Great Catherine HTML version

The First Scene
1776. Patiomkin in his bureau in the Winter Palace, St. Petersburgh. Huge
palatial apartment: style, Russia in the eighteenth century imitating the Versailles
du Roi Soleil. Extravagant luxury. Also dirt and disorder.
Patiomkin, gigantic in stature and build, his face marred by the loss of one eye
and a marked squint in the other, sits at the end of a table littered with papers
and the remains of three or four successive breakfasts. He has supplies of coffee
and brandy at hand sufficient for a party of ten. His coat, encrusted with
diamonds, is on the floor. It has fallen off a chair placed near the other end of the
table for the convenience of visitors. His court sword, with its attachments, is on
the chair. His three-cornered hat, also bejewelled, is on the table. He himself is
half dressed in an unfastened shirt and an immense dressing-gown, once
gorgeous, now food-splashed and dirty, as it serves him for towel, handkerchief,
duster, and every other use to which a textile fabric can be put by a slovenly
man. It does not conceal his huge hairy chest, nor his half-buttoned knee
breeches, nor his legs. These are partly clad in silk stockings, which he
occasionally hitches up to his knees, and presently shakes down to his shins, by
his restless movement. His feet are thrust into enormous slippers, worth, with
their crust of jewels, several thousand roubles apiece.
Superficially Patiomkin is a violent, brutal barbarian, an upstart despot of the
most intolerable and dangerous type, ugly, lazy, and disgusting in his personal
habits. Yet ambassadors report him the ablest man in Russia, and the one who
can do most with the still abler Empress Catherine II, who is not a Russian but a
German, by no means barbarous or intemperate in her personal habits. She not
only disputes with Frederick the Great the reputation of being the cleverest
monarch in Europe, but may even put in a very plausible claim to be the
cleverest and most attractive individual alive. Now she not only tolerates
Patiomkin long after she has got over her first romantic attachment to him, but
esteems him highly as a counsellor and a good friend. His love letters are among
the best on record. He has a wild sense of humor, which enables him to laugh at
himself as well as at everybody else. In the eyes of the English visitor now about
to be admitted to his presence he may be an outrageous ruffian. In fact he
actually is an outrageous ruffian, in no matter whose eyes; but the visitor will find
out, as everyone else sooner or later fends out, that he is a man to be reckoned
with even by those who are not intimidated by his temper, bodily strength, and
exalted rank.
A pretty young lady, Yarinka, his favorite niece, is lounging on an ottoman
between his end of the table and the door, very sulky and dissatisfied, perhaps
because he is preoccupied with his papers and his brandy bottle, and she can
see nothing of him but his broad back.