NEXT DAY when Prince Andrey thought of the ball it did not occupy his mind for long. “Yes, it was a very successful ball. And besides…yes, the younger Rostov is very charming. There's something fresh in her, original, unlike Petersburg.” That was all he thought about the previous day's ball, and after his morning tea he set to work.
But from fatigue and want of sleep he was not very well disposed for work, and could get nothing done. He was continually criticising his own work—a habit common with him—and was glad when he heard a visitor arrive.
The visitor was Bitsky, a man who was a member of various committees and of all the societies in Petersburg. He was a passionate adherent of the new ideas and of Speransky, and the busiest purveyor of news in Petersburg, one of those men who choose their opinions like their clothes—according to the fashion—but for that very reason seem the most vehement partisans. Scarcely waiting to remove his hat, he ran fussily up to Prince Andrey, and at once began talking. He had just learned particulars of the sitting of the State Council of that morning, opened by the Tsar, and began enthusiastically upon the subject. The Tsar's speech had been, he said, an extraordinary one. It had been a speech such as are only delivered by constitutional monarchs. “The Emperor directly asserted that the Council and the Senate are the estates of the realm; he said that government should be founded not on arbitrary authority, but on a secure basis. The Emperor said that the fiscal system must be reconstituted and the accounts must be public,” Bitsky announced, laying stress on certain words, and opening his eyes significantly. “Yes, to-day's sitting marks an epoch, the greatest epoch in our history,” he concluded.
Prince Andrey heard his account of the opening of the State Council, to which he had been looking forward with such eagerness, and to which he had attached so much consequence, and was amazed that now, when it had come to pass, this event, far from affecting him, struck him as less than insignificant. With quiet irony he listened to Bitsky's enthusiastic description. The idea in his mind was of the simplest. “What is it to me and Bitsky,” he thought, “what is it to us, whatever the Emperor is pleased to say in the Council? Can all that make me any happier or better?”
And this simple reflection suddenly destroyed all Prince Andrey's former interest in the reforms that were being made. That day Prince Andrey was to dine with Speransky, “with only a few friends,” as the host had said in inviting him. That dinner, in the intimate home circle of the man who had so fascinated him, had seemed very attractive to Prince Andrey, especially as he had not hitherto seen Speransky in his home surroundings. But now he had no wish to go to it.
At the hour fixed, however, Prince Andrey was entering the small house in Tavritchesky Garden. The little house, which was Speransky's property, was distinguished by an extraordinary cleanliness, suggestive of the cleanliness of a convent. In the parqueted dining-room, Prince Andrey, who was a little late, found all that circle of Speransky's intimate friends already gathered together at five o'clock. There were no ladies present, except Speransky's little daughter (with a long face like her father's) and her governess. The guests were Gervais, Magnitsky and Stolypin. From the vestibule Prince Andrey had caught the sound of loud voices and a ringing, staccato laugh—a laugh such as one hears on the stage. Some one—it sounded like Speransky—was giving vent to a staccato “ha…ha…ha…” Prince Andrey had never before heard Speransky laugh, and this shrill, ringing laugh from the great statesman made a strange impression on him.
Prince Andrey went into the dining-room. The whole party were standing between the two windows at a little table laid with hors d'œuvres. Speransky was standing at the table with a mirthful countenance, wearing a grey frock coat with a star, and the white waistcoat and high white stock, in which he had been at the famous sitting of the State Council. His guests formed a ring round him. Turning towards him Magnitsky was relating an anecdote. Speransky listened, laughing beforehand at what Magnitsky was going to say. Just as Prince Andrey walked into the room, Magnitsky's words were again drowned in laughter. Stolypin gave vent to a bass guffaw as he munched a piece of bread and cheese. Gervais softly hissed a chuckle, and Speransky laughed his shrill, staccato laugh.
Speransky, still laughing, gave Prince Andrey his soft, white hand. “Very glad to see you, prince,” he said. “One minute…” he turned to Magnitsky, whose tale he was interrupting. “We have made a compact to-day; this is a holiday dinner, and not one word about business.” And he turned again to the story-teller, and again he laughed.
With a sense of wondering and melancholy disillusion, Prince Andrey heard his laughter and looked at Speransky laughing. It was not Speransky, but some other man, it seemed to Prince Andrey. All that had seemed mysterious and attractive in Speransky suddenly seemed to Prince Andrey obvious and unattractive.
