Natásha’s wedding to Bezúkhov, which took place in 1813, was the last happy event in the family of the old Rostóvs. Count Ilyá Rostóv died that same year and, as always happens, after the father’s death the family group broke up.
The events of the previous year: the burning of Moscow and the flight from it, the death of Prince Andrew, Natásha’s despair, Pétya’s death, and the old countess’ grief fell blow after blow on the old count’s head. He seemed to be unable to understand the meaning of all these events, and bowed his old head in a spiritual sense as if expecting and inviting further blows which would finish him. He seemed now frightened and distraught and now unnaturally animated and enterprising.
The arrangements for Natásha’s marriage occupied him for a while. He ordered dinners and suppers and obviously tried to appear cheerful, but his cheerfulness was not infectious as it used to be: on the contrary it evoked the compassion of those who knew and liked him.
When Pierre and his wife had left, he grew very quiet and began to complain of depression. A few days later he fell ill and took to his bed. He realized from the first that he would not get up again, despite the doctor’s encouragement. The countess passed a fortnight in an armchair by his pillow without undressing. Every time she gave him his medicine he sobbed and silently kissed her hand. On his last day, sobbing, he asked her and his absent son to forgive him for having dissipated their property—that being the chief fault of which he was conscious. After receiving communion and unction he quietly died; and next day a throng of acquaintances who came to pay their last respects to the deceased filled the house rented by the Rostóvs. All these acquaintances, who had so often dined and danced at his house and had so often laughed at him, now said, with a common feeling of self-reproach and emotion, as if justifying themselves: “Well, whatever he may have been he was a most worthy man. You don’t meet such men nowadays.... And which of us has not weaknesses of his own?”
It was just when the count’s affairs had become so involved that it was impossible to say what would happen if he lived another year that he unexpectedly died.
Nicholas was with the Russian army in Paris when the news of his father’s death reached him. He at once resigned his commission, and without waiting for it to be accepted took leave of absence and went to Moscow. The state of the count’s affairs became quite obvious a month after his death, surprising everyone by the immense total of small debts the existence of which no one had suspected. The debts amounted to double the value of the property.
Friends and relations advised Nicholas to decline the inheritance. But he regarded such a refusal as a slur on his father’s memory, which he held sacred, and therefore would not hear of refusing and accepted the inheritance together with the obligation to pay the debts.
The creditors who had so long been silent, restrained by a vague but powerful influence exerted on them while he lived by the count’s careless good nature, all proceeded to enforce their claims at once. As always happens in such cases rivalry sprang up as to which should get paid first, and those who like Mítenka held promissory notes given them as presents now became the most exacting of the creditors. Nicholas was allowed no respite and no peace, and those who had seemed to pity the old man—the cause of their losses (if they were losses)—now remorselessly pursued the young heir who had voluntarily undertaken the debts and was obviously not guilty of contracting them.
Not one of the plans Nicholas tried succeeded; the estate was sold by auction for half its value, and half the debts still remained unpaid. Nicholas accepted thirty thousand rubles offered him by his brother-in-law Bezúkhov to pay off debts he regarded as genuinely due for value received. And to avoid being imprisoned for the remainder, as the creditors threatened, he re-entered the government service.
He could not rejoin the army where he would have been made colonel at the next vacancy, for his mother now clung to him as her one hold on life; and so despite his reluctance to remain in Moscow among people who had known him before, and despite his abhorrence of the civil service, he accepted a post in Moscow in that service, doffed the uniform of which he was so fond, and moved with his mother and Sónya to a small house on the Sívtsev Vrazhók.
Natásha and Pierre were living in Petersburg at the time and had no clear idea of Nicholas’ circumstances. Having borrowed money from his brother-in-law, Nicholas tried to hide his wretched condition from him. His position was the more difficult because with his salary of twelve hundred rubles he had not only to keep himself, his mother, and Sónya, but had to shield his mother from knowledge of their poverty. The countess could not conceive of life without the luxurious conditions she had been used to from childhood and, unable to realize how hard it was for her son, kept demanding now a carriage (which they did not keep) to send for a friend, now some expensive article of food for herself, or wine for her son, or money to buy a present as a surprise for Natásha or Sónya, or for Nicholas himself.
