War and Peace By Leo Tolstoy Book XV: Chapters 12–20

CHAPTER XVII

Pierre was shown into the large, brightly lit dining room; a few minutes later he heard footsteps and Princess Mary entered with Natasha. Natasha was calm, though a severe and grave expression had again settled on her face. They all three of them now experienced that feeling of awkwardness which usually follows after a serious and heartfelt talk. It is impossible to go back to the same conversation, to talk of trifles is awkward, and yet the desire to speak is there and silence seems like affectation. They went silently to table. The footmen drew back the chairs and pushed them up again. Pierre unfolded his cold table napkin and, resolving to break the silence, looked at Natasha and at Princess Mary. They had evidently both formed the same resolution; the eyes of both shone with satisfaction and a confession that besides sorrow life also has joy.

"Do you take vodka, Count?" asked Princess Mary, and those words suddenly banished the shadows of the past."Now tell us about yourself," said she."One hears such improbable wonders about you."

"Yes," replied Pierre with the smile of mild irony now habitual to him."They even tell me wonders I myself never dreamed of! Mary Abramovna invited me to her house and kept telling me what had happened, or ought to have happened, to me. Stepan Stepanych also instructed me how I ought to tell of my experiences. In general I have noticed that it is very easy to be an interesting man (I am an interesting man now); people invite me out and tell me all about myself."

Natasha smiled and was on the point of speaking.

"We have been told," Princess Mary interrupted her,"that you lost two millions in Moscow. Is that true?"

"But I am three times as rich as before," returned Pierre.

Though the position was now altered by his decision to pay his wife's debts and to rebuild his houses, Pierre still maintained that he had become three times as rich as before.

"What I have certainly gained is freedom," he began seriously, but did not continue, noticing that this theme was too egotistic.

"And are you building?"

"Yes. Savelich says I must!"

"Tell me, you did not know of the countess' death when you decided to remain in Moscow?" asked Princess Mary and immediately blushed, noticing that her question, following his mention of freedom, ascribed to his words a meaning he had perhaps not intended.

"No," answered Pierre, evidently not considering awkward the meaning Princess Mary had given to his words."I heard of it in Orel and you cannot imagine how it shocked me. We were not an exemplary couple," he added quickly, glancing at Natasha and noticing on her face curiosity as to how he would speak of his wife,"but her death shocked me terribly. When two people quarrel they are always both in fault, and one's own guilt suddenly becomes terribly serious when the other is no longer alive. And then such a death . . . without friends and without consolation! I am very, very sorry for her," he concluded, and was pleased to notice a look of glad approval on Natasha's face.

"Yes, and so you are once more an eligible bachelor," said Princess Mary.

Pierre suddenly flushed crimson and for a long time tried not to look at Natasha. When he ventured to glance her way again her face was cold, stern, and he fancied even contemptuous.

"And did you really see and speak to Napoleon, as we have been told?" said Princess Mary.

Pierre laughed.

"No, not once! Everybody seems to imagine that being taken prisoner means being Napoleon's guest. Not only did I never see him but I heard nothing about him — I was in much lower company!"

Supper was over, and Pierre who at first declined to speak about his captivity was gradually led on to do so.

"But it's true that you remained in Moscow to kill Napoleon?" Natasha asked with a slight smile."I guessed it then when we met at the Sukharev tower, do you remember?"

Pierre admitted that it was true, and from that was gradually led by Princess Mary's questions and especially by Natasha's into giving a detailed account of his adventures.

At first he spoke with the amused and mild irony now customary with him toward everybody and especially toward himself, but when he came to describe the horrors and sufferings he had witnessed he was unconsciously carried away and began speaking with the suppressed emotion of a man re-experiencing in recollection strong impressions he has lived through.

Princess Mary with a gentle smile looked now at Pierre and now at Natasha. In the whole narrative she saw only Pierre and his goodness. Natasha, leaning on her elbow, the expression of her face constantly changing with the narrative, watched Pierre with an attention that never wandered — evidently herself experiencing all that he described. Not only her look, but her exclamations and the brief questions she put, showed Pierre that she understood just what he wished to convey. It was clear that she understood not only what he said but also what he wished to, but could not, express in words. The account Pierre gave of the incident with the child and the woman for protecting whom he was arrested was this:"It was an awful sight — children abandoned, some in the flames . . . One was snatched out before my eyes . . . and there were women who had their things snatched off and their earrings torn out . . ." he flushed and grew confused."Then a patrol arrived and all the men — all those who were not looting, that is — were arrested, and I among them."

"I am sure you're not telling us everything; I am sure you did something . . ." said Natasha and pausing added,"something fine?"

Pierre continued. When he spoke of the execution he wanted to pass over the horrible details, but Natasha insisted that he should not omit anything.

Pierre began to tell about Karataev, but paused. By this time he had risen from the table and was pacing the room, Natasha following him with her eyes. Then he added:

"No, you can't understand what I learned from that illiterate man- that simple fellow."

"Yes, yes, go on!" said Natasha."Where is he?"

"They killed him almost before my eyes."

And Pierre, his voice trembling continually, went on to tell of the last days of their retreat, of Karataev's illness and his death.

He told of his adventures as he had never yet recalled them. He now, as it were, saw a new meaning in all he had gone through. Now that he was telling it all to Natasha he experienced that pleasure which a man has when women listen to him — not clever women who when listening either try to remember what they hear to enrich their minds and when opportunity offers to retell it, or who wish to adopt it to some thought of their own and promptly contribute their own clever comments prepared in their little mental workshop — but the pleasure given by real women gifted with a capacity to select and absorb the very best a man shows of himself. Natasha without knowing it was all attention: she did not lose a word, no single quiver in Pierre's voice, no look, no twitch of a muscle in his face, nor a single gesture. She caught the unfinished word in its flight and took it straight into her open heart, divining the secret meaning of all Pierre's mental travail.

Princess Mary understood his story and sympathized with him, but she now saw something else that absorbed all her attention. She saw the possibility of love and happiness between Natasha and Pierre, and the first thought of this filled her heart with gladness.

It was three o'clock in the morning. The footmen came in with sad and stern faces to change the candles, but no one noticed them.

Pierre finished his story. Natasha continued to look at him intently with bright, attentive, and animated eyes, as if trying to understand something more which he had perhaps left untold. Pierre in shamefaced and happy confusion glanced occasionally at her, and tried to think what to say next to introduce a fresh subject. Princess Mary was silent. It occurred to none of them that it was three o'clock and time to go to bed.

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