At dinner the conversation never paused for a moment, and consisted of something like the contents of a jest-book. Magnitsky had hardly finished his anecdote when another gentleman expressed his readiness to relate something even more amusing. The anecdotes for the most part related, if not to the service itself, to persons prominent in the service. It was as though in this circle the utter insignificance of these prominent persons was so completely accepted that the only attitude possible towards them was one of good-humoured hilarity. Speransky told them how at the council that morning a deaf statesman, on being asked his opinion, replied that he was of the same opinion. Gervais described a whole episode of the revision, only remarkable for the imbecility of all concerned in it. Stolypin, stammering, took up the conversation and began talking of the abuses of the old order of things, with a warmth that threatened to give the conversation a serious turn. Magnitsky began to make fun of Stolypin's earnestness. Gervais put in his joke, and the conversation resumed its former lively tone. It was obvious that after his labours Speransky liked to rest and be amused in the circle of his friends; and all his friends understood his tastes, and were trying to amuse him and themselves. But this kind of gaiety seemed to Prince Andrey tiresome and anything but gay. Speransky's high voice struck him unpleasantly, and his continual laugh in its high-pitched, falsetto note was for some reason an offence to Prince Andrey's feelings. Prince Andrey did not laugh, and was afraid he would be felt uncongenial by this party. But no one noticed his lack of sympathy with the general merriment. All of them appeared to be greatly enjoying themselves.
Several times he tried to enter into the conversation, but every time the word was snatched out of his mouth, like a cork out of water, and he could not bandy jokes with them. There was nothing wrong or unseemly in what they said; it was all witty, and might have been amusing, but something—that very something that makes the zest of gaiety—was wanting, and they did not even know of its existence.
After dinner Speransky's daughter and her governess rose from the table. Speransky patted his daughter with his white hand, and kissed her. And that gesture, too, seemed to Prince Andrey unnatural.
The men sat on over their port, after the English fashion. A conversation sprang up about Napoleon's doings in Spain, of which all were united in approving, while Prince Andrey attacked them. But in the middle of this discussion Speransky, obviously wishing to change the subject, began with a smile telling an anecdote, which had no connection with it. For several instants every one was silent.
As they sat at table, Speransky, corking up a bottle of wine and saying, “Nowadays good wine doesn't go a-begging!” gave it to the servant and got up. All rose, and talking just as noisily, went into the drawing-room. Speransky was handed two envelopes brought by a special courier. He took them and went into his study. As soon as he had gone, there was a lull in the general gaiety, and the guests began conversing sensibly in low tones together.
“Well, now for the recitation!” said Speransky, coming out of his study. “A marvellous talent!” he said to Prince Andrey. Magnitsky at once threw himself into an attitude, and began to recite comic French verses, a skit he had composed on various well-known persons. Several times he was interrupted by applause. At the conclusion of the recitation Prince Andrey went up to Speransky to say good-bye.
“Why so early?” said Speransky.
“I promised to be at a soirée.…”
They said no more. Prince Andrey looked at those mirror-like, impenetrable eyes, so close to his, and he felt it ludicrous that he should have expected anything from Speransky, and from all his own work connected with him, and marvelled how he could have ascribed any value to what Speransky was doing. That punctual, mirthless laugh was ringing in Prince Andrey's ears long after he had left Speransky's.
On reaching home Prince Andrey began looking at his life in Peters-burg during the last four months, as though it were something new. He thought of the efforts he had made, and the people he had tried to see, and the history of his project of army reform, which had been accepted for consideration, and had been shelved because another scheme, a very poor one, had already been worked out and presented to the Tsar. He thought of the sittings of the committee, of which Berg was a member. He thought of the conscientious and prolonged deliberations that took place at those sittings on every point relating to the formalities of the sittings themselves, and the studious brevity with which anything relating to the reality of their duties was touched on in passing. He thought of his work on the legislative reforms, of his careful translation of the Roman and French codes into Russian, and he felt ashamed of himself. Then he vividly imagined Bogutcharovo, his pursuits in the country, his expedition to Ryazan; he thought of his peasants, of Dron the village elder; and applying the section on Personal Rights, which he had divided into paragraphs, to them, he marvelled how he could have so long busied himself on work so idle.