Sónya kept house, attended on her aunt, read to her, put up with her whims and secret ill-will, and helped Nicholas to conceal their poverty from the old countess. Nicholas felt himself irredeemably indebted to Sónya for all she was doing for his mother and greatly admired her patience and devotion, but tried to keep aloof from her.
He seemed in his heart to reproach her for being too perfect, and because there was nothing to reproach her with. She had all that people are valued for, but little that could have made him love her. He felt that the more he valued her the less he loved her. He had taken her at her word when she wrote giving him his freedom and now behaved as if all that had passed between them had been long forgotten and could never in any case be renewed.
Nicholas’ position became worse and worse. The idea of putting something aside out of his salary proved a dream. Not only did he not save anything, but to comply with his mother’s demands he even incurred some small debts. He could see no way out of this situation. The idea of marrying some rich woman, which was suggested to him by his female relations, was repugnant to him. The other way out—his mother’s death—never entered his head. He wished for nothing and hoped for nothing, and deep in his heart experienced a gloomy and stern satisfaction in an uncomplaining endurance of his position. He tried to avoid his old acquaintances with their commiseration and offensive offers of assistance; he avoided all distraction and recreation, and even at home did nothing but play cards with his mother, pace silently up and down the room, and smoke one pipe after another. He seemed carefully to cherish within himself the gloomy mood which alone enabled him to endure his position.
At the beginning of winter Princess Mary came to Moscow. From reports current in town she learned how the Rostóvs were situated, and how “the son has sacrificed himself for his mother,” as people were saying.
“I never expected anything else of him,” said Princess Mary to herself, feeling a joyous sense of her love for him. Remembering her friendly relations with all the Rostóvs which had made her almost a member of the family, she thought it her duty to go to see them. But remembering her relations with Nicholas in Vorónezh she was shy about doing so. Making a great effort she did however go to call on them a few weeks after her arrival in Moscow.
Nicholas was the first to meet her, as the countess’ room could only be reached through his. But instead of being greeted with pleasure as she had expected, at his first glance at her his face assumed a cold, stiff, proud expression she had not seen on it before. He inquired about her health, led the way to his mother, and having sat there for five minutes left the room.
When the princess came out of the countess’ room Nicholas met her again, and with marked solemnity and stiffness accompanied her to the anteroom. To her remarks about his mother’s health he made no reply. “What’s that to you? Leave me in peace,” his looks seemed to say.
“Why does she come prowling here? What does she want? I can’t bear these ladies and all these civilities!” said he aloud in Sónya’s presence, evidently unable to repress his vexation, after the princess’ carriage had disappeared.
“Oh, Nicholas, how can you talk like that?” cried Sónya, hardly able to conceal her delight. “She is so kind and Mamma is so fond of her!”
Nicholas did not reply and tried to avoid speaking of the princess any more. But after her visit the old countess spoke of her several times a day.
She sang her praises, insisted that her son must call on her, expressed a wish to see her often, but yet always became ill-humored when she began to talk about her.
Nicholas tried to keep silence when his mother spoke of the princess, but his silence irritated her.
“She is a very admirable and excellent young woman,” said she, “and you must go and call on her. You would at least be seeing somebody, and I think it must be dull for you only seeing us.”
“But I don’t in the least want to, Mamma.”
“You used to want to, and now you don’t. Really I don’t understand you, my dear. One day you are dull, and the next you refuse to see anyone.”
“But I never said I was dull.”
“Why, you said yourself you don’t want even to see her. She is a very admirable young woman and you always liked her, but now suddenly you have got some notion or other in your head. You hide everything from me.”
“Not at all, Mamma.”
“If I were asking you to do something disagreeable now—but I only ask you to return a call. One would think mere politeness required it.... Well, I have asked you, and now I won’t interfere any more since you have secrets from your mother.”
“Well, then, I’ll go if you wish it.”
“It doesn’t matter to me. I only wish it for your sake.”
Nicholas sighed, bit his mustache, and laid out the cards for a patience, trying to divert his mother’s attention to another topic.
The same conversation was repeated next day and the day after, and the day after that.
After her visit to the Rostóvs and her unexpectedly chilly reception by Nicholas, Princess Mary confessed to herself that she had been right in not wishing to be the first to call.
“I expected nothing else,” she told herself, calling her pride to her aid. “I have nothing to do with him and I only wanted to see the old lady, who was always kind to me and to whom I am under many obligations.”
