I may remark also that all ancient states and kingdoms are attached to their ancient laws. I have heard that your Republic of Venice begins the year in March, and that seems to me, as it were, a monument and memorial of its antiquity--and indeed the year begins more naturally in March than in January--but does not this usage cause some confusion?"
"None at all, your majesty. The letters M V, which we adjoin to all dates in January and February, render all mistakes impossible."
"Venice is also noteworthy for its peculiar system of heraldry, by the amusing form under which it portrays its patron saint, and by the five Latin words with which the Evangelist is invoked, in which, as I am told, there is a grammatical blunder which has become respectable by its long standing. But is it true that you do not distinguish between the day and night hours?"
"It is, your majesty, and what is more we reckon the day from the beginning of the night."
"Such is the force of custom, which makes us admire what other nations think ridiculous. You see no inconvenience in your division of the day, which strikes me as most inconvenient."
"You would only have to look at your watch, and you would not need to listen for the cannon shot which announces the close of day."
"Yes, but for this one advantage you have over us, we have two over you. We know that at twelve o'clock it is either mid-day or midnight."
The czarina spoke to me about the fondness of the Venetians for games of chance, and asked if the Genoa Lottery had been established there. "I have been asked," she added, "to allow the lottery to be established in my own dominions; but I should never permit it except on the condition that no stake should be below a rouble, and then the poor people would not be able to risk their money in it."
I replied to this discreet observation with a profound inclination of the head, and thus ended my last interview with the famous empress who reigned thirty-five years without committing a single mistake of any importance. The historian will always place her amongst great sovereigns, though the moralist will always consider her, and rightly, as one of the most notable of dissolute women.
A few days before I left I gave an entertainment to my friends at Catherinhoff, winding up with a fine display of fireworks, a present from my friend Melissino. My supper for thirty was exquisite, and my ball a brilliant one. In spite of the tenuity of my purse I felt obliged to give my friends this mark of my gratitude for the kindness they had lavished on me.
I left Russia with the actress Valville, and I must here tell the reader how I came to make her acquaintance.
I happened to go to the French play, and to find myself seated next to an extremely pretty lady who was unknown to me. I occasionally addressed an observation to her referring to the play or actors, and I was immensely delighted with her spirited answers. Her expression charmed me, and I took the liberty of asking her if she were a Russian.
"No, thank God!" she replied, "I am a Parisian, and an actress by occupation. My name is Valville; but I don't wonder I am unknown to you, for I have been only a month here, and have played but once."
"How is that?"
"Because I was so unfortunate as to fail to win the czarina's favour. However, as I was engaged for a year, she has kindly ordered that my salary of a hundred roubles shall be paid monthly. At the end of the year I shall get my passport and go."
"I am sure the empress thinks she is doing you a favour in paying you for nothing."
"Very likely; but she does not remember that I am forgetting how to act all this time."
"You ought to tell her that."
"I only wish she would give me an audience."
"That is unnecessary. Of course, you have a lover."
"No, I haven't."
"It's incredible to me!"
"They say the incredible often happens."
"I am very glad to hear it myself."
I took her address, and sent her the following note the next day:
"Madam,--I should like to begin an intrigue with you.