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Beauty and The Beast(Chapter5)

2006-08-22 23:01

  Chapter V.

  Prince Boris, in St. Petersburg, adopted the usual habits of his class. He dressed elegantly; he drove a dashing troika; he played, and lost more frequently than he won; he took no special pains to shun any form of fashionable dissipation. His money went fast, it is true; but twenty-five thousand rubles was a large sum in those days, and Boris did not inherit his father's expensive constitution. He was presented to the Empress; but his thin face, and mild, melancholy eyes did not make much impression upon that ponderous woman. He frequented the salons of the nobility, but saw no face so beautiful as that of Parashka, the serf-maiden who personated Venus for Simon Petrovitch. The fact is, he had a dim, undeveloped instinct of culture, and a crude, half-conscious worship of beauty,——both of which qualities found just enough nourishment in the life of the capital to tantalize and never satisfy his nature. He was excited by his new experience, but hardly happier.

  Athough but three-and-twenty, he would never know the rich, vital glow with which youth rushes to clasp all forms of sensation.

  He had seen, almost daily, in his father's castle, excess in its most excessive development. It had grown to be repulsive, and he knew not how to fill the void in his life. With a single spark of genius, and a little more culture, he might have become a passable author or artist; but he was doomed to be one of those deaf and dumb natures that see the movements of the lips of others, yet have no conception of sound. No wonder his savage old father looked upon him with contempt, for even his vices were without strength or character.

  The dark winter days passed by, one by one, and the first week of Lent had already arrived to subdue the glittering festivities of the court, when the only genuine adventure of the season happened to the young Prince. For adventures, in the conventional sense of the word, he was not distinguished; whatever came to him must come by its own force, or the force of destiny.

  One raw, gloomy evening, as dusk was setting in, he saw a female figure in a droschky, which was about turning from the great Morskoi into the Gorokhovaya (Pea) Street. He noticed, listlessly, that the lady was dressed in black, closely veiled, and appeared to be urging the istvostchik (driver) to make better speed. The latter cut his horse sharply: it sprang forward, just at the turning, and the droschky, striking a lamp-post was instantly overturned. The lady, hurled with great force upon the solidly frozen snow, lay motionless, which the driver observing, he righted the sled and drove off at full speed, without looking behind him. It was not inhumanity, but fear of the knout that hurried him away.

  Prince Boris looked up and down the Morskoi, but perceived no one near at hand. He then knelt upon the snow, lifted the lady's head to his knee, and threw back her veil. A face so lovely, in spite of its deadly pallor, he had never before seen. Never had he even imagined so perfect an oval, such a sweet, fair forehead, such delicately pencilled brows, so fine and straight a nose, such wonderful beauty of mouth and chin. It was fortunate that she was not very severely stunned, for Prince Boris was not only ignorant of the usual modes of restoration in such cases, but he totally forgot their necessity, in his rapt contemplation of the lady's face. Presently she opened her eyes, and they dwelt, expressionless, but bewildering in their darkness and depth, upon his own, while her consciousness of things slowly returned.

  She strove to rise, and Boris gently lifted and supported her. She would have withdrawn from his helping arm, but was still too weak from the shock. He, also, was confused and (strange to say) embarrassed; but he had self-possession enough to shout, "Davei!" (Here!) at random. The call was answered from the Admiralty Square; a sled dashed up the Gorokhovaya and halted beside him. Taking the single seat, he lifted her gently upon his lap and held her very tenderly in his arms.

  "Where?" asked the istvostchik.

  Boris was about to answer "Anywhere!" but the lady whispered in a voice of silver sweetness, the name of a remote street, near the Smolnoi Church.

  As the Prince wrapped the ends of his sable pelisse about her, he noticed that her furs were of the common foxskin worn by the middle classes. They, with her heavy boots and the threadbare cloth of her garments, by no means justified his first suspicion,——that she was a grande dame, engaged in some romantic "adventure." She was not more than nineteen or twenty years of age, and he felt—— without knowing what it was——the atmosphere of sweet, womanly purity and innocence which surrounded her. The shyness of a lost boyhood surprised him.

