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Beauty and The Beast(Chapter8)

2006-08-22 23:02

  Chapter VIII.

  The health of the Princess Martha, always delicate, now began to fail rapidly. She was less and less able to endure her husband's savage humors, and lived almost exclusively in her own apartments. She never mentioned the name of Boris in his presence, for it was sure to throw him into a paroxysm of fury. Floating rumors in regard to the young Prince had reached him from the capital, and nothing would convince him that his wife was not cognizant of her son's doings. The poor Princess clung to her boy as to all that was left her of life, and tried to prop her failing strength with the hope of his speedy return. She was now too helpless to thwart his wishes in any way; but she dreaded, more than death, the terrible something which would surely take place between father and son if her conjectures should prove to be true.

  One day, in the early part of November, she received a letter from Boris, announcing his marriage. She had barely strength and presence of mind enough to conceal the paper in her bosom before sinking in a swoon. By some means or other the young Prince had succeeded in overcoming all the obstacles to such a step: probably the favor of the Empress was courted, in order to obtain her consent. The money he had received, he wrote, would be sufficient to maintain them for a few months, though not in a style befitting their rank. He was proud and happy; the Princess Helena would be the reigning beauty of the court, when he should present her, but he desired the sanction of his parents to the marriage, before taking his place in society. He would write immediately to his father, and hoped, that, if the news brought a storm, Mishka might be on hand to divert its force, as on a former occasion.

  Under the weight of this imminent secret, the Princess Martha could neither eat nor sleep. Her body wasted to a shadow; at every noise in the castle, she started and listened in terror, fearing that the news had arrived.

  Prince Boris, no doubt, found his courage fail him when he set about writing the promised letter; for a fortnight elapsed before it made its appearance. Prince Alexis received it on his return from the chase. He read it hastily through, uttered a prolonged roar like that of a wounded bull, and rushed into the castle. The sound of breaking furniture, of crashing porcelain and shivered glass, came from the state apartments: the domestics fell on their knees and prayed; the Princess, who heard the noise and knew what it portended, became almost insensible from fright.

  One of the upper servants entered a chamber as the Prince was in the act of demolishing a splendid malachite table, which had escaped all his previous attacks. He was immediately greeted with a cry of,——

  "Send the Princess to me!"

  "Her Highness is not able to leave her chamber," the man replied.

  How it happened he could never afterwards describe but he found himself lying in a corner of the room. When he arose, there seemed to be a singular cavity in his mouth: his upper front teeth were wanting.

  We will not narrate what took place in the chamber of the Princess.

  The nerves of the unfortunate woman had been so wrought upon by her fears, that her husband's brutal rage, familiar to her from long experience, now possessed a new and alarming significance. His threats were terrible to hear; she fell into convulsions, and before morning her tormented life was at an end.

  There was now something else to think of, and the smashing of porcelain and cracking of whips came to an end. The Archimandrite was summoned, and preparations, both religious and secular, were made for a funeral worthy the rank of the deceased. Thousands flocked to Kinesma; and when the immense procession moved away from the castle, although very few of the persons had ever known or cared in the least, for the Princess Martha, all, without exception, shed profuse tears. Yes, there was one exception,——one bare, dry rock, rising alone out of the universal deluge,——Prince Alexis himself, who walked behind the coffin, his eyes fixed and his features rigid as stone. They remarked that his face was haggard, and that the fiery tinge on his cheeks and nose had faded into livid purple. The only sign of emotion which he gave was a convulsive shudder, which from time to time passed over his whole body.

  Three archimandrites (abbots)and one hundred priests headed the solemn funeral procession from the castle to the church on the opposite hill. There the mass for the dead was chanted, the responses being sung by a choir of silvery boyish voices. All the appointments were of the costliest character. Not only all those within the church, but the thousands outside, spared not their tears, but wept until the fountains were exhausted. Notice was given, at the close of the services, that "baked meats" would be furnished to the multitude, and that all beggars who came to Kinesma would be charitably fed for the space of six weeks. Thus, by her death, the amiable Princess Martha was enabled to dispense more charity than had been permitted to her life.

  At the funeral banquet which followed, Prince Alexis placed the Abbot Sergius at his right hand, and conversed with him in the most edifying manner upon the necessity of leading a pure and godly life. His remarks upon the duty of a Christian, upon brotherly love, humility, and self-sacrifice, brought tears into the eyes of the listening priests. He expressed his conviction that the departed Princess, by the piety of her life, had attained unto salvation,——and added, that his own life had now no further value unless he should devote it to religious exercises.

