A Year of War and Peace+ Day 18
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War and Peace — Book One, Part One
While in the Rostóvs’ ballroom the sixth anglaise was being danced, to a tune in which the weary musicians blundered, and while tired footmen and cooks were getting the supper, Count Bezúkhov had a sixth stroke. The doctors pronounced recovery impossible. After a mute confession, communion was administered to the dying man, preparations made for the sacrament of unction, and in his house there was the bustle and thrill of suspense usual at such moments. Outside the house, beyond the gates, a group of undertakers, who hid whenever a carriage drove up, waited in expectation of an important order for an expensive funeral. The Military Governor of Moscow, who had been assiduous in sending aides-de-camp to inquire after the count’s health, came himself that evening to bid a last farewell to the celebrated grandee of Catherine’s court, Count Bezúkhov.
The magnificent reception room was crowded. Everyone stood up respectfully when the Military Governor, having stayed about half an hour alone with the dying man, passed out, slightly acknowledging their bows and trying to escape as quickly as possible from the glances fixed on him by the doctors, clergy, and relatives of the family. Prince Vasíli, who had grown thinner and paler during the last few days, escorted him to the door, repeating something to him several times in low tones.
When the Military Governor had gone, Prince Vasíli sat down all alone on a chair in the ballroom, crossing one leg high over the other, leaning his elbow on his knee and covering his face with his hand. After sitting so for a while he rose, and, looking about him with frightened eyes, went with unusually hurried steps down the long corridor leading to the back of the house, to the room of the eldest princess.
Those who were in the dimly lit reception room spoke in nervous whispers, and, whenever anyone went into or came from the dying man’s room, grew silent and gazed with eyes full of curiosity or expectancy at his door, which creaked slightly when opened.
“The limits of human life … are fixed and may not be o’erpassed,” said an old priest to a lady who had taken a seat beside him and was listening naïvely to his words.
“I wonder, is it not too late to administer unction?” asked the lady, adding the priest’s clerical title, as if she had no opinion of her own on the subject.
“Ah, madam, it is a great sacrament,” replied the priest, passing his hand over the thin grizzled strands of hair combed back across his bald head.
“Who was that? The Military Governor himself?” was being asked at the other side of the room. “How young-looking he is!”
“Yes, and he is over sixty. I hear the count no longer recognizes anyone. They wished to administer the sacrament of unction.”
“I knew someone who received that sacrament seven times.”
The second princess had just come from the sickroom with her eyes red from weeping and sat down beside Dr. Lorrain, who was sitting in a graceful pose under a portrait of Catherine, leaning his elbow on a table.
“Beautiful,” said the doctor in answer to a remark about the weather. “The weather is beautiful, Princess; and besides, in Moscow one feels as if one were in the country.”
“Yes, indeed,” replied the princess with a sigh. “So he may have something to drink?”
“Has he taken his medicine?”
The doctor glanced at his watch.
“Take a glass of boiled water and put a pinch of cream of tartar,” and he indicated with his delicate fingers what he meant by a pinch.
“Dere has neffer been a gase,” a German doctor was saying to an aide-de-camp, “dat one liffs after de sird stroke.”
“And what a well-preserved man he was!” remarked the aide-de-camp. “And who will inherit his wealth?” he added in a whisper.
“It von’t go begging,” replied the German with a smile.
Everyone again looked toward the door, which creaked as the second princess went in with the drink she had prepared according to Lorrain’s instructions. The German doctor went up to Lorrain.
“Do you think he can last till morning?” asked the German, addressing Lorrain in French which he pronounced badly.
Lorrain, pursing up his lips, waved a severely negative finger before his nose.
“Tonight, not later,” said he in a low voice, and he moved away with a decorous smile of self-satisfaction at being able clearly to understand and state the patient’s condition.
Meanwhile Prince Vasíli had opened the door into the princess’ room.
In this room it was almost dark; only two tiny lamps were burning before the icons and there was a pleasant scent of flowers and burnt pastilles. The room was crowded with small pieces of furniture, whatnots, cupboards, and little tables. The quilt of a high, white feather bed was just visible behind a screen. A small dog began to bark.
“Ah, is it you, cousin?”
She rose and smoothed her hair, which was as usual so extremely smooth that it seemed to be made of one piece with her head and covered with varnish.
“Has anything happened?” she asked. “I am so terrified.”
“No, there is no change. I only came to have a talk about business, Catiche,” muttered the prince, seating himself wearily on the chair she had just vacated. “You have made the place warm, I must say,” he remarked. “Well, sit down: let’s have a talk.”
“I thought perhaps something had happened,” she said with her unchanging stonily severe expression; and, sitting down opposite the prince, she prepared to listen.
“I wished to get a nap, mon cousin, but I can’t.”
“Well, my dear?” said Prince Vasíli, taking her hand and bending it downwards as was his habit.
It was plain that this “well?” referred to much that they both understood without naming.
