THE COUNTESS was so tired from seeing visitors that she gave orders that she would see no one else, and the doorkeeper was told to be sure and invite to dinner every one who should call with congratulations. The countess was longing for a tête-à-tête talk with the friend of her childhood, Anna Mihalovna, whom she had not seen properly since she had arrived from Petersburg. Anna Mihalovna, with her tear-worn and amiable face, moved closer up to the countess's easy-chair.
“With you I will be perfectly open,” said Anna Mihalovna. “We haven't many old friends left. That's how it is I value your friendship so.”
Anna Mihalovna looked at Vera and stopped. The countess pressed her friend's hand.
“Vera,” said the countess to her eldest daughter, unmistakably not her favourite, “how is it you have no notion about anything? Don't you feel that you're not wanted here? Go to your sister or …”
The handsome young countess smiled scornfully, apparently not in the least mortified.
“If you had told me, mamma, I would have gone away long ago,” she said, and went off towards her own room. But passing through the divan-room, she noticed two couples sitting symmetrically in the two windows. She stopped and smiled contemptuously at them. Sonya was sitting close beside Nikolay, who was copying out some verses for her, the first he had ever written. Boris and Natasha were sitting in the other window, and were silent when Vera came in. Sonya and Natasha looked at Vera with guilty, happy faces.
It was an amusing and touching sight to see these little girls in love, but the sight of them did not apparently arouse any agreeable feeling in Vera. “How often have I asked you,” she said, “not to take my things? You have a room of your own.” She took the inkstand away from Nikolay.
“One minute, one minute,” he said, dipping his pen in.
“You always manage to do things just at the wrong moment,” said Vera. “First you burst into the drawing-room so that every one was ashamed of you.” Although or just because what she said was perfectly true, no one answered; all the four simply looked at one another. She lingered in the room with the inkstand in her hand. “And what sort of secrets can you have at your age, Natasha and Boris, and you two!—it's all simply silly nonsense!”
“Well, what has it to do with you, Vera?” Natasha said in defence, speaking very gently. She was evidently more good-humoured and affectionate than usual that day with every one.
“It's very silly,” said Vera; “I am ashamed of you. What sort of secret…”
“Every one has secrets. We don't interfere with you and Berg,” said Natasha, getting warmer.
“I should think you didn't interfere,” said Vera, “because there could be no harm in any conduct of mine. But I shall tell mamma how you behave with Boris.”
“Natalya Ilyinishna behaves very well to me,” said Boris. “I have nothing to complain of,” he said.
“Leave off, Boris, you're such a diplomatist” (the world diplomatist was much in use among the children in the special sense they attached to the word). “It's tiresome, really,” said Natasha, in a mortified and shaking voice; “why does she set upon me?”
“You'll never understand it,” she said, addressing Vera, “because you've never cared for any one; you've no heart; you're simply Madame de Genlis” (this nickname, considered most offensive, had been given to Vera by Nikolay), “and your greatest delight is in getting other people into trouble. You can flirt with Berg, as much as you like,” she said quickly.
“Well, I'm not likely to run after a young man before visitors.…”
“Well, she has gained her object!” Nikolay put in; “she has said something nasty to every one, and upset everybody. Let's go into the nursery.”
All four rose, like a flock of scared birds, and went out of the room.
“You've said nasty things to me, and I said nothing to any one,” said Vera.
“Madame de Genlis! Madame de Genlis!” cried laughing voices through the door.
The handsome girl who produced such an irritating and unpleasant effect on every one smiled; and, obviously unaffected by what had been said to her, she went up to the looking-glass and put her scarf and her hair tidy. Looking at her handsome face, she seemed to become colder and more composed than ever.
In the drawing-room the conversation was still going on.
“Ah, chère,” said the countess, “in my life, too, everything is not rose-coloured. Do you suppose I don't see that, in the way we are going on, our fortune can't last long? And it's all the club and his good-nature. When we're in the country we have no rest from it,—it's nothing but theatricals, hunting parties, and God knows what. But we won't talk of me. Come, tell me how you managed it all. I often wonder at you, Annette, the way you go racing off alone, at your age, to Moscow, and to Petersburg, to all the ministers, and all the great people, and know how to get round them all too. I admire you, really! Well, how was it arranged? Why, I could never do it.”
“Ah, my dear!” answered Princess Anna Mihalovna, “God grant that you never know what it is to be left a widow, with no one to support you, and a son whom you love to distraction. One learns how to do anything,” she said with some pride. “My lawsuit trained me to it. If I want to see one of these great people, I write a note: ‘Princess so-and-so wishes to see so-and-so,' and I go myself in a hired cab two or three times—four, if need be—till I get what I want. I don't mind what they think of me.”
“Well, tell me, then, whom did you interview for Borinka?” asked the countess. “Here's your boy an officer in the Guards, while my Nikolinka's going as an ensign. There's no one to manage things for him. Whose help did you ask?”
“Prince Vassily's. He was so kind. Agreed to do everything immediately; put the case before the Emperor,” said Princess Anna Mihalovna enthusiastically, entirely forgetting all the humiliation she had been through to attain her object.
“And how is he? beginning to get old, Prince Vassily?” inquired the countess. “I have never seen him since our theatricals at the Rumyantsovs', and I dare say he has forgotten me. He paid me attentions,” the countess recalled with a smile.
“He's just the same,” answered Anna Mihalovna, “so affable, brimming over. Greatness has not turned his head. ‘I am sorry I can do so little for you, Princess,' he said to me; ‘I'm at your command.' Yes, he's a splendid man, and very good to his relatives. But you know, Natalie, my love for my boy. I don't know what I would not do to make him happy. And my means are so scanty,” pursued Anna Mihalovna, dropping her voice mournfully, “that now I am in a most awful position. My wretched lawsuit is eating up all I have, and making no progress. I have not, can you conceive it, literally, not sixpence in the world, and I don't know how to get Boris's equipment.” She took out her handkerchief and shed tears. “I must have five hundred roubles, and I have only a twenty-five rouble note. I'm in such a position.… My one hope now is in Prince Kirill Vladimirovitch Bezuhov. If he will not come to the help of his godson—you know he is Boris's godfather—and allow him something for his maintenance, all my efforts will have been in vain; I shall have nothing to get his equipment with.”
The countess deliberated in tearful silence.
“I often think—perhaps it's a sinful thought,” said the princess—“but I often think: here is Prince Kirill Vladimirovitch Bezuhov living all alone … that immense fortune … and what is he living for? Life is a burden to him, while Boris is only just beginning life.”
“He will be sure to leave something to Boris,” said the countess.
“God knows, chère amie! These wealthy grand people are such egoists. But still I'm going to see him at once with Boris, and I will tell him plainly the state of the case. People may think what they choose of me, I really don't care, when my son's fate depends on it.” The princess got up. “It's now two o'clock, and you dine at four. I shall have time to drive there and back.”
And with the air of a Petersburg lady, used to business, and knowing how to make use of every moment, Anna Mihalovna sent for her son, and with him went out into the hall.
“Good-bye, my dear,” she said to the countess, who accompanied her to the door. “Wish me good-luck,” she added in a whisper unheard by her son.
“You're going to Prince Kirill Vladimirovich's, ma chère?” said the count, coming out of the dining-room into the hall. “If he's better, invite Pierre to dine with us. He has been here; used to dance with the children. Be sure you invite him, ma chère. Now do come and look how Taras has surpassed himself to-day. He says Count Orlov never had such a dinner as we're going to have to-day.”