Princess Sophia Vasilievna, Missy’s mother, had finished her very elaborate and nourishing dinner. (She had it always alone, that no one should see her performing this unpoetical function.) By her couch stood a small table with her coffee, and she was smoking a pachitos. Princess Sophia Vasilievna was a long, thin woman, with dark hair, large black eyes and long teeth, and still pretended to be young.
Her intimacy with the doctor was being talked about. Nekhludoff had known that for some time; but when he saw the doctor sitting by her couch, his oily, glistening beard parted in the middle, he not only remembered the rumours about them, but felt greatly disgusted. By the table, on a low, soft, easy chair, next to Sophia Vasilievna, sat Kolosoff, stirring his coffee. A glass of liqueur stood on the table. Missy came in with Nekhludoff, but did not remain in the room.
“When mamma gets tired of you and drives you away, then come to me,” she said, turning to Kolosoff and Nekhludoff, speaking as if nothing had occurred; then she went away, smiling merrily and stepping noiselessly on the thick carpet.
“How do you do, dear friend? Sit down and talk,” said Princess Sophia Vasilievna, with her affected but very naturally-acted smile, showing her fine, long teeth — a splendid imitation of what her own had once been. “I hear that you have come from the Law Courts very much depressed. I think it must be very trying to a person with a heart,” she added in French.
“Yes, that is so,” said Nekhludoff. “One often feels one’s own de — one feels one has no right to judge.”
“Comme, c’est vrai,” she cried, as if struck by the truth of this remark. She was in the habit of artfully flattering all those with whom she conversed. “Well, and what of your picture? It does interest me so. If I were not such a sad invalid I should have been to see it long ago,” she said.
“I have quite given it up,” Nekhludoff replied drily. The falseness of her flattery seemed as evident to him to-day as her age, which she was trying to conceal, and he could not put himself into the right state to behave politely.
“Oh, that is a pity! Why, he has a real talent for art; I have it from Repin’s own lips,” she added, turning to Kolosoff.
“Why is it she is not ashamed of lying so?” Nekhludoff thought, and frowned.
When she had convinced herself that Nekhludoff was in a bad temper and that one could not get him into an agreeable and clever conversation, Sophia Vasilievna turned to Kolosoff, asking his opinion of a new play. She asked it in a tone as if Kolosoff’s opinion would decide all doubts, and each word of this opinion be worthy of being immortalised. Kolosoff found fault both with the play and its author, and that led him to express his views on art. Princess Sophia Vasilievna, while trying at the same time to defend the play, seemed impressed by the truth of his arguments, either giving in at once, or at least modifying her opinion. Nekhludoff looked and listened, but neither saw nor heard what was going on before him.
Listening now to Sophia Vasilievna, now to Kolosoff, Nekhludoff noticed that neither he nor she cared anything about the play or each other, and that if they talked it was only to gratify the physical desire to move the muscles of the throat and tongue after having eaten; and that Kolosoff, having drunk vodka, wine and liqueur, was a little tipsy. Not tipsy like the peasants who drink seldom, but like people to whom drinking wine has become a habit. He did not reel about or talk nonsense, but he was in a state that was not normal; excited and self-satisfied. Nekhludoff also noticed that during the conversation Princess Sophia Vasilievna kept glancing uneasily at the window, through which a slanting ray of sunshine, which might vividly light up her aged face, was beginning to creep up.
“How true,” she said in reference to some remark of Kolosoff’s, touching the button of an electric bell by the side of her couch. The doctor rose, and, like one who is at home, left the room without saying anything. Sophia Vasilievna followed him with her eyes and continued the conversation.
“Please, Philip, draw these curtains,” she said, pointing to the window, when the handsome footman came in answer to the bell. “No; whatever you may say, there is some mysticism in him; without mysticism there can be no poetry,” she said, with one of her black eyes angrily following the footman’s movements as he was drawing the curtains. “Without poetry, mysticism is superstition; without mysticism, poetry is — prose,” she continued, with a sorrowful smile, still not losing sight of the footman and the curtains. “Philip, not that curtain; the one on the large window,” she exclaimed, in a suffering tone. Sophia Vasilievna was evidently pitying herself for having to make the effort of saying these words; and, to soothe her feelings, she raised to her lips a scented, smoking cigarette with her jewel-bedecked fingers.
