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CHAPTER XXIV. THE GENERAL'S HOUSEHOLD.
In spite of his ineffectual attempt at the prison, Nekhludoff, still in the same vigorous, energetic frame of mind, went to the Governor's office to see if the original of the document had arrived for Maslova. It had not arrived, so Nekhludoff went back to the hotel and wrote without delay to Selenin and the advocate about it. When he had finished writing he looked at his watch and saw it was time to go to the General's dinner party.
On the way he again began wondering how Katusha would receive the news of the mitigation of her sentence. Where she would be settled? How he should live with her? What about Simonson? What would his relations to her be? He remembered the change that had taken place in her, and this reminded him of her past. "I must forget it for the present," he thought, and again hastened to drive her out of his mind. "When the time comes I shall see," he said to himself, and began to think of what he ought to say to the General.
The dinner at the General's, with the luxury habitual to the lives of the wealthy and those of high rank, to which Nekhludoff had been accustomed, was extremely enjoyable after he had been so long deprived not only of luxury but even of the most ordinary comforts. The mistress of the house was a Petersburg grande dame of the old school, a maid of honour at the court of Nicholas I., who spoke French quite naturally and Russian very unnaturally. She held herself very erect and, moving her hands, she kept her elbows close to her waist. She was quietly and, somewhat sadly considerate for her husband, and extremely kind to all her visitors, though with a tinge of difference in her behaviour according to their position. She received Nekhludoff as if he were one of them, and her fine, almost imperceptible flattery made him once again aware of his virtues and gave him a feeling of satisfaction. She made him feel that she knew of that honest though rather singular step of his which had brought him to Siberia, and held him to be an exceptional man. This refined flattery and the elegance and luxury of the General's house had the effect of making Nekhludoff succumb to the enjoyment of the handsome surroundings, the delicate dishes and the case and pleasure of intercourse with educated people of his own class, so that the surroundings in the midst of which he had lived for the last months seemed a dream from which he had awakened to reality. Besides those of the household, the General's daughter and her husband and an aide-de-camp, there were an Englishman, a merchant interested in gold mines, and the governor of a distant Siberian town. All these people seemed pleasant to Nekhludoff. The Englishman, a healthy man with a rosy complexion, who spoke very bad French, but whose command of his own language was very good and oratorically impressive, who had seen a great deal, was very interesting to listen to when he spoke about America, India, Japan and Siberia.
The young merchant interested in the gold mines, the son of a peasant, whose evening dress was made in London, who had diamond studs to his shirt, possessed a fine library, contributed freely to philanthropic work, and held liberal European views, seemed pleasant to Nekhludoff as a sample of a quite new and good type of civilised European culture, grafted on a healthy, uncultivated peasant stem.
The governor of the distant Siberian town was that same man who had been so much talked about in Petersburg at the time Nekhludoff was there. He was plump, with thin, curly hair, soft blue eyes, carefully-tended white hands, with rings on the fingers, a pleasant smile, and very big in the lower part of his body. The master of the house valued this governor because of all the officials he was the only one who would not be bribed. The mistress of the house, who was very fond of music and a very good pianist herself, valued him because he was a good musician and played duets with her.
Nekhludoff was in such good humour that even this man was not unpleasant to him, in spite of what he knew of his vices. The bright, energetic aide-de-camp, with his bluey grey chin, who was continually offering his services, pleased Nekhludoff by his good nature. But it was the charming young couple, the General's daughter and her husband, who pleased Nekhludoff best. The daughter was a plain-looking, simple-minded young woman, wholly absorbed in her two children. Her husband, whom she had fallen in love with and married after a long struggle with her parents, was a Liberal, who had taken honours at the Moscow University, a modest and intellectual young man in Government service, who made up statistics and studied chiefly the foreign tribes, which he liked and tried to save from dying out.
All of them were not only kind and attentive to Nekhludoff, but evidently pleased to see him, as a new and interesting acquaintance. The General, who came in to dinner in uniform and with a white cross round his neck, greeted Nekhludoff as a friend, and asked the visitors to the side table to take a glass of vodka and something to whet their appetites. The General asked Nekhludoff what he had been doing since he left that morning, and Nekhludoff told him he had been to the post-office and received the news of the mitigation of that person's sentence that he had spoken of in the morning, and again asked for a permission to visit the prison.
The General, apparently displeased that business should be mentioned at dinner, frowned and said nothing.
