A Year of War and Peace+ Day 19
In which Anna Mikháylovna guides Pierre and we get caught in the weaving net of fate
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War and Peace — Book One, Part One
While these conversations were going on in the reception room and the princess’ room, a carriage containing Pierre (who had been sent for) and Anna Mikháylovna (who found it necessary to accompany him) was driving into the court of Count Bezúkhov’s house. As the wheels rolled softly over the straw beneath the windows, Anna Mikháylovna, having turned with words of comfort to her companion, realized that he was asleep in his corner and woke him up. Rousing himself, Pierre followed Anna Mikháylovna out of the carriage, and only then began to think of the interview with his dying father which awaited him. He noticed that they had not come to the front entrance but to the back door. While he was getting down from the carriage steps two men, who looked like tradespeople, ran hurriedly from the entrance and hid in the shadow of the wall. Pausing for a moment, Pierre noticed several other men of the same kind hiding in the shadow of the house on both sides. But neither Anna Mikháylovna nor the footman nor the coachman, who could not help seeing these people, took any notice of them. “It seems to be all right,” Pierre concluded, and followed Anna Mikháylovna. She hurriedly ascended the narrow dimly lit stone staircase, calling to Pierre, who was lagging behind, to follow. Though he did not see why it was necessary for him to go to the count at all, still less why he had to go by the back stairs, yet judging by Anna Mikháylovna’s air of assurance and haste, Pierre concluded that it was all absolutely necessary. Halfway up the stairs they were almost knocked over by some men who, carrying pails, came running downstairs, their boots clattering. These men pressed close to the wall to let Pierre and Anna Mikháylovna pass and did not evince the least surprise at seeing them there.
“Is this the way to the princesses’ apartments?” asked Anna Mikháylovna of one of them.
“Yes,” replied a footman in a bold loud voice, as if anything were now permissible; “the door to the left, ma’am.”
“Perhaps the count did not ask for me,” said Pierre when he reached the landing. “I’d better go to my own room.”
Anna Mikháylovna paused and waited for him to come up.
“Ah, my friend!” she said, touching his arm as she had done her son’s when speaking to him that afternoon, “believe me I suffer no less than you do, but be a man!”
“But really, hadn’t I better go away?” he asked, looking kindly at her over his spectacles.
“Ah, my dear friend! Forget the wrongs that may have been done you. Think that he is your father … perhaps in the agony of death.” She sighed. “I have loved you like a son from the first. Trust yourself to me, Pierre. I shall not forget your interests.”
Pierre did not understand a word, but the conviction that all this had to be grew stronger, and he meekly followed Anna Mikháylovna who was already opening a door.
This door led into a back anteroom. An old man, a servant of the princesses, sat in a corner knitting a stocking. Pierre had never been in this part of the house and did not even know of the existence of these rooms. Anna Mikháylovna, addressing a maid who was hurrying past with a decanter on a tray as “my dear” and “my sweet,” asked about the princess’ health and then led Pierre along a stone passage. The first door on the left led into the princesses’ apartments. The maid with the decanter in her haste had not closed the door (everything in the house was done in haste at that time), and Pierre and Anna Mikháylovna in passing instinctively glanced into the room, where Prince Vasíli and the eldest princess were sitting close together talking. Seeing them pass, Prince Vasíli drew back with obvious impatience, while the princess jumped up and with a gesture of desperation slammed the door with all her might.
This action was so unlike her usual composure and the fear depicted on Prince Vasíli’s face so out of keeping with his dignity that Pierre stopped and glanced inquiringly over his spectacles at his guide. Anna Mikháylovna evinced no surprise, she only smiled faintly and sighed, as if to say that this was no more than she had expected.
“Be a man, my friend. I will look after your interests,” said she in reply to his look, and went still faster along the passage.
Pierre could not make out what it was all about, and still less what “watching over his interests” meant, but he decided that all these things had to be. From the passage they went into a large, dimly lit room adjoining the count’s reception room. It was one of those sumptuous but cold apartments known to Pierre only from the front approach, but even in this room there now stood an empty bath, and water had been spilled on the carpet. They were met by a deacon with a censer and by a servant who passed out on tiptoe without heeding them. They went into the reception room familiar to Pierre, with two Italian windows opening into the conservatory, with its large bust and full length portrait of Catherine the Great. The same people were still sitting here in almost the same positions as before, whispering to one another. All became silent and turned to look at the pale tear-worn Anna Mikháylovna as she entered, and at the big stout figure of Pierre who, hanging his head, meekly followed her.
Anna Mikháylovna’s face expressed a consciousness that the decisive moment had arrived. With the air of a practical Petersburg lady she now, keeping Pierre close beside her, entered the room even more boldly than that afternoon. She felt that as she brought with her the person the dying man wished to see, her own admission was assured. Casting a rapid glance at all those in the room and noticing the count’s confessor there, she glided up to him with a sort of amble, not exactly bowing yet seeming to grow suddenly smaller, and respectfully received the blessing first of one and then of another priest.
“God be thanked that you are in time,” said she to one of the priests; “all we relatives have been in such anxiety. This young man is the count’s son,” she added more softly. “What a terrible moment!”
Having said this she went up to the doctor.
“Dear doctor,” said she, “this young man is the count’s son. Is there any hope?”
The doctor cast a rapid glance upwards and silently shrugged his shoulders. Anna Mikháylovna with just the same movement raised her shoulders and eyes, almost closing the latter, sighed, and moved away from the doctor to Pierre. To him, in a particularly respectful and tenderly sad voice, she said:
“Trust in His mercy!” and pointing out a small sofa for him to sit and wait for her, she went silently toward the door that everyone was watching and it creaked very slightly as she disappeared behind it.
