A Year of War and Peace+ Day 4

In which a social faux pas highlights the role of social duty

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War and Peace — Book One, Part One

Chapter Four

Anna Pávlovna smiled and promised to take Pierre in hand. She knew his father to be a connection of Prince Vasíli’s. The elderly lady who had been sitting with the old aunt rose hurriedly and overtook Prince Vasíli in the anteroom. All the affectation of interest she had assumed had left her kindly and tear-worn face and it now expressed only anxiety and fear.

“How about my son Borís, Prince?” said she, hurrying after him into the anteroom. “I can’t remain any longer in Petersburg. Tell me what news I may take back to my poor boy.”

Although Prince Vasíli listened reluctantly and not very politely to the elderly lady, even betraying some impatience, she gave him an ingratiating and appealing smile, and took his hand that he might not go away.

“What would it cost you to say a word to the Emperor, and then he would be transferred to the Guards at once?” said she.

“Believe me, Princess, I am ready to do all I can,” answered Prince Vasíli, “but it is difficult for me to ask the Emperor. I should advise you to appeal to Rumyántsev through Prince Golítsyn. That would be the best way.”

The elderly lady was a Princess Drubetskáya, belonging to one of the best families in Russia, but she was poor, and having long been out of society had lost her former influential connections. She had now come to Petersburg to procure an appointment in the Guards for her only son. It was, in fact, solely to meet Prince Vasíli that she had obtained an invitation to Anna Pávlovna’s reception and had sat listening to the vicomte’s story. Prince Vasíli’s words frightened her, an embittered look clouded her once handsome face, but only for a moment; then she smiled again and clutched Prince Vasíli’s arm more tightly.

“Listen to me, Prince,” said she. “I have never yet asked you for anything and I never will again, nor have I ever reminded you of my father’s friendship for you; but now I entreat you for God’s sake to do this for my son — and I shall always regard you as a benefactor,” she added hurriedly. “No, don’t be angry, but promise! I have asked Golítsyn and he has refused. Be the kindhearted man you always were,” she said, trying to smile though tears were in her eyes.

“Papa, we shall be late,” said Princess Hélène, turning her beautiful head and looking over her classically molded shoulder as she stood waiting by the door.

Influence in society, however, is a capital which has to be economized if it is to last. Prince Vasíli knew this, and having once realized that if he asked on behalf of all who begged of him, he would soon be unable to ask for himself, he became chary of using his influence. But in Princess Drubetskáya’s case he felt, after her second appeal, something like qualms of conscience. She had reminded him of what was quite true; he had been indebted to her father for the first steps in his career. Moreover, he could see by her manners that she was one of those women — mostly mothers — who, having once made up their minds, will not rest until they have gained their end, and are prepared if necessary to go on insisting day after day and hour after hour, and even to make scenes.

This last consideration moved him.

“My dear Anna Mikháylovna,” said he with his usual familiarity and weariness of tone, “it is almost impossible for me to do what you ask; but to prove my devotion to you and how I respect your father’s memory, I will do the impossible — your son shall be transferred to the Guards. Here is my hand on it. Are you satisfied?”

“My dear benefactor! This is what I expected from you — I knew your kindness!”

He turned to go.

“Wait — just a word! When he has been transferred to the Guards…” she faltered. “You are on good terms with Michael Ilariónovich Kutúzov … recommend Borís to him as adjutant! Then I shall be at rest, and then…”

Prince Vasíli smiled.

“No, I won’t promise that. You don’t know how Kutúzov is pestered since his appointment as Commander in Chief. He told me himself that all the Moscow ladies have conspired to give him all their sons as adjutants.”

“No, but do promise! I won’t let you go! My dear benefactor…”

“Papa,” said his beautiful daughter in the same tone as before, “we shall be late.”

“Well, ! Good-by! You hear her?”

“Then tomorrow you will speak to the Emperor?”

“Certainly; but about Kutúzov, I don’t promise.”