The broad-chested, muscular, handsome Philip bowed slightly, as if begging pardon; and stepping lightly across the carpet with his broad-calved, strong, legs, obediently and silently went to the other window, and, looking at the princess, carefully began to arrange the curtain so that not a single ray dared fall on her. But again he did not satisfy her, and again she had to interrupt the conversation about mysticism, and correct in a martyred tone the unintelligent Philip, who was tormenting her so pitilessly. For a moment a light flashed in Philip’s eyes.
“‘The devil take you! What do you want?’ was probably what he said to himself,” thought Nekhludoff, who had been observing all this scene. But the strong, handsome Philip at once managed to conceal the signs of his impatience, and went on quietly carrying out the orders of the worn, weak, false Sophia Vasilievna.
“Of course, there is a good deal of truth in Lombroso’s teaching,” said Kolosoff, lolling back in the low chair and looking at Sophia Vasilievna with sleepy eyes; “but he over-stepped the mark. Oh, yes.”
“And you? Do you believe in heredity?” asked Sophia Vasilievna, turning to Nekhludoff, whose silence annoyed her. “In heredity?” he asked. “No, I don’t.” At this moment his whole mind was taken up by strange images that in some unaccountable way rose up in his imagination. By the side of this strong and handsome Philip he seemed at this minute to see the nude figure of Kolosoff as an artist’s model; with his stomach like a melon, his bald head, and his arms without muscle, like pestles. In the same dim way the limbs of Sophia Vasilievna, now covered with silks and velvets, rose up in his mind as they must be in reality; but this mental picture was too horrid and he tried to drive it away.
“Well, you know Missy is waiting for you,” she said. “Go and find her. She wants to play a new piece by Grieg to you; it is most interesting.”
“She did not mean to play anything; the woman is simply lying, for some reason or other,” thought Nekhludoff, rising and pressing Sophia Vasilievna’s transparent and bony, ringed hand.
Katerina Alexeevna met him in the drawing-room, and at once began, in French, as usual:
“I see the duties of a juryman act depressingly upon you.”
“Yes; pardon me, I am in low spirits to-day, and have no right to weary others by my presence,” said Nekhludoff.
“Why are you in low spirits?”
“Allow me not to speak about that,” he said, looking round for his hat.
“Don’t you remember how you used to say that we must always tell the truth? And what cruel truths you used to tell us all! Why do you not wish to speak out now? Don’t you remember, Missy?” she said, turning to Missy, who had just come in.
“We were playing a game then,” said Nekhludoff, seriously; “one may tell the truth in a game, but in reality we are so bad — I mean I am so bad — that I, at least, cannot tell the truth.”
“Oh, do not correct yourself, but rather tell us why we are so bad,” said Katerina Alexeevna, playing with her words and pretending not to notice how serious Nekhludoff was.
“Nothing is worse than to confess to being in low spirits,” said Missy. “I never do it, and therefore am always in good spirits.”
Nekhludoff felt as a horse must feel when it is being caressed to make it submit to having the bit put in its mouth and be harnessed, and to-day he felt less than ever inclined to draw.
“Well, are you coming into my room? We will try to cheer you up.”
He excused himself, saying he had to be at home, and began taking leave. Missy kept his hand longer than usual.
“Remember that what is important to you is important to your friends,” she said. “Are you coming tomorrow?”
“I hardly expect to,” said Nekhludoff; and feeling ashamed, without knowing whether for her or for himself, he blushed and went away.
“What is it? Comme cela m’intrigue,” said Katerina Alexeevna. “I must find it out. I suppose it is some affaire d’amour propre; il est tres susceptible, notre cher Mitia.”
“Plutot une affaire d’amour sale,” Missy was going to say, but stopped and looked down with a face from which all the light had gone — a very different face from the one with which she had looked at him. She would not mention to Katerina Alexeevna even, so vulgar a pun, but only said, “We all have our good and our bad days.”
“Is it possible that he, too, will deceive?” she thought; “after all that has happened it would be very bad of him.”
If Missy had had to explain what she meant by “after all that has happened,” she could have said nothing definite, and yet she knew that he had not only excited her hopes but had almost given her a promise. No definite words had passed between them — only looks and smiles and hints; and yet she considered him as her own, and to lose him would be very hard.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00