ELLEN had accompanied the court on its return from Vilna to Petersburg, and there found herself in a difficult position.
In Petersburg Ellen had enjoyed the special patronage of a great personage, who occupied one of the highest positions in the government. In Vilna she had formed a liaison with a young foreign prince.
When she returned to Petersburg the prince and the great dignitary were both in that town; both claimed their rights, and Ellen was confronted with a problem that had not previously arisen in her career—the preservation of the closest relations with both, without giving offence to either.
What might have seemed to any other woman a difficult or impossible task never cost a moment's thought to Countess Bezuhov, who plainly deserved the reputation she enjoyed of being a most intelligent woman. Had she attempted concealment; had she allowed herself to get out of her awkward position by subterfuges, she would have spoilt her own case by acknowledging herself the guilty party. But like a truly great man, who can always do everything he chooses, Ellen at once assumed the rectitude of her own position, of which she was indeed genuinely convinced, and the guilty responsibility of every one else concerned.
The first time the young foreign prince ventured to reproach her, she lifted her beautiful head, and, with a haughty tone towards him, said firmly:
“This is the egoism and the cruelty of men. I expected nothing else. Woman sacrifices herself for you; she suffers, and this is her reward. What right have you, your highness, to call me to account for my friendships, my affections? He is a man who has been more than a father to me!”
The prince would have said something. Ellen interrupted him.
“Well, yes, perhaps he has sentiments for me other than those of a father, but that is not a reason I should shut my door on him. I am not a person to be ungrateful. Know, your highness, that in all that relates to my private sentiments I will account only to God and to my conscience!” she concluded, laying her hand on her beautiful, heaving bosom, and looking up to heaven.
“But listen to me, in God's name!”…
“Marry me, and I will be your slave!”
“But it is impossible.”
“You do not deign to stoop to me, you…” Ellen burst into tears.
The prince attempted to console her. Ellen, as though utterly distraught, declared through her tears that there was nothing to prevent her marrying; that there were precedents (they were but few at that time, but Ellen quoted the case of Napoleon and some other persons of exalted rank); that she had never been a real wife to her husband; that she had been dragged an unwilling victim into the marriage.
“But the law, religion …” murmured the prince, on the point of yielding.
“Religion, laws … what can they have been invented for, if they are unable to manage that?” said Ellen.
The prince was astonished that so simple a reflection had never occurred to him, and applied to the council of the brotherhood of the Society of Jesus, with which he was in close relations.
A few days later, at one of the fascinating fêtes Ellen used to give at her summer villa at Kamenny Ostrov, a certain fascinating M. Jobert was presented to her; a man no longer young, with snow-white hair and brilliant black eyes, un Fésuite à robe courte, who walked for a long while with Ellen among the illuminations in the garden to the strains of music, conversing with her of the love of God, of Christ, of the heart of the Holy Mother, and of the consolations afforded in this life and the next by the one true Catholic faith. Ellen was touched, and several times tears stood both in her eyes and in M. Jobert's, and their voices trembled. A dance, to which her partner fetched Ellen away, cut short her conversation with the future “director of her conscience,” but the next evening M. Jobert came alone to see Ellen, and from that day he was a frequent visitor.
One day he took the countess into a Catholic church, where she fell on her knees before the altar, up to which she was conducted. The fascinating, middle-aged Frenchman laid his hands on her head, and as she herself afterwards described it, she felt something like a breath of fresh air, which seemed wafted into her soul. It was explained to her that this was the “grace of God.”
Then an abbé à robe longue was brought to her; he confessed her, and absolved her from her sins. Next day a box was brought containing the Sacred Host, and left for her to partake of at her house. Several days later Ellen learned to her satisfaction that she had now been admitted into the true Catholic Church, and that in a few days the Pope himself would hear of her case, and send her a document of some sort.
All that was done with her and around her at this period, the attention paid her by so many clever men, and expressed in such agreeable and subtle forms, and her dovelike purity during her conversion (she wore nothing but white dresses and white ribbons all the time)—all afforded her gratification. But this gratification never led her for one instant to lose sight of her object. And, as always happens in contests of cunning, the stupid person gains more than the cleverer; Ellen, fully grasping that the motive of all these words and all this manœuvring was by her conversion to Catholicism to get a round sum from her for the benefit of the Jesuit order (this was hinted at, indeed), held back the money, while insisting steadily on the various operations that would set her free from her conjugal bonds. To her notions, the real object of every religion was to provide recognised forms of propriety for the satisfaction of human desires. And with this end in view, she insisted, in one of her conversations with her spiritual adviser, on demanding an answer to the question how far her marriage was binding.
They were sitting in the drawing-room window. It was dusk. There was a scent of flowers from the window. Ellen wore a white dress, transparent over the bosom and shoulders. The sleek, well-fed abbé, with his plump, clean-shaven chin, his amiable, strong mouth, and his white hands, clasped mildly on his knees, was sitting close by Ellen. With a subtle smile on his lips, and a look of discreet admiration in his eyes, he gazed from time to time at her face, as he expounded his views on the subject. Ellen, with a restless smile, stared at his curly hair and his smooth-shaven, blackish cheeks, and seemed every minute to be expecting the conversation to take a new turn. But the abbé, though unmistakably aware of the beauty of his companion, was also interested in his own skilful handling of the question. The spiritual adviser adopted the following chain of reasoning:—
“In ignorance,” said he, “of the significance of your promise, you took a vow of conjugal fidelity to a man who, on his side, was guilty of sacrilege in entering on the sacrament of matrimony with no faith in its religious significance. That marriage had not the dual binding force it should have had. But in spite of that, your vow was binding upon you. You broke it. What did you commit? Venial sin or mortal sin? A venial sin, because you committed it with no intention of acting wrongly. If now, with the object of bearing children, you should enter into a new marriage, your sin might be forgiven. But the question again falls into two divisions. First …”
“But, I imagine,” Ellen, who was getting bored, said suddenly, with her fascinating smile, “that after being converted to the true religion, cannot be bound by any obligations laid upon me by a false religion.”
Her spiritual adviser was astounded at the simplicity of this solution, as simple as the solution of Columbus's egg. He was enchanted at the unexpected rapidity of his pupil's progress, but could not abandon the edifice of subtle argument that had cost him mental effort.
“Let us understand each other,” he said, with a smile; and began to find arguments to refute his spiritual daughter's contention.