Beauty and the Beast.
The festival granted on behalf of Prince Boris was one of the grandest ever given at the castle. In character it was a singular cross between the old Muscovite revel and the French entertainments which were then introduced by the Empress Elizabeth.
All the nobility, for fifty versts around, including Prince Paul and the chief families of Kostroma, were invited. Simon Petrovitch had been so carefully guarded that his work was actually completed and the parts distributed; his superintendence of the performance, however, was still a matter of doubt, as it was necessary to release him from the tower, and after several days of forced abstinence he always manifested a raging appetite. Prince Alexis, in spite of this doubt, had been assured by Boris that the dramatic part of the entertainment would not be a failure. When he questioned Sasha, the poet's strong-shouldered guard, the latter winked familiarly and answered with a proverb,--
"I sit on the shore and wait for the wind,"--which was as much as to say that Sasha had little fear of the result
The tables were spread in the great hall, where places for one hundred chosen guests were arranged on the floor, while the three or four hundred of minor importance were provided for in the galleries above. By noon the whole party were assembled. The halls and passages of the castle were already permeated with rich and unctuous smells, and a delicate nose might have picked out and arranged, by their finer or coarser vapors, the dishes preparing for the upper and lower tables. One of the parasites of Prince Alexis, a dilapidated nobleman, officiated as Grand Marshal,--an office which more than compensated for the savage charity he received, for it was performed in continual fear and trembling. The Prince had felt the stick of the Great Peter upon his own back, and was ready enough to imitate any custom of the famous monarch.
An orchestra, composed principally of horns and brass instruments, occupied a separate gallery at one end of the dining-hall. The guests were assembled in the adjoining apartments, according to their rank; and when the first loud blast of the instruments announced the beginning of the banquet, two very differently attired and freighted processions of servants made their appearance at the same time. Those intended for the princely table numbered two hundred,--two for each guest. They were the handsomest young men among the ten thousand serfs, clothed in loose white trousers and shirts of pink or lilac silk; their soft golden hair, parted in the middle, fell upon their shoulders, and a band of gold-thread about the brow prevented it from sweeping the dishes they carried. They entered the reception-room, bearing huge trays of sculptured silver, upon which were anchovies, the finest Finnish caviar, sliced oranges, cheese, and crystal flagons of Cognac, rum, and kummel. There were fewer servants for the remaining guests, who were gathered in a separate chamber, and regaled with the common black caviar, onions, bread, and vodki. At the second blast of trumpets, the two companies set themselves in motion and entered the dining-hall at opposite ends. Our business, however, is only with the principal personages, so we will allow the common crowd quietly to mount to the galleries and satisfy their senses with the coarser viands, while their imagination is stimulated by the sight of the splendor and luxury below.
Prince Alexis entered first, with a pompous, mincing gait, leading the Princess Martha by the tips of her fingers. He wore a caftan of green velvet laced with gold, a huge vest of crimson brocade, and breeches of yellow satin. A wig, resembling clouds boiling in the confluence of opposing winds, surged from his low, broad forehead, and flowed upon his shoulders. As his small, fiery eyes swept the hall, every servant trembled: he was as severe at the commencement as he was reckless at the close of a banquet. The Princess Martha wore a robe of pink satin embroidered with flowers made of small pearls, and a train and head-dress of crimson velvet.
Her emeralds were the finest outside of Moscow, and she wore them all. Her pale, weak, frightened face was quenched in the dazzle of the green fires which shot from her forehead, ears, and bosom, as she moved.
Prince Paul of Kostroma and the Princess Nadejda followed; but on reaching the table, the gentlemen took their seats at the head, while the ladies marched down to the foot. Their seats were determined by their relative rank, and woe to him who was so ignorant or so absent-minded as to make a mistake! The servants had been carefully trained in advance by the Grand Marshal; and whoever took a place above his rank or importance found, when he came to sit down, that his chair had miraculously disappeared, or, not noticing the fact, seated himself absurdly and violently upon the floor. The Prince at the head of the table, and the Princess at the foot, with their nearest guests of equal rank, ate from dishes of massive gold; the others from silver. As soon as the last of the company had entered the hall, a crowd of jugglers, tumblers, dwarfs, and Calmucks followed, crowding themselves into the corners under the galleries, where they awaited the conclusion of the banquet to display their tricks, and scolded and pummelled each other in the mean time.
