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Chapter 25

There were seventeen officers in all riding in this race. The
race course was a large three-mile ring of the form of an ellipse
in front of the pavilion. On this course nine obstacles had been
arranged: the stream, a big and solid barrier five feet high,
just before the pavilion, a dry ditch, a ditch full of water, a
precipitous slope, an Irish barricade (one of the most difficult
obstacles, consisting of a mound fenced with brushwood, beyond
which was a ditch out of sight for the horses, so that the horse
had to clear both obstacles or might be killed); then two more
ditches filled with water, and one dry one; and the end of the
race was just facing the pavilion. But the race began not in the
ring, but two hundred yards away from it, and in that part of the
course was the first obstacle, a dammed-up stream, seven feet in
breadth, which the racers could leap or wade through as they

Three times they were ranged ready to start, but each time some
horse thrust itself out of line, and they had to begin again.
The umpire who was starting them, Colonel Sestrin, was beginning
to lose his temper, when at last for the fourth time he shouted
"Away!" and the racers started.

Every eye, every opera glass, was turned on the brightly colored
group of riders at the moment they were in line to start.

"They're off! They're starting!" was heard on all sides after
the hush of expectation.

And little groups and solitary figures among the public began
running from place to place to get a better view. In the very
first minute the close group of horsemen drew out, and it could
be seen that they were approaching the stream in two's and
three's and one behind another. To the spectators it seemed as
though they had all started simultaneously, but to the racers
there were seconds of difference that had great value to them.

Frou-Frou, excited and over-nervous, had lost the first moment,
and several horses had started before her, but before reaching
the stream, Vronsky, who was holding in the mare with all his
force as she tugged at the bridle, easily overtook three, and
there were left in front of him Mahotin's chestnut Gladiator,
whose hind-quarters were moving lightly and rhythmically up and
down exactly in front of Vronsky, and in front of all, the dainty
mare Diana bearing Kuzovlev more dead than alive.

For the first instant Vronsky was not master either of himself or
his mare. Up to the first obstacle, the stream, he could not
guide the motions of his mare.

Gladiator and Diana came up to it together and almost at the same
instant; simultaneously they rose above the stream and flew
across to the other side; Frou-Frou darted after them, as if
flying; but at the very moment when Vronsky felt himself in the
air, he suddenly saw almost under his mare's hoofs Kuzovlev, who
was floundering with Diana on the further side of the stream.
(Kuzovlev had let go the reins as he took the leap, and the mare
had sent him flying over her head.) Those details Vronsky learned
later; at the moment all he saw was that just under him, where
Frou-Frou must alight, Diana's legs or head might be in the way.
But Frou-Frou drew up her legs and back in the very act of
leaping, like a falling cat, and, clearing the other mare,
alighted beyond her.

"O the darling!" thought Vronsky.

After crossing the stream Vronsky had complete control of his
mare, and began holding her in, intending to cross the great
barrier behind Mahotin, and to try to overtake him in the clear
ground of about five hundred yards that followed it.

The great barrier stood just in front of the imperial pavilion.
The Tsar and the whole court and crowds of people were all gazing
at them--at him, and Mahotin a length ahead of him, as they drew
near the "devil," as the solid barrier was called. Vronsky was
aware of those eyes fastened upon him from all sides, but he saw
nothing except the ears and neck of his own mare, the ground
racing to meet him, and the back and white legs of Gladiator
beating time swiftly before him, and keeping always the same
distance ahead. Gladiator rose, with no sound of knocking
against anything. With a wave of his short tail he disappeared
from Vronsky's sight.

"Bravo!" cried a voice.

At the same instant, under Vronsky's eyes, right before him
flashed the palings of the barrier. Without the slightest change
in her action his mare flew over it; the palings vanished, and he
heard only a crash behind him. The mare, excited by Gladiator's
keeping ahead, had risen too soon before the barrier, and grazed
it with her hind hoofs. But her pace never changed, and Vronsky,
feeling a spatter of mud in his face, realized that he was once
more the same distance from Gladiator. Once more he perceived in
front of him the same back and short tail, and again the same
swiftly moving white legs that got no further away.

At the very moment when Vronsky thought that now was the time to
overtake Mahotin, Frou-Frou herself, understanding his thoughts,
without any incitement on his part, gained ground considerably,
and began getting alongside of Mahotin on the most favorable
side, close to the inner cord. Mahotin would not let her pass
that side. Vronsky had hardly formed the thought that he could
perhaps pass on the outer side, when Frou-Frou shifted her pace
and began overtaking him on the other side. Frou-Frou's
shoulder, beginning by now to be dark with sweat, was even with
Gladiator's back. For a few lengths they moved evenly. But
before the obstacle they were approaching, Vronsky began working
at the reins, anxious to avoid having to take the outer circle,
and swiftly passed Mahotin just upon the declivity. He caught a
glimpse of his mud-stained face as he flashed by. He even
fancied that he smiled. Vronsky passed Mahotin, but he was
immediately aware of him close upon him, and he never ceased
hearing the even-thudding hoofs and the rapid and still quite
fresh breathing of Gladiator.

