At the beginning of winter Princess Mary came to Moscow. From reports current in town she learned how the Rostóvs were situated, and how “the son has sacrificed himself for his mother,” as people were saying.
“I never expected anything else of him,” said Princess Mary to herself, feeling a joyous sense of her love for him. Remembering her friendly relations with all the Rostóvs which had made her almost a member of the family, she thought it her duty to go to see them. But remembering her relations with Nicholas in Vorónezh she was shy about doing so. Making a great effort she did however go to call on them a few weeks after her arrival in Moscow.
Nicholas was the first to meet her, as the countess’ room could only be reached through his. But instead of being greeted with pleasure as she had expected, at his first glance at her his face assumed a cold, stiff, proud expression she had not seen on it before. He inquired about her health, led the way to his mother, and having sat there for five minutes left the room.
When the princess came out of the countess’ room Nicholas met her again, and with marked solemnity and stiffness accompanied her to the anteroom. To her remarks about his mother’s health he made no reply. “What’s that to you? Leave me in peace,” his looks seemed to say.
“Why does she come prowling here? What does she want? I can’t bear these ladies and all these civilities!” said he aloud in Sónya’s presence, evidently unable to repress his vexation, after the princess’ carriage had disappeared.
“Oh, Nicholas, how can you talk like that?” cried Sónya, hardly able to conceal her delight. “She is so kind and Mama is so fond of her!”
Nicholas did not reply and tried to avoid speaking of the princess any more. But after her visit the old countess spoke of her several times a day.
She sang her praises, insisted that her son must call on her, expressed a wish to see her often, but yet always became ill-humored when she began to talk about her.
Nicholas tried to keep silence when his mother spoke of the princess, but his silence irritated her.
“She is a very admirable and excellent young woman,” said she, “and you must go and call on her. You would at least be seeing somebody, and I think it must be dull for you only seeing us.”
“But I don’t in the least want to, Mama.”
“You used to want to, and now you don’t. Really I don’t understand you, my dear. One day you are dull, and the next you refuse to see anyone.”
“But I never said I was dull.”
“Why, you said yourself you don’t want even to see her. She is a very admirable young woman and you always liked her, but now suddenly you have got some notion or other in your head. You hide everything from me.”
“Not at all, Mama.”
“If I were asking you to do something disagreeable now—but I only ask you to return a call. One would think mere politeness required it.... Well, I have asked you, and now I won’t interfere any more since you have secrets from your mother.”
“Well, then, I’ll go if you wish it.”
“It doesn’t matter to me. I only wish it for your sake.”
Nicholas sighed, bit his mustache, and laid out the cards for a patience, trying to divert his mother’s attention to another topic.
The same conversation was repeated next day and the day after, and the day after that.
After her visit to the Rostóvs and her unexpectedly chilly reception by Nicholas, Princess Mary confessed to herself that she had been right in not wishing to be the first to call.
“I expected nothing else,” she told herself, calling her pride to her aid. “I have nothing to do with him and I only wanted to see the old lady, who was always kind to me and to whom I am under many obligations.”
But she could not pacify herself with these reflections; a feeling akin to remorse troubled her when she thought of her visit. Though she had firmly resolved not to call on the Rostóvs again and to forget the whole matter, she felt herself all the time in an awkward position. And when she asked herself what distressed her, she had to admit that it was her relation to Rostóv. His cold, polite manner did not express his feeling for her (she knew that) but it concealed something, and until she could discover what that something was, she felt that she could not be at ease.
One day in midwinter when sitting in the schoolroom attending to her nephew’s lessons, she was informed that Rostóv had called. With a firm resolution not to betray herself and not show her agitation, she sent for Mademoiselle Bourienne and went with her to the drawing room.
Her first glance at Nicholas’ face told her that he had only come to fulfill the demands of politeness, and she firmly resolved to maintain the tone in which he addressed her.
They spoke of the countess’ health, of their mutual friends, of the latest war news, and when the ten minutes required by propriety had elapsed after which a visitor may rise, Nicholas got up to say good-by.
With Mademoiselle Bourienne’s help the princess had maintained the conversation very well, but at the very last moment, just when he rose, she was so tired of talking of what did not interest her, and her mind was so full of the question why she alone was granted so little happiness in life, that in a fit of absent-mindedness she sat still, her luminous eyes gazing fixedly before her, not noticing that he had risen.
Nicholas glanced at her and, wishing to appear not to notice her abstraction, made some remark to Mademoiselle Bourienne and then again looked at the princess. She still sat motionless with a look of suffering on her gentle face. He suddenly felt sorry for her and was vaguely conscious that he might be the cause of the sadness her face expressed. He wished to help her and say something pleasant, but could think of nothing to say.
“Good-by, Princess!” said he.
She started, flushed, and sighed deeply.
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” she said as if waking up. “Are you going already, Count? Well then, good-by! Oh, but the cushion for the countess!”
“Wait a moment, I’ll fetch it,” said Mademoiselle Bourienne, and she left the room.
They both sat silent, with an occasional glance at one another.
“Yes, Princess,” said Nicholas at last with a sad smile, “it doesn’t seem long ago since we first met at Boguchárovo, but how much water has flowed since then! In what distress we all seemed to be then, yet I would give much to bring back that time... but there’s no bringing it back.”
Princess Mary gazed intently into his eyes with her own luminous ones as he said this. She seemed to be trying to fathom the hidden meaning of his words which would explain his feeling for her.
“Yes, yes,” said she, “but you have no reason to regret the past, Count. As I understand your present life, I think you will always recall it with satisfaction, because the self-sacrifice that fills it now...”
“I cannot accept your praise,” he interrupted her hurriedly. “On the contrary I continually reproach myself.... But this is not at all an interesting or cheerful subject.”
His face again resumed its former stiff and cold expression. But the princess had caught a glimpse of the man she had known and loved, and it was to him that she now spoke.
“I thought you would allow me to tell you this,” she said. “I had come so near to you... and to all your family that I thought you would not consider my sympathy misplaced, but I was mistaken,” and suddenly her voice trembled. “I don’t know why,” she continued, recovering herself, “but you used to be different, and...”
“There are a thousand reasons why,” laying special emphasis on the why. “Thank you, Princess,” he added softly. “Sometimes it is hard.”
“So that’s why! That’s why!” a voice whispered in Princess Mary’s soul. “No, it was not only that gay, kind, and frank look, not only that handsome exterior, that I loved in him. I divined his noble, resolute, self-sacrificing spirit too,” she said to herself. “Yes, he is poor now and I am rich.... Yes, that’s the only reason.... Yes, were it not for that...” And remembering his former tenderness, and looking now at his kind, sorrowful face, she suddenly understood the cause of his coldness.
“But why, Count, why?” she almost cried, unconsciously moving closer to him. “Why? Tell me. You must tell me!”
He was silent.
“I don’t understand your why, Count,” she continued, “but it’s hard for me... I confess it. For some reason you wish to deprive me of our former friendship. And that hurts me.” There were tears in her eyes and in her voice. “I have had so little happiness in life that every loss is hard for me to bear.... Excuse me, good-by!” and suddenly she began to cry and was hurrying from the room.
“Princess, for God’s sake!” he exclaimed, trying to stop her. “Princess!”
She turned round. For a few seconds they gazed silently into one another’s eyes—and what had seemed impossible and remote suddenly became possible, inevitable, and very near.