“Do promise, do promise, Vasíli!” cried Anna Mikháylovna as he went, with the smile of a coquettish girl, which at one time probably came naturally to her, but was now very ill-suited to her careworn face.

Apparently she had forgotten her age and by force of habit employed all the old feminine arts. But as soon as the prince had gone her face resumed its former cold, artificial expression. She returned to the group where the vicomte was still talking, and again pretended to listen, while waiting till it would be time to leave. Her task was accomplished.

“And what do you think of this latest comedy, the coronation at Milan?” asked Anna Pávlovna, “and of the comedy of the people of Genoa and Lucca laying their petitions before Buonaparte, and Buonaparte sitting on a throne and granting the petitions of the nations? Adorable! It is enough to make one’s head whirl! It is as if the whole world had gone crazy.”

Prince Andrew looked Anna Pávlovna straight in the face with a sarcastic smile. “‘’ They say he was very fine when he said that,” he remarked, repeating the words in Italian: “‘’”

“I hope this will prove the last drop that will make the glass run over,” Anna Pávlovna continued. “The sovereigns will not be able to endure this man who is a menace to everything.”

“The sovereigns? I do not speak of Russia,” said the vicomte, polite but hopeless: “The sovereigns, madame… What have they done for Louis XVII, for the Queen, or for Elizabeth? Nothing!” and he became more animated. “And believe me, they are reaping the reward of their betrayal of the Bourbon cause. The sovereigns! Why, they are sending ambassadors to compliment the usurper.”

And sighing disdainfully, he again changed his position.

Prince Hippolyte, who had been gazing at the vicomte for some time through his lorgnette, suddenly turned completely round toward the little princess, and having asked for a needle began tracing the Condé coat of arms on the table. He explained this to her with as much gravity as if she had asked him to do it.

,” said he.

The princess listened, smiling. “If Buonaparte remains on the throne of France a year longer,” the vicomte continued, with the air of a man who, in a matter with which he is better acquainted than anyone else, does not listen to others but follows the current of his own thoughts, “things will have gone too far. By intrigues, violence, exile, and executions, French society — I mean good French society — will have been forever destroyed, and then….”

He shrugged his shoulders and spread out his hands. Pierre wished to make a remark, for the conversation interested him, but Anna Pávlovna, who had him under observation, interrupted:

“The Emperor Alexander,” said she, with the melancholy which always accompanied any reference of hers to the Imperial family, “has declared that he will leave it to the French people themselves to choose their own form of government; and I believe that once free from the usurper, the whole nation will certainly throw itself into the arms of its rightful king,” she concluded, trying to be amiable to the royalist emigrant.

“That is doubtful,” said Prince Andrew. “ quite rightly supposes that matters have already gone too far. I think it will be difficult to return to the old regime.”

“From what I have heard,” said Pierre, blushing and breaking into the conversation, “almost all the aristocracy has already gone over to Bonaparte’s side.”

“It is the Buonapartists who say that,” replied the vicomte without looking at Pierre. “At the present time it is difficult to know the real state of French public opinion.”

“Bonaparte has said so,” remarked Prince Andrew with a sarcastic smile.

It was evident that he did not like the vicomte and was aiming his remarks at him, though without looking at him.

“‘I showed them the path to glory, but they did not follow it,’” Prince Andrew continued after a short silence, again quoting Napoleon’s words. “‘I opened my antechambers and they crowded in.’ I do not know how far he was justified in saying so.”

“Not in the least,” replied the vicomte. “After the murder of the duc even the most partial ceased to regard him as a hero. If to some people,” he went on, turning to Anna Pávlovna, “he ever was a hero, after the murder of the duc there was one martyr more in heaven and one hero less on earth.”

Before Anna Pávlovna and the others had time to smile their appreciation of the vicomte’s epigram, Pierre again broke into the conversation, and though Anna Pávlovna felt sure he would say something inappropriate, she was unable to stop him.

