A Year of War and Peace+ Day 20
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War and Peace — Book One, Part One
Pierre well knew this large room divided by columns and an arch, its walls hung round with Persian carpets. The part of the room behind the columns, with a high silk-curtained mahogany bedstead on one side and on the other an immense case containing icons, was brightly illuminated with red light like a Russian church during evening service. Under the gleaming icons stood a long invalid chair, and in that chair on snowy-white smooth pillows, evidently freshly changed, Pierre saw — covered to the waist by a bright green quilt — the familiar, majestic figure of his father, Count Bezúkhov, with that gray mane of hair above his broad forehead which reminded one of a lion, and the deep characteristically noble wrinkles of his handsome, ruddy face. He lay just under the icons; his large thick hands outside the quilt. Into the right hand, which was lying palm downwards, a wax taper had been thrust between forefinger and thumb, and an old servant, bending over from behind the chair, held it in position. By the chair stood the priests, their long hair falling over their magnificent glittering vestments, with lighted tapers in their hands, slowly and solemnly conducting the service. A little behind them stood the two younger princesses holding handkerchiefs to their eyes, and just in front of them their eldest sister, Catiche, with a vicious and determined look steadily fixed on the icons, as though declaring to all that she could not answer for herself should she glance round. Anna Mikháylovna, with a meek, sorrowful, and all-forgiving expression on her face, stood by the door near the strange lady. Prince Vasíli in front of the door, near the invalid chair, a wax taper in his left hand, was leaning his left arm on the carved back of a velvet chair he had turned round for the purpose, and was crossing himself with his right hand, turning his eyes upward each time he touched his forehead. His face wore a calm look of piety and resignation to the will of God. “If you do not understand these sentiments,” he seemed to be saying, “so much the worse for you!”
Behind him stood the aide-de-camp, the doctors, and the menservants; the men and women had separated as in church. All were silently crossing themselves, and the reading of the church service, the subdued chanting of deep bass voices, and in the intervals sighs and the shuffling of feet were the only sounds that could be heard. Anna Mikháylovna, with an air of importance that showed that she felt she quite knew what she was about, went across the room to where Pierre was standing and gave him a taper. He lit it and, distracted by observing those around him, began crossing himself with the hand that held the taper.
Sophie, the rosy, laughter-loving, youngest princess with the mole, watched him. She smiled, hid her face in her handkerchief, and remained with it hidden for awhile; then looking up and seeing Pierre she again began to laugh. She evidently felt unable to look at him without laughing, but could not resist looking at him: so to be out of temptation she slipped quietly behind one of the columns. In the midst of the service the voices of the priests suddenly ceased, they whispered to one another, and the old servant who was holding the count’s hand got up and said something to the ladies. Anna Mikháylovna stepped forward and, stooping over the dying man, beckoned to Lorrain from behind her back. The French doctor held no taper; he was leaning against one of the columns in a respectful attitude implying that he, a foreigner, in spite of all differences of faith, understood the full importance of the rite now being performed and even approved of it. He now approached the sick man with the noiseless step of one in full vigor of life, with his delicate white fingers raised from the green quilt the hand that was free, and turning sideways felt the pulse and reflected a moment. The sick man was given something to drink, there was a stir around him, then the people resumed their places and the service continued. During this interval Pierre noticed that Prince Vasíli left the chair on which he had been leaning, and — with an air which intimated that he knew what he was about and if others did not understand him it was so much the worse for them — did not go up to the dying man, but passed by him, joined the eldest princess, and moved with her to the side of the room where stood the high bedstead with its silken hangings. On leaving the bed both Prince Vasíli and the princess passed out by a back door, but returned to their places one after the other before the service was concluded. Pierre paid no more attention to this occurrence than to the rest of what went on, having made up his mind once for all that what he saw happening around him that evening was in some way essential.
The chanting of the service ceased, and the voice of the priest was heard respectfully congratulating the dying man on having received the sacrament. The dying man lay as lifeless and immovable as before. Around him everyone began to stir: steps were audible and whispers, among which Anna Mikháylovna’s was the most distinct.
Pierre heard her say:
“Certainly he must be moved onto the bed; here it will be impossible…”
The sick man was so surrounded by doctors, princesses, and servants that Pierre could no longer see the reddish-yellow face with its gray mane — which, though he saw other faces as well, he had not lost sight of for a single moment during the whole service. He judged by the cautious movements of those who crowded round the invalid chair that they had lifted the dying man and were moving him.
“Catch hold of my arm or you’ll drop him!” he heard one of the servants say in a frightened whisper. “Catch hold from underneath. Here!” exclaimed different voices; and the heavy breathing of the bearers and the shuffling of their feet grew more hurried, as if the weight they were carrying were too much for them.
As the bearers, among whom was Anna Mikháylovna, passed the young man he caught a momentary glimpse between their heads and backs of the dying man’s high, stout, uncovered chest and powerful shoulders, raised by those who were holding him under the armpits, and of his gray, curly, leonine head. This head, with its remarkably broad brow and cheekbones, its handsome, sensual mouth, and its cold, majestic expression, was not disfigured by the approach of death. It was the same as Pierre remembered it three months before, when the count had sent him to Petersburg. But now this head was swaying helplessly with the uneven movements of the bearers, and the cold listless gaze fixed itself upon nothing.
