For on the topmost tier of the hotel verandah, after being carried up th_teps in an armchair amid a bevy of footmen, maid-servants, and other menial_f the hotel, headed by the landlord (that functionary had actually run out t_eet a visitor who arrived with so much stir and din, attended by her ow_etinue, and accompanied by so great a pile of trunks and portmanteaux)—on th_opmost tier of the verandah, I say, there was sitting—THE GRANDMOTHER! Yes, it was she—rich, and imposing, and seventy-five years of age—Antonid_assilievna Tarassevitcha, landowner and grande dame of Moscow—the "L_aboulenka" who had caused so many telegrams to be sent off and received—wh_ad been dying, yet not dying—who had, in her own person, descended upon u_ven as snow might fall from the clouds! Though unable to walk, she ha_rrived borne aloft in an armchair (her mode of conveyance for the last fiv_ears), as brisk, aggressive, self-satisfied, bolt-upright, loudly imperious, and generally abusive as ever. In fact, she looked exactly as she had on th_nly two occasions when I had seen her since my appointment to the General'_ousehold. Naturally enough, I stood petrified with astonishment. She ha_ighted me a hundred paces off! Even while she was being carried along in he_hair she had recognised me, and called me by name and surname (which, a_sual, after hearing once, she had remembered ever afterwards).
"And this is the woman whom they had thought to see in her grave after makin_er will!" I thought to myself. "Yet she will outlive us, and every one els_n the hotel. Good Lord! what is going to become of us now? What on earth i_o happen to the General? She will turn the place upside down!"
"My good sir," the old woman continued in a stentorian voice, "what are yo_tanding THERE for, with your eyes almost falling out of your head? Cannot yo_ome and say how-do-you-do? Are you too proud to shake hands? Or do you no_ecognise me? Here, Potapitch!" she cried to an old servant who, dressed in _rock coat and white waistcoat, had a bald, red head (he was the chamberlai_ho always accompanied her on her journeys). "Just think! Alexis Ivanovitc_oes not recognise me! They have buried me for good and all! Yes, and afte_ending hosts of telegrams to know if I were dead or not! Yes, yes, I hav_eard the whole story. I am very much alive, though, as you may see."
"Pardon me, Antonida Vassilievna," I replied good humouredly as I recovered m_resence of mind. "I have no reason to wish you ill. I am merely rathe_stonished to see you. Why should I not be so, seeing how unexpected—"
"WHY should you be astonished? I just got into my chair, and came. Things ar_uiet enough in the train, for there is no one there to chatter. Have you bee_ut for a walk?"
"Yes. I have just been to the Casino."
"Oh? Well, it is quite nice here," she went on as she looked about her. "Th_lace seems comfortable, and all the trees are out. I like it very well. Ar_our people at home? Is the General, for instance, indoors?"
"Yes; and probably all of them."
"Do they observe the convenances, and keep up appearances? Such things alway_ive one tone. I have heard that they are keeping a carriage, even as Russia_entlefolks ought to do. When abroad, our Russian people always cut a dash. I_rascovia here too?"
"Yes. Polina Alexandrovna is here."
"And the Frenchwoman? However, I will go and look for them myself. Tell me th_earest way to their rooms. Do you like being here?"
"Yes, I thank you, Antonida Vassilievna."
"And you, Potapitch, you go and tell that fool of a landlord to reserve me _uitable suite of rooms. They must be handsomely decorated, and not too hig_p. Have my luggage taken up to them. But what are you tumbling ove_ourselves for? Why are you all tearing about? What scullions these fellow_re!—Who is that with you?" she added to myself.
"A Mr. Astley," I replied.
"And who is Mr. Astley?"
"A fellow-traveller, and my very good friend, as well as an acquaintance o_he General's."
"Oh, an Englishman? Then that is why he stared at me without even opening hi_ips. However, I like Englishmen. Now, take me upstairs, direct to thei_ooms. Where are they lodging?"
Madame was lifted up in her chair by the lacqueys, and I preceded her up th_rand staircase. Our progress was exceedingly effective, for everyone whom w_et stopped to stare at the cortege. It happened that the hotel had th_eputation of being the best, the most expensive, and the most aristocratic i_ll the spa, and at every turn on the staircase or in the corridors w_ncountered fine ladies and important-looking Englishmen—more than one of who_astened downstairs to inquire of the awestruck landlord who the newcomer was.
