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Beauty and The Beast(Chapter2)

2006-08-22 23:00

  We are in Kinesma, a small town on the Volga, between Kostroma and Nijni-Novgorod. The time is about the middle of the last century, and the month October.

  There was trouble one day, in the palace of Prince Alexis, of Kinesma. This edifice, with its massive white walls, and its pyramidal roofs of green copper, stood upon a gentle mound to the eastward of the town, overlooking it, a broad stretch of the Volga, and the opposite shore. On a similar hill, to the westward, stood the church, glittering with its dozen bulging, golden domes. These two establishments divided the sovereignty of Kinesma between them.

  Prince Alexis owned the bodies of the inhabitants, (with the exception of a few merchants and tradesmen,) and the Archimandrite Sergius owned their souls. But the shadow of the former stretched also over other villages, far beyond the ring of the wooded horizon. The number of his serfs was ten thousand, and his rule over them was even less disputed than theirs over their domestic animals.

  The inhabitants of the place had noticed with dismay that the slumber-flag had not been hoisted on the castle, although it was half an hour after the usual time. So rare a circumstance betokened sudden wrath or disaster, on the part of Prince Alexis. Long experience had prepared the people for anything that might happen, and they were consequently not astonished at the singular event which presently transpired.

  The fact is, that in the first place, the dinner had been prolonged full ten minutes beyond its accustomed limit, owing to a discussion between the Prince, his wife, the Princess Martha, and their son Prince Boris. The last was to leave for St. Petersburg in a fortnight, and wished to have his departure preceded by a festival at the castle. The Princess Martha was always ready to second the desires of her only child. Between the two they had pressed some twenty or thirty thousand rubles out of the old Prince, for the winter diversions of the young one. The festival, to be sure, would have been a slight expenditure for a noble of such immense wealth as Prince Alexis; but he never liked his wife, and he took a stubborn pleasure in thwarting her wishes. It was no satisfaction that Boris resembled her in character. That weak successor to the sovereignty of Kinesma preferred a game of cards to a bear hunt, and could never drink more than a quart of vodki without becoming dizzy and sick.

  "Ugh!" Prince Alexis would cry, with a shudder of disgust, "the whelp barks after the dam!"

  A state dinner he might give; but a festival, with dances, dramatic representations, burning tar-barrels, and cannon,——no! He knitted his heavy brows and drank deeply, and his fiery gray eyes shot such incessant glances from side to side that Boris and the Princess Martha could not exchange a single wink of silent advice. The pet bear, Mishka, plied with strong wines, which Prince Alexis poured out for him into a golden basin, became at last comically drunk, and in endeavoring to execute a dance, lost his balance, and fell at full length on his back.

  The Prince burst into a yelling, shrieking fit of laughter. Instantly the yellow-haired serfs in waiting, the Calmucks at the hall-door, and the half-witted dwarf who crawled around the table in his tow shirt, began laughing in chorus, as violently as they could. The Princess Martha and Prince Boris laughed also; and while the old man's eyes were dimmed with streaming tears of mirth, quickly exchanged nods. The sound extended all over the castle, and was heard outside of the walls.

  "Father!" said Boris, "let us have the festival, and Mishka shall perform again. Prince Paul of Kostroma would strangle, if he could see him."

  "Good, by St. Vladimir!" exclaimed Prince Alexis. "Thou shalt have it, my Borka![1] Where's Simon Petrovitch? May the Devil scorch that vagabond, if he doesn't do better than the last time! Sasha!"

  [1] Little Boris.

  A broad-shouldered serf stepped forward and stood with bowed head.

  "Lock up Simon Petrovitch in the southwestern tower. Send the tailor and the girls to him, to learn their parts. Search every one of them before they go in, and if any one dares to carry vodki to the beast, twenty-five lashes on the back!"

  Sasha bowed again and departed. Simon Petrovitch was the court- poet of Kinesma. He had a mechanical knack of preparing allegorical diversions which suited the conventional taste of society at that time; but he had also a failing,——he was rarely sober enough to write. Prince Alexis, therefore, was in the habit of locking him up and placing a guard over him, until the inspiration had done its work. The most comely young serfs of both sexes were selected to perform the parts, and the court-tailor arranged for them the appropriate dresses. It depended very much upon accident——that is to say, the mood of Prince Alexis——whether Simon Petrovitch was rewarded with stripes or rubles.