“The execution of the Duc d’Enghien,” declared Pierre, “was a political necessity, and it seems to me that Napoleon showed greatness of soul by not fearing to take on himself the whole responsibility of that deed.”

” muttered Anna Pávlovna in a terrified whisper.

“What, Pierre… Do you consider that assassination shows greatness of soul?” said the little princess, smiling and drawing her work nearer to her.

“Oh! Oh!” exclaimed several voices.

“Capital!” said Prince Hippolyte in English, and began slapping his knee with the palm of his hand.

The vicomte merely shrugged his shoulders. Pierre looked solemnly at his audience over his spectacles and continued.

“I say so,” he continued desperately, “because the Bourbons fled from the Revolution leaving the people to anarchy, and Napoleon alone understood the Revolution and quelled it, and so for the general good, he could not stop short for the sake of one man’s life.”

“Won’t you come over to the other table?” suggested Anna Pávlovna.

But Pierre continued his speech without heeding her.

“No,” cried he, becoming more and more eager, “Napoleon is great because he rose superior to the Revolution, suppressed its abuses, preserved all that was good in it — equality of citizenship and freedom of speech and of the press — and only for that reason did he obtain power.”

“Yes, if having obtained power, without availing himself of it to commit murder he had restored it to the rightful king, I should have called him a great man,” remarked the vicomte.

“He could not do that. The people only gave him power that he might rid them of the Bourbons and because they saw that he was a great man. The Revolution was a grand thing!” continued Pierre, betraying by this desperate and provocative proposition his extreme youth and his wish to express all that was in his mind.

“What? Revolution and regicide a grand thing?… Well, after that… But won’t you come to this other table?” repeated Anna Pávlovna.

“Rousseau’s ,” said the vicomte with a tolerant smile.

“I am not speaking of regicide, I am speaking about ideas.”

“Yes: ideas of robbery, murder, and regicide,” again interjected an ironical voice.

“Those were extremes, no doubt, but they are not what is most important. What is important are the rights of man, emancipation from prejudices, and equality of citizenship, and all these ideas Napoleon has retained in full force.”

“Liberty and equality,” said the vicomte contemptuously, as if at last deciding seriously to prove to this youth how foolish his words were, “high-sounding words which have long been discredited. Who does not love liberty and equality? Even our Savior preached liberty and equality. Have people since the Revolution become happier? On the contrary. We wanted liberty, but Buonaparte has destroyed it.”

Prince Andrew kept looking with an amused smile from Pierre to the vicomte and from the vicomte to their hostess. In the first moment of Pierre’s outburst Anna Pávlovna, despite her social experience, was horror-struck. But when she saw that Pierre’s sacrilegious words had not exasperated the vicomte, and had convinced herself that it was impossible to stop him, she rallied her forces and joined the vicomte in a vigorous attack on the orator.

“But, my dear Pierre,” said she, “how do you explain the fact of a great man executing a duc — or even an ordinary man who — is innocent and untried?”

“I should like,” said the vicomte, “to ask how explains the 18th Brumaire; was not that an imposture? It was a swindle, and not at all like the conduct of a great man!”

“And the prisoners he killed in Africa? That was horrible!” said the little princess, shrugging her shoulders.

“He’s a low fellow, say what you will,” remarked Prince Hippolyte.

Pierre, not knowing whom to answer, looked at them all and smiled. His smile was unlike the half-smile of other people. When he smiled, his grave, even rather gloomy, look was instantaneously replaced by another — a childlike, kindly, even rather silly look, which seemed to ask forgiveness.

The vicomte who was meeting him for the first time saw clearly that this young Jacobin was not so terrible as his words suggested. All were silent.

“How do you expect him to answer you all at once?” said Prince Andrew. “Besides, in the actions of a statesman one has to distinguish between his acts as a private person, as a general, and as an emperor. So it seems to me.”

“Yes, yes, of course!” Pierre chimed in, pleased at the arrival of this reinforcement.

