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CHAPTER LVII. THE VICE-GOVERNOR'S 'AT-HOME'.
The next day Nekhludoff went to see the advocate, and spoke to him about the Menshoffs' case, begging him to undertake their defence. The advocate promised to look into the case, and if it turned out to be as Nekhludoff said he would in all probability undertake the defence free of charge. Then Nekhludoff told him of the 130 men who were kept in prison owing to a mistake. "On whom did it depend? Whose fault was it?"
The advocate was silent for a moment, evidently anxious to give a correct reply.
"Whose fault is it? No one's," he said, decidedly. "Ask the Procureur, he'll say it is the Governor's; ask the Governor, he'll say it is the Procureur's fault. No one is in fault."
"I am just going to see the Vice-Governor. I shall tell him."
"Oh, that's quite useless," said the advocate, with a smile. "He is such a - he is not a relation or friend of yours? - such a blockhead, if I may say so, and yet a crafty animal at the same time."
Nekhludoff remembered what Maslennikoff had said about the advocate, and did not answer, but took leave and went on to Maslennikoff's. He had to ask Maslennikoff two things: about Maslova's removal to the prison hospital, and about the 130 passportless men innocently imprisoned. Though it was very hard to petition a man whom he did not respect, and by whose orders men were flogged, yet it was the only means of gaining his end, and he had to go through with it.
As he drove up to Maslennikoff's house Nekhludoff saw a number of different carriages by the front door, and remembered that it was Maslennikoff's wife's "at-home" day, to which he had been invited. At the moment Nekhludoff drove up there was a carriage in front of the door, and a footman in livery, with a cockade in his hat, was helping a lady down the doorstep. She was holding up her train, and showing her thin ankles, black stockings, and slippered feet. Among the carriages was a closed landau, which he knew to be the Korchagins'.
The grey-haired, red-checked coachman took off his hat and bowed in a respectful yet friendly manner to Nekhludoff, as to a gentleman he knew well. Nekhludoff had not had time to inquire for Maslennikoff, when the latter appeared on the carpeted stairs, accompanying a very important guest not only to the first landing but to the bottom of the stairs. This very important visitor, a military man, was speaking in French about a lottery for the benefit of children's homes that were to be founded in the city, and expressed the opinion that this was a good occupation for the ladies. "It amuses them, and the money comes."
"Qu'elles s'amusent et que le bon dieu les benisse. M. Nekhludoff! How d'you do? How is it one never sees you?" he greeted Nekhludoff. "Allez presenter vos devoirs a Madame. And the Korchagins are here et Nadine Bukshevden. Toutes les jolies femmes de la ville," said the important guest, slightly raising his uniformed shoulders as he presented them to his own richly liveried servant to have his military overcoat put on. "Au revoir, mon cher." And he pressed Maslennikoff's hand.
"Now, come up; I am so glad," said Maslennikoff, grasping Nekhludoff's hand. In spite of his corpulency Maslennikoff hurried quickly up the stairs. He was in particularly good spirits, owing to the attention paid him by the important personage. Every such attention gave him the same sense of delight as is felt by an affectionate dog when its master pats it, strokes it, or scratches its ears. It wags its tail, cringes, jumps about, presses its ears down, and madly rushes about in a circle. Maslennikoff was ready to do the same. He did not notice the serious expression on Nekhludoff's face, paid no heed to his words, but pulled him irresistibly towards the drawing-room, so that it was impossible for Nekhludoff not to follow. "Business after wards. I shall do whatever you want," said Meslennikoff, as he drew Nekhludoff through the dancing hall. "Announce Prince Nekhludoff," he said to a footman, without stopping on his way. The footman started off at a trot and passed them.
"Vous n'avez qu' a ordonner. But you must see my wife. As it is, I got it for letting you go without seeing her last time."
By the time they reached the drawing-room the footman had already announced Nekhludoff, and from between the bonnets and heads that surrounded it the smiling face of Anna Ignatievna, the Vice-Governor's wife, beamed on Nekhludoff. At the other end of the drawing-room several ladies were seated round the tea-table, and some military men and some civilians stood near them. The clatter of male and female voices went on unceasingly.
"Enfin! you seem to have quite forgotten us. How have we offended?" With these words, intended to convey an idea of intimacy which had never existed between herself and Nekhludoff, Anna Ignatievna greeted the newcomer.
"You are acquainted? - Madam Tilyaevsky, M. Chernoff. Sit down a bit nearer. Missy vene donc a notre table on vous apportera votre the . . . And you," she said, having evidently forgotten his name, to an officer who was talking to Missy, "do come here. A cup of tea, Prince?"
"I shall never, never agree with you. It's quite simple; she did not love," a woman's voice was heard saying.
"But she loved tarts."
"Oh, your eternal silly jokes!" put in, laughingly, another lady resplendent in silks, gold, and jewels.
"C'est excellent these little biscuits, and so light. I think I'll take another."
"Well, are you moving soon?"
"Yes, this is our last day. That's why we have come. Yes, it must be lovely in the country; we are having a delightful spring."
Missy, with her hat on, in a dark-striped dress of some kind that fitted her like a skin, was looking very handsome. She blushed when she saw Nekhludoff.
"And I thought you had left," she said to him.
"I am on the point of leaving. Business is keeping me in town, and it is on business I have come here."
"Won't you come to see mamma? She would like to see you," she said, and knowing that she was saying what was not true, and that he knew it also, she blushed still more.
"I fear I shall scarcely have time," Nekhludoff said gloomily, trying to appear as if he had not noticed her blush. Missy frowned angrily, shrugged her shoulders, and turned towards an elegant officer, who grasped the empty cup she was holding, and knocking his sword against the chairs, manfully carried the cup across to another table.
"You must contribute towards the Home fund."
"I am not refusing, but only wish to keep my bounty fresh for the lottery. There I shall let it appear in all its glory."
"Well, look out for yourself," said a voice, followed by an evidently feigned laugh.
Anna Ignatievna was in raptures; her "at-home" had turned out a brilliant success. "Micky tells me you are busying yourself with prison work. I can understand you so well," she said to Nekhludoff. "Micky (she meant her fat husband, Maslennikoff) may have other defects, but you know how kind-hearted he is. All these miserable prisoners are his children. He does not regard them in any other light. II est d'une bonte - -" and she stopped, finding no words to do justice to this bonte of his, and quickly turned to a shrivelled old woman with bows of lilac ribbon all over, who came in just then.
Having said as much as was absolutely necessary, and with as little meaning as conventionality required, Nekhludoff rose and went up to Meslennikoff. "Can you give me a few minutes' hearing, please?"
"Oh, yes. Well, what is it?"
"Let us come in here."
They entered a small Japanese sitting-room, and sat down by the window.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER LVIII. THE VICE-GOVERNOR SUSPICIOUS.