Steps were heard at the door, and Princess Betsy, knowing it was Madame Karenina, glanced at Vronsky. He was looking toward the door, and his face wore a strange new expression. Joyfully, intently, and at the same time timidly, he gazed at the approaching figure, and slowly he rose to his feet. Anna walked into the drawing room. Holding herself extremely erect, as always, looking straight before her, and moving with her swift, resolute and light step, that distinguished her walk from that of other society women, she crossed the few paces that separated her from her hostess, shook hands with her, smiled, and with the same smile looked around at Vronsky. Vronsky bowed low and pushed a chair up for her.
She acknowledged this only by a slight nod, flushed, and frowned. But immediately, while rapidly greeting her acquaintances, and shaking the hands proffered to her, she addressed Princess Betsy:
"I have been at Countess Lidia's, and meant to have come here earlier, but I stayed on. Sir John was there. A most interesting man."
"Oh, that's this missionary?"
"Yes; he told us about life in India, most interestingly."
The conversation, interrupted by her coming in, flickered up again like the light of a lamp being blown out.
"Sir John! Yes, Sir John. I've seen him. He speaks well. Vlassieva is altogether in love with him."
"And is it true that the younger Vlassieva is to marry Topov?"
"Yes- they say it's quite settled."
"I wonder at the parents! They say it's a marriage of passion."
"Of passion? What antediluvian notions you have! Whoever talks of passion nowadays?" said the ambassador's wife.
"What would you do? This silly old fashion is still far from dead," said Vronsky.
"So much the worse for those who keep up the fashion. The only happy marriages I know are marriages of prudence."
"Yes,- but then, how often the happiness of these prudent marriages is scattered like dust, precisely because that passion to which recognition has been denied appears on the scene," said Vronsky.
"But by marriages of prudence we mean those in which both parties have sown their wild oats already. That's like scarlatina- one has to go through with it and get it over with."
"In that case we must learn how to vaccinate for love, like small-pox."
"I was in love in my young days- with a church clerk," said the Princess Miaghkaia. "I don't know that it did me any good."
"No; I think- all jokes aside- that to know love, one must first make a fault, and then mend it," said Princess Betsy.
"Even after marriage?" said the ambassador's wife playfully.
"It's never too late to mend," the diplomatist repeated the English proverb.
"Just so," Betsy agreed; "one must make a mistake and rectify it. What do you think about it?" She turned to Anna, who, with a barely perceptible resolute smile on her lips, was listening to the conversation.
"I think" said Anna, playing with the glove she had taken off, "I think... if there are as many minds as there are heads, then surely there must be as many kinds of love as there are hearts."
Vronsky was gazing at Anna, and with a heart sinking was waiting for what she would say. He sighed as after a danger escaped when she had uttered these words.
Anna suddenly turned to him.
"Oh, I have had a letter from Moscow. They write me that Kitty Shcherbatskaia's very ill."
"Really?" said Vronsky, knitting his brows.
Anna looked sternly at him.
"That doesn't interest you?"
"On the contrary, it does- very much. What is it, exactly, that they write you, if may know?" he asked.
Anna got up and went to Betsy.
"Give me a cup of tea," she said, pausing behind her chair.
While Betsy was pouring out the tea, Vronsky walked up to Anna.
"What is it they write you?" he repeated.
"I often think men have no understanding of what is dishonorable, though they're forever talking of it," said Anna, without answering him. "I've wanted to tell you something for a long while," she added, and, moving a few steps away, she sat down at a corner table which held albums.
"I don't quite understand the significance of your words," he said, handing her the cup.
She glanced towards the sofa beside her, and he instantly sat down.
"Yes, I've wanted to tell you," she said, without looking at him. "Your action was wrong- wrong, very wrong."
"Do you suppose I don't know that I've acted wrongly? But who was the cause of my doing so?"
"Why do you say that to me?" she said looking at him sternly.
"You know why," he answered, boldly and joyously, meeting her glance and without dropping his eyes.
It was not he, but she, who became confused.
"That merely proves you have no heart," she said. But her eyes said that she knew he had a heart, and that was why she was afraid of him.
"What you spoke of just now was a mistake, and not love."
"Remember that I have forbidden you to utter that word, that detestable word," said Anna, with a shudder. But at once she felt that by that very word "forbidden" she had shown that she acknowledged certain rights over him, and by that very fact was encouraging him to speak of love. "I have long meant to tell you this," she went on, looking resolutely into his eyes, and all aflame from the burning flush on her cheeks. "I've come here purposely this evening, knowing I should meet you. I have come to tell you that this must end. I have never blushed before anyone, and you force me to feel guilty of something."
He looked at her and was struck by a new spiritual beauty in her face.
"What do you wish of me?" he said, simply and gravely.
"I want you to go to Moscow and ask for Kitty's forgiveness," she said.
"That is not your wish," he said.
He saw she was saying what she was forcing herself to say, not what she wanted to say.
"If you love me, as you say," she whispered, "you will do this, so that I may be at peace."
His face grew radiant.
"Don't you know that you're all my life to me? But I know no peace, and I can't give it to you; all of myself, and love- yes. I can't think of you and myself apart. You and I are one to me. And I see no possibility before us of peace- either for me or for you. I see a possibility of despair, of wretchedness.... Or else I see a possibility of happiness- and what a happiness!... Can it be impossible?" he added, his lips barely moving- yet she heard.
She strained every effort of her mind to say what ought to be said. But instead of that she let her eyes rest on him, full of love, and made no answer.
"It's come!" he thought in ecstasy. "When I was beginning to despair, and it seemed there would be no end- it's come! She loves me! She owns it!"
"Then do this for me: never say such things to me, and let us be friends," she said in words; but her eyes spoke quite differently.
"Friends we shall never be- that you know yourself. Whether we shall be the happiest or the most wretched of people- that lies within your power."
She would have said something, but he interrupted her.
"For I ask but one thing: I ask for the right to hope, to suffer- even as I am doing now. But if even that cannot be, command me to disappear, and I disappear. You shall not see me if my presence is painful to you."
"I don't want to drive you away."
"Only don't change anything- leave everything as it is," said he, in a shaky voice. "Here's your husband."
At that instant Alexei Alexandrovich did in fact walk into the room with his calm, ungainly gait.
Glancing at his wife and Vronsky, he went up to the lady of the house, and, sitting down for a cup of tea, began talking in his unhasty, always audible voice, in his habitual tone of banter, as if he were teasing someone.
"Your Rambouillet is in full conclave," he said looking round at all the party; "the graces and the muses."
But Princess Betsy could not endure that tone of his- sneering, as she called it, using the English word, and like a clever hostess she at once brought him around to a serious conversation on the subject of universal conscription. Alexei Alexandrovich was immediately carried away by the subject, and began seriously defending the new imperial decree before Princess Betsy, who had attacked it.
Vronsky and Anna still sat at the little table.
"This is getting indecorous," whispered one lady, with an expressive glance at Madame Karenina, her husband and Vronsky.
"What did I tell you?" said Anna's friend.
But it was not only these ladies who watched them- almost everyone in the room, even the Princess Miaghkaia and Betsy herself, looked several times in the direction of the two who had withdrawn from the general circle, as though they found it a hindrance. Alexei Alexandrovich was the only person who did not once look in their direction, and was not diverted from the interesting discussion he had entered upon.
Noticing the disagreeable impression that was being made on everyone, Princess Betsy slipped someone else into her place to listen to Alexei Alexandrovich, and walked over to Anna.
"I'm always amazed at the clearness and precision of your husband's language," she said. "The most transcendent ideas seem to be within my grasp when he's speaking."
"Oh, yes!" said Anna, radiant with a smile of happiness, and not understanding a word of what Betsy had said. She crossed over to the big table and took part in the general conversation.
Alexei Alexandrovich, after staying half an hour, walked up to his wife and suggested that they go home together. But she answered, without looking at him, that she was staying to supper. Alexei Alexandrovich bowed himself out.
The fat old Tatar, Madame Karenina's coachman, in a glistening leather coat, was with difficulty bridling the left of her pair of grays, chilled with the cold and rearing at the entrance. A footman stood by the carriage door he had opened. The hall porter stood holding open the great door of the house. Anna Arkadyevna, with her quick little hand, was unfastening the lace of her sleeve, caught in the hook of her fur cloak, and with bent head was listening rapturously to the words Vronsky murmured as he saw her down to her carriage.
"You've said nothing, of course, and I ask nothing," he was saying; "but you know that friendship is not what I want: that there's only one happiness in life for me- that word you dislike so... yes, love!..."
"Love..." she repeated slowly, in an inner voice, and suddenly, at the very instant she unhooked the lace, she added, "I don't like the word precisely because it means too much to me, far more than you can understand," and she glanced into his face. "Good-by."
She gave him her hand, and with her rapid, springy step she passed by the porter and vanished into the carriage.
Her glance, the touch of her hand, had seared him. He kissed the palm of his hand where she had touched it, and went home, happy in the realization that he had got nearer to the attainment of his aims that evening than during the two last months.