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CHAPTER XIV. AN ARISTOCRATIC CIRCLE.
Nekhludoff had four matters to attend to in Petersburg. The first was the appeal to the Senate in Maslova's case; the second, to hand in Theodosia Birukoff's petition to the committee; the third, to comply with Vera Doukhova's requests - i.e., try to get her friend Shoustova released from prison, and get permission for a mother to visit her son in prison. Vera Doukhova had written to him about this, and he was going to the Gendarmerie Office to attend to these two matters, which he counted as one.
The fourth matter he meant to attend to was the case of some sectarians who had been separated from their families and exiled to the Caucasus because they read and discussed the Gospels. It was not so much to them as to himself he had promised to do all he could to clear up this affair.
Since his last visit to Maslennikoff, and especially since he had been in the country, Nekhludoff had not exactly formed a resolution but felt with his whole nature a loathing for that society in which he had lived till then, that society which so carefully hides the sufferings of millions in order to assure ease and pleasure to a small number of people, that the people belonging to this society do not and cannot see these sufferings, nor the cruelty and wickedness of their life. Nekhludoff could no longer move in this society without feeling ill at ease and reproaching himself. And yet all the ties of relationship and friendship, and his own habits, were drawing him back into this society. Besides, that which alone interested him now, his desire to help Maslova and the other sufferers, made it necessary to ask for help and service from persons belonging to that society, persons whom he not only could not respect, but who often aroused in him indignation and a feeling of contempt.
When he came to Petersburg and stopped at his aunt's - his mother's sister, the Countess Tcharsky, wife of a former minister - Nekhludoff at once found himself in the very midst of that aristocratic circle which had grown so foreign to him. This was very unpleasant, but there was no possibility of getting out of it. To put up at an hotel instead of at his aunt's house would have been to offend his aunt, and, besides, his aunt had important connections and might be extremely useful in all these matters he meant to attend to.
"What is this I hear about you? All sorts of marvels," said the Countess Katerina Ivanovna Tcharsky, as she gave him his coffee immediately after his arrival. "Vous posez pour un Howard. Helping criminals, going the round of prisons, setting things right."
"Oh, no. I never thought of it."
"Why not? It is a good thing, only there seems to be some romantic story connected with it. Let us hear all about it."
Nekhludoff told her the whole truth about his relations to Maslova.
"Yes, yes, I remember your poor mother telling me about it. That was when you were staying with those old women. I believe they wished to marry you to their ward (the Countess Katerina Ivanovna had always despised Nekhludoff's aunts on his father's side). So it's she. Elle est encore jolie?"
Katerina Ivanovna was a strong, bright, energetic, talkative woman of 60. She was tall and very stout, and had a decided black moustache on her lip. Nekhludoff was fond of her and had even as a child been infected by her energy and mirth.
"No, ma tante, that's at an end. I only wish to help her, because she is innocently accused. "I am the cause of it and the cause of her fate being what it is. I feel it my duty to do all I can for her."
"But what is this I have heard about your intention of marrying her?"
"Yes, it was my intention, but she does not wish it."
Katerina Ivanovna looked at her nephew with raised brows and drooping eyeballs, in silent amazement. Suddenly her face changed, and with a look of pleasure she said: "Well, she is wiser than you. Dear me, you are a fool. And you would have married her?
"After her having been what she was?"
"All the more, since I was the cause of it."
"Well, you are a simpleton," said his aunt, repressing a smile, "a terrible simpleton; but it is just because you are such a terrible simpleton that I love you." She repeated the word, evidently liking it, as it seemed to correctly convey to her mind the idea of her nephew's moral state. "Do you know - What a lucky chance. Aline has a wonderful home - the Magdalene Home. I went there once. They are terribly disgusting. After that I had to pray continually. But Aline is devoted to it, body and soul, so we shall place her there - yours, I mean."
"But she is condemned to Siberia. I have come on purpose to appeal about it. This is one of my requests to you."
"Dear me, and where do you appeal to in this case?"
"To the Senate."
"Ah, the Senate! Yes, my dear Cousin Leo is in the Senate, but he is in the heraldry department, and I don't know any of the real ones. They are all some kind of Germans - Gay, Fay, Day - tout l'alphabet, or else all sorts of Ivanoffs, Simenoffs, Nikitines, or else Ivanenkos, Simonenkos, Nikitenkos, pour varier. Des gens de l'autre monde. Well, it is all the same. I'll tell my husband, he knows them. He knows all sorts of people. I'll tell him, but you will have to explain, he never understands me. Whatever I may say, he always maintains he does not understand it. C'est un parti pris, every one understands but only not he."
