The sixth of March, 1886. In the garden of major Petkoff's house. It is a fine spring morning; and the garden looks fresh and pretty. Beyond the paling the tops of a couple of minarets can he seen, shewing that there it a valley there, with the little town in it. A few miles further the Balkan mountains rise and shut in the view. Within the garden the side of the house is seen on the right, with a garden door reached by a little flight of steps. On the left the stable yard, with its gateway, encroaches on the garden. There are fruit bushes along the paling and house, covered with washing hung out to dry. A path runs by the house, and rises by two steps at the corner where it turns out of the right along the front. In the middle a small table, with two bent wood chairs at it, is laid for breakfast with Turkish coffee pot, cups, rolls, etc.; but the cups have been used and the bread broken. There is a wooden garden seat against the wall on the left.
Louka, smoking a cigaret, is standing between the table and the house, turning her back with angry disdain on a man-servant who is lecturing her. He is a middle-aged man of cool temperament and low but clear and keen intelligence, with the complacency of the servant who values himself on his rank in servility, and the imperturbability of the accurate calculator who has no illusions. He wears a white Bulgarian costume jacket with decorated harder, sash, wide knickerbockers, and decorated gaiters. His head is shaved up to the crown, giving him a high Japanese forehead. His name is Nicola.
NICOLA. Be warned in time, Louka: mend your manners. I know the mistress. She is so grand that she never dreams that any servant could dare to be disrespectful to her; but if she once suspects that you are defying her, out you go.
LOUKA. I do defy her. I will defy her. What do I care for her?
NICOLA. If you quarrel with the family, I never can marry you. It's the same as if you quarrelled with me!
LOUKA. You take her part against me, do you?
NICOLA (sedately). I shall always be dependent on the good will of the family. When I leave their service and start a shop in Sofea, their custom will be half my capital: their bad word would ruin me.
LOUKA. You have no spirit. I should like to see them dare say a word against me!
NICOLA (pityingly). I should have expected more sense from you, Louka. But you're young, you're young!
LOUKA. Yes; and you like me the better for it, don't you? But I know some family secrets they wouldn't care to have told, young as I am. Let them quarrel with me if they dare!
NICOLA (with compassionate superiority). Do you know what they would do if they heard you talk like that?
LOUKA. What could they do?
NICOLA. Discharge you for untruthfulness. Who would believe any stories you told after that? Who would give you another situation? Who in this house would dare be seen speaking to you ever again? How long would your father be left on his little farm? (She impatiently throws away the end of her cigaret, and stamps on it.) Child, you don't know the power such high people have over the like of you and me when we try to rise out of our poverty against them. (He goes close to her and lowers his voice.) Look at me, ten years in their service. Do you think I know no secrets? I know things about the mistress that she wouldn't have the master know for a thousand levas. I know things about him that she wouldn't let him hear the last of for six months if I blabbed them to her. I know things about Raina that would break off her match with Sergius if —
LOUKA (turning on him quickly). How do you know? I never told you!
NICOLA (opening his eyes cunningly). So that's your little secret, is it? I thought it might be something like that. Well, you take my advice, and be respectful; and make the mistress feel that no matter what you know or don't know, they can depend on you to hold your tongue and serve the family faithfully. That's what they like; and that's how you'll make most out of them.
LOUKA (with searching scorn). You have the soul of a servant, Nicola.
NICOLA (complacently). Yes: that's the secret of success in service.
(A loud knocking with a whip handle on a wooden door, outside on the left, is heard.)
MALE VOICE OUTSIDE. Hollo! Hollo there! Nicola!
LOUKA. Master! back from the war!
NICOLA (quickly). My word for it, Louka, the war's over. Off with you and get some fresh coffee. (He runs out into the stable yard.)
LOUKA (as she puts the coffee pot and the cups upon the tray, and carries it into the house). You'll never put the soul of a servant into me.
(Major Petkoff comes from the stable yard, followed by Nicola. He is a cheerful, excitable, insignificant, unpolished man of about 50, naturally unambitious except as to his income and his importance in local society, but just now greatly pleased with the military rank which the war has thrust on him as a man of consequence in his town. The fever of plucky patriotism which the Servian attack roused in all the Bulgarians has pulled him through the war; but he is obviously glad to be home again.)