"Have a glass of vodka" he said, addressing the Englishman, who had just come up to the table. The Englishman drank a glass, and said he had been to see the cathedral and the factory, but would like to visit the great transportation prison.
"Oh, that will just fit in," said the General to Nekhludoff. "You will he able to go together. Give them a pass," he added, turning to his aide-de-camp.
"When would you like to go?" Nekhludoff asked.
"I prefer visiting the prisons in the evening," the Englishman answered. "All are indoors and there is no preparation; you find them all as they are."
"Ah, he would like to see it in all its glory! Let him do so. I have written about it and no attention has been paid to it. Let him find out from foreign publications," the General said, and went up to the dinner table, where the mistress of the house was showing the visitors their places. Nekhludoff sat between his hostess and the Englishman. In front of him sat the General's daughter and the ex-director of the Government department in Petersburg. The conversation at dinner was carried on by fits and starts, now it was India that the Englishman talked about, now the Tonkin expedition that the General strongly disapproved of, now the universal bribery and corruption in Siberia. All these topics did not interest Nekhludoff much.
But after dinner, over their coffee, Nekhludoff and the Englishman began a very interesting conversation about Gladstone, and Nekhludoff thought he had said many clever things which were noticed by his interlocutor. And Nekhludoff felt it more and more pleasant to be sipping his coffee seated in an easy-chair among amiable, well-bred people. And when at the Englishman's request the hostess went up to the piano with the ex-director of the Government department, and they began to play in well-practised style Beethoven's fifth symphony, Nekhludoff fell into a mental state of perfect self-satisfaction to which he had long been a stranger, as though he had only just found out what a good fellow he was.
The grand piano was a splendid instrument, the symphony was well performed. At least, so it seemed to Nekhludoff, who knew and liked that symphony. Listening to the beautiful andante, he felt a tickling in his nose, he was so touched by his many virtues.
Nekhludoff thanked his hostess for the enjoyment that he had been deprived of for so long, and was about to say goodbye and go when the daughter of the house came up to him with a determined look and said, with a blush, "You asked about my children. Would you like to see them?"
"She thinks that everybody wants to see her children," said her mother, smiling at her daughter's winning tactlessness. "The Prince is not at all interested."
"On the contrary, I am very much interested," said Nekhludoff, touched by this overflowing, happy mother-love. "Please let me see them."
"She's taking the Prince to see her babies," the General shouted, laughing from the card-table, where he sat with his son-in-law, the mine owner and the aide-de-camp. "Go, go, pay your tribute."
The young woman, visibly excited by the thought that judgment was about to be passed on her children, went quickly towards the inner apartments, followed by Nekhludoff. In the third, a lofty room, papered with white and lit up by a shaded lamp, stood two small cots, and a nurse with a white cape on her shoulders sat between the cots. She had a kindly, true Siberian face, with its high cheek-bones.
The nurse rose and bowed. The mother stooped over the first cot, in which a two-year-old little girl lay peacefully sleeping with her little mouth open and her long, curly hair tumbled over the pillow.
"This is Katie," said the mother, straightening the white and blue crochet coverlet, from under which a little white foot pushed itself languidly out.
"Is she not pretty? She's only two years old, you know."
"And this is Vasiuk, as 'grandpapa' calls him. Quite a different type. A Siberian, is he not?"
"A splendid boy," said Nekhludoff, as he looked at the little fatty lying asleep on his stomach.
"Yes," said the mother, with a smile full of meaning.
Nekhludoff recalled to his mind chains, shaved heads, fighting debauchery, the dying Kryltzoff, Katusha and the whole of her past, and he began to feel envious and to wish for what he saw here, which now seemed to him pure and refined happiness.
After having repeatedly expressed his admiration of the children, thereby at least partially satisfying their mother, who eagerly drank in this praise, he followed her back to the drawing-room, where the Englishman was waiting for him to go and visit the prison, as they had arranged. Having taken leave of their hosts, the old and the young ones, the Englishman and Nekhludoff went out into the porch of the General's house.
The weather had changed. It was snowing, and the snow fell densely in large flakes, and already covered the road, the roof and the trees in the garden, the steps of the porch, the roof of the trap and the back of the horse.
The Englishman had a trap of his own, and Nekhludoff, having told the coachman to drive to the prison, called his isvostchik and got in with the heavy sense of having to fulfil an unpleasant duty, and followed the Englishman over the soft snow, through which the wheels turned with difficulty.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXV. MASLOVA'S DECISION.