I could think of nothing else all month: Would they let me go to the Christmas party, or not?
I was cunning. I prepared the ground. I told my mother about the glorious achievements of Zhenya Ryazanova, for whom the party was being given. I said that Zhenya was doing very well at school, that she was almost top of the class and was always being held up as an example to us. And that she wasn’t just a little girl, but a very serious woman: she was already sixteen.
In short, I didn’t waste any time. And then, one fine morning I was called into the living room and told to stand in front of the big mirror and try on a white dress with a blue sash; I understood that I had won. I would be going to the party.
After that, preparations began in earnest: I took oil from the icon lamp in Nanny’s room and smeared it on my eyebrows every evening to make them grow thicker in time for the ball; I altered a corset my older sister had thrown away and then hid it under the mattress; I rehearsed sophisticated poses and enigmatic smiles in front of the mirror. My family expressed surprise. “Why’s Nadya looking so idiotic?” people kept asking. “I suppose she’s at that awkward age. Oh well, she’ll grow out of it.”
The Christmas party would be on the 24th. Zhenya’s name day.
I did everything in my power on the aesthetic front. With no resources at my disposal but a torn corset, I still managed to achieve a quite extraordinary effect. I cinched myself in so tight at the waist that I could only stand on tiptoe. I could barely breathe, and my face took on an imploring look. But it was a joy to make my first sacrifices in the name of beauty.
Nanny was to take me to the party. I put on my fur coat before saying goodbye to my family so as not to overwhelm them with my shapeliness.
There were a lot of people at the Ryazanovs, and most of them grown up: officers, friends of Zhenya’s brother, ladies of various ages. There were only two or three younger girls like myself, and only one cadet between us, so we had to dance with the officers. This was a great honour, of course, but a little intimidating.
At dinner, despite all my attempts to manoeuvre myself into the place next to the cadet, I was seated beside a large officer with a black beard. He was probably about thirty, but at the time he seemed to me a decrepit creature whose life was behind him.
“A fine old relic to be sitting next to,” I thought. “Seems I’m in for a jolly evening!”
The officer studied me very seriously and said, “You’re a typical Cleopatra. Quite remarkable.”
Alarmed, I said nothing.
“I just said,” he went on, “that you remind me of Cleopatra. Have you done Cleopatra at school yet?”
“You have her regal air, and you are just as sophisticated and experienced a flirt. The only thing is, your feet don’t touch the ground. But that’s a minor detail.”‘
My heart beat faster. That I was an experienced flirt, I had no doubt. But how had this old man spotted it so very quickly?
“Look inside your napkin,” he said.
I looked. A pink chenille ballerina was poking out of the napkin.
“Look what I have.”
He had a green devil, with a tail made from silver metallic cord. The tail shook and the devil danced on a wire, so jolly and so beautiful that I gasped and reached my hand out towards it.
“Stop it!” he said. “He’s my devil! You have a ballerina. Tell her how pretty she is!”
He stood the devil in front of his plate.
“Look at him. Isn’t he wonderful? I can honestly say he’s the finest work of art I’ve ever seen. Still, I don’t suppose you’re interested in art. You’re a flirt. A Cleopatra. You just want to lure men to their doom.”
“Yes, he really is the very most handsome,” I babbled. “Nobody else has anyone like him.”
The officer briskly inspected the other guests. Everybody had a small chenille figure: a dog wearing a skirt, a chimney sweep, a monkey. Nobody had a devil like he did. Or anything the least bit like him.
“Well, of course, a devil like him doesn’t come along every day of the week. Look at his tail. It shakes all by itself without anyone even touching it. And he’s such a jolly little fellow!”
There was no need to tell me all this. I was already very taken with the devil. So much so that I didn’t even feel like eating.
“Why aren’t you eating? Did your mother tell you not to?”
Ugh, how very rude! What did my mother have to do with it, when I was a society woman dining with an officer at a ball?
“No, merci, I just don’t feel like it. I never eat much at balls.”
“Really? Well, you know what’s best for you, you must have been to lots of balls over the years. But why aren’t you looking at my little devil? You won’t be able to admire him much longer, you know. Dinner will be over soon and I’ll be putting him in my pocket and going back home with him.”
“What will you do with him?” I asked, with timid hope.
“What do you mean? He will bring beauty to my lonely life. And then I’ll get married and show him to my wife, if she’s well-behaved. He’s a wonderful little devil, isn’t he?”
Horrid old, mean old man, I thought. Didn’t he understand how I loved that jolly devil? How I loved him!
If he hadn’t been so delighted with the devil himself, I might have suggested a swap. My ballerina for his devil. But he was so entranced with this devil that there seemed no point in pestering him.
“Why are you so sad all of a sudden?” he asked. “Is it because all this will be over soon? And you’ll never again see anything like him? It’s true, you don’t come across his sort so very often.”
I hated this unkind man. I even refused a second helping of ice cream, which I really wanted. I refused because I was very unhappy. Nothing in the world mattered to me any more. I had no use for any of life’s pleasures and believed in nothing.
Everyone got up from the table. And my companion hurried off, too. But the little devil was still there on the table. I waited. Not that I was thinking anything in particular. I wasn’t thinking with my head. It seemed that only my heart was thinking, because it began to beat fast and hard against the top of my tight corset.
The officer didn’t come back.
I took the devil. The springy silver tail whipped against my hand. Quick—into my pocket he went.
They were dancing again in the hall. The nice young cadet asked me for a dance. I didn’t dare. I was afraid the devil would jump out of my pocket.
I didn’t love the devil any more. He had not brought me joy. Only worry and anxiety. Perhaps I just needed to take a quick look at him then I’d be ready to suffer for his sake. But as it was… What had I gone and done? Should I just slip in and put him back on the table? But the dining room door was locked now. Probably they were already clearing the table.
“Why are you looking so sad, my charming lady?”
The “old man” was standing beside me, smiling roguishly “I’ve suffered a real tragedy,” he said. “My devil’s gone missing. I’m at my wit’s end. I’m going to ring the police. They need to carry out a search. There may be a dangerous criminal in our midst.”
He smiled. What he said about the police was, of course, a joke.
“How old are you?” he asked suddenly.
“I’ll be fifteen soon. In ten months.”
“Aha! As soon as that! So in three years’ time I could be marrying you. If only my dear little devil hadn’t disappeared so inexplicably. How will I be able to make my wife happy now? Why are you so silent? Do you think I’m too old for you?”
“Not now,” I answered gloomily. “But in three years’ time you’ll be an important general.”
“A general. That’s a nice thought. But what can have happened to my devil?”
I looked up into his face. I hated him so much and I was so hugely unhappy that he stopped smiling and walked away.
And I went to my friend’s room and, hiding behind the curtain (not that there was anyone else in the room), I took out the devil. He was a little squashed, but there was something else besides. He had changed. Looking at him no longer made me feel the least bit happy. I didn’t want to touch him, and I didn’t want to laugh. He was just the most ordinary devil, green chenille with a little silver tail. How could he make anybody happy? How ridiculous it all was!
I stood up on the window sill, opened the small pane at the top and threw him out on the street.
Nanny was waiting for me in the hall.
The officer walked up to us, glanced at Nanny and chuckled: “Here to collect our Queen Cleopatra, are you?”
And then he fell silent, looked at me thoughtfully and said, simply and kindly, “Off you go. Off to bed with you, little one. You’ve gone quite pale. God bless you.”
I said goodbye and left, quiet and tired.
*Taken from Rasputin and Other Stories by Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler and Ann Marie Jackson, Pushkin Press London