PELAGEA DANILOVNA MELYUKOV, a broad-shouldered, energetic woman in spectacles and a loose house dress, was sitting in her drawing-room, surrounded by her daughters, and doing her utmost to keep them amused. They were quietly occupied in dropping melted wax into water and watching the shadows of the shapes it assumed, when they heard the noise of steps in the vestibule, and the voices of people arriving.
The hussars, fine ladies, witches, clowns, and bears, coughing and rubbing the hoar-frost off their faces, came into the hall, where they were hurriedly lighting candles. The clown—Dimmler—and the old lady—Nikolay—opened the dance. Surrounded by the shrieking children, the mummers hid their faces, and disguising their voices, bowed to their hostess and dispersed about the room.
“Oh, there's no recognising them. And Natasha! See what she looks like! Really, she reminds me of some one. How good Edward Karlitch is! I didn't know him. And how he dances! Oh, my goodness, and here's a Circassian too, upon my word; how it suits Sonyushka! And who's this? Well, you have brought us some fun! Take away the tables, Nikita Vanya. And we were sitting so quiet and dull!”
“Ha—ha—he!…The hussar, the hussar! Just like a boy; and the legs!…I can't look at him,…” voices cried.
Natasha, the favourite of the young Melyukovs, disappeared with them into rooms at the back of the house, and burnt cork and various dressing-gowns and masculine garments were sent for and taken from the footman by bare, girlish arms through the crack of the half-open door. In ten minutes all the younger members of the Melyukov family reappeared in fancy dresses too.
Pelagea Danilovna, busily giving orders for clearing the room for the guests and preparing for their entertainment, walked about among the mummers in her spectacles, with a suppressed smile, looking close at them and not recognising any one. She not only failed to recognise the Rostovs and Dimmler, but did not even know her own daughters, or identify the masculine dressing-gowns and uniforms in which they were disguised.
“And who is this?” she kept saying, addressing her governess and gazing into the face of her own daughter disguised as a Tatar of Kazan. “One of the Rostovs, I fancy. And you, my hussar, what regiment are you in, pray?” she asked Natasha. “Give the Turk a preserved fruit,” she said to the footman carrying round refreshments; “that's not forbidden by his law.”
Sometimes, looking at the strange and ludicrous capers cut by the dancers, who, having made up their minds once for all that no one recognised them, were quite free from shyness, Pelagea Danilovna hid her face in her handkerchief, and all her portly person shook with irrepressible, good-natured, elderly laughter.
“My Sashinette, my Sashinette!” she said.
After Russian dances and songs in chorus, Pelagea Danilovna made all the party, servants and gentry alike, join in one large circle. They brought in a string, a ring, and a silver rouble, and began playing games.
An hour later all the fancy dresses were crumpled and untidy. The corked moustaches and eyebrows were wearing off the heated, perspiring, and merry faces. Pelagea Danilovna began to recognise the mummers. She was enthusiastic over the cleverness of the dresses and the way they suited them, especially the young ladies, and thanked them all for giving them such good fun. The guests were invited into the drawing-room for supper, while the servants were regaled in the hall.
“Oh, trying one's fate in the bath-house, that's awful!” was said at the supper-table by an old maiden lady who lived with the Melyukovs.
“Why so?” asked the eldest daughter of the Melyukovs.
“Well, you won't go and try. It needs courage…”
“I'll go,” said Sonya.
“Tell us what happened to the young lady,” said the second girl.
“Well, it was like this,” said the old maid. “The young lady went out; she took a cock, two knives and forks, and everything proper, and sat down. She sat a little while, and all of a sudden she hears some one coming—a sledge with bells driving up. She hears him coming. He walks in, precisely in the shape of a man, like an officer, and sat down beside her at the place laid for him.”
“Ah! ah!…” screamed Natasha, rolling her eyes with horror.
“But what did he do? Did he talk like a man?”
“Yes, like a man. Everything as it should be, and began to try and win her over, and she should have kept him in talk till the cock crew; but she got frightened,—simply took fright, and hid her face in her hands. And he caught her up. Luckily the maids ran in that minute…”
“Come, why are you scaring them?” said Pelagea Danilovna.
“Why, mamma, you tried your fate yourself…” said her daughter.
“And how do they try fate in a granary?” asked Sonya.
“Why, at a time like this they go to the granary and listen. And according to what you hear,—if there's a knocking and a tapping, it's bad; but if there's a sound of sifting corn, it is good. But sometimes it happens…”
“Mamma, tell us what happened to you in the granary?”
Pelagea Danilovna smiled.
“Why, I have forgotten…” she said. “I know none of you will go.”
“No, I'll go. Pelagea Danilovna, do let me, and I'll go,” said Sonya.
“Oh, well, if you're not afraid.”
“Luisa Ivanovna, may I?” asked Sonya.
Whether they were playing at the ring and string game, or the rouble game, or talking as now, Nikolay did not leave Sonya's side, and looked at her with quite new eyes. It seemed to him as though to-day, for the first time, he had, thanks to that corked moustache, seen her fully as she was. Sonya certainly was that evening gay, lively, and pretty, as Natasha had never seen her before.
“So, this is what she is, and what a fool I have been!” he kept thinking, looking at her sparkling eyes, at the happy, ecstatic smile dimpling her cheeks under the moustache. He had never seen that smile before.
“I'm not afraid of anything,” said Sonya. “May I go at once?” She got up. They told Sonya where the granary was; how she was to stand quite silent and listen, and they gave her a cloak. She threw it over her head and glanced at Nikolay.
“How exquisite that girl is!” he thought. “And what have I been thinking about all this time?”
Sonya went out into the corridor to go to the granary. Nikolay hastily went out to the front porch, saying he was too hot. It certainly was stuffy indoors from the crowd of people.
Outside there was the same still frost, the same moonlight, only even brighter than before. The light was so bright, and there were so many stars sparkling in the snow, that the sky did not attract the eye, and the real stars were hardly noticeable. The sky was all blackness and dreariness, the earth all brightness.
“I'm a fool; a fool! What have I been waiting for all this time?” thought Nikolay; and running out into the porch he went round the corner of the house along the path leading to the back door. He knew Sonya would come that way. Half-way there was a pile of logs of wood, seven feet long. It was covered with snow and cast a shadow. Across it and on one side of it there fell on the snow and the path a network of shadows from the bare old lime-trees. The wall and roof of the granary glittered in the moonlight, as though hewn out of some precious stone. There was the sound of the snapping of wood in the garden, and all was perfect stillness again. The lungs seemed breathing in, not air, but a sort of ever-youthful power and joy.
From the maid-servants' entrance came the tap of feet on the steps; there was a ringing crunch on the last step where the snow was heaped, and the voice of the old maid said:
“Straight on, along this path, miss. Only don't look round!”
“I'm not afraid,” answered Sonya's voice, and Sonya's little feet in their dancing-shoes came with a ringing, crunching sound along the path towards Nikolay.
Sonya was muffled up in the cloak. She was two paces away when she saw him. She saw him, too, not as she knew him, and as she was always a little afraid of him. He was in a woman's dress, with towzled hair, and a blissful smile that was new to Sonya. She ran quickly to him.
“Quite different, and still the same,” thought Nikolay, looking at her face, all lighted up by the moon. He slipped his hands under the cloak that covered her head, embraced her, drew her to him, and kissed the lips that wore a moustache and smelt of burnt cork. Sonya kissed him full on the lips, and putting out her little hands held them against his cheeks on both sides.
“Sonya!…Nikolenka!…” was all they said. They ran to the granary and went back to the house, each at their separate door.