ON the 10th of August, 1862, at four o’clock in the afternoon, a great number of people were thronging before the well-known Konversation in Baden-Baden. The weather was lovely; everything around — the green trees, the bright houses of the gay city, and the undulating outline of the mountains — everything was in holiday mood, basking in the rays of the kindly sun shine; everything seemed smiling with a sort of blind, confiding delight; and the same glad, vague smile strayed over the human faces, too, old and young, ugly and beautiful alike. Even the blackened and whitened visages of the Parisian demi-monde could not destroy the general impression of bright content and elation, while their many-colored ribbons and feathers and the sparks of gold and steel on their hats and veils in voluntarily recalled the intensified brilliance and light fluttering of birds in spring, with their rainbow-tinted wings. But the dry, guttural snapping of the French jargon, heard on all sides could not equal the song of birds, nor be compared with it.
Everything, however, was going on in its accustomed way. The orchestra in the Pavilion played first a medley from the Traviata, then one of Strauss’s waltzes, then “Tell her,” a Russian song, adapted for instruments by an obliging conductor. In the gambling saloons, round the green tables, crowded the same familiar figures, with the same dull, greedy, half-stupefied, half-exasperated, wholly rapacious expression, which the gambling fever lends to all, even the most aristocratic, features. The same well-fed and ultra-fashionably dressed Russian landowner from Tambov with wide staring eyes leaned over the table, and with uncomprehending haste, heedless of the cold smiles of the croupiers themselves, at the very instant of the cry ”rien ne va plus,” laid with perspiring hand golden rings of louis d’or on all the four corners of the roulette, depriving himself by so doing of every possibility of gaining anything, even in case of success. This did not in the least prevent him the same evening from affirming the contrary with disinterested indignation to Prince Kokó, one of the well-known leaders of the aristocratic opposition, the Prince Kokó, who in Paris at the salon of the Princess Mathilde, so happily remarked in the presence of the Emperor: “Madame, le principe de la propriété est profondément ébranlé en Russie.” At the Russian tree, à l’arbre Russe, our dear fellow-countrymen and countrywomen were assembled after their wont. They approached haughtily and carelessly in fashionable style, greeted each other with dignity and elegant ease, as befits beings who find themselves at the topmost pinnacle of contemporary culture. But when they had met and sat down together, they were absolutely at a loss for anything to say to one another, and had to be content with a pitiful interchange of inanities, or with the exceedingly indecent and exceedingly insipid old jokes of a hopelessly stale French wit, once a journalist, a chattering buffoon with Jewish shoes on his paltry little legs, and a contemptible little beard on his mean little visage. He retailed to them, à ces princes russes, all the sweet absurdities from the old comic almanacs Charivari and Tintamarre, and they, ces princes russes, burst into grateful laughter, as though forced in spite of themselves to recognize the crushing superiority of foreign wit, and their own hopeless incapacity to invent anything amusing. Yet here were almost all the ”fine fleur“ of our society, “all the high-life and mirrors of fashion.” Here was Count X., our incomparable dilettante, a profoundly musical nature; who so divinely recites songs on the piano, but cannot, in fact, take two notes correctly without fumbling at random on the keys, and sings in a style something between that of a poor gypsy singer and a Parisian hairdresser. Here was our enchanting Baron Q., a master in every line: literature, administration, oratory, and card-sharping. Here, too, was Prince Y., the friend of religion and the people, who in the blissful epoch when the spirit-trade was a monopoly, had made himself betimes a huge fortune by the sale of vodka adulterated with belladonna; and the brilliant General O. O., who had achieved the subjugation of something, and the pacification of something else, and who is nevertheless still a nonentity, and does not know what to do with himself. And R. R. the amusing fat man, who regards himself as a great invalid and a great wit, though he is, in fact, as strong as a bull, and as dull as a post. . . . This R. R. is almost the only man in our day who has preserved the traditions of the dandies of the forties, of the epoch of the “Hero of our Times,” and the Countess Vorotinsky. He has preserved, too, the special gait with the swing on the heels, and le culte de la pose (it cannot even be put into words in Russian), the unnatural deliberation of movement, the sleepy dignity of expression, the immoyable, offended-looking countenance, and the habit of interrupting other people’s remarks with a yawn, gazing at his own finger-nails, laughing through his nose, suddenly shifting his hat from the back of his head on to his eyebrows, etc. Here, too, were people in government circles, diplomats, big-wigs with European names, men of wisdom and intellect, who imagine that the Golden Bull was an edict of the Pope, and that the English poor-tax is a tax levied on the poor. And here, too, were the hot-blooded, though tongue-tied, devotees of the dames aux camellias, young society dandies, with superb partings down the back of their heads, and splendid drooping whiskers, dressed in real London costumes, young bucks whom one would fancy there was nothing to hinder from becoming as vulgar as the illustrious French wit above mentioned. But no! our home products are not in fashion it seems; and Countess S., the celebrated arbitress of fashion and grand genre, by spiteful tongues nicknamed “Queen of the Wasps,” and “Medusa in a mob-cap,” prefers, in the absence of the French wit, to consort with the Italians, Moldavians, American spiritualists, smart secretaries of foreign embassies, and Germans of effeminate, but prematurely circumspect, physiognomy, of whom the place is full. The example of the Countess is followed by the Princess Babette, she in whose arms Chopin died (the ladies in Europe in whose arms he expired are to be reckoned by thousands); and the Princess Annette, who would have been perfectly captivating, if the simple village washerwoman had not suddenly peeped out in her at times, like a smell of cabbage, wafted across the most delicate perfume; and Princess Pachette, to whom the following mischance had occurred: her husband had fallen into a good berth, and all at once, Dieu sait pourpuoi, he had thrashed the provost and stolen 20,000 rubles of public money; and the laughing Princess Zizi; and the tearful Princess Zozo. They all left their compatriots on one side, and were merciless in their treatment of them. Let us, too, leave them on one side, these charming ladies, and walk away from the renowned tree near which they sit in such costly but somewhat tasteless costumes, and God grant them relief from the boredom consuming them!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55