A Year of War and Peace+ Day 9
In which Nicholas defends his choice of career and we see that in a foolish world it does not pay to become angered by fools
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War and Peace — Book One, Part One
The only young people remaining in the drawing room, not counting the young lady visitor and the countess’ eldest daughter (who was four years older than her sister and behaved already like a grown-up person), were Nicholas and Sónya, the niece. Sónya was a slender little brunette with a tender look in her eyes which were veiled by long lashes, thick black plaits coiling twice round her head, and a tawny tint in her complexion and especially in the color of her slender but graceful and muscular arms and neck. By the grace of her movements, by the softness and flexibility of her small limbs, and by a certain coyness and reserve of manner, she reminded one of a pretty, half-grown kitten which promises to become a beautiful little cat. She evidently considered it proper to show an interest in the general conversation by smiling, but in spite of herself her eyes under their thick long lashes watched her cousin who was going to join the army, with such passionate girlish adoration that her smile could not for a single instant impose upon anyone, and it was clear that the kitten had settled down only to spring up with more energy and again play with her cousin as soon as they too could, like Natásha and Borís, escape from the drawing room.
“Ah yes, my dear,” said the count, addressing the visitor and pointing to Nicholas, “his friend Borís has become an officer, and so for friendship’s sake he is leaving the university and me, his old father, and entering the military service, my dear. And there was a place and everything waiting for him in the Archives Department! Isn’t that friendship?” remarked the count in an inquiring tone.
“But they say that war has been declared,” replied the visitor.
“They’ve been saying so a long while,” said the count, “and they’ll say so again and again, and that will be the end of it. My dear, there’s friendship for you,” he repeated. “He’s joining the hussars.”
The visitor, not knowing what to say, shook her head.
“It’s not at all from friendship,” declared Nicholas, flaring up and turning away as if from a shameful aspersion. “It is not from friendship at all; I simply feel that the army is my vocation.”
He glanced at his cousin and the young lady visitor; and they were both regarding him with a smile of approbation.
“Schubert, the colonel of the Pávlograd Hussars, is dining with us today. He has been here on leave and is taking Nicholas back with him. It can’t be helped!” said the count, shrugging his shoulders and speaking playfully of a matter that evidently distressed him.
“I have already told you, Papa,” said his son, “that if you don’t wish to let me go, I’ll stay. But I know I am no use anywhere except in the army; I am not a diplomat or a government clerk. — I don’t know how to hide what I feel.” As he spoke he kept glancing with the flirtatiousness of a handsome youth at Sónya and the young lady visitor.
The little kitten, feasting her eyes on him, seemed ready at any moment to start her gambols again and display her kittenish nature.
“All right, all right!” said the old count. “He always flares up! This Buonaparte has turned all their heads; they all think of how he rose from an ensign and became Emperor. Well, well, God grant it,” he added, not noticing his visitor’s sarcastic smile.
The elders began talking about Bonaparte. Julie Karágina turned to young Rostóv.
“What a pity you weren’t at the Arkhárovs’ on Thursday. It was so dull without you,” said she, giving him a tender smile.
The young man, flattered, sat down nearer to her with a coquettish smile, and engaged the smiling Julie in a confidential conversation without at all noticing that his involuntary smile had stabbed the heart of Sónya, who blushed and smiled unnaturally. In the midst of his talk he glanced round at her. She gave him a passionately angry glance, and hardly able to restrain her tears and maintain the artificial smile on her lips, she got up and left the room. All Nicholas’ animation vanished. He waited for the first pause in the conversation, and then with a distressed face left the room to find Sónya.
“How plainly all these young people wear their hearts on their sleeves!” said Anna Mikháylovna, pointing to Nicholas as he went out. “Cousinage — dangereux voisinage,” she added.
“Yes,” said the countess when the brightness these young people had brought into the room had vanished; and as if answering a question no one had put but which was always in her mind, “and how much suffering, how much anxiety one has had to go through that we might rejoice in them now! And yet really the anxiety is greater now than the joy. One is always, always anxious! Especially just at this age, so dangerous both for girls and boys.”
“It all depends on the bringing up,” remarked the visitor.
