Chapter 22Alexei Alexandrovich had forgotten the Countess Lidia Ivanovna but she had not forgotten him. At the bitterest moment of his lonely despair she came to him, and, without waiting to be announced, walked straight into his study. She found him as he was sitting with his head in both hands.
`J'ai forcé la consigne,' she said, walking in with rapid steps and breathing hard with excitement and rapid exertion. `I have heard all! Alexei Alexandrovich! Dear friend!' she went on, warmly squeezing his hand in both of hers and gazing with her fine pensive eyes into his.
Alexei Alexandrovich, frowning, got up, and, disengaging his hand, moved a chair up for her.
`Won't you sit down, Countess? I'm seeing no one because I'm unwell, Countess,' he said, and his lips twitched.
`Dear friend!' repeated Countess Lidia Ivanovna, never taking her eyes off his, and suddenly her eyebrows rose at the inner corners, describing a triangle on her forehead, her ugly yellow face becoming still uglier, but Alexei Alexandrovich felt that she was sorry for him and was preparing to cry. And he too was softened; he snatched her plump hand and proceeded to kiss it.
`Dear friend!' she said in a voice breaking with emotion. `You ought not to give way to grief. Your sorrow is a great one, but you ought to find consolation.'
`I am crushed, I am annihilated, I am no longer a man!' said Alexei Alexandrovich, letting go her hand, but still gazing into her brimming eyes. `My position is so awful because I can find nowhere, I cannot find within me, strength to support me.'
`You will find support; seek it - not in me, though I beseech you to believe in my friendship,' she said, with a sigh. `Our support is love, that love that He has vouchsafed us. His burden is light,' she said, with the look of ecstasy Alexei Alexandrovich knew so well. `He will be your support and your succor.'
Although there was in these words a flavor of that sentimental emotion at her own lofty feelings, and that new mystical fervor which had lately gained ground in Peterburg, and which seemed to Alexei Alexandrovich disproportionate, still it was pleasant to him to hear this now.
`I am weak. I am crushed. I foresaw nothing, and now I understand nothing.'
`Dear friend!' repeated Lidia Ivanovna.
`It's not the loss of what I no longer have; it's not that!' pursued Alexei Alexandrovich. `I do not grieve for that. But I cannot help feeling ashamed before other people for the position I am placed in. It is wrong, but I can't help it - I can't help it.'
`It was not you who performed that noble act of forgiveness, at which I was moved to ecstasy, and everyone else too, but He, working within your heart,' said Countess Lidia Ivanovna, raising her eyes rapturously, `and so you cannot be ashamed of your act.'
Alexei Alexandrovich knit his brows, and, crooking his hands, he cracked his fingers.
`One must know all the details,' he said in his high voice. `A man's strength has its limits, Countess, and I have reached my limits. The whole day I have had to be making arrangements, arrangements about household matters arising' (he emphasized the word arising) `from my new, solitary position. The servants, the governess, the accounts.... These pinpricks have stabbed me to the heart, and I have not the strength to bear it. At dinner... yesterday, I was almost getting up from the dinner table. I could not bear the way my son looked at me. He did not ask me the meaning of it all, but he wanted to ask, and I could not bear the look in his eyes. He was afraid to look at me, but that is not all...' Alexei Alexandrovich would have referred to the bill that had been brought him, but his voice shook, and he stopped. That bill on blue paper, for a hat and ribbons, he could not recall without a rush of self-pity.
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