FictionForest

PART SIX : Chapter 29

Leo TolstoyAug 25, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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The narrow room, in which they were
smoking and taking refreshments, was full of noblemen. 
The excitement grew more intense, and every face
betrayed some uneasiness.  The excitement was
specially keen for the leaders of each party, who knew
every detail, and had reckoned up every vote. 
They were the generals organizing the approaching
battle.  The rest, like the rank and file before
an engagement, though they were getting ready for the
fight, sought for other distractions in the interval. 
Some were lunching, standing at the bar, or sitting
at the table; others were walking up and down the
long room, smoking cigarettes, and talking with friends
whom they had not seen for a long while.

Levin did not care to eat, and he
was not smoking; he did not want to join his own friends,
that is Sergey Ivanovitch, Stepan Arkadyevitch, Sviazhsky
and the rest, because Vronsky in his equerry’s
uniform was standing with them in eager conversation. 
Levin had seen him already at the meeting on the previous
day, and he had studiously avoided him, not caring
to greet him.  He went to the window and sat
down, scanning the groups, and listening to what was
being said around him.  He felt depressed, especially
because everyone else was, as he saw, eager, anxious,
and interested, and he alone, with an old, toothless
little man with mumbling lips wearing a naval uniform,
sitting beside him, had no interest in it and nothing
to do.

“He’s such a blackguard! 
I have told him so, but it makes no difference. 
Only think of it!  He couldn’t collect
it in three years!” he heard vigorously uttered
by a round-shouldered, short, country gentleman, who
had pomaded hair hanging on his embroidered collar,
and new boots obviously put on for the occasion, with
heels that tapped energetically as he spoke. 
Casting a displeased glance at Levin, this gentleman
sharply turned his back.

“Yes, it’s a dirty business,
there’s no denying,” a small gentleman
assented in a high voice.

Next, a whole crowd of country gentlemen,
surrounding a stout general, hurriedly came near Levin. 
These persons were unmistakably seeking a place where
they could talk without being overheard.

“How dare he say I had his breeches
stolen!  Pawned them for drink, I expect. 
Damn the fellow, prince indeed!  He’d better
not say it, the beast!”

“But excuse me!  They take
their stand on the act,” was being said in another
group; “the wife must be registered as noble.”

“Oh, damn your acts!  I
speak from my heart.  We’re all gentlemen,
aren’t we?  Above suspicion.”

“Shall we go on, your excellency, fine champagne?

Another group was following a nobleman,
who was shouting something in a loud voice; it was
one of the three intoxicated gentlemen.

“I always advised Marya Semyonovna
to let for a fair rent, for she can never save a profit,”
he heard a pleasant voice say.  The speaker was
a country gentleman with gray whiskers, wearing the
regimental uniform of an old general staff-officer. 
It was the very landowner Levin had met at Sviazhsky’s. 
He knew him at once.  The landowner too stared
at Levin, and they exchanged greetings.

“Very glad to see you! 
To be sure!  I remember you very well. 
Last year at our district marshal, Nikolay Ivanovitch’s.”

“Well, and how is your land doing?” asked
Levin.

“Oh, still just the same, always
at a loss,” the landowner answered with a resigned
smile, but with an expression of serenity and conviction
that so it must be.  “And how do you come
to be in our province?” he asked.  “Come
to take part in our coup d’etat?
he said, confidently pronouncing the French words with
a bad accent.  “All Russia’s here ­gentlemen
of the bedchamber, and everything short of the ministry.” 
He pointed to the imposing figure of Stepan Arkadyevitch
in white trousers and his court uniform, walking by
with a general.

“I ought to own that I don’t
very well understand the drift of the provincial elections,”
said Levin.

The landowner looked at him.

“Why, what is there to understand? 
There’s no meaning in it at all.  It’s
a decaying institution that goes on running only by
the force of inertia.  Just look, the very uniforms
tell you that it’s an assembly of justices of
the peace, permanent members of the court, and so
on, but not of noblemen.”

“Then why do you come?” asked Levin.

“From habit, nothing else. 
Then, too, one must keep up connections.  It’s
a moral obligation of a sort.  And then, to tell
the truth, there’s one’s own interests. 
My son-in-law wants to stand as a permanent member;
they’re not rich people, and he must be brought
forward.  These gentlemen, now, what do they come
for?” he said, pointing to the malignant gentleman,
who was talking at the high table.

“That’s the new generation of nobility.”

“New it may be, but nobility
it isn’t.  They’re proprietors of
a sort, but we’re the landowners.  As noblemen,
they’re cutting their own throats.”

“But you say it’s an institution
that’s served its time.”

“That it may be, but still it
ought to be treated a little more respectfully. 
Snetkov, now…We may be of use, or we may not, but
we’re the growth of a thousand years.  If
we’re laying out a garden, planning one before
the house, you know, and there you’ve a tree
that’s stood for centuries in the very spot…. 
Old and gnarled it may be, and yet you don’t
cut down the old fellow to make room for the flowerbeds,
but lay out your beds so as to take advantage of the
tree.  You won’t grow him again in a year,”
he said cautiously, and he immediately changed the
conversation.  “Well, and how is your land
doing?”

“Oh, not very well.  I make five per cent.”

“Yes, but you don’t reckon
your own work.  Aren’t you worth something
too?  I’ll tell you my own case.  Before
I took to seeing after the land, I had a salary of
three hundred pounds from the service.  Now I
do more work than I did in the service, and like you
I get five per cent. on the land, and thank God for
that.  But one’s work is thrown in for nothing.”

“Then why do you do it, if it’s a clear
loss?”

“Oh, well, one does it! 
What would you have?  It’s habit, and
one knows it’s how it should be.  And what’s
more,” the landowner went on, leaning his elbows
on the window and chatting on, “my son, I must
tell you, has no taste for it.  There’s
no doubt he’ll be a scientific man.  So
there’ll be no one to keep it up.  And yet
one does it.  Here this year I’ve planted
an orchard.”

“Yes, yes,” said Levin,
“that’s perfectly true.  I always
feel there’s no real balance of gain in my work
on the land, and yet one does it….  It’s
a sort of duty one feels to the land.”

“But I tell you what,”
the landowner pursued; “a neighbor of mine,
a merchant, was at my place.  We walked about
the fields and the garden.  ‘No,’
said he, ’Stepan Vassilievitch, everything’s
well looked after, but your garden’s neglected.’ 
But, as a fact, it’s well kept up.  ’To
my thinking, I’d cut down that lime-tree. 
Here you’ve thousands of limes, and each would
make two good bundles of bark.  And nowadays that
bark’s worth something.  I’d cut
down the lot.’”

“And with what he made he’d
increase his stock, or buy some land for a trifle,
and let it out in lots to the peasants,” Levin
added, smiling.  He had evidently more than once
come across those commercial calculations.  “And
he’d make his fortune.  But you and I must
thank God if we keep what we’ve got and leave
it to our children.”

“You’re married, I’ve heard?”
said the landowner.

“Yes,” Levin answered,
with proud satisfaction.  “Yes, it’s
rather strange,” he went on.  “So
we live without making anything, as though we were
ancient vestals set to keep in a fire.”

The landowner chuckled under his white mustaches.

“There are some among us, too,
like our friend Nikolay Ivanovitch, or Count Vronsky,
that’s settled here lately, who try to carry
on their husbandry as though it were a factory; but
so far it leads to nothing but making away with capital
on it.”

“But why is it we don’t
do like the merchants?  Why don’t we cut
down our parks for timber?” said Levin, returning
to a thought that had struck him.

“Why, as you said, to keep the
fire in.  Besides that’s not work for a
nobleman.  And our work as noblemen isn’t
done here at the elections, but yonder, each in our
corner.  There’s a class instinct, too,
of what one ought and oughtn’t to do.  There’s
the peasants, too, I wonder at them sometimes; any
good peasant tries to take all the land he can. 
However bad the land is, he’ll work it. 
Without a return too.  At a simple loss.”

“Just as we do,” said
Levin.  “Very, very glad to have met you,”
he added, seeing Sviazhsky approaching him.

“And here we’ve met for
the first time since we met at your place,”
said the landowner to Sviazhsky, “and we’ve
had a good talk too.”

“Well, have you been attacking
the new order of things?” said Sviazhsky with
a smile.

“That we’re bound to do.”

“You’ve relieved your feelings?”

 

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