Soon after the Christmas holidays Nicholas told his mother of his love for Sonya and of his firm resolve to marry her. The countess, who had long noticed what was going on between them and was expecting this declaration, listened to him in silence and then told her son that he might marry whom he pleased, but that neither she nor his father would give their blessing to such a marriage. Nicholas, for the first time, felt that his mother was displeased with him and that, despite her love for him, she would not give way. Coldly, without looking at her son, she sent for her husband and, when he came, tried briefly and coldly to inform him of the facts, in her son's presence, but unable to restrain herself she burst into tears of vexation and left the room. The old count began irresolutely to admonish Nicholas and beg him to abandon his purpose. Nicholas replied that he could not go back on his word, and his father, sighing and evidently disconcerted, very soon became silent and went in to the countess. In all his encounters with his son, the count was always conscious of his own guilt toward him for having wasted the family fortune, and so he could not be angry with him for refusing to marry an heiress and choosing the dowerless Sonya. On this occasion, he was only more vividly conscious of the fact that if his affairs had not been in disorder, no better wife for Nicholas than Sonya could have been wished for, and that no one but himself with his Mitenka and his uncomfortable habits was to blame for the condition of the family finances.
The father and mother did not speak of the matter to their son again, but a few days later the countess sent for Sonya and, with a cruelty neither of them expected, reproached her niece for trying to catch Nicholas and for ingratitude. Sonya listened silently with downcast eyes to the countess' cruel words, without understanding what was required of her. She was ready to sacrifice everything for her benefactors. Self-sacrifice was her most cherished idea but in this case she could not see what she ought to sacrifice, or for whom. She could not help loving the countess and the whole Rostov family, but neither could she help loving Nicholas and knowing that his happiness depended on that love. She was silent and sad and did not reply. Nicholas felt the situation to be intolerable and went to have an explanation with his mother. He first implored her to forgive him and Sonya and consent to their marriage, then he threatened that if she molested Sonya he would at once marry her secretly.
The countess, with a coldness her son had never seen in her before, replied that he was of age, that Prince Andrew was marrying without his father's consent, and he could do the same, but that she would never receive that intriguer as her daughter.
Exploding at the word intriguer, Nicholas, raising his voice, told his mother he had never expected her to try to force him to sell his feelings, but if that were so, he would say for the last time . . . . But he had no time to utter the decisive word which the expression of his face caused his mother to await with terror, and which would perhaps have forever remained a cruel memory to them both. He had not time to say it, for Natasha, with a pale and set face, entered the room from the door at which she had been listening.
"Nicholas, you are talking nonsense! Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, I tell you! . . ." she almost screamed, so as to drown his voice.
"Mamma darling, it's not at all so . . . my poor, sweet darling," she said to her mother, who conscious that they had been on the brink of a rupture gazed at her son with terror, but in the obstinacy and excitement of the conflict could not and would not give way.
"Nicholas, I'll explain to you. Go away! Listen, Mamma darling," said Natasha.
Her words were incoherent, but they attained the purpose at which she was aiming.
The countess, sobbing heavily, hid her face on her daughter's breast, while Nicholas rose, clutching his head, and left the room.
Natasha set to work to effect a reconciliation, and so far succeeded that Nicholas received a promise from his mother that Sonya should not be troubled, while he on his side promised not to undertake anything without his parents' knowledge.
Firmly resolved, after putting his affairs in order in the regiment, to retire from the army and return and marry Sonya, Nicholas, serious, sorrowful, and at variance with his parents, but, as it seemed to him, passionately in love, left at the beginning of January to rejoin his regiment.
After Nicholas had gone things in the Rostov household were more depressing than ever, and the countess fell ill from mental agitation.
Sonya was unhappy at the separation from Nicholas and still more so on account of the hostile tone the countess could not help adopting toward her. The count was more perturbed than ever by the condition of his affairs, which called for some decisive action. Their town house and estate near Moscow had inevitably to be sold, and for this they had to go to Moscow. But the countess' health obliged them to delay their departure from day to day.
Natasha, who had borne the first period of separation from her betrothed lightly and even cheerfully, now grew more agitated and impatient every day. The thought that her best days, which she would have employed in loving him, were being vainly wasted, with no advantage to anyone, tormented her incessantly. His letters for the most part irritated her. It hurt her to think that while she lived only in the thought of him, he was living a real life, seeing new places and new people that interested him. The more interesting his letters were the more vexed she felt. Her letters to him, far from giving her any comfort, seemed to her a wearisome and artificial obligation. She could not write, because she could not conceive the possibility of expressing sincerely in a letter even a thousandth part of what she expressed by voice, smile, and glance. She wrote to him formal, monotonous, and dry letters, to which she attached no importance herself, and in the rough copies of which the countess corrected her mistakes in spelling.
There was still no improvement in the countess' health, but it was impossible to defer the journey to Moscow any longer. Natasha's trousseau had to be ordered and the house sold. Moreover, Prince Andrew was expected in Moscow, where old Prince Bolkonski was spending the winter, and Natasha felt sure he had already arrived.
So the countess remained in the country, and the count, taking Sonya and Natasha with him, went to Moscow at the end of January.