IN THE HIGHER CIRCLES in Petersburg the intricate conflict between the parties of Rumyantsev, of the French, of Marya Fyodorovna, of the Tsarevitch, and the rest was going on all this time with more heat than ever, drowned, as always, by the buzzing of the court drones. But the easy, luxurious life of Petersburg, troubled only about phantasms, the reflection of life, went on its old way; and the course of that life made it a difficult task to believe in the danger and the difficult position of the Russian people. There were the same levees and balls, the same French theatre, the same court interests, the same interests and intrigues in the government service. It was only in the very highest circles that efforts were made to recollect the difficulty of the real position. There was whispered gossip of how the two Empresses had acted in opposition to one another in these difficult circumstances. The Empress Marya Fyodorovna, anxious for the welfare of the benevolent and educational institutions under her patronage, had arrangements made for the removal of all the institutes to Kazan, and all the belongings of these establishments were already packed. The Empress Elizaveta Alexyevna on being asked what commands she was graciously pleased to give, had been pleased to reply that in regard to state matters she could give no commands, since that was all in the Tsar's hands; as far as she personally was concerned, she had graciously declared, with her characteristic Russian patriotism, that she would be the last to leave Petersburg.
On the 26th of August, the very day of the battle of Borodino, there was a soirée at Anna Pavlovna's, the chief attraction of which was to be the reading of the Metropolitan's letter, written on the occasion of his sending to the Tsar the holy picture of Saint Sergey. This letter was looked upon as a model of patriotic ecclesiastical eloquence. It was to be read by Prince Vassily himself, who was famed for his fine elocution. (He used even to read aloud in the Empress's drawing-room.) The beauty of his elocution was supposed to lie in the loud, resonant voice, varying between a despairing howl and a tender whine, in which he rolled off the words quite independently of the sense, so that a howl fell on one word and a whine on others quite at random. This reading, as was always the case with Anna Pavlovna's entertainments, had a political significance. She was expecting at this soirée several important personages who were to be made to feel ashamed of patronising the French theatre, and to be roused to patriotic fervour. A good many people had already arrived, but Anna Pavlovna did not yet see those persons whose presence in her drawing-room was necessary, and she was therefore starting general topics of conversation before proceeding to the reading.
The news of the day in Petersburg was the illness of Countess Bezuhov. The countess had been taken ill a few days previously; she had missed several entertainments, of which she was usually the ornament, and it was said that she was seeing no one, and that instead of the celebrated Petersburg physicians, who usually attended her, she had put herself into the hands of some Italian doctor, who was treating her on some new and extraordinary method.
Everybody was very well aware that the charming countess's illness was due to inconveniences arising from marrying two husbands at once, and that the Italian doctor's treatment consisted in the removal of such inconvenience. But in the presence of Anna Pavlovna no one ventured to think about that view of the question, or even, as it were, to know what they did know about it.
“They say the poor countess is very ill. The doctor says it is angina pectoris.”
“Angine? Oh, that's a terrible illness.”
“They say the rivals are reconciled, thanks to the angine…” The word angine was repeated with great relish.
“I am told the old count is touching. He cried like a child when the doctor told him there was danger.”
“Oh, it would be a terrible loss. She is a fascinating woman.”
“You speak of the poor countess,” said Anna Pavlovna, coming up. “I sent to inquire after her. I was told she was getting better. Oh, no doubt of it, she is the most charming woman in the world,” said Anna Pavlovna, with a smile at her own enthusiasm. “We belong to different camps, but that does not prevent me from appreciating her as she deserves. She is very unhappy,” added Anna Pavlovna.
Supposing that by these last words Anna Pavlovna had slightly lifted the veil of mystery that hung over the countess's illness, one unwary young man permitted himself to express surprise that no well-known doctor had been called in, and that the countess should be treated by a charlatan, who might make use of dangerous remedies.
“Your information may be better than mine,” cried Anna Pavlovna, falling upon the inexperienced youth with sudden viciousness, “but I have it on good authority that this doctor is a very learned and skilful man. He is the private physician of the Queen of Spain.”
And having thus annihilated the young man, Anna Pavlovna turned to Bilibin, who was talking in another group about the Austrians, and had his forehead puckered up in wrinkles in readiness to utter un mot.
“I think it is charming!” he was saying of the diplomatic note which had been sent to Vienna with the Austrian flags taken by Wittgenstein, “le héros de Pétropol,” as he was called at Petersburg.
“What? what was it?” Anna Pavlovna inquired, creating a silence for the mot to be heard, though she had in fact heard it before.
And Bilibin repeated the precise words of the diplomatic despatch he had composed.
“The Emperor sends back the Austrian flags,” said Bilibin; “drapeaux amis et égarés qu'il a trouvés hors de la route,” Bilibin concluded, letting the wrinkles run off his forehead.
“Charming, charming!” said Prince Vassily.
“The road to Warsaw, perhaps,” Prince Ippolit said loudly, to the general surprise. Everybody looked at him, at a loss to guess what he meant. Prince Ippolit, too, looked about him with light-hearted wonder. He had no more notion than other people what was meant by his words. In the course of his diplomatic career he had more than once noticed that words suddenly uttered in that way were accepted as highly diverting, and on every occasion he uttered in that way the first words that chanced to come to his tongue. “May be, it will come out all right,” he thought, “and if it doesn't, they will know how to give some turn to it.” And the awkward silence that reigned was in fact broken by the entrance of the personage of defective patriotism whom Anna Pavlovna was waiting for to convert to a better mind; and smiling, and shaking her finger at Prince Ippolit, she summoned Prince Vassily to the table, and setting two candles and a manuscript before him, she begged him to begin. There was a general hush.
“Most high and gracious Emperor and Tsar!” Prince Vassily boomed out sternly, and he looked round at his audience as though to inquire whether any one had anything to say against that. But nobody said anything. “The chief capital city, Moscow, the New Jerusalem, receives her Messiah”—he threw a sudden emphasis on the “her”—“even as a mother in the embraces of her zealous sons, and through the gathering darkness, foreseeing the dazzling glory of thy dominion, sings aloud in triumph: ‘Hosanna! Blessed be He that cometh!”'
Prince Vassily uttered these last words in a tearful voice.
Bilibin scrutinised his nails attentively, and many of the audience were visibly cowed, as though wondering what they had done wrong. Anna Pavlovna murmured the words over beforehand, as old women whisper the prayer to come at communion: “Let the base and insolent Goliath…” she whispered.
Prince Vassily continued:
“Let the base and insolent Goliath from the borders of France encompass the realm of Russia with the horrors of death; lowly faith, the sling of the Russian David, shall smite a swift blow at the head of his pride that thirsteth for blood. This holy image of the most venerable Saint Sergey, of old a zealous champion of our country's welfare, is borne to your imperial majesty. I grieve that my failing strength hinders me from the joy of your most gracious presence. Fervent prayers I am offering up to Heaven, and the Almighty will exalt the faithful and fulfil in His mercy the hopes of your majesty.”
“Quel force! Quel style!” was murmured in applause of the reader and the author. Roused by this appeal, Anna Pavlovna's guests continued for a long while talking of the position of the country, and made various surmises as to the issue of the battle to be fought in a few days.
“You will see,” said Anna Pavlovna, “that to-morrow on the Emperor's birthday we shall get news. I have a presentiment of something good.”