After a few minutes’ bustle beside the high bedstead, those who had carried the sick man dispersed. Anna Mikháylovna touched Pierre’s hand and said, “Come.” Pierre went with her to the bed on which the sick man had been laid in a stately pose in keeping with the ceremony just completed. He lay with his head propped high on the pillows. His hands were symmetrically placed on the green silk quilt, the palms downward. When Pierre came up the count was gazing straight at him, but with a look the significance of which could not be understood by mortal man. Either this look meant nothing but that as long as one has eyes they must look somewhere, or it meant too much. Pierre hesitated, not knowing what to do, and glanced inquiringly at his guide. Anna Mikháylovna made a hurried sign with her eyes, glancing at the sick man’s hand and moving her lips as if to send it a kiss. Pierre, carefully stretching his neck so as not to touch the quilt, followed her suggestion and pressed his lips to the large boned, fleshy hand. Neither the hand nor a single muscle of the count’s face stirred. Once more Pierre looked questioningly at Anna Mikháylovna to see what he was to do next. Anna Mikháylovna with her eyes indicated a chair that stood beside the bed. Pierre obediently sat down, his eyes asking if he were doing right. Anna Mikháylovna nodded approvingly. Again Pierre fell into the naïvely symmetrical pose of an Egyptian statue, evidently distressed that his stout and clumsy body took up so much room and doing his utmost to look as small as possible. He looked at the count, who still gazed at the spot where Pierre’s face had been before he sat down. Anna Mikháylovna indicated by her attitude her consciousness of the pathetic importance of these last moments of meeting between the father and son. This lasted about two minutes, which to Pierre seemed an hour. Suddenly the broad muscles and lines of the count’s face began to twitch. The twitching increased, the handsome mouth was drawn to one side (only now did Pierre realize how near death his father was), and from that distorted mouth issued an indistinct, hoarse sound. Anna Mikháylovna looked attentively at the sick man’s eyes, trying to guess what he wanted; she pointed first to Pierre, then to some drink, then named Prince Vasíli in an inquiring whisper, then pointed to the quilt. The eyes and face of the sick man showed impatience. He made an effort to look at the servant who stood constantly at the head of the bed.
“Wants to turn on the other side,” whispered the servant, and got up to turn the count’s heavy body toward the wall.
Pierre rose to help him.
While the count was being turned over, one of his arms fell back helplessly and he made a fruitless effort to pull it forward. Whether he noticed the look of terror with which Pierre regarded that lifeless arm, or whether some other thought flitted across his dying brain, at any rate he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s terror-stricken face, and again at the arm, and on his face a feeble, piteous smile appeared, quite out of keeping with his features, that seemed to deride his own helplessness. At sight of this smile Pierre felt an unexpected quivering in his breast and a tickling in his nose, and tears dimmed his eyes. The sick man was turned on to his side with his face to the wall. He sighed.
“He is dozing,” said Anna Mikháylovna, observing that one of the princesses was coming to take her turn at watching. “Let us go.”
Pierre went out.
A Year of War and Peace — Day 20
Approach of the Kneaded Clod (Bezúkhov Smiles)
Pierre enters his father’s room. It’s a solemn scene of lighted taper candles, gathered grievers, priests in vestments, and a dying man propped up in a chair under a collection of red-lighted icons. In the air above them all hang the haunted ghosts of sacramental chanting.
It’s a very confusing time for Pierre. He still doesn’t quite know what to do. He’s confused further when he spies Vasíli and Catiche huddle together near his father’s bed, remove themselves from the room through a back door, and then return to the service nearly as quickly as they left it.
When the service is completed and the Count is returned to his bed we’re presented with a very moving scene. Once again, Pierre, encompassed about like Jonathan Harker with terrors he dare not think of, follows the lead of Anna Mikháylovna. He takes his dying father’s hand in his own and kisses it. He looks into his father’s eyes. The Count looks back. “Whether he noticed the look of terror with which Pierre regarded that lifeless arm,” Tolstoy writes, “or whether some other thought flitted across his dying brain, at any rate he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s terror-stricken face, and again at the arm, and on his face a feeble, piteous smile appeared quite out of keeping with his features, that seemed to deride his own helplessness.”
Death is that obnoxious relative nobody wants to meet with but none can stop from coming to visit. It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to be like Pierre locked in terror as he contemplates death through the visage of his dying father. His father, actually, probably has the right idea: greet death with a smile. It’s silly, after all, to cling to something that must inevitably, by mere operation of nature, be taken away. That’s why I think ol’ Willie Shakes, as he usually does, gets it exactly right.
Be absolute for death; either death or life/ Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:/ If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing/ That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,/ Servile to all the skyey influences,/ That dost this habitation, where thou keep’st,/ Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death’s fool;/ For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun/ And yet runn’st toward him still. Thou art not noble;/ For all the accommodations that thou bear’st/ Are nursed by baseness. Thou’rt by no means valiant;/ For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork/ Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,/ And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear’st/ Thy death, which is no more.
Shakespeare, Measure for Measure