When Vronsky went to Moscow from Petersburg, he had left his large set of rooms in Morskaia to his friend and favorite comrade Petritsky.
Petritsky was a young lieutenant, not particularly well-connected, and not merely not wealthy, but always hopelessly in debt. Towards evening he was always drunk, and he had often been locked up after all sorts of ludicrous and disgraceful scandals, but he was a favorite both of his comrades and his superior officers. On arriving at twelve o’clock from the station at his flat, Vronsky saw, at the outer door, a hired carriage familiar to him. While still outside his own door, as he rang, he heard masculine laughter, the lisp of a feminine voice, and Petritsky’s voice. “If that’s one of the villains, don’t let him in!” Vronsky told the servant not to announce him, and slipped quietly into the first room. Baroness Shilton, a friend of Petritsky’s, with a rosy little face and flaxen hair, resplendent in a lilac satin gown, and filling the whole room, like a canary, with her Parisian chatter, sat at the round table making coffee. Petritsky, in his overcoat, and the cavalry captain Kamerovsky, in full uniform, probably just come from duty, were sitting each side of her.
“Bravo! Vronsky!” shouted Petritsky, jumping up, scraping his chair. “Our host himself! Baroness, some coffee for him out of the new coffee pot. Why, we didn’t expect you! Hope you’re satisfied with the ornament of your study,” he said, indicating the baroness. “You know each other, of course?”
“I should think so,” said Vronsky, with a bright smile, pressing the baroness’s little hand. “What next! I’m an old friend.”
“You’re home after a journey,” said the baroness, “so I’m flying. Oh, I’ll be off this minute, if I’m in the way.”
“You’re home, wherever you are, baroness,” said Vronsky. “How do you do, Kamerovsky?” he added, coldly shaking hands with Kamerovsky.
“There, you never know how to say such pretty things,” said the baroness, turning to Petritsky.
“No; what’s that for? After dinner I say things quite as good.”
“After dinner there’s no credit in them? Well, then, I’ll make you some coffee, so go and wash and get ready,” said the baroness, sitting down again, and anxiously turning the screw in the new coffee pot. “Pierre, give me the coffee,” she said, addressing Petritsky, whom she called Pierre as a contraction of his surname, making no secret of her relations with him. “I’ll put it in.”
“You’ll spoil it!”
“No, I won’t spoil it! Well, and your wife?” said the baroness suddenly, interrupting Vronsky’s conversation with his comrade. “We’ve been marrying you here. Have you brought your wife?”
“No, baroness. I was born a Bohemian, and a Bohemian I shall die.”
“So much the better, so much the better. Shake hands on it.”
And the baroness, detaining Vronsky, began telling him, with many jokes, about her last new plans of life, asking his advice.
“He persists in refusing to give me a divorce! Well, what am I to do?” (He was her husband.) “Now I want to begin a suit against him. What do you advise? Kamerovsky, look after the coffee; it’s boiling over. You see, I’m engrossed with business! I want a lawsuit, because I must have my property. Do you understand the folly of it, that on the pretext of my being unfaithful to him,” she said contemptuously, “he wants to get the benefit of my fortune.”
Vronsky heard with pleasure this light-hearted prattle of a pretty woman, agreed with her, gave her half-joking counsel, and altogether dropped at once into the tone habitual to him in talking to such women. In his Petersburg world all people were divided into utterly opposed classes. One, the lower class, vulgar, stupid, and, above all, ridiculous people, who believe that one husband ought to live with the one wife whom he has lawfully married; that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, and a man manly, self-controlled, and strong; that one ought to bring up one’s children, earn one’s bread, and pay one’s debts; and various similar absurdities. This was the class of old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another class of people, the real people. To this class they all belonged, and in it the great thing was to be elegant, generous, plucky, gay, to abandon oneself without a blush to every passion, and to laugh at everything else.
For the first moment only, Vronsky was startled after the impression of a quite different world that he had brought with him from Moscow. But immediately as though slipping his feet into old slippers, he dropped back into the light-hearted, pleasant world he had always lived in.
The coffee was never really made, but spluttered over everyone, and boiled away, doing just what was required of it—that is, providing much cause for much noise and laughter, and spoiling a costly rug and the baroness’s gown.
“Well now, good-bye, or you’ll never get washed, and I shall have on my conscience the worst sin a gentleman can commit. So you would advise a knife to his throat?”
“To be sure, and manage that your hand may not be far from his lips. He’ll kiss your hand, and all will end satisfactorily,” answered Vronsky.
“So at the Français!” and, with a rustle of her skirts, she vanished.
Kamerovsky got up too, and Vronsky, not waiting for him to go, shook hands and went off to his dressing-room.
While he was washing, Petritsky described to him in brief outlines his position, as far as it had changed since Vronsky had left Petersburg. No money at all. His father said he wouldn’t give him any and pay his debts. His tailor was trying to get him locked up, and another fellow, too, was threatening to get him locked up. The colonel of the regiment had announced that if these scandals did not cease he would have to leave. As for the baroness, he was sick to death of her, especially since she’d taken to offering continually to lend him money. But he had found a girl—he’d show her to Vronsky—a marvel, exquisite, in the strict Oriental style, “genre of the slave Rebecca, don’t you know.” He’d had a row, too, with Berkoshov, and was going to send seconds to him, but of course it would come to nothing. Altogether everything was supremely amusing and jolly. And, not letting his comrade enter into further details of his position, Petritsky proceeded to tell him all the interesting news. As he listened to Petritsky’s familiar stories in the familiar setting of the rooms he had spent the last three years in, Vronsky felt a delightful sense of coming back to the careless Petersburg life that he was used to.
“Impossible!” he cried, letting down the pedal of the washing basin in which he had been sousing his healthy red neck. “Impossible!” he cried, at the news that Laura had flung over Fertinghof and had made up to Mileev. “And is he as stupid and pleased as ever? Well, and how’s Buzulukov?”
“Oh, there is a tale about Buzulukov—simply lovely!” cried Petritsky. “You know his weakness for balls, and he never misses a single court ball. He went to a big ball in a new helmet. Have you seen the new helmets? Very nice, lighter. Well, so he’s standing…. No, I say, do listen.”
“I am listening,” answered Vronsky, rubbing himself with a rough towel.
“Up comes the Grand Duchess with some ambassador or other, and, as ill-luck would have it, she begins talking to him about the new helmets. The Grand Duchess positively wanted to show the new helmet to the ambassador. They see our friend standing there.” (Petritsky mimicked how he was standing with the helmet.) “The Grand Duchess asked him to give her the helmet; he doesn’t give it to her. What do you think of that? Well, everyone’s winking at him, nodding, frowning—give it to her, do! He doesn’t give it to her. He’s mute as a fish. Only picture it!… Well, the … what’s his name, whatever he was … tries to take the helmet from him … he won’t give it up!… He pulls it from him, and hands it to the Grand Duchess. ‘Here, your Highness,’ says he, ‘is the new helmet.’ She turned the helmet the other side up, And—just picture it!—plop went a pear and sweetmeats out of it, two pounds of sweetmeats!… He’d been storing them up, the darling!”
Vronsky burst into roars of laughter. And long afterwards, when he was talking of other things, he broke out into his healthy laugh, showing his strong, close rows of teeth, when he thought of the helmet.
Having heard all the news, Vronsky, with the assistance of his valet, got into his uniform, and went off to report himself. He intended, when he had done that, to drive to his brother’s and to Betsy’s and to pay several visits with a view to beginning to go into that society where he might meet Madame Karenina. As he always did in Petersburg, he left home not meaning to return till late at night.