ELLEN had accompanied the court on its return from Vilna to Petersburg, and there found herself in a difficult position.
In Petersburg Ellen had enjoyed the special patronage of a great personage, who occupied one of the highest positions in the government. In Vilna she had formed a liaison with a young foreign prince.
When she returned to Petersburg the prince and the great dignitary were both in that town; both claimed their rights, and Ellen was confronted with a problem that had not previously arisen in her careerthe preservation of the closest relations with both, without giving offence to either.
What might have seemed to any other woman a difficult or impossible task never cost a moments thought to Countess Bezuhov, who plainly deserved the reputation she enjoyed of being a most intelligent woman. Had she attempted concealment; had she allowed herself to get out of her awkward position by subterfuges, she would have spoilt her own case by acknowledging herself the guilty party. But like a truly great man, who can always do everything he chooses, Ellen at once assumed the rectitude of her own position, of which she was indeed genuinely convinced, and the guilty responsibility of every one else concerned.
The first time the young foreign prince ventured to reproach her, she lifted her beautiful head, and, with a haughty tone towards him, said firmly:
This is the egoism and the cruelty of men. I expected nothing else. Woman sacrifices herself for you; she suffers, and this is her reward. What right have you, your highness, to call me to account for my friendships, my affections? He is a man who has been more than a father to me!
The prince would have said something. Ellen interrupted him.
Well, yes, perhaps he has sentiments for me other than those of a father, but that is not a reason I should shut my door on him. I am not a person to be ungrateful. Know, your highness, that in all that relates to my private sentiments I will account only to God and to my conscience! she concluded, laying her hand on her beautiful, heaving bosom, and looking up to heaven.
But listen to me, in Gods name!
Marry me, and I will be your slave!
But it is impossible.
You do not deign to stoop to me, you Ellen burst into tears.
The prince attempted to console her. Ellen, as though utterly distraught, declared through her tears that there was nothing to prevent her marrying; that there were precedents (they were but few at that time, but Ellen quoted the case of Napoleon and some other persons of exalted rank); that she had never been a real wife to her husband; that she had been dragged an unwilling victim into the marriage.
But the law, religion murmured the prince, on the point of yielding.
Religion, laws what can they have been invented for, if they are unable to manage that? said Ellen.
The prince was astonished that so simple a reflection had never occurred to him, and applied to the council of the brotherhood of the Society of Jesus, with which he was in close relations.
A few days later, at one of the fascinating fêtes Ellen used to give at her summer villa at Kamenny Ostrov, a certain fascinating M. Jobert was presented to her; a man no longer young, with snow-white hair and brilliant black eyes, un Fésuite à robe courte, who walked for a long while with Ellen among the illuminations in the garden to the strains of music, conversing with her of the love of God, of Christ, of the heart of the Holy Mother, and of the consolations afforded in this life and the next by the one true Catholic faith.
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