Grushenka. Three Times a Woman



Katerina walked in great dismay through one of the unpaved streets in the northerly quarter of Moscow. She had good reason to be uneasy and in bad humor. Here it was spring; soon the whole household would be moved to the country and she had not yet been able to fulfill the command of her mistress, the young and capricious Princess Nelidowa Sokolow. At first the Princess Nelidowa had only mentioned her request casually, as something she would like to have. But lately she had demanded, nay commanded. The young Princess had become very irritable. She was always on the go, never at rest, not even for a reassuring prayer. It was not for Katerina to question the orders of her mistress. She was the housekeeper, an old and trusted serf, hardened by rough work, now burdened with the weight of running the huge household, to which the young and pleasure-seeking Madame never gave a thought. She had been trained since her early youth to follow orders and to do so promptly. Katerina was not in dismay because she was afraid she would be punished. She was not in fear of the lash. No, it was not that. She simply wanted to do her duty, and her duty was to satisfy her Lady. What Princess Nelidowa wanted was this: a serf girl, who had exactly her own measurements, who duplicated exactly her own figure. It may seem strange that Nelidowa should have had such a desire, but it was not.

It must be imagined through what nerve-wracking torture (so she thought at least) Nelidowa had to go, standing as a model for hours and hours in her boudoir, while the tailor, the chemise-maker, the bodice-maker, the shoe-maker, the coiffeur and all the other untold clothiers tinkered around her body. Of course, it is every woman's delight to adorn herself, to choose and to invent what is most becoming to her. But Nelidowa was suddenly in a hurry. In a hurry to live, to enjoy herself, to play the lady, to be everywhere, to be seen, and last but not least, to be adored. To be adored and envied by women meant clothes and more clothes. And that meant to have to stand still and suffer, to be touched all over by the dirty hands of the dress-makers. The Princess despised the dress-makers as she did all other working people and treated them haughtily and unjustly. She disliked the smell of them, but she had to bear it in order to look lovely and rich. Rich! That was the word which sang always in the ears of the newly wed Princess. Rich, mighty, a figure at the court, a mistress of many souls. Of course there was a price to be paid for it, a price with disgusting features. This price was that she had to be the wife of Alexey Sokolow. She hated it, but what could she do? It was a bargain she could not confide to her most intimate friends. She was always conscious of why she had to endure it, but had not yet thought how she might get around it. For Nelidowa had been terribly poor. So poor that in the convent, where she had been brought up, she had not been given enough to eat. The nuns had used her as a kitchen maid and on the great holidays, when all the other aristocratic girls donated candles to the Saints as big as logs, she could not even buy a little waxen stick. Her father had been a great general, a superb aristocrat, her mother a Tartar Princess. But when her father, in one of his usual drinking spells, had fallen into the Volga and drowned, his family was left without a kopeck. Ill-meaning relatives scattered his brood, as they called it, into institutions and charity houses. Grown to be twenty, and without any desire to become a nun, an old and half blind aunt in a little city had taken Nelidowa in. There she was chained to a cranky invalid who gave her the switch once in a while, which was then the mode even for educated girls, as long as they were not married. Therefore, it was like a miracle when the match with the mighty Alexey Sokolow was suddenly in the air. It was a fata morgana, not to be trusted, and when it finally became true, Nelidowa had to pinch herself many times to make sure she was not dreaming. This match had been made, after the fashion of the times, by correspondence. Now, in the little city where Nelidowa then lived, was a fickle young man, son of the Military Commander of the district. He fell so violently in love with Nelidowa that he told his father-and told him with passion-that he was going to marry the girl of his love, although she was poor and socially a nobody. The father, as it goes in the world, did not want to consent. The best thing therefore, so it seemed to him, would be to remove the girl from the sight of his son, and the best way to remove her was to marry her off. Being a school chum of the mighty Prince Alexey Sokolow, and having corresponded with him for many years, he now sent him such showers of praise about the virtue and charm of Nelidowa, that he succeeded in getting the old bachelor engaged to the girl by mail.