“Yes, you’re quite right,” continued the countess. “Till now I have always, thank God, been my children’s friend and had their full confidence,” said she, repeating the mistake of so many parents who imagine that their children have no secrets from them. “I know I shall always be my daughters’ first confidante, and that if Nicholas, with his impulsive nature, does get into mischief (a boy can’t help it), he will all the same never be like those Petersburg young men.”
“Yes, they are splendid, splendid youngsters,” chimed in the count, who always solved questions that seemed to him perplexing by deciding that everything was splendid. “Just fancy: wants to be an hussar. What’s one to do, my dear?”
“What a charming creature your younger girl is,” said the visitor; “a little volcano!”
“Yes, a regular volcano,” said the count. “Takes after me! And what a voice she has; though she’s my daughter, I tell the truth when I say she’ll be a singer, a second Salomoni! We have engaged an Italian to give her lessons.”
“Isn’t she too young? I have heard that it harms the voice to train it at that age.”
“Oh no, not at all too young!” replied the count. “Why, our mothers used to be married at twelve or thirteen.”
“And she’s in love with Borís already. Just fancy!” said the countess with a gentle smile, looking at Borís and went on, evidently concerned with a thought that always occupied her: “Now you see if I were to be severe with her and to forbid it … goodness knows what they might be up to on the sly” (she meant that they would be kissing), “but as it is, I know every word she utters. She will come running to me of her own accord in the evening and tell me everything. Perhaps I spoil her, but really that seems the best plan. With her elder sister I was stricter.”
“Yes, I was brought up quite differently,” remarked the handsome elder daughter, Countess Véra, with a smile.
But the smile did not enhance Véra’s beauty as smiles generally do; on the contrary it gave her an unnatural, and therefore unpleasant, expression. Véra was good-looking, not at all stupid, quick at learning, was well brought up, and had a pleasant voice; what she said was true and appropriate, yet, strange to say, everyone — the visitors and countess alike — turned to look at her as if wondering why she had said it, and they all felt awkward.
“People are always too clever with their eldest children and try to make something exceptional of them,” said the visitor.
“What’s the good of denying it, my dear? Our dear countess was too clever with Véra,” said the count. “Well, what of that? She’s turned out splendidly all the same,” he added, winking at Véra.
The guests got up and took their leave, promising to return to dinner.
“What manners! I thought they would never go,” said the countess, when she had seen her guests out.
A Year of War and Peace — Day 9
Of the Rostóv children and their friends only Nicholas, Sónya, and Véra remain in the drawing-room. Sónya is Nicholas’s cousin and, as Anna Mikháylovna and Countess Rostóva lament later in the chapter, the two are cousin-crushing on each other pretty hard. Véra is Nicholas’s older sister. Nobody in the novel really pays much attention to Véra though and you probably don’t have to either.
Count Rostóv takes this opportunity to jovially jibe Nicholas a bit about Nicholas’s decision to join the hussars like his friend Borís. This is a sore topic for Nicholas. He flares up instantly in frustration and defends his decision. He only calms down when his father assures him that he’s only joking, and then he relaxes further when Julie Karágina, a young pretty guest at the party, flirts with him. He flirts back. It’s now Sónya’s turn to be upset. She rushes from the room but only after stabbing Nicholas with an angry look communicating both her jealousy and her disregard for the potential genetic disorders arising from consanguineous union.
So all things considered it’s been a pretty good party!
If you’re someone who is easily upset and prone to frustration and anger then you definitely want to pay close attention to Nicholas Rostóv. His arc may help you learn to better manage your emotions.
As we’ll see as we progress this year, Nicholas is a young man who just can’t help himself. The smallest slight sets him off. Even, as in this chapter, when that slight is just his father messing around with him a bit. This is an unwise way to live. For, as Seneca writes, if you allow yourself to become upset at every injustice you encounter your life will be one unending torrent of vexation.
But if the wise man is to be angered by base deeds, if he is to be perturbed and saddened by crimes, surely nothing is more woeful than the wise man’s lot; his whole life will be passed in anger and in grief. For what moment will there be when he will not see something to disapprove of? Every time he leaves his house, he will have to walk among criminals and misers and spendthrifts and profligates — men who are happy in being such. Nowhere will he turn his eyes without finding something to move them to indignation. He will give out if he forces himself to be angry every time occasion requires.
Seneca, On Anger (Book II)