AT THE MEN'S END of the table the conversation was becoming more and more lively. The colonel was asserting that the proclamation of the declaration of war had already been issued in Petersburg, and that a copy, which he had seen himself, had that day been brought by a courier to the commander-in-chief.
“And what evil spirit must make us go to war with Bonaparte?” said Shinshin. “He has already made Austria take a back seat. I am afraid it may be our turn this time.”
The colonel was a stout, tall, and plethoric German, evidently a zealous officer and good patriot. He resented Shinshin's words.
“The reason why, my good sir,” he said, speaking with a German accent, “is just that the emperor knows that. In his proclamation he says that he cannot behold with equanimity the danger threatening Russia, and the security of the empire, its dignity, and the sacredness of its alliances.” He laid a special emphasis on the word alliances, as though the gist of the matter lay in that word. And with the unfailing memory for official matters that was peculiar to him, he repeated the introductory words of the proclamation … “and the desire, which constitutes the Sovereign's sole and immutable aim, to establish peace on a secure foundation, have determined him to despatch now a part of the troops abroad, and to make dispositions for carrying out this new project. That is the reason why, my dear sir,” he concluded, tossing off a glass of wine in edifying fashion, and looking towards the count for encouragement.
“Do you know the proverb, ‘Erema, Erema, you'd better stay at home and mind your spindle'?” said Shinshin, frowning and smiling. “That suits us to a hair. Why, Suvorov even was defeated hollow, and where are our Suvorovs nowadays? I just ask you that,” he said, continually shifting from Russian to French and back again.
“We ought to fight to the last drop of our blood,” said the colonel, thumping the table, “and to die for our emperor, and then all will be well. And to discuss it as little as possible,” he concluded, turning again to the count, and drawling out the word “possible.” “That's how we old hussars look at it; that's all we have to say. And how do you look at it, young man and young hussar?” he added, addressing Nikolay, who, catching that it was the war they were discussing, had dropped his conversation with Julie, and was all eyes and all ears, intent on the colonel.
“I perfectly agree with you,” answered Nikolay, growing hot all over, twisting his plate round, and changing the places of the glasses with a face as desperate and determined as though he were exposed to great danger at that actual moment. “I am convinced that the Russians must die or conquer,” he said. He was himself, like the rest of the party, conscious after the words were uttered that he had spoken with an enthusiasm and fervour out of keeping with the occasion, and so he was embarrassed.
“That was very fine, what you just said,” Julie sitting beside him said breathlessly. Sonya trembled all over and crimsoned to her ears, and behind her ears, and down her neck and shoulders, while Nikolay was speaking. Pierre listened to the colonel's remarks, and nodded his head approvingly.
“That's capital,” said he.
“You're a true hussar, young man,” the colonel shouted, thumping on the table again.
“What are you making such a noise about over there?” Marya Dmitryevna's bass voice was suddenly heard asking across the table. “What are you thumping the table for?” she addressed the colonel. “Whom are you so hot against? You imagine, I suppose, that the French are before you?”
“I speak the truth,” said the hussar, smiling.
“It's all about the war,” the count shouted across the table. “My son's going, you see, Marya Dmitryevna, my son's going.”
“And I've four sons in the army, but I don't grieve. All's in God's hands; one may die in one's bed, and in battle God may spare,” Marya Dmitryevna's deep voice boomed back, speaking without the slightest effort from the further end of the table.
And the conversation concentrated into two groups again, one at the ladies' end, and one at the men's.
“You don't dare to ask!” said her little brother to Natasha, “and you won't ask!”
“I will ask,” answered Natasha. Her face suddenly glowed, expressing a desperate and mirthful resolution. She rose in her seat, her eyes inviting Pierre to listen, and addressed her mother.
“Mamma!” her childish contralto rang out over the table.
“What is it?” the countess asked in dismay; but seeing from her daughter's face that it was mischief, she shook her hand at her sternly, with a threatening and forbidding movement of her head.
All conversation was hushed.
“Mamma! what pudding will there be?” Natasha's little voice rang out still more resolutely and deliberately.
The countess tried to frown, but could not. Marya Dmitryevna shook her fat finger.
“Cossack!” she said menacingly.
Most of the guests looked at the parents, not knowing how they were to take this sally.
“I'll give it to you,” said the countess.
“Mamma! what pudding will it be?” Natasha cried, with bold and saucy gaiety, feeling sure that her prank would be taken in the right spirit. Sonya and fat little Petya were hiding their giggles. “You see I did ask,” Natasha whispered to her little brother and Pierre, at whom she glanced again.
“Ice-pudding, only you are not to have any,” said Marya Dmitryevna. Natasha saw there was nothing to be afraid of, and so she was not frightened at Marya Dmitryevna even.
“Marya Dmitryevna! what sort of ice-pudding? I don't like ice cream.”
“No, what sort, Marya Dmitryevna, what sort?” she almost shrieked. “I want to know.” Marya Dmitryevna and the countess burst out laughing, and all the party followed their example. They all laughed, not at Marya Dmitryevna's answer, but at the irrepressible boldness and smartness of the little girl, who had the pluck and the wit to tackle Marya Dmitryevna in this fashion.
Natasha only desisted when she had been told it was to be pineapple ice. Before the ices, champagne was passed round. Again the band struck up, the count kissed the countess, and the guests getting up from the table congratulated the countess, and clinked glasses across the table with the count, the children, and one another. Again the waiters darted about, chairs grated on the floor, and in the same order, but with flushed faces, the guests returned to the drawing-room and the count's study.