  By the time they had reached the Litenie, she had fully recovered her consciousness and a portion of her strength. She drew away from him as much as the narrow sled would allow.

  "You have been very kind, sir, and I thank you," she said; "but I am now able to go home without your further assistance."

  "By no means, lady!" said the Prince. "The streets are rough, and here are no lamps. If a second accident were to happen, you would be helpless. Will you not allow me to protect you?"

  She looked him in the face. In the dusky light, she saw not the peevish, weary features of the worldling, but only the imploring softness of his eyes, the full and perfect honesty of his present emotion. She made no further objection; perhaps she was glad that she could trust the elegant stranger.

  Boris, never before at a loss for words, even in the presence of the Empress, was astonished to find how awkward were his attempts at conversation. She was presently the more self-possessed of the two, and nothing was ever so sweet to his ears as the few commonplace remarks she uttered. In spite of the darkness and the chilly air, the sled seemed to fly like lightning. Before he supposed they had made half the way, she gave a sign to the istvostchik, and they drew up before a plain house of squared logs.

  The two lower windows were lighted, and the dark figure of an old man, with a skull-cap upon his head, was framed in one of them. It vanished as the sled stopped; the door was thrown open and the man came forth hurriedly, followed by a Russian nurse with a lantern.

  "Helena, my child, art thou come at last? What has befallen thee?"

  He would evidently have said more, but the sight of Prince Boris caused him to pause, while a quick shade of suspicion and alarm passed over his face. The Prince stepped forward, instantly relieved of his unaccustomed timidity, and rapidly described the accident. The old nurse Katinka, had meanwhile assisted the lovely Helena into the house.

  The old man turned to follow, shivering in the night-air. Suddenly recollecting himself, he begged the Prince to enter and take some refreshments, but with the air and tone of a man who hopes that his invitation will not be accepted. If such was really his hope, he was disappointed; for Boris instantly commanded the istvostchik to wait for him, and entered the humble dwelling.

  The apartment into which he was ushered was spacious, and plainly, yet not shabbily furnished. A violoncello and clavichord, with several portfolios of music, and scattered sheets of ruled paper, proclaimed the profession or the taste of the occupant. Having excused himself a moment to look after his daughter's condition, the old man, on his return, found Boris turning over the leaves of a musical work.

  "You see my profession," he said. "I teach music?"

  "Do you not compose?" asked the Prince.

  "That was once my ambition. I was a pupil of Sebastian Bach. But——circumstances——necessity——brought me here. Other lives changed the direction of mine. It was right!"

  "You mean your daughter's?" the Prince gently suggested.

  "Hers and her mother's. Our story was well known in St. Petersburg twenty years ago, but I suppose no one recollects it now. My wife was the daughter of a Baron von Plauen, and loved music and myself better than her home and a titled bridegroom. She escaped, we united our lives, suffered and were happy together,——and she died. That is all."

  Further conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Helena, with steaming glasses of tea. She was even lovelier than before. Her close-fitting dress revealed the symmetry of her form, and the quiet, unstudied grace of her movements. Although her garments were of well-worn material, the lace which covered her bosom was genuine point d'Alencon, of an old and rare pattern. Boris felt that her air and manner were thoroughly noble; he rose and saluted her with the profoundest respect.

  In spite of the singular delight which her presence occasioned him, he was careful not to prolong his visit beyond the limits of strict etiquette. His name, Boris Alexeivitch, only revealed to his guests the name of his father, without his rank; and when he stated that he was employed in one of the Departments, (which was true in a measure, for he was a staff officer,) they could only look upon him as being, at best, a member of some family whose recent elevation to the nobility did not release them from the necessity of Government service. Of course he employed the usual pretext of wishing to study music, and either by that or some other stratagem managed to leave matters in such a shape that a second visit could not occasion surprise.

  As the sled glided homewards over the crackling snow, he was obliged to confess the existence of a new and powerful excitement. Was it the chance of an adventure, such as certain of his comrades were continually seeking? He thought not; no, decidedly not. Was it——could it be——love? He really could not tell; he had not the slightset idea what love was like.

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