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The Hush of Society

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I knew she existed from pictures in the rotogravure. "My twin," the girls in the chorus called her. Her hair was Cossack blonde and mine was raven dark, but our features, sharp noses, broad cheeks, fair skin, blue eyes -- different shades, hers dark, mine pale, startling with our respective colorings --those echoed each other.

Her friends wouldn’t know me. Moscow is a matroyshka. We aren’t one city; we are several nesting down from the Tsar’s palace to the smaller, less savory areas. I dance. I’m not one of the real ballet girls. Once I was. Now, I’m a little older, a little fuller in the figure. There are men who like that, but they aren’t male dancers. The theater where I dance bribes its way past the Tsar’s censor, and while our audiences aren’t exclusively male, the few women who visit us have, shall we say, irregular tastes.

I have long assumed we share a father. It isn’t unknown; a man who has the wealth to marry well often has a mistress on the side. Or maybe we share a grandfather, cousins of night and day. Even our names are echoes, Ekaterina for us both -- hers shortened to Katya, and mine to Kitty.

It’s a good name for my sort of life. I often curl up on laps, and it’s useful to be able to hiss if I’m not well treated. Pet me well, and I’ll purr -- another useful trait.

Katya is a year or two younger than I am, a bluestocking going through her first season, hoping to make a good match. I also hope to make a good match. I’ll never be presented to the Tsar, but as mistress to the right man, I’d have security. Security is the most I can hope for in this world.

The nights have been drawing in for awhile. The respectable theaters, opera, and ballet are at the height of their seasons. My theater's season will be fresher after Christmas, when the men get bored with domestic life and seek out more daring pursuits. It surprised me when a patron was waiting after our show. I had a small specialty in the first act, but most of my evening was spent either dancing in the corps or trying to keep warm backstage.

Anton, he called himself. His cheekbones were high; his hair going grey, but it could barely be told as his hair was so pale. He put a hand under my chin. “You look so much like her.”

“Katya Dubrovsky?”

“So you know. Yes. My son has become infatuated with her. I don’t want an haute bourgeoise for a daughter-in-law when my son could marry true aristocracy.”

“And you think that I... could satisfy his needs, so that he won’t pursue her?”

He laughed at that. “You could be a bluestocking yourself. You have the brains.”

I smiled. “I know that helping your son to a better marriage is worth more than a good meal or two.”

“True. There is a small building at the corner of Kuznetsky Most. It has a tobacconists and a cafe on the ground floor and three floors of apartments. The building and all its revenues will be yours, if you keep my son from marrying the Dubrovsky chit.”

I thought it over. “And if I make my best effort and do not succeed?”

“You still dance adequately.” Anton glanced at my face. “I will deed the small apartment on the top floor of the same building to you for life, right now, if you promise to follow my instructions.”

I barely hesitated. “Done.”

***
It’s harder than one might think to break up a young couple in love. Anton wanted me to come between them by seducing his son. I thought it would be more effective to seduce my double. (Not in that way, though it would satisfy curiosity to find out what one looks like in the throes of ecstasy.)

I ran into Katya in the park between classes. I let her teach me about art and mathematics and the new discoveries that were being made in France and Germany. I asked her questions about her lover, and then, so subtly it wouldn’t be noticed twisted a little knife about losing her freedom to think and to see and to dream to marriage -- to him.

Anton’s son didn’t like me. Gregor Antonovich saw my danger. He wanted a wife he could talk to, a woman of intellect who thought for herself. But I think he also wanted a wife who would be content with him, happy to run their home, bear his children, educate them, but never want more than a lecture a week and box seats to the galas as her reward. Every little question I asked Katya made her think of England, where women could go to university even if they couldn’t get degrees or of Italy where women could paint something more than Easter eggs.

Katya was a generous soul. She gave me her coat from last winter, warm wool with fur trim, and made certain I had good shoes and galoshes for the winter. Once the snow came down, Katya would meet me at a cafe and pay for the rich pot of cocoa we shared. We also shared confidences. She learned that I went with men after my performances in order to have enough food to eat and to have a roof over my head. I learned that Katya loved Gregor more than any saint in the pantheon -- her words -- but that she wasn’t certain she could love anyone more than learning.

On the night of the Feast of Saint Alexander Nevsky, a ball was being held by one of the Grand Duchesses. Katya loaned me a sea green ball gown and velvet cloak and wore her newest velvet cloak over a pale pink dress. Our hair was pinned and mine was covered in an elaborate turban with silver spangles. She thought it would be such fun for us to go to the ball and see if anyone noticed that there were two of her.