The princess, who had a straight, rigid body, abnormally long for her legs, looked directly at Prince Vasíli with no sign of emotion in her prominent gray eyes. Then she shook her head and glanced up at the icons with a sigh. This might have been taken as an expression of sorrow and devotion, or of weariness and hope of resting before long. Prince Vasíli understood it as an expression of weariness.
“And I?” he said; “do you think it is easier for me? I am as worn out as a post horse, but still I must have a talk with you, Catiche, a very serious talk.”
Prince Vasíli said no more and his cheeks began to twitch nervously, now on one side, now on the other, giving his face an unpleasant expression which was never to be seen on it in a drawing room. His eyes too seemed strange; at one moment they looked impudently sly and at the next glanced round in alarm.
The princess, holding her little dog on her lap with her thin bony hands, looked attentively into Prince Vasíli’s eyes evidently resolved not to be the first to break silence, if she had to wait till morning.
“Well, you see, my dear princess and cousin, Catherine Semënovna,” continued Prince Vasíli, returning to his theme, apparently not without an inner struggle; “at such a moment as this one must think of everything. One must think of the future, of all of you… I love you all, like children of my own, as you know.”
The princess continued to look at him without moving, and with the same dull expression.
“And then of course my family has also to be considered,” Prince Vasíli went on, testily pushing away a little table without looking at her. “You know, Catiche, that we — you three sisters, Mámontov, and my wife — are the count’s only direct heirs. I know, I know how hard it is for you to talk or think of such matters. It is no easier for me; but, my dear, I am getting on for sixty and must be prepared for anything. Do you know I have sent for Pierre? The count,” pointing to his portrait, “definitely demanded that he should be called.”
Prince Vasíli looked questioningly at the princess, but could not make out whether she was considering what he had just said or whether she was simply looking at him.
“There is one thing I constantly pray God to grant, mon cousin,” she replied, “and it is that He would be merciful to him and would allow his noble soul peacefully to leave this…”
“Yes, yes, of course,” interrupted Prince Vasíli impatiently, rubbing his bald head and angrily pulling back toward him the little table that he had pushed away. “But… in short, the fact is… you know yourself that last winter the count made a will by which he left all his property, not to us his direct heirs, but to Pierre.”
“He has made wills enough!” quietly remarked the princess. “But he cannot leave the estate to Pierre. Pierre is illegitimate.”
“But, my dear,” said Prince Vasíli suddenly, clutching the little table and becoming more animated and talking more rapidly: “what if a letter has been written to the Emperor in which the count asks for Pierre’s legitimation? Do you understand that in consideration of the count’s services, his request would be granted?…”
The princess smiled as people do who think they know more about the subject under discussion than those they are talking with.
“I can tell you more,” continued Prince Vasíli, seizing her hand, “that letter was written, though it was not sent, and the Emperor knew of it. The only question is, has it been destroyed or not? If not, then as soon as all is over,” and Prince Vasíli sighed to intimate what he meant by the words all is over, “and the count’s papers are opened, the will and letter will be delivered to the Emperor, and the petition will certainly be granted. Pierre will get everything as the legitimate son.”
“And our share?” asked the princess smiling ironically, as if anything might happen, only not that.
“But, my poor Catiche, it is as clear as daylight! He will then be the legal heir to everything and you won’t get anything. You must know, my dear, whether the will and letter were written, and whether they have been destroyed or not. And if they have somehow been overlooked, you ought to know where they are, and must find them, because…”
“What next?” the princess interrupted, smiling sardonically and not changing the expression of her eyes. “I am a woman, and you think we are all stupid; but I know this: an illegitimate son cannot inherit… un bâtard!” she added, as if supposing that this translation of the word would effectively prove to Prince Vasíli the invalidity of his contention.
“Well, really, Catiche! Can’t you understand! You are so intelligent, how is it you don’t see that if the count has written a letter to the Emperor begging him to recognize Pierre as legitimate, it follows that Pierre will not be Pierre but will become Count Bezúkhov, and will then inherit everything under the will? And if the will and letter are not destroyed, then you will have nothing but the consolation of having been dutiful et tout ce qui s’ensuit! That’s certain.”
“I know the will was made, but I also know that it is invalid; and you, mon cousin, seem to consider me a perfect fool,” said the princess with the expression women assume when they suppose they are saying something witty and stinging.
“My dear Princess Catherine Semënovna,” began Prince Vasíli impatiently, “I came here not to wrangle with you, but to talk about your interests as with a kinswoman, a good, kind, true relation. And I tell you for the tenth time that if the letter to the Emperor and the will in Pierre’s favor are among the count’s papers, then, my dear girl, you and your sisters are not heiresses! If you don’t believe me, then believe an expert. I have just been talking to Dmítri Onúfrich” (the family solicitor) “and he says the same.”
At this a sudden change evidently took place in the princess’ ideas; her thin lips grew white, though her eyes did not change, and her voice when she began to speak passed through such transitions as she herself evidently did not expect.
“That would be a fine thing!” said she. “I never wanted anything and I don’t now.”
She pushed the little dog off her lap and smoothed her dress.
“And this is gratitude — this is recognition for those who have sacrificed everything for his sake!” she cried. “It’s splendid! Fine! I don’t want anything, Prince.”
