PRINCE ANDREY did not only know that he would die, but felt indeed that he was dying; that he was already half-dead. He experienced a sense of aloofness from everything earthly, and a strange and joyous lightness in his being. Neither impatient, nor troubled, he lay awaiting what was before him.… The menacing, the eternal, the unknown, and remote, the presence of which he had never ceased to feel during the whole course of his life, was now close to him, and—from that strange lightness of being, that he experienced—almost comprehensible and palpable.
In the past he had dreaded the end. Twice he had experienced that terribly agonising feeling of the dread of death, of the end, and now he had ceased to understand it.
The first time he had experienced that feeling when the grenade was rotating before him, and he looked at the stubble, at the bushes, at the sky, and knew that death was facing him. When he had come to himself after his wound, and instantly, as though set free from the cramping bondage of life, there had sprung up in his soul that flower of love, eternal, free, not dependent on this life, he had no more fear, and no more thought, of death.
In those hours of solitary suffering and half-delirium that he spent afterwards, the more he passed in thought into that new element of eternal love, revealed to him, the further he unconsciously travelled from earthly life. To love everything, every one, to sacrifice self always for love, meant to love no one, meant not to live this earthly life. And the further he penetrated into that element of love, the more he renounced life, and the more completely he annihilated that fearful barrier that love sets up between life and death. Whenever, during that first period, he remembered that he had to die, he said to himself: “Well, so much the better.”
But after that night at Mytishtchy, when in his half-delirium she, whom he had longed for, appeared before him, and when pressing her hand to his lips, he wept soft, happy tears, love for one woman stole unseen into his heart, and bound him again to life. And glad and disturbing thoughts began to come back to him. Recalling that moment at the ambulance station, when he had seen Kuragin, he could not now go back to his feeling then. He was fretted by the question whether he were alive. And he dared not ask.
His illness went through its regular physical course; but what Natasha had called “this change” had come upon him two days before Princess Marya's arrival. It was the last moral struggle between life and death, in which death gained the victory. It was the sudden consciousness that life, in the shape of his love for Natasha, was still precious to him, and the last and vanquished onslaught of terror before the unknown.
It happened in the evening. He was, as usually after dinner, in a slightly feverish condition, and his thoughts were particularly clear. Sonya was sitting at the table. He fell into a doze. He felt a sudden sense of happiness.
“Ah, she has come in!” he thought.
Natasha had, in fact, just come in with noiseless steps, and was sitting in Sonya's place.
Ever since she had been looking after him he had always felt this physical sense of her presence. She was in a low chair beside him, knitting a stocking, and sitting so as to screen the light of the candle from him. She had learned to knit since Prince Andrey had once said to her that no one made such a good sick-nurse as an old nurse who knitted stockings, and that there was something soothing about knitting. Her slender fingers moved the needles rapidly with a slight click, and the dreamy profile of her drooping head could be clearly seen by him. She made a slight movement; the ball rolled off her knee. She started, glanced round at him, and, screening the light with her hand, bent over with a cautious, supple, and precise movement, picked up the ball, and sat back in the same attitude as before.
He gazed at her without stirring, and saw that after her movements she wanted to draw a deep breath, but did not dare to, and breathed with careful self-restraint.
At the Troitsa monastery they had spoken of the past, and he had told her that if he were to live he should thank God for ever for his wound, which had brought them together again; but since then they had never spoken of the future.
“Could it be, or could it not?” he was wondering now as he watched her and listened to the slight steel click of the needles. “Can fate have brought us together so strangely only for me to die? … Can the truth of life have been revealed to me only for me to have spent my life in falsity? I love her more than anything in the world! But what am I to do if I love her?” he said, and suddenly he unconsciously moaned from the habit he had fallen into in the course of his sufferings.
Hearing the sound, Natasha laid down her stocking, and bent down closer to him, and suddenly noticing his shining eyes, went up to him with a light step and stooped down.
“You are not asleep?”
“No; I have been looking at you for a long while. I felt when you came in. No one but you gives me the same soft peace … the same light. I want to weep with gladness!”
Natasha moved closer to him. Her face beamed with rapturous delight.
“Natasha, I love you too much! More than everything in the world!”
“And I?” She turned away for a second. “Why too much?” she said.
“Why too much? … Well, what do you think, what do you feel in your heart, your whole heart, am I going to live? What do you think?”
“I am sure of it; sure of it!” Natasha almost cried out, taking both his hands with a passionate gesture.
He was silent for a while.
“How good it would be!” And taking her hand, he kissed it.
Natasha was happy and deeply stirred; and she recollected at once that this must not be, and that he must have quiet.
“But you are not asleep,” she said, subduing her joy. “Try and sleep … please do.”
