Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Everything at the Oblonskys’ was topsy-turvy. Oblonsky’s wife had found out that he had been having an affair with the French governess who used to live with them, and told him she could no longer stay under the same roof with him. This was the third day things had been this way, and not only the married couple themselves, but the family and the whole household were painfully aware of it. Everyone in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that people who had casually dropped into any inn would have more connection with each other than they, the Oblonsky family and household. Oblonsky’s wife refused to leave her rooms; he himself hadn’t been home for three days. The children were running around the house as though lost; the English governess had had a quarrel with the housekeeper and written to a friend of hers asking her to look out for a new job for her; the day before the cook had picked dinnertime to go out; the kitchen maid and coachman had given notice.
The third day after the quarrel Prince Stephen Arkadyevich Oblonsky—Stiva, as he was called in society—woke up at his usual time, that is, eight in the morning, not in his wife’s bedroom but in his own study, on the leather-covered sofa. He twisted his plump, well-kept body on the springy sofa as though he wanted to plunge into a long sleep again; he hugged the pillow on the other side and pressed his cheek against it; then he suddenly jumped up, sat down on the sofa, and opened his eyes.
Now, what was that again? he thought, recalling a dream. What was it? Of course! Alabin was giving a dinner in Darmstadt, no, not in Darmstadt—somewhere in America. But that’s where Darmstadt was, in America. So Alabin was giving a dinner, on glass tables—and the tables were singing “Il mio tesoro,” though not “Il mio tesoro” but something better, and then there were some little decanters around and they were really women, he remembered.
Oblonsky’s eyes sparkled merrily; he smiled to himself as he sat there thinking: Yes, it was great fun, all right. There were a lot of other good things too, but you can’t put them into words, or catch hold of them at all when you’re awake.
He noticed a streak of light that had slipped in at the side of one of the blinds; he cheerfully stretched his legs off the sofa and felt about with his feet for the bronze kid slippers his wife had embroidered for his last year’s birthday present; out of a nine-year-old habit he stretched out his arm without getting up toward where his dressing gown hung in the bedroom. It was just then that he suddenly recalled why he wasn’t sleeping in his wife’s bedroom, but in his study; the smile vanished from his face and he frowned.
“Oh, oh, oh!” he groaned, remembering everything that had happened. And again all the details of the quarrel with his wife, his impossible position and, most painful of all, his own guilt sprang to his mind.
No, she’ll never forgive me! She can’t forgive me. And the most terrible thing about it is that it’s all my own fault, I’m to blame, though I’m not really to blame either. That’s the whole tragedy of it, he thought. “Oh dear, oh dear,” he muttered in despair, recalling the most painful points of the quarrel.
What had been most disagreeable of all was the first moment when, on coming back cheerful and satisfied from the theater with a huge pear for his wife in his hand, he had not, to his surprise, found her in the drawing room or in his study, but finally saw her in her bedroom holding the unlucky note that had revealed everything.
There was his Dolly, whom he thought of as constantly harried and simple-mindedly bustling about, sitting motionless with the note in her hand, looking at him with an expression of horror, despair, and fury.
“What is this? This?” she asked, indicating the note.
As he remembered this Oblonsky was tormented, as often happens, not so much by the event itself as by his response to his wife’s question.
What happened then was what happens to people who are caught at something shameful. He couldn’t manage to put on the right expression for his situation with respect to his wife now that his guilt was exposed. Instead of acting offended, making denials or excuses, asking forgiveness, or even remaining indifferent—anything would have been better than what he did do!— his face quite involuntarily (a reflex of the brain, he thought; he was fond of physiology) suddenly took on its usual goodhearted and therefore silly smile.
It was this silly smile that he couldn’t forgive himself. When she saw it Dolly shuddered as though in physical pain, burst out with her characteristic violence in a torrent of bitter words and rushed out of the room. Since then she had refused to see him.
That stupid smile is to blame for everything, Oblonsky thought. But what can I do? What is there to do? he said to himself in despair, without finding an answer. II
Oblonsky was honest with himself. He could not deceive himself by telling himself that he repented of his conduct. He could not feel repentant that he, a handsome, amorous man of thirty-four, was not in love with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, who was only a year younger than he. He only regretted that he hadn’t been able to conceal things from her better. But he felt the full gravity of his position and was sorry for his wife, their children, and himself. He might have been able to hide his misconduct from his wife better if he had expected the news to have such an effect on her. He had never thought the matter over clearly, but had vaguely imagined that she had long since guessed he was unfaithful to her and was shutting her eyes to it. He even thought that a completely undistinguished woman like her, worn out, aging, already plain, just a simple goodhearted mother of a family, ought to have been indulgent, out of a feeling of fairness. What had happened was just the opposite.
