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CHAPTER XXVI. THE HOUSE OF KORCHAGIN.
"Please to walk in, your excellency," said the friendly, fat doorkeeper of the Korchagins' big house, opening the door, which moved noiselessly on its patent English hinges; "you are expected. They are at dinner. My orders were to admit only you." The doorkeeper went as far as the staircase and rang.
"Are there any strangers?" asked Nekhludoff, taking off his overcoat.
"Mr. Kolosoff and Michael Sergeivitch only, besides the family."
A very handsome footman with whiskers, in a swallow-tail coat and white gloves, looked down from the landing.
Please to walk up, your excellency," he said. "You are expected."
Nekhludoff went up and passed through the splendid large dancing-room, which he knew so well, into the dining-room. There the whole Korchagin family - except the mother, Sophia Vasilievna, who never left her cabinet - were sitting round the table. At the head of the table sat old Korchagin; on his left the doctor, and on his right, a visitor, Ivan Ivanovitch Kolosoff, a former Marechal de Noblesse, now a bank director, Korchagin's friend and a Liberal. Next on the left side sat Miss Rayner, the governess of Missy's little sister, and the four-year-old girl herself. Opposite them, Missy's brother, Petia, the only son of the Korchagins, a public-school boy of the Sixth Class. It was because of his examinations that the whole family were still in town. Next to him sat a University student who was coaching him, and Missy's cousin, Michael Sergeivitch Telegin, generally called Misha; opposite him, Katerina Alexeevna, a 40-year-old maiden lady, a Slavophil; and at the foot of the table sat Missy herself, with an empty place by her side.
"Ah! that's right! Sit down. We are still at the fish," said old Korchagin with difficulty, chewing carefully with his false teeth, and lifting his bloodshot eyes (which had no visible lids to them) to Nekhludoff.
"Stephen!" he said, with his mouth full, addressing the stout, dignified butler, and pointing with his eyes to the empty place. Though Nekhludoff knew Korchagin very well, and had often seen him at dinner, to-day this red face with the sensual smacking lips, the fat neck above the napkin stuck into his waistcoat, and the whole over-fed military figure, struck him very disagreeably. Then Nekhludoff remembered, without wishing to, what he knew of the cruelty of this man, who, when in command, used to have men flogged, and even hanged, without rhyme or reason, simply because he was rich and had no need to curry favour.
"Immediately, your excellency," said Stephen, getting a large soup ladle out of the sideboard, which was decorated with a number of silver vases. He made a sign with his head to the handsome footman, who began at once to arrange the untouched knives and forks and the napkin, elaborately folded with the embroidered family crest uppermost, in front of the empty place next to Missy. Nekhludoff went round shaking hands with every one, and all, except old Korchagin and the ladies, rose when he approached. And this walk round the table, this shaking the hands of people, with many of whom he never talked, seemed unpleasant and odd. He excused himself for being late, and was about to sit down between Missy and Katerina Alexeevna, but old Korchagin insisted that if he would not take a glass of vodka he should at least take a bit of something to whet his appetite, at the side table, on which stood small dishes of lobster, caviare, cheese, and salt herrings. Nekhludoff did not know how hungry he was until he began to eat, and then, having taken some bread and cheese, he went on eating eagerly.
"Well, have you succeeded in undermining the basis of society?" asked Kolosoff, ironically quoting an expression used by a retrograde newspaper in attacking trial by jury. "Acquitted the culprits and condemned the innocent, have you?"
"Undermining the basis - undermining the basis," repeated Prince Korchagin, laughing. He had a firm faith in the wisdom and learning of his chosen friend and companion.
At the risk of seeming rude, Nekhludoff left Kolosoff's question unanswered, and sitting down to his steaming soup, went on eating.
"Do let him eat," said Missy, with a smile. The pronoun him she used as a reminder of her intimacy with Nekhludoff. Kolosoff went on in a loud voice and lively manner to give the contents of the article against trial by jury which had aroused his indignation. Missy's cousin, Michael Sergeivitch, endorsed all his statements, and related the contents of another article in the same paper. Missy was, as usual, very distinguee, and well, unobtrusively well, dressed.
"You must be terribly tired," she said, after waiting until Nekhludoff had swallowed what was in his mouth.
"Not particularly. And you? Have you been to look at the pictures?" he asked.
"No, we put that off. We have been playing tennis at the Salamatoffs'. It is quite true, Mr. Crooks plays remarkably well."
