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From Anna Karenina

From Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile. She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in a barely noticeable smile.

In groups and singly, people on foot began rushing from place to place in order to see better. In the very first moment, the compact group of riders stretched out and could be seen in twos and threes, one after another, nearing the stream. For the spectators it looked as if they were all riding together; but for the riders there were seconds of difference that were of great significance to them.

Excited and much too high-strung, Frou-Frou lost the first moment, and several horses took off ahead of her, but before reaching the stream, Vronsky, holding the horse back with all his strength as she moved into her stride, easily overtook three of them and ahead of him there remained only Makhotin’s chestnut Gladiator, whose rump bobbed steadily and easily just in front of Vronsky, and ahead of them all the lovely Diana, carrying Kuzovlev, more dead than alive.

For the first few minutes Vronsky was not yet master either of himself or of his horse. Up to the first obstacle, the stream, he was unable to guide his horse’s movements.

Gladiator and Diana came to it together and almost at one and the same moment: one-two, they rose above the river and flew across to the other side; effortlessly, as if flying, Frou-Frou soared after them, but just as Vronsky felt himself in the air, he suddenly saw, almost under his horse’s feet, Kuzovlev floundering with Diana on the other side of the stream (Kuzovlev had let go of the reins after the leap, and the horse, along with him, had gone flying head over heels). These details Vronsky learned afterwards; now all he saw was that Diana’s leg or head might be right on the spot where Frou-Frou had to land. But Frou-Frou, like a falling cat, strained her legs and back during the leap and, missing the horse, raced on.

‘Oh, you sweetheart!’ thought Vronsky.

After the stream, Vronsky fully mastered the horse and began holding her back, intending to go over the big barrier behind Makhotin and then, in the next unobstructed stretch of some five hundred yards, to try to get ahead of him.

The big barrier stood right in front of the tsar’s pavilion. The emperor, and the entire court, and throngs of people – all were looking at them, at him and at Makhotin, who kept one length ahead of him, as they approached the devil (as the solid barrier was called). Vronsky felt those eyes directed at him from all sides, but he saw nothing except the ears and neck of his horse, the earth racing towards him, and Gladiator’s croup and white legs beating out a quick rhythm ahead of him and maintaining the same distance. Gladiator rose, not knocking against anything, swung his short tail and disappeared from Vronsky’s sight.

‘Bravo!’ said some single voice.

That instant, just in front of him, the boards of the barrier flashed before Vronsky’s eyes. Without the least change of movement the horse soared under him; the boards vanished, and he only heard something knock behind him. Excited by Gladiator going ahead of her, the horse had risen too early before the barrier and knocked against it with a back hoof. But her pace did not change, and Vronsky, receiving a lump of mud in the face, realized that he was again the same distance from Gladiator. In front of him he again saw his croup, his short tail, and again the same swiftly moving white legs not getting any further away.

That same instant, as Vronsky was thinking that they now had to get ahead of Makhotin, Frou-Frou herself, already knowing his thought, speeded up noticeably without any urging and started to approach Makhotin from the most advantageous side – the side of the rope. Makhotin would not let her have the rope. Vronsky had just thought that they could also get round him on the outside, when Frou-Frou switched step and started to go ahead precisely that way. Frou-Frou’s shoulder, already beginning to darken with sweat, drew even with Gladiator’s croup. They took several strides together. But, before the obstacle they were approaching, Vronsky, to avoid making the larger circle, began working the reins and, on the slope itself, quickly got ahead of Makhotin. He saw his mud-spattered face flash by. It even seemed to him that he smiled. Vronsky got ahead of Makhotin, but he could feel him right behind him and constantly heard just at his back the steady tread and the short, still quite fresh breathing of Gladiator’s nostrils.

The next two obstacles, a ditch and a barrier, were passed easily, but Vronsky began to hear Gladiator’s tread and snort coming closer. He urged his horse on and felt with joy that she easily increased her pace, and the sound of Gladiator’s hoofs began to be heard again from the former distance.