Terrible, just terrible! Oblonsky kept saying to himself, without finding any solution. And how well everything was going until now! What a splendid life we had! She was contented and happy with the children, I never bothered her in the least, and left her to do as she pleased with the children and the house. Of course, it’s not so good that she was a governess right here in the house. That was bad! There’s something banal and vulgar in making love to your own governess. But what a governess! (He vividly recalled Mlle. Roland’s teasing black eyes and her smile.) But as long as she was here in the house I never allowed myself to do a thing. And the worst of it all is that she’s already... The whole thing had to happen just for spite! Oh, dear! But what on earth can I do?
There was no answer to this beside the usual answer life gives to the most complicated and insoluble problems, which is: you must live according to the needs of the day, that is, forget yourself. He couldn’t forget himself in sleep, at least not until nighttime; he could not yet return to the music being sung by the little decanter women, so he had to look for forgetfulness in the dream of living.
Well, we’ll see, Oblonsky said to himself; he got up, put on his gray dressing gown with the blue silk lining, knotted the girdle, and taking a deep breath of air into his broad chest, went over to the window with his usual robust stride, turning out his feet, which carried his full body so lightly; he raised the blind and rang loudly.
The bell was answered immediately by his old friend and valet, Matthew, who came in with his clothes, boots, and a telegram. He was followed by the barber with the shaving things.
“Any papers from the office?” Oblonsky asked, taking the telegram and sitting down in front of the mirror.
“On the table,” Matthew answered, with a questioning, sympathetic look at his master, and after a moment added with a sly smile: “They’ve sent someone from the livery stables.”
Oblonsky said nothing, merely gazing at Matthew in the mirror; it was plain from the glance they exchanged that they understood each other very well. Oblonsky’s look seemed to say: “Why tell me that? As though you didn’t know!”
Matthew put his hands into the pockets of his jacket, put out his foot, and looked at his master in silence, with a slight, good-humored smile.
“I ordered him to come back next Sunday, and till then not to bother either you or himself for no reason,” he said, evidently getting off a prepared sentence.
Oblonsky saw Matthew was joking to draw attention to himself. He tore open the telegram and read it, guessing at the words, misspelt as usual, and his face brightened.
“Matthew, my sister Anna will be here tomorrow,” he said, momentarily stopping the barber’s shiny plump hand that was clearing a rosy path between the long curly whiskers.
“Thank God!” said Matthew, showing that he understood just as well as his master the meaning of the visit, that is, that Oblonsky’s beloved sister Anna might bring about a reconciliation between husband and wife. “Alone, or with her husband?” he asked.
Oblonsky couldn’t answer, since the barber was busy on his upper lip, and raised one finger. Matthew nodded into the mirror.
“Alone. Should one of the upstairs rooms be got ready?”
“Ask Princess Oblonsky.”
“Princess Oblonsky?” repeated Matthew doubtfully.
“Yes, tell her. Here, take the telegram with you and tell me what she says.”
Oh, you want to sound her out, was how Matthew understood this, but all he said was: “Yes, sir.”
Oblonsky had already washed, and his hair was brushed; he was about to get dressed when Matthew, walking slowly in his creaking boots, came back into the room holding the telegram. The barber had already gone.
“Princess Oblonsky has instructed me to say that she is going away. Let him do as he likes, that is, you, sir,” he said, laughing with his eyes only; putting his hands in his pockets and his head to one side, he gazed at his master.
Oblonsky was silent, then a kind and somewhat pathetic smile appeared on his handsome face.
“Ah, Matthew, well?” he said, shaking his head.
“Don’t worry, sir, it will all turn out all right,” said Matthew.
“D’you think so? But who’s that?” asked Oblonsky, hearing the rustle of a woman’s dress outside the door.
“It’s me, sir,” said a firm, agreeable female voice, and Matrona, the children’s nurse, thrust her stern, pock-marked face into the doorway.
“Well, what is it, Matrona?” asked Oblonsky, going over to her.
Though Oblonsky was completely at fault with respect to his wife and felt this himself, almost everyone in the house, even the nurse, who was Princess Oblonsky’s best friend, was on his side.
“Well, what?” he said dejectedly.
“You must go to her, sir, and admit your guilt once again. Perhaps God will help! She’s in terrible torment; for that matter everything in the house is at sixes and sevens. You must take pity on the children, sir. Admit you were wrong, sir—what else can you do? If you put your hand in the fire—”
“But you know she won’t see me—”
“Do your own part. God is merciful, sir. Pray to God—pray, sir!”
“Very well then, you can go now,” said Oblonsky, suddenly blushing. “And now I must get dressed,” he said, turning to Matthew and energetically throwing off his dressing gown.
Matthew was already holding out, like a horse’s collar, the shirt he had got ready; he blew an invisible speck off it and with obvious satisfaction enveloped his master’s well-cared-for body in it.
Copyright © 2012 by Leo Tolstoy Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.