“DOES IT HAPPEN to you,” said Natasha to her brother, when they were settled in the divan-room, “to feel that nothing will ever happen—nothing; that all that is good is past? And it's not exactly a bored feeling, but melancholy?”
“I should think so!” said he. “It has sometimes happened to me that when everything's all right, and every one's cheerful, it suddenly strikes one that one's sick of it all, and all must die. Once in the regiment when I did not go to some merrymaking, and there the music was playing…and I felt all at once so dreary…”
“Oh, I know that feeling; I know it, I know it,” Natasha assented; “even when I was quite little, I used to have that feeling. Do you remember, once I was punished for eating some plums, and you were all dancing, and I sat in the schoolroom sobbing. I shall never forget it; I felt sad and sorry for every one, sorry for myself, and for every—every one. And what was the chief point, I wasn't to blame,” said Natasha; “do you remember?”
“I remember,” said Nikolay. “I remember that I came to you afterwards, and I longed to comfort you, but you know, I felt ashamed to. Awfully funny we used to be. I had a wooden doll then, and I wanted to give it you. Do you remember?”
“And do you remember,” said Natasha, with a pensive smile, “how long, long ago, when we were quite little, uncle called us into the study in the old house, and it was dark; we went in, and all at once there stood…”
“A Negro,” Nikolay finished her sentence with a smile of delight; “of course, I remember. To this day I don't know whether there really was a Negro, or whether we dreamed it, or were told about it.”
“He was grey-headed, do you remember, and had white teeth; he stood and looked at us…”
“Do you remember, Sonya?” asked Nikolay.
“Yes, yes, I do remember something too,” Sonya answered timidly.
“You know I have often asked both papa and mamma about that Negro,” said Natasha. “They say there never was a Negro at all. But you remember him!”
“Of course, I do. I remember his teeth, as if it were to-day.”
“How strange it is, as though it were a dream. I like that.”
“And do you remember how we were rolling eggs in the big hall, and all of a sudden two old women came in, and began whirling round on the carpet. Did that happen or not? Do you remember what fun it was?”
“Yes. And do you remember how papa, in a blue coat, fired a gun off on the steps?”
Smiling with enjoyment, they went through their reminiscences; not the melancholy memories of old age, but the romantic memories of youth, those impressions of the remotest past in which dreamland melts into reality. They laughed with quiet pleasure.
Sonya was, as always, left behind by them, though their past had been spent together.
Sonya did not remember much of what they recalled, and what she did remember, did not rouse the same romantic feeling in her. She was simply enjoying their pleasure, and trying to share it.
She could only enter into it fully when they recalled Sonya's first arrival. Sonya described how she had been afraid of Nikolay, because he had cording on his jacket, and the nurse had told her that they would tie her up in cording too.
“And I remember, I was told you were found under a cabbage,” said Natasha; “and I remember I didn't dare to disbelieve it then, though I knew it was untrue, and I felt so uncomfortable.”
During this conversation a maid popped her head in at a door leading into the divan-room.
“Miss, they've brought you a cock,” she said in a whisper.
“I don't want it, Polya; tell them to take it away,” said Natasha.
In the middle of their talk in the divan-room, Dimmler came into the room, and went up to the harp that stood in the corner. He took off the cloth-case, and the harp gave a jarring sound. “Edward Karlitch, do, please, play my favourite nocturne of M. Field,” said the voice of the old countess from the drawing-room.
Dimmler struck a chord, and turning to Natasha, Nikolay, and Sonya, he said, “How quiet you young people are!”
“Yes, we're talking philosophy,” said Natasha, looking round for a minute and going on with the conversation. They were talking now about dreams.
Dimmler began to play. Natasha went noiselessly on tiptoe to the table, took the candle, carried it away, and going back, sat quietly in her place. It was dark in the room, especially where they were sitting on the sofa, but the silver light of the full moon shone in at the big windows and lay on the floor.
“Do you know, I think,” said Natasha, in a whisper, moving up to Nikolay and Sonya, when Dimmler had finished, and still sat, faintly twanging the strings, in evident uncertainty whether to leave off playing or begin something new, “that one goes on remembering, and remembering; one remembers till one recalls what happened before one was in this world.…”
“That's metempsychosis,” said Sonya, who had been good at lessons, and remembered all she had learned. “The Egyptians used to believe that our souls had been in animals, and would go into animals again.”
“No, do you know, I don't believe that we were once in animals,” said Natasha, still in the same whisper, though the music was over; “but I know for certain that we were once angels somewhere beyond, and we have been here, and that's why we remember everything.…”
“May I join you?” said Dimmler, coming up quietly, and he sat down by them.
“If we had been angels, why should we have fallen lower?” said Nikolay. “No, that can't be!”
“Not lower…who told you we were lower?…This is how I know I have existed before,” Natasha replied, with conviction: “The soul is immortal, you know…so, if I am to live for ever, I have lived before too, I have lived for all eternity.”
“Yes, but it's hard for us to conceive of eternity,” said Dimmler, who had joined the young people, with a mildly condescending smile, but now talked as quietly and seriously as they did.
“Why is it hard to conceive of eternity?” said Natasha. “There will be to-day, and there will be to-morrow, and there will be for ever, and yesterday has been, and the day before.…”
“Natasha! now it's your turn. Sing me something,” called the voice of the countess. “Why are you sitting there so quietly, like conspirators?”
“Mamma, I don't want to a bit!” said Natasha, but she got up as she said it.
None of them, not even Dimmler, who was not young, wanted to break off the conversation, and come out of the corner of the divan-room; but Natasha stood up; and Nikolay sat down to the clavichord. Standing, as she always did, in the middle of the room, and choosing the place where the resonance was greatest, Natasha began singing her mother's favourite song.
She had said she did not want to sing, but it was long since she had sung, and long before she sang again as she sang that evening. Count Ilya Andreitch listened to her singing from his study, where he was talking to Mitenka, and like a schoolboy in haste to finish his lesson and run out to play, he blundered in his orders to the steward, and at last paused, and Mitenka stood silent and smiling before him, listening too. Nikolay never took his eyes off his sister, and drew his breath when she did. Sonya, as she listened, thought of the vast difference between her and her friend, and how impossible it was for her to be in ever so slight a degree fascinating like her cousin. The old countess sat with a blissful, but mournful smile, and tears in her eyes, and now and then she shook her head. She, too, was thinking of Natasha and of her own youth, and of how there was something terrible and unnatural in Natasha's marrying Prince Andrey.
Dimmler, sitting by the countess, listened with closed eyes. “No, countess,” he said, at last, “that's a European talent; she has no need of teaching: that softness, tenderness, strength…”
“Ah, I'm afraid for her, I'm afraid,” said the countess, not remembering with whom she was speaking. Her motherly instinct told her that there was too much of something in Natasha, and that it would prevent her being happy.
Natasha had not finished singing when fourteen-year-old Petya ran in great excitement into the room to announce the arrival of the mummers.
Natasha stopped abruptly.
“Idiot!” she screamed at her brother. She ran to a chair, sank into it, and broke into such violent sobbing that it was a long while before she could stop.
“It's nothing, mamma, it's nothing really, it's all right; Petya startled me,” she said, trying to smile; but the tears still flowed, and the sobs still choked her.
The mummers—house-serfs dressed up as bears, Turks, tavern-keepers, and ladies—awe-inspiring or comic figures, at first huddled shyly together in the vestibule, bringing in with them the freshness of the cold outside, and a feeling of gaiety. Then, hiding behind one another, they crowded together in the big hall; and at first with constraint, but afterwards with more liveliness and unanimity, they started singing songs, and performing dances, and songs with dancing, and playing Christmas games. The countess after identifying them, and laughing at their costumes, went away to the drawing-room. Count Ilya Andreitch sat with a beaming smile in the big hall, praising their performances. The young people had disappeared.