But she could not pacify herself with these reflections; a feeling akin to remorse troubled her when she thought of her visit. Though she had firmly resolved not to call on the Rostóvs again and to forget the whole matter, she felt herself all the time in an awkward position. And when she asked herself what distressed her, she had to admit that it was her relation to Rostóv. His cold, polite manner did not express his feeling for her (she knew that) but it concealed something, and until she could discover what that something was, she felt that she could not be at ease.
One day in midwinter when sitting in the schoolroom attending to her nephew’s lessons, she was informed that Rostóv had called. With a firm resolution not to betray herself and not show her agitation, she sent for Mademoiselle Bourienne and went with her to the drawing room.
Her first glance at Nicholas’ face told her that he had only come to fulfill the demands of politeness, and she firmly resolved to maintain the tone in which he addressed her.
They spoke of the countess’ health, of their mutual friends, of the latest war news, and when the ten minutes required by propriety had elapsed after which a visitor may rise, Nicholas got up to say good-by.
With Mademoiselle Bourienne’s help the princess had maintained the conversation very well, but at the very last moment, just when he rose, she was so tired of talking of what did not interest her, and her mind was so full of the question why she alone was granted so little happiness in life, that in a fit of absent-mindedness she sat still, her luminous eyes gazing fixedly before her, not noticing that he had risen.
Nicholas glanced at her and, wishing to appear not to notice her abstraction, made some remark to Mademoiselle Bourienne and then again looked at the princess. She still sat motionless with a look of suffering on her gentle face. He suddenly felt sorry for her and was vaguely conscious that he might be the cause of the sadness her face expressed. He wished to help her and say something pleasant, but could think of nothing to say.
“Good-by, Princess!” said he.
She started, flushed, and sighed deeply.
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” she said as if waking up. “Are you going already, Count? Well then, good-by! Oh, but the cushion for the countess!”
“Wait a moment, I’ll fetch it,” said Mademoiselle Bourienne, and she left the room.
They both sat silent, with an occasional glance at one another.
“Yes, Princess,” said Nicholas at last with a sad smile, “it doesn’t seem long ago since we first met at Boguchárovo, but how much water has flowed since then! In what distress we all seemed to be then, yet I would give much to bring back that time... but there’s no bringing it back.”
Princess Mary gazed intently into his eyes with her own luminous ones as he said this. She seemed to be trying to fathom the hidden meaning of his words which would explain his feeling for her.
“Yes, yes,” said she, “but you have no reason to regret the past, Count. As I understand your present life, I think you will always recall it with satisfaction, because the self-sacrifice that fills it now...”
“I cannot accept your praise,” he interrupted her hurriedly. “On the contrary I continually reproach myself.... But this is not at all an interesting or cheerful subject.”
His face again resumed its former stiff and cold expression. But the princess had caught a glimpse of the man she had known and loved, and it was to him that she now spoke.
“I thought you would allow me to tell you this,” she said. “I had come so near to you... and to all your family that I thought you would not consider my sympathy misplaced, but I was mistaken,” and suddenly her voice trembled. “I don’t know why,” she continued, recovering herself, “but you used to be different, and...”
“There are a thousand reasons why,” laying special emphasis on the why. “Thank you, Princess,” he added softly. “Sometimes it is hard.”
“So that’s why! That’s why!” a voice whispered in Princess Mary’s soul. “No, it was not only that gay, kind, and frank look, not only that handsome exterior, that I loved in him. I divined his noble, resolute, self-sacrificing spirit too,” she said to herself. “Yes, he is poor now and I am rich.... Yes, that’s the only reason.... Yes, were it not for that...” And remembering his former tenderness, and looking now at his kind, sorrowful face, she suddenly understood the cause of his coldness.
“But why, Count, why?” she almost cried, unconsciously moving closer to him. “Why? Tell me. You must tell me!”
He was silent.
“I don’t understand your why, Count,” she continued, “but it’s hard for me... I confess it. For some reason you wish to deprive me of our former friendship. And that hurts me.” There were tears in her eyes and in her voice. “I have had so little happiness in life that every loss is hard for me to bear.... Excuse me, good-by!” and suddenly she began to cry and was hurrying from the room.
“Princess, for God’s sake!” he exclaimed, trying to stop her. “Princess!”
She turned round. For a few seconds they gazed silently into one another’s eyes—and what had seemed impossible and remote suddenly became possible, inevitable, and very near.
