Taste of Russian Romance II
Here’s another first chapter from Irina Melnikova. It kills me that Russian fluff apparently is a lot closer to War and Peace than your average read-and-forget book. But then, maybe Russian writers and readers aren’t resigned to considering romance fluff?
Melnikova apparently writes novels which are funnier than this, like Alexandra — A Punishment from God, in which a famous beauty decides to punish an errant admirer by working as a maid in his house. (Somehow I feel that complications and havoc ensue, considering all the difficulties inherent in this course.) But I don’t know that I’m in the mood for maids, especially after doing a bunch of housework this weekend.
(There’s a large contingent of male anime fans who have this thing for maids, and I don’t mean in a semi-realistic Victorian Romance Emma way. I seriously doubt that any of their okaasans ever made them do a lick of housework in their lives. There’s also a large contingent of women out there who seem to think being a servant was either romantic or horrible beyond imagination. I don’t think either was necessarily true; but I do know that housework is hard work, and that’s with laborsaving devices. Somehow, I rarely want my fantasy life to involve work!)
From: The Antique with Carnations
by Irina Melnikova
Eksmo: Moscow, 2004.
Fields gray from many days’ rain, drooping winter crops, slovenly shocks of last year’s straw, boggy road, sadly bent branches of broom, black stumps in places of old forestry, lopsided crosses in old graveyards — and everywhere, wet dissatisfied crows sitting on the lower branches of trees, reed-thatched roofs, or fallen down fences, and accompanying the coach (too well appointed for a wilderness like that) with their unhappy, grim and endless cawing.
Prince Grigory Panyushev looked out the coach window for the hundredth time, sighed, and threw his head back onto the cushions. The most severe boredom had been eating at him for the last few days along the whole long and monotonous way to his new estate, which with God’s help and a decent amount of letters of credit, the
prince had managed to save from the heirs of Princess Zavidovskoy. It was a burden for him because of its extensive size and its excessive distance from the City or any decent road.
They had left Moscow on a clear June morning, dry and warm. It seemed to him that nothing had foreshadowed the present stretch of bad weather. But at the gates of Yaroslavl’, an enormous thundercloud had come over them, lashed them with hail, and poured down a generous shower, which eventually had become the drizzling obscenity of tedium which had spoiled the journey from then on.
The prince’s train consisted of five wagons drawn by horses with pedigrees, and ten covered wagons in which traveled his cook, footmen, grooms, ridingmasters, kennelkeepers, borzois, gonchaya beagles, musicians, and both his valets, guarded by two dozen professional hunters on horseback. It was half a verst long. And instead of the predicted two, three days, it had already been trudging down the boggy roads for a week. What’s more, the prince and his numerous servants had not needed to spend the night even once in tents either erected right in a field or in a forest clearing. The inns in these places stood no less than fifty versts apart from each other, and were furthermore characterized by such squalidness and dirt that the prince would have preferred to spend the night on a narrow cot, rather than being bitten by fleas and
bedbugs on the featherbeds of the next auberge.
“How much longer?” he asked unhappily without turning to his companion, an old friend and comrade in the amusements of his restless youth, whom he had chanced to meet in St. Petersburg on his return to Russia. Known to the whole capital as a dashing hussar, gambler and rake, Arkady Drozdovsky was famed for the fact that,
upon suddenly obtaining an inheritance, he had spent it entirely on drink in the company of revellers and idlers of his own sort.
But he was most famed for his unusual passion for street masquerades. He had first become infamous as the leper about whom the northern capital gossipped about for so long. Dressing as a monstrous beggar, he had started a campaign of vengeance on the pavements in front of the house of his distant relative, Prince Golitsyn. Upon the following evening, he repeated this occupation before that of the already aged Princess Ruzakovtsevoya, who loved to arrange noisy revels with many distinguished guests in attendance.
