Stepan Arkadyevich had learned easily at school, thanks to his excellent abilities, but he had been idle and mischievous, and therefore was one of the lowest in his class. But in spite of his habitually dissipated mode of life, his inferior grade in the service, and his comparative youth, he occupied the honorable and lucrative position of president of one of the government boards at Moscow. This post he had received through his sister Anna's husband, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, who held one of the most important positions in the ministry to which the Moscow office belonged. But if Karenin had not got his brother-in-law this berth, then through a hundred other personages- brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts- Stiva Oblonsky would have received this post or some other like it, together with the salary of six thousand absolutely needful for him, as his affairs, in spite of his wife's considerable property, were in a poor state.
Half Moscow and Peterburg were friends and relations of Stepan Arkadyevich. He was born in the midst of those who had been, and had become, the powerful ones of this world. One-third of the men in the government, the older men, had been friends of his father's, and had known him in pinafores; another third were his intimate chums, and the remainder were friendly acquaintances. Consequently the distributors of earthly blessings in the shape of posts, rents, concessions and such, were all his friends, and could not overlook one of their own set; and Oblonsky had no need to make any special exertion to get a lucrative post. He had only not to refuse things, not to show jealousy, not to be quarrelsome or take offense, all of which from his characteristic good nature he never did. It would have struck him as absurd if he had been told that he would not get a position with the salary he required, especially as he expected nothing out of the way; he only wanted what the men of his own age and standing did get, and he was no worse qualified for performing duties of this kind than any other man.
Stepan Arkadyevich was not merely liked by all who knew him for his good humor, his bright disposition and his unquestionable honesty; in him, in his handsome, radiant figure, his sparkling eyes, black hair and eyebrows, and his white and pink complexion, there was something which produced a physical effect of kindliness and good humor on the people who met him. "Aha! Stiva! Oblonsky! The man himself!" was almost always said with a smile of delight on meeting him. Even though it happened at times that after a conversation with him it seemed that nothing particularly delightful had happened, the next day, and the next, everyone was just as delighted to meet him again.
After filling for two years the post of president of one of the government boards at Moscow, Stepan Arkadyevich had won the respect, as well as the liking, of his fellow officials, subordinates and superiors, and all who had had business with him. The principal qualities in Stepan Arkadyevich which had gained him this universal respect in the service consisted, in the first place, of his extreme indulgence for others, founded on a consciousness of his own shortcomings; secondly, of his perfect liberalism- not the liberalism he read of in the papers, but the liberalism that was in his blood, in virtue of which he treated all men perfectly equally and exactly the same, whatever their fortune or rank might be; and thirdly- the most important point- of his complete indifference to the business in which he was engaged, in consequence of which he was never carried away, and made no mistakes.
On reaching the offices of the board Stepan Arkadyevich, escorted by a deferential porter with a portfolio, went into his little private room, put on his uniform, and went into the board room. The clerks and officials all rose, greeting him with good-humored deference. Stepan Arkadyevich moved quickly, as always, to his place, shook hands with the members of the board, and sat down. He made a joke or two, and talked just as much as was consistent with due decorum, and began work. No one knew better than Stepan Arkadyevich how to hit on that exact limit of freedom, simplicity and official stiffness which is necessary for the agreeable conduct of business. A secretary, with the good-humored deference common to everyone in Stepan Arkadyevich's office, came up with papers, and began to speak in the familiar and easy tone which had been introduced by Stepan Arkadyevich.
"We have succeeded in getting the information from the government department of Penza. Here, would you care?..."
"You've got it at last?" said Stepan Arkadyevich, laying his finger on the paper. "Now, gentlemen..."
And the sitting of the board began.
"If they but knew," he thought, inclining his head with an important air and listening to the report, "what a guilty little boy their president was half an hour ago!" And his eyes were laughing during the reading of the report. Till two o'clock the sitting would go on without a break- then there would be an interval and luncheon.
It was not yet two, when the large glass doors of the board room suddenly opened and someone came in.
All the members of the board, sitting at the table, from below the portrait of the Czar and from behind the mirror of justice, delighted at any distraction, looked round at the door; but the doorkeeper standing there at once drove out the intruder, and closed the glass door after him.
When the case had been read through, Stepan Arkadyevich got up and stretched, and by way of tribute to the liberalism of the times took out a cigarette, being in the board room, and went into his private room. Two of his board fellows, the old veteran in the service, Nikitin, and the Kammerjunker Grinevich, went in with him.
"We shall have time to finish after lunch," said Stepan Arkadyevich.
"To be sure we shall!" said Nikitin.
"A pretty sharp fellow this Fomin must be," said Grinevich of one of the persons taking part in the case they were examining.
Stepan Arkadyevich frowned at Grinevich's words, giving him thereby to understand that it was improper to pass judgment prematurely, and made him no reply.
"Who was it who came in?" he asked the doorkeeper.