In the winter of 1813 Nicholas married Princess Mary and moved to Bald Hills with his wife, his mother, and Sónya.
Within four years he had paid off all his remaining debts without selling any of his wife’s property, and having received a small inheritance on the death of a cousin he paid his debt to Pierre as well.
In another three years, by 1820, he had so managed his affairs that he was able to buy a small estate adjoining Bald Hills and was negotiating to buy back Otrádnoe—that being his pet dream.
Having started farming from necessity, he soon grew so devoted to it that it became his favorite and almost his sole occupation. Nicholas was a plain farmer: he did not like innovations, especially the English ones then coming into vogue. He laughed at theoretical treatises on estate management, disliked factories, the raising of expensive products, and the buying of expensive seed corn, and did not make a hobby of any particular part of the work on his estate. He always had before his mind’s eye the estate as a whole and not any particular part of it. The chief thing in his eyes was not the nitrogen in the soil, nor the oxygen in the air, nor manures, nor special plows, but that most important agent by which nitrogen, oxygen, manure, and plow were made effective—the peasant laborer. When Nicholas first began farming and began to understand its different branches, it was the serf who especially attracted his attention. The peasant seemed to him not merely a tool, but also a judge of farming and an end in himself. At first he watched the serfs, trying to understand their aims and what they considered good and bad, and only pretended to direct them and give orders while in reality learning from them their methods, their manner of speech, and their judgment of what was good and bad. Only when he had understood the peasants’ tastes and aspirations, had learned to talk their language, to grasp the hidden meaning of their words, and felt akin to them did he begin boldly to manage his serfs, that is, to perform toward them the duties demanded of him. And Nicholas’ management produced very brilliant results.
Guided by some gift of insight, on taking up the management of the estates he at once unerringly appointed as bailiff, village elder, and delegate, the very men the serfs would themselves have chosen had they had the right to choose, and these posts never changed hands. Before analyzing the properties of manure, before entering into the debit and credit (as he ironically called it), he found out how many cattle the peasants had and increased the number by all possible means. He kept the peasant families together in the largest groups possible, not allowing the family groups to divide into separate households. He was hard alike on the lazy, the depraved, and the weak, and tried to get them expelled from the commune.
He was as careful of the sowing and reaping of the peasants’ hay and corn as of his own, and few landowners had their crops sown and harvested so early and so well, or got so good a return, as did Nicholas.
He disliked having anything to do with the domestic serfs—the “drones” as he called them—and everyone said he spoiled them by his laxity. When a decision had to be taken regarding a domestic serf, especially if one had to be punished, he always felt undecided and consulted everybody in the house; but when it was possible to have a domestic serf conscripted instead of a land worker he did so without the least hesitation. He never felt any hesitation in dealing with the peasants. He knew that his every decision would be approved by them all with very few exceptions.
He did not allow himself either to be hard on or punish a man, or to make things easy for or reward anyone, merely because he felt inclined to do so. He could not have said by what standard he judged what he should or should not do, but the standard was quite firm and definite in his own mind.
Often, speaking with vexation of some failure or irregularity, he would say: “What can one do with our Russian peasants?” and imagined that he could not bear them.
Yet he loved “our Russian peasants” and their way of life with his whole soul, and for that very reason had understood and assimilated the one way and manner of farming which produced good results.
Countess Mary was jealous of this passion of her husband’s and regretted that she could not share it; but she could not understand the joys and vexations he derived from that world, to her so remote and alien. She could not understand why he was so particularly animated and happy when, after getting up at daybreak and spending the whole morning in the fields or on the threshing floor, he returned from the sowing or mowing or reaping to have tea with her. She did not understand why he spoke with such admiration and delight of the farming of the thrifty and well-to-do peasant Matthew Ermíshin, who with his family had carted corn all night; or of the fact that his (Nicholas’) sheaves were already stacked before anyone else had his harvest in. She did not understand why he stepped out from the window to the veranda and smiled under his mustache and winked so joyfully, when warm steady rain began to fall on the dry and thirsty shoots of the young oats, or why when the wind carried away a threatening cloud during the hay harvest he would return from the barn, flushed, sunburned, and perspiring, with a smell of wormwood and gentian in his hair and, gleefully rubbing his hands, would say: “Well, one more day and my grain and the peasants’ will all be under cover.”