At this moment a footman with stockinged legs came in with a note on a silver platter.
"There now, from Aline herself. You'll have a chance of hearing Kiesewetter."
"Who is Kiesewetter?"
"Kiesewetter? Come this evening, and you will find out who he is. He speaks in such a way that the most hardened criminals sink on their knees and weep and repent."
The Countess Katerina Ivanovna, however strange it may seem, and however little it seemed in keeping with the rest of her character, was a staunch adherent to that teaching which holds that the essence of Christianity lies in the belief in redemption. She went to meetings where this teaching, then in fashion, was being preached, and assembled the "faithful" in her own house. Though this teaching repudiated all ceremonies, icons, and sacraments, Katerina Ivanovna had icons in every room, and one on the wall above her bed, and she kept all that the Church prescribed without noticing any contradiction in that.
"There now; if your Magdalene could hear him she would be converted," said the Countess. "Do stay at home to-night; you will hear him. He is a wonderful man."
"It does not interest me, ma tante."
"But I tell you that it is interesting, and you must come home. Now you may go. What else do you want of me? Videz votre sac."
"The next is in the fortress."
"In the fortress? I can give you a note for that to the Baron Kriegsmuth. Cest un tres brave homme. Oh, but you know him; he was a comrade of your father's. Il donne dans le spiritisme. But that does not matter, he is a good fellow. What do you want there?"
"I want to get leave for a mother to visit her son who is imprisoned there. But I was told that this did not depend on Kriegsmuth but on Tcherviansky."
"I do not like Tcherviansky, but he is Mariette's husband; we might ask her. She will do it for me. Elle est tres gentille."
"I have also to petition for a woman who is imprisoned there without knowing what for."
"No fear; she knows well enough. They all know it very well, and it serves them right, those short-haired [many advanced women wear their hair short, like men] ones."
"We do not know whether it serves them right or not. But they suffer. You are a Christian and believe in the Gospel teaching and yet you are so pitiless."
"That has nothing to do with it. The Gospels are the Gospels, but what is disgusting remains disgusting. It would be worse if I pretended to love Nihilists, especially short-haired women Nihilists, when I cannot bear them."
"Why can you not bear them?"
"You ask why, after the 1st of March?" [The Emperor Alexander II was killed on the first of March, old style.]
"They did not all take part in it on the 1st of March."
"Never mind; they should not meddle with what is no business of theirs. It's not women's business."
"Yet you consider that Mariette may take part in business."
"Mariette? Mariette is Mariette, and these are goodness knows what. Want to teach everybody."
"Not to teach but simply to help the people."
"One knows whom to help and whom not to help without them."
"But the peasants are in great need. I have just returned from the country. Is it necessary, that the peasants should work to the very limits of their strength and never have sufficient to eat while we are living in the greatest luxury?" said Nekhludoff, involuntarily led on by his aunt's good nature into telling her what he was in his thoughts.
"What do you want, then? That I should work and not eat anything?"
"No, I do not wish you not to eat. I only wish that we should all work and all eat." He could not help smiling as he said it.
Again raising her brow and drooping her eyeballs his aunt look at him curiously. "Mon cher vous finirez mal," she said.
Just then the general, and former minister, Countess Tcharsky's husband, a tall, broad-shouldered man, came into the room.
"Ah, Dmitri, how d'you do?" he said, turning his freshly-shaved cheek to Nekhludoff to be kissed. "When did you get here?" And he silently kissed his wife on the forehead.
"Non il est impayable," the Countess said, turning to her husband. "He wants me to go and wash clothes and live on potatoes. He is an awful fool, but all the same do what he is going to ask of you. A terrible simpleton," she added. "Have you heard? Kamenskaya is in such despair that they fear for her life," she said to her husband. "You should go and call there."
"Yes; it is dreadful," said her husband.
"Go along, then, and talk to him. I must write some letters."
Hardly had Nekhludoff stepped into the room next the drawing-room than she called him back.
"Shall I write to Mariette, then?"
"Please, ma tante."
"I shall leave a blank for what you want to say about the short-haired one, and she will give her husband his orders, and he'll do it. Do not think me wicked; they are all so disgusting, your prologues, but je ne leur veux pas de mal, bother them. Well, go, but be sure to stay at home this evening to hear Kiesewetter, and we shall have some prayers. And if only you do not resist cela vous fera beaucoup de bien. I know your poor mother and all of you were always very backward in these things."
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XV. AN AVERAGE STATESMAN.