Vronsky was leading the race – the very thing he had wanted and that Cord had advised him to do – and was now certain of success. His excitement, his joy and tenderness for Frou-Frou kept increasing. He would have liked to look back but did not dare to, and tried to calm himself down and not urge his horse on, so as to save a reserve in her equal to what he felt was still left in Gladiator. There remained one obstacle, the most difficult; if he got over it ahead of the others, he would come in first. He was riding towards the Irish bank. Together with Frou-Frou he could already see this bank in the distance, and the two together, he and his horse, had a moment’s doubt. He noticed some indecision in the horse’s ears and raised his whip, but felt at once that his doubt was groundless: the horse knew what was needed. She increased her speed and measuredly, exactly as he had supposed, soared up, pushing off from the ground and giving herself to the force of inertia, which carried her far beyond the ditch; and in the same rhythm, effortlessly, in the same step, Frou-Frou continued the race.

‘Bravo, Vronsky!’ He heard the voices of a group of people – his regiment and friends, he knew – who were standing by that obstacle; he could not mistake Yashvin’s voice, though he did not see him.

‘Oh, my lovely!’ he thought of Frou-Frou, listening to what was happening behind him. ‘He cleared it!’ he thought, hearing Gladiator’s hoofbeats behind him. There remained one little ditch of water five feet wide. Vronsky was not even looking at it, but, wishing to come in a long first, began working the reins in a circle, raising and lowering the horse’s head in rhythm with her pace. He felt that the horse was drawing on her last reserve; not only were her neck and shoulders wet, but sweat broke out in drops on her withers, her head, her pointed ears, and her breathing was sharp and short. But he knew that this reserve was more than enough for the remaining five hundred yards. Only because he felt himself closer to the earth, and from the special softness of her movement, could Vronsky tell how much the horse had increased her speed. She flew over the ditch as if without noticing it; she flew over it like a bird; but just then Vronsky felt to his horror that, having failed to keep up with the horse’s movement, he, not knowing how himself, had made a wrong, an unforgivable movement as he lowered himself into the saddle. His position suddenly changed, and he knew that something terrible had happened. He was not yet aware of what it was, when the white legs of the chestnut stallion flashed just beside him and Makhotin went by at a fast clip. Vronsky was touching the ground with one foot, and his horse was toppling over on that foot. He barely managed to free the foot before she fell on her side, breathing heavily and making vain attempts to rise with her slender, sweaty neck, fluttering on the ground at his feet like a wounded bird. The awkward movement Vronsky had made had broken her back. But he understood that much later. Now he saw only that Makhotin was quickly drawing away, while he, swaying, stood alone on the muddy, unmoving ground, and before him, gasping heavily, lay Frou-Frou, her head turned to him, looking at him with her lovely eye. Still not understanding what had happened, Vronsky pulled the horse by the reins. She again thrashed all over like a fish, creaking the wings of the saddle, freed her front legs, but, unable to lift her hindquarters, immediately staggered and fell on her side again. His face disfigured by passion, pale, his lower jaw trembling, Vronsky kicked her in the stomach with his heel and again started pulling at the reins. She did not move but, burying her nose in the ground, merely looked at her master with her speaking eye. ‘A-a-ah!’ groaned Vronsky, clutching his head.

‘A-a-ah, what have I done!’ he cried. ‘The race is lost! And it’s my own fault – shameful, unforgivable! And this poor, dear, destroyed horse! A-a-ah, what have I done!’

People – the doctor and his assistant, officers from his regiment – came running towards him. To his dismay, he felt that he was whole and unhurt. The horse had broken her back and they decided to shoot her. Vronsky was unable to answer questions, unable to talk to anyone. He turned and, without picking up the cap that had fallen from his head, left the racetrack, not knowing himself where he was going. He felt miserable. For the first time in his life he had experienced a heavy misfortune, a misfortune that was irremediable and for which he himself was to blame.

Yashvin overtook him with the cap, brought him home, and a half hour later Vronsky came to his senses. But the memory of this race remained in his soul for a long time as the most heavy and painful memory of his life.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina (Oprah’s Book Club) (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (p. 197-200). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.