Youth, by Leo Tolstoy

XXIII

The Nechludoffs

From the first, the member of this company who struck me the most was Lubov Sergievna, who, holding a lapdog in her arms and wearing stout laced boots, was the last of the four ladies to ascend the staircase, and twice stopped to gaze at me intently and then kiss her little dog. She was anything but good-looking, since she was red-haired, thin, short, and slightly crooked. What made her plain face all the plainer was the queer way in which her hair was parted to one side (it looked like the wigs which bald women contrive for themselves). However much I should have liked to applaud my friend, I could not find a single comely feature in her. Even her brown eyes, though expressive of good- humour, were small and dull — were, in fact, anything but pretty; while her hands (those most characteristic of features), were though neither large nor ill-shaped, coarse and red.

As soon as we reached the verandah, each of the ladies, except Dimitri’s sister Varenika — who also had been regarding me attentively out of her large, dark-grey eyes — said a few words to me before resuming her occupation, while Varenika herself began to read aloud from a book which she held on her lap and steadied with her finger.

The Princess Maria Ivanovna was a tall, well-built woman of forty. To judge by the curls of half-grey hair which descended below her cap one might have taken her for more, but as soon as ever one observed the fresh, extraordinarily tender, and almost wrinkleless face, as well as, most of all, the lively, cheerful sparkle of the large eyes, one involuntarily took her for less. Her eyes were black and very frank, her lips thin and slightly severe, her nose regular and slightly inclined to the left, and her hands ringless, large, and almost like those of a man, but with finely tapering fingers. She wore a dark-blue dress fastened to the throat and sitting closely to her firm, still youthful waist — a waist which she evidently pinched. Lastly, she held herself very upright, and was knitting a garment of some kind. As soon as I stepped on to the verandah she took me by the hand, drew me to her as though wishing to scrutinise me more closely, and said, as she gazed at me with the same cold, candid glance as her son’s, that she had long known me by report from Dimitri, and that therefore, in order to make my acquaintance thoroughly, she had invited me to stay these twenty-four hours in her house.

“Do just as you please here,” she said, “and stand on no ceremony whatever with us, even as we shall stand on none with you. Pray walk, read, listen, or sleep as the mood may take you.”

Sophia Ivanovna was an old maid and the Princess’s younger sister, though she looked the elder of the two. She had that exceedingly overstuffed appearance which old maids always present who are short of stature but wear corsets. It seemed as though her healthiness had shifted upwards to the point of choking her, her short, fat hands would not meet below her projecting bust, and the line of her waist was scarcely visible at all.

Notwithstanding that the Princess Maria Ivanovna had black hair and eyes, while Sophia Ivanovna had white hair and large, vivacious, tranquilly blue eyes (a rare combination), there was a great likeness between the two sisters, for they had the same expression, nose, and lips. The only difference was that Sophia’s nose and lips were a trifle coarser than Maria’s, and that, when she smiled, those features inclined towards the right, whereas Maria’s inclined towards the left. Sophia, to judge by her dress and coiffure, was still youthful at heart, and would never have displayed grey curls, even if she had possessed them. Yet at first her glance and bearing towards me seemed very proud, and made me nervous, whereas I at once felt at home with the Princess. Perhaps it was only Sophia’s stoutness and a certain resemblance to portraits of Catherine the Great that gave her, in my eyes, a haughty aspect, but at all events I felt quite intimidated when she looked at me intently and said, “Friends of our friends are our friends also.” I became reassured and changed my opinion about her only when, after saying those words, she opened her mouth and sighed deeply. It may be that she owed her habit of sighing after every few words — with a great distention of the mouth and a slight drooping of her large blue eyes — to her stoutness, yet it was none the less one which expressed so much good-humour that I at once lost all fear of her, and found her actually attractive. Her eyes were charming, her voice pleasant and musical, and even the flowing lines of her fullness seemed to my youthful vision not wholly lacking in beauty.

I had imagined that Lubov Sergievna, as my friend’s friend, would at once say something friendly and familiar to me; yet, after gazing at me fixedly for a while, as though in doubt whether the remark she was about to make to me would not be too friendly, she at length asked me what faculty I was in. After that she stared at me as before, in evident hesitation as to whether or not to say something civil and familiar, until, remarking her perplexity, I besought her with a look to speak freely. Yet all she then said was, “They tell me the Universities pay very little attention to science now,” and turned away to call her little dog.