On one side of Prince Alexis the bear Mishka took his station. By order of Prince Boris he had been kept from wine for several days, and his small eyes were keener and hungrier than usual. As he rose now and then, impatiently, and sat upon his hind legs, he formed a curious contrast to the Prince's other supporter, the idiot, who sat also in his tow-shirt, with a large pewter basin in his hand. It was difficult to say whether the beast was most man or the man most beast. They eyed each other and watched the motions of their lord with equal jealousy; and the dismal whine of the bear found an echo in the drawling, slavering laugh of the idiot. The Prince glanced form one to the other; they put him in a capital humor, which was not lessened as he perceived an expression of envy pass over the face of Prince Paul.
The dinner commenced with a botvinia--something between a soup and a salad--of wonderful composition. It contained cucumbers, cherries, salt fish, melons, bread, salt, pepper, and wine. While it was being served, four huge fishermen, dressed to represent mermen of the Volga, naked to the waist, with hair crowned with reeds, legs finned with silver tissue from the knees downward, and preposterous scaly tails, which dragged helplessly upon the floor, entered the hall, bearing a broad, shallow tank of silver. In the tank flapped and swam four superb sterlets, their ridgy backs rising out of the water like those of alligators. Great applause welcomed this new and classical adaptation of the old custom of showing the living fish, before cooking them, to the guests at the table. The invention was due to Simon Petrovitch, and was (if the truth must be confessed) the result of certain carefully measured supplies of brandy which Prince Boris himself had carried to the imprisoned poet.
After the sterlets had melted away to their backbones, and the roasted geese had shrunk into drumsticks and breastplates, and here and there a guest's ears began to redden with more rapid blood, Prince Alexis judged that the time for diversion had arrived. He first filled up the idiot's basin with fragments of all the dishes within his reach,--fish, stewed fruits, goose fat, bread, boiled cabbage, and beer,--the idiot grinning with delight all the while, and singing, "Ne uyesjai golubchik moi," (Don't go away, my little pigeon), between the handfuls which he crammed into his mouth. The guests roared with laughter, especially when a juggler or Calmuck stole out from under the gallery, and pretended to have designs upon the basin. Mishka, the bear, had also been well fed, and greedily drank ripe old Malaga from the golden dish. But, alas! he would not dance. Sitting up on his hind legs, with his fore paws hanging before him, he cast a drunken, languishing eye upon the company, lolled out his tongue, and whined with an almost human voice. The domestics, secretly incited by the Grand Marshal, exhausted their ingenuity in coaxing him, but in vain. Finally, one of them took a goblet of wine in one hand, and, embracing Mishka with the other, began to waltz. The bear stretched out his paw and clumsily followed the movements, whirling round and round after the enticing goblet. The orchestra struck up, and the spectacle, though not exactly what Prince Alexis wished, was comical enough to divert the company immensely.
But the close of the performance was not upon the programme. The impatient bear, getting no nearer his goblet, hugged the man violently with the other paw, striking his claws through the thin shirt. The dance-measure was lost; the legs of the two tangled, and they fell to the floor, the bear undermost. With a growl of rage and disappointment, he brought his teeth together through the man's arm, and it might have fared badly with the latter, had not the goblet been refilled by some one and held to the animal's nose.
Then, releasing his hold, he sat up again, drank another bottle, and staggered out of the hall.
Now the health of Prince Alexis was drunk,--by the guests on the floor of the hall in Champagne, by those in the galleries in kislischi and hydromel. The orchestra played; a choir of serfs sang an ode by Simon Petrovitch, in which the departure of Prince Boris was mentioned; the tumblers began to posture; the jugglers came forth and played their tricks; and the cannon on the ramparts announced to all Kinesma, and far up and down the Volga, that the company were rising from the table.
Half an hour later, the great red slumber-flag floated over the castle. All slept,--except the serf with the wounded arm, the nervous Grand Marshal, and Simon Petrovich with his band of dramatists, guarded by the indefatigable Sasha. All others slept,--and the curious crowd outside, listening to the music, stole silently away; down in Kinesma, the mothers ceased to scold their children, and the merchants whispered to each other in the bazaar; the captains of vessels floating on the Volga directed their men by gestures; the mechanics laid aside hammer and axe, and lighted their pipes. Great silence fell upon the land, and continued unbroken so long as Prince Alexis and his guests slept the sleep of the just and the tipsy.
By night, however, they were all awake and busily preparing for the diversions of the evening. The ball-room was illuminated by thousands of wax-lights, so connected with inflammable threads, that the wicks could all be kindled in a moment. A pyramid of tar- barrels had been erected on each side of the castle-gate, and every hill or mound on the opposite bank of the Volga was similarly crowned. When, to a stately march,--the musicians blowing their loudest,--Prince Alexis and Princess Martha led the way to the ball-room, the signal was given: candles and tar-barre]s burst into flame, and not only within the castle, but over the landscape for five or six versts, around everything was bright and clear in the fiery day. Then the noises of Kinesma were not only permitted, but encouraged. Mead and qvass flowed in the very streets, and the castle trumpets could not be heard for the sound of troikas and balalaikas.