  "Can you not give me a place in your monastery?" he asked, turning to the Abbot. "I will endow it with a gift of forty thousand rubles, for the privilege of occupying a monk's cell."

  "Pray, do not decide too hastily, Highness," the Abbot replied. "You have yet a son."

  "What!" yelled Prince Alexis, with flashing eyes, every trace of humility and renunciation vanishing like smoke,——"what! Borka? The infamous wretch who has ruined me, killed his mother, and brought disgrace upon our name? Do you know that he has married a wench of no family and without a farthing,——who would be honored, if I should allow her to feed my hogs? Live for him? live for him? Ah-R-R-R!"

  This outbreak terminated in a sound between a snarl and a bellow. The priests turned pale, but the Abbot devoutly remarked——

  "Encompassed by sorrows, Prince, you should humbly submit to the will of the Lord."

  "Submit to Borka?" the Prince scornfully laughed. "I know what I'll do. There's time enough yet for a wife and another child,—— ay,——a dozen children! I can have my pick in the province; and if I couldn't I'd sooner take Masha, the goose-girl, than leave Borka the hope of stepping into my shoes. Beggars they shall be,—— beggars!"

  What further he might have said was interrupted by the priests rising to chant the Blajennon uspennie (blessed be the dead),—— after which, the trisna, a drink composed of mead, wine, and rum, was emptied to the health of the departed soul. Every one stood during this ceremony, except Prince Alexis, who fell suddenly prostrate before the consecrated pictures, and sobbed so passionately that the tears of the guests flowed for the third time. There he lay until night; for whenever any one dared to touch him, he struck out furiously with fists and feet. Finally he fell asleep on the floor, and the servants then bore him to his sleeping apartment.

  For several days afterward his grief continued to be so violent that the occupants of the castle were obliged to keep out of his way. The whip was never out of his hand, and he used it very recklessly, not always selecting the right person. The parasitic poor relations found their situation so uncomfortable, that they decided, one and all, to detach themselves from the tree upon which they fed and fattened, even at the risk of withering on a barren soil. Night and morning the serfs prayed upon their knees, with many tears and groans, that the Saints might send consolation, in any form, to their desperate lord.

  The Saints graciously heard and answered the prayer. Word came that a huge bear had been seen in the forest stretching towards Juriewetz. The sorrowing Prince pricked up his ears, threw down his whip, and ordered a chase. Sasha, the broad-shouldered, the cunning, the ready, the untiring companion of his master, secretly ordered a cask of vodki to follow the crowd of hunters and serfs. There was a steel-bright sky, a low, yellow sun, and a brisk easterly wind from the heights of the Ural. As the crisp snow began to crunch under the Prince's sled, his followers saw the old expression come back to his face. With song and halloo and blast of horns, they swept away into the forest.

  Saint John the Hunter must have been on guard over Russia that day.

  The great bear was tracked, and after a long and exciting chase, fell by the hand of Prince Alexis himself. Halt was made in an open space in the forest, logs were piled together and kindled on the snow, and just at the right moment (which no one knew better than Sasha) the cask of vodki rolled into its place. When the serfs saw the Prince mount astride of it, with his ladle in his hand, they burst into shouts of extravagant joy. "Slava Bogu!" (Glory be to God!) came fervently from the bearded lips of those hard, rough, obedient children. They tumbled headlong over each other, in their efforts to drink first from the ladle, to clasp the knees or kiss the hands of the restored Prince. And the dawn was glimmering against the eastern stars, as they took the way to the castle, making the ghostly fir-woods ring with shout and choric song.

  Nevertheless, Prince Alexis was no longer the same man; his giant strength and furious appetite were broken. He was ever ready, as formerly, for the chase and the drinking-bout; but his jovial mood no longer grew into a crisis which only utter physical exhaustion or the stupidity of drunkenness could overcome. Frequently, while astride the cask, his shouts of laughter would suddenly cease, the ladle would drop from his hand, and he would sit motionless, staring into vacancy for five minutes at a time. Then the serfs, too, became silent, and stood still, awaiting a change. The gloomy mood passed away as suddenly. He would start, look about him, and say, in a melancholy voice,——

  "Have I frightened you, my children? It seems to me that I am getting old. Ah, yes, we must all die, one day. But we need not think about it, until the time comes. The Devil take me for putting it into my head! Why, how now? can't you sing, children?"

  Then he would strike up some ditty which they all knew: a hundred voices joined in the strain, and the hills once more rang with revelry.

  Since the day when the Princess Martha was buried, the Prince had not again spoken of marriage. No one, of course, dared to mention the name of Boris in his presence.

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