“Ma bonne amie,” said the little princess, after breakfast, on the morning of the 19th of March, and her little downy lip was lifted as of old; but as in that house since the terrible news had come, smiles, tones of voice, movements even bore the stamp of mourning, so now the smile of the little princess, who was influenced by the general temper without knowing its cause, was such that more than all else it was eloquent of the common burden of sorrow.
“My dear, I am afraid that this morning's fruschtique (as Foka calls it) has disagreed with me.”
“What is the matter with you, my darling? You look pale. Oh, you are very pale,” said Princess Marya in alarm, running with her soft, ponderous tread up to her sister-in-law.
“Shouldn't we send for Marya Bogdanovna, your excellency?” said one of the maids who was present. Marya Bogdanovna was a midwife from a district town, who had been for the last fortnight at Bleak Hills.
“Yes, truly,” assented Princess Marya, “perhaps it is really that. I'll go and get her. Courage, my angel.” She kissed Liza and was going out of the room.
“Oh, no, no!” And besides her pallor, the face of the little princess expressed a childish terror at the inevitable physical suffering before her.
“No, it is indigestion, say it is indigestion, say so, Marie, say so!” And the little princess began to cry, wringing her little hands with childish misery and capriciousness and affected exaggeration too. Princess Marya ran out of the room to fetch Marya Bogdanovna.
“Mon Dieu! mon Dieu! Oh!” she heard behind her. The midwife was already on her way to meet her, rubbing her plump, small white hands, with a face of significant composure.
“Marya Bogdanovna! I think it has begun,” said Princess Marya, looking with wide-open, frightened eyes at the midwife.
“Well, I thank God for it,” said Marya Bogdanovna, not hastening her step. “You young ladies have no need to know anything about it.”
“But how is it the doctor has not come from Moscow yet?” said the princess. (In accordance with the wishes of Liza and Prince Andrey, they had sent to Moscow for a doctor, and were expecting him every minute.)
“It's no matter, princess, don't be uneasy,” said Marya Bogdanovna; “we shall do very well without the doctor.”
Five minutes later the princess from her room heard something heavy being carried by. She peeped out; the footmen were for some reason moving into the bedroom the leather sofa which stood in Prince Andrey's study. There was a solemn and subdued look on the men's faces.
Princess Marya sat alone in her room, listening to the sounds of the house, now and then opening the door when any one passed by and looking at what was taking place in the corridor. Several women passed to and fro treading softly; they glanced at the princess and turned away from her. She did not venture to ask questions, and going back to her room closed the door and sat still in an armchair, or took up her prayer-book, or knelt down before the shrine. To her distress and astonishment she felt that prayer did not soothe her emotion. All at once the door of her room was softly opened, and she saw on the threshold her old nurse, Praskovya Savvishna, with a kerchief over her head. The old woman hardly ever, owing to the old prince's prohibition, came into her room.
“I've come to sit a bit with thee, Mashenka,” said the nurse; “and here I've brought the prince's wedding candles to light before his saint, my angel,” she said, sighing.
“Ah, how glad I am, nurse!”
“God is merciful, my darling.” The nurse lighted the gilt candles before the shrine, and sat down with her stocking near the door. Princess Marya took a book and began reading. Only when they heard steps or voices, the princess and the nurse looked at one another, one with alarmed inquiry, the other with soothing reassurance in her face. The feeling that Princess Marya was experiencing as she sat in her room had overpowered the whole house and taken possession of every one. Owing to the belief that the fewer people know of the sufferings of a woman in labour, the less she suffers, every one tried to affect to know nothing of it; no one talked about it, but over and above the habitual staidness and respectfulness of good manners that always reigned in the prince's household, there was apparent in all a sort of anxiety, a softening of the heart, and a consciousness of some great, unfathomable mystery being accomplished at that moment. There was no sound of laughter in the big room where the maids sat. In the waiting-room the men all sat in silence, as it were on the alert. Torches and candles were burning in the serfs' quarters, and no one slept. The old prince walked about his study, treading on his heels, and sent Tihon to Marya Bogdanovna to ask what news.
