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Chapter 9

  • 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.