Nekhludoff had come here in order to distract his thoughts, for he used to like being in this house, both because its refined luxury had a pleasant effect on him and because of the atmosphere of tender flattery that unobtrusively surrounded him. But to-day everything in the house was repulsive to him - everything: beginning with the doorkeeper, the broad staircase, the flowers, the footman, the table decorations, up to Missy herself, who to-day seemed unattractive and affected. Kolosoff's self-assured, trivial tone of liberalism was unpleasant, as was also the sensual, self-satisfied, bull-like appearance of old Korchagin, and the French phrases of Katerina Alexeevna, the Slavophil. The constrained looks of the governess and the student were unpleasant, too, but most unpleasant of all was the pronoun HIM that Missy had used. Nekhludoff had long been wavering between two ways of regarding Missy; sometimes he looked at her as if by moonlight, and could see in her nothing but what was beautiful, fresh, pretty, clever and natural; then suddenly, as if the bright sun shone on her, he saw her defects and could not help seeing them. This was such a day for him. To-day he saw all the wrinkles of her face, knew which of her teeth were false, saw the way her hair was crimped, the sharpness of her elbows, and, above all, how large her thumb-nail was and how like her father's.
"Tennis is a dull game," said Kolosoff; "we used to play lapta when we were children. That was much more amusing."
"Oh, no, you never tried it; it's awfully interesting," said Missy, laying, it seemed to Nekhludoff, a very affected stress on the word "awfully." Then a dispute arose in which Michael Sergeivitch, Katerina Alexeevna and all the others took part, except the governess, the student and the children, who sat silent and wearied.
"Oh, these everlasting disputes!" said old Korchagin, laughing, and he pulled the napkin out of his waistcoat, noisily pushed back his chair, which the footman instantly ,caught hold of, and left the table.
Everybody rose after him, and went up to another table on which stood glasses of scented water. They rinsed their mouths, then resumed the conversation, interesting to no one.
"Don't you think so?" said Missy to Nekhludoff, calling for a confirmation of the statement that nothing shows up a man's character like a game. She noticed that preoccupied and, as it seemed to her, dissatisfied look which she feared, and she wanted to find out what had caused it.
"Really, I can't tell; I have never thought about it," Nekhludoff answered.
"Will you come to mamma?" asked Missy.
Yes, yes," he said, in a tone which plainly proved that he did not want to go, and took out a cigarette.
She looked at him in silence, with a questioning look, and he felt ashamed. "To come into a house and give the people the dumps," he thought about himself; then, trying to be amiable, said that he would go with pleasure if the princess would admit him.
"Oh, yes! Mamma will be pleased. You may smoke there; and Ivan Ivanovitch is also there."
The mistress of the house, Princess Sophia Vasilievna, was a recumbent lady. It was the eighth year that, when visitors were present, she lay in lace and ribbons, surrounded with velvet, gilding, ivory, bronze, lacquer and flowers, never going out, and only, as she put it, receiving intimate friends, i.e., those who according to her idea stood out from the common herd.
Nekhludoff was admitted into the number of these friends because he was considered clever, because his mother had been an intimate friend of the family, and because it was desirable that Missy should marry him.
Sophia Vasilievna's room lay beyond the large and the small drawing-rooms. In the large drawing-room, Missy, who was in front of Nekhludoff, stopped resolutely, and taking hold of the back of a small green chair, faced him.
Missy was very anxious to get married, and as he was a suitable match and she also liked him, she had accustomed herself to the thought that he should be hers (not she his). To lose him would be very mortifying. She now began talking to him in order to get him to explain his intentions.
"I see something has happened," she said. "Tell me, what is the matter with you?"
He remembered the meeting in the law court, and frowned and blushed.
"Yes, something has happened," he said, wishing to be truthful; "a very unusual and serious event."
"What is it, then? Can you not tell me what it is?" She was pursuing her aim with that unconscious yet obstinate cunning often observable in the mentally diseased.
"Not now. Please do not ask me to tell you. I have not yet had time fully to consider it," and he blushed still more.
"And so you will not tell me?" A muscle twitched in her face and she pushed back the chair she was holding. "Well then, come!" She shook her head as if to expel useless thoughts, and, faster than usual, went on in front of him.
He fancied that her mouth was unnaturally compressed in order to keep back the tears. He was ashamed of having hurt her, and yet he knew that the least weakness on his part would mean disaster, i.e., would bind him to her. And to-day he feared this more than anything, and silently followed her to the princess's cabinet.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXVII. MISSY'S MOTHER.