The levee was drawing to a close. People met as they were going away, and gossiped of the latest news, of the newly bestowed honors, and the changes in the positions of the higher functionaries.
"If only Countess Marya Borissovna were Minister of War, and Princess Vatkovsky were Commander in Chief," said a gray-headed, little old man in a gold-embroidered uniform, addressing a tall, handsome maid of honor who had questioned him about the new appointments.
"And if I were one of the adjutants," said the maid of honor, smiling.
"You have an appointment already. You're over the Ecclesiastical Department. And your assistant's Karenin."
"Good day, Prince!" said the little old man to a man who came up to him.
"What were you saying of Karenin?" said the Prince.
"He and Putiatov have received the order of Alexandre Nevsky."
"I thought he had it already."
"No. Just look at him," said the little old man, pointing with his embroidered hat to Karenin in a Court uniform, with the new red ribbon across his shoulders, standing in the doorway of the hall with an influential member of the Imperial Council. "Pleased and happy as brass," he added, stopping to shake hands with a handsome gentleman of the bedchamber of colossal proportions.
"No- he's looking older," said the gentleman of the bedchamber.
"From overwork. He's always drawing up projects nowadays. He won't let a poor devil go nowadays till he's explained it all to him under heads."
"Looking older, did you say? Il fait des passions. I believe Countess Lidia Ivanovna's jealous now of his wife."
"Oh, come now, please don't say any harm of Countess Lidia Ivanovna."
"Why, is there any harm in her being in love with Karenin?"
"But is it true Madame Karenina's here?"
"Well, not here in the palace, but in Peterburg. I met her yesterday with Alexei Vronsky, bras dessus, bras dessous, on the Morskaia."
"C'est un homme qui n'a pas..." the gentleman of the bedchamber was beginning, but he stopped to make room, bowing, for a member of the Imperial family to pass.
Thus people talked incessantly of Alexei Alexandrovich, finding fault with him and laughing at him, while he, blocking up the way of the member of the Imperial Council he had captured, was explaining to him point by point his new financial project, never interrupting his discourse for an instant for fear he should escape.
Almost at the same time that his wife left Alexei Alexandrovich there had come to him that bitterest moment in the life of an official- the moment when his upward career comes to a full stop. This full stop had arrived and everyone perceived it, but Alexei Alexandrovich himself was not yet aware that his career was over. Whether it was due to his feud with Stremov, or his misfortune with his wife, or simply that Alexei Alexandrovich had reached his predestined limits, it had become evident to everyone in the course of that year that his career was at an end. He still filled a position of consequence, he sat on many commissions and committees, but he was a man whose day was over, and from whom nothing was expected. Whatever he said, whatever he proposed, was heard as though it were something long familiar, and the very thing that was not needed. But Alexei Alexandrovich was not aware of this, and, on the contrary, being cut off from direct participation in governmental activity, he saw more clearly than ever the errors and defects in the action of others, and thought it his duty to point out means for their correction. Shortly after his separation from his wife, he began writing his first note on the new judicial procedure, the first of the endless series of notes he was destined to write in the future.
Alexei Alexandrovich did not merely fail to observe his hopeless position in the official world, he was not merely free from anxiety on this head- he was positively more satisfied than ever with his own activity.
"He that is married careth for the things of the world, how he may please his wife; he that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord," says the Apostle Paul, and Alexei Alexandrovich, who was now guided in every action by Scripture, often recalled this text. It seemed to him that ever since he had been left without a wife, he had, in these very projects of reform, been serving the Lord more zealously than ever.
The unmistakable impatience of the member of the Council trying to get away from him did not trouble Alexei Alexandrovich; he gave up his exposition only when the member of the Council, seizing his chance when one of the Imperial family was passing, slipped away from him.
Left alone, Alexei Alexandrovich looked down, collecting his thoughts, then looked casually about him and walked toward the door, where he hoped to meet Countess Lidia Ivanovna.
"And how strong they all are- how sound physically," thought Alexei Alexandrovich, looking at the powerfully built gentleman of the bedchamber with his well-groomed, perfumed whiskers, and at the red neck of the Prince, pinched by his tight uniform. He had to pass them on his way. "Truly is it said that all the world is evil," he thought, with another sidelong glance at the calves of the gentleman of the bedchamber.
Moving forward deliberately, Alexei Alexandrovich bowed with his customary air of weariness and dignity to the gentleman who had been talking about him, and, looking toward the door, his eyes sought Countess Lidia Ivanovna.
"Ah! Alexei Alexandrovich!" said the little old man, with a malicious light in his eyes, at the moment when Karenin had come up to them, and was nodding with a frigid gesture. "I haven't congratulated you yet," said the old man, pointing to his newly received ribbon.
"Thank you," answered Alexei Alexandrovich. "What an exquisite day today," he added, laying emphasis in his peculiar way on the word exquisite.
That they laughed at him he was well aware, but he did not expect anything but hostility from them; he was used to that by now.
Catching sight of the yellow shoulders of Lidia Ivanovna jutting out above her corset, and her fine pensive eyes summoning him to her, Alexei Alexandrovich smiled, revealing untarnished white teeth, and went toward her.
Lidia Ivanovna's dress had cost her great pains, as indeed all her dresses had done of late. Her aim in dress was now quite the reverse of what she had pursued thirty years before. Then her desire had been to adorn herself with something, and the more adorned the better. Now, on the contrary, she was perforce decked out in a way so inconsistent with her age and her figure, that her one anxiety was to contrive that the contrast between these adornments and her own exterior should not be too appalling. And as far as Alexei Alexandrovich was concerned she succeeded, and was in his eyes attractive. For him she was the one island not only of good will to him, but of love in the midst of the sea of hostility and jeering that surrounded him.
Passing through rows of ironical eyes, he was drawn as naturally to her loving glance as a plant to the sun.
"I congratulate you," she said to him, her eyes on his ribbon.
Suppressing a smile of pleasure, he shrugged his shoulders, closing his eyes, as though to say that that could not be a source of joy to him. Countess Lidia Ivanovna was very well aware that it was one of his chief sources of satisfaction, though he never admitted it.
"How is our angel?" said Countess Lidia Ivanovna, meaning Seriozha.
"I can't say I was quite pleased with him," said Alexei Alexandrovich, raising his eyebrows and opening his eyes. "And Sitnikov is not satisfied with him." (Sitnikov was the tutor to whom Seriozha's secular education had been intrusted.) "As I have mentioned to you, there's a sort of coldness in him toward the most important questions which ought to touch the heart of every man and every child...." Alexei Alexandrovich began expounding his views on the sole question that interested him outside the service- the education of his son.
When Alexei Alexandrovich, with Lidia Ivanovna's help, had been brought back anew to life and activity, he felt it his duty to undertake the education of the son left on his hands. Having never before taken any interest in educational questions, Alexei Alexandrovich devoted some time to the theoretical study of the subject. After reading several books on anthropology, education, and didactics, Alexei Alexandrovich drew up a plan of education, and, engaging the best tutor in Peterburg to superintend it, he set to work, and the subject continually absorbed him.
"Yes- but the heart! I see in him his father's heart, and with such a heart a child cannot go far wrong," said Lidia Ivanovna with enthusiasm.
"Yes, perhaps.... As for me, I do my duty. It's all I can do."
"You're coming to me," said Countess Lidia Ivanovna, after a pause; "we have to speak of a subject painful for you. I would give anything to have spared you certain memories, but others are not of the same mind. I have received a letter from her. She is here in Peterburg."
Alexei Alexandrovich shuddered at the allusion to his wife, but immediately his face assumed the deathlike rigidity which expressed utter helplessness in the matter.
"I was expecting it," he said.
Countess Lidia Ivanovna looked at him ecstatically, and tears of rapture at the greatness of his soul came into her eyes.