ON THE 31ST of December, on the eve of the new year 1810, a ball was given by a grand personage who had been a star of the court of Catherine. The Tsar and the diplomatic corps were to be present at this ball.
The well-known mansion of this grandee in the English Embankment was illuminated by innumerable lights. The police were standing at the lighted entry, laid with red baize; and not merely policemen, but a police commander was at the entrance, and dozens of officers of the police. Carriages kept driving away, and fresh ones kept driving up, with grooms in red livery and grooms in plumed hats. From the carriages emerged men wearing uniforms, stars, and ribbons; while ladies in satin and ermine stepped carefully out on the carriage steps, that were let down with a bang, and then walked hurriedly and noiselessly over the baize of the entry.
Almost every time a new carriage drove up, a whisper ran through the crowd and hats were taken off. “The Emperor?…No, a minister…prince…ambassador…Don't you see the plumes?…” was audible in the crowd. One person, better dressed than the rest, seemed to know every one, and mentioned by name all the most celebrated personages of the day.
A third of the guests had already arrived at this ball, while the Rostovs, who were to be present at it, were still engaged in hurried preparations.
Many had been the discussions and the preparations for that ball in the Rostov family; many the fears that an invitation might not arrive, that the dresses would not be ready, and that everything would not be arranged as it ought to be.
The Rostovs were to be accompanied by Marya Ignatyevna Peronsky, a friend and relation of the countess, a thin and yellow maid-of-honour of the old court, who was acting as a guide to the provincial Rostovs in the higher circles of Petersburg society.
At ten o'clock the Rostovs were to drive to Tavritchesky Garden to call for the maid-of-honour. Meantime it was five minutes to ten, and the young ladies were not yet dressed.
Natasha was going to her first great ball. She had got up at eight o'clock that morning, and had spent the whole day in feverish agitation and activity. All her energies had since morning been directed to the one aim of getting herself, her mother, and Sonya as well dressed as possible. Sonya and her mother put themselves entirely in her hands. The countess was to wear a dark red velvet dress; the two girls white tulle dresses over pink silk slips, and roses on their bodices. They were to wear their hair à la grecque.
All the essentials were ready. Feet, arms, necks, and ears had been washed, scented, and powdered with peculiar care in readiness for the ball. Openwork silk stockings and white satin shoes with ribbons had been put on. The hairdressing was almost accomplished. Sonya was finishing dressing, so was the countess; but Natasha, who had been busily looking after every one, was behindhand. She was still sitting before the looking-glass with a peignoir thrown over her thin shoulders. Sonya, already dressed, stood in the middle of the room, and was trying to fasten in a last ribbon, hurting her little finger as she pressed the pin with a scrooping sound into the silk.
“Not like that, Sonya, not like that!” said Natasha, turning her head, and clutching her hair in both hands, as the maid arranging it was not quick enough in letting it go. “The ribbon mustn't go like that; come here.” Sonya squatted down. Natasha pinned the ribbon in her own way.
“Really, miss, you mustn't do so,” said the maid, holding Natasha's hair.
“Oh, my goodness! Afterwards! There, that's right, Sonya.”
“Will you soon be ready?” they heard the countess's voice. “It will be ten in a minute.”
“Immediately, immediately.… And are you ready, mamma?”
“Only my cap to fasten on.”
“Don't do it without me,” shouted Natasha; “you don't know how to!”
“But it's ten o'clock already.”
It had been arranged to be at the ball at half-past ten, and Natasha still had to dress, and they had to drive to Tavritchesky Garden.
When her coiffure was finished, Natasha, in her mother's dressing-jacket and a short petticoat under which her dancing-shoes could be seen, ran up to Sonya, looked her over, and then ran to her mother. Turning her head round, she pinned on her cap, and hurriedly kissing her grey hair, ran back to the maids who were shortening her skirt.
All attention was now centred on Natasha's skirt, which was too long. Two maids were running it up round the edge, hurriedly biting off the threads. A third one, with pins in her teeth and lips, was running from the countess to Sonya; a fourth was holding up the whole tulle dress in her arms.
“Mavrushka, quicker, darling!”
“Give me that thimble, miss.”
“Will you be quick?” said the count from outside the door, coming in. “Here are your smelling-salts. Madame Peronsky must be tired of waiting.”
“Ready, miss,” said the maid, lifting up the shortened tulle skirt on two fingers, blowing something off it, and giving it a shake to show her appreciation of the transparency and purity of what she had in her hands.
Natasha began putting on the dress.
“In a minute, in a minute, don't come in, papa,” she shouted to her father at the door, from under the tulle of the dress that concealed all her face. Sonya slammed the door. A minute later the count was admitted. He was wearing a blue frock coat, stockings, and dancing-shoes, and was perfumed and pomaded.
“Ah, papa, how nice you look, lovely!” said Natasha, standing in the middle of the room, stroking out the folds of her tulle.
“If you please, miss, if you please…” said a maid, pulling up the skirt and turning the pins from one corner of her mouth to the other with her tongue.
“Say what you like!” cried Sonya, with despair in her voice, as she gazed at Natasha's skirt, “say what you like!—it's too long still!”
Natasha walked a little further off to look at herself in the pierglass. The skirt was too long.
“My goodness, madam, it's not a bit too long,” said Mavrushka, creeping along the floor on her knees after her young lady.
“Well, if it's long, we'll tack it up, in one minute, we'll tack it up,” said Dunyasha, a resolute character. And taking a needle out of the kerchief on her bosom she set to work again on the floor.
At that moment the countess in her cap and velvet gown walked shyly with soft steps into the room.
“Oo-oo! my beauty!” cried the count. “She looks nicer than any of you!”…He would have embraced her, but, flushing, she drew back to avoid being crumpled.
“Mamma, the cap should be more on one side,” said Natasha. “I'll pin it fresh,” and she darted forward. The maids turning up her skirt, not prepared for her hasty movement, tore off a piece of the tulle.
“Oh, mercy! What was that? Really it's not my fault…”
“It's all right, I'll run it up, it won't show,” said Dunyasha.
“My beauty, my queen!” said the old nurse coming in at the doorway. “And Sonyushka, too; ah, the beauties!…”
At a quarter past ten they were at last seated in their carriage and driving off. But they still had to drive to Tavritchesky Garden
Madame Peronsky was ready and waiting. In spite of her age and ugliness, just the same process had been going on with her as with the Rostovs, not with flurry, for with her it was a matter of routine. Her elderly and unprepossessing person had been also washed and scented and powdered; she had washed as carefully behind her ears, and like the Rostovs' nurse, her old maid had enthusiastically admired her mistress's attire, when she came into the drawing-room in her yellow gown adorned with her badge of a maid-of-honour. Madame Peronsky praised the Rostovs' costumes, and they praised her attire and her taste. Then, careful of their coiffures and their dresses, at eleven o'clock they settled themselves in the carriages and drove off.