He pressed her hand and let it go, and she moved back to the candle and sat down in the same position as before. Twice she glanced round at him; his eyes were bright as she met them. She set herself a task on her stocking, and told herself she would not look round till she had finished it.
He did, in fact, soon after shut his eyes and fall asleep. He did not sleep long, and woke up suddenly in a cold sweat of alarm.
As he fell asleep he was still thinking of what he had been thinking about all the time—of life and of death. And most of death. He felt he was closer to it.
“Love? What is love?” he thought.
“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, all that I understand, I understand only because I love. All is, all exists only because I love. All is bound up in love alone. Love is God, and dying means for me a particle of love, to go back to the universal and eternal source of love.” These thoughts seemed to him comforting. But they were only thoughts. Something was wanting in them; there was something one-sided and personal, something intellectual; they were not self-evident. And there was uneasiness, too, and obscurity. He fell asleep.
He dreamed that he was lying in the very room in which he was lying in reality, but that he was not ill, but quite well. Many people of various sorts, indifferent people of no importance, were present. He was talking and disputing with them about some trivial matter. They seemed to be preparing to set off somewhere. Prince Andrey had a dim feeling that all this was of no consequence, and that he had other matters of graver moment to think of, but still he went on uttering empty witticisms of some sort that surprised them. By degrees all these people began to disappear, and the one thing left was the question of closing the door. He got up and went towards the door to close it and bolt it. Everything depended on whether he were in time to shut it or not. He was going, he was hurrying, but his legs would not move, and he knew that he would not have time to shut the door, but still he was painfully straining every effort to do so. And an agonising terror came upon him. And that terror was the fear of death; behind the door stood It. But while he is helplessly and clumsily struggling towards the door, that something awful is already pressing against the other side of it, and forcing the door open. Something not human—death—is forcing the door open, and he must hold it to. He clutches at the door with a last straining effort—to shut it is impossible, at least to hold it—but his efforts are feeble and awkward; and, under the pressure of that awful thing, the door opens and shuts again.
Once more It was pressing on the door from without. His last, supernatural efforts are vain, and both leaves of the door are noiselessly opened. It comes in, and it is death. And Prince Andrey died.
But at the instant when in his dream he died, Prince Andrey recollected that he was asleep; and at the instant when he was dying, he made an effort and waked up.
“Yes, that was death. I died and I waked up. Yes, death is an awakening,” flashed with sudden light into his soul, and the veil that had till then hidden the unknown was lifted before his spiritual vision. He felt, as it were, set free from some force that held him in bondage, and was aware of that strange lightness of being that had not left him since.
When he waked up in a cold sweat and moved on the couch, Natasha went up and asked him what was the matter. He did not answer, and looked at her with strange eyes, not understanding her.
That was the change that had come over him two days before Princess Marya's arrival. The doctor said that from that day the wasting fever had assumed a more serious aspect, but Natasha paid little heed to what the doctor said; she saw the terrible moral symptoms, that for her were far more convincing.
With his awakening from sleep that day there began for Prince Andrey an awakening from life. And in relation to the duration of life it seemed to him not more prolonged than the awakening from sleep in relation to the duration of a dream. There was nothing violent or terrible in this relatively slow awakening.
His last days and hours passed in a simple and commonplace way. Princess Marya and Natasha, who never left his side, both felt that. They did not weep nor shudder, and towards the last they both felt they were waiting not on him (he was no more; he had gone far away from them), but on the nearest memory of him—his body. The feelings of both of them were so strong that the external, horrible side of death did not affect them, and they did not find it needful to work up their grief. They did not weep either in his presence nor away from him, and they never even talked of him together. They felt that they could not express in words what they understood.
They both saw that he was slowly and quietly slipping further and further away from them, and both knew that this must be so, and that it was well. He received absolution and extreme unction; every one came to bid him good-bye. When his son was brought in to him, he pressed his lips to him and turned away, not because it was painful or sad to him (Princess Marya and Natasha saw that), but simply because he supposed he had done all that was required of him. But he was told to give him his blessing, he did what was required, and looked round as though to ask whether there was anything else he must do. When the body, deserted by the spirit, passed through its last struggles, Princess Marya and Natasha were there.
“It is over!” said Princess Marya, after the body had lain for some moments motionless, and growing cold before them. Natasha went close, glanced at the dead eyes, and made haste to shut them. She closed them, and did not kiss them, but hung over what was the nearest memory of him. “Where has he gone? Where is he now? …”
When the body lay, dressed and washed, in the coffin on the table every one came to take leave of him, and every one cried. Nikolushka cried from the agonising bewilderment that was rending his heart. The countess and Sonya cried from pity for Natasha, and from grief that he was gone. The old count cried because he felt that he too must soon take the same terrible step.
Natasha and Princess Marya wept too now. But they did not weep for their personal sorrow; they wept from the emotion and awe that filled their souls before the simple and solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before their eyes.