The only young people remaining in the drawing room, not counting the young lady visitor and the countess’ eldest daughter (who was four years older than her sister and behaved already like a grown-up person), were Nicholas and Sónya, the niece. Sónya was a slender little brunette with a tender look in her eyes which were veiled by long lashes, thick black plaits coiling twice round her head, and a tawny tint in her complexion and especially in the color of her slender but graceful and muscular arms and neck. By the grace of her movements, by the softness and flexibility of her small limbs, and by a certain coyness and reserve of manner, she reminded one of a pretty, half-grown kitten which promises to become a beautiful little cat. She evidently considered it proper to show an interest in the general conversation by smiling, but in spite of herself her eyes under their thick long lashes watched her cousin who was going to join the army, with such passionate girlish adoration that her smile could not for a single instant impose upon anyone, and it was clear that the kitten had settled down only to spring up with more energy and again play with her cousin as soon as they too could, like Natásha and Borís, escape from the drawing room.
“Ah yes, my dear,” said the count, addressing the visitor and pointing to Nicholas, “his friend Borís has become an officer, and so for friendship’s sake he is leaving the university and me, his old father, and entering the military service, my dear. And there was a place and everything waiting for him in the Archives Department! Isn’t that friendship?” remarked the count in an inquiring tone.
“But they say that war has been declared,” replied the visitor.
“They’ve been saying so a long while,” said the count, “and they’ll say so again and again, and that will be the end of it. My dear, there’s friendship for you,” he repeated. “He’s joining the hussars.”
The visitor, not knowing what to say, shook her head.
“It’s not at all from friendship,” declared Nicholas, flaring up and turning away as if from a shameful aspersion. “It is not from friendship at all; I simply feel that the army is my vocation.”
He glanced at his cousin and the young lady visitor; and they were both regarding him with a smile of approbation.
“Schubert, the colonel of the Pávlograd Hussars, is dining with us today. He has been here on leave and is taking Nicholas back with him. It can’t be helped!” said the count, shrugging his shoulders and speaking playfully of a matter that evidently distressed him.
“I have already told you, Papa,” said his son, “that if you don’t wish to let me go, I’ll stay. But I know I am no use anywhere except in the army; I am not a diplomat or a government clerk.—I don’t know how to hide what I feel.” As he spoke he kept glancing with the flirtatiousness of a handsome youth at Sónya and the young lady visitor.
The little kitten, feasting her eyes on him, seemed ready at any moment to start her gambols again and display her kittenish nature.
“All right, all right!” said the old count. “He always flares up! This Buonaparte has turned all their heads; they all think of how he rose from an ensign and became Emperor. Well, well, God grant it,” he added, not noticing his visitor’s sarcastic smile.
The elders began talking about Bonaparte. Julie Karágina turned to young Rostóv.
“What a pity you weren’t at the Arkhárovs’ on Thursday. It was so dull without you,” said she, giving him a tender smile.
The young man, flattered, sat down nearer to her with a coquettish smile, and engaged the smiling Julie in a confidential conversation without at all noticing that his involuntary smile had stabbed the heart of Sónya, who blushed and smiled unnaturally. In the midst of his talk he glanced round at her. She gave him a passionately angry glance, and hardly able to restrain her tears and maintain the artificial smile on her lips, she got up and left the room. All Nicholas’ animation vanished. He waited for the first pause in the conversation, and then with a distressed face left the room to find Sónya.
“How plainly all these young people wear their hearts on their sleeves!” said Anna Mikháylovna, pointing to Nicholas as he went out. “Cousinage—dangereux voisinage,”[*] she added.
“Yes,” said the countess when the brightness these young people had brought into the room had vanished; and as if answering a question no one had put but which was always in her mind, “and how much suffering, how much anxiety one has had to go through that we might rejoice in them now! And yet really the anxiety is greater now than the joy. One is always, always anxious! Especially just at this age, so dangerous both for girls and boys.”
“It all depends on the bringing up,” remarked the visitor.
“Yes, you’re quite right,” continued the countess. “Till now I have always, thank God, been my children’s friend and had their full confidence,” said she, repeating the mistake of so many parents who imagine that their children have no secrets from them. “I know I shall always be my daughters’ first confidante, and that if Nicholas, with his impulsive nature, does get into mischief (a boy can’t help it), he will all the same never be like those Petersburg young men.”
“Yes, they are splendid, splendid youngsters,” chimed in the count, who always solved questions that seemed to him perplexing by deciding that everything was splendid. “Just fancy: wants to be an hussar. What’s one to do, my dear?”
“What a charming creature your younger girl is,” said the visitor; “a little volcano!”
“Yes, a regular volcano,” said the count. “Takes after me! And what a voice she has; though she’s my daughter, I tell the truth when I say she’ll be a singer, a second Salomoni! We have engaged an Italian to give her lessons.”
“Isn’t she too young? I have heard that it harms the voice to train it at that age.”
“Oh no, not at all too young!” replied the count. “Why, our mothers used to be married at twelve or thirteen.”
“And she’s in love with Borís already. Just fancy!” said the countess with a gentle smile, looking at Borís and went on, evidently concerned with a thought that always occupied her: “Now you see if I were to be severe with her and to forbid it ... goodness knows what they might be up to on the sly” (she meant that they would be kissing), “but as it is, I know every word she utters. She will come running to me of her own accord in the evening and tell me everything. Perhaps I spoil her, but really that seems the best plan. With her elder sister I was stricter.”
“Yes, I was brought up quite differently,” remarked the handsome elder daughter, Countess Véra, with a smile.
But the smile did not enhance Véra’s beauty as smiles generally do; on the contrary it gave her an unnatural, and therefore unpleasant, expression. Véra was good-looking, not at all stupid, quick at learning, was well brought up, and had a pleasant voice; what she said was true and appropriate, yet, strange to say, everyone—the visitors and countess alike—turned to look at her as if wondering why she had said it, and they all felt awkward.
“People are always too clever with their eldest children and try to make something exceptional of them,” said the visitor.
“What’s the good of denying it, my dear? Our dear countess was too clever with Véra,” said the count. “Well, what of that? She’s turned out splendidly all the same,” he added, winking at Véra.
The guests got up and took their leave, promising to return to dinner.
“What manners! I thought they would never go,” said the countess, when she had seen her guests out.
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