Youth, by Leo Tolstoy

XXV

I Become Better Acquainted with the Nechludoffs

WHEN I returned to the verandah, I found that they were not talking of me at all, as I had anticipated. On the contrary, Varenika had laid aside the book, and was engaged in a heated dispute with Dimitri, who, for his part, was walking up and down the verandah, and frowningly adjusting his neck in his collar as he did so. The subject of the quarrel seemed to be Ivan Yakovlevitch and superstition, but it was too animated a difference for its underlying cause not to be something which concerned the family much more nearly. Although the Princess and Lubov Sergievna were sitting by in silence, they were following every word, and evidently tempted at times to take part in the dispute; yet always, just when they were about to speak, they checked themselves, and left the field clear for the two principles, Dimitri and Varenika. On my entry, the latter glanced at me with such an indifferent air that I could see she was wholly absorbed in the quarrel and did not care whether she spoke in my presence or not. The Princess too looked the same, and was clearly on Varenika’s side, while Dimitri began, if anything, to raise his voice still more when I appeared, and Lubov Sergievna, for her part, observed to no one in particular: “Old people are quite right when they say, ‘Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.’”

Nevertheless this quotation did not check the dispute, though it somehow gave me the impression that the side represented by the speaker and her friend was in the wrong. Although it was a little awkward for me to be present at a petty family difference, the fact that the true relations of the family revealed themselves during its progress, and that my presence did nothing to hinder that revelation, afforded me considerable gratification.

How often it happens that for years one sees a family cover themselves over with a conventional cloak of decorum, and preserve the real relations of its members a secret from every eye! How often, too, have I remarked that, the more impenetrable (and therefore the more decorous) is the cloak, the harsher are the relations which it conceals! Yet, once let some unexpected question — often a most trivial one (the colour of a woman’s hair, a visit, a man’s horses, and so forth)— arise in that family circle, and without any visible cause there will also arise an ever-growing difference, until in time the cloak of decorum becomes unequal to confining the quarrel within due bounds, and, to the dismay of the disputants and the astonishment of the auditors, the real and ill-adjusted relations of the family are laid bare, and the cloak, now useless for concealment, is bandied from hand to hand among the contending factions until it serves only to remind one of the years during which it successfully deceived one’s perceptions. Sometimes to strike one’s head violently against a ceiling hurts one less than just to graze some spot which has been hurt and bruised before: and in almost every family there exists some such raw and tender spot. In the Nechludoff family that spot was Dimitri’s extraordinary affection for Lubov Sergievna, which aroused in the mother and sister, if not a jealous feeling, at all events a sense of hurt family pride. This was the grave significance which underlay, for all those present, the seeming dispute about Ivan Yakovlevitch and superstition.

“In anything that other people deride and despise you invariably profess to see something extraordinarily good!” Varenika was saying in her clear voice, as she articulated each syllable with careful precision.

“Indeed?” retorted Dimitri with an impatient toss of his head. “Now, in the first place, only a most unthinking person could ever speak of DESPISING such a remarkable man as Ivan Yakovlevitch, while, in the second place, it is YOU who invariably profess to see nothing good in what confronts you.”

Meanwhile Sophia Ivanovna kept looking anxiously at us as she turned first to her nephew, and then to her niece, and then to myself. Twice she opened her mouth as though to say what was in her mind and drew a deep sigh.

“Varia, PLEASE go on reading,” she said at length, at the same time handing her niece the book, and patting her hand kindly. “I wish to know whether he ever found HER again “ (as a matter of fact, the novel in question contained not a word about any one finding any one else). “And, Mitia dear,” she added to her nephew, despite the glum looks which he was throwing at her for having interrupted the logical thread of his deductions, “you had better let me poultice your cheek, or your teeth will begin to ache again.”

After that the reading was resumed. Yet the quarrel had in no way dispelled the calm atmosphere of family and intellectual harmony which enveloped this circle of ladies.

Clearly deriving its inspiration and character from the Princess Maria Ivanovna, it was a circle which, for me, had a wholly novel and attractive character of logicalness mingled with simplicity and refinement. That character I could discern in the daintiness, good taste, and solidity of everything about me, whether the handbell, the binding of the book, the settee, or the table. Likewise, I divined it in the upright, well-corseted pose of the Princess, in her pendant curls of grey hair, in the manner in which she had, at our first introduction, called me plain “Nicolas” and “he,” in the occupations of the ladies (the reading and the sewing of garments), and in the unusual whiteness of their hands. Those hands, en passant, showed a family feature common to all — namely, the feature that the flesh of the palm on the outer side was rosy in colour, and divided by a sharp, straight line from the pure whiteness of the upper portion of the hand. Still more was the character of this feminine circle expressed in the manner in which the three ladies spoke Russian and French — spoke them, that is to say, with perfect articulation of syllables and pedantic accuracy of substantives and prepositions. All this, and more especially the fact that the ladies treated me as simply and as seriously as a real grown-up — telling me their opinions, and listening to my own (a thing to which I was so little accustomed that, for all my glittering buttons and blue facings, I was in constant fear of being told: “Surely you do not think that we are talking SERIOUSLY to you? Go away and learn something”)— all this, I say, caused me to feel an entire absence of restraint in this society. I ventured at times to rise, to move about, and to talk boldly to each of the ladies except Varenika (whom I always felt it was unbecoming, or even forbidden, for me to address unless she first spoke to me).

As I listened to her clear, pleasant voice reading aloud, I kept glancing from her to the path of the flower-garden, where the rain-spots were making small dark circles in the sand, and thence to the lime-trees, upon the leaves of which the rain was pattering down in large detached drops shed from the pale, shimmering edge of the livid blue cloud which hung suspended over us. Then I would glance at her again, and then at the last purple rays of the setting sun where they were throwing the dense clusters of old, rain-washed birches into brilliant relief. Yet again my eyes would return to Varenika, and, each time that they did so, it struck me afresh that she was not nearly so plain as at first I had thought her.

“How I wish that I wasn’t in love already!” I reflected, “or that Sonetchka was Varenika! How nice it would be if suddenly I could become a member of this family, and have the three ladies for my mother, aunt, and wife respectively!” All the time that these thoughts kept passing through my head I kept attentively regarding Varenika as she read, until somehow I felt as though I were magnetising her, and that presently she must look at me. Sure enough, at length she raised her head, threw me a glance, and, meeting my eyes, turned away.

“The rain does not seem to stop,” she remarked.

Suddenly a new feeling came over me. I began to feel as though everything now happening to me was a repetition of some similar occurrence before — as though on some previous occasion a shower of rain had begun to fall, and the sun had set behind birch- trees, and I had been looking at her, and she had been reading aloud, and I had magnetised her, and she had looked up at me. Yes, all this I seemed to recall as though it had happened once before.

“Surely she is not — SHE?” was my thought. “Surely IT is not beginning?” However, I soon decided that Varenika was not the “SHE” referred to, and that “it” was not “beginning.” “In the first place,” I said to myself, “Varenika is not at all BEAUTIFUL. She is just an ordinary girl whose acquaintance I have made in the ordinary way, whereas the she whom I shall meet somewhere and some day and in some not ordinary way will be anything but ordinary. This family pleases me so much only because hitherto I have never seen anybody. Such things will always be happening in the future, and I shall see many more such families during my life.”

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