IT was a long while since the Rostovs had had news of their Nikolushka. But in the middle of the winter a letter was handed to Count Rostov, on the envelope of which he recognised his son's handwriting. On receiving the letter the count, in alarm and in haste, ran on tiptoe to his room, trying to escape notice, shut himself in and read the letter. Anna Mihalovna had learned (as she always did learn all that passed in the house) that he had received a letter, and treading softly, she went in to the count and found him with the letter in his hand, sobbing and laughing at once. Anna Mihalovna, though her fortunes had been looking up, was still an inmate of the Rostov household.
“My dear friend?” Anna Mihalovna brought out in a voice of melancholy inquiry, equally ready for sympathy in any direction. The count sobbed more violently
“Nikolushka … letter … wounded … he would … my dear … wounded … my darling boy … the little countess … promoted … thank God … how are we to tell the little countess?”
Anna Mihalovna sat down by his side, with her own handkerchief wiped the tears from his eyes and from the letter, then dried her own tears, read the letter, soothed the count, and decided that before dinner and before tea she would prepare the countess; and after tea, with God's help, tell her all. During dinner Anna Mihalovna talked of the rumours from the war, of dear Nikolay, inquired twice when his last letter had been received, though she knew perfectly well, and observed that they might well be getting a letter from him to-day. Every time that the countess began to be uneasy under these hints and looked in trepidation from the count to Anna Mihalovna, the latter turned the conversation in the most unnoticeable way to insignificant subjects. Natasha, who was of all the family the one most gifted with the faculty of catching the shades of intonations, of glances, and expressions, had been on the alert from the beginning of dinner, and was certain that there was some secret between her father and Anna Mihalovna, and that it had something to do with her brother, and that Anna Mihalovna was paving the way for it. Natasha knew how easily upset her mother was by any references to news from Nikolushka, and in spite of all her recklessness she did not venture at dinner to ask a question. But she was too much excited to eat any dinner and kept wriggling about on her chair, regardless of the protests of her governess. After dinner she rushed headlong to overtake Anna Mihalovna, and in the divan-room dashed at her and flung herself on her neck: “Auntie, darling, do tell me what it is.”
“Nothing, my dear.”
“No, darling, sweet, precious peach, I won't leave off; I know you know something.”
Anna Mihalovna shook her head. “You are sharp, my child!” she said.
“A letter from Nikolinka? I'm sure of it!” cried Natasha, reading an affirmative answer on the face of Anna Mihalovna.
“But, for God's sake, be more careful; you know what a shock it may be to your mamma.”
“I will be, I will, but tell me about it. You won't? Well, then, I'll run and tell her this minute.”
Anna Mihalovna gave Natasha a brief account of what was in the letter, on condition that she would not tell a soul.
“On my word of honour,” said Natasha, crossing herself, “I won't tell any one,” and she ran at once to Sonya. “Nikolinka … wounded … a letter …” she proclaimed in gleeful triumph
“Nikolinka!” was all Sonya could articulate, instantly turning white. Natasha seeing the effect of the news of her brother's wound on Sonya, for the first time felt the painful aspect of the news.
She rushed at Sonya, hugged her, and began to cry. “A little wounded, but promoted to be an officer; he's all right now, he writes himself,” she said through her tears.
“One can see all you women are regular cry-babies,” said Petya, striding with resolute steps up and down the room; “I'm very glad, really very glad, that my brother has distinguished himself so. You all start blubbering! you don't understand anything about it.” Natasha smiled through her tears.
“You haven't read the letter?” asked Sonya
“No; but she told me it was all over, and that he's an officer now …”
“Thank God,” said Sonya, crossing herself. “But perhaps she was deceiving you. Let us go to mamma.”
Petya had been strutting up and down in silence
“If I were in Nikolinka's place, I'd have killed a lot more of those Frenchmen,” he said, “they're such beasts! I'd have killed them till there was a regular heap of them,” Petya went on.
“Hold your tongue, Petya, what a silly you are! …”
“I'm not a silly; people are silly who cry for trifles,” said Petya.
“Do you remember him?” Natasha asked suddenly, after a moment's silence. Sonya smiled.
“Do I remember Nikolinka?”
“No, Sonya, but do you remember him so as to remember him thoroughly, to remember him quite,” said Natasha with a strenuous gesture, as though she were trying to put into her words the most earnest meaning. “And I do remember Nikolinka, I remember him,” she said. “But I don't remember Boris. I don't remember him a bit …”
“What? You don't remember Boris?” Sonya queried with surprise.
“I don't mean I don't remember him. I know what he's like, but not as I remember Nikolinka. I shut my eyes and I can see him, but not Boris” (she shut her eyes), “no, nothing!”
“Ah, Natasha!” said Sonya, looking solemnly and earnestly at her friend, as though she considered her unworthy to hear what she meant to say, and was saying it to some one else with whom joking was out of the question. “I have come to love your brother once for all, and whatever were to happen to him and to me, I could never cease to love him all my life.”
With inquisitive, wondering eyes, Natasha gazed at Sonya, and she did not speak. She felt that what Sonya was saying was the truth, that there was love such as Sonya was speaking of. But Natasha had never known anything like it. She believed that it might be so, but she did not understand it.
