“Yes, it’s a dirty business, there’s no denying,” a small gentleman assented in a high voice.
Next, a whole crowd of country gentlemen, surrounding a stout general, hurriedly came near Levin. These persons were unmistakably seeking a place where they could talk without being overheard.
“How dare he say I had his breeches stolen! Pawned them for drink, I expect. Damn the fellow, prince indeed! He’d better not say it, the beast!”
“But excuse me! They take their stand on the act,” was being said in another group; “the wife must be registered as noble.”
“Oh, damn your acts! I speak from my heart. We’re all gentlemen, aren’t we? Above suspicion.”
“Shall we go on, your excellency, fine champagne?”
Another group was following a nobleman, who was shouting something in a loud voice; it was one of the three intoxicated gentlemen.
“I always advised Marya Semyonovna to let for a fair rent, for she can never save a profit,” he heard a pleasant voice say. The speaker was a country gentleman with gray whiskers, wearing the regimental uniform of an old general staff-officer. It was the very landowner Levin had met at Sviazhsky’s. He knew him at once. The landowner too stared at Levin, and they exchanged greetings.
“Very glad to see you! To be sure! I remember you very well. Last year at our district marshal, Nikolay Ivanovitch’s.”
“Well, and how is your land doing?” asked Levin.
“Oh, still just the same, always at a loss,” the landowner answered with a resigned smile, but with an expression of serenity and conviction that so it must be. “And how do you come to be in our province?” he asked. “Come to take part in our coup d’etat?” he said, confidently pronouncing the French words with a bad accent. “All Russia’s here—gentlemen of the bedchamber, and everything short of the ministry.” He pointed to the imposing figure of Stepan Arkadyevitch in white trousers and his court uniform, walking by with a general.
“I ought to own that I don’t very well understand the drift of the provincial elections,” said Levin.
The landowner looked at him.
“Why, what is there to understand? There’s no meaning in it at all. It’s a decaying institution that goes on running only by the force of inertia. Just look, the very uniforms tell you that it’s an assembly of justices of the peace, permanent members of the court, and so on, but not of noblemen.”
“Then why do you come?” asked Levin.
“From habit, nothing else. Then, too, one must keep up connections. It’s a moral obligation of a sort. And then, to tell the truth, there’s one’s own interests. My son-in-law wants to stand as a permanent member; they’re not rich people, and he must be brought forward. These gentlemen, now, what do they come for?” he said, pointing to the malignant gentleman, who was talking at the high table.