In a tattered coat, his face smeared with soot and a ragged broom in hand, he scurried about between groups, aiming to grasp or rub against the worldly beauties in alt and their proud — or to be more accurate, peacocking — cavaliers. Catching sight of an acquaintance or friend, he immediately cried out that he needed
alms, shook his dirty broom before him, took him by the lapels of his frockcoat, and knocked off his top hat with the appearance of inadvertence. In case of any failure, he quarreled like a leper would and was very skillfully repulsed by the stalwart footmen which had been ordered by their offended masters to chase the beggar out
of sight. Sometimes he got it strong and hot, but in spite of the cuffs and lumps, Arkady did not lose his passion. He continued to play pranks and amuse the public of the capital with his tricks. And he laughed louder than anyone when he was found out.
With each day the number of his victims grew — legend blamed it on his leprosy — and not desiring to lose the glory of being an original, he was forced to continue devising newer and newer tricks and ruses in order to wind the latest dupes around his finger. So each time, Drozdovsky’s wits became sharper and more malicious, for a public satiated with his costumes was no longer so easy to deceive, and still less easy to make laugh.
The world’s dissatisfaction gradually ripened, but the mischief-maker himself seemed to notice nothing, and continued to amuse himself as though nothing were the matter. Once two nuns appeared before the Countess Chernoukhova, known for her devotion and righteous life, and began to tearfully beg alms for their monastery.
They begged and sobbed so convincingly that Chernoukhova herself went for the money. Returning, she fell down in a faint; the nuns were dancing a squatting Cossack dance with fury and wild laughter. It was Drozdovsky and a friend. They say that Chernoukhova was not stunned by the dance so much as the monastic women’s hairy feet, which they used with such vigor that they were starting to rip through their robes almost all the way up to their belts.
The event which put an end to Drozdovsky’s mystifications and jokes had spilled patience’s cup. At one large banquet, when the guests had been seated in their places, the chair was pulled out from under the Swedish ambassador. The diplomat fell full length onto the floor, but immediately jumped to his feet and said, in a voice shaking with anger, “I hope the scoundrel who allowed himself
this impudence will declare his name!” Drozdovsky did not declare himself; and after that, he was as if dead to the capital’s beau monde. Offence and mockery could be endured, but cowardice they did not forgive.
“Ten versts,” Arkady answered, interrupting the prince’s reflections. “Now we will travel along the lake for half a verst, then there’ll be the bridge across Mischief Ravine, but as soon as we’re there, your lands will begin.”
“Hm. Is there much fish in the lake?” asked the prince, and yawned.
“Many, Your Brightness, many,” sighed the estate steward sitting on the opposite seat, Kuzma Ilyich Bobrykin. He had joined the prince’s train in the town of the day before. “Only you can’t get to it from your side of the lake. Swamps, yes, marshes. But in the lady’s land, they say, the peasants catch ‘em for fair. Last
year, they caught a pike with a gold ring. The old men say Little Mother Catherine lost it there. The Empress greatly loved to come stay with the old Count. Apparently she lost her heart to our part of the world. But after the fire, when the Count put up a new stone house, she said it was just like him and called it an ‘antique with
carnations’. And so the estate is called to this day.”
“What about the count? What was he called?” Grigory yawned and looked out the window again. The rain had ceased, and through the rising clouds in the sky a dim solar disk suddenly appeared.
“Izmestev,” Arkady answered for Bobrykin. “Thirty years back, he died a very old man, but you must remember the young count. Fedor, they called him. He was rich beyond counting, but he barely attended the balls — in short, he didn’t play his cards right. And he got married anyhow, very quietly. They say his mother found him
a bride. But eight years ago, he broke his neck. He was riding, and his horse threw him into the ravine. Exactly the same one we’re about to cross. Mischief.”
“Is that why they call it Mischief?” Grigory looked at the manager.
