War and Peace By Leo Tolstoy Book VII

CHAPTER VII

Toward evening Ilagin took leave of Nicholas, who found that they were so far from home that he accepted"Uncle's" offer that the hunting party should spend the night in his little village of Mikhaylovna.

"And if you put up at my house that will be better still. That's it, come on!" said"Uncle.""You see it's damp weather, and you could rest, and the little countess could be driven home in a trap."

"Uncle's" offer was accepted. A huntsman was sent to Otradnoe for a trap, while Nicholas rode with Natasha and Petya to"Uncle's" house.

Some five male domestic serfs, big and little, rushed out to the front porch to meet their master. A score of women serfs, old and young, as well as children, popped out from the back entrance to have a look at the hunters who were arriving. The presence of Natasha- a woman, a lady, and on horseback — raised the curiosity of the serfs to such a degree that many of them came up to her, stared her in the face, and unabashed by her presence made remarks about her as though she were some prodigy on show and not a human being able to hear or understand what was said about her.

"Arinka! Look, she sits sideways! There she sits and her skirt dangles . . . . See, she's got a little hunting horn!"

"Goodness gracious! See her knife? . . ."

"Isn't she a Tartar!"

"How is it you didn't go head over heels?" asked the boldest of all, addressing Natasha directly.

"Uncle" dismounted at the porch of his little wooden house which stood in the midst of an overgrown garden and, after a glance at his retainers, shouted authoritatively that the superfluous ones should take themselves off and that all necessary preparations should be made to receive the guests and the visitors.

The serfs all dispersed."Uncle" lifted Natasha off her horse and taking her hand led her up the rickety wooden steps of the porch. The house, with its bare, unplastered log walls, was not overclean — it did not seem that those living in it aimed at keeping it spotless — but neither was it noticeably neglected. In the entry there was a smell of fresh apples, and wolf and fox skins hung about.

"Uncle" led the visitors through the anteroom into a small hall with a folding table and red chairs, then into the drawing room with a round birchwood table and a sofa, and finally into his private room where there was a tattered sofa, a worn carpet, and portraits of Suvorov, of the host's father and mother, and of himself in military uniform. The study smelt strongly of tobacco and dogs."Uncle" asked his visitors to sit down and make themselves at home, and then went out of the room. Rugay, his back still muddy, came into the room and lay down on the sofa, cleaning himself with his tongue and teeth. Leading from the study was a passage in which a partition with ragged curtains could be seen. From behind this came women's laughter and whispers. Natasha, Nicholas, and Petya took off their wraps and sat down on the sofa. Petya, leaning on his elbow, fell asleep at once. Natasha and Nicholas were silent. Their faces glowed, they were hungry and very cheerful. They looked at one another (now that the hunt was over and they were in the house, Nicholas no longer considered it necessary to show his manly superiority over his sister), Natasha gave him a wink, and neither refrained long from bursting into a peal of ringing laughter even before they had a pretext ready to account for it.

After a while"Uncle" came in, in a Cossack coat, blue trousers, and small top boots. And Natasha felt that this costume, the very one she had regarded with surprise and amusement at Otradnoe, was just the right thing and not at all worse than a swallow-tail or frock coat."Uncle" too was in high spirits and far from being offended by the brother's and sister's laughter (it could never enter his head that they might be laughing at his way of life) he himself joined in the merriment.

"That's right, young countess, that's it, come on! I never saw anyone like her!" said he, offering Nicholas a pipe with a long stem and, with a practiced motion of three fingers, taking down another that had been cut short."She's ridden all day like a man, and is as fresh as ever!"

Soon after"Uncle's" reappearance the door was opened, evidently from the sound by a barefooted girl, and a stout, rosy, good-looking woman of about forty, with a double chin and full red lips, entered carrying a large loaded tray. With hospitable dignity and cordiality in her glance and in every motion, she looked at the visitors and, with a pleasant smile, bowed respectfully. In spite of her exceptional stoutness, which caused her to protrude her chest and stomach and throw back her head, this woman (who was"Uncle's" housekeeper) trod very lightly. She went to the table, set down the tray, and with her plump white hands deftly took from it the bottles and various hors d'oeuvres and dishes and arranged them on the table. When she had finished, she stepped aside and stopped at the door with a smile on her face."Here I am. I am she! Now do you understand 'Uncle'?" her expression said to Rostov. How could one help understanding? Not only Nicholas, but even Natasha understood the meaning of his puckered brow and the happy complacent smile that slightly puckered his lips when Anisya Fedorovna entered. On the tray was a bottle of herb wine, different kinds of vodka, pickled mushrooms, rye cakes made with buttermilk, honey in the comb, still mead and sparkling mead, apples, nuts (raw and roasted), and nut-and-honey sweets. Afterwards she brought a freshly roasted chicken, ham, preserves made with honey, and preserves made with sugar.

All this was the fruit of Anisya Fedorovna's housekeeping, gathered and prepared by her. The smell and taste of it all had a smack of Anisya Fedorovna herself: a savor of juiciness, cleanliness, whiteness, and pleasant smiles.

"Take this, little Lady-Countess!" she kept saying, as she offered Natasha first one thing and then another.

Natasha ate of everything and thought she had never seen or eaten such buttermilk cakes, such aromatic jam, such honey-and-nut sweets, or such a chicken anywhere. Anisya Fedorovna left the room.

After supper, over their cherry brandy, Rostov and"Uncle" talked of past and future hunts, of Rugay and Ilagin's dogs, while Natasha sat upright on the sofa and listened with sparkling eyes. She tried several times to wake Petya that he might eat something, but he only muttered incoherent words without waking up. Natasha felt so lighthearted and happy in these novel surroundings that she only feared the trap would come for her too soon. After a casual pause, such as often occurs when receiving friends for the first time in one's own house,"Uncle," answering a thought that was in his visitors' mind, said:

"This, you see, is how I am finishing my days . . . Death will come. That's it, come on! Nothing will remain. Then why harm anyone?"

"Uncle's" face was very significant and even handsome as he said this. Involuntarily Rostov recalled all the good he had heard about him from his father and the neighbors. Throughout the whole province"Uncle" had the reputation of being the most honorable and disinterested of cranks. They called him in to decide family disputes, chose him as executor, confided secrets to him, elected him to be a justice and to other posts; but he always persistently refused public appointments, passing the autumn and spring in the fields on his bay gelding, sitting at home in winter, and lying in his overgrown garden in summer.

"Why don't you enter the service, Uncle?"

"I did once, but gave it up. I am not fit for it. That's it, come on! I can't make head or tail of it. That's for you — I haven't brains enough. Now, hunting is another matter — that's it, come on! Open the door, there!" he shouted."Why have you shut it?"

The door at the end of the passage led to the huntsmen's room, as they called the room for the hunt servants.

There was a rapid patter of bare feet, and an unseen hand opened the door into the huntsmen's room, from which came the clear sounds of a balalayka on which someone, who was evidently a master of the art, was playing. Natasha had been listening to those strains for some time and now went out into the passage to hear better.

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