Nekhludoff would have left Petersburg on the evening of the same day, but he had promised Mariette to meet her at the theatre, and though he knew that he ought not to keep that promise, he deceived himself into the belief that it would not be right to break his word.
“Am I capable of withstanding these temptations?” he asked himself not quite honestly. “I shall try for the last time.”
He dressed in his evening clothes, and arrived at the theatre during the second act of the eternal Dame aux Camelias, in which a foreign actress once again, and in a novel manner, showed how women die of consumption.
The theatre was quite full. Mariette’s box was at once, and with great deference, shown to Nekhludoff at his request. A liveried servant stood in the corridor outside; he bowed to Nekhludoff as to one whom he knew, and opened the door of the box.
All the people who sat and stood in the boxes on the opposite side, those who sat near and those who were in the parterre, with their grey, grizzly, bald, or curly heads — all were absorbed in watching the thin, bony actress who, dressed in silks and laces, was wriggling before them, and speaking in an unnatural voice.
Some one called “Hush!” when the door opened, and two streams, one of cool, the other of hot, air touched Nekhludoff’s face.
Mariette and a lady whom he did not know, with a red cape and a big, heavy head-dress, were in the box, and two men also, Mariette’s husband, the General, a tall, handsome man with a severe, inscrutable countenance, a Roman nose, and a uniform padded round the chest, and a fair man, with a bit of shaved chin between pompous whiskers.
Mariette, graceful, slight, elegant, her low-necked dress showing her firm, shapely, slanting shoulders, with a little black mole where they joined her neck, immediately turned, and pointed with her face to a chair behind her in an engaging manner, and smiled a smile that seemed full of meaning to Nekhludoff.
The husband looked at him in the quiet way in which he did everything, and bowed. In the look he exchanged with his wife, the master, the owner of a beautiful woman, was to be seen at once.
When the monologue was over the theatre resounded with the clapping of hands. Mariette rose, and holding up her rustling silk skirt, went into the back of the box and introduced Nekhludoff to her husband.
The General, without ceasing to smile with his eyes, said he was very pleased, and then sat inscrutably silent.
“I ought to have left to-day, had I not promised,” said Nekhludoff to Mariette.
“If you do not care to see me,” said Mariette, in answer to what his words implied, “you will see a wonderful actress. Was she not splendid in the last scene?” she asked, turning to her husband.
The husband bowed his head.
“This sort of thing does not touch me,” said Nekhludoff. “I have seen so much real suffering lately that —”
“Yes, sit down and tell me.”
The husband listened, his eyes smiling more and more ironically. “I have been to see that woman whom they have set free, and who has been kept in prison for so long; she is quite broken down.”
“That is the woman I spoke to you about,” Mariette said to her husband.
“Oh, yes, I was very pleased that she could be set free,” said the husband quietly, nodding and smiling under his moustache with evident irony, so it seemed to Nekhludoff. “I shall go and have a smoke.”
Nekhludoff sat waiting to hear what the something was that Mariette had to tell him. She said nothing, and did not even try to say anything, but joked and spoke about the performance, which she thought ought to touch Nekhludoff. Nekhludoff saw that she had nothing to tell, but only wished to show herself to him in all the splendour of her evening toilet, with her shoulders and little mole; and this was pleasant and yet repulsive to him.
The charm that had veiled all this sort of thing from Nekhludoff was not removed, but it was as if he could see what lay beneath. Looking at Mariette, he admired her, and yet he knew that she was a liar, living with a husband who was making his career by means of the tears and lives of hundreds and hundreds of people, and that she was quite indifferent about it, and that all she had said the day before was untrue. What she wanted — neither he nor she knew why — was to make him fall in love with her. This both attracted and disgusted him. Several times, on the point of going away, he took up his hat, and then stayed on.
But at last, when the husband returned with a strong smell of tobacco in his thick moustache, and looked at Nekhludoff with a patronising, contemptuous air, as if not recognising him, Nekhludoff left the box before the door was closed again, found his overcoat, and went out of the theatre. As he was walking home along the Nevski, he could not help noticing a well-shaped and aggressively finely-dressed woman, who was quietly walking in front of him along the broad asphalt pavement. The consciousness of her detestable power was noticeable in her face and the whole of her figure. All who met or passed that woman looked at her. Nekhludoff walked faster than she did and, involuntarily, also looked her in the face. The face, which was probably painted, was handsome, and the woman looked at him with a smile and her eyes sparkled. And, curiously enough, Nekhludoff was suddenly reminded of Mariette, because he again felt both attracted and disgusted just as when in the theatre.
Having hurriedly passed her, Nekhludoff turned off on to the Morskaya, and passed on to the embankment, where, to the surprise of a policeman, he began pacing up and down the pavement.
“The other one gave me just such a smile when I entered the theatre,” he thought, “and the meaning of the smile was the same. The only difference is, that this one said plainly, ‘If you want me, take me; if not, go your way,’ and the other one pretended that she was not thinking of this, but living in some high and refined state, while this was really at the root. Besides, this one was driven to it by necessity, while the other amused herself by playing with that enchanting, disgusting, frightful passion. This woman of the street was like stagnant, smelling water offered to those whose thirst was greater than their disgust; that other one in the theatre was like the poison which, unnoticed, poisons everything it gets into.”
Nekhludoff recalled his liaison with the Marechal’s wife, and shameful memories rose before him.
“The animalism of the brute nature in man is disgusting,” thought he, “but as long as it remains in its naked form we observe it from the height of our spiritual life and despise it; and — whether one has fallen or resisted — one remains what one was before. But when that same animalism hides under a cloak of poetry and aesthetic feeling and demands our worship — then we are swallowed up by it completely, and worship animalism, no longer distinguishing good from evil. Then it is awful.”
Nekhludoff perceived all this now as clearly as he saw the palace, the sentinels, the fortress, the river, the boats, and the Stock Exchange. And just as on this northern summer night there was no restful darkness on the earth, but only a dismal, dull light coming from an invisible source, so in Nekhludoff’s soul there was no longer the restful darkness, ignorance. Everything seemed clear. It was clear that everything considered important and good was insignificant and repulsive, and that all the glamour and luxury hid the old, well-known crimes, which not only remained unpunished but were adorned with all the splendour which men were capable of inventing.
Nekhludoff wished to forget all this, not to see it, but he could no longer help seeing it. Though he could not see the source of the light which revealed it to him any more than he could see the source of the light which lay over Petersburg; and though the light appeared to him dull, dismal, and unnatural, yet he could not help seeing what it revealed, and he felt both joyful and anxious.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00