The next two obstacles, the water course and the barrier, were
easily crossed, but Vronsky began to hear the snorting and thud
of Gladiator closer upon him. He urged on his mare, and to his
delight felt that she easily quickened her pace, and the thud of
Gladiator's hoofs was again heard at the same distance away.

Vronsky was at the head of the race, just as he wanted to be and
as Cord had advised, and now he felt sure of being the winner.
His excitement, his delight, and his tenderness for Frou-Frou
grew keener and keener. He longed to look round again, but he
did not dare do this, and tried to be cool and not to urge on his
mare so to keep the same reserve of force in her as he felt that
Gladiator still kept. There remained only one obstacle, the most
difficult; if he could cross it ahead of the others he would come
in first. He was flying towards the Irish barricade, Frou-Frou
and he both together saw the barricade in the distance, and both
the man and the mare had a moment's hesitation. He saw the
uncertainty in the mare's ears and lifted the whip, but at the
same time felt that his fears were groundless; the mare knew what
was wanted. She quickened her pace and rose smoothly, just as he
had fancied she would, and as she left the ground gave herself up
to the force of her rush, which carried her far beyond the ditch;
and with the same rhythm, without effort, with the same leg
forward, Frou-Frou fell back into her pace again.

"Bravo, Vronsky!" he heard shouts from a knot of men--he knew
they were his friends in the regiment--who were standing at the
obstacle. He could not fail to recognize Yashvin's voice though
he did not see him.

"O my sweet!" he said inwardly to Frou-Frou, as he listened for
what was happening behind. "He's cleared it!" he thought,
catching the thud of Gladiator's hoofs behind him. There
remained only the last ditch, filled with water and five feet
wide. Vronsky did not even look at it, but anxious to get in a
long way first began sawing away at the reins, lifting the mare's
head and letting it go in time with her paces. He felt that the
mare was at her very last reserve of strength; not her neck and
shoulders merely were wet, but the sweat was standing in drops on
her mane, her head, her sharp ears, and her breath came in short,
sharp gasps. But he knew that she had strength left more than
enough for the remaining five hundred yards. It was only from
feeling himself nearer the ground and from the peculiar
smoothness of his motion that Vronsky knew how greatly the mare
had quickened her pace. She flew over the ditch as though not
noticing it. She flew over it like a bird; but at the same
instant Vronsky, to his horror, felt that he had failed to keep
up with the mare's pace, that he had, he did not know how, made a
fearful, unpardonable mistake, in recovering his seat in the
saddle. All at once his position had shifted and he knew that
something awful had happened. He could not yet make out what had
happened, when the white legs of a chestnut horse flashed by
close to him, and Mahotin passed at a swift gallop. Vronsky was
touching the ground with one foot, and his mare was sinking on
that foot. He just had time to free his leg when she fell on one
side, gasping painfully, and, making vain efforts to rise with
her delicate, soaking neck, she fluttered on the ground at his
feet like a shot bird. The clumsy movement made by Vronsky had
broken her back. But that he only knew much later. At that
moment he knew only that Mahotin had down swiftly by, while he
stood staggering alone on the muddy, motionless ground, and
Frou-Frou lay gasping before him, bending her head back and
gazing at him with her exquisite eyes. Still unable to realize
what had happened, Vronsky tugged at his mare's reins. Again she
struggled all over like a fish, and her shoulders setting the
saddle heaving, she rose on her front legs but unable to lift her
back, she quivered all over and again fell on her side. With a
face hideous with passion, his lower jaw trembling, and his
cheeks white, Vronsky kicked her with his heel in the stomach and
again fell to tugging at the rein. She did not stir, but
thrusting her nose into the ground, she simply gazed at her
master with her speaking eyes.

"A--a--a!" groaned Vronsky, clutching at his head. "Ah! what
have I done!" he cried. "The race lost! And my fault! shameful,
unpardonable! And the poor darling, ruined mare! Ah! what have
I done!"

A crowd of men, a doctor and his assistant, the officers of his
regiment, ran up to him. To his misery he felt that he was whole
and unhurt. The mare had broken her back, and it was decided to
shoot her. Vronsky could not answer questions, could not speak
to anyone. He turned, and without picking up his cap that had
fallen off, walked away from the race course, not knowing where
he was going. He felt utterly wretched. For the first time in
his life he knew the bitterest sort of misfortune, misfortune
beyond remedy, and caused by his own fault.

Yashvin overtook him with his cap, and led him home, and half an
hour later Vronsky had regained his self-possession. But the
memory of that race remained for long in his heart, the cruelest
and bitterest memory of his life.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Fiction - Russian literature
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