PETKOFF (pointing to the table with his whip). Breakfast out here, eh?
NICOLA. Yes, sir. The mistress and Miss Raina have just gone in.
PETKOFF (fitting down and taking a roll). Go in and say I've come; and get me some fresh coffee.
NICOLA. It's coming, sir. (He goes to the house door. Louka, with fresh coffee, a clean cup, and a brandy bottle on her tray meets him.) Have you told the mistress?
LOUKA. Yes: she's coming.
(Nicola goes into the house. Louka brings the coffee to the table.)
PETKOFF. Well, the Servians haven't run away with you, have they?
LOUKA. No, sir.
PETKOFF. That's right. Have you brought me some cognac?
LOUKA (putting the bottle on the table). Here, sir.
PETKOFF. That's right. (He pours some into his coffee.)
(Catherine who has at this early hour made only a very perfunctory toilet, and wears a Bulgarian apron over a once brilliant, but now half worn out red dressing gown, and a colored handkerchief tied over her thick black hair, with Turkish slippers on her bare feet, comes from the house, looking astonishingly handsome and stately under all the circumstances. Louka goes into the house.)
CATHERINE. My dear Paul, what a surprise for us. (She stoops over the back of his chair to kiss him.) Have they brought you fresh coffee?
PETKOFF. Yes, Louka's been looking after me. The war's over. The treaty was signed three days ago at Bucharest; and the decree for our army to demobilize was issued yesterday.
CATHERINE (springing erect, with flashing eyes). The war over! Paul: have you let the Austrians force you to make peace?
PETKOFF (submissively). My dear: they didn't consult me. What could I do? (She sits down and turns away from him.) But of course we saw to it that the treaty was an honorable one. It declares peace —
CATHERINE (outraged). Peace!
PETKOFF (appeasing her). — but not friendly relations: remember that. They wanted to put that in; but I insisted on its being struck out. What more could I do?
CATHERINE. You could have annexed Servia and made Prince Alexander Emperor of the Balkans. That's what I would have done.
PETKOFF. I don't doubt it in the least, my dear. But I should have had to subdue the whole Austrian Empire first; and that would have kept me too long away from you. I missed you greatly.
CATHERINE (relenting). Ah! (Stretches her hand affectionately across the table to squeeze his.)
PETKOFF. And how have you been, my dear?
CATHERINE. Oh, my usual sore throats, that's all.
PETKOFF (with conviction). That comes from washing your neck every day. I've often told you so.
CATHERINE. Nonsense, Paul!
PETKOFF (over his coffee and cigaret). I don't believe in going too far with these modern customs. All this washing can't be good for the health: it's not natural. There was an Englishman at Phillipopolis who used to wet himself all over with cold water every morning when he got up. Disgusting! It all comes from the English: their climate makes them so dirty that they have to be perpetually washing themselves. Look at my father: he never had a bath in his life; and he lived to be ninety-eight, the healthiest man in Bulgaria. I don't mind a good wash once a week to keep up my position; but once a day is carrying the thing to a ridiculous extreme.
CATHERINE. You are a barbarian at heart still, Paul. I hope you behaved yourself before all those Russian officers.
PETKOFF. I did my best. I took care to let them know that we had a library.
CATHERINE. Ah; but you didn't tell them that we have an electric bell in it? I have had one put up.
PETKOFF. What's an electric bell?
CATHERINE. You touch a button; something tinkles in the kitchen; and then Nicola comes up.
PETKOFF. Why not shout for him?
CATHERINE. Civilized people never shout for their servants. I've learnt that while you were away.
PETKOFF. Well, I'll tell you something I've learnt, too. Civilized people don't hang out their washing to dry where visitors can see it; so you'd better have all that (indicating the clothes on the bushes) put somewhere else.
CATHERINE. Oh, that's absurd, Paul: I don't believe really refined people notice such things.
(Someone is heard knocking at the stable gates.)
PETKOFF. There's Sergius. (Shouting.) Hollo, Nicola!
CATHERINE. Oh, don't shout, Paul: it really isn't nice.
PETKOFF. Bosh! (He shouts louder than before.) Nicola!
NICOLA (appearing at the house door). Yes, sir.