Dear all, I am sorry for the long absense, I'll try to make it up to you in coming weeks and months with new content. Please also remember that I am really dependant on you for ideas and suggestions so if you've come across interesting stories or links, please do not hesitate to drop me a line or comment here.
Today I wanted to share with you a short story that, to some degree, influenced my interest in lady-to-maid and downgrade fiction. Apologies to early readers of my newsletter as I’ve already shared it with them, but I think it’s worth posting it to the blog as well. It’s a bit different and some of you might say “huh?” after you read it, but, I think you will notice some themes there that I’ve used in Her Most Remarkable Performance. The story is by Arkady Averchenko, a Russian turn-of-the-century playwright and satirist, whose skyrocketing career was cut short by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which forced him to flee the country. I don’t believe his work has ever been translated into English (at least not this story) so the translation of this short piece from 1922 is by yours truly. Huge thanks go to Robyn Hoode, who did an excellent job editing.
Russian Art takes place in Constantinople, which in the early 1920s was a major destination for Russian refugees (Averchenko himself being one of them) following the final defeat of the Whites in late 1920. The city was overrun with former aristocrats, military officers, government officials, politicians, journalists, and other unlucky souls that bet on the wrong horse during the Civil War. Needless to say, the vast majority of these people were struggling financially and often had to do the jobs that were well beneath them - as doormen, cleaners, shop attendants, guards, maids, cabmen etc. Some of you might be familiar with Anatole Litvak’s famous 1937 comedy Tovarich about two Russian aristocrats working as a maid and a butler under false identities in France (see photo). So, at least some Edwardian beauties had to go through a scary real-life lady-to-maid scenario.
"Is it really, you?"
"It really is"
“I can hardly believe my own eyes.”
“It would be a crime not to believe eyes as beautiful as yours.”
One has to be a man of highest society and utmost elegance to pay compliments like this during an afternoon in Pera, as hundreds of people are rushing past, constantly bumping into your sides and back. ... and this is what I am indeed.
The owner of the beautiful eyes, a renowned dramatic actress from Saint Petersburg, was standing before me, her lively, sly, expressive face changing constantly from surprise to pleasure to delight to confusion and back again as I watched.
“Listen, The Simple-Minded. I really would like to see you. You are like my good old and dear Saint Petersburg come back to me. Come for a cup of tea.”
“And where do you live?”
In any other city in the world this simple question would have elicited an equally simple response: street so-and-so, house number so-and-so but not here, not in our little town of Constantinople.
The actress’s facial expression changed to one of unparalleled perplexity.
“Where do I live? Let me see. It’s either Sasli-Basli or Biyuk-Temryuk. Or, it could also be Qazanli-Bazanli. Just give me a pencil and a piece of paper and I’ll draw it for you.”
To a certain degree one can now understand how the dense, shoving crowds of Pera came about. These are all Russians standing in front of one another, trying to explain where they live for half an hour: is it Sasli-Basli or Babadjan-Osmandi?
It is usually a pencil and a piece of paper that come to the rescue and the starting point is always The Tokatliyan. This is the jumping off place for any refugee.
One would draw two parallel lines. This is Pera. And then a small square - The Tokatliyan. And then…
“Here you are,’’ the actress showed me, drawing something on the piece of paper. “This is The Tokatliyan. From this thingy you turn to the left, then you turn behind this thingy, and the second house is the one where I live. Number Twenty-Two. Third Floor, apartment of Baron K.”
I reverently put this strange document inside my wallet and took my leave.
The following evening, just as I was getting ready to visit the actress, a friend stopped by.
“Where are you headed?”
“Where? It’s straight ahead from The Tokatliyan, then turn into this thingy, then into another one. Apartment of Baron K.”
“I know it. A fine house. My dear fellow, why are you planning to wear a short jacket to a place as aristocratic as this?”
“I can’t really put on a tail-coat to go there, can I?”
“And why not? A tail-coat for an evening visit is most appropriate. We are abroad after all.”
“A tail-coat it is,” I agreed.
I dressed up and, my heavily starched shirt-front ablaze, headed to Pera for my jumping off point.
