Youth (1856)/ XLII.



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Youth by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by C. J. Hogarth.
XLII. Our Stepmother

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XLII.

OUR STEPMOTHER

Notwithstanding that Papa had not meant to return to Moscow before the New Year, he arrived in October, when there was still good riding to hounds to be had in the country. He alleged as his reason for changing his mind that his suit was shortly to come on before the Senate, but Mimi averred that Avdotia had found herself so ennuyee in the country, and had so often talked about Moscow and pretended to be unwell, that Papa had decided to accede to her wishes. "You see, she never really loved him--she and her love only kept buzzing about his ears because she wanted to marry a rich man," added Mimi with a pensive sigh which said: "To think what a certain other person could have done for him if only he had valued her!"

Yet that "certain other person" was unjust to Avdotia, seeing that the latter's affection for Papa--the passionate, devoted love of self-abandonment--revealed itself in her every look and word and movement. At the same time, that love in no way hindered her, not only from being averse to parting with her adored husband, but also from desiring to visit Madame Annette's and order there a lovely cap, a hat trimmed with a magnificent blue ostrich feather, and a blue Venetian velvet bodice which was to expose to the public gaze the snowy, well shaped breast and arms which no one had yet gazed upon except her husband and maids. Of course Katenka sided with her mother and, in general, there became established between Avdotia and ourselves, from the day of her arrival, the most extraordinary and burlesque order of relations. As soon as she stepped from the carriage, Woloda assumed an air of great seriousness and ceremony, and, advancing towards her with much bowing and scraping, said in the tone of one who is presenting something for acceptance:

"I have the honour to greet the arrival of our dear Mamma, and to kiss her hand."

"Ah, my dear son!" she replied with her beautiful, unvarying smile.

"And do not forget the younger son," I said as I also approached her hand, with an involuntary imitation of Woloda's voice and expression.

Had our stepmother and ourselves been certain of any mutual affection, that expression might have signified contempt for any outward manifestation of our love. Had we been ill-disposed towards one another, it might have denoted irony, or contempt for pretence, or a desire to conceal from Papa (standing by the while) our real relations, as well as many other thoughts and sentiments. But, as a matter of fact, that expression (which well consorted with Avdotia's own spirit) simply signified nothing at all--simply concealed the absence of any definite relations between us. In later life I often had occasion to remark, in the case of other families whose members anticipated among themselves relations not altogether harmonious, the sort of provisional, burlesque relations which they formed for daily use; and it was just such relations as those which now became established between ourselves and our stepmother. We scarcely ever strayed beyond them, but were polite to her, conversed with her in French, bowed and scraped before her, and called her "chere Maman"--a term to which she always responded in a tone of similar lightness and with her beautiful, unchanging smile. Only the lachrymose Lubotshka, with her goose feet and artless prattle, really liked our stepmother, or tried, in her naive and frequently awkward way, to bring her and ourselves together: wherefore the only person in the world for whom, besides Papa, Avdotia had a spark of affection was Lubotshka. Indeed, Avdotia always treated her with a kind of grave admiration and timid deference which greatly surprised me.

As the result of these and many other constant sacrifices which occurred in Papa's relations with his wife during the latter months of that winter (a time when he lost much, and was therefore out of spirits), there gradually grew up between the two an intermittent feeling of tacit hostility--of restrained aversion to the object of devotion of the kind which expresses itself in an unconscious eagerness to show the object in question every possible species of petty annoyance.


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