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- Best Russian Short Stories - 40/56 -
all that trouble? For whom? Our officers don't care a bit how one dresses. They haven't the least taste."
"Hm, there's something back of that," thought Mrs. Shaldin.
The captain's wife continued with apparent indifference:
"I can guess what a gorgeous dress you had made abroad. Certainly in the latest fashion?"
"I?" Mrs. Shaldin laughed innocently. "How could I get the time during my cure to think of a dress? As a matter of fact, I completely forgot the ball, thought of it at the last moment, and bought the first piece of goods I laid my hands on."
"Oh, no. How can you say pink!"
"Light blue, then?"
"You can't call it exactly light blue. It is a very undefined sort of colour. I really wouldn't know what to call it."
"But it certainly must have some sort of a shade?"
"You may believe me or not if you choose, but really I don't know. It's a very indefinite shade."
"Is it Sura silk?"
"No, I can't bear Sura. It doesn't keep the folds well."
"I suppose it is crepe de Chine?"
"Heavens, no! Crepe de Chine is much too expensive for me."
"Then what can it be?"
"Oh, wait a minute, what _is_ the name of that goods? You know there are so many funny new names now. They don't make any sense."
"Then show me your dress, dearest. Do please show me your dress."
Mrs. Shaldin seemed to be highly embarrassed.
"I am so sorry I can't. It is way down at the bottom of the trunk. There is the trunk. You see yourself I couldn't unpack it now."
The trunk, close to the wall, was covered with oil cloth and tied tight with heavy cords. The captain's wife devoured it with her eyes. She would have liked to see through and through it. She had nothing to say in reply, because it certainly was impossible to ask her friend, tired out from her recent journey, to begin to unpack right away and take out all her things just to show her her new dress. Yet she could not tear her eyes away from the trunk. There was a magic in it that held her enthralled. Had she been alone she would have begun to unpack it herself, nor even have asked the help of a servant to undo the knots. Now there was nothing left for her but to turn her eyes sorrowfully away from the fascinating object and take up another topic of conversation to which she would be utterly indifferent. But she couldn't think of anything else to talk about. Mrs. Shaldin must have prepared herself beforehand. She must have suspected something. So now Mrs. Zarubkin pinned her last hope to Abramka's inventiveness. She glanced at the clock.
"Dear me," she exclaimed, as if surprised at the lateness of the hour. "I must be going. I don't want to disturb you any longer either, dearest. You must be very tired. I hope you rest well."
She shook hands with Mrs. Shaldin, kissed her and left.
* * * * *
Abramka Stiftik had just taken off his coat and was doing some ironing in his shirt sleeves, when a peculiar figure appeared in his shop. It was that of a stocky orderly in a well-worn uniform without buttons and old galoshes instead of boots. His face was gloomy-looking and was covered with a heavy growth of hair. Abramka knew this figure well. It seemed always just to have been awakened from the deepest sleep.
"Ah, Shuchok, what do you want?"
"Mrs. Shaldin would like you to call upon her," said Shuchok. He behaved as if he had come on a terribly serious mission.
"Ah, that's so, your lady has come back. I heard about it. You see I am very busy. Still you may tell her I am coming right away. I just want to finish ironing Mrs. Konopotkin's dress."
Abramka simply wanted to keep up appearances, as always when he was sent for. But his joy at the summons to Mrs. Shaldin was so great that to the astonishment of his helpers and Shuchok he left immediately.
He found Mrs. Shaldin alone. She had not slept well the two nights before and had risen late that morning. Her husband had left long before for the Military Hospital. She was sitting beside her open trunk taking her things out very carefully.
"How do you do, Mrs. Shaldin? Welcome back to Chmyrsk. I congratulate you on your happy arrival."
"Oh, how do you do, Abramka?" said Mrs. Shaldin delightedly; "we haven't seen each other for a long time, have we? I was rather homesick for you."
"Oh, Mrs. Shaldin, you must have had a very good time abroad. But what do you need me for? You certainly brought a dress back with you?"
