CHAPTER XLI. A PLUNGE INTO CIVILISATION - THE NOBLES' BALL - SHOCKING LANGUAGE - SHAKESPEARE'S ENGLISH - THE GREAT SIBERIAN ROAD - PASSING TEA CARAVANS - RAPID TRAVEL - FIFTY-SEVEN HUNDRED MILES IN ELEVEN WEEKS - ARRIVAL IN ST. PETERSBURG
At Irkutsk, we plunged suddenly from a semi-barbaric environment into an environment of high civilisation and culture; and our attempts to adjust ourselves to the new and unfamiliar conditions were attended, at first, with not a little embarrassment and discomfort. As we were among the first Americans who had been seen in that Far Eastern capital, and were officers, moreover, of a company with which the Russian Government itself had been in partnership, we were not only treated with distinguished consideration, but were welcomed everywhere with warm-hearted kindness and hospitality; and we found it necessary at once to exchange calls with high officials; accept invitations to dinner; share the box of the Governor-General's chief of staff at the theatre, and go to the weekly ball of the "noble-born" in the hall of the "Blagorodnaya Sobrania," (Assembly of Nobles). The first difficulty that we encountered, of course, was the lack of suitable clothing. After two and a half years of campaigning in an arctic wilderness, we had no raiment left that was fit to wear in such a city as Irkutsk, and - worse than that - we had little money with which to purchase a new supply. The two hundred and fifty dollars with which we left Okhotsk had gradually dribbled away in the defrayment of necessary expenses along the road, and we had barely enough left to pay for a week's stay at the hotel. In this emergency we fell back upon our telegraph-company uniforms. They had been soaked in the Lena, frozen into masses of ice, and stretched all out of shape in the process of wringing and drying at Krestofskaya; but we got an Irkutsk tailor to press them and polish up the tarnished gilt buttons, and after spending most of the money we had left in the purchase of new fur overcoats to replace the dirty, travel-worn kukhlankas in which we had arrived, we got ourselves up in presentable form to call on the Governor-General.
The severest ordeal through which we had to pass, however, was the dance at the hall of the Blagorodnaya Sobrania to which we were escorted by General Kukel (koo'-kel), the Governor-General's chief of staff. The spacious and brilliantly lighted apartment, draped with flags and decorated with evergreens; the polished dancing-floor; the crash and blare of the music furnished by a military band; the beautiful women in rich evening toilettes; and the throng of handsome young officers in showy and diversified uniforms, simply overwhelmed us with feelings of mingled excitement and embarrassment. I felt, myself, like a uniformed Eskimo at a Charity Ball, and should have been glad to skulk in a corner behind the band! All I wanted was an opportunity to watch, unobserved, the brilliant picture of colour and motion, and to feel the thrill of the music as the band swept, with wonderful dash, swing, and precision, through the measures of a spirited Polish mazurka. General Kukel, however, had other views for us, and not only took us about the hall, introducing us to more beautiful women than we had seen, we thought, in the whole course of our previous existence, but said to every lady, as he presented us: "Mr. Kennan and Mr. Price, you know, speak Russian perfectly." Price, with discretion beyond his years, promptly disclaimed the imputed accomplishment; but I was rash enough to admit that I did have some knowledge of the language in question, and was forthwith drawn into a stream of rapid Russian talk by a young woman with sympathetic face and sparkling eyes, who encouraged me to describe dog-sledge travel in north-eastern Asia and the vicissitudes of tent life with the Wandering Koraks. On this conversational ground I felt perfectly at home; and I was succeeding, as I thought, admirably, when the girl suddenly blushed, looked a trifle shocked, and then bit her lip in a manifest effort to restrain a smile of amusement not warranted by anything in the life that I was trying to describe. She was soon afterward carried away by a young Cossack officer who asked her to dance, and I was promptly engaged in conversation by another lady, who also wanted "to hear an American talk Russian." My self-confidence had been a little shaken by the blush and the amused smile of my previous auditor, but I rallied my intellectual forces, took a firm grip of my Russian vocabulary, and, as Price would say, "sailed in." But I soon struck another snag. This young woman, too, began to show symptoms of shock, which, in her case, took the form of amazement. I was absolutely sure that there was nothing in the subject-matter of my remarks to bring a blush to the cheek of innocence, or give a shock to the virgin mind of feminine youth, and yet it was perfectly evident that there was something wrong. As soon as I could make my escape, I went to General Kukel and said: "Will you please tell me, Your Excellency, what's the matter with my Russian?"
"What makes you think there's anything the matter with it?" he replied evasively, but with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes.
"It doesn't seem to go very well," I said, "in conversation with women. They appear to understand it all right, but it gives them a shock. Is my pronunciation so horribly bad?"
"You speak Russian," he said, "with quite extraordinary fluency, and with a-a-really interesting and engaging accent; but - excuse me please - shall I be entirely frank? You see you have learned the language, under many disadvantages, among the Koraks, Cossacks, and Chukchis of Kamchatka and the Okhotsk Sea coast, and - quite innocently and naturally of course - you have picked up a few words and expressions that are not - well, not - "
"Not used in polite society," I suggested.