Home  »  Anna Karenin  »  Chapter IX

Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Anna Karenin.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Part I

Chapter IX

AT four o’clock, conscious of his throbbing heart, Levin stepped out of a hired sledge at the Zoological Gardens, and turned along the path to the frozen mounds and the skating-ground, knowing that he would certainly find her there, as he had seen the Shtcherbatskys’ carriage at the entrance.

It was a bright, frosty day. Rows of carriages, sledges, drivers, and policemen were standing in the approach. Crowds of well-dressed people, with hats bright in the sun, swarmed about the entrance and along the well-swept little paths between the little houses adorned with carving in the Russian style. The old curly birches of the gardens, all their twigs laden with snow, looked as though freshly decked in sacred vestments.

He walked along the path towards the skating-ground, and kept saying to himself—‘You mustn’t be excited, you must be calm. What’s the matter with you? What do you want? Be quiet, stupid,’ he conjured his heart. And the more he tried to compose himself, the more breathless he found himself. An acquaintance met him and called him by name, but Levin did not even recognise him. He went towards the mounds, whence came the clank of the chains of sledges as they slipped down or were dragged up, the rumble of the sliding sledges, and the sounds of merry voices. He walked on a few steps, and the skating-ground lay open before his eyes, and at once, amidst all the skaters, he knew her.

He knew she was there by the rapture and the terror that seized on his heart. She was standing talking to a lady at the opposite end of the ground. There was apparently nothing striking either in her dress or her attitude. But for Levin she was as easy to find in that crowd, as a rose among nettles. Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light on all around her. ‘Is it possible I can go over there on the ice, go up to her?’ he thought. The place where she stood seemed to him a holy shrine, unapproachable, and there was one moment when he was almost retreating, so overwhelmed was he with terror. He had to make an effort to master himself, and to remind himself that people of all sorts were moving about her, and that he too might come there to skate. He walked down, for a long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun, but seeing her, as one does the sun, without looking.

On that day of the week and at that time of day people of one set, all acquainted with one another, used to meet on the ice. There were crack skaters there, showing off their skill, and learners clinging to chairs with timid, awkward movements, boys, and elderly people skating with hygienic motives. They seemed to Levin an elect band of blissful beings because they were here, near her. All the skaters, it seemed, with perfect self-possession, skated towards her, skated by her, even spoke to her, and were happy, quite apart from her, enjoying the capital ice and the fine weather.

Nikolay Shtcherbatsky, Kitty’s cousin, in a short jacket and tight trousers, was sitting on a garden seat with his skates on. Seeing Levin, he shouted to him—

‘Ah, the first skater in Russia! Been here long? First-rate ice—do put your skates on.’

‘I haven’t got my skates,’ Levin answered, marvelling at this boldness and ease in her presence, and not for one second losing sight of her, though he did not look at her. He felt as though the sun were coming near him. She was in a corner, and turning out her slender feet in their high boots with obvious timidity, she skated towards him. A boy in Russian dress, desperately waving his arms and bowed down to the ground, overtook her. She skated a little uncertainly; taking her hands out of the little muff, that hung on a cord, she held them ready for emergency, and looking towards Levin, whom she had recognised, she smiled at him and at her own fears. When she had got round the turn, she gave herself a push off with one foot, and skated straight up to Shtcherbatsky. Clutching at his arm, she nodded smiling to Levin. She was more splendid than he had imagined her.

When he thought of her, he could call up a vivid picture of her to himself, especially the charm of that little fair head, so freely set on the shapely girlish shoulders, and so full of childish brightness and good-humour. The childishness of her expression, together with the delicate beauty of her figure, made up her special charm, and that he fully realised. But what always struck him in her as something unlooked for, was the expression of her eyes, soft, serene, and truthful, and above all, her smile, which always transported Levin to an enchanted world, where he felt himself softened and tender, as he remembered himself in some days of his early childhood.

‘Have you been here long?’ she said, giving him her hand. ‘Thank you,’ she added, as he picked up the handkerchief that had fallen out of her muff.

‘I? I’ve not long … yesterday … I mean to-day … I arrived,’ answered Levin, in his emotion not at once understanding her question. ‘I was meaning to come and see you,’ he said; and then, recollecting with what intention he was trying to see her, he was promptly overcome with confusion and blushed.

‘I didn’t know you could skate, and skate so well.’

She looked at him earnestly, as though wishing to make out the cause of his confusion.

‘Your praise is worth having. The tradition is kept up here that you are the best of skaters,’ she said, with her little black-gloved hand brushing a grain of hoar-frost off her muff.

‘Yes, I used once to skate with passion; I wanted to reach perfection.’

‘You do everything with passion, I think,’ she said, smiling. ‘I should so like to see how you skate. Put on skates, and let us skate together.’

‘Skate together! Can that be possible?’ thought Levin, gazing at her.

‘I’ll put them on directly,’ he said.

And he went off to get skates.

‘It’s a long while since we’ve seen you here, sir,’ said the attendant, supporting his foot, and screwing on the heel of the skate. ‘Except you, there’s none of the gentlemen first-rate skaters. Will that be all right?’ said he, tightening the strap.

‘Oh, yes, yes; make haste, please,’ answered Levin, with difficulty restraining the smile of rapture which would overspread his face. ‘Yes,’ he thought, ‘this now is life, this is happiness! Together, she said; let us skate together! Speak to her now? But that’s just why I’m afraid to speak—because I’m happy now, happy in hope, any way.… And then? … But I must! I must! I must! Away with weakness!’

Levin rose to his feet, took off his overcoat, and scurrying over the rough ice round the hut, came out on the smooth ice and skated without effort, as it were by simple exercise of will increasing and slackening speed and turning his course. He approached with timidity, but again her smile reassured him.

She gave him her hand, and they set off side by side, going faster and faster, and the more rapidly they moved the more tightly she grasped his hand.

‘With you I should soon learn; I somehow feel confidence in you,’ she said to him.

‘And I have confidence in myself when you are leaning on me,’ he said, but was at once panic-stricken at what he had said, and blushed. And indeed, no sooner had he uttered these words, when all at once, like the sun going behind a cloud, her face lost all its friendliness, and Levin detected the familiar change in her expression that denoted the working of thought; a crease showed on her smooth brow.

‘Is there anything troubling you?—though I’ve no right to ask such a question,’ he said hurriedly.

‘Oh, why so? … No, I have nothing to trouble me,’ she responded coldly; and she added immediately: ‘You haven’t seen Mlle. Linon, have you?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Go and speak to her, she likes you so much.’

‘What’s wrong? I have offended her. Lord help me!’ thought Levin, and he flew towards the old Frenchwoman with the grey ringlets, who was sitting on a bench. Smiling and showing her false teeth, she greeted him as an old friend.

‘Yes, you see we’re growing up,’ she said to him, glancing towards Kitty, ‘and growing old. Tiny bear has grown big now!’ pursued the Frenchwoman, laughing, and she reminded him of his joke about the three young ladies whom he had compared to the three bears in the English nursery-tale. ‘Do you remember that’s what you used to call them?’

He remembered absolutely nothing, but she had been laughing at the joke for ten years now, and was fond of it.

‘Now, go and skate, go and skate. Our Kitty has learned to skate nicely, hasn’t she?’

When Levin darted up to Kitty her face was no longer stern; her eyes looked at him with the same sincerity and friendliness, but Levin fancied that in her friendliness there was a certain note of deliberate composure. And he felt depressed. After talking a little of her old governess and her peculiarities, she questioned him about his life.

‘Surely you must be dull in the country in the winter, aren’t you?’ she said.

‘No, I’m not dull, I am very busy,’ he said, feeling that she was holding him in check by her composed tone, which he would not have the force to break through, just as it had been at the beginning of the winter.

‘Are you going to stay in town long?’ Kitty questioned him.

