4338-The Fifth Letter

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You can compare this translation with the same section of the original here 4338-письмо 5-е

Fifth letter

The house of the First Minister is in the best part of the city, near Pulkovo Heights. That’s where the famous ancient observatory is which, they say, was built 2300 years ago. When we got near the house there were already quite a few aircraft on the roof; others were still airborne, and others were fixed to columns especially made for the purpose. We came out onto the platform which descended quickly and we found ourselves in a magnificent covered garden, which the minister used as a reception area.

The whole garden was full of rare plants and lit by a beautiful electrical device similar to the sun. They told me that it not only lights the garden, but also encourages the growth of the trees and plants in some chemical way. In fact it was the most luxuriant vegetation I’ve ever seen.

I think it would be a good thing, if our fellow Chinese, who are so keen on old-fashioned customs and manners, could see some society events and receptions here. They don’t bother with our Chinese formality, which it seems we still haven’t managed to shake off. The simple way people behave here can seem a little cold at first. But then you get used to it and it starts to seem completely natural, and you are convinced that this apparent coldness is mixed with genuine kindness. When we went into the reception it was already full of guests. In some places you could catch a glimpse of groups of people walking among the trees; some talking enthusiastically and others listening in silence. I should say that here nobody is obliged to speak. You can go into a room without saying a word and not even answer any questions. — It won’t strike anybody as strange. The in-crowd and the trend-setters often spend a whole evening in silence – they consider it rather fetching. Asking someone about their health, their business, or the weather or some other kind of small talk is not well looked upon. However, once a conversation begins it will continue passionately and energetically. There were lots of ladies there, all gorgeous and especially fresh-looking. Being too skinny or pale is a sign of ignorance here. Being knowledgeable about health and medical matters is part of a good upbringing – so they look down on people who don’t look after their health, especially if they are women.

The women dressed wonderfully well. Most of them were in dresses made of elastic crystal in different shades; some of them seemed to flicker with all the colours of the rainbow and in others, had metallic crystals or rare plants, butterflies and shiny beetles fused into them. One of the fashionable ladies had live fireflies festooned around her skirts which produced a dazzling flash as she moved around the dark avenues of trees. A dress like that costs a lot of money, people said, and can only be worn once because the insects quickly die. Not without amazement, I noticed that high society was paying a lot less attention to our fateful comet than one might have expected. There was an unexpected mixture of responses. Some talked expertly about the differing degrees of success which the preventative measures had achieved, they calculated the weight of the comet, the speed of its approach and the extent to which the devices built for slowing it down might work. Others produced a litany of victories which mankind had already scored over nature. They had such confidence in the powers of human ingenuity that they could joke about the impending disaster. Others were calm for other reasons – they hinted that life had gone on for a fair old while, and that everything eventually must come to an end. Most people however, were just discussing their affairs and their plans for the future as if nothing was going to change. Some of the women were wearing bonnets "a la comete" {that’s French for comet style}. They consisted of a small electrical gizmo that constantly scattered sparks around. I noticed that these ladies flirtatiously went out into the shade as often as they could to show off the fantastic electric tail, representing the trail of the comet, which decorated their hair with a shining plume and gave a special glow to their faces.

At times, in different parts of the garden, hidden music played, but very quietly so as not to disturb the conversations. Some keen people were sitting on the resonating screens which covered the hidden orchestra. They invited me to come and sit with them. But my nerves could not stand this pleasant but unaccustomed and powerful sensation and I fell off after less than two minutes. The women laughed at me. Generally everybody paid a lot of attention to me and uncle, and they tried to show their kind hospitality according to Russian traditions. That goes especially for the women, who liked me a lot as you will see later on. Walking along a path covered in a velvet carpet we stopped by a small pool which quietly burbled and splashed perfumed water. A very beautiful and elegantly dressed lady who had been a bit more friendly than the others came towards the pool and the burbling of the water changed into wonderful soft music. I’d never heard such strange sounds before. As I came closer to the lady I was astonished to see that she was playing a keyboard which was connected to the pool. The keys operated openings which sometimes let water fall onto crystal bells and created marvellous harmonies. Sometimes the water came out in a fast but intermittent stream, which produced a sound like the roar of angry waves brought into a wild but perfect harmony. Sometimes the flow was calm and then it was as if full chords were flying in from far away. Sometimes the stream dissolved into little splashes against the crystal glass from which we could hear a quiet melodic babbling. The instrument was called a hydrophone, recently invented here and still not widely used. My wonderful lady had never seemed so gorgeous. Violet electrical sparks fell from her bonnet like a fiery rain her round white shoulders and were reflected in fleeting streams and sparkles which lit up her pretty and expressive face and luxuriant curls of hair. Shiny jets appeared through the rainbow stripes of her dress and sometimes it seemed to become translucent and reveal her splendid figure. Soon her pure and expressive voice was added to the sounds of the hydrophone and seemed to bury itself in the harmonic tides of the instrument. The action of the music, which seemed to have come from some watery hidden depths, the wonderful magical sparkles, the air full of fragrances, and the beautiful woman who seemed to float in that miraculous mixture of sounds and waves and light – all of this sent me into such an intoxicated state that when she stopped playing I couldn’t come back to reality for a long time…which I suspect she noticed.