“One must admit,” continued Prince Andrew, “that Napoleon as a man was great on the bridge of Arcola, and in the hospital at Jaffa where he gave his hand to the plague-stricken; but … but there are other acts which it is difficult to justify.”

Prince Andrew, who had evidently wished to tone down the awkwardness of Pierre’s remarks, rose and made a sign to his wife that it was time to go.

Suddenly Prince Hippolyte started up making signs to everyone to attend, and asking them all to be seated began:

“I was told a charming Moscow story today and must treat you to it. Excuse me, Vicomte — I must tell it in Russian or the point will be lost….” And Prince Hippolyte began to tell his story in such Russian as a Frenchman would speak after spending about a year in Russia. Everyone waited, so emphatically and eagerly did he demand their attention to his story.

“There is in Moscow a lady, , and she is very stingy. She must have two footmen behind her carriage, and very big ones. That was her taste. And she had a lady’s maid, also big. She said….”

Here Prince Hippolyte paused, evidently collecting his ideas with difficulty.

“She said…. Oh yes! She said, ‘Girl,’ to the maid, ‘put on a livery, get up behind the carriage, and come with me while I make some calls.’”

Here Prince Hippolyte spluttered and burst out laughing long before his audience, which produced an effect unfavorable to the narrator. Several persons, among them the elderly lady and Anna Pávlovna, did however smile.

“She went. Suddenly there was a great wind. The girl lost her hat and her long hair came down….” Here he could contain himself no longer and went on, between gasps of laughter: “And the whole world knew….”

And so the anecdote ended. Though it was unintelligible why he had told it, or why it had to be told in Russian, still Anna Pávlovna and the others appreciated Prince Hippolyte’s social tact in so agreeably ending Pierre’s unpleasant and unamiable outburst. After the anecdote the conversation broke up into insignificant small talk about the last and next balls, about theatricals, and who would meet whom, and when and where.

A Year of War and Peace — Day 4

Don’t Talk Politics

A mother’s love is unassailable. She will do anything for her child. Such is the devotion Princess Drubetskáya shows for her son, Borís, in the early portion of today’s chapter. Princess Drubetskáya is worried because Borís is about to leave for the war and she wants nothing more than to secure him a post in the relative safety of the Guards. To this end, she accosts Prince Vasíli as he’s attempting to leave Anna Pávlovna’s soirée. At first she encounters difficulty with the old man. Vasíli reconsiders, however, after she reminds him of his debt to her father who once helped Vasíli when he was a young man just starting out. Perhaps more persuasive, however, is her implicit argument that she will not cease nagging until he relents. So he does. Having achieved her goal she returns to sit quietly in the corner and await the end of the party.

Across the room, Anna Pávlovna isn’t having as much success curbing the enthusiasm of young Pierre. Indeed, she fails completely. Much to the horror of the guests, particularly the royalist vicomte Mortemart, Pierre endorses Napoleon’s actions, including the assassination of the duc d’Enghien, saying it was a political necessity and showed “greatness of soul.” Pierre is immediately attacked from all sides for taking this position in favor of the politics of revolution. Instead of mounting a defense of his ideas he retreats into a childish, confused, and, yet, kind grin. We’ll see this type of thing a lot from Pierre. Part of his charm is his unconfident and indecisive nature. He’s pretty much a millennial before it was cool to be a millennial.

Pierre is not alone in his admiration of Napoleon. Prince Andrew is supportive of the Napoleon regime too. But whereas Pierre is stammering and unsound in the articulation of his political viewpoints, Prince Andrew is lucid and sharp. This is a dynamic that will continue throughout the novel.

Let’s return to the idea of our social roles in life. We’ll compare two different ideas on our behavior and duties to others. The first meditation is taken from this chapter and it’s Prince Vasíli’s thoughts on how best to deal with the nagging Princess Drubetskáya. Contrast his view with Seneca’s thoughts about social relations. Who gets it right? Is Seneca just a breezy idealist? Or is the social realism of Prince Vasíli too harsh and unforgiving?

Daily Meditations

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