It was long since the Rostovs had news of Nicholas. Not till midwinter was the count at last handed a letter addressed in his son's handwriting. On receiving it, he ran on tiptoe to his study in alarm and haste, trying to escape notice, closed the door, and began to read the letter.
Anna Mikhaylovna, who always knew everything that passed in the house, on hearing of the arrival of the letter went softly into the room and found the count with it in his hand, sobbing and laughing at the same time.
Anna Mikhaylovna, though her circumstances had improved, was still living with the Rostovs.
"My dear friend?" said she, in a tone of pathetic inquiry, prepared to sympathize in any way.
The count sobbed yet more.
"Nikolenka . . . a letter . . . wa . . . a . . . s . . . wounded . . . my darling boy . . . the countess . . . promoted to be an officer . . . thank God . . . How tell the little countess!"
Anna Mikhaylovna sat down beside him, with her own handkerchief wiped the tears from his eyes and from the letter, then having dried her own eyes she comforted the count, and decided that at dinner and till teatime she would prepare the countess, and after tea, with God's help, would inform her.
At dinner Anna Mikhaylovna talked the whole time about the war news and about Nikolenka, twice asked when the last letter had been received from him, though she knew that already, and remarked that they might very likely be getting a letter from him that day. Each time that these hints began to make the countess anxious and she glanced uneasily at the count and at Anna Mikhaylovna, the latter very adroitly turned the conversation to insignificant matters. Natasha, who, of the whole family, was the most gifted with a capacity to feel any shades of intonation, look, and expression, pricked up her ears from the beginning of the meal and was certain that there was some secret between her father and Anna Mikhaylovna, that it had something to do with her brother, and that Anna Mikhaylovna was preparing them for it. Bold as she was, Natasha, who knew how sensitive her mother was to anything relating to Nikolenka, did not venture to ask any questions at dinner, but she was too excited to eat anything and kept wriggling about on her chair regardless of her governess' remarks. After dinner, she rushed head long after Anna Mikhaylovna and, dashing at her, flung herself on her neck as soon as she overtook her in the sitting room.
"Auntie, darling, do tell me what it is!"
"Nothing, my dear."
"No, dearest, sweet one, honey, I won't give up — I know you know something."
Anna Mikhaylovna shook her head.
"You are a little slyboots," she said.
"A letter from Nikolenka! I'm sure of it!" exclaimed Natasha, reading confirmation in Anna Mikhaylovna's face.
"But for God's sake, be careful, you know how it may affect your mamma."
"I will, I will, only tell me! You won't? Then I will go and tell at once."
Anna Mikhaylovna, in a few words, told her the contents of the letter, on condition that she should tell no one.
"No, on my true word of honor," said Natasha, crossing herself,"I won't tell anyone!" and she ran off at once to Sonya.
"Nikolenka . . . wounded . . . a letter," she announced in gleeful triumph.
"Nicholas!" was all Sonya said, instantly turning white.
Natasha, seeing the impression the of her brother's wound produced on Sonya, felt for the first time the sorrowful side of the news.
She rushed to Sonya, hugged her, and began to cry.
"A little wound, but he has been made an officer; he is well now, he wrote himself," said she through her tears.
"There now! It's true that all you women are crybabies," remarked Petya, pacing the room with large, resolute strides."Now I'm very glad, very glad indeed, that my brother has distinguished himself so. You are all blubberers and understand nothing."
Natasha smiled through her tears.
"You haven't read the letter?" asked Sonya.
"No, but she said that it was all over and that he's now an officer."
"Thank God!" said Sonya, crossing herself."But perhaps she deceived you. Let us go to Mamma."
Petya paced the room in silence for a time.
"If I'd been in Nikolenka's place I would have killed even more of those Frenchmen," he said."What nasty brutes they are! I'd have killed so many that there'd have been a heap of them."
"Hold your tongue, Petya, what a goose you are!"
"I'm not a goose, but they are who cry about trifles," said Petya.
"Do you remember him?" Natasha suddenly asked, after a moment's silence.
"Do I remember Nicholas?"
"No, Sonya, but do you remember so that you remember him perfectly, remember everything?" said Natasha, with an expressive gesture, evidently wishing to give her words a very definite meaning."I remember Nikolenka too, I remember him well," she said."But I don't remember Boris. I don't remember him a bit."
"What! You don't remember Boris?" asked Sonya in surprise.
"It's not that I don't remember — I know what he is like, but not as I remember Nikolenka. Him — I just shut my eyes and remember, but Boris . . . No!" (She shut her eyes.)"No! there's nothing at all."
"Oh, Natasha!" said Sonya, looking ecstatically and earnestly at her friend as if she did not consider her worthy to hear what she meant to say and as if she were saying it to someone else, with whom joking was out of the question,"I am in love with your brother once for all and, whatever may happen to him or to me, shall never cease to love him as long as I live."
Natasha looked at Sonya with wondering and inquisitive eyes, and said nothing. She felt that Sonya was speaking the truth, that there was such love as Sonya was speaking of. But Natasha had not yet felt anything like it. She believed it could be, but did not understand it.
"Shall you write to him?" she asked.
Sonya became thoughtful. The question of how to write to Nicholas, and whether she ought to write, tormented her. Now that he was already an officer and a wounded hero, would it be right to remind him of herself and, as it might seem, of the obligations to her he had taken on himself?
"I don't know. I think if he writes, I will write too," she said, blushing.
"And you won't feel ashamed to write to him?"
"And I should be ashamed to write to Boris. I'm not going to."
"Why should you be ashamed?"
"Well, I don't know. It's awkward and would make me ashamed."
"And I know why she'd be ashamed," said Petya, offended by Natasha's previous remark."It's because she was in love with that fat one in spectacles" (that was how Petya described his namesake, the new Count Bezukhov)"and now she's in love with that singer" (he meant Natasha's Italian singing master),"that's why she's ashamed!"
"Petya, you're a stupid!" said Natasha.
"Not more stupid than you, madam," said the nine-year-old Petya, with the air of an old brigadier.
The countess had been prepared by Anna Mikhaylovna's hints at dinner. On retiring to her own room, she sat in an armchair, her eyes fixed on a miniature portrait of her son on the lid of a snuffbox, while the tears kept coming into her eyes. Anna Mikhaylovna, with the letter, came on tiptoe to the countess' door and paused.
"Don't come in," she said to the old count who was following her."Come later." And she went in, closing the door behind her.
The count put his ear to the keyhole and listened.