Pierre, having made up his mind to obey his monitress implicitly, moved toward the sofa she had indicated. As soon as Anna Mikháylovna had disappeared he noticed that the eyes of all in the room turned to him with something more than curiosity and sympathy. He noticed that they whispered to one another, casting significant looks at him with a kind of awe and even servility. A deference such as he had never before received was shown him. A strange lady, the one who had been talking to the priests, rose and offered him her seat; an aide-de-camp picked up and returned a glove Pierre had dropped; the doctors became respectfully silent as he passed by, and moved to make way for him. At first Pierre wished to take another seat so as not to trouble the lady, and also to pick up the glove himself and to pass round the doctors who were not even in his way; but all at once he felt that this would not do, and that tonight he was a person obliged to perform some sort of awful rite which everyone expected of him, and that he was therefore bound to accept their services. He took the glove in silence from the aide-de-camp, and sat down in the lady’s chair, placing his huge hands symmetrically on his knees in the naïve attitude of an Egyptian statue, and decided in his own mind that all was as it should be, and that in order not to lose his head and do foolish things he must not act on his own ideas tonight, but must yield himself up entirely to the will of those who were guiding him.
Not two minutes had passed before Prince Vasíli with head erect majestically entered the room. He was wearing his long coat with three stars on his breast. He seemed to have grown thinner since the morning; his eyes seemed larger than usual when he glanced round and noticed Pierre. He went up to him, took his hand (a thing he never used to do), and drew it downwards as if wishing to ascertain whether it was firmly fixed on.
“Courage, courage, my friend! He has asked to see you. That is well!” and he turned to go.
But Pierre thought it necessary to ask: “How is…” and hesitated, not knowing whether it would be proper to call the dying man “the count,” yet ashamed to call him “father.”
“He had another stroke about half an hour ago. Courage, my friend…”
Pierre’s mind was in such a confused state that the word “stroke” suggested to him a blow from something. He looked at Prince Vasíli in perplexity, and only later grasped that a stroke was an attack of illness. Prince Vasíli said something to Lorrain in passing and went through the door on tiptoe. He could not walk well on tiptoe and his whole body jerked at each step. The eldest princess followed him, and the priests and deacons and some servants also went in at the door. Through that door was heard a noise of things being moved about, and at last Anna Mikháylovna, still with the same expression, pale but resolute in the discharge of duty, ran out and touching Pierre lightly on the arm said:
“The divine mercy is inexhaustible! Unction is about to be administered. Come.”
Pierre went in at the door, stepping on the soft carpet, and noticed that the strange lady, the aide-de-camp, and some of the servants, all followed him in, as if there were now no further need for permission to enter that room.
A Year of War and Peace — Day 19
Olivia, that great Illyrian beauty of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, found herself, as we all have one Saturday night or another, irresistibly attracted to a transvestite. This compulsive love, this fatal attraction, was not created within her own heart, as she understood it anyway, but, rather, it had been written by the cosmos itself. “Fate, show thy force,” she cries, “Ourselves we do not owe./ What is decreed must be, and be this so.”
A similar fatalism is an integral part of today’s chapter of War and Peace though with less cross-dressing. Four times, an average of once per page, Pierre feels as if the night’s events are guided by fate rather than his own volition.
He first feels it as he follows Anna Mikháylovna from the carriage they took from the Rostóv’s party into Count Bezúkhov’s mansion. Anna Mikháylovna moves with such confidence and purpose, Pierre reasons, that this moment could not be structured any other way. Confidence and purpose, as we know, are not Pierre’s strong suits. But as the chapter progresses, as the conviction strengthens in him that everything has been preordained, things start to change. The reader notes a bit less confusion in Pierre, a bit more calmness. The behavior of others toward him changes too. Those around him treat him with more deference, more servility. Prince Vasíli even takes him by the hand, something he has never done before, and wishes him well.
And with that Pierre enters the chamber of his dying father to meet his fate.
Tolstoy’s fictional world has so far presented us with a diverse range of experience covering portraits of friendship, dysfunctional relationships, and filial duty. Our own world is much messier.
What are we to make of this mess?
I like Pierre’s approach in this chapter. He understands that the workings of the world are beyond his control and so he decides to just go with it. Yet, this isn’t a complete resignation. Pierre does, after all, make the choice to follow Anna Mikháylovna’s lead. His autonomy isn’t totally erased.
Much later in the novel, as Tolstoy investigates the causes of the Napoleonic Wars, we’ll explore even more the tension between individual agency and historical determinism. For now, however, we’ll have to settle on a way to live in this crazy world.
Marcus, similarly to Pierre, has a suggestion.
Whatever may happen to thee, it was prepared for thee from all eternity; and the implication of causes was from eternity spinning the thread of thy being, and of that which is incident to it. Whether the universe is a concourse of atoms, or nature is a system, let this first be established, that I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature; next, I am in a manner intimately related to the parts which are of the same kind as myself. For remembering this, inasmuch as I am a part, I shall be discontented with none of the things which are assigned to me out of the whole; for nothing is injurious to the part, if it is for the advantage of the whole. For the whole contains nothing which is not for its advantage; and all natures indeed have this common principle, but the nature of the universe has this principle besides, that it cannot be compelled even by any external cause to generate harm to itself. By remembering, then, that I am part of such a whole, I shall be content with everything that happens.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations