War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Book Five: 1806-07
After his interview with his wife Pierre left for Petersburg. At the Torzhok post station, either there were no horses or the postmaster would not supply them. Pierre was obliged to wait. Without undressing, he lay down on the leather sofa in front of a round table, put his big feet in their overboots on the table, and began to reflect.
"Will you have the portmanteaus brought in? And a bed got ready, and tea?" asked his valet.
Pierre gave no answer, for he neither heard nor saw anything. He had begun to think of the last station and was still pondering on the same question- one so important that he took no notice of what went on around him. Not only was he indifferent as to whether he got to Petersburg earlier or later, or whether he secured accommodation at this station, but compared to the thoughts that now occupied him it was a matter of indifference whether he remained there for a few hours or for the rest of his life.
The postmaster, his wife, the valet, and a peasant woman selling Torzhok embroidery came into the room offering their services. Without changing his careless attitude, Pierre looked at them over his spectacles unable to understand what they wanted or how they could go on living without having solved the problems that so absorbed him. He had been engrossed by the same thoughts ever since the day he returned from Sokolniki after the duel and had spent that first agonizing, sleepless night. But now, in the solitude of the journey, they seized him with special force. No matter what he thought about, he always returned to these same questions which he could not solve and yet could not cease to ask himself. It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in or out, but went on turning uselessly in the same place.
The postmaster came in and began obsequiously to beg his excellency to wait only two hours, when, come what might, he would let his excellency have the courier horses. It was plain that he was lying and only wanted to get more money from the traveler.
"Is this good or bad?" Pierre asked himself. "It is good for me, bad for another traveler, and for himself it's unavoidable, because he needs money for food; the man said an officer had once given him a thrashing for letting a private traveler have the courier horses. But the officer thrashed him because he had to get on as quickly as possible. And I," continued Pierre, "shot Dolokhov because I considered myself injured, and Louis XVI was executed because they considered him a criminal, and a year later they executed those who executed him- also for some reason. What is bad? What is good? What should one love and what hate? What does one live for? And what am I? What is life, and what is death? What power governs all?"
There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: "You'll die and all will end. You'll die and know all, or cease asking." But dying was also dreadful.
The Torzhok peddler woman, in a whining voice, went on offering her wares, especially a pair of goatskin slippers. "I have hundreds of rubles I don't know what to do with, and she stands in her tattered cloak looking timidly at me," he thought. "And what does she want the money for? As if that money could add a hair's breadth to happiness or peace of mind. Can anything in the world make her or me less a prey to evil and death?- death which ends all and must come today or tomorrow- at any rate, in an instant as compared with eternity." And again he twisted the screw with the stripped thread, and again it turned uselessly in the same place.
His servant handed him a half-cut novel, in the form of letters, by Madame de Souza. He began reading about the sufferings and virtuous struggles of a certain Emilie de Mansfeld. "And why did she resist her seducer when she loved him?" he thought. "God could not have put into her heart an impulse that was against His will. My wife- as she once was- did not struggle, and perhaps she was right. Nothing has been found out, nothing discovered," Pierre again said to himself. "All we can know is that we know nothing. And that's the height of human wisdom."
Everything within and around him seemed confused, senseless, and repellent. Yet in this very repugnance to all his circumstances Pierre found a kind of tantalizing satisfaction.
"I make bold to ask your excellency to move a little for this gentleman," said the postmaster, entering the room followed by another traveler, also detained for lack of horses.
The newcomer was a short, large-boned, yellow-faced, wrinkled old man, with gray bushy eyebrows overhanging bright eyes of an indefinite grayish color.
Pierre took his feet off the table, stood up, and lay down on a bed that had been got ready for him, glancing now and then at the newcomer, who, with a gloomy and tired face, was wearily taking off his wraps with the aid of his servant, and not looking at Pierre. With a pair of felt boots on his thin bony legs, and keeping on a worn, nankeen-covered, sheepskin coat, the traveler sat down on the sofa, leaned back his big head with its broad temples and close-cropped hair, and looked at Bezukhov. The stern, shrewd, and penetrating expression of that look struck Pierre. He felt a wish to speak to the stranger, but by the time he had made up his mind to ask him a question about the roads, the traveler had closed his eyes. His shriveled old hands were folded and on the finger of one of them Pierre noticed a large cast iron ring with a seal representing a death's head. The stranger sat without stirring, either resting or, as it seemed to Pierre, sunk in profound and calm meditation. His servant was also a yellow, wrinkled old man, without beard or mustache, evidently not because he was shaven but because they had never grown. This active old servant was unpacking the traveler's canteen and preparing tea. He brought in a boiling samovar. When everything was ready, the stranger opened his eyes, moved to the table, filled a tumbler with tea for himself and one for the beardless old man to whom he passed it. Pierre began to feel a sense of uneasiness, and the need, even the inevitability, of entering into conversation with this stranger.
The servant brought back his tumbler turned upside down,* with an unfinished bit of nibbled sugar, and asked if anything more would be wanted.
*To indicate he did not want more tea.
"No. Give me the book," said the stranger.
The servant handed him a book which Pierre took to be a devotional work, and the traveler became absorbed in it. Pierre looked at him. All at once the stranger closed the book, putting in a marker, and again, leaning with his arms on the back of the sofa, sat in his former position with his eyes shut. Pierre looked at him and had not time to turn away when the old man, opening his eyes, fixed his steady and severe gaze straight on Pierre's face.
Pierre felt confused and wished to avoid that look, but the bright old eyes attracted him irresistibly.