“Only say: the prince has sent to ask, what news and come and tell me what she says.”
“Inform the prince that the labour has commenced,” said Marya Bogdanovna, looking significantly at the messenger. Tihon went and gave the prince that information.
“Very good,” said the prince, closing the door behind him, and Tihon heard not the slightest sound in the study after that. After a short interval Tihon went into the study, as though to attend to the candles. Seeing the prince lying on the couch, Tihon looked at him, looked at his perturbed face, shook his head, and went up to him dumbly and kissed him on the shoulder, then went out without touching the candles or saying why he had come. The most solemn mystery in the world was being accomplished. Evening passed, night came on. And the feeling of suspense and softening of the heart before the unfathomable did not wane, but grew more intense. No one slept.
It was one of those March nights when winter seems to regain its sway, and flings its last snows and storms with malignant desperation. A relay of horses had been sent to the high-road for the German doctor who was expected every minute, and men were despatched on horseback with lanterns to the turning at the cross-roads to guide him over the holes and treacherous places in the ice.
Princess Marya had long abandoned her book; she sat in silence, her luminous eyes fixed on the wrinkled face of her old nurse (so familiar to her in the minutest detail), on the lock of grey hair that had escaped from the kerchief, on the baggy looseness of the skin under her chin.
The old nurse, with her stocking in her hand, talked away in a soft voice, not hearing it herself nor following the meaning of her own words; telling, as she had told hundreds of times before, how the late princess had been brought to bed of Princess Marya at Kishinyov, and had only a Moldavian peasant woman instead of a midwife.
“God is merciful, doctors are never wanted,” she said.
Suddenly a gust of wind blew on one of the window-frames (by the prince's decree the double frames were always taken out of every window when the larks returned), and flinging open a badly fastened window bolt, set the stiff curtain fluttering; and the chill, snowy draught blew out the candle. Princess Marya shuddered; the nurse, putting down her stocking, went to the window, and putting her head out tried to catch the open frame. The cold wind flapped the ends of her kerchief and the grey locks of her hair.
“Princess, my dearie, there's some one driving up the avenue!” she said, holding the window-frame and not closing it. “With lanterns; it must be the doctor.…”
“Ah, my God! Thank God!” said the Princess Marya. “I must go and meet him; he does not know Russian.”
Princess Marya flung on a shawl and ran to meet the stranger. As she passed through the ante-room, she saw through the window a carriage and lanterns standing at the entrance. She went out on to the stairs. At the post of the balustrade stood a tallow-candle guttering in the draught. The footman Filipp, looking scared, stood below on the first landing of the staircase, with another candle in his hand. Still lower down, at the turn of the winding stairs, steps in thick overshoes could be heard coming up. And a voice—familiar it seemed to Princess Marya—was saying something.
“Thank God!” said the voice. “And father?”
“He has gone to bed,” answered the voice of the butler, Demyan, who was below.
Then the voice said something more, Demyan answered something, and the steps in thick overshoes began approaching more rapidly up the unseen part of the staircase.
“It is Andrey!” thought Princess Marya. “No, it cannot be, it would be too extraordinary,” she thought; and at the very instant she was thinking so, on the landing where the footman stood with a candle, there came into sight the face and figure of Prince Andrey, in a fur coat, with a deep collar covered with snow. Yes, it was he, but pale and thin, and with a transformed, strangely softened, agitated expression on his face. He went up the stairs and embraced his sister.
“You did not get my letter, then?” he asked; and not waiting for an answer, which he would not have received, for the princess could not speak, he turned back, and with the doctor who was behind him (they had met at the last station), he ran again rapidly upstairs and again embraced his sister.
“What a strange fate!” he said, “Masha, darling!” And flinging off his fur coat and overboots, he went towards the little princess's room.