But at that very moment the princess came in. There was a look of horror on her face when she saw them alone, and their disturbed faces. Levin bowed to her, and said nothing. Kitty did not speak nor lift her eyes. “Thank God, she has refused him,” thought the mother, and her face lighted up with the habitual smile with which she greeted her guests on Thursdays. She sat down and began questioning Levin about his life in the country. He sat down again, waiting for other visitors to arrive, in order to retreat unnoticed.
Five minutes later there came in a friend of Kitty’s, married the preceding winter, Countess Nordston.
She was a thin, sallow, sickly, and nervous woman, with brilliant black eyes. She was fond of Kitty, and her affection for her showed itself, as the affection of married women for girls always does, in the desire to make a match for Kitty after her own ideal of married happiness; she wanted her to marry Vronsky. Levin she had often met at the Shtcherbatskys’ early in the winter, and she had always disliked him. Her invariable and favorite pursuit, when they met, consisted in making fun of him.
“I do like it when he looks down at me from the height of his grandeur, or breaks off his learned conversation with me because I’m a fool, or is condescending to me. I like that so; to see him condescending! I am so glad he can’t bear me,” she used to say of him.
She was right, for Levin actually could not bear her, and despised her for what she was proud of and regarded as a fine characteristic—her nervousness, her delicate contempt and indifference for everything coarse and earthly.
The Countess Nordston and Levin got into that relation with one another not seldom seen in society, when two persons, who remain externally on friendly terms, despise each other to such a degree that they cannot even take each other seriously, and cannot even be offended by each other.
The Countess Nordston pounced upon Levin at once.
“Ah, Konstantin Dmitrievitch! So you’ve come back to our corrupt Babylon,” she said, giving him her tiny, yellow hand, and recalling what he had chanced to say early in the winter, that Moscow was a Babylon. “Come, is Babylon reformed, or have you degenerated?” she added, glancing with a simper at Kitty.
“It’s very flattering for me, countess, that you remember my words so well,” responded Levin, who had succeeded in recovering his composure, and at once from habit dropped into his tone of joking hostility to the Countess Nordston. “They must certainly make a great impression on you.”
“Oh, I should think so! I always note them all down. Well, Kitty, have you been skating again?…”
And she began talking to Kitty. Awkward as it was for Levin to withdraw now, it would still have been easier for him to perpetrate this awkwardness than to remain all the evening and see Kitty, who glanced at him now and then and avoided his eyes. He was on the point of getting up, when the princess, noticing that he was silent, addressed him.
“Shall you be long in Moscow? You’re busy with the district council, though, aren’t you, and can’t be away for long?”
“No, princess, I’m no longer a member of the council,” he said. “I have come up for a few days.”
“There’s something the matter with him,” thought Countess Nordston, glancing at his stern, serious face. “He isn’t in his old argumentative mood. But I’ll draw him out. I do love making a fool of him before Kitty, and I’ll do it.”
“Konstantin Dmitrievitch,” she said to him, “do explain to me, please, what’s the meaning of it. You know all about such things. At home in our village of Kaluga all the peasants and all the women have drunk up all they possessed, and now they can’t pay us any rent. What’s the meaning of that? You always praise the peasants so.”
At that instant another lady came into the room, and Levin got up.
“Excuse me, countess, but I really know nothing about it, and can’t tell you anything,” he said, and looked round at the officer who came in behind the lady.
“That must be Vronsky,” thought Levin, and, to be sure of it, glanced at Kitty. She had already had time to look at Vronsky, and looked round at Levin. And simply from the look in her eyes, that grew unconsciously brighter, Levin knew that she loved that man, knew it as surely as if she had told him so in words. But what sort of a man was he? Now, whether for good or for ill, Levin could not choose but remain; he must find out what the man was like whom she loved.
There are people who, on meeting a successful rival, no matter in what, are at once disposed to turn their backs on everything good in him, and to see only what is bad. There are people, on the other hand, who desire above all to find in that lucky rival the qualities by which he has outstripped them, and seek with a throbbing ache at heart only what is good. Levin belonged to the second class. But he had no difficulty in finding what was good and attractive in Vronsky. It was apparent at the first glance. Vronsky was a squarely built, dark man, not very tall, with a good-humored, handsome, and exceedingly calm and resolute face. Everything about his face and figure, from his short-cropped black hair and freshly shaven chin down to his loosely fitting, brand-new uniform, was simple and at the same time elegant. Making way for the lady who had come in, Vronsky went up to the princess and then to Kitty.
As he approached her, his beautiful eyes shone with a specially tender light, and with a faint, happy, and modestly triumphant smile (so it seemed to Levin), bowing carefully and respectfully over her, he held out his small broad hand to her.
Greeting and saying a few words to everyone, he sat down without once glancing at Levin, who had never taken his eyes off him.
“Let me introduce you,” said the princess, indicating Levin. “Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin, Count Alexey Kirillovitch Vronsky.”
Vronsky got up and, looking cordially at Levin, shook hands with him.
“I believe I was to have dined with you this winter,” he said, smiling his simple and open smile; “but you had unexpectedly left for the country.”
“Konstantin Dmitrievitch despises and hates town and us townspeople,” said Countess Nordston.
“My words must make a deep impression on you, since you remember them so well,” said Levin, and, suddenly conscious that he had said just the same thing before, he reddened.
Vronsky looked at Levin and Countess Nordston, and smiled.
“Are you always in the country?” he inquired. “I should think it must be dull in the winter.”
“It’s not dull if one has work to do; besides, one’s not dull by oneself,” Levin replied abruptly.
“I am fond of the country,” said Vronsky, noticing, and affecting not to notice, Levin’s tone.