To all such questions he returned the same answer—namely, that the old lad_as an influential foreigner, a Russian, a Countess, and a grande dame, an_hat she had taken the suite which, during the previous week, had bee_enanted by the Grande Duchesse de N.
Meanwhile the cause of the sensation—the Grandmother—was being borne aloft i_er armchair. Every person whom she met she scanned with an inquisitive eye, after first of all interrogating me about him or her at the top of her voice.
She was stout of figure, and, though she could not leave her chair, one felt, the moment that one first looked at her, that she was also tall of stature.
Her back was as straight as a board, and never did she lean back in her seat.
Also, her large grey head, with its keen, rugged features, remained alway_rect as she glanced about her in an imperious, challenging sort of way, wit_ooks and gestures that clearly were unstudied. Though she had reached he_eventy-sixth year, her face was still fresh, and her teeth had not decayed.
Lastly, she was dressed in a black silk gown and white mobcap.
"She interests me tremendously," whispered Mr. Astley as, still smoking, h_alked by my side. Meanwhile I was reflecting that probably the old lady kne_ll about the telegrams, and even about De Griers, though little or nothin_bout Mlle. Blanche. I said as much to Mr. Astley.
But what a frail creature is man! No sooner was my first surprise abated tha_ found myself rejoicing in the shock which we were about to administer to th_eneral. So much did the thought inspire me that I marched ahead in the gayes_f fashions.
Our party was lodging on the third floor. Without knocking at the door, or i_ny way announcing our presence, I threw open the portals, and the Grandmothe_as borne through them in triumph. As though of set purpose, the whole part_hanced at that moment to be assembled in the General's study. The time wa_leven o'clock, and it seemed that an outing of some sort (at which a portio_f the party were to drive in carriages, and others to ride on horseback, accompanied by one or two extraneous acquaintances) was being planned. Th_eneral was present, and also Polina, the children, the latter's nurses, D_riers, Mlle. Blanche (attired in a riding-habit), her mother, the youn_rince, and a learned German whom I beheld for the first time. Into the mids_f this assembly the lacqueys conveyed Madame in her chair, and set her dow_ithin three paces of the General!
Good heavens! Never shall I forget the spectacle which ensued! Just before ou_ntry, the General had been holding forth to the company, with De Griers i_upport of him. I may also mention that, for the last two or three days, Mlle.
Blanche and De Griers had been making a great deal of the young Prince, unde_he very nose of the poor General. In short, the company, though decorous an_onventional, was in a gay, familiar mood. But no sooner did the Grandmothe_ppear than the General stopped dead in the middle of a word, and, with ja_ropping, stared hard at the old lady—his eyes almost starting out of hi_ead, and his expression as spellbound as though he had just seen a basilisk.
In return, the Grandmother stared at him silently and without moving—thoug_ith a look of mingled challenge, triumph, and ridicule in her eyes. For te_econds did the pair remain thus eyeing one another, amid the profound silenc_f the company; and even De Griers sat petrified—an extraordinary look o_neasiness dawning on his face. As for Mlle. Blanche, she too stared wildly a_he Grandmother, with eyebrows raised and her lips parted—while the Prince an_he German savant contemplated the tableau in profound amazement. Only Polin_ooked anything but perplexed or surprised. Presently, however, she too turne_s white as a sheet, and then reddened to her temples. Truly the Grandmother'_rrival seemed to be a catastrophe for everybody! For my own part, I stoo_ooking from the Grandmother to the company, and back again, while Mr. Astley, as usual, remained in the background, and gazed calmly and decorously at th_cene.
"Well, here I am—and instead of a telegram, too!" the Grandmother at las_jaculated, to dissipate the silence. "What? You were not expecting me?"
"Antonida Vassilievna! O my dearest mother! But how on earth did you, di_ou—?" The mutterings of the unhappy General died away.
I verily believe that if the Grandmother had held her tongue a few second_onger she would have had a stroke.
"How on earth did I WHAT?" she exclaimed. "Why, I just got into the train an_ame here. What else is the railway meant for? But you thought that I ha_urned up my toes and left my property to the lot of you. Oh, I know ALL abou_he telegrams which you have been dispatching. They must have cost you _retty sum, I should think, for telegrams are not sent from abroad fo_othing. Well, I picked up my heels, and came here. Who is this Frenchman?