I had told Anton of the scheme and he smiled enigmatically and said, “You really are clever my dear Kitty.”

My years of dancing gave me carriage, my weeks of discussion with Katya had taught me the right accent -- even if my French was still terrible -- and my focus on my future security helped me play the role I was assigned. I flirted with every unmarried man there, and disappeared as soon as I saw Gregor Antonovich, knowing that he would hear tales of Katya’s outrageous behavior. I danced whenever I was asked without regard for a dance card or the suitability of my partner. I even danced with Anton, an energetic Lancers, and our familiarity brought me to laughter. Every move I made redounded on Katya, and she, naive bluestocking that she was, didn’t understand that each move I made took her farther beyond the pale of society.

It was nearly midnight when I felt a pair of hands around my waist and heard Gregor Antonovich’s voice in my ear. He said, “You’ve danced with every other man here, Kitty. It’s time to waltz with me.”

We whirled around the floor as a fast waltz from Vienna played, his fingers dug deep into my waist, both reassuring and frightening me. The song ended and Gregor Antonovich kissed my hand as perfectly as a courtier. In that instant, I knew what he'd done. By dancing with the flirt, he'd forgiven "Katya" -- even if he knew she'd never behave that way, others did not. But as long as he forgave it, society would forgive it as well. He'd never liked me, but now I'd made myself his enemy. Katya would be gossiped about, and, for a man like Gregor Antonovich, that would be a little hell. But in one gesture, he could guarantee Katya would never know that she wasn't fully accepted in society.

No one had noticed the Katya in pink with a tiara in her pale blonde hair, not until she saw her lover kissing the hand of her friend. It was one of those moments that occur, even in the biggest crowds, where the buzz of the room fades out and one sound will stand out. Katya's fan slapping to the floor was that sound.

It was pure shock, and only someone as inexperienced as she would have thought Gregor Antonovich was enamoured with me. I could see the dislike in his eyes, but Katya, I think she saw only the passion and believed it to be love.

She ran from the room. I prayed that it was not to the Moskva, that she was sensible enough to face it out. Gregor Antonovich dropped my hand and fled after her. I think he feared the river, too.

When they departed, the orchestra struck up a country dance, and I left the floor.

***
Four months later, Gregor Antonovich came to see me in my café. It had a reputation for the strongest coffee, the hottest tea, and the richest chocolate in town. He sat at my table and ordered a large pot of cocoa pouring the cups for the two of us himself.

"Where's Katya?"

I was astonished. Only two days earlier, a letter with a second envelope inside it had come for me from Katya.

When she fled the ball, she went to her home packed everything in her room, including all her jewelry, and left Moscow. No one knew where she'd gone, but, oddly, the scandal of her departure saved her parents' reputation. Her younger sister would make a good marriage, and the whispers about the girl who'd fled the ball would lend only a mild frisson to the story.

Her letter was chatty and informative. Katya was in Paris, now, a student at the Sorbonne attending lectures on astronomy and archeology and art whenever she chose. Selling her jewelry had given her enough to invest in a small way -- enough to keep her in student comfort, if not in great luxury.

I handed Gregor Antonovich the interior envelope. It was addressed to him, and I hadn't opened it. He asked my permission to read it immediately, and I watched his face go from the hardness he wore whenever he saw me, to the gentleness he had when he looked at Katya.

After he finished reading, he picked up my hand and kissed it without the mockery the gesture had held at the ball. "The days are getting longer. Long enough, that I can see all the way to Paris."

I smiled at him. Anton had kept his word. I owned this building and collected its rents. If the lovebirds now found their happiness together, what did it matter to me?

My reverie was interrupted. "She planned it, you know. From the first time you met in the park, she planned our escape from Moscow, from our expected roles. We'll have enough to live on. I have connections separate from my father's in banking. I have my letters of credit. Father will have to breed another son if he wants to enter the Russian aristocracy."

"I thought Katya was naïve. Instead, she was clever."

"Clever enough to get all three of us what we wanted." He stood and started to leave, then he turned back and said, "Kitty, there will always be a room for you in our home, no matter where it may be. We'll never return to Russia."

I smiled at him. "In another year or two, I may see how well a Russian restaurant will do in Paris. It could become a fashion."

"I envision the dining room in sea green with silver spangles," he said.

"And the private rooms upstairs will all be done in an innocent pink."

He laughed and walked out into the weak spring sunlight.