Youth, by Leo Tolstoy

XXXVIII

The World

As regards those worldly delights to which I had intended, on entering the University, to surrender myself in imitation of my brother, I underwent a complete disillusionment that winter. Woloda danced a great deal, and Papa also went to balls with his young wife, but I appeared to be thought either too young or unfitted for such delights, and no one invited me to the houses where balls were being given. Yet, in spite of my vow of frankness with Dimitri, I never told him (nor any one else) how much I should have liked to go to those dances, and how I felt hurt at being forgotten and (apparently) taken for the philosopher that I pretended to be.

Nevertheless, a reception was to be given that winter at the Princess Kornakoff’s, and to it she sent us personal invitations — to myself among the rest! Consequently, I was to attend my first ball. Before starting, Woloda came into my room to see how I was dressing myself — an act on his part which greatly surprised me and took me aback. In my opinion (it must be understood) solicitude about one’s dress was a shameful thing, and should be kept under, but he seemed to think it a thing so natural and necessary that he said outright that he was afraid I should be put out of countenance on that score. Accordingly, he bid me don my patent leather boots, and was horrified to find that I wanted to put on gloves of peau de chamois. Next, he adjusted my watch-chain in a particular manner, and carried me off to a hairdresser’s near the Kuznetski Bridge to have my locks coiffured. That done, he withdrew to a little distance and surveyed me.

“Yes, he looks right enough now” said he to the hairdresser. “Only — couldn’t you smooth those tufts of his in front a little?” Yet, for all that Monsieur Charles treated my forelocks with one essence and another, they persisted in rising up again when ever I put on my hat. In fact, my curled and tonsured figure seemed to me to look far worse than it had done before. My only hope of salvation lay in an affectation of untidiness. Only in that guise would my exterior resemble anything at all. Woloda, apparently, was of the same opinion, for he begged me to undo the curls, and when I had done so and still looked unpresentable, he ceased to regard me at all, but throughout the drive to the Kornakoffs remained silent and depressed.

Nevertheless, I entered the Kornakoffs’ mansion boldly enough, and it was only when the Princess had invited me to dance, and I, for some reason or another (though I had driven there with no other thought in my head than to dance well), had replied that I never indulged in that pastime, that I began to blush, and, left solitary among a crowd of strangers, became plunged in my usual insuperable and ever-growing shyness. In fact, I remained silent on that spot almost the whole evening!

Nevertheless, while a waltz was in progress, one of the young princesses came to me and asked me, with the sort of official kindness common to all her family, why I was not dancing. I can remember blushing hotly at the question, but at the same time feeling — for all my efforts to prevent it — a self-satisfied smile steal over my face as I began talking, in the most inflated and long-winded French, such rubbish as even now, after dozens of years, it shames me to recall. It must have been the effect of the music, which, while exciting my nervous sensibility, drowned (as I supposed) the less intelligible portion of my utterances. Anyhow, I went on speaking of the exalted company present, and of the futility of men and women, until I had got myself into such a tangle that I was forced to stop short in the middle of a word of a sentence which I found myself powerless to conclude.

Even the worldly-minded young Princess was shocked by my conduct, and gazed at me in reproach; whereat I burst out laughing. At this critical moment, Woloda, who had remarked that I was conversing with great animation, and probably was curious to know what excuses I was making for not dancing, approached us with Dubkoff. Seeing, however, my smiling face and the Princess’s frightened mien, as well as overhearing the appalling rubbish with which I concluded my speech, he turned red in the face, and wheeled round again. The Princess also rose and left me. I continued to smile, but in such a state of agony from the consciousness of my stupidity that I felt ready to sink into the floor. Likewise I felt that, come what might, I must move about and say something, in order to effect a change in my position. Accordingly I approached Dubkoff, and asked him if he had danced many waltzes with her that night. This I feigned to say in a gay and jesting manner, yet in reality I was imploring help of the very Dubkoff to whom I had cried “Hold your tongue!” on the night of the matriculation dinner. By way of answer, he made as though he had not heard me, and turned away. Next, I approached Woloda, and said with an effort and in a similar tone of assumed gaiety: “Hullo, Woloda! Are you played out yet?” He merely looked at me as much as to say, “You wouldn’t speak to me like that if we were alone,” and left me without a word, in the evident fear that I might continue to attach myself to his person.

“My God! Even my own brother deserts me!” I thought to myself.

Yet somehow I had not the courage to depart, but remained standing where I was until the very end of the evening. At length, when every one was leaving the room and crowding into the hall, and a footman slipped my greatcoat on to my shoulders in such a way as to tilt up my cap, I gave a dreary, half-lachrymose smile, and remarked to no one in particular: “Comme c’est gracieux!”

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