Monsieur de Griers, I suppose?"
"Oui, madame," assented De Griers. "Et, croyez, je suis si enchante! Votr_ante—c'est un miracle vous voir ici. Une surprise charmante!"
"Just so. 'Charmante!' I happen to know you as a mountebank, and therefor_rust you no more than THIS." She indicated her little finger. "And who i_HAT?" she went on, turning towards Mlle. Blanche. Evidently the Frenchwoma_ooked so becoming in her riding-habit, with her whip in her hand, that sh_ad made an impression upon the old lady. "Who is that woman there?"
"Mlle. de Cominges," I said. "And this is her mother, Madame de Cominges. The_lso are staying in the hotel."
"Is the daughter married?" asked the old lady, without the least semblance o_eremony.
"No," I replied as respectfully as possible, but under my breath.
"Is she good company?"
I failed to understand the question.
"I mean, is she or is she not a bore? Can she speak Russian? When this D_riers was in Moscow he soon learnt to make himself understood."
I explained to the old lady that Mlle. Blanche had never visited Russia.
"Bonjour, then," said Madame, with sudden brusquerie.
"Bonjour, madame," replied Mlle. Blanche with an elegant, ceremonious bow as, under cover of an unwonted modesty, she endeavoured to express, both in fac_nd figure, her extreme surprise at such strange behaviour on the part of th_randmother.
"How the woman sticks out her eyes at me! How she mows and minces!" was th_randmother's comment. Then she turned suddenly to the General, and continued:
"I have taken up my abode here, so am going to be your next-door neighbour.
Are you glad to hear that, or are you not?"
"My dear mother, believe me when I say that I am sincerely delighted,"
returned the General, who had now, to a certain extent, recovered his senses; and inasmuch as, when occasion arose, he could speak with fluency, gravity, and a certain effect, he set himself to be expansive in his remarks, and wen_n: "We have been so dismayed and upset by the news of your indisposition! W_ad received such hopeless telegrams about you! Then suddenly—"
"Fibs, fibs!" interrupted the Grandmother.
"How on earth, too, did you come to decide upon the journey?" continued th_eneral, with raised voice as he hurried to overlook the old lady's las_emark. "Surely, at your age, and in your present state of health, the thin_s so unexpected that our surprise is at least intelligible. However, I a_lad to see you (as indeed, are we all"—he said this with a dignified, ye_onciliatory, smile), "and will use my best endeavours to render your sta_ere as pleasant as possible."
"Enough! All this is empty chatter. You are talking the usual nonsense. _hall know quite well how to spend my time. How did I come to undertake th_ourney, you ask? Well, is there anything so very surprising about it? It wa_one quite simply. What is every one going into ecstasies about?—How do yo_o, Prascovia? What are YOU doing here?"
"And how are YOU, Grandmother?" replied Polina, as she approached the ol_ady. "Were you long on the journey?".
"The most sensible question that I have yet been asked! Well, you shall hea_or yourself how it all happened. I lay and lay, and was doctored an_octored, until at last I drove the physicians from me, and called in a_pothecary from Nicolai who had cured an old woman of a malady similar to m_wn—cured her merely with a little hayseed. Well, he did me a great deal o_ood, for on the third day I broke into a sweat, and was able to leave my bed.
Then my German doctors held another consultation, put on their spectacles, an_old me that if I would go abroad, and take a course of the waters, th_ndisposition would finally pass away. 'Why should it not?' I thought t_yself. So I had got things ready, and on the following day, a Friday, set ou_or here. I occupied a special compartment in the train, and where ever I ha_o change I found at the station bearers who were ready to carry me for a fe_oppers. You have nice quarters here," she went on as she glanced around th_oom. "But where on earth did you get the money for them, my good sir? _hought that everything of yours had been mortgaged? This Frenchman alone mus_e your creditor for a good deal. Oh, I know all about it, all about it."
"I-I am surprised at you, my dearest mother," said the General in som_onfusion. "I-I am greatly surprised. But I do not need any extraneous contro_f my finances. Moreover, my expenses do not exceed my income, and we—"
"They do not exceed it? Fie! Why, you are robbing your children of their las_opeck—you, their guardian!"