“Shall you write to him?” she asked. Sonya sank into thought. How she should write to Nikolay, and whether she ought to write to him, was a question that worried her. Now that he was an officer, and a wounded hero, would it be nice on her part to remind him of herself, and as it were of the obligations he had taken on himself in regard to her. “I don't know. I suppose if he writes to me I shall write,” she said, blushing.
“And you won't be ashamed to write to him?”
“And I should be ashamed to write to Boris, and I'm not going to write.”
“But why should you be ashamed?”
“Oh, I don't know. I feel awkward, ashamed.”
“I know why she'd be ashamed,” said Petya, offended at Natasha's previous remark, “because she fell in love with that fat fellow in spectacles” (this was how Petya used to describe his namesake, the new Count Bezuhov); “and now she's in love with that singing fellow” (Petya meant Natasha's Italian singing-master), “that's why she's ashamed.”
“Petya, you're a stupid,” said Natasha.
“No stupider than you, ma'am,” said nine-year-old Petya, exactly as though he had been an elderly brigadier.
The countess had been prepared by Anna Mihalovna's hints during dinner. On returning to her room she had sat down in a low chair with her eyes fixed on the miniature of her son, painted on the lid of her snuff-box, and the tears started into her eyes. Anna Mihalovna, with the letter, approached the countess's room on tiptoe, and stood still at the door.
“Don't come in,” she said to the old count, who was following her; “later,” and she closed the door after her. The count put his ear to the keyhole, and listened.
At first he heard the sound of indifferent talk, then Anna Mihalovna's voice alone, uttering a long speech, then a shriek, then silence, then both voices talking at once with joyful intonations, then there were steps, and Anna Mihalovna opened the door. Her face wore the look of pride of an operator who has performed a difficult amputation, and invites the public in to appreciate his skill.
“It is done,” she said to the count triumphantly, motioning him to the countess, who was holding in one hand the snuff-box with the portrait, in the other the letter, and pressing her lips first to one and then to the other. On seeing the count, she held out her arms to him, embraced his bald head, and looked again over the bald head at the letter and the portrait, and in order again to press them to her lips, slightly repelled the bald head from her. Vera, Natasha, Sonya, and Petya came into the room, and the reading of the letter began. The letter briefly described the march and the two battles in which Nikolushka had taken part, and the receiving of his commission, and said that he kissed the hands of his mamma and papa, begging their blessing, and sent kisses to Vera, Natasha, and Petya. He sent greetings, too, to Monsieur Schelling and Madame Schoss, and his old nurse, and begged them to kiss for him his darling Sonya, whom he still loved and thought of the same as ever. On hearing this, Sonya blushed till the tears came into her eyes. And unable to stand the eyes fixed upon her, she ran into the big hall, ran about with a flushed and smiling face, whirled round and round and ducked down, making her skirts into a balloon. The countess was crying.
“What are you crying about, mamma?” said Vera. “From all he writes, we ought to rejoice instead of crying.”
This was perfectly true, but the count and the countess and Natasha all looked at her reproachfully. “And who is it that she takes after!” thought the countess.
Nikolushka's letter was read over hundreds of times, and those who were considered worthy of hearing it had to come in to the countess, who did not let it go out of her hands. The tutors went in, the nurses, Mitenka, and several acquaintances, and the countess read the letter every time with fresh enjoyment and every time she discovered from it new virtues in her Nikolushka. How strange, extraordinary, and joyful it was to her to think that her son—the little son, whose tiny limbs had faintly stirred within her twenty years ago, for whose sake she had so often quarrelled with the count, who would spoil him, the little son, who had first learnt to say grusha, and then had learnt to say baba—that that son was now in a foreign land, in strange surroundings, a manly warrior, alone without help or guidance, doing there his proper manly work. All the world-wide experience of ages, proving that children do imperceptibly from the cradle grow up into men, did not exist for the countess. The growth of her son had been for her at every stage of his growth just as extraordinary as though millions of millions of men had not grown up in the same way. Just as, twenty years before, she could not believe that the little creature that was lying somewhere under her heart, would one day cry and suck her breast and learn to talk, now she could not believe that the same little creature could be that strong, brave man, that paragon of sons and of men that, judging by this letter, he was now.
“What style, how charmingly he describes everything!” she said, reading over the descriptions in the letter. “And what soul! Of himself not a word … not a word! A great deal about a man called Denisov, though he was himself, I dare say, braver than any one. He doesn't write a word about his sufferings. What a heart! How like him it is! How he thinks of every one! No one forgotten. I always, always said, when he was no more than that high, I always used to say …”
For over a week they were hard at work preparing a letter to Nikolushka from all the household, writing out rough copies, copying out fair copies. With the watchful care of the countess, and the fussy solicitude of the count, all sorts of necessary things were got together, and money, too, for the equipment and the uniform of the young officer. Anna Mihalovna, practical woman, had succeeded in obtaining special patronage for herself and her son in the army, that even extended to their correspondence. She had opportunities of sending her letters to the Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovitch, who was in command of the guards. The Rostovs assumed that “The Russian Guards Abroad,” was quite a sufficiently definite address, and that if a letter reached the grand duke in command of the guards, there was no reason why it should not reach the Pavlograd regiment, who were presumably somewhere in the same vicinity. And so it was decided to send off their letters and money by the special messenger of the grand duke to Boris, and Boris would have to forward them to Nikolushka. There were letters from the count, the countess, Petya, Vera, Natasha, and Sonya, a sum of six thousand roubles for his equipment, and various other things which the count was sending to his son.