“Yes, but you are not the only one. There are your sisters…” replied Prince Vasíli.
But the princess did not listen to him.
“Yes, I knew it long ago but had forgotten. I knew that I could expect nothing but meanness, deceit, envy, intrigue, and ingratitude — the blackest ingratitude — in this house…”
“Do you or do you not know where that will is?” insisted Prince Vasíli, his cheeks twitching more than ever.
“Yes, I was a fool! I still believed in people, loved them, and sacrificed myself. But only the base, the vile succeed! I know who has been intriguing!”
The princess wished to rise, but the prince held her by the hand. She had the air of one who has suddenly lost faith in the whole human race. She gave her companion an angry glance.
“There is still time, my dear. You must remember, Catiche, that it was all done casually in a moment of anger, of illness, and was afterwards forgotten. Our duty, my dear, is to rectify his mistake, to ease his last moments by not letting him commit this injustice, and not to let him die feeling that he is rendering unhappy those who…”
“Who sacrificed everything for him,” chimed in the princess, who would again have risen had not the prince still held her fast, “though he never could appreciate it. No, mon cousin,” she added with a sigh, “I shall always remember that in this world one must expect no reward, that in this world there is neither honor nor justice. In this world one has to be cunning and cruel.”
“Now come, come! Be reasonable. I know your excellent heart.”
“No, I have a wicked heart.”
“I know your heart,” repeated the prince. “I value your friendship and wish you to have as good an opinion of me. Don’t upset yourself, and let us talk sensibly while there is still time, be it a day or be it but an hour…. Tell me all you know about the will, and above all where it is. You must know. We will take it at once and show it to the count. He has, no doubt, forgotten it and will wish to destroy it. You understand that my sole desire is conscientiously to carry out his wishes; that is my only reason for being here. I came simply to help him and you.”
“Now I see it all! I know who has been intriguing — I know!” cried the princess.
“That’s not the point, my dear.”
“It’s that protégé of yours, that sweet Princess Drubetskáya, that Anna Mikháylovna whom I would not take for a housemaid… the infamous, vile woman!”
“Do not let us lose any time…”
“Ah, don’t talk to me! Last winter she wheedled herself in here and told the count such vile, disgraceful things about us, especially about Sophie — I can’t repeat them — that it made the count quite ill and he would not see us for a whole fortnight. I know it was then he wrote this vile, infamous paper, but I thought the thing was invalid.”
“We’ve got to it at last — why did you not tell me about it sooner?”
“It’s in the inlaid portfolio that he keeps under his pillow,” said the princess, ignoring his question. “Now I know! Yes; if I have a sin, a great sin, it is hatred of that vile woman!” almost shrieked the princess, now quite changed. “And what does she come worming herself in here for? But I will give her a piece of my mind. The time will come!”
A Year of War and Peace — Day 18
Vasíli the Unvirtuous
While the Rostóvs and their guests party Count Bezúkhov is stroking out across town.
Many have gathered at his estate: doctors, the Military Governor of Moscow, aides-de-camp, members of the clergy, undertakers. It’s a different kind of party. Among this gathering sits a wearied and worried Prince Vasíli. He is much thinner and paler than the last time we saw him. It must be exhausting trying to cheat someone out of their inheritance.
As soon as Vasíli learns that the Count will not survive the night, however, he hops back up and darts back off to work. His target now is one of the Count’s nieces, Pierre’s cousin, Catherine Semënovna (AKA Catiche).
The two have a long and difficult conversation about the Count’s will. The villainous intentions of Prince Vasíli are now impossible to hide. It’s a truly disgraceful conversation. Their family member lies dying nearby and these two debate how best to benefit from this death. Vasíli knows that the Count has a will. He also knows that the Count has petitioned the Emperor, a great friend, to legitimize Pierre as his rightful heir. Though this petition will surely be granted, it hasn’t yet been delivered to the Emperor. It remains sealed in a portfolio in the Count’s room. If only Prince Vasíli and Catiche can somehow get their hands on the petition they stand, as the closest family members, to inherit one of the largest fortunes in all of Russia.
And so we return to the concept of duty. Prince Vasíli invokes the notion himself when he says to Catiche, in reference to their scheme to thwart the Count’s intentions, that it is “Our duty, my dear, to rectify his mistake, to ease his last moments by not letting him commit this injustice.”
Vasíli has the temerity to say this even with the knowledge that the Count has just asked to see Pierre. The Count’s love of Pierre is clear. Yet Vasíli and Catiche seek to dishonor their own family member’s intention. This is not a virtuous performance of the role of family member.
Look for and come to understand your connections to other people. We properly locate ourselves within the cosmic scheme by recognizing our natural relations to one another and thereby identifying our duties. Our duties naturally emerge from such fundamental relations as our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, our state or nation. Makes it your regular habit to consider your roles — parent, child, neighbor, citizen, leader — and the natural duties that arise from them. Once you know who you are and to whom you are linked, you will know what to do.
Epictetus, The Art of Living