FictionForest

PART THREE : Chapter 26

Leo TolstoyAug 23, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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Sviazhsky was the marshal of his district. 
He was five years older than Levin, and had long
been married.  His sister-in-law, a young girl
Levin liked very much, lived in his house; and Levin
knew that Sviazhsky and his wife would have greatly
liked to marry the girl to him.  He knew this
with certainty, as so-called eligible young men always
know it, though he could never have brought himself
to speak of it to anyone; and he knew too that, although
he wanted to get married, and although by every token
this very attractive girl would make an excellent wife,
he could no more have married her, even if he had
not been in love with Kitty Shtcherbatskaya, than
he could have flown up to the sky.  And this knowledge
poisoned the pleasure he had hoped to find in the
visit to Sviazhsky.

On getting Sviazhsky’s letter
with the invitation for shooting, Levin had immediately
thought of this; but in spite of it he had made up
his mind that Sviazhsky’s having such views for
him was simply his own groundless supposition, and
so he would go, all the same.  Besides, at the
bottom of his heart he had a desire to try himself,
put himself to the test in regard to this girl. 
The Sviazhskys’ home-life was exceedingly pleasant,
and Sviazhsky himself, the best type of man taking
part in local affairs that Levin knew, was very interesting
to him.

Sviazhsky was one of those people,
always a source of wonder to Levin, whose convictions,
very logical though never original, go one way by
themselves, while their life, exceedingly definite
and firm in its direction, goes its way quite apart
and almost always in direct contradiction to their
convictions.  Sviazhsky was an extremely advanced
man.  He despised the nobility, and believed
the mass of the nobility to be secretly in favor of
serfdom, and only concealing their views from cowardice. 
He regarded Russia as a ruined country, rather after
the style of Turkey, and the government of Russia
as so bad that he never permitted himself to criticize
its doings seriously, and yet he was a functionary
of that government and a model marshal of nobility,
and when he drove about he always wore the cockade
of office and the cap with the red band.  He
considered human life only tolerable abroad, and went
abroad to stay at every opportunity, and at the same
time he carried on a complex and improved system of
agriculture in Russia, and with extreme interest followed
everything and knew everything that was being done
in Russia.  He considered the Russian peasant
as occupying a stage of development intermediate between
the ape and the man, and at the same time in the local
assemblies no one was readier to shake hands with the
peasants and listen to their opinion.  He believed
neither in God nor the devil, but was much concerned
about the question of the improvement of the clergy
and the maintenance of their revenues, and took special
trouble to keep up the church in his village.

On the woman question he was on the
side of the extreme advocates of complete liberty
for women, and especially their right to labor. 
But he lived with his wife on such terms that their
affectionate childless home life was the admiration
of everyone, and arranged his wife’s life so
that she did nothing and could do nothing but share
her husband’s efforts that her time should pass
as happily and as agreeably as possible.

If it had not been a characteristic
of Levin’s to put the most favorable interpretation
on people, Sviazhsky’s character would have
presented no doubt or difficulty to him:  he would
have said to himself, “a fool or a knave,”
and everything would have seemed clear.  But
he could not say “a fool,” because Sviazhsky
was unmistakably clever, and moreover, a highly cultivated
man, who was exceptionally modest over his culture. 
There was not a subject he knew nothing of. 
But he did not display his knowledge except when
he was compelled to do so.  Still less could Levin
say that he was a knave, as Sviazhsky was unmistakably
an honest, good-hearted, sensible man, who worked
good-humoredly, keenly, and perseveringly at his work;
he was held in high honor by everyone about him, and
certainly he had never consciously done, and was indeed
incapable of doing, anything base.

Levin tried to understand him, and
could not understand him, and looked at him and his
life as at a living enigma.

Levin and he were very friendly, and
so Levin used to venture to sound Sviazhsky, to try
to get at the very foundation of his view of life;
but it was always in vain.  Every time Levin tried
to penetrate beyond the outer chambers of Sviazhsky’s
mind, which were hospitably open to all, he noticed
that Sviazhsky was slightly disconcerted; faint signs
of alarm were visible in his eyes, as though he were
afraid Levin would understand him, and he would give
him a kindly, good-humored repulse.

Just now, since his disenchantment
with farming, Levin was particularly glad to stay
with Sviazhsky.  Apart from the fact that the
sight of this happy and affectionate couple, so pleased
with themselves and everyone else, and their well-ordered
home had always a cheering effect on Levin, he felt
a longing, now that he was so dissatisfied with his
own life, to get at that secret in Sviazhsky that
gave him such clearness, definiteness, and good courage
in life.  Moreover, Levin knew that at Sviazhsky’s
he should meet the landowners of the neighborhood,
and it was particularly interesting for him just now
to hear and take part in those rural conversations
concerning crops, laborers’ wages, and so on,
which, he was aware, are conventionally regarded as
something very low, but which seemed to him just now
to constitute the one subject of importance. 
“It was not, perhaps, of importance in the days
of serfdom, and it may not be of importance in England. 
In both cases the conditions of agriculture are firmly
established; but among us now, when everything has
been turned upside down and is only just taking shape,
the question what form these conditions will take
is the one question of importance in Russia,”
thought Levin.

The shooting turned out to be worse
than Levin had expected.  The marsh was dry and
there were no grouse at all.  He walked about
the whole day and only brought back three birds, but
to make up for that ­he brought back, as
he always did from shooting, an excellent appetite,
excellent spirits, and that keen, intellectual mood
which with him always accompanied violent physical
exertion.  And while out shooting, when he seemed
to be thinking of nothing at all, suddenly the old
man and his family kept coming back to his mind, and
the impression of them seemed to claim not merely
his attention, but the solution of some question connected
with them.

In the evening at tea, two landowners
who had come about some business connected with a
wardship were of the party, and the interesting conversation
Levin had been looking forward to sprang up.

Levin was sitting beside his hostess
at the tea table, and was obliged to keep up a conversation
with her and her sister, who was sitting opposite
him.  Madame Sviazhskaya was a round-faced, fair-haired,
rather short woman, all smiles and dimples.  Levin
tried through her to get a solution of the weighty
enigma her husband presented to his mind; but he had
not complete freedom of ideas, because he was in an
agony of embarrassment.  This agony of embarrassment
was due to the fact that the sister-in-law was sitting
opposite to him, in a dress, specially put on, as he
fancied, for his benefit, cut particularly open, in
the shape of a trapeze, on her white bosom. 
This quadrangular opening, in spite of the bosom’s
being very white, or just because it was very white,
deprived Levin of the full use of his faculties. 
He imagined, probably mistakenly, that this low-necked
bodice had been made on his account, and felt that
he had no right to look at it, and tried not to look
at it; but he felt that he was to blame for the very
fact of the low-necked bodice having been made. 
It seemed to Levin that he had deceived someone, that
he ought to explain something, but that to explain
it was impossible, and for that reason he was continually
blushing, was ill at ease and awkward.  His awkwardness
infected the pretty sister-in-law too.  But their
hostess appeared not to observe this, and kept purposely
drawing her into the conversation.

“You say,” she said, pursuing
the subject that had been started, “that my
husband cannot be interested in what’s Russian. 
It’s quite the contrary; he is always in cheerful
spirits abroad, but not as he is here.  Here,
he feels in his proper place.  He has so much
to do, and he has the faculty of interesting himself
in everything.  Oh, you’ve not been to
see our school, have you?”

“I’ve seen it…. 
The little house covered with ivy, isn’t it?”

“Yes; that’s Nastia’s
work,” she said, indicating her sister.

“You teach in it yourself?”
asked Levin, trying to look above the open neck, but
feeling that wherever he looked in that direction
he should see it.

“Yes; I used to teach in it
myself, and do teach still, but we have a first-rate
schoolmistress now.  And we’ve started
gymnastic exercises.”

“No, thank you, I won’t
have any more tea,” said Levin, and conscious
of doing a rude thing, but incapable of continuing
the conversation, he got up, blushing.  “I
hear a very interesting conversation,” he added,
and walked to the other end of the table, where Sviazhsky
was sitting with the two gentlemen of the neighborhood. 
Sviazhsky was sitting sideways, with one elbow on
the table, and a cup in one hand, while with the other
hand he gathered up his beard, held it to his nose
and let it drop again, as though he were smelling
it.  His brilliant black eyes were looking straight
at the excited country gentleman with gray whiskers,
and apparently he derived amusement from his remarks. 
The gentleman was complaining of the peasants. 
It was evident to Levin that Sviazhsky knew an answer
to this gentleman’s complaints, which would
at once demolish his whole contention, but that in
his position he could not give utterance to this answer,
and listened, not without pleasure, to the landowner’s
comic speeches.

The gentleman with the gray whiskers
was obviously an inveterate adherent of serfdom and
a devoted agriculturist, who had lived all his life
in the country.  Levin saw proofs of this in his
dress, in the old-fashioned threadbare coat, obviously
not his everyday attire, in his shrewd, deep-set eyes,
in his idiomatic, fluent Russian, in the imperious
tone that had become habitual from long use, and in
the resolute gestures of his large, red, sunburnt
hands, with an old betrothal ring on the little finger.

 

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