She had more or less the same effect on other people but there was no applause for her or complimentary speeches, which are not the custom here. Everybody knows how to evaluate their own art. A poor musician doesn’t torture the ears of listeners, and a good one doesn’t wait for the audience to beg him to play. Actually music is part of general upbringing here. It’s as important as reading and writing and just as essential. They sometimes play other people’s music, but usually, and especially women like the beauty I described, they improvise without being asked and whenever they feel inspired to play.

In different parts of the garden were trees with fruit on them for the guests. Some of them were real masterpieces of the gardener’s art, which has been so perfected here. Looking at them I couldn’t help thinking of the great efforts of thought and patience which had gone into grafting together such a variety of completely different fruits and creating altogether new varieties. For example I noticed fruits which were something in between a pineapple and a peach: there is nothing to compare with the taste of them. There are also dates growing on cherry trees and bananas combined with pears. There are countless other new varieties which have been invented, so to speak, by the local horticulturalists.

Some small carafes stood around the trees with golden taps. Guests would take the carafes and serve themselves by opening the taps. I supposed that it was a drink of some sort. I followed their example. But the carafes in fact contained an aromatic mixture of stimulating gases with the smell ( or rather "bouquet") of wine. They seem to breathe an amazing liveliness into your organism, which makes it hard to keep from smiling constantly. These gases are completely harmless and doctors approve of their use. They have completely replaced wine in high society here. Wine is drunk by simple workers here who can’t seem to leave behind its rude and wet embrace.

After a while the host invited us into a separate area where the magnetic bathhouse was. I should say that animal magnetism is the favourite drawing room entertainment here, it has totally overtaken ancient card-games, dice, dancing and other games. This is how it’s done: one person stands at the bath, usually it’s someone with more experience of magnetic manipulation. All the others take in their hands a lead which is attached to the bath and then the magnetization begins. This puts some people into a kind of magnetic sleep, which is good for the health; others it seems to have no effect on at all. But some people go into a trance, and that’s the fun of it. As I was completely unaccustomed to it, the magnetism had no effect on me. But this meant that I was able to observe everything that happened.

A very interesting conversation quickly began: in the interval, those people who had been in a trance described their secret thoughts and feelings. "I must admit" said one, "that although I try to create the impression that I am not afraid of the comet, I am terrified by its approach to Earth" — "Today I deliberately made my husband angry" – said another attractive woman, "because when he is angry he looks so much handsomer". — "Your rainbow dress", — she said ostentatiously to her neighbour " is so nice that I’d like to borrow it from you and make a copy, but I’m embarrassed to ask."

I came to a circle of women where my beauty was sitting. As soon as I entered the circle the beautiful one said to me "you can’t imagine how much I like you, when I saw you I immediately wanted to kiss you!" "And me too, —and me too!" exclaimed several other ladies. The others laughed and congratulated me on my splendid success with the ladies of Peterburg.

This entertainment lasted for about an hour. When people come out of the trance they forget everything they have said, and the secrets they have let out give rise to thousands of intrigues. All this helps to keep social life bubbling, and it gives rise to weddings, romances and probably friendships too. Often people who are hardly acquainted find out about each others’ feelings this way and old friendships are reinforced by the expression of genuine feelings. Sometimes just the men magnetise themselves and the women watch, and sometimes the women sit at the magnetic bath and tell their secrets to men. More than anything else, the spread of magnetism has completely cleaned society of any hypocrisy and pretence. It’s clear that such things are impossible. However, diplomats, because of their official duties, refrain from this amusement. This means that they don’t have much of a role when people entertain guests. In general, people here take a dim view of those who don’t take part in magnetic sessions. They assume that such individuals either have hostile intentions or a tendency towards depravity.

Tired out after all the varied events of the day, I didn’t wait for dinner. I went instead to look for my flying apparatus. In the yard there was a blizzard blowing and in spite of the enormous size of the ventilators which constantly poured a huge amount of heat into the air, I had to wrap myself up warmly in my glass cloak. But the thought of the beautiful lady warmed my heart, as they used to say. I found out that she is the only daughter of the minister of medicine. But regardless of her feelings towards me, I hope to be truly worthy of her favours. For the moment I don’t have any scientific discoveries to my name, so I don’t think I’ve quite earned them yet!

Go on to the next part here: 4338-The Sixth Letter