“Oh, please, don’t let us talk about Nilsson! No one can possibly say anything new about her,” said a fat, red-faced, flaxen-headed lady, without eyebrows and chignon, wearing an old silk dress. This was Princess Myakaya, noted for her simplicity and the roughness of her manners, and nicknamed enfant terrible. Princess Myakaya, sitting in the middle between the two groups, and listening to both, took part in the conversation first of one and then of the other. “Three people have used that very phrase about Kaulbach to me today already, just as though they had made a compact about it. And I can’t see why they liked that remark so.”
The conversation was cut short by this observation, and a new subject had to be thought of again.
“Do tell me something amusing but not spiteful,” said the ambassador’s wife, a great proficient in the art of that elegant conversation called by the English, small talk. She addressed the attache, who was at a loss now what to begin upon.
“They say that that’s a difficult task, that nothing’s amusing that isn’t spiteful,” he began with a smile. “But I’ll try. Get me a subject. It all lies in the subject. If a subject’s given me, it’s easy to spin something round it. I often think that the celebrated talkers of the last century would have found it difficult to talk cleverly now. Everything clever is so stale...”
“That has been said long ago,” the ambassador’s wife interrupted him, laughing.
The conversation began amiably, but just because it was too amiable, it came to a stop again. They had to have recourse to the sure, never-failing topic—gossip.
“Don’t you think there’s something Louis Quinze about Tushkevitch?” he said, glancing towards a handsome, fair-haired young man, standing at the table.
“Oh, yes! He’s in the same style as the drawing room and that’s why it is he’s so often here.”
This conversation was maintained, since it rested on allusions to what could not be talked of in that room—that is to say, of the relations of Tushkevitch with their hostess.
Round the samovar and the hostess the conversation had been meanwhile vacillating in just the same way between three inevitable topics: the latest piece of public news, the theater, and scandal. It, too, came finally to rest on the last topic, that is, ill-natured gossip.
“Have you heard the Maltishtcheva woman—the mother, not the daughter—has ordered a costume in diable rose color?”
“Nonsense! No, that’s too lovely!”
“I wonder that with her sense—for she’s not a fool, you know— that she doesn’t see how funny she is.”
Everyone had something to say in censure or ridicule of the luckless Madame Maltishtcheva, and the conversation crackled merrily, like a burning faggot-stack.
The husband of Princess Betsy, a good-natured fat man, an ardent collector of engravings, hearing that his wife had visitors, came into the drawing room before going to his club. Stepping noiselessly over the thick rugs, he went up to Princess Myakaya.