"After this," said the General, completely taken aback, "—after what you hav_ust said, I do not know whether—"
"You do not know what? By heavens, are you never going to drop that roulett_f yours? Are you going to whistle all your property away?"
This made such an impression upon the General that he almost choked with fury.
"Roulette, indeed? I play roulette? Really, in view of my position—Recollec_hat you are saying, my dearest mother. You must still be unwell."
"Rubbish, rubbish!" she retorted. "The truth is that you CANNOT be got awa_rom that roulette. You are simply telling lies. This very day I mean to g_nd see for myself what roulette is like. Prascovia, tell me what there is t_e seen here; and do you, Alexis Ivanovitch, show me everything; and do you, Potapitch, make me a list of excursions. What IS there to be seen?" again sh_nquired of Polina.
"There is a ruined castle, and the Shlangenberg."
"The Shlangenberg? What is it? A forest?"
"No, a mountain on the summit of which there is a place fenced off. From i_ou can get a most beautiful view."
"Could a chair be carried up that mountain of yours?"
"Doubtless we could find bearers for the purpose," I interposed.
At this moment Theodosia, the nursemaid, approached the old lady with th_eneral's children.
"No, I DON'T want to see them," said the Grandmother. "I hate kissin_hildren, for their noses are always wet. How are you getting on, Theodosia?"
"I am very well, thank you, Madame," replied the nursemaid. "And how is you_adyship? We have been feeling so anxious about you!"
"Yes, I know, you simple soul—But who are those other guests?" the old lad_ontinued, turning again to Polina. "For instance, who is that old rascal i_he spectacles?"
"Prince Nilski, Grandmamma," whispered Polina.
"Oh, a Russian? Why, I had no idea that he could understand me! Surely he di_ot hear what I said? As for Mr. Astley, I have seen him already, and I se_hat he is here again. How do you do?" she added to the gentleman in question.
Mr. Astley bowed in silence
"Have you NOTHING to say to me?" the old lady went on. "Say something, fo_oodness' sake! Translate to him, Polina."
Polina did so.
"I have only to say," replied Mr. Astley gravely, but also with alacrity,
"that I am indeed glad to see you in such good health." This was interprete_o the Grandmother, and she seemed much gratified.
"How well English people know how to answer one!" she remarked. "That is why _ike them so much better than French. Come here," she added to Mr. Astley. "_ill try not to bore you too much. Polina, translate to him that I am stayin_n rooms on a lower floor. Yes, on a lower floor," she repeated to Astley, pointing downwards with her finger.
Astley looked pleased at receiving the invitation.
Next, the old lady scanned Polina, from head to foot with minute attention.
"I could almost have liked you, Prascovia," suddenly she remarked, "for yo_re a nice girl—the best of the lot. You have some character about you. I to_ave character. Turn round. Surely that is not false hair that you ar_earing?"
"No, Grandmamma. It is my own."
"Well, well. I do not like the stupid fashions of today. You are very goo_ooking. I should have fallen in love with you if I had been a man. Why do yo_ot get married? It is time now that I was going. I want to walk, yet I alway_ave to ride. Are you still in a bad temper?" she added to the General.
"No, indeed," rejoined the now mollified General.
"I quite understand that at your time of life—"
"Cette vieille est tombee en enfance," De Griers whispered to me.
"But I want to look round a little," the old lady added to the General. Wil_ou lend me Alexis Ivanovitch for the purpose?
"As much as you like. But I myself—yes, and Polina and Monsieur de Grier_oo—we all of us hope to have the pleasure of escorting you."
"Mais, madame, cela sera un plaisir," De Griers commented with a bewitchin_mile.
"'Plaisir' indeed! Why, I look upon you as a perfect fool, monsieur." Then sh_emarked to the General: "I am not going to let you have any of my money. _ust be off to my rooms now, to see what they are like. Afterwards we wil_ook round a little. Lift me up."
Again the Grandmother was borne aloft and carried down the staircase amid _erfect bevy of followers—the General walking as though he had been hit ove_he head with a cudgel, and De Griers seeming to be plunged in thought.
Endeavouring to be left behind, Mlle. Blanche next thought better of it, an_ollowed the rest, with the Prince in her wake. Only the German savant an_adame de Cominges did not leave the General's apartments.