Still less did she understand why he, kindhearted and always ready to anticipate her wishes, should become almost desperate when she brought him a petition from some peasant men or women who had appealed to her to be excused some work; why he, that kind Nicholas, should obstinately refuse her, angrily asking her not to interfere in what was not her business. She felt he had a world apart, which he loved passionately and which had laws she had not fathomed.
Sometimes when, trying to understand him, she spoke of the good work he was doing for his serfs, he would be vexed and reply: “Not in the least; it never entered my head and I wouldn’t do that for their good! That’s all poetry and old wives’ talk—all that doing good to one’s neighbor! What I want is that our children should not have to go begging. I must put our affairs in order while I am alive, that’s all. And to do that, order and strictness are essential.... That’s all about it!” said he, clenching his vigorous fist. “And fairness, of course,” he added, “for if the peasant is naked and hungry and has only one miserable horse, he can do no good either for himself or for me.”
And all Nicholas did was fruitful—probably just because he refused to allow himself to think that he was doing good to others for virtue’s sake. His means increased rapidly; serfs from neighboring estates came to beg him to buy them, and long after his death the memory of his administration was devoutly preserved among the serfs. “He was a master... the peasants’ affairs first and then his own. Of course he was not to be trifled with either—in a word, he was a real master!”
One matter connected with his management sometimes worried Nicholas, and that was his quick temper together with his old hussar habit of making free use of his fists. At first he saw nothing reprehensible in this, but in the second year of his marriage his view of that form of punishment suddenly changed.
Once in summer he had sent for the village elder from Boguchárovo, a man who had succeeded to the post when Dron died and who was accused of dishonesty and various irregularities. Nicholas went out into the porch to question him, and immediately after the elder had given a few replies the sound of cries and blows were heard. On returning to lunch Nicholas went up to his wife, who sat with her head bent low over her embroidery frame, and as usual began to tell her what he had been doing that morning. Among other things he spoke of the Boguchárovo elder. Countess Mary turned red and then pale, but continued to sit with head bowed and lips compressed and gave her husband no reply.
“Such an insolent scoundrel!” he cried, growing hot again at the mere recollection of him. “If he had told me he was drunk and did not see... But what is the matter with you, Mary?” he suddenly asked.
Countess Mary raised her head and tried to speak, but hastily looked down again and her lips puckered.
“Why, whatever is the matter, my dearest?”
The looks of the plain Countess Mary always improved when she was in tears. She never cried from pain or vexation, but always from sorrow or pity, and when she wept her radiant eyes acquired an irresistible charm.
The moment Nicholas took her hand she could no longer restrain herself and began to cry.
“Nicholas, I saw it... he was to blame, but why do you... Nicholas!” and she covered her face with her hands.
Nicholas said nothing. He flushed crimson, left her side, and paced up and down the room. He understood what she was weeping about, but could not in his heart at once agree with her that what he had regarded from childhood as quite an everyday event was wrong. “Is it just sentimentality, old wives’ tales, or is she right?” he asked himself. Before he had solved that point he glanced again at her face filled with love and pain, and he suddenly realized that she was right and that he had long been sinning against himself.
“Mary,” he said softly, going up to her, “it will never happen again; I give you my word. Never,” he repeated in a trembling voice like a boy asking for forgiveness.
The tears flowed faster still from the countess’ eyes. She took his hand and kissed it.
“Nicholas, when did you break your cameo?” she asked to change the subject, looking at his finger on which he wore a ring with a cameo of Laocoön’s head.
“Today—it was the same affair. Oh, Mary, don’t remind me of it!” and again he flushed. “I give you my word of honor it shan’t occur again, and let this always be a reminder to me,” and he pointed to the broken ring.
After that, when in discussions with his village elders or stewards the blood rushed to his face and his fists began to clench, Nicholas would turn the broken ring on his finger and would drop his eyes before the man who was making him angry. But he did forget himself once or twice within a twelvemonth, and then he would go and confess to his wife, and would again promise that this should really be the very last time.
“Mary, you must despise me!” he would say. “I deserve it.”
“You should go, go away at once, if you don’t feel strong enough to control yourself,” she would reply sadly, trying to comfort her husband.
