In which an account is rendered of a certain cynical escapade
On Monday the fifteenth of May in the year 1876, between the hours of two and three in the afternoon on a day that combined the freshness of spring with the warmth of summer, numerous individuals in Moscow's Alexander Gardens unexpectedly found themselves eyewitnesses to the perpetration of an outrage that flagrantly transgressed the bounds of common decency.
The public strolling the alleyways between blossoming lilac bushes and flower beds ablaze with the flaming scarlet blooms of tulips was smartly decked out: ladies holding aloft lacework parasols (to avert the threat of freckles), nannies minding children in neat little sailor suits, and young men affecting an air of boredom in fashionable cheviot frock coats or jackets cut in the short English fashion. With nothing apparently portending any disagreeable turn of events, a lazy satisfaction and gratifying tedium suffused the atmosphere, mingling with the scents of a mature and confident spring season. The rays of the sun beat down in earnest, and every last one of the benches that happened to stand in the shade was occupied.
Seated on one of these benches located not far from the Grotto and facing the railings so as to afford a view of the beginning of Neglinnaya Street and the yellow wall of the Manège were two ladies. One of them, a very young lady (indeed, not really a lady at all, more of a girl), was reading a small morocco-bound volume and glancing about her from time to time with an air of distracted curiosity. Her much older companion, wearing a good-quality dark blue woolen dress and sensible lace-up ankle boots, rotated her needles in a regular rhythm as she concentrated on knitting some item in a poisonous pink, yet still found time to turn her head to the right and the left with a rapid glance so keen that there was certainly no way anything the least bit remarkable could possibly escape it.
The lady's attention was caught immediately by the young man in narrow check trousers, a frock coat casually buttoned over a white waistcoat, and a round Swiss hat. He was walking along the alley in such a remarkably strange manner, stopping every now and again as he attempted to pick out somebody among the strollers, then taking a few abrupt steps before stopping yet again. Glancing suddenly in the direction of our ladies, this unbalanced individual seemed to resolve upon some course of action, and immediately set off toward them with broad, decisive strides. He halted in front of the bench and addressed the young girl, exclaiming in a clownish falsetto, "My lady! Has no one ever told you that your beauty is beyond all endurance?"
The girl, who was indeed quite wonderfully pretty, gaped at the impudent fellow in startled amazement, her strawberry-red lips parted slightly in fright. Even her mature companion seemed dumbfounded at such unheard-of familiarity.
"I am vanquished at first sight," said the stranger, continuing with his tomfoolery. He was, in fact, a young man of perfectly presentable appearance, with hair trimmed fashionably short at the temples, a high, pale forehead, and brown eyes glinting in feverish excitement. "Pray allow me to impress upon your innocent brow an even more innocent, purely fraternal kiss!"
"Zir, you are kvite drunk!" said the lady with the knitting, recovering her wits and revealing that she spoke Russian with a distinct German accent.
"I am drunk on nothing but love," the insolent fellow assured her, and in the same unnatural, whining voice he demanded: "Just one little kiss or I shall lay hands upon myself this instant!"
The girl cowered against the back of the bench and turned her pretty face toward her protectrice, who remained undismayed by the alarming nature of the situation and displayed perfect presence of mind. "Get avay from here zis instant! You are crayzee!" she cried, raising her voice and holding her knitting out in front of her with the needles protruding in bellicose fashion. "I call ze conshtable!"
Excerpted from The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin Copyright© 2003 by Boris Akunin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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