“Of course not.” Bobrykin waved his hand. “The greatest bandit strongholds were here. The old men say, what’s more, that in the terrible ravine stood the very camp of Ivan Likhutev’s gang. They robbed and killed everyone, with no exceptions. Back then, if you went twenty versts, the babas would screech laments, as if
singing you to your certain death. That bandit Vanka’s powers were undying crafty, when it came to searching. He put a hundred travelers under his will. But in the hills….” Kuzma indicated with his hand the side of the coach looking toward the thick brushwood around the lake. “…on the old road at Grekhovovo Pass, he somehow robbed the landowner. Dozens of his robbers collided with the lord’s hundred servants in formation, and took the whole thing clean. He got out only by calculating how much public prayer and how many candles he’d need to put before the wonderworking icon for safe passage. But on Zaraiskoy Mountain, he got merchants down to their peg tops, and even sent folks for a percentage of the fish at the bottom of the lake.”
“They tell pure fairy tales about this Likhutev here,” smiled Arkady. “Supposedly soldiers surrounded him, and he would drink wine from his favorite cup and vanish into the same cup. Another time, they had just caught him after having quite a time of it, when suddenly the whole cottage went up in smoke and flame as if gunpowder had been tossed upon it.”
“And what happened? Did they catch him?” Grigory finally felt that his boredom had left him.
“That I don’t know,” sighed the manager. He guiltily unclasped his hands, as if it were by his omission that the bold, sly robber hadn’t been taken and put in jail. But then, squinting, he pronounced solemnly, “This was very long ago, in Little MotherCatherine’s time, so people might be lying about that.”
“It appears that the Empress wasn’t afraid of bandits, if she came to stay in these parts so frequently.”
“She didn’t fear ‘em, Your Brightness. God sees she didn’t fear ‘em.” The manager crossed himself. “Yes, and whenever she was here, the robberies stopped.” Kuzma lowered his voice slightly and timidly examined the coach window. “People say that Count Izmestev and Vanka Likhutev — was the same person. The count, seemingly,
earned his money by robberies, then, yes, by robberies. They say he was bad at business from the first, and so he had to get rich some other way. There was even a story that one of the merchants — I don’t know whether this is true — saw the count in the robber’s caftan. But soon after that the merchant disappeared like he’d
fallen into the earth, and they feared it was connected with the Count. He was tall and unusually strong. He could bend horseshoes with his bare hands and drive a troika from the back of a sleigh. But here his son let him down. He didn’t grow much, and his voice was as shrill as a wench. After the count’s death, the old countess
ruled the estate, her that married off Fedor Gavrilovich. People say, by force. The young count didn’t want to be married at all. But then he got used to it, and then he soon beat his wife. He raged especially after the death of his mother, the old countess, but the young countess didn’t stay unavenged. They say someone threw him out of his window, and after that the count always went lame….”
The prince and Drozdovsky exchanged glances and started to laugh.
“Among your neighbors, Grigory, you have a particular woman,” explained Arkady, not ceasing to smile. “An intolerant character who quarrels with all her neighbors. She allows nobody onto her land. She does not drive out to call on anyone. She lives almost alone, with only her sister, yes, and the servants. Two
villages and a hamlet she has in her possession, and they talk even in Orel and Voronezh provinces about the villages there. Rich, capricious, willful.”
“Beautiful, mon cher, very beautiful, but not everyone has the strength to manage this ridiculous, obstinate filly.”
“You’ve met her?” asked the prince with genuine interest, and Drozdovsky smirked to himself, noting the gleam in his friend’s eyes.
“Alas, God spared me such good fortune. The countess is one of those who personally demands bowing foreheads and holds a whip with no less skill than a fan or lorgnette.”
“They tried to woo her in the beginning,” Kuzma added in support of the lord’s comments. “Only she ordered both the matchmakers and suitors chased off with sticks to the very border of the estate, and from that time on, she put out cordons on all the roads so that nobody would try to break in on her quiet. Yes, you can see one right there. That’s the shortest road to the estate. Another two versts and we’ll see the house itself….”