Among the gentry of the province Nicholas was respected but not liked. He did not concern himself with the interests of his own class, and consequently some thought him proud and others thought him stupid. The whole summer, from spring sowing to harvest, he was busy with the work on his farm. In autumn he gave himself up to hunting with the same business-like seriousness—leaving home for a month, or even two, with his hunt. In winter he visited his other villages or spent his time reading. The books he read were chiefly historical, and on these he spent a certain sum every year. He was collecting, as he said, a serious library, and he made it a rule to read through all the books he bought. He would sit in his study with a grave air, reading—a task he first imposed upon himself as a duty, but which afterwards became a habit affording him a special kind of pleasure and a consciousness of being occupied with serious matters. In winter, except for business excursions, he spent most of his time at home making himself one with his family and entering into all the details of his children’s relations with their mother. The harmony between him and his wife grew closer and closer and he daily discovered fresh spiritual treasures in her.
From the time of his marriage Sónya had lived in his house. Before that, Nicholas had told his wife all that had passed between himself and Sónya, blaming himself and commending her. He had asked Princess Mary to be gentle and kind to his cousin. She thoroughly realized the wrong he had done Sónya, felt herself to blame toward her, and imagined that her wealth had influenced Nicholas’ choice. She could not find fault with Sónya in any way and tried to be fond of her, but often felt ill-will toward her which she could not overcome.
Once she had a talk with her friend Natásha about Sónya and about her own injustice toward her.
“You know,” said Natásha, “you have read the Gospels a great deal—there is a passage in them that just fits Sónya.”
“What?” asked Countess Mary, surprised.
“‘To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away.’ You remember? She is one that hath not; why, I don’t know. Perhaps she lacks egotism, I don’t know, but from her is taken away, and everything has been taken away. Sometimes I am dreadfully sorry for her. Formerly I very much wanted Nicholas to marry her, but I always had a sort of presentiment that it would not come off. She is a sterile flower, you know—like some strawberry blossoms. Sometimes I am sorry for her, and sometimes I think she doesn’t feel it as you or I would.”
Though Countess Mary told Natásha that those words in the Gospel must be understood differently, yet looking at Sónya she agreed with Natásha’s explanation. It really seemed that Sónya did not feel her position trying, and had grown quite reconciled to her lot as a sterile flower. She seemed to be fond not so much of individuals as of the family as a whole. Like a cat, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home. She waited on the old countess, petted and spoiled the children, was always ready to render the small services for which she had a gift, and all this was unconsciously accepted from her with insufficient gratitude.
The country seat at Bald Hills had been rebuilt, though not on the same scale as under the old prince.
The buildings, begun under straitened circumstances, were more than simple. The immense house on the old stone foundations was of wood, plastered only inside. It had bare deal floors and was furnished with very simple hard sofas, armchairs, tables, and chairs made by their own serf carpenters out of their own birchwood. The house was spacious and had rooms for the house serfs and apartments for visitors. Whole families of the Rostóvs’ and Bolkónskis’ relations sometimes came to Bald Hills with sixteen horses and dozens of servants and stayed for months. Besides that, four times a year, on the name days and birthdays of the hosts, as many as a hundred visitors would gather there for a day or two. The rest of the year life pursued its unbroken routine with its ordinary occupations, and its breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and suppers, provided out of the produce of the estate.
It was the eve of St. Nicholas, the fifth of December, 1820. Natásha had been staying at her brother’s with her husband and children since early autumn. Pierre had gone to Petersburg on business of his own for three weeks as he said, but had remained there nearly seven weeks and was expected back every minute.
Besides the Bezúkhov family, Nicholas’ old friend the retired General Vasíli Dmítrich Denísov was staying with the Rostóvs this fifth of December.
On the sixth, which was his name day when the house would be full of visitors, Nicholas knew he would have to exchange his Tartar tunic for a tail coat, and put on narrow boots with pointed toes, and drive to the new church he had built, and then receive visitors who would come to congratulate him, offer them refreshments, and talk about the elections of the nobility; but he considered himself entitled to spend the eve of that day in his usual way. He examined the bailiff’s accounts of the village in Ryazán which belonged to his wife’s nephew, wrote two business letters, and walked over to the granaries, cattle yards and stables before dinner. Having taken precautions against the general drunkenness to be expected on the morrow because it was a great saint’s day, he returned to dinner, and without having time for a private talk with his wife sat down at the long table laid for twenty persons, at which the whole household had assembled. At that table were his mother, his mother’s old lady companion Belóva, his wife, their three children with their governess and tutor, his wife’s nephew with his tutor, Sónya, Denísov, Natásha, her three children, their governess, and old Michael Ivánovich, the late prince’s architect, who was living on in retirement at Bald Hills.
