Book 6 Chapter 16

THERE was a sudden stir, the crowd began talking, rushed forward, then moved apart again, and down the space left open through it, the Tsar walked to the strains of the band, which struck up at once. Behind him walked the host and hostess. The Tsar walked in rapidly, bowing to right and to left, as though trying to hurry over the first moments of greeting. The musicians played the polonaise in vogue at the time on account of the words set to it. The words began: “Alexander, Elisaveta, our hearts ye ravish quite.” The Tsar went into the drawing-room, the crowd made a dash for the door; several persons ran hurriedly to the door and back with excited faces. The crowd made another rush back, away from the drawing-room door at which the Tsar appeared in conversation with the hostess. A young man, looking distraught, pounced down on the ladies and begged them to move aside. Several, with faces that betrayed a total oblivion of all the rules of decorum, squeezed forward, to the destruction of their dresses. The men began approaching the ladies, and couples were formed for the polonaise.

There was a general movement of retreat, and the Tsar, smiling, came out of the drawing-room door, leading out the lady of the house, and not keeping time to the music. He was followed by the host with Marya Antonovna Narishkin; then came ambassadors, ministers, and various generals, whose names Madame Peronsky never tired of reciting. More than half the ladies had partners, and were taking part, or preparing to take part, in the polonaise.

Natasha felt that she would be left with her mother and Sonya in that minority of the ladies who were crowded back against the wall, and not invited to dance the polonaise. She stood, her thin arms hanging at her sides, and her scarcely outlined bosom heaving regularly. She held her breath, and gazed before her with shining, frightened eyes, with an expression of equal readiness for the utmost bliss or the utmost misery. She took no interest in the Tsar, nor in all the great people Madame Peronsky was pointing out; her mind was filled by one thought: “Is it possible no one will come up to me? Is it possible that I shall not dance among the foremost? Is it possible I shall not be noticed by all these men, who now don't even seem to see me, but if they look at me, look with an expression as though they would say: ‘Ah! that's not she, so it's no use looking'?” “No, it cannot be!” she thought. “They must know how I long to dance, how well I dance, and how they would enjoy dancing with me.”

The strains of the polonaise, which had already lasted some time, were beginning to sound like a melancholy reminiscence in the ears of Natasha. She wanted to cry. Madame Peronsky had left them. The count was at the other end of the ballroom, the countess, Sonya, and she stood in that crowd of strangers as lonely as in a forest, of no interest, of no use to any one. Prince Andrey with a lady passed close by them, obviously not recognising them. The handsome Anatole said something smiling to the lady on his arm, and he glanced at Natasha's face as one looks at a wall. Boris passed by them, twice, and each time turned away. Berg and his wife, who were not dancing, came towards them.

This family meeting here, in a ballroom, seemed a humiliating thing to Natasha, as though there were nowhere else for family talk but here at a ball. She did not listen, and did not look at Vera, who said something to her about her own green dress.

At last the Tsar stood still beside the last of his partners (he had danced with three), the music ceased. An anxious-looking adjutant ran up to the Rostovs, begging them to move a little further back, though they were already close to the wall, and from the orchestra came the circumspect, precise, seductively, stately rhythm of the waltz. The Tsar glanced with a smile down the ballroom. A moment passed; no one had yet begun. An adjutant, who was a steward, went up to Countess Bezuhov and asked her to dance. Smiling, she raised her hand and laid it on the adjutant's shoulder without looking at him. The adjutant-steward, a master of his art, grasped his partner firmly, and with confident deliberation and smoothness broke with her into the first gallop round the edge of the circle, then at the corner of the ballroom caught his partner's left hand, turned her; and through the quickening strains of the music nothing could be heard but the regular jingle of the spurs on the adjutant's rapid, practised feet, and at every third beat the swish of his partner's flying velvet skirt as she whirled round.

Natasha looked at them, and was ready to cry that it was not she dancing that first round of the waltz.

Prince Andrey, in his white uniform of a cavalry colonel, wearing stockings and dancing-shoes, stood looking eager and lively, in the front of the ring not far from the Rostovs. Baron Firhoff was talking to him of the proposed first sitting of the State Council to be held next day. From his intimacy with Speransky, and the part he was taking in the labours of the legislative commission, Prince Andrey was in a position to give authoritative information in regard to that sitting, about which the most diverse rumours were current. But he did not hear what Firhoff was saying to him, and looked from the Tsar to the gentlemen preparing to dance, who had not yet stepped out into the ring.

Prince Andrey was watching these gentlemen, who were timid in the presence of the Tsar, and the ladies, who were dying to be asked to dance.

Pierre went up to Prince Andrey and took him by the arm.

“You always dance. Here is my protégée, the younger Rostov girl, ask her,” he said.

“Where?” asked Bolkonsky. “I beg your pardon,” he said, turning to the baron, “we will finish this conversation in another place, but at a ball one must dance.” He went forward in the direction indicated by Pierre. Natasha's despairing, tremulous face broke upon Prince Andrey. He recognised her, guessed her feelings, saw that it was her debut, remembered what she had said at the window, and with an expression of pleasure on his face he approached Countess Rostov.

“Permit me to introduce you to my daughter,” said the countess, reddening.

“I have the pleasure of her acquaintance already, if the countess remembers me,” said Prince Andrey, with a low and courteous bow, which seemed a direct contradiction to Madame Peronsky's remarks about his rudeness. He went up to Natasha, and raised his hand to put it round her waist before he had fully uttered the invitation to dance. He proposed a waltz to her. The tremulous expression of Natasha's face, ready for despair or for ecstasy, brightened at once into a happy, grateful, childlike smile.

“I have been a long while waiting for you,” that alarmed and happy young girl seemed to say to him in the smile that peeped out through the starting tears as she raised her hand to Prince Andrey's shoulder. They were the second couple that walked forward into the ring.

Prince Andrey was one of the best dancers of his day. Natasha danced exquisitely. Her little feet in their satin dancing-shoes performed their task lightly and independently of her, and her face beamed with a rapture of happiness.

Her bare neck and arms were thin, and not beautiful compared with Ellen's shoulders. Her shoulders were thin, her bosom undefined, her arms were slender. But Ellen was, as it were, covered with the hard varnish of those thousands of eyes that had scanned her person, while Natasha seemed like a young girl stripped for the first time, who would have been greatly ashamed if she had not been assured by every one that it must be so.

Prince Andrey loved dancing. He was anxious to escape as quickly as he could from the political and intellectual conversations into which every one tried to draw him, and anxious too to break through that burdensome barrier of constraint arising from the presence of the Tsar; so he made haste to dance, and chose Natasha for a partner because Pierre pointed her out to him, and because she was the first pretty girl who caught his eyes. But he had no sooner put his arm round that slender, supple waist, and felt her stirring so close to him, and smiling so close to him, than the intoxication of her beauty flew to his head. He felt full of life and youth again as, drawing a deep breath, he brought her to a standstill and began to watch the other couples.