  The matter thus settled, the Prince rose from the table and walked out upon an overhanging balcony, where an immense reclining arm- chair of stuffed leather was ready for his siesta. He preferred this indulgence in the open air; and although the weather was rapidly growing cold, a pelisse of sables enabled him to slumber sweetly in the face of the north wind. An attendant stood with the pelisse outspread; another held the halyards to which was attached the great red slumber-flag, ready to run it up and announce to all Kinesma that the noises of the town must cease; a few seconds more, and all things would have been fixed in their regular daily courses. The Prince, in fact, was just straightening his shoulders to receive the sables; his eyelids were dropping, and his eyes, sinking mechanically with them, fell upon the river-road, at the foot of the hill. Along this road walked a man, wearing the long cloth caftan of a merchant.

  Prince Alexis started, and all slumber vanished out of his eyes. He leaned forward for a moment, with a quick, eager expression; then a loud roar, like that of an enraged wild beast, burst from his mouth. He gave a stamp that shook the balcony.

  "Dog!" he cried to the trembling attendent, "my cap! my whip!"

  The sables fell upon the floor, the cap and whip appeared in a twinkling, and the red slumber-flag was folded up again for the first time in several years, as the Prince stormed out of the castle. The traveller below had heard the cry,——for it might have been heard half a mile. He seemed to have a presentiment of evil, for he had already set off towards the town at full speed.

  To explain the occurence, we must mention one of the Prince's many peculiar habits. This was, to invite strangers or merchants of the neighborhood to dine with him, and, after regaling them bountifully, to take his pay in subjecting them to all sorts of outrageous tricks, with the help of his band of willing domestics. Now this particular merchant had been invited, and had attended; but, being a very wide-awake, shrewd person, he saw what was coming, and dexterously slipped away from the banquet without being perceived. The Prince vowed vengeance, on discovering the escape, and he was not a man to forget his word.

  Impelled by such opposite passions, both parties ran with astonishing speed. The merchant was the taller, but his long caftan, hastily ungirdled, swung behind him and dragged in the air.

  The short, booted legs of the Prince beat quicker time, and he grasped his short, heavy, leathern whip more tightly as he saw the space diminishing. They dashed into the town of Kinesma a hundred yards apart. The merchant entered the main street, or bazaar, looking rapidly to right and left, as he ran, in the hope of espying some place of refuge. The terrible voice behind him cried,——

  "Stop, scoundrel! I have a crow to pick with you!"

  And the tradesmen in their shops looked on and laughed, as well they might, being unconcerned spectators of the fun. The fugitive, therefore, kept straight on, notwithstanding a pond of water glittered across the farther end of the street.

  Although Prince Alexis had gained considerably in the race, such violent exercise, after a heavy dinner, deprived him of breath. He again cried,——


  "But the merchant answered,——

  "No, Highness! You may come to me, but I will not go to you."

  "Oh, the villian!" growled the Prince, in a hoarse whisper, for he had no more voice.

  The pond cut of all further pursuit. Hastily kicking off his loose boots, the merchant plunged into the water, rather than encounter the princely whip, which already began to crack and snap in fierce anticipation. Prince Alexis kicked off his boots and followed; the pond gradually deepened, and in a minute the tall merchant stood up to his chin in the icy water, and his short pursuer likewise but out of striking distance. The latter coaxed and entreated, but the victim kept his ground.

  "You lie, Highness!" he said, boldly. "If you want me, come to me."

  "Ah-h-h!" roared the Prince, with chattering teeth, "what a stubborn rascal you are! Come here, and I give you my word that I will not hurt you. Nay,"——seeing that the man did not move,——"you shall dine with me as often as you please. You shall be my friend; by St. Vladimir, I like you!"

  "Make the sign of the cross, and swear it by all the Saints," said the merchant, composedly.

  With a grim smile on his face, the Prince stepped back and shiveringly obeyed. Both then waded out, sat down upon the ground and pulled on their boots; and presently the people of Kinesma beheld the dripping pair walking side by side up the street, conversing in the most cordial manner. The merchant dried his clothes from within, at the castle table; a fresh keg of old Cognac was opened; and although the slumber-flag was not unfurled that afternoon, it flew from the staff and hushed the town nearly all the next day.

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