Countess Mary sat at the other end of the table. When her husband took his place she concluded, from the rapid manner in which after taking up his table napkin he pushed back the tumbler and wineglass standing before him, that he was out of humor, as was sometimes the case when he came in to dinner straight from the farm—especially before the soup. Countess Mary well knew that mood of his, and when she herself was in a good frame of mind quietly waited till he had had his soup and then began to talk to him and make him admit that there was no cause for his ill-humor. But today she quite forgot that and was hurt that he should be angry with her without any reason, and she felt unhappy. She asked him where he had been. He replied. She again inquired whether everything was going well on the farm. Her unnatural tone made him wince unpleasantly and he replied hastily.
“Then I’m not mistaken,” thought Countess Mary. “Why is he cross with me?” She concluded from his tone that he was vexed with her and wished to end the conversation. She knew her remarks sounded unnatural, but could not refrain from asking some more questions.
Thanks to Denísov the conversation at table soon became general and lively, and she did not talk to her husband. When they left the table and went as usual to thank the old countess, Countess Mary held out her hand and kissed her husband, and asked him why he was angry with her.
“You always have such strange fancies! I didn’t even think of being angry,” he replied.
But the word always seemed to her to imply: “Yes, I am angry but I won’t tell you why.”
Nicholas and his wife lived together so happily that even Sónya and the old countess, who felt jealous and would have liked them to disagree, could find nothing to reproach them with; but even they had their moments of antagonism. Occasionally, and it was always just after they had been happiest together, they suddenly had a feeling of estrangement and hostility, which occurred most frequently during Countess Mary’s pregnancies, and this was such a time.
“Well, messieurs et mesdames,” said Nicholas loudly and with apparent cheerfulness (it seemed to Countess Mary that he did it on purpose to vex her), “I have been on my feet since six this morning. Tomorrow I shall have to suffer, so today I’ll go and rest.”
And without a word to his wife he went to the little sitting room and lay down on the sofa.
“That’s always the way,” thought Countess Mary. “He talks to everyone except me. I see... I see that I am repulsive to him, especially when I am in this condition.” She looked down at her expanded figure and in the glass at her pale, sallow, emaciated face in which her eyes now looked larger than ever.
And everything annoyed her—Denísov’s shouting and laughter, Natásha’s talk, and especially a quick glance Sónya gave her.
Sónya was always the first excuse Countess Mary found for feeling irritated.
Having sat awhile with her visitors without understanding anything of what they were saying, she softly left the room and went to the nursery.
The children were playing at “going to Moscow” in a carriage made of chairs and invited her to go with them. She sat down and played with them a little, but the thought of her husband and his unreasonable crossness worried her. She got up and, walking on tiptoe with difficulty, went to the small sitting room.
“Perhaps he is not asleep; I’ll have an explanation with him,” she said to herself. Little Andrew, her eldest boy, imitating his mother, followed her on tiptoe. She did not notice him.
“Mary, dear, I think he is asleep—he was so tired,” said Sónya, meeting her in the large sitting room (it seemed to Countess Mary that she crossed her path everywhere). “Andrew may wake him.”
Countess Mary looked round, saw little Andrew following her, felt that Sónya was right, and for that very reason flushed and with evident difficulty refrained from saying something harsh. She made no reply, but to avoid obeying Sónya beckoned to Andrew to follow her quietly and went to the door. Sónya went away by another door. From the room in which Nicholas was sleeping came the sound of his even breathing, every slightest tone of which was familiar to his wife. As she listened to it she saw before her his smooth handsome forehead, his mustache, and his whole face, as she had so often seen it in the stillness of the night when he slept. Nicholas suddenly moved and cleared his throat. And at that moment little Andrew shouted from outside the door: “Papa! Mamma’s standing here!” Countess Mary turned pale with fright and made signs to the boy. He grew silent, and quiet ensued for a moment, terrible to Countess Mary. She knew how Nicholas disliked being waked. Then through the door she heard Nicholas clearing his throat again and stirring, and his voice said crossly:
“I can’t get a moment’s peace.... Mary, is that you? Why did you bring him here?”
“I only came in to look and did not notice... forgive me....”
