‘‘What is that, mon cher ami?’’ asked the old countess, who, having drunk her tea, was obviously seeking a pretext for ill-humour after taking food. ‘‘What are you saying about the government? I don’t understand that.’’

‘‘Why, you know, maman,’’ put in Nikolay, who knew how to translate things into his mother’s language. ‘‘Prince Alexander Nikolaevitch Golitsin had founded a society, so he has great influence they say.’’

‘‘Araktcheev and Golitsin,’’ said Pierre incautiously, ‘‘are practically the government now. And what a government! They see conspiracy in everything, they are afraid of everything.’’

‘‘What, Prince Alexander Nikolaevitch found fault with! He is a most estimable man. I used to meet him in old days at Marya Antonovna’s,’’ said the countess in an aggrieved tone. And still more aggrieved by the general silence, she went on, ‘‘Nowadays people find fault with every one. A Gospel Society, what harm is there in that?’’ and she got up (every one rose too), and with a severe face sailed out to her table in the adjoining divan-room.

In the midst of the mournful silence that followed, they heard the sound of children’s voices and laughter from the next room. There was evidently some joyful excitement afoot among the children.

‘‘Finished, finished!’’ the gleeful shriek of little Natasha was heard above all the rest. Pierre exchanged glances with Countess Marya and Nikolay (Natasha he was looking at all the time), and he smiled happily.

‘‘Delightful music!’’ he said.

‘‘Anna Makarovna has finished her stocking,’’ said Countess Marya.

‘‘Oh, I’m going to have a look at them,’’ said Pierre, jumping up. ‘‘You know,’’ he said, stopping at the door, ‘‘why it is I so particularly love that music—it is what first lets me know that all’s well. As I came today, the nearer I got to home, the greater my panic. As I came into the vestibule, I heard Andryusha in peals of laughter, and then I knew all was well …’’

‘‘I know, I know that feeling,’’ Nikolay chimed in. ‘‘I mustn’t come— the stockings are a surprise in store for me.’’

Pierre went into the children, and the shrieks and laughter were louder than ever. ‘‘Now, Anna Makarovna,’’ cried Pierre’s voice, ‘‘here in the middle of the room and at the word of my command—one, two, and when I say three, you stand here. You in my arms. Now, one, two …’’ there was complete silence. ‘‘Three!’’ and an enthusiastic roar of children’s voices rose in the room. ‘‘Two, two!’’ cried the children.

They meant the two stockings, which, by a secret only known to her, Anna Makarovna used to knit on her needles at once. She always made a solemn ceremony of pulling one stocking out of the other in the presence of the children when the pair was finished.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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