"Abramka always comes in handy," said Mrs. Shaldin jestingly. "We ladies of the regiment are quite helpless without Abramka. Take a seat."
Abramka seated himself. He felt much more at ease in Mrs. Shaldin's home than in Mrs. Zarubkin's. Mrs. Shaldin did not order her clothes from Moscow. She was a steady customer of his. In this room he had many a time circled about the doctor's wife with a yard measure, pins, chalk and scissors, had kneeled down beside her, raised himself to his feet, bent over again and stood puzzling over some difficult problem of dressmaking--how low to cut the dress out at the neck, how long to make the train, how wide the hem, and so on. None of the ladies of the regiment ordered as much from him as Mrs. Shaldin. Her grandmother would send her material from Kiev or the doctor would go on a professional trip to Chernigov and always bring some goods back with him; or sometimes her aunt in Voronesh would make her a gift of some silk.
"Abramka is always ready to serve Mrs. Shaldin first," said the tailor, though seized with a little pang, as if bitten by a guilty conscience.
"Are you sure you are telling the truth? Is Abramka always to be depended upon? Eh, is he?" She looked at him searchingly from beneath drooping lids.
"What a question," rejoined Abramka. His face quivered slightly. His feeling of discomfort was waxing. "Has Abramka ever--"
"Oh, things can happen. But, all right, never mind. I brought a dress along with me. I had to have it made in a great hurry, and there is just a little more to be done on it. Now if I give you this dress to finish, can I be sure that you positively won't tell another soul how it is made?"
"Mrs. Shaldin, oh, Mrs. Shaldin," said Abramka reproachfully. Nevertheless, the expression of his face was not so reassuring as usual.
"You give me your word of honour?"
"Certainly! My name isn't Abramka Stiftik if I--"
"Well, all right, I will trust you. But be careful. You know of whom you must be careful?"
"Who is that, Mrs. Shaldin?"
"Oh, you know very well whom I mean. No, you needn't put your hand on your heart. She was here to see me yesterday and tried in every way she could to find out how my dress is made. But she couldn't get it out of me." Abramka sighed. Mrs. Shaldin seemed to suspect his betrayal. "I am right, am I not? She has not had her dress made yet, has she? She waited to see my dress, didn't she? And she told you to copy the style, didn't she?" Mrs, Shaldin asked with honest naivete. "But I warn you, Abramka, if you give away the least little thing about my dress, then all is over between you and me. Remember that."
Abramka's hand went to his heart again, and the gesture carried the same sense of conviction as of old.
"Mrs. Shaldin, how can you speak like that?"
"Wait a moment."
Mrs. Shaldin left the room. About ten minutes passed during which Abramka had plenty of time to reflect. How could he have given the captain's wife a promise like that so lightly? What was the captain's wife to him as compared with the doctor's wife? Mrs. Zarubkin had never given him a really decent order--just a few things for the house and some mending. Supposing he were now to perform this great service for her, would that mean that he could depend upon her for the future? Was any woman to be depended upon? She would wear this dress out and go back to ordering her clothes from Moscow again. But _Mrs. Shaldin_, she was very different. He could forgive her having brought this one dress along from abroad. What woman in Russia would have refrained, when abroad, from buying a new dress? Mrs. Shaldin would continue to be his steady customer all the same.
The door opened. Abramka rose involuntarily, and clasped his hands in astonishment.
"Well," he exclaimed rapturously, "that is a dress, that is--My, my!" He was so stunned he could find nothing more to say. And how charming Mrs. Shaldin looked in her wonderful gown! Her tall slim figure seemed to have been made for it. What simple yet elegant lines. At first glance you would think it was nothing more than an ordinary house-gown, but only at first glance. If you looked at it again, you could tell right away that it met all the requirements of a fancy ball-gown. What struck Abramka most was that it had no waist line, that it did not consist of bodice and skirt. That was strange. It was
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