The elopement plan was foiled when, earlier that evening, Marya Dmitrievna found Sonya crying in the hallway and got the truth out of her. She immediately locked Natasha into her room. Now, the abductors having run away, Marya Dmitrievna paces thoughtfully for a while and finally, about midnight, goes to Natasha. She demands that Natasha listen and tells her that she’s disgraced herself, but that for Count Rostov’s sake, she’ll conceal what’s happened. When she lifts Natasha’s face toward her, both she and Sonya are surprised by the absence of tears. Natasha wrenches herself away and angrily demands to be left alone.
Natasha’s actions would be devastating for her future as well as for her family’s already precarious status. Marya Dmitrievna’s willingness to conceal the matter shows her shrewdness as well as her merciful attitude toward Natasha.
That night Natasha lapses into a shivering fever, ignoring everyone’s efforts to comfort her. The next day Count Rostov returns, cheerful due to the successful conclusion of his estate business. When he finds Natasha ill and sees Sonya’s and Marya Dmitrievna’s embarrassed faces, he knows something must have happened between Natasha and her fiancé. But he can’t bear to think of anything shameful happening to Natasha, so he asks no further questions.
Count Rostov continues to show the indulgent attitude that has helped bring about Natasha’s situation in the first place, refusing to be involved in what’s happened. It’s the same well-meaning negligence that has contributed to the family’s poor social status.
Pierre has been avoiding Natasha, to whom he’s attracted, but when Marya Dmitrievna sends him a note, he comes at once. On the way, he passes Anatole, who looks calm and untroubled. Pierre envies him. Marya Dmitrievna swears Pierre to secrecy and tells him Natasha’s whole story. Pierre is flabbergasted. He’s known Natasha since she was a child, and he’s always thought her sweet and innocent. He tells Marya Dmitrievna that Anatole is already married.
Pierre’s behavior contrasts strongly with Anatole’s. He has real feelings for Natasha, but unlike Anatole, who isn’t remotely conscientious, he shows scrupulous integrity.
Marya Dmitrievna is afraid that, if Count Rostov or Prince Andrei learn what’s happened, they’ll challenge Anatole to a duel. She asks Pierre to order his brother-in-law to leave Moscow, and he agrees. He also talks with Count Rostov, who’s troubled and flustered over Natasha’s refusal of Prince Andrei. He’d never been thrilled about the match, but he can’t believe Natasha took this sudden step without telling anyone.
The situation could have far worse fallout for the Rostovs and Bolkonskys, since Anatole’s actions are considered to be an affront to Natasha’s honor and therefore to her family and fiancé as well.
Sonya intercepts Pierre on his way out. She says that Marya Dmitrievna has told Natasha about Anatole’s marriage, but she’s refusing to believe it without Pierre’s confirmation. On his honor, Pierre tells Natasha that Anatole is married. Unable to speak, she waves them all away. Then Pierre goes in search of Anatole. Finding him in Hélène’s drawing room, he furiously pulls Anatole into his study and threatens him with a paperweight when he refuses to speak. Then he demands Anatole’s letters from Natasha, orders him to leave Moscow, and warns him to keep the whole thing quiet.
Pierre has the greatest integrity of nearly any character. He’s already established himself as someone in Natasha’s life who can be trusted to tell her the truth. His anger at Anatole also suggests that he takes an insult to her honor very personally and takes it upon himself to protect her reputation and happiness.
Pierre asks Anatole if he can understand that there’s more to life than his own pleasure—other people’s lives are at stake. It’s one thing to toy with a woman like Hélène, but to deceive a girl like Natasha is entirely different. Anatole trembles and demands that Pierre retract these words. Pierre asks his forgiveness, but when he sees a familiar feeble smile on Anatole’s face, he storms from the room, saying, “Oh, mean, heartless breed!” Anatole leaves town the next day.
The difference between Pierre and Anatole is clear: unlike Pierre, Anatole is indifferent to matters of honor and the impact of his actions on those more vulnerable than himself. Pierre is becoming more discerning in his dealings with such men—once he might have been fooled by Anatole’s feigned anger, but no longer.
