IN THE MIDDLE of the summer Princess Marya, to her surprise, received a letter from Prince Andrey, who was in Switzerland. In it he told her strange and surprising news. He informed his sister of his engagement to the younger Rostov. His whole letter was full of loving enthusiasm for his betrothed, and tender and confiding affection for his sister. He wrote that he had never loved as he loved now, and that it was only now that he saw all the value and meaning of life. He begged his sister to forgive him for having said nothing of his plans to her on his last visit to Bleak Hills, though he had spoken of it to his father. He had said nothing to her for fear Princess Marya would beg her father to give his consent, and, without attaining her object, would irritate her father and draw all the weight of his displeasure upon herself. The matter was not, however, then, he wrote to her, so completely settled as now. “At that time our father insisted on a delay of a year, and now six months, half of the period specified, is over, and I remain firmer than ever in my resolution. If it were not for the doctors keeping me here at the waters I should be back in Russia myself; but, as it is, I must put off my return for another three months. You know me and my relations with our father. I want nothing from him. I have been, and always shall be, independent; but to act in opposition to his will, to incur his anger when he has perhaps not long left to be with us, would destroy half my happiness. I am writing a letter to him now, and I beg you to choose a favourable moment to give him the letter, and to let me know how he looks at the whole matter, and if there is any hope of his agreeing to shorten the year by three months.”
After long hesitations, doubts, and prayers, Princess Marya gave the letter to her father. The next day the old prince said to her calmly:
“Write to your brother to wait till I'm dead.… He won't have long to wait. I shall soon set him free.”
The princess tried to make some reply, but her father would not let her speak, and went on, getting louder and louder. “Let him marry, let him marry, the dear fellow.… A nice connection!… Clever people, eh? Rich, eh? Oh yes, a fine stepmother for Nikolushka she'll make! You write to him he can marry her to-morrow. Nikolushka shall have her for a stepmother, and I'll marry little Bourienne!… Ha, ha, ha, and so he shall have a stepmother too! Only there's one thing, I won't have any more women-folk about my house; he may marry and go and live by himself. Perhaps you'll go and live with him too?” He turned to Princess Marya: “You're welcome to, and good luck to you!”
After this outburst the prince did not once allude to the subject again. But his repressed anger at his son's poor-spirited behaviour found a vent in his treatment of his daughter. He now added to his former subjects for jeering and annoying her a new one—allusions to a stepmother and gallantries to Mademoiselle Bourienne.
“Why shouldn't I marry her?” he would say to his daughter. “A capital princess she will make!” And latterly, to her perplexity and amazement, Princess Marya began to notice that her father was really beginning to attach himself more and more closely to the French-woman. Princess Marya wrote to Prince Andrey and told him how their father had taken the letter, but comforted her brother with hopes that he would become reconciled to the idea.
Nikolushka and his education, her brother Andrey and religion, were Princess Marya's joys and consolations. But apart from those, since every one must have personal hopes, Princess Marya cherished, in the deepest secrecy of her heart, a hidden dream and hope that was the source of the chief comfort in her life. This comforting dream and hope was given her by “God's folk”—the crazy prophets and the pilgrims, who visited her without the prince's knowledge. The longer Princess Marya lived, the more experience and observation she had of life, the more she wondered at the shortsightedness of men, who seek here on earth for enjoyment, toil, suffer, strive and do each other harm to attain that impossible, visionary, and sinful happiness. Prince Andrey had loved a wife; she died; that was not enough for him, he wanted to bind his happiness to another woman. Her father did not want that, because he coveted a more distinguished or a wealthier match for Andrey. And they were all striving, and suffering, and in torment, and sullying their souls, their eternal souls, to attain a bliss the duration of which was but a moment. Not only do we know that for ourselves. Christ, the Son of God, came down upon earth and told us that this life is but for a moment, is but a probation; yet we still cling to it and think to find happiness in it. “How is it no one has realised that?” Princess Marya wondered. “No one but these despised people of God who, with wallets over their shoulders, come to me by the back stairs, afraid of the prince catching sight of them, and not from fear of ill-usage, but from fear of tempting him to sin. To leave home and country, give up all thoughts of worldly blessings, and clinging to nothing, to wander from place to place in a home-spun smock under a different name, doing people no harm, but praying for them, praying equally for those who drive them away and those who succour them: higher than that truth and that life there is no truth and no life!”
There was one Pilgrim-woman, Fedosyushka, a quiet, little woman of about fifty, marked by smallpox, who had been wandering for over thirty years barefooted and wearing chains. Princess Marya was particularly fond of her. One day when sitting in a dark room, by the light only of the lamp before the holy picture, Fedosyushka told her about her life. Princess Marya felt all at once so strongly that Fedosyushka was the one person who had found the right way of life, that she resolved to go on a pilgrimage herself. When Fedosyushka had gone to bed Princess Marya pondered a long while over it, and at last made up her mind that—however strange it might be—she must go on a pilgrimage. She confided her intention to no one but a monk, Father Akinfy, and this priest approved of her project. On the pretence of getting presents for pilgrim women, Princess Marya had prepared for herself the complete outfit of a pilgrim—a smock, plaited shoes, a full-skirted coat, and a black kerchief. Often she went to her secret wardrobe, where she kept them, and stood in uncertainty whether the time to carry out her plan had come or not.
Often as she listened to the pilgrims' tales, their simple phrases—that had become mechanical to them, but were to her ears full of the deepest significance—worked upon her till she was several times ready to throw up everything and run away from home. In imagination she already saw herself with Fedosyushka in a coarse smock, trudging along the dusty road with her wallet and her staff, going on her pilgrimage, free from envy, free from earthly love, free from all desires, from one saint to another; and at last thither where there is neither sorrow nor sighing, but everlasting joy and blessedness.
“I shall come to one place. I shall pray there, and before I have time to grow used to it, to love it, I shall go on further. And I shall go on till my legs give way under me and I lie down and die somewhere, and reach at last that quiet, eternal haven, where is neither sorrow nor sighing!…” thought Princess Marya.
But then at the sight of her father, and still more of little Nikolushka, she wavered in her resolution, wept in secret, and felt that she was a sinner, that she loved her father and her nephew more than God.