Boris, who had come on leave to Moscow shortly before, had been anxious to be presented to Prince Nikolay Andreitch, and had succeeded in so far ingratiating himself in his favour, that the old prince made in his case an exception from his usual rule of excluding all young unmarried men from his house.

The prince did not receive what is called “society,” but his house was the centre of a little circle into which—though it was not talked of much in the town—it was more flattering to be admitted than anywhere else. Boris had grasped that fact a week previously, when he heard Rastoptchin tell the commander-in- chief of Moscow, who had invited him to dine on St. Nikolay’s day, that he could not accept his invitation.

“On that day I always go to pay my devotions to the relics of Prince Nikolay Andreitch.”

“Oh yes, yes…” assented the commander-in-chief. “How is he?…”

The little party assembled before dinner in the old-fashioned, lofty drawing-room, with its old furniture, was like the solemn meeting of some legal council board.

All sat silent, or if they spoke, spoke in subdued tones. Prince Nikolay Andreitch came in, serious and taciturn. Princess Marya seemed meeker and more timid than usual. The guests showed no inclination to address their conversation to her, for they saw that she had no thought for what they were saying. Count Rastoptchin maintained the conversation alone, relating the latest news of the town and the political world. Lopuhin and the old general took part in the conversation at rare intervals. Prince Nikolay Andreitch listened like a presiding judge receiving a report submitted to him, only testifying by his silence, or from time to time by a brief word, that he was taking cognizance of the facts laid before him.

The tone of the conversation was based on the assumption that no one approved of what was being done in the political world. Incidents were related obviously confirming the view that everything was going from bad to worse. But in every story that was told, and in every criticism that was offered, what was striking was the way that the speaker checked himself, or was checked, every time the line was reached where a criticism might have reference to the person of the Tsar himself.

At dinner the conversation turned on the last political news, Napoleon’s seizure of the possessions of the Duke of Oldenburg, and the Russian note, hostile to Napoleon, which had been despatched to all the European courts.

“Bonaparte treats all Europe as a pirate does a captured vessel,” said Rastoptchin, repeating a phrase he had uttered several times before. “One only marvels at the long-suffering or the blindness of the ruling sovereigns. Now it’s the Pope’s turn, and Bonaparte doesn’t scruple to try and depose the head of the Catholic Church, and no one says a word. Our Emperor alone has protested against the seizure of the possessions of the Duke of Oldenburg. And even…” Count Rastoptchin broke off, feeling that he was on the very border line beyond which criticism was impossible.

“Other domains have been offered him instead of the duchy of Oldenburg,” said the old prince. “He shifts the dukes about, as I might move my serfs from Bleak Hills to Bogutcharovo and the Ryazan estates.”

“The Duke of Oldenburg supports his misfortune with admirable force of character and resignation,” said Boris putting in his word respectfully. He said this because on his journey from Petersburg he had had the honour of being presented to the duke. The old prince looked at the young man as though he would have liked to say something in reply, but changed his mind, considering him too young.

“I have read our protest about the Oldenburg affair, and I was surprised at how badly composed the note was,” said Count Rastoptchin in the casual tone of a man criticising something with which he is very familiar.

Pierre looked at Rastoptchin in naïve wonder, unable to understand why he should be troubled by the defective composition of the note.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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