All that evening she spoke only in disjointed fragments of this kind — fragments which had no connection either with the point or with one another; yet I had such faith in Dimitri, and he so often kept looking from her to me with an expression which mutely asked me, “Now, what do you think of that?” that, though I entirely failed to persuade myself that in Lubov Sergievna there was anything to speak of, I could not bear to express the thought, even to myself.

As for the last member of the family, Varenika, she was a well- developed girl of sixteen. The only good features in her were a pair of dark-grey eyes — which, in their expression of gaiety mingled with quiet attention, greatly resembled those of her aunt — a long coil of flaxen hair, and extremely delicate, beautiful hands.

“I expect, Monsieur Nicolas, you find it wearisome to hear a story begun from the middle?” said Sophia Ivanovna with her good- natured sigh as she turned over some pieces of clothing which she was sewing. The reading aloud had ceased for the moment because Dimitri had left the room on some errand or another.

“Or perhaps you have read Rob Roy before?” she added.

At that period I thought it incumbent upon me, in virtue of my student’s uniform, to reply in a very “clever and original” manner to every question put to me by people whom I did not know very well, and regarded such short, clear answers as “Yes,” “No,” “I like it,” or “I do not care for it,” as things to be ashamed of. Accordingly, looking down at my new and fashionably-cut trousers and the glittering buttons of my tunic, I replied that I had never read Rob Roy, but that it interested me greatly to hear it, since I preferred to read books from the middle rather than from the beginning.

“It is twice as interesting,” I added with a self-satisfied smirk; “for then one can guess what has gone before as well as what is to come after.”

The Princess smiled what I thought was a forced smile, but one which I discovered later to be her only one.

“Well, perhaps that is true,” she said. “But tell me, Nicolas (you will not be offended if I drop the Monsieur)— tell me, are you going to be in town long? When do you go away?”

“I do not know quite. Perhaps to-morrow, or perhaps not for some while yet,” I replied for some reason or another, though I knew perfectly well that in reality we were to go to-morrow.

“I wish you could stop longer, both for your own sake and for Dimitri’s,” she said in a meditative manner. “At your age friendship is a weak thing.”

I felt that every one was looking at me, and waiting to see what I should say — though certainly Varenika made a pretence of looking at her aunt’s work. I felt, in fact, as though I were being put through an examination, and that it behoved me to figure in it as well as possible.

“Yes, to ME Dimitri’s friendship is most useful,” I replied, “but to HIM mine cannot be of any use at all, since he is a thousand times better than I.” (Dimitri could not hear what I said, or I should have feared his detecting the insincerity of my words.)

Again the Princess smiled her unnatural, yet characteristically natural, smile.

“Just listen to him!” she said. “But it is YOU who are the little monster of perfection.”

“‘Monster of perfection,’” I thought to myself. “That is splendid. I must make a note of it.”

“Yet, to dismiss yourself, he has been extraordinarily clever in that quarter,” she went on in a lower tone (which pleased me somehow) as she indicated Lubov Sergievna with her eyes, “since he has discovered in our poor little Auntie” (such was the pet name which they gave Lubov) “all sorts of perfections which I, who have known her and her little dog for twenty years, had never yet suspected. “Varenika, go and tell them to bring me a glass of water,” she added, letting her eyes wander again. Probably she had bethought her that it was too soon, or not entirely necessary, to let me into all the family secrets. “Yet no — let HIM go, for he has nothing to do, while you are reading. Pray go to the door, my friend,” she said to me, “and walk about fifteen steps down the passage. Then halt and call out pretty loudly, “Peter, bring Maria Ivanovna a glass of iced water”— and she smiled her curious smile once more.

“I expect she wants to say something about me in my absence,” I thought to myself as I left the room. “I expect she wants to remark that she can see very clearly that I am a very, very clever young man.”

Hardly had I taken a dozen steps when I was overtaken by Sophia Ivanovna, who, though fat and short of breath, trod with surprising lightness and agility.

“Merci, mon cher,” she said. “I will go and tell them myself.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05