There was no doubt that Nelidowa would grasp this opportunity with all ten of her nimble fingers. Ex- Governor Prince Alexey Sokolow was known throughout the country as one of the richest landowners, a figure at court, a political factor and as a host who gave elegant parties. One of the grandees of his time, he had inherited his fortunes and tripled them by bold strokes which often bordered on robbery. That he was thirty-five years her senior did not disturb Nelidowa. It all meant the one great windfall of luck for her. But that he consented to marry her made her wonder very much. It cannot be said whether Sokolow would have been able to get one of the rich ladies of the court as a wife, but it is certain that he had his own special reasons for making the abrupt decision to marry the unknown girl. These reasons were not that she was an aristocratic girl and the daughter of an old friend of his. No, the real reason was that Sokolow wanted to do some spite work to his relatives. They were already counting on his death, had already figured out what they would inherit from him, would in fact have liked to poison him. Now let them wail! He would marry this girl who was young and healthy, marry her and have children and the whole chorus of loving relatives would have to go away empty handed. When this clever idea entered his head, he acted with his usual abruptness. Nobody should know beforehand. He simply wrote a letter to Nelidowa, without any explanations or previous correspondence, to the effect that he had heard from his old friend that she was a marriageable person, that enclosed were 5,000 rubles for her dowry, that the ring he was sending her had been worn by his mother, that the carriage sent to her door was hers, and that he expected her without delay. But he advised her to travel by easy stages, so that she should not be tired at the wedding ceremonies, which would take place as soon as she arrived in Moscow. There was the handsome carriage with a huge coachman and two footmen at her door, there was the 5,000 rubles-Nelidowa had never in her life seen so much money-there was the ring with a ruby, thick as a pigeon's egg, there was the confirmation of the Military Commander that all this was his work. Well, Nelidowa jumped into the carriage and did not travel in easy stages but in such haste that the coachman often had to change the poor horses. Nelidowa didn't get tired at all. She was so excited that she did not feel the lack of sleep or food. She was in a trance.

She did not even lose this state of excitement when she saw the bridegroom. No poet could have made him into a desirable lover. He was in his middle fifties, short, brutal and bald, with a large belly which protruded from underneath his hairy chest. Only when Nelidowa found herself with him in bed, did she realize the disgusting reality-but that must be told later on. This was the reason why the young Princess plunged herself with vigor into all and every kind of amusement and social debauchery. She had to make up for the past and she had to make the most of her bargain. Therefore, during the second season of her life in Moscow, she left no stone unturned if it meant any pleasure for herself. She treated her servants with reckless brutality, she became nervous, irritable and restless and was ceaselessly thinking of means to make everything as easy for herself as possible. She had decided that she did not want to try on her own clothes, but that a substitute should be found. That is how Katerina got her order to find and buy the duplicate of Madame. Katerina had tried to fill this order for quite a while, that is, since Madame had gotten many headaches trying on the last fall styles. But so far Katerina had been unsuccessful. Not that the Princess had such an extraordinary figure. But those tramps, those peasant slave girls, all had such miserable bodies: sturdy undercarriages, broad backs, large hips, terribly thick bottoms and legs. On the other hand, Nelidowa had very full, oval, pointed breasts, carried over an amazingly subtle waist. She had very well formed, straight legs and small, aristocratic hands and feet. Nobody knew these differences better than the old housekeeper, because she herself had taken the measurements of Nelidowa's body. The “little mother,” as her household serfs called her, had stood quite still as Katerina took her height, the measurements of her bust- above, over and below the full breasts-of the waist-line, the hips, the bottom, the thighs and the calves, the length of the arms and the legs. Nelidowa had stood quite still and had smiled, thinking it was the last time that she would have to do the trying-on herself. Katerina had taken these measurements in her own way. She could not read or write, she could not handle the tape measure as those silly-talking French clothiers did so skillfully. Therefore, she took ribbons of all colors, every time another color for another measurement, and cut them exactly to the right length.

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