Grigory looked out the window. A wide sandy road turned off smoothly into the forest, on the border of which could be seen two rock posts with wooden gates attached, next to which stood two strong and sullen peasants with flintlock guns at the ready.
“You said nothing of such strong guards!” smiled the prince. “Will they really shoot, should we decide to visit the widow?”
“Who knows but them?” Kuzma scratched the back of his head. “They didn’t shoot nobody yet, but nobody’s decided to pass through those gates.”
Because of this conversation, they didn’t note that the endless fields had changed into low, gently sloping hills which were overgrown with gloomy firwoods. And only seldom, on spots which had been burned or cut down, blazed the bright verdure of
young birch groves or a small flock of aspens with tiny kopeck-sized leaflets suddenly emerging in a clearing.
The rain had quite ceased. Under the first, even more timid rays of sun, the sandstone looked like golden armor thrown onto the side of the road by tired soldiers. The straining glance looked fixedly and intently at the dark and unfriendly
depths of the forest and died on each hillock. Any minute now, there will flicker among the trees a tempting view of the facade of the manor house, hidden in a park divided by a false road leading to the lake. And possibly it will strike only this flat device, or the white wall of an arbor, or a belfry spire will reveal the presence of that estate with the strange and intriguing name “The Antique with Carnations”.
Grigory sighed. How often could one give oneself over to such romantic illusions? Perhaps he should not have made such mistakes in this life, allowing feelings to overcome reason. He had made mistakes, and not just once; and here he was again, acting like a drooling adolescent just torn from his little mama’s skirts.
And the widow-beauty would surely prove to be a fat, snubnosed, old before her time landowner, with large breasts and the rest of the details that had been the mode twenty years back. Wilfulness was in Russian ladies’ blood, especially those who had doomed themselves to a stay in such godforsaken places that they never held a fashionable Parisian magazine in their hands, and whose whole amusement was to war with flies, yes, or to whip their maids’ cheeks and fornicate with their grooms.
But the tension in him continued to grow, his incomprehensible, irritating tension which was turning into trembling, and in order to stop it, he had to grit his teeth and hold his fingers still — by shaking, they might manifest his unexpected (and so absurd) agitation.
So as not to give away his totally unjustified interest in his surroundings, Grigory half-turned to look out the window as if reluctant, hoping that his appearance was as lazily bored as before — and that it by no means reflected his true mood.
On his left, over the hills and the dark wall of firwoods, could be seen a high belfry, clearly differentiated against the background of the sky, now turned bright. The road went off on an angle, and beyond it opened a panorama of the town laid on the tall opposite bank of the river, the endless windings of which were lost among its hilly banks sheltered in dense forest.
Churches, crenellated walls, towers… Visible from far off were the tall grass-overgrown earthen shafts, the tops of churches, the usual Catherine-style arcades with merchants still in ranks and the average man’s houses inside gardens, scattered along the slopes divided by ravines.
“Belorechensk,” explained Arkady. “The former Matushkin estate is located near here. I’ve know these parts from childhood.”
The road slid downward again, then back up. The presence of a small river or stream somewhere in the shaded ravine could be quickly inferred from the willows. A humpbacked bridge whose logs quickly repeated the hooves of horses; a building abandoned out of German economy; and then further on a quite tall, flat, and
gigantic rock wall cut as if by scissors; and over here, to the right between dark trunks, again the endless aqueous smoothness of the enormous lake.
“Look, Your Brightness!” cried Kuzma, and pointed a hand in the direction of the lake. “There she is — what a beauty!”
But Grigory had already seen for himself the house that Catherine the Great had once named the Antique with Carnations. A huge three-story house made from white stone, with six columns at the main entrance, upon which rested an elegant triangular
pediment. The high porch, with two routes disappearing toward the lake, was decorated with statues of marble lions lying in a sphinx-like pose. Circling the courtyard like girls in a round dance were lindens, but in its very center grew a huge oak with
freely extended branches which covered the house from any outside gaze. In the high windows of the first floor, where he guessed the ceremonial suites were located, sunbeams played; above it was a mezzanine with almost square windows. Surely there were the rooms for children and tutors… To the right, not far from the house on a high rock hillock, stood a light and elegant gazebo sheltered by lilac bushes. About eight Tuscan columns carried a cupola crowned by a sphere.