Half an hour later there appeared in the hall among the other mummers an old lady in a crinoline—this was Nikolay. Petya was a Turkish lady, Dimmler was a clown, Natasha a hussar, and Sonya a Circassian with eyebrows and moustaches smudged with burnt cork.
After those of the household who were not dressed up had expressed condescending wonder and approval, and had failed to recognise them, the young people began to think their costumes so good that they must display them to some one else.
Nikolay, who wanted to drive them all in his sledge, as the road was in capital condition, proposed to drive to their so-called uncle's, taking about a dozen of the house-serfs in their mummer-dress with them.
“No; why should you disturb the old fellow?” said the countess. “Besides you wouldn't have room to turn round there. If you must go, let it be to the Melyukovs'.”
Madame Melyukov was a widow with a family of children of various ages, and a number of tutors and governesses living in her house, four versts from the Rostovs'.
“That's a good idea, my love,” the old count assented, beginning to be aroused. “Only let me dress up and I'll go with you. I'll make Pashette open her eyes.”
But the countess would not agree to the count's going; for several days he had had a bad leg. It was decided that the count must not go, but that if Luisa Ivanovna (Madame Schoss) would go with them, the young ladies might go to Madame Melyukov's. Sonya, usually so shy and reticent, was more urgent than any in persuading Luisa Ivanovna not to refuse.
Sonya's disguise was the best of all. Her moustaches and eyebrows were extraordinarily becoming to her. Every one told her she looked very pretty, and she was in a mood of eager energy unlike her. Some inner voice told her that now or never her fate would be sealed, and in her masculine attire she seemed quite another person. Luisa Ivanovna consented to go; and half an hour later four sledges with bells drove up to the steps, their runners crunching, with a clanging sound, over the frozen snow.
Natasha was foremost in setting the tone of holiday gaiety; and that gaiety, reflected from one to another, grew wilder and wilder, and reached its climax when they all went out into the frost, and talking, and calling to one another, laughing and shouting, got into the sledges.
Two of the sledges were the common household sledges; the third was the old count's, with a trotting horse from Orlov's famous stud; the fourth, Nikolay's own, with his own short, shaggy, raven horse in the shafts. Nikolay, in his old lady's crinoline and a hussar's cloak belted over it, stood up in the middle of the sledge picking up the reins. It was so light that he could see the metal discs of the harness shining in the moonlight, and the eyes of the horses looking round in alarm at the noise made by the party under the portico of the approach.
Sonya, Natasha, Madame Schoss, and two maids got into Nikolay's sledge. In the count's sledge were Dimmler with his wife and Petya; the other mummers were seated in the other two sledges.
“You go ahead, Zahar!” shouted Nikolay to his father's coachman, so as to have a chance of overtaking him on the road.
The count's sledge with Dimmler and the others of his party started forward, its runners creaking as though they were frozen to the snow, and the deep-toned bell clanging. The trace-horses pressed close to the shafts and sticking in the snow kicked it up, hard and glittering as sugar.
Nikolay followed the first sledge: behind him he heard the noise and crunch of the other two. At first they drove at a slow trot along the narrow road. As they drove by the garden, the shadows of the leafless trees often lay right across the road and hid the bright moonlight. But as soon as they were out of their grounds, the snowy plain, glittering like a diamond with bluish lights in it, lay stretched out on all sides, all motionless and bathed in moonlight. Now and again a hole gave the first sledge a jolt; the next was jolted in just the same way, and the next, and the sledges followed one another, rudely breaking the iron-bound stillness.
“A hare's track, a lot of tracks!” Natasha's voice rang out in the frost-bound air.
“How light it is, Nikolenka,” said the voice of Sonya.
