THE ROSTOVS' PECUNIARY POSITION had not improved during the two years they had spent in the country. Although Nikolay Rostov had kept firmly to his resolution, and was still living in a modest way in an obscure regiment, spending comparatively little, the manner of life at Otradnoe, and still more Mitenka's management of affairs, were such that debts went on unchecked, growing bigger every year. The sole resource that presented itself to the old count as the obvious thing to do was to enter the government service, and he had come to Petersburg to seek a post and at the same time, as he said, to let his poor wenches enjoy themselves for the last time.
Soon after the Rostovs' arrival in Petersburg, Berg made Vera an offer, and his offer was accepted. Although in Moscow the Rostovs belonged to the best society—themselves unaware of the fact, and never troubling themselves to consider what society they belonged to—yet in Petersburg their position was an uncertain and indefinite one. In Petersburg they were provincials; and were not visited by the very people who in Moscow had dined at the Rostovs' expense without their inquiring to what society they belonged.
The Rostovs kept open house in Petersburg, just as they used to do in Moscow; and at their suppers people of the most diverse sorts could be seen together—country neighbours, old and not well-to-do country gentlemen with their daughters, and the old maid-of-honour, Madame Peronsky, Pierre Bezuhov, and the son of their district postmaster, who was in an office in Petersburg. Of the men who were constantly at the Rostovs' house in Petersburg, the most intimate friends of the family were very soon Boris, Pierre, who had been met in the street by the old count and dragged home by him, and Berg, who spent whole days with the Rostovs, and paid the elder of the young countesses, Vera, every attention a young man can pay who intends to make a proposal.
Not in vain had Berg shown everybody his right hand that had been wounded at Austerlitz, and the sword quite unnecessarily held in his left. He had related this episode to everybody so persistently and with such an air of importance, that every one had come to believe in the utility and merit of the feat, and Berg had received two decorations for Austerlitz.
In the war in Finland, too, he had succeeded in distinguishing himself. He had picked up a fragment of a grenade, by which an adjutant had been killed close to the commander-in-chief, and had carried this fragment to his commander. Again, as after Austerlitz, he talked to every one at such length and with such persistency about this incident that people ended by believing that this, too, was something that ought to have been done, and Berg received two decorations for the Finnish war too. In 1809 he was a captain in the guards with decorations on his breast, and was filling some particularly profitable posts in Petersburg.
Though there were some sceptics who smiled when Berg's merits were mentioned before them, it could not be denied that Berg was a gallant officer, punctual in the discharge of his duties, in excellent repute with the authorities, and a conscientious young man with a brilliant career before him and a secure position, indeed, in society.
Four years before, on meeting a German comrade in the parterre of a Moscow theatre, Berg had pointed out to him Vera Rostov, and said to him in German, “That girl will be my wife.” From that moment he had made up his mind to marry her. Now in Petersburg, after duly considering the Rostovs' position and his own, he decided that the time had come and made his offer.
Berg's proposal was received at first with a hesitation by no means flattering for him. It seemed a strange idea at first that the son of an obscure Livonian gentleman should propose for the hand of a Countess Rostov. But Berg's leading characteristic was an egoism so naïve and good-natured that the Rostovs unconsciously began to think that it must be a good thing since he was himself so firmly convinced that it would be a good thing, and indeed a very good thing. The Rostovs were, moreover, seriously embarrassed in their pecuniary affairs, a fact of which the suitor could not but be aware; and what was the chief consideration, Vera was now four-and-twenty, and had been brought out everywhere; and, in spite of the fact that she was undeniably good-looking and sensible, no one had hitherto made her an offer. The offer was accepted.
“You see,” Berg said to a comrade, whom he called his friend—only because he knew all people do have friends—“you see, I have taken everything into consideration, and I should not have got married if I had not thought it well over, or if it had been unsuitable in any way. But at present my papa and mamma are well provided for, I have secured them the lease of that place in the Ostsee district, and I can live in Petersburg with my pay and her fortune and my careful habits. We can get along nicely. I'm not marrying for money, I consider that ungentlemanly, but the wife ought to bring her share and the husband his. I have my position in the service; she has connections and some small means. That's worth something nowadays, isn't it? And what's the chief consideration, she's handsome, estimable girl, and she loves me.…”
Berg blushed and smiled.
“And I love her because she has a character that is reasonable and very nice. Her sister now—though they are of the same family—is utterly different, and her character is disagreeable, and she has none of that intelligence, but something you know … I don't like. … But my betrothed … You must come and