“Ah, how glad I am, nurse!”

“God is merciful, my darling.” The nurse lighted the gilt candles before the shrine, and sat down with her stocking near the door. Princess Marya took a book and began reading. Only when they heard steps or voices, the princess and the nurse looked at one another, one with alarmed inquiry, the other with soothing reassurance in her face. The feeling that Princess Marya was experiencing as she sat in her room had overpowered the whole house and taken possession of every one. Owing to the belief that the fewer people know of the sufferings of a woman in labour, the less she suffers, every one tried to affect to know nothing of it; no one talked about it, but over and above the habitual staidness and respectfulness of good manners that always reigned in the prince’s household, there was apparent in all a sort of anxiety, a softening of the heart, and a consciousness of some great, unfathomable mystery being accomplished at that moment. There was no sound of laughter in the big room where the maids sat. In the waiting- room the men all sat in silence, as it were on the alert. Torches and candles were burning in the serfs’ quarters, and no one slept. The old prince walked about his study, treading on his heels, and sent Tihon to Marya Bogdanovna to ask what news.

“Only say: the prince has sent to ask, what news and come and tell me what she says.”

“Inform the prince that the labour has commenced,” said Marya Bogdanovna, looking significantly at the messenger. Tihon went and gave the prince that information.

“Very good,” said the prince, closing the door behind him, and Tihon heard not the slightest sound in the study after that. After a short interval Tihon went into the study, as though to attend to the candles. Seeing the prince lying on the couch, Tihon looked at him, looked at his perturbed face, shook his head, and went up to him dumbly and kissed him on the shoulder, then went out without touching the candles or saying why he had come. The most solemn mystery in the world was being accomplished. Evening passed, night came on. And the feeling of suspense and softening of the heart before the unfathomable did not wane, but grew more intense. No one slept.

It was one of those March nights when winter seems to regain its sway, and flings its last snows and storms with malignant desperation. A relay of horses had been sent to the high-road for the German doctor who was expected every minute, and men were despatched on horseback with lanterns to the turning at the cross-roads to guide him over the holes and treacherous places in the ice.

Princess Marya had long abandoned her book; she sat in silence, her luminous eyes fixed on the wrinkled face of her old nurse (so familiar to her in the minutest detail), on the lock of grey hair that had escaped from the kerchief, on the baggy looseness of the skin under her chin.

The old nurse, with her stocking in her hand, talked away in a soft voice, not hearing it herself nor following the meaning of her own words; telling, as she had told hundreds of times before, how the late princess had been brought to bed of Princess Marya at Kishinyov, and had only a Moldavian peasant woman instead of a midwife.

“God is merciful, doctors are never wanted,” she said.

Suddenly a gust of wind blew on one of the window-frames (by the prince’s decree the double frames were always taken out of every window when the larks returned), and flinging open a badly fastened window bolt, set the stiff curtain fluttering; and the chill, snowy draught blew out the candle. Princess Marya shuddered; the nurse, putting down her stocking, went to the window, and putting her head out tried to catch the open frame. The cold wind flapped the ends of her kerchief and the grey locks of her hair.

“Princess, my dearie, there’s some one driving up the avenue!” she said, holding the window-frame and not closing it. “With lanterns; it must be the doctor.…”

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