After the Polonaise, and a few stately minuets, (copied from the court of Elizabeth), the company were ushered into the theatre. The hour of Simon Petrovitch had struck: with the inspiration smuggled to him by Prince Boris, he had arranged a performance which he felt to be his masterpiece. Anxiety as to its reception kept him sober. The overture had ceased, the spectators were all in their seats, and now the curtain rose. The background was a growth of enormous, sickly toad-stools, supposed to be clouds. On the stage stood a girl of eighteen, (the handsomest in Kinesma), in hoops and satin petticoat, powdered hair, patches, and high-heeled shoes. She held a fan in one hand, and a bunch of marigolds in the other. After a deep and graceful curtsy to the company, she came forward and said,--
"I am the goddess Venus. I have come to Olympus to ask some questions of Jupiter."
Thunder was heard, and a car rolled upon the stage. Jupiter sat therein, in a blue coat, yellow vest, ruffled shirt and three- cornered hat. One hand held a bunch of thunderbolts, which he occasionally lifted and shook; the other, a gold-headed cane.
"Here am, I Jupiter," said he; "what does Venus desire?"
A poetical dialogue then followed, to the effect that the favorite of the goddess, Prince Alexis of Kinesma, was about sending his son, Prince Boris, into the gay world, wherein himself had already displayed all the gifts of all the divinities of Olympus. He claimed from her, Venus, like favors for his son: was it possible to grant them? Jupiter dropped his head and meditated. He could not answer the question at once: Apollo, the Graces, and the Muses must be consulted: there were few precedents where the son had succeeded in rivalling the father,--yet the father's pious wishes could not be overlooked. Venus said,--
"What I asked for Prince Alexis was for his sake: what I ask for the son is for the father's sake."
Jupiter shook his thunderbolt and called "Apollo!"
Instantly the stage was covered with explosive and coruscating fires,--red, blue, and golden,--and amid smoke, and glare, and fizzing noises, and strong chemical smells, Apollo dropped down from above. He was accustomed to heat and smoke, being the cook's assistant, and was sweated down to a weight capable of being supported by the invisible wires. He wore a yellow caftan, and wide blue silk trousers. His yellow hair was twisted around and glued fast to gilded sticks, which stood out from his head in a circle, and represented rays of light. He first bowed to Prince Alexis, then to the guests, then to Jupiter, then to Venus. The matter was explained to him.
He promised to do what he could towards favoring the world with a second generation of the beauty, grace, intellect, and nobility of character which had already won his regard. He thought, however, that their gifts were unnecessary, since the model was already in existence, and nothing more could be done than to imitate it.
(Here there was another meaning bow towards Prince Alexis,--a bow in which Jupiter and Venus joined. This was the great point of the evening, in the opinion of Simon Petrovitch. He peeped through a hole in one of the clouds, and, seeing the delight of Prince Alexis and the congratulations of his friends, immediately took a large glass of Cognac).
The Graces were then summoned, and after them the Muses--all in hoops, powder, and paint. Their songs had the same burden,-- intense admiration of the father, and good-will for the son, underlaid with a delicate doubt. The close was a chorus of all the deities and semi-deities in praise of the old Prince, with the accompaniment of fireworks. Apollo rose through the air like a frog, with his blue legs and yellow arms wide apart; Jupiter's chariot rolled off; Venus bowed herself back against a mouldy cloud; and the Muses came forward in a bunch, with a wreath of laurel, which they placed upon the venerated head.
Sasha was dispatched to bring the poet, that he might receive his well-earned praise and reward. But alas for Simon Petrovitch? His legs had already doubled under him. He was awarded fifty rubles and a new caftan, which he was not in a condition to accept until several days afterward.
The supper which followed resembled the dinner, except that there were fewer dishes and more bottles. When the closing course of sweatmeats had either been consumed or transferred to the pockets of the guests, the Princess Martha retired with the ladies. The guests of lower rank followed; and there remained only some fifteen or twenty, who were thereupon conducted by Prince Alexis to a smaller chamber, where he pulled off his coat, lit his pipe, and called for brandy. The others followed his example, and their revelry wore out the night.
Such was the festival which preceded the departure of Prince Boris for St. Petersburg.