Chapter 7

ELLEN perceived that the matter was very simple and easy from the ecclesiastical point of view, but that her spiritual counsellors raised difficulties simply because they were apprehensive of the way in which it might be looked at by the temporal authorities.

And, consequently, Ellen decided in her own mind that the way must be paved for society to look at the matter in the true light. She excited the jealousy of the old dignitary, and said the same thing to him as she had to her other suitor—that is, gave him to understand that the sole means of obtaining exclusive rights over her was to marry her. The elderly dignitary was, like the young foreign prince, for the first moment taken aback at this proposal of marriage from a wife whose husband was living. But Ellen’s unfaltering confidence in asserting that it was a matter as simple and natural as the marriage of an unmarried girl had its effect on him too. Had the slightest traces of hesitation, shame, or reserve been perceptible in Ellen herself, her case would have been undoubtedly lost. But far from it; with perfect directness and simple-hearted naïveté, she told her intimate friends (and that term included all Petersburg), that both the prince and the dignitary had made her proposals of marriage, and that she loved both, and was afraid of grieving either.

The rumour was immediately all over Petersburg—not that Ellen wanted a divorce from her husband (had such a rumour been discussed very many persons would have set themselves against any such illegal proceeding)—but that the unhappy, interesting Ellen was in hesitation which of her two suitors to marry. The question was no longer how far any marriage was possible, but simply which would be the more suitable match for her, and how the court would look at the question. There were, indeed, certain strait-laced people who could not rise to the high level of the subject, and saw in the project a desecration of the sanctity of marriage; but such persons were few in number, and they held their tongues; while the majority were interested in the question of Ellen’s happiness, and which would be the better match for her. As to whether it were right or wrong for a wife to marry when her husband was alive, that was not discussed, as the question was evidently not a subject of doubt for persons “wiser than you and me” (as was said), and to doubt the correctness of their decision would be risking the betrayal of one’s ignorance and absence of savoir faire.

Marya Dmitryevna Ahrosimov, who had come that summer to Petersburg to see one of her sons, was the only person who ventured on the direct expression of a contrary opinion. Meeting Ellen at a ball, Marya Dmitryevna stopped her in the middle of the room, and in the midst of a general silence said to her, in her harsh voice:

“So you are going to pass on from one husband to another, I hear! You think, I dare say, it’s a new fashion you are setting. But you are not the first, madam. That’s a very old idea. They do the same in all the …” And with these words, Marya Dmitryevna tucked up her broad sleeves with her usual menacing action, and looking severely round her, walked across the ballroom.

Though people were afraid of Marya Dmitryevna, yet in Petersburg they looked on her as a sort of buffoon, and therefore of all her words they noticed only the last coarse one, and repeated it to one another in whispers, supposing that the whole point of her utterance lay in that.

Prince Vassily had of late dropped into very frequently forgetting what he had said, and repeating the same phrase a hundred times; and every time he happened to see his daughter he used to say:

“Ellen, I have a word to say to you,” he would say, drawing her aside and pulling her arm downwards. “I have got wind of certain projects relative to … you know. Well, my dear child, you know how my father’s heart rejoices to know you are … You have suffered so much. But, my dear child, consult only your heart. That’s all I tell you.” And concealing an emotion identical on each occasion, he pressed his cheek to his daughter’s cheek and left her.

Bilibin, who had not lost his reputation as a wit, was a disinterested friend of Ellen’s; one of those friends always to be seen in the train of brilliant women, men friends who can never pass into the rank of lovers. One day, in a “small and intimate circle,” Bilibin gave his friend Ellen his views on the subject.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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