Meanwhile, Natasha is very sick. The night she learned that Anatole was married, she swallowed a little bit of arsenic, then grew frightened and confessed what she’d done. She’s been given an antidote, but she can’t leave Moscow until she regains strength. Meanwhile, rumors spread around town about the attempted abduction, and Pierre does his best to quash these.
Distraught and fearful of the repercussions for her own and her family’s reputation, Natasha makes a suicide attempt, though even now, it seems her desire to live is not entirely crushed. Pierre continues looking out for her.
Pierre gets a note from Prince Andrei, who’s just arrived in Moscow. As soon as Andrei arrived, Prince Nikolai gave him Natasha’s note to Princess Marya stating her refusal of Andrei. (Mlle Bourienne had stolen it from Marya.) He’s also heard the rumors about Natasha’s abduction, happily embellished by his father. When Pierre arrives at the Bolkonskys’, he expects to find Andrei dejected, but Princess Marya tells him her brother took things well. She, too, seems relieved.
The abduction attempt happened just before Prince Andrei arrived back in town—highlighting just how impulsively Natasha has behaved, throwing aside potential happiness on a whim. The rest of the Bolkonskys are glad to put the engagement behind them, as they never saw it as a good match to begin with.
In the study, Pierre finds Prince Andrei in an animated political argument with his father and another prince about Speransky, who’s been accused of treason. He chats superficially with Pierre about his travels abroad, then resumes the argument. Pierre senses that he’s trying to stifle his pain. After the other guest leaves, Andrei takes Pierre to his room and asks him to confirm what’s happened with Natasha. He gives Pierre Natasha’s letters and portrait. When Pierre says that Natasha had been deathly ill, he coldly wishes her well. He tells Pierre he can’t forgive Natasha or be noble enough to marry her anyway. Over dinner with Prince Nikolai and Princess Marya, Pierre sees that the Bolkonskys hold the Rostovs in great contempt.
Because of his own feelings for Natasha, Pierre finds it hard to believe that Prince Andrei doesn’t appear more heartbroken. It seems that Natasha’s actions have just confirmed what the Bolkonskys already thought about the Rostov family—that they’re beneath the Bolkonskys in both class and character.
That evening, Pierre gives Marya Dmitrievna the letters from Prince Andrei. Natasha has gotten dressed and asks to see Pierre. He finds Natasha pale and flustered. She tells Pierre that Andrei had charged her to turn to Pierre in any difficulty. She now begs Pierre to ask Andrei to forgive her, though she knows there’s no hope for marriage. Pierre pities Natasha. He promises to do this, but he asks whether Natasha truly loved Anatole. Natasha starts to cry and says she doesn’t know. Pierre cries, too. He kisses her hand and encourages her that her whole life is still ahead of her. In fact, if he were a free man, he’d propose to her at this moment. Overcome with gratitude, Natasha flees the room.
Pierre’s tenderheartedness toward Natasha contrasts with Prince Andrei’s coldness. He feels deeply for her, even though she’s behaved so foolishly, and he confesses his feelings for her. Natasha doesn’t seem to understand why she’s behaved as she did. She doesn’t yet understand the difference between passion and mature love. On the other hand, Pierre understands that real love accepts a person as they are, which is why he can love Natasha despite her glaring flaws.
Pierre leaves Marya Dmitrievna’s, thinking about Natasha’s grateful look. He feels great tenderness toward her. Compared to that feeling, everything in the world seems base. Only the starry sky seems exalted. As Pierre is driven home, he looks up and sees the long, white comet of 1812 streaking across the sky at that very moment. The comet looks as if it’s paused in its course to play among the stars. To Pierre, it symbolizes the new blossoming in his soul.
Even knowing that he can’t marry Natasha, Pierre finds great joy and spiritual renewal simply in loving her. As Nikolai and Andrei have done at moments of exaltation, Pierre looks skyward and sees a symbol of what he’s feeling—the great comet of 1811–1812. It doesn’t just signify romantic love, but the growth of Pierre’s soul because of unselfish love.