Nikolay looked round at Sonya, and bent down to look at her face closer. It was a quite new, charming face with black moustaches, and eyebrows that peeped up at him from the sable fur—so close yet so distant—in the moonlight.
“That used to be Sonya,” thought Nikolay. He looked closer at her and smiled.
“What is it, Nikolenka?”
“Nothing,” he said, and turned to his horses again.
As they came out on the trodden highroad, polished by sledge runners, and all cut up by the tracks of spiked horseshoes visible in the snow in the moonlight—the horses of their own accord tugged at the reins and quickened their pace. The left trace-horse, arching his head, pulled in jerks at his traces. The shaft-horse swayed to and fro, pricking up his ears as though to ask: “Are we to begin or is it too soon?” Zahar's sledge could be distinctly seen, black against the white snow, a long way ahead now, and its deep-toned bell seemed to be getting further away. They could hear shouts and laughter and talk from his sledge.
“Now then, my darlings!” shouted Nikolay, pulling a rein on one side, and moving his whip hand. It was only from the wind seeming to blow more freely in their faces, and from the tugging of the pulling trace-horses, quickening their trot, that they saw how fast the sledge was flying along. Nikolay looked behind. The other sledges, with crunching runners, with shouts, and cracking of whips, were hurrying after them. Their shaft-horse was moving vigorously under the yoke, with no sign of slackening, and every token of being ready to go faster and faster if required.
Nikolay overtook the first sledge. They drove down a hill and into a wide, trodden road by a meadow near a river.
“Where are we?” Nikolay wondered. “Possibly Kosoy Meadow, I suppose. But no; this is something new I never saw before. This is not the Kosoy Meadow nor Demkin hill. It's something—there's no knowing what. It's something new and fairy-like. Well, come what may!” And shouting to his horses, he began to drive by the first sledge. Zahar pulled up his horses and turned his face, which was white with hoar-frost to the eyebrows.
Nikolay let his horses go; Zahar, stretching his hands forward, urged his on. “Come, hold on, master,” said he.
The sledges dashed along side by side, even more swiftly, and the horses' hoofs flew up and down more and more quickly. Nikolay began to get ahead. Zahar, still keeping his hands stretched forward, raised one hand with the reins.
“Nonsense, master,” he shouted. Nikolay put his three horses into a gallop and outstripped Zahar. The horses scattered the fine dry snow in their faces; close by they heard the ringing of the bells and the horses' legs moving rapidly out of step, and they saw the shadows of the sledge behind. From different sides came the crunch of runners over the snow, and the shrieks of girls. Stopping his horses again, Nikolay looked round him. All around him lay still the same enchanted plain, bathed in moon-light, with stars scattered over its surface.
“Zahar's shouting that I'm to turn to the left, but why to the left?” thought Nikolay. “Are we really going to the Melyukovs'; is this really Melyukovka? God knows where we are going, and God knows what is going to become of us—and very strange and nice it is what is happening to us.” He looked round in the sledge.
“Look, his moustache and his eyelashes are all white,” said one of the strange, pretty, unfamiliar figures sitting by him, with fine moustaches and eyebrows.
“I believe that was Natasha,” thought Nikolay; “and that was Madame Schoss; but perhaps it's not so; and that Circassian with the moustaches I don't know, but I love her.”
“Aren't you cold?” he asked them. They laughed and did not answer. Dimmler from the sledge behind shouted, probably something funny, but they could not make out what he said.
“Yes, yes,” voices answered, laughing.
But now came a sort of enchanted forest with shifting, black shadows, and the glitter of diamonds, and a flight of marble steps, and silver roofs of enchanted buildings, and the shrill whine of some beasts. “And if it really is Melyukovka, then it's stranger than ever that after driving, God knows where, we should come to Melyukovka,” thought Nikolay.
It certainly was Melyukovka, and footmen and maid-servants were running out with lights and beaming faces.
“Who is it?” was asked from the entrance.
“The mummers from the count's; I can see by the horses,” answered voices.