Grigory caught his breath. Something long forgotten, almost like a fairy tale, floated up in his memory at the sight of this wonder, lost in the wilderness among wild and gloomy firs, many lakes, and swamps. But the road skewed to the side,
and the estate was hidden behind the trees. Only the halo of the sunbeam reflected from the windows of the upper level flickered in the end through the thick tops of the trees. And this forced his heart to feel agonizing pain, because memory had again returned the prince to the grimmest and most cheerless moments of his past.
He took off his hat and wiped his sweating face with his handkerchief.
“Look, Grigory,” said Arkady quietly. “It seems as though the mistress herself is escorting us.”
The prince turned to the window and fell into admiration at the spectacle which appeared before him — a horseman, or to be more accurate, a horsewoman in male costume. Bent over the neck of a splendid Arabian hunter, she galloped along the road which bounded the estate. She was so caught up in the run that she paid no attention to the prince’s train, the cries and whistles of the huntsmen, the barking of the excited dogs, or the hallooing of the servants leaning out of the covered wagons. The horse ran just as it should, and the horsewoman stayed in her saddle as if she’d
been cast that way.
She was continually hidden by sandy outcrops or behind trees, but now she reappeared. The woman wore no hat, and wind fluttered through her thick mane of dark hair.
“Ye-es!” Grigory held it out, and looked puzzledly at his friend. “Pure Amazon! She keeps her saddle like a real hussar!”
“She’s already there!” Arkady shook his head and solemnly pronounced, “I wouldn’t want to meet her at the fences. No, you just watch how her horse obeys her! Well, what a witch — that’s the right word — a witch!”
Meanwhile, the horse and horsewoman flew off to a high hill and froze there like a statue. And Grigory noted that the horsewoman was magnificently made, and probably possessed a strong will, if so proud and rebellious a creature as a purebred
Arabian hunter could be made to obey her. The stranger raised her hand and peered at the horizon for a time; she remained in view of the train for a fraction of a second more. Then extending her hand, she made the horse rear, and giving it a touch of the crop, disappeared almost instantly behind the hill, even more rapidly than she had appeared on the road before them.
“C’est magnifique!” exclaimed Arkady, and clapped his hands. “My heart sniffs out that you won’t have to be bored, prince, next to a neighbor like that. I bet somebody reported your arrival to her. Oh, already this female curiosity and
pride! Rain, slush, and she racing beside your coach….”
“Indeed, the countess always rolls along out here. Rain or no rain, all the same she orders her horse to get going.” The manager damped their enthusiasm. “And only in the morning does the light come out, only another time does the sun rise; and now she’s already at the other end of the lake. And who doesn’t dream of her?”
“Who, who,” Arkady began to laugh. “I know who….”
Noticing the dissatisfied grimace on the prince’s face, he calmed down and became still, feeling that his conjectures about the lady’s early jaunt in this case would be inappropriate.
But Grigory suddenly thought that he also would like to take a morning ride around the lake, even in the dew, even in the fog and rain, in order to see this strange woman more closely and examine her as he should, instead of as the vision that had flashed before his eyes a few moments ago.
* Prince: knyaz, not tsarevich. Tons of them were running around Russia back in the day.
I hope to goodness the “rebellious Arabian” horse thing was ignorance on the prince’s part and not on the writer’s. Arabians have their own minds, yes, but they have to be treated with great gentleness.
I’m pretty sure we all know what borzois look like, but I’m having trouble finding an English page about gonchayas, which are sort of like beagles. (Russian-English gonchayas pretty much look exactly like beagles, except with longer legs.)