“But I hope, count, you would not consent to live in the country always,” said Countess Nordston.
“I don’t know; I have never tried for long. I experienced a queer feeling once,” he went on. “I never longed so for the country, Russian country, with bast shoes and peasants, as when I was spending a winter with my mother in Nice. Nice itself is dull enough, you know. And indeed, Naples and Sorrento are only pleasant for a short time. And it’s just there that Russia comes back to me most vividly, and especially the country. It’s as though….”
He talked on, addressing both Kitty and Levin, turning his serene, friendly eyes from one to the other, and saying obviously just what came into his head.
Noticing that Countess Nordston wanted to say something, he stopped short without finishing what he had begun, and listened attentively to her.
The conversation did not flag for an instant, so that the princess, who always kept in reserve, in case a subject should be lacking, two heavy guns—the relative advantages of classical and of modern education, and universal military service—had not to move out either of them, while Countess Nordston had not a chance of chaffing Levin.
Levin wanted to, and could not, take part in the general conversation; saying to himself every instant, “Now go,” he still did not go, as though waiting for something.
The conversation fell upon table-turning and spirits, and Countess Nordston, who believed in spiritualism, began to describe the marvels she had seen.
“Ah, countess, you really must take me, for pity’s sake do take me to see them! I have never seen anything extraordinary, though I am always on the lookout for it everywhere,” said Vronsky, smiling.
“Very well, next Saturday,” answered Countess Nordston. “But you, Konstantin Dmitrievitch, do you believe in it?” she asked Levin.
“Why do you ask me? You know what I shall say.”
“But I want to hear your opinion.”
“My opinion,” answered Levin, “is only that this table-turning simply proves that educated society—so called—is no higher than the peasants. They believe in the evil eye, and in witchcraft and omens, while we….”
“Oh, then you don’t believe in it?”
“I can’t believe in it, countess.”
“But if I’ve seen it myself?”
“The peasant women too tell us they have seen goblins.”
“Then you think I tell a lie?”
And she laughed a mirthless laugh.
“Oh, no, Masha, Konstantin Dmitrievitch said he could not believe in it,” said Kitty, blushing for Levin, and Levin saw this, and, still more exasperated, would have answered, but Vronsky with his bright frank smile rushed to the support of the conversation, which was threatening to become disagreeable.
“You do not admit the conceivability at all?” he queried. “But why not? We admit the existence of electricity, of which we know nothing. Why should there not be some new force, still unknown to us, which….”
“When electricity was discovered,” Levin interrupted hurriedly, “it was only the phenomenon that was discovered, and it was unknown from what it proceeded and what were its effects, and ages passed before its applications were conceived. But the spiritualists have begun with tables writing for them, and spirits appearing to them, and have only later started saying that it is an unknown force.”
Vronsky listened attentively to Levin, as he always did listen, obviously interested in his words.
“Yes, but the spiritualists say we don’t know at present what this force is, but there is a force, and these are the conditions in which it acts. Let the scientific men find out what the force consists in. No, I don’t see why there should not be a new force, if it….”
“Why, because with electricity,” Levin interrupted again, “every time you rub tar against wool, a recognized phenomenon is manifested, but in this case it does not happen every time, and so it follows it is not a natural phenomenon.”
Feeling probably that the conversation was taking a tone too serious for a drawing-room, Vronsky made no rejoinder, but by way of trying to change the conversation, he smiled brightly, and turned to the ladies.
“Do let us try at once, countess,” he said; but Levin would finish saying what he thought.
“I think,” he went on, “that this attempt of the spiritualists to explain their marvels as some sort of new natural force is most futile. They boldly talk of spiritual force, and then try to subject it to material experiment.”
Everyone was waiting for him to finish, and he felt it.
“And I think you would be a first-rate medium,” said Countess Nordston; “there’s something enthusiastic in you.”
Levin opened his mouth, was about to say something, reddened, and said nothing.
“Do let us try table-turning at once, please,” said Vronsky. “Princess, will you allow it?”
And Vronsky stood up, looking for a little table.
Kitty got up to fetch a table, and as she passed, her eyes met Levin’s. She felt for him with her whole heart, the more because she was pitying him for suffering of which she was herself the cause. “If you can forgive me, forgive me,” said her eyes, “I am so happy.”
“I hate them all, and you, and myself,” his eyes responded, and he took up his hat. But he was not destined to escape. Just as they were arranging themselves round the table, and Levin was on the point of retiring, the old prince came in, and after greeting the ladies, addressed Levin.
“Ah!” he began joyously. “Been here long, my boy? I didn’t even know you were in town. Very glad to see you.” The old prince embraced Levin, and talking to him did not observe Vronsky, who had risen, and was serenely waiting till the prince should turn to him.
Kitty felt how distasteful her father’s warmth was to Levin after what had happened. She saw, too, how coldly her father responded at last to Vronsky’s bow, and how Vronsky looked with amiable perplexity at her father, as though trying and failing to understand how and why anyone could be hostilely disposed towards him, and she flushed.
“Prince, let us have Konstantin Dmitrievitch,” said Countess Nordston; “we want to try an experiment.”
“What experiment? Table-turning? Well, you must excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but to my mind it is better fun to play the ring game,” said the old prince, looking at Vronsky, and guessing that it had been his suggestion. “There’s some sense in that, anyway.”
Vronsky looked wonderingly at the prince with his resolute eyes, and, with a faint smile, began immediately talking to Countess Nordston of the great ball that was to come off next week.
“I hope you will be there?” he said to Kitty. As soon as the old prince turned away from him, Levin went out unnoticed, and the last impression he carried away with him of that evening was the smiling, happy face of Kitty answering Vronsky’s inquiry about the ball.