They drank a lot. They swung and tossed Serpukhovskoy. Then they swung the regimental commander. Then in front of the singers the regimental commander himself danced with Petritsky. Then the regimental commander, grown somewhat slack now, sat down on a bench in the yard and began proving to Yashvin Russia’s advantages over Prussia, especially in cavalry attack, and the carousing subsided for a moment. Serpukhovskoy went inside to the dressing room, to wash his hands, and found Vronsky there; Vronsky was dousing himself with water. Taking off his jacket, he put his hairy red neck under the stream from the tap and rubbed it and his head with his hands. When he had finished washing, Vronsky sat down with Serpukhovskoy. The two men sat on a little sofa, and a conversation began between them that was very interesting for them both.
‘I knew everything about you through my wife,’ said Serpukhovskoy. ‘I’m glad you saw her often.’
‘She’s friends with Varya, and they’re the only women in Petersburg I enjoy seeing,’ Vronsky replied with a smile. He smiled because he foresaw the subject the conversation would turn to, and it was pleasing to him.
‘The only ones?’ Serpukhovskoy repeated, smiling.
‘Yes, and I knew about you, but not only through your wife,’ said Vronsky, forbidding the allusion with a stern look. ‘I was very glad of your success, but not surprised in the least. I expected still more.’
Serpukhovskoy smiled. He was obviously pleased by this opinion of him, and found it unnecessary to conceal it.
‘I, on the contrary, will sincerely admit that I expected less. But I’m glad, very glad. I’m ambitious, that’s my weakness, and I admit it.’
‘You might not admit it if you weren’t successful,’ said Vronsky.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Serpukhovskoy, smiling again. ‘I won’t say life wouldn’t be worth living without it, but it would be boring. Of course, I may be wrong, but it seems to me that I have some ability for the sphere of action I’ve chosen, and that power, whatever it might be, if I should get it, would be better in my hands than in the hands of many men I know,’ he said, with a glowing awareness of success. ‘And therefore, the closer I come to it, the more pleased I am.’
‘That may be so for you, but not for everyone. I thought the same thing, but now I live and find that it’s not worth living just for that,’ said Vronsky.
‘There it is! There it is!’ Serpukhovskoy said, laughing. ‘I began by saying that I’d heard about you, about your refusal ... Naturally, I approved of you. But there’s a right and wrong way for everything. And I think that the action was good, but you didn’t do it as you should have.’
‘What’s done is done, and you know I never renounce what I’ve done. And then, too, I’m quite fine.’
‘Quite fine – for the time being. But you won’t remain satisfied with that. It’s not your brother I’m talking to. He’s a sweet child, just like our host – there he goes!’ he added, hearing a shout of ‘Hurrah!’ ‘And he has his fun. But for you that’s not enough.’
‘I’m not saying I’m satisfied.’
‘It isn’t just that. People like you are needed.’
‘By whom? By society. Russia needs people, needs a party, otherwise everything goes and will go to the dogs.’
‘Meaning what? Bertenev’s party against the Russian communists?’
‘No,’ said Serpukhovskoy, wincing with vexation at being suspected of such stupidity.
‘Tout ça est une blague. It always has been and always will be. There aren’t any communists. But people given to intrigue always have to invent some harmful, dangerous party. It’s an old trick. No, what’s needed is a party of independent people like you and me.’
‘But why?’ Vronsky named several people in power. ‘Why aren’t they independent people?’
‘Only because they don’t have or weren’t born with an independent fortune, didn’t have a name, weren’t born as near to the sun as we were. They can be bought either by money or by favours. And in order to hold out they have to invent a trend. And they put forth some idea, some trend which they don’t believe in themselves, and which does harm; and this whole trend is only a means of having a government house and a salary of so much. Cela n’est pas plus fin que ça when you look into their cards. Maybe I’m worse or stupider than they are, though I don’t see why I should be worse. But you and I certainly have the one important advantage that we’re harder to buy. And such people are needed now more than ever.’
Vronsky listened attentively, but was taken up not so much with the actual content of his words as with Serpukhovskoy’s attitude towards things, how he already thought of struggling with the ruling powers and already had his sympathies and antipathies in this world, while for him there was nothing in the service but the interests of his squadron. Vronsky also realized how strong Serpukhovskoy could be in his unquestionable ability to reflect, to comprehend things, in his intelligence and gift for words, which occurred so rarely in the milieu in which he lived. And, much as it shamed him, he was envious.
‘All the same I lack the one chief thing for that,’ he replied, ‘I lack the desire for power. I had it, but it went away.’
‘Excuse me, but that’s not true,’ Serpukhovskoy said, smiling.
‘No, it’s true, it’s true! ... now,’ Vronsky added, to be sincere.
‘Yes, it’s true now, that’s another matter; but this now is not for ever.’
‘Maybe not,’ replied Vronsky.
‘You say maybe not,’ Serpukhovskoy went on, as if guessing his thoughts, ‘and I tell you certainly not. And that’s why I wanted to see you. You acted as you had to. I understand that, but you should not persevere. I’m only asking you for carte blanche. I’m not patronizing you ... Though why shouldn’t I patronize you? You’ve patronized me so many times! I hope our friendship stands above that. Yes,’ he said, smiling at him tenderly, like a woman. ‘Give me carte blanche, leave the regiment, and I’ll draw you in imperceptibly.’
‘But do understand, I don’t need anything,’ said Vronsky, ‘except that everything be the same as it has been.’
Serpukhovskoy got up and stood facing him.
‘You say everything should be as it has been. I understand what that means. But listen. We’re the same age. You may have known a greater number of women than I have,’ Serpukhovskoy’s smile and gestures told Vronsky that he need not be afraid, that he would touch the sore spot gently and carefully. ‘But I’m married, and believe me, knowing the one wife you love (as someone wrote), you know all women better than if you’d known thousands of them.’
‘We’re coming!’ Vronsky shouted to the officer who looked into the room to summon them to the regimental commander.
Now Vronsky wanted to listen to the end and learn what Serpukhovskoy was going to tell him.
‘And here is my opinion for you. Women are the main stumbling block in a man’s activity. It’s hard to love a woman and do anything. For this there exists one means of loving conveniently, without hindrance – that is marriage. How can I tell you, how can I tell you what I’m thinking,’ said Serpukhovskoy, who liked comparisons, ‘wait, wait! Yes, it’s as if you’re carrying a fardeau and doing something with your hands is only possible if the fardeau is tied to your back – and that is marriage. And I felt it once I got married. I suddenly had my hands free. But dragging this fardeau around without marriage – that will make your hands so full that you won’t be able to do anything. Look at Mazankov, at Krupov. They ruined their careers on account of women.’
‘What sort of women!’ said Vronsky, recalling the Frenchwoman and the actress with whom the two men mentioned had had affairs.
‘So much the worse. The firmer a woman’s position in society, the worse it is. It’s the same as not only dragging the fardeau around in your arms, but tearing it away from someone else.’
‘You’ve never loved,’ Vronsky said softly, gazing before him and thinking of Anna.
‘Maybe not. But remember what I’ve told you. And also: women are all more material than men. We make something enormous out of love, and they’re always terre–à–terre.
This is the majority of women, but not to be confused with all women. There are a certain class of women whom are just impractical, if not more impractical, than men —but in general, there is far more sentiment and impracticality in men when it comes to love than women. ↩︎
That is all a joke ↩︎
It's no more subtle than that. ↩︎
Down to earth. ↩︎
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 216