beat their saucepans, threw pails of dirty water upon the horses, pelted the coachman with rotten cabbages, and filled the air with screeching and foul words.

  It was impossible to pass through this ordeal with indifference. Boris, finding that his kindly greetings were thrown away,——that even his old acquaintances in the bazaar howled like the rest,——sat with head bowed and despair in his heart. The beautiful eyes of Helena were heavy with tears; but she no longer trembled, for she knew the crisis was yet to come.

  As the kibitka slowly climbed the hill on its way to the castle- gate, Prince Alexis, who had heard and enjoyed the noises in the village from a balcony on the western tower, made his appearance on the head of the steps which led from the court-yard to the state apartments. The dreaded whip was in his hand; his eyes seemed about to start from their sockets, in their wild, eager, hungry gaze; the veins stood out like cords on his forehead; and his lips, twitching involuntarily, revealed the glare of his set teeth. A frightened hush filled the castle. Some of the domestics were on their knees; others watching, pale and breathless, from the windows: for all felt that a greater storm than they had ever experienced was about to burst. Sasha and the castle-steward had taken the wise precaution to summon a physician and a priest, provided with the utensils for extreme unction. Both of these persons had been smuggled in through a rear entrance, and were kept concealed until their services should be required.

  The noise of wheels was heard outside the gate, which stood invitingly open. Prince Alexis clutched his whip with iron fingers, and unconsciously took the attitude of a wild beast about to spring from its ambush. Now the hard clatter of hoofs and the rumbling, of wheels echoed from the archway, and the kibitka rolled into the courtyard. It stopped near the foot of the grand staircase. Boris, who sat upon the farther side, rose to alight, in order to hand down his wife; but no sooner had he made a movement than Prince Alexis, with lifted whip and face flashing fire, rushed down the steps. Helena rose, threw back her veil, let her mantle (which Boris had grasped, in his anxiety to restrain her action,) fall behind her, and stepped upon the pavement.

  Prince Alexis had already reached the last step, and but a few feet separated them. He stopped as if struck by lightning,——his body still retaining, in every limb, the impress of motion. The whip was in his uplifted fist; one foot was on the pavement of the court, and the other upon the edge of the last step; his head was bent forward, his mouth open, and his eyes fastened upon the Princess Helena's face.

  She, too, stood motionless, a form of simple and perfect grace, and met his gaze with soft, imploring, yet courageous and trustful eyes. The women who watched the scene from the galleries above always declared that an invisible saint stood beside her in that moment, and surrounded her with a dazzling glory. The few moments during which the suspense of a hundred hearts hung upon those encountering eyes seemed an eternity.

  Prince Alexis did not move, but he began to tremble from head to foot. His fingers relaxed, and the whip fell ringing upon the pavement. The wild fire of his eyes changed from wrath into an ecstasy as intense, and a piercing cry of mingled wonder, admiration and delight burst from his throat. At that cry Boris rushed forward and knelt at his feet. Helena, clasping her fairest hands, sank beside her husband, with upturned face, as if seeking the old man's eyes, and perfect the miracle she had wrought.

  The sight of that sweet face, so near his own, tamed the last lurking ferocity of the beast. His tears burst forth in a shower; he lifted and embraced the Princess, kissing her brow, her cheeks, her chin, and her hands, calling her his darling daughter, his little white dove, his lambkin.

  "And, father, my Boris, too!" said she.

  The pure liquid voice sent thrills of exquisite delight through his whole frame. He embraced and blessed Boris, and then, throwing an arm around each, held them to his breast, and wept passionately upon their heads. By this time the whole castle overflowed with weeping. Tears fell from every window and gallery; they hissed upon the hot saucepans of the cooks; they moistened the oats in the manger; they took the starch out of the ladies' ruffles, and weakened the wine in the goblets of the guests. Insult was changed into tenderness in a moment. Those who had barked or stuck out their tongues at Boris rushed up to kiss his boots; a thousand terms of endearment were showered upon him.

  Still clasping his children to his breast, Prince Alexis mounted the steps with them. At the top he turned, cleared his throat, husky from sobbing, and shouted——

  "A feast! a feast for all Kinesma! Let there be rivers of vodki, wine and hydromel! Proclaim it everywhere that my dear son Boris and my dear daughter Helena have arrived, and whoever fails to welcome them to Kinesma shall be punished with a hundred stripes! Off, ye scoundrels, ye vagabonds, and spread the news!"

  It was not an hour before the whole sweep of the circling hills resounded with the clang of bells, the blare of horns, and the songs and shouts of the rejoicing multitude. The triumphal arch of unsavory animals was whirled into the Volga; all signs of the recent reception vanished like magic; festive fir-boughs adorned the houses, and the gardens and window-pots were stripped of their choicest flowers to make wreaths of welcome. The two hundred boys, not old enough to comprehend this sudden bouleversement of sentiment, did not immediately desist from sticking out their tongues: whereupon they were dismissed with a box on the ear. By the middle of the afternoon all Kinesma was eating, drinking, and singing; and every song was sung, and every glass emptied in honor of the dear, good Prince Boris, and the dear, beautiful Princess Helena. By night all Kinesma was drunk.

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