She was a thin, sallow, sickly, and nervous woman, with brilliant black eyes. She was fond of Kitty, and her affection for her showed itself, as the affection of married women for girls always does, in the desire to make a match for Kitty after her own ideal of married happiness; she wanted her to marry Vronsky. Levin she had often met at the Shtcherbatskys’ early in the winter, and she had always disliked him. Her invariable and favorite pursuit, when they met, consisted in making fun of him.
“I do like it when he looks down at me from the height of his grandeur, or breaks off his learned conversation with me because I’m a fool, or is condescending to me. I like that so; to see him condescending! I am so glad he can’t bear me,” she used to say of him.
She was right, for Levin actually could not bear her, and despised her for what she was proud of and regarded as a fine characteristic—her nervousness, her delicate contempt and indifference for everything coarse and earthly.
The Countess Nordston and Levin got into that relation with one another not seldom seen in society, when two persons, who remain externally on friendly terms, despise each other to such a degree that they cannot even take each other seriously, and cannot even be offended by each other.
The Countess Nordston pounced upon Levin at once.
“Ah, Konstantin Dmitrievitch! So you’ve come back to our corrupt Babylon,” she said, giving him her tiny, yellow hand, and recalling what he had chanced to say early in the winter, that Moscow was a Babylon. “Come, is Babylon reformed, or have you degenerated?” she added, glancing with a simper at Kitty.
“It’s very flattering for me, countess, that you remember my words so well,” responded Levin, who had succeeded in recovering his composure, and at once from habit dropped into his tone of joking hostility to the Countess Nordston. “They must certainly make a great impression on you.”
“Oh, I should think so! I always note them all down. Well, Kitty, have you been skating again?...”
And she began talking to Kitty. Awkward as it was for Levin to withdraw now, it would still have been easier for him to perpetrate this awkwardness than to remain all the evening and see Kitty, who glanced at him now and then and avoided his eyes. He was on the point of getting up, when the princess, noticing that he was silent, addressed him.
“Shall you be long in Moscow? You’re busy with the district council, though, aren’t you, and can’t be away for long?”
“No, princess, I’m no longer a member of the council,” he said. “I have come up for a few days.”
“There’s something the matter with him,” thought Countess Nordston, glancing at his stern, serious face. “He isn’t in his old argumentative mood. But I’ll draw him out. I do love making a fool of him before Kitty, and I’ll do it.”
“Konstantin Dmitrievitch,” she said to him, “do explain to me, please, what’s the meaning of it. You know all about such things. At home in our village of Kaluga all the peasants and all the women have drunk up all they possessed, and now they can’t pay us any rent. What’s the meaning of that? You always praise the peasants so.”