When seeing a dying animal a man feels a sense of horror: substance similar to his own is perishing before his eyes. But when it is a beloved and intimate human being that is dying, besides this horror at the extinction of life there is a severance, a spiritual wound, which like a physical wound is sometimes fatal and sometimes heals, but always aches and shrinks at any external irritating touch.
After Prince Andrew's death Natasha and Princess Mary alike felt this. Drooping in spirit and closing their eyes before the menacing cloud of death that overhung them, they dared not look life in the face. They carefully guarded their open wounds from any rough and painful contact. Everything: a carriage passing rapidly in the street, a summons to dinner, the maid's inquiry what dress to prepare, or worse still any word of insincere or feeble sympathy, seemed an insult, painfully irritated the wound, interrupting that necessary quiet in which they both tried to listen to the stern and dreadful choir that still resounded in their imagination, and hindered their gazing into those mysterious limitless vistas that for an instant had opened out before them.
Only when alone together were they free from such outrage and pain. They spoke little even to one another, and when they did it was of very unimportant matters.
Both avoided any allusion to the future. To admit the possibility of a future seemed to them to insult his memory. Still more carefully did they avoid anything relating to him who was dead. It seemed to them that what they had lived through and experienced could not be expressed in words, and that any reference to the details of his life infringed the majesty and sacredness of the mystery that had been accomplished before their eyes.
Continued abstention from speech, and constant avoidance of everything that might lead up to the subject- this halting on all sides at the boundary of what they might not mention- brought before their minds with still greater purity and clearness what they were both feeling.
But pure and complete sorrow is as impossible as pure and complete joy. Princess Mary, in her position as absolute and independent arbiter of her own fate and guardian and instructor of her nephew, was the first to be called back to life from that realm of sorrow in which she had dwelt for the first fortnight. She received letters from her relations to which she had to reply; the room in which little Nicholas had been put was damp and he began to cough; Alpatych came to Yaroslavl with reports on the state of their affairs and with advice and suggestions that they should return to Moscow to the house on the Vozdvizhenka Street, which had remained uninjured and needed only slight repairs. Life did not stand still and it was necessary to live. Hard as it was for Princess Mary to emerge from the realm of secluded contemplation in which she had lived till then, and sorry and almost ashamed as she felt to leave Natasha alone, yet the cares of life demanded her attention and she involuntarily yielded to them. She went through the accounts with Alpatych, conferred with Dessalles about her nephew, and gave orders and made preparations for the journey to Moscow.
Natasha remained alone and, from the time Princess Mary began making preparations for departure, held aloof from her too.
Princess Mary asked the countess to let Natasha go with her to Moscow, and both parents gladly accepted this offer, for they saw their daughter losing strength every day and thought that a change of scene and the advice of Moscow doctors would be good for her.
"I am not going anywhere," Natasha replied when this was proposed to her. "Do please just leave me alone!" And she ran out of the room, with difficulty refraining from tears of vexation and irritation rather than of sorrow.
After she felt herself deserted by Princes Mary and alone in her grief, Natasha spent most of the time in her room by herself, sitting huddled up feet and all in the corner of the sofa, tearing and twisting something with her slender nervous fingers and gazing intently and fixedly at whatever her eyes chanced to fall on. This solitude exhausted and tormented her but she was in absolute need of it. As soon as anyone entered she got up quickly, changed her position and expression, and picked up a book or some sewing, evidently waiting impatiently for the intruder to go.
She felt all the time as if she might at any moment penetrate that on which- with a terrible questioning too great for her strength- her spiritual gaze was fixed.
One day toward the end of December Natasha, pale and thin, dressed in a black woolen gown, her plaited hair negligently twisted into a knot, was crouched feet and all in the corner of her sofa, nervously crumpling and smoothing out the end of her sash while she looked at a corner of the door.
She was gazing in the direction in which he had gone- to the other side of life. And that other side of life, of which she had never before thought and which had formerly seemed to her so far away and improbable, was now nearer and more akin and more comprehensible than this side of life, where everything was either emptiness and desolation or suffering and indignity.
She was gazing where she knew him to be; but she could not imagine him otherwise than as he had been here. She now saw him again as he had been at Mytishchi, at Troitsa, and at Yaroslavl.
She saw his face, heard his voice, repeated his words and her own, and sometimes devised other words they might have spoken.
There he is lying back in an armchair in his velvet cloak, leaning his head on his thin pale hand. His chest is dreadfully hollow and his shoulders raised. His lips are firmly closed, his eyes glitter, and a wrinkle comes and goes on his pale forehead. One of his legs twitches just perceptibly, but rapidly. Natasha knows that he is struggling with terrible pain. "What is that pain like? Why does he have that pain? What does he feel? How does it hurt him?" thought Natasha. He noticed her watching him, raised his eyes, and began to speak seriously:
"One thing would be terrible," said he: "to bind oneself forever to a suffering man. It would be continual torture." And he looked searchingly at her. Natasha as usual answered before she had time to think what she would say. She said: "This can't go on- it won't. You will get well- quite well."
She now saw him from the commencement of that scene and relived what she had then felt. She recalled his long sad and severe look at those words and understood the meaning of the rebuke and despair in that protracted gaze.
"I agreed," Natasha now said to herself, "that it would be dreadful if he always continued to suffer. I said it then only because it would have been dreadful for him, but he understood it differently. He thought it would be dreadful for me. He then still wished to live and feared death. And I said it so awkwardly and stupidly! I did not say what I meant. I thought quite differently. Had I said what I thought, I should have said: even if he had to go on dying, to die continually before my eyes, I should have been happy compared with what I am now. Now there is nothing... nobody. Did he know that? No, he did not and never will know it. And now it will never, never be possible to put it right." And now he again seemed to be saying the same words to her, only in her imagination Natasha this time gave him a different answer. She stopped him and said: "Terrible for you, but not for me! You know that for me there is nothing in life but you, and to suffer with you is the greatest happiness for me," and he took her hand and pressed it as he had pressed it that terrible evening four days before his death. And in her imagination she said other tender and loving words which she might have said then but only spoke now: "I love thee!... thee! I love, love..." she said, convulsively pressing her hands and setting her teeth with a desperate effort...
She was overcome by sweet sorrow and tears were already rising in her eyes; then she suddenly asked herself to whom she was saying this. Again everything was shrouded in hard, dry perplexity, and again with a strained frown she peered toward the world where he was. And now, now it seemed to her she was penetrating the mystery.... But at the instant when it seemed that the incomprehensible was revealing itself to her a loud rattle of the door handle struck painfully on her ears. Dunyasha, her maid, entered the room quickly and abruptly with a frightened look on her face and showing no concern for her mistress.
"Come to your Papa at once, please!" said she with a strange, excited look. "A misfortune... about Peter Ilynich... a letter," she finished with a sob.
Eric von Hippel
Erik S. Raymond