WHEN PIERRE AND HIS WIFE came into the drawing-room, the countess happened to be in her customary condition of needing the mental exercise of a game of patience, and therefore, although from habit she uttered the words, she always repeated on the return of Pierre or her son after absence: “It was high time, high time, my dear boy; we have been expecting you a long while. Well, thank God, you are here.” And on the presents being given her, pronounced another stock phrase: “It's not the gift that is precious, my dear.… Thank you for thinking of an old woman like me. …” It was evident that Pierre's entrance at that moment was unwelcome, because it interrupted her in dealing her cards. She finished her game of patience, and only then gave her attention to the presents. The presents for her consisted of a card-case of fine workmanship, a bright blue Sèvres cup with a lid and a picture of shepherdesses on it, and a gold snuff-box with the count's portrait on it, which Pierre had had executed by a miniature-painter in Petersburg. The countess had long wished to have this; but just now she had no inclination to weep, and so she looked unconcernedly at the portrait, and took more notice of the card-case.
“Thank you, my dear, you are a comfort to me,” she said, as she always did. “But best of all, you have brought yourself back. It has been beyond everything; you must really scold your wife. She is like one possessed without you. She sees nothing, thinks of nothing,” she said as usual. “Look, Anna Timofyevna,” she added, “what a card-case my son has brought us.”
Madame Byelov admired the present, and was enchanted with the dress material.
Pierre, Natasha, Nikolay, Countess Marya, and Denisov had a great deal they wanted to talk about, which was not talked of before the old countess; not because anything was concealed from her, but simply because she had dropped so out of things, that if they had begun to talk freely before her they would have had to answer so many questions put by her at random, and to repeat so many things that had been repeated to her so many times already; to tell her that this person was dead and that person was married, which she could never remember. Yet they sat as usual at tea in the drawing-room, and Pierre answered the countess's quite superfluous questions, which were of no interest even to her, and told her that Prince Vassily was looking older, and that Countess Marya Alexeyevna sent her kind regards and remembrances, etc.
Such conversation, of no interest to any one, but inevitable, was kept up all tea-time. All the grown-up members of the family were gathered about the round tea-table with the samovar, at which Sonya presided. The children with their tutors and governesses had already had tea, and their voices could be heard in the next room. At tea every one sat in his own habitual place. Nikolay sat by the stove at a little table apart, where his tea was handed him. An old terrier bitch, with a perfectly grey face, Milka, the daughter of the first Milka, lay on a chair beside him. Denisov, with streaks of grey in his curly hair, moustaches, and whiskers, wearing his general's coat unbuttoned, sat beside Countess Marya. Pierre was sitting between his wife and the old countess. He was telling what he knew might interest the old lady and be intelligible to her. He talked of external social events and of the persons who had once made up the circle of the old countess's contemporaries, and had once been a real living circle of people, but were now for the most part scattered about the world, and, like her, living out their remnant of life, gleaning up the stray ears of what they had sown in life. But they, these contemporaries, seemed to the old countess to make up the only real world that was worth considering. By Pierre's eagerness, Natasha saw that his visit had been an interesting one, that he was longing to tell them about it, but dared not speak freely before the countess. Denisov, not being a member of the family, did not understand Pierre's circumspectness, and, moreover, being dissatisfied with the course of events, took a very great interest in all that was going forward at Petersburg. He was continually trying to get Pierre to tell him about the recent scandal about the Semyonovsky regiment, or about Araktcheev, or about the Bible Society. Pierre was sometimes led on into beginning to talk about those subjects, but Nikolay and Natasha always brought him back to the health of Prince Ivan and Countess Marya Antonovna.
“Well, what is all this idiocy, Gossner and Madame Tatarinov,” Denisov asked, “is that still going on?”
“Going on?” said Pierre. “Worse than ever. The Bible Society is now the whole government.”
“What is that, mon cher ami?” asked the old countess, who, having drunk her tea, was obviously seeking a pretext for ill-humour after taking food. “What are you saying about the government? I don't understand that.”
“Why, you know, maman,” put in Nikolay, who knew how to translate things into his mother's language. “Prince Alexander Nikolaevitch Golitsin had founded a society, so he has great influence they say.”
“Araktcheev and Golitsin,” said Pierre incautiously, “are practically the government now. And what a government! They see conspiracy in everything, they are afraid of everything.”
“What, Prince Alexander Nikolaevitch found fault with! He is a most estimable man. I used to meet him in old days at Marya Antonovna's,” said the countess in an aggrieved tone. And still more aggrieved by the general silence, she went on, “Nowadays people find fault with every one. A Gospel Society, what harm is there in that?” and she got up (every one rose too), and with a severe face sailed out to her table in the adjoining divan-room.
In the midst of the mournful silence that followed, they heard the sound of children's voices and laughter from the next room. There was evidently some joyful excitement afoot among the children.
“Finished, finished!” the gleeful shriek of little Natasha was heard above all the rest. Pierre exchanged glances with Countess Marya and Nikolay (Natasha he was looking at all the time), and he smiled happily.
“Delightful music!” he said.
“Anna Makarovna has finished her stocking,” said Countess Marya.
“Oh, I'm going to have a look at them,” said Pierre, jumping up. “You know,” he said, stopping at the door, “why it is I so particularly love that music—it is what first lets me know that all's well. As I came today, the nearer I got to home, the greater my panic. As I came into the vestibule, I heard Andryusha in peals of laughter, and then I knew all was well …”
“I know, I know that feeling,” Nikolay chimed in. “I mustn't come— the stockings are a surprise in store for me.”
Pierre went into the children, and the shrieks and laughter were louder than ever. “Now, Anna Makarovna,” cried Pierre's voice, “here in the middle of the room and at the word of my command—one, two, and when I say three, you stand here. You in my arms. Now, one, two …” there was complete silence. “Three!” and an enthusiastic roar of children's voices rose in the room. “Two, two!” cried the children.
They meant the two stockings, which, by a secret only known to her, Anna Makarovna used to knit on her needles at once. She always made a solemn ceremony of pulling one stocking out of the other in the presence of the children when the pair was finished.