AT THE BEGINNING of the winter Princess Marya arrived in Moscow. From the gossip of the town she heard of the position of the Rostovs, and of how “the son was sacrificing himself for his mother,” as the gossips said. “It is just what I expected of him,” Princess Marya said to herself, finding in it a delightful confirmation of her love for him. Remembering her intimate relations with the whole family—almost as one of themselves—she thought it her duty to call on them. But thinking of her relations with Nikolay in Voronezh, she was afraid of doing so. A few weeks after her arrival in Moscow, she did, however, make an effort, and went to see the Rostovs.
Nikolay was the first to meet her, since it was impossible to reach the countess's room without passing through his room. Instead of the expression of delight Princess Marya had expected to see on his face at the first glance at her, he met her with a look of chilliness, stiffness, and pride that she had never seen before. Nikolay inquired after her health, conducted her to his mother, and, after staying five minutes, went out of the room.
When Princess Marya left the countess, Nikolay again met her, and with marked formality and stiffness led her to the hall. He made no reply to her remarks about the countess's health. “What is it to you? Leave me in peace,” his expression seemed to say.
“And why should she stroll in here? What does she want? I can't endure these ladies and all these civilities!” he said aloud before Sonya, obviously unable to restrain his vexation, after the princess's carriage had rolled away from the house.
“Oh, how can you talk like that, Nicolas,” said Sonya, hardly able to conceal her delight. “She is so kind, and maman is so fond of her.”
Nikolay made no reply, and would have liked to say no more about Princess Marya. But after her visit the old countess talked about her several times every day.
She sang her praises; insisted that her son should go and see her; expressed a wish to see more of her; and yet was always out of temper when she had been talking of her.
Nikolay tried to say nothing when his mother talked of Princess Marya, but his silence irritated her.
“She is a very good and conscientious girl,” she would say, “and you must go and call on her. Anyway, you will see some one; and it is dull for you, I expect, with us.”
“But I don't at all wish to, mamma.”
“Why, you wanted to see people and now you don't wish it. I really don't understand you, my dear. At one minute you are dull, and the next you suddenly don't care to see any one.”
“Why, I never said I was dull.”
“Why, you said yourself you did not even wish to see her. She is a very good girl, and you always liked her; and now all of a sudden you have some reasons or other. Everything is kept a secret from me.”
“Not at all, mamma.”
“If I were to beg you to do something unpleasant, but as it is, I simply beg you to drive over and return her call. Why, civility demands it, I should suppose … I have begged you to do so, and now I will meddle no further since you have secrets from your mother.”
“But I will go, if you wish it.”
“It's nothing to me; it's for your sake I wish it.”
Nikolay sighed, and bit his moustache, and dealt the cards, trying to draw his mother's attention to another subject.
Next day, and the third, and the fourth, the same conversation was repeated again and again.
After her visit to the Rostovs, and the unexpectedly cold reception she had met with from Nikolay, Princess Marya acknowledged to herself that she had been right in not wanting to be the first to call.
“It was just what I expected,” she said to herself, summoning her pride to her aid. “I have no concern with him, and I only wanted to see the old lady, who was always kind to me, and to whom I am under obligation for many things.”
But she could not tranquillise herself with these reflections: a feeling akin to remorse fretted her, when she thought of her visit. Although she was firmly resolved not to call again on the Rostovs, and to forget all about it, she was continually feeling herself in an undefined position. And when she asked herself what it was that worried her, she was obliged to admit that it was her relation to Rostov. His cold, ceremonious tone did not proceed from his feeling for her (of that she was convinced), but that tone covered something. What that something was, she wanted to see clearly, and till then she felt that she could not be at peace.
In the middle of the winter she was sitting in the schoolroom, supervising her nephew's lessons, when the servant announced that Rostov was below. With the firm determination not to betray her secret, and not to manifest any embarrassment, she summoned Mademoiselle Bourienne, and with her went into the drawing-room.
At the first glance at Nikolay's face, she saw that he had come merely to perform the obligations of civility, and she determined to keep to the tone he adopted towards her.
They talked of the health of the countess, of common acquaintances, of the latest news of the war, and when the ten minutes required by propriety had elapsed, Nikolay got up to say good-bye.
With the aid of Mademoiselle Bourienne, Princess Marya had kept up the conversation very well. But at the very last moment, just when he was getting up, she was so weary of talking of what did not interest her, and she was so absorbed in wondering why to her alone so little joy had been vouchsafed in life, that in a fit of abstraction, she sat motionless gazing straight before her with her luminous eyes, and not noticing that he was getting up.
Nikolay looked at her, and anxious to appear not to notice her abstraction, he said a few words to Mademoiselle Bourienne, and again glanced at the princess. She was sitting in the same immovable pose, and there was a look of suffering on her soft face. He felt suddenly sorry for her, and vaguely conscious that he might be the cause of the sadness he saw in her face. He longed to help her, to say something pleasant to her, but he could not think what to say to her.
“Good-bye, princess,” he said. She started, flushed, and sighed heavily.
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” she said, as though waking from sleep. “You are going already, count; well, good-bye! Oh, the cushion for the countess?”
“Wait a minute, I will fetch it,” said Mademoiselle Bourienne, and she left the room.
They were both silent, glancing at each other now and then.
“Yes, princess,” said Nikolay at last, with a mournful smile, “it seems not long ago, but how much has happened since the first time we met at Bogutcharovo. We all seemed in such trouble then, but I would give a great deal to have that time back … and there's no bringing it back.”
Princess Marya was looking intently at him with her luminous eyes, as he said that. She seemed trying to divine the secret import of his words, which would make clear his feeling towards her.
“Yes, yes,” she said, “but you have no need to regret the past, count. As I conceive of your life now, you will always think of it with satisfaction, because the self-sacrifice in which you are now …”
“I cannot accept your praises,” he interrupted hurriedly; “on the contrary, I am always reproaching myself; but it is an uninteresting and cheerless subject.”
And again the stiff and cold expression came back into his face. But Princess Marya saw in him again now the man she had known and loved, and it was to that man only she was speaking now.
“I thought you would allow me to say that,” she said. “I have been such intimate friends with you … and with your family, and I thought you would not feel my sympathy intrusive; but I made a mistake,” she said. Her voice suddenly shook. “I don't know why,” she went on, recovering herself, “you used to be different, and …”
“There are thousands of reasons why.” (He laid special stress on the word why.) “I thank you, princess,” he added softly. “It is sometimes hard …”
“So that is why! That is why!” an inner voice was saying in Princess Marya's soul. “Yes, it was not only that gay, kind, and frank gaze, not only that handsome exterior I loved in him; I divined his noble, firm, and self-sacrificing soul,” she said to herself.
“Yes, he is poor now, and I am rich … Yes, it is only that … Yes, if it were not for that …” And recalling all his former tenderness, and looking now at his kind and sad face, she suddenly understood the reason of his coldness.
“Why! count, why?” she almost cried all at once, involuntarily moving nearer to him. “Why, do tell me. You must tell me.” He was mute. “I do not know, count, your why,” she went on. “But I am sad, I … I will own that to you. You mean for some reason to deprive me of our old friendship. And that hurts me.” There were tears in her eyes and in her voice. “I have had so little happiness in my life that every loss is hard for me … Excuse me, good-bye,” she suddenly burst into tears, and was going out of the room.
“Princess! stay, for God's sake,” he cried, trying to stop her. “Princess!”
She looked round. For a few seconds they gazed mutely in each other's eyes, and the remote and impossible became all at once close at hand, possible and inevitable.