If you know a street and a house number in Constantinople it is only half the battle. The other half is actually finding it. This is hard because number 7 could be located between numbers 24 and 14, and number 16 may be sandwiched between a 127 and a 19.
This probably happened because the Turks don’t know our Arabic numerals. So it went like this: when the municipality decided to give each house an Arabic number, they made a few thousand plates with various characters on them and piled them up on the main square. Following that, each homeowner picked the plate with scrawls and squiggles that he found most to his liking.
The sought-for number 22 was relatively accurately positioned: it was between numbers 24 and 13.
The door was opened by an elegant lady.
“What can I do for you?”
“Does Anna Nikolaevna live here?”
"I'm not sure. Who is she?"
“A Russian. A refugee.”
“Oh, you must mean Annushka," she turned and called out "Annushka, there is someone asking for you.”
I heard footsteps and my friend, clad in an apron and holding a dish-towel, fluttered into the entrance hall.
“Why ye been ‘angin’ about them grand entrances, you idiot, you! Couldn’t ye take the backdoor like the rest of them?” were her first words to me.
“I am sorry,” I was lost. “I was told to ...”
“What I told ye is what I told ye. He’s my old chum, Ma’am, he is. I knew ‘im in Petresburg, I did. Goodness me, don’t ye just stand there like a slob, go to the kitchen to undress.”
The kitchen was warm and cosy, but hardly meant for my elegant tail-coat. A fireman’s helmet and a pea jacket would have been a lot more appropriate.
“Take a sit, chum, since ye ‘ere anyway. Samovar don't ‘ave no hot water no more, methinks. Or just for one cup per'aps, ye want some?”
“Oh, I see. You’ve moved from grande coquette to character parts,’’ I noted sadly, lifting a huge spoon with holes in it.
“Wha ye talkin’ bout? Me, I found myself a place ‘ere as a kitchen maid, I did. It ain’t bad. The Mistress is kind. She ain’t doin’ me no wrong.”
"Ye livin' in?" I asked her, feeling an invisible fireman’s brass helmet growing on my head.
“Oh yeah. It’s full board ‘ere, it is.”
“And ye gettin’ yer beer money? Keepin' the shoppin' change?”
‘Ye bet I do. That my legal right, ain’t it? Ye wonna stuff yerself with some cabbage soup? I got some left from dinner. I can warm that for ye,if yer like?”
The Mistress entered.
“Annushka, heat the samovar.”
The gentleman within suddenly woke up.
“Let me do that,” I said and coughed into my fist. “Will be ready in a jiffy. I'll have it done before a shaved headed girl can braid her hair. And that’s all! Ye just show me where to put the coal and where to get water.”
“Annushka, who is this?” the Mistress asked, examining my tail-coat in a stunned manner.
“He just someone I know. He kind of like a relative or somethin’. Don’t ye worry bout ‘im, Ma’am. He be quiet as a lamb, he is. He don’t drink none. He won’t make no trouble.”
“How long have you known him?”
“Since Petersburg,’’ I interjected, shifting my feet. “Annushka acted in some of my plays.”
“What do you mean “acted”? And why “yours”?”
“Was anyone forcin’ ye to talk, ye half-wit,’’ Annushka mumbled annoyingly. “I’ll lose my place because of ye. Ma’am, you see... He’s called Mr. Averchenko.”
“Jesus, what are you doing here then? Come to the dining room, I will introduce you to my husband. We are delighted to meet you.”
“Ye seein’ that?” I said proudly and gave Annushka a wink. “You keep talking me down, but people of quality are shakin’ my hand and invitin’ me to their table!”
There was a knock on the back entrance door. It was another guest to see Annushka, a general I used to know, who once commanded the 3rd Army. He stood up humbly by the lintel, removed his gallooned service cap and said: “Tea and sugar. Sorry for being late. That’s the door-keeper’s lot.”
We sat in the dining room at a table covered by a snow white cloth. The three of us - the kitchen maid, the door-keeper and I. The Master ran off to a shop to get refreshments and wine. The Mistress was in the kitchen, heating up the samovar.