"Some fellow, your excellency, sneaked in without permission directly my back was turned. He was asking for you. I told him: when the members come out, then..."
"Where is he?"
"Maybe he's gone into the passage, he was strolling here till now. That's he," said the doorkeeper, pointing to a strongly built, broad shouldered man with a curly beard, who, without taking off his sheepskin cap, was running lightly and rapidly up the worn steps of the stone staircase. One of the officials going down- a lean fellow with a portfolio- stood out of his way, looked disapprovingly at the legs of the running man, and then glanced inquiringly at Oblonsky.
Stepan Arkadyevich was standing at the top of the stairs. His good-naturedly beaming face above the embroidered collar of his uniform beamed more than ever when he recognized the man coming up.
"Why, it's actually you, Levin, at last!" he said with a friendly mocking smile, gazing on the approaching man. "How is it you have deigned to look me up in this den?" said Stepan Arkadyevich and, not content with shaking hands, he kissed his friend. "Have you been here long?"
"I have just come, and very much wanted to see you," said Levin, looking about him shyly, and, at the same time, angrily and uneasily.
"Well, let's go into my room," said Stepan Arkadyevich, who knew his friend's sensitive and irritable shyness, and, taking his arm, he drew him along, as though guiding him through dangers.
Stepan Arkadyevich was on familiar terms with almost all his acquaintances, and called almost all of them by their Christian names: old men of sixty, boys of twenty, actors, ministers, merchants and adjutant generals, so that many of his intimate chums were to be found at the extreme ends of the social ladder, and would have been very much surprised to learn that they had, through the medium of Oblonsky, something in common. He was the familiar friend of everyone with whom he took a glass of champagne, and he took a glass of champagne with everyone, and when in consequence he met any of his disreputable chums, as he used in joke to call many of his friends, in the presence of his subordinates, he well knew how, with his characteristic tact, to diminish any possible disagreeable impression. Levin was not a disreputable chum, but Oblonsky, with his ready tact, felt that Levin fancied Oblonsky might not care to show his intimacy with him before subordinates, and so Stepan Arkadyevich made haste to take him off into his room.
Levin was almost of the same age as Oblonsky; their intimacy did not rest merely on champagne. Levin had been the friend and companion of his early youth. They were fond of one another in spite of the difference of their characters and tastes, as friends are fond of one another who have been together in early youth. But in spite of this, each of them- as is often the way with men who have selected careers of different kinds- though in discussion he would even justify the other's career, in his heart despised it. It seemed to each of them that the life he led himself was the only real life, and the life led by his friend was a mere phantasm. Oblonsky could not restrain a slight mocking smile at the sight of Levin. How often he had seen him come up to Moscow from the country where he was doing something, but what precisely Stepan Arkadyevich could never quite make out, and indeed took no interest in the matter. Levin arrived in Moscow always excited and in a hurry, rather ill at ease and irritated by his own want of ease, and for the most part with a perfectly new, unexpected view of things. Stepan Arkadyevich laughed at this, and liked it. In the same way Levin in his heart despised the town mode of life of his friend, and his official duties, which he laughed at and regarded as trifling. But the difference was that Oblonsky, since he was doing the same as everyone did, laughed assuredly and good-humoredly, while Levin laughed without assuredness and sometimes angrily.
"We have long been expecting you," said Stepan Arkadyevich, going into his room and letting Levin's hand go as though to show that here all danger was over. "I am very, very glad to see you," he went on. "Well, what now? How are you? When did you come?"
Levin was silent, looking at the unfamiliar faces of Oblonsky's two companions, and especially at the elegant Grinevich's hands- with such long white fingers, such long yellow nails, curved at their end, and such huge shining studs on the shirt cuff, that apparently these hands absorbed all his attention, and allowed him no freedom of thought. Oblonsky noticed this at once, and smiled.
"Ah, to be sure, let me introduce you," he said. "My colleagues: Philip Ivanich Nikitin, Mikhail Stanislavich Grinevich"- and turning to Levin- "a Zemstvo member, a modern Zemstvo man, a gymnast who lifts five poods with one hand, a cattle breeder and sportsman, and my friend- Constantin Dmitrievich Levin, the brother of Sergei Ivanovich Koznishev."
"Delighted," said the veteran.
"I have the honor of knowing your brother, Sergei Ivanovich," said Grinevich, holding out his slender hand with its long nails.
Levin frowned, shook hands coldly, and at once turned to Oblonsky. Though he had a great respect for his half-brother, an author well known to all Russia, he could not endure it when people treated him not as Constantin Levin, but as the brother of the celebrated Koznishev.
"No, I am no longer a Zemstvo man. I have quarreled with them all, and don't go to the sessions any more," he said, turning to Oblonsky.
"You've been quick about it!" said Oblonsky with a smile. "But how? Why?"
"It's a long story. I will tell you some time," said Levin- but began telling him at once. "Well, to put it shortly, I was convinced that nothing was really done by the Zemstvo councils, or ever could be," he began, as though someone had just insulted him. "On one side it's a plaything; they play at being a parliament, and I'm neither young enough nor old enough to find amusement in playthings; and on the other side" (he stammered) "it's a means for the coterie of the district to feather their nests. Formerly they did this through wardships and courts of justice, now they do it through the Zemstvo- instead of taking the bribes, they take the unearned salary," he said, as hotly as though one of those present had opposed his opinion.
"Aha! You're in a new phase again, I see- a conservative," said Stepan Arkadyevich. "However, we can go into that later."
"Yes, later. But I had to see you," said Levin, looking with hatred at Grinevich's hand.
Stepan Arkadyevich gave a scarcely perceptible smile.
"But you used to say you'd never wear European dress again," he said, gazing on Levin's new suit, obviously cut by a French tailor. "So! I see: a new phase."
Levin suddenly blushed, not as grown men blush, slightly, without being themselves aware of it, but as boys blush, feeling that they are ridiculous through their shyness, and consequently ashamed of it, and blushing still more, almost to the point of tears. And it was so strange to see this sensible, manly face in such a childish plight, that Oblonsky left off looking at him.
"Oh, where shall we meet? You know I want very much to talk to you," said Levin.
Oblonsky seemed to ponder.
"I'll tell you what: let's go to Gurin's to lunch, and there we can talk. I am free till three."
"No," answered Levin, after an instant's thought, "I have another visit to make."
"All right, then, let's dine together."
"Dine together? But I have nothing very particular- just a word or two, a question; then a little chatting."
"Well, let's have your word or two right now- and we'll talk it over in the course of the dinner."
"Well, it's this," said Levin, "however- it's of no importance."
His face suddenly assumed an expression of anger from the effort he was making to surmount his shyness.
"What are the Shcherbatskys doing? Everything as it used to be?" he said.
Stepan Arkadyevich, who had long known that Levin was in love with his sister-in-law, Kitty, gave a hardly perceptible smile, and his eyes sparkled merrily.
"You've said your word or two, but I can't answer in a few words, because... Excuse me for just a minute...."
A secretary came in, with respectful familiarity and the modest consciousness, characteristic of every secretary, of superiority to his chief in the knowledge of affairs; he went up to Oblonsky with some papers, and began, under pretense of asking a question, to explain some objection. Stepan Arkadyevich, without hearing him out, laid his hand genially on the secretary's sleeve.
"No, you do as I told you," he said, smoothing his remark with a smile, and with a brief explanation of his view of the matter he moved away the papers, and said: "So do it that way, if you please, Zakhar Nikitich."
The secretary retired in confusion. During the consultation with the secretary Levin had completely recovered from his embarrassment. He was standing with elbows on the back of a chair, and on his face was a look of ironical attention.
"I don't understand it- I don't understand it," he said.
"What don't you understand?" said Oblonsky, smiling just as cheerfully, and picking up a cigarette. He expected some queer outburst from Levin.
"I don't understand what you are doing," said Levin, shrugging his shoulders. "How can you be serious about it?"
"Why, because there's nothing in it."
"You think so- yet we're overwhelmed with work."
"On paper. But, there, you've a gift for it," added Levin.
"That's to say, you think there's a lack of something in me?"
"Perhaps so," said Levin. "But all the same I admire your grandeur, and am proud to have such a great person as a friend. You've not answered my question, though," he went on, with a desperate effort looking Oblonsky straight in the face.
"Oh, that's all very well. You wait a bit, and you'll come to this yourself. It's very nice for you to have three thousand dessiatinas in the Karazinsky district, and such muscles, and the freshness of a girl of twelve; still you'll be one of us one day. Yes, as to your question, there is no change, but it's a pity you've been away so long."
"Oh, why so?" Levin queried, frightened.
"Oh, nothing," responded Oblonsky. "We'll talk it over. But what's brought you up to town?"
"Oh, we'll talk about that, too, later on," said Levin, reddening again up to his ears.
"All right. I see," said Stepan Arkadyevich. "I should ask you to come to us, you know, but my wife's not quite well. But I'll tell you what: if you want to see them, they're sure now to be at the Zoological Gardens from four to five. Kitty skates. You drive along there, and I'll come and fetch you, and we'll go and dine somewhere together."
"Capital. So good-by till then."
"Now mind, you'll forget- I know you!- or rush off home to the country!" Stepan Arkadyevich called out laughing.
And Levin went out of the room, recalling only when he was in the doorway that he had forgotten to take leave of Oblonsky's colleagues.
"That gentleman must be a man of great energy," said Grinevich, when Levin had gone away.
"Yes, my dear sir," said Stepan Arkadyevich, nodding his head, "he's a lucky fellow! Three thousand dessiatinas in the Karazinsky district; everything before him; and what youth and vigor! Not like some of us."
"But why are you complaining, Stepan Arkadyevich?"
"Why, it goes hard with me, very bad," said Stepan Arkadyevich with a heavy sigh.