Nicholas coughed and said no more. Countess Mary moved away from the door and took the boy back to the nursery. Five minutes later little black-eyed three-year-old Natásha, her father’s pet, having learned from her brother that Papa was asleep and Mamma was in the sitting room, ran to her father unobserved by her mother. The dark-eyed little girl boldly opened the creaking door, went up to the sofa with energetic steps of her sturdy little legs, and having examined the position of her father, who was asleep with his back to her, rose on tiptoe and kissed the hand which lay under his head. Nicholas turned with a tender smile on his face.
“Natásha, Natásha!” came Countess Mary’s frightened whisper from the door. “Papa wants to sleep.”
“No, Mamma, he doesn’t want to sleep,” said little Natásha with conviction. “He’s laughing.”
Nicholas lowered his legs, rose, and took his daughter in his arms.
“Come in, Mary,” he said to his wife.
She went in and sat down by her husband.
“I did not notice him following me,” she said timidly. “I just looked in.”
Holding his little girl with one arm, Nicholas glanced at his wife and, seeing her guilty expression, put his other arm around her and kissed her hair.
“May I kiss Mamma?” he asked Natásha.
Natásha smiled bashfully.
“Again!” she commanded, pointing with a peremptory gesture to the spot where Nicholas had placed the kiss.
“I don’t know why you think I am cross,” said Nicholas, replying to the question he knew was in his wife’s mind.
“You have no idea how unhappy, how lonely, I feel when you are like that. It always seems to me...”
“Mary, don’t talk nonsense. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” he said gaily.
“It seems to be that you can’t love me, that I am so plain... always... and now... in this cond...”
“Oh, how absurd you are! It is not beauty that endears, it’s love that makes us see beauty. It is only Malvínas and women of that kind who are loved for their beauty. But do I love my wife? I don’t love her, but... I don’t know how to put it. Without you, or when something comes between us like this, I seem lost and can’t do anything. Now do I love my finger? I don’t love it, but just try to cut it off!”
“I’m not like that myself, but I understand. So you’re not angry with me?”
“Awfully angry!” he said, smiling and getting up. And smoothing his hair he began to pace the room.
“Do you know, Mary, what I’ve been thinking?” he began, immediately thinking aloud in his wife’s presence now that they had made it up.
He did not ask if she was ready to listen to him. He did not care. A thought had occurred to him and so it belonged to her also. And he told her of his intention to persuade Pierre to stay with them till spring.
Countess Mary listened till he had finished, made some remark, and in her turn began thinking aloud. Her thoughts were about the children.
“You can see the woman in her already,” she said in French, pointing to little Natásha. “You reproach us women with being illogical. Here is our logic. I say: ‘Papa wants to sleep!’ but she says, ‘No, he’s laughing.’ And she was right,” said Countess Mary with a happy smile.
“Yes, yes.” And Nicholas, taking his little daughter in his strong hand, lifted her high, placed her on his shoulder, held her by the legs, and paced the room with her. There was an expression of carefree happiness on the faces of both father and daughter.
“But you know you may be unfair. You are too fond of this one,” his wife whispered in French.
“Yes, but what am I to do?... I try not to show...”
At that moment they heard the sound of the door pulley and footsteps in the hall and anteroom, as if someone had arrived.
“Somebody has come.”
“I am sure it is Pierre. I will go and see,” said Countess Mary and left the room.
In her absence Nicholas allowed himself to give his little daughter a gallop round the room. Out of breath, he took the laughing child quickly from his shoulder and pressed her to his heart. His capers reminded him of dancing, and looking at the child’s round happy little face he thought of what she would be like when he was an old man, taking her into society and dancing the mazurka with her as his old father had danced Daniel Cooper with his daughter.
“It is he, it is he, Nicholas!” said Countess Mary, re-entering the room a few minutes later. “Now our Natásha has come to life. You should have seen her ecstasy, and how he caught it for having stayed away so long. Well, come along now, quick, quick! It’s time you two were parted,” she added, looking smilingly at the little girl who clung to her father.
Nicholas went out holding the child by the hand.
Countess Mary remained in the sitting room.
“I should never, never have believed that one could be so happy,” she whispered to herself. A smile lit up her face but at the same time she sighed, and her deep eyes expressed a quiet sadness as though she felt, through her happiness, that there is another sort of happiness unattainable in this life and of which she involuntarily thought at that instant.