‘I don’t know,’ he answered, not thinking of what he was saying. The thought that if he were held in check by her tone of quiet friendliness he would end by going back again without deciding anything came into his mind, and he resolved to make a struggle against it.

‘How is it you don’t know?’

‘I don’t know. It depends upon you,’ he said, and was immediately horror-stricken at his own words.

Whether it was that she had heard his words, or that she did not want to hear them, she made a sort of stumble, twice struck out, and hurriedly skated away from him. She skated up to Mlle. Linon, said something to her, and went towards the pavilion where the ladies took off their skates.

‘My God! what have I done! Merciful God! help me guide me,’ said Levin, praying inwardly, and at the same time, feeling a need of violent exercise, he skated about, describing inner and outer circles.

At that moment one of the young men, the best of the skaters of the day, came out of the coffee-house in his skates, with a cigarette in his mouth. Taking a run, he dashed down the steps in his skates, crashing and bounding up and down. He flew down, and without even changing the position of his hands, skated away over the ice.

‘Ah! that’s a new trick!’ said Levin, and he promptly ran up to the top to do this new trick.

‘Don’t break your neck! it needs practice!’ Nikolay Shtcherbatsky shouted after him.

Levin went to the steps, took a run from above as best he could, and dashed down, preserving his balance in this unwonted movement with his hands. On the last step he stumbled, but barely touching the ice with his hand, with a violent effort recovered himself, and skated off laughing.

‘How splendid, how nice he is!’ Kitty was thinking at that time, as she came out of the pavilion with Mlle. Linon, and looked towards him with a smile of quiet affection, as though he were a favourite brother. ‘And can it be my fault, can I have done anything wrong? They talk of flirtation. I know it’s not he that I love; but still I am happy with him, and he’s so jolly. Only, why did he say that?…’ she mused.

Catching sight of Kitty going away, and her mother meeting her at the steps, Levin, flushed from his rapid exercise, stood still and pondered a minute. He took off his skates, and overtook the mother and daughter at the entrance of the gardens.

‘Delighted to see you,’ said Princess Shtcherbatsky. ‘On Thursday we are at home, as always.’

‘To-day, then?’

‘We shall be pleased to see you,’ the princess said stiffly.

This stiffness hurt Kitty, and she could not resist the desire to smooth over her mother’s coldness. She turned her head, and with a smile said—

‘Good-bye till this evening.’

At that moment Stepan Arkadyevitch, his hat cocked on one side, with beaming face and eyes, strode into the garden like a conquering hero. But as he approached his mother-in- law, he responded in a mournful and crestfallen tone to her inquiries about Dolly’s health. After a little subdued and dejected conversation with his mother-in-law, he threw out his chest again, and put his arm in Levin’s.

‘Well, shall we set off?’ he asked. ‘I’ve been thinking about you all this time, and I’m very, very glad you’ve come,’ he said, looking him in the face with a significant air.

‘Yes, come along,’ answered Levin in ecstasy, hearing unceasingly the sound of that voice saying ‘Good-bye till this evening,’ and seeing the smile with which it was said.

‘To the England or the Hermitage?’

‘I don’t mind which.’

‘All right, then, the England,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch, selecting that restaurant because he owed more there than at the Hermitage, and consequently considered it mean to avoid it. ‘Have you got a sledge? That’s first-rate, for I sent my carriage home.’

The friends hardly spoke all the way. Levin was wondering what that change in Kitty’s expression had meant, and alternately assuring himself that there was hope, and falling into despair, seeing clearly that his hopes were insane, and yet all the while he felt himself quite another man, utterly unlike what he had been before her smile and those words, ‘Good-bye till this evening.’

Stepan Arkadyevitch was absorbed during the drive in composing the menu of the dinner.

‘You like turbot, don’t you?’ he said to Levin as they were arriving.

‘Eh?’ responded Levin. ‘Turbot? Yes, I’m awfully fond of turbot.’