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By graf Leo Tolstoy
Anna Pavlovna’s reception was in full swing. The spindles hummed steadily and ceaselessly on all sides. With the exception of the aunt, beside whom sat only one elderly lady, who with her thin careworn face was rather out of place in this brilliant society, the whole company had settled into three groups. One, chiefly masculine, had formed round the abbe. Another, of young people, was grouped round the beautiful Princess Helene, Prince Vasili’s daughter, and the little Princess Bolkonskaya, very pretty and rosy, though rather too plump for her age. The third group was gathered round Mortemart and Anna Pavlovna.
The vicomte was a nice—looking young man with soft features and polished manners, who evidently considered himself a celebrity but out of politeness modestly placed himself at the disposal of the circle in which he found himself. Anna Pavlovna was obviously serving him up as a treat to her guests. As a clever maitre d’hotel serves up as a specially choice delicacy a piece of meat that no one who had seen it in the kitchen would have cared to eat, so Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests, first the vicomte and then the abbe, as peculiarly choice morsels. The group about Mortemart immediately began discussing the murder of the Duc d’Enghien. The vicomte said that the Duc d’Enghien had perished by his own magnanimity, and that there were particular reasons for Buonaparte’s hatred of him.
“Ah, yes! Do tell us all about it, Vicomte,” said Anna Pavlovna, with a pleasant feeling that there was something a la Louis XV in the sound of that sentence: “Contez nous cela, Vicomte.”
The vicomte bowed and smiled courteously in token of his willingness to comply. Anna Pavlovna arranged a group round him, inviting everyone to listen to his tale.
“The vicomte knew the duc personally,” whispered Anna Pavlovna to of the guests. “The vicomte is a wonderful raconteur,” said she to another. “How evidently he belongs to the best society,” said she to a third; and the vicomte was served up to the company in the choicest and most advantageous style, like a well—garnished joint of roast beef on a hot dish.
The vicomte wished to begin his story and gave a subtle smile.
“Come over here, Helene, dear,” said Anna Pavlovna to the beautiful young princess who was sitting some way off, the center of another group.
The princess smiled. She rose with the same unchanging smile with which she had first entered the room–the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman. With a slight rustle of her white dress trimmed with moss and ivy, with a gleam of white shoulders, glossy hair, and sparkling diamonds, she passed between the men who made way for her, not looking at any of them but smiling on all, as if graciously allowing each the privilege of admiring her beautiful figure and shapely shoulders, back, and bosom–which in the fashion of those days were very much exposed–and she seemed to bring the glamour of a ballroom with her as she moved toward Anna Pavlovna. Helene was so lovely that not only did she not show any trace of coquetry, but on the contrary she even appeared shy of her unquestionable and all too victorious beauty. She seemed to wish, but to be unable, to diminish its effect.
“How lovely!” said everyone who saw her; and the vicomte lifted his shoulders and dropped his eyes as if startled by something extraordinary when she took her seat opposite and beamed upon him also with her unchanging smile.
“Madame, I doubt my ability before such an audience,” said he, smilingly inclining his head.
The princess rested her bare round arm on a little table and considered a reply unnecessary. She smilingly waited. All the time the story was being told she sat upright, glancing now at her beautiful round arm, altered in shape by its pressure on the table, now at her still more beautiful bosom, on which she readjusted a diamond necklace. From time to time she smoothed the folds of her dress, and whenever the story produced an effect she glanced at Anna Pavlovna, at once adopted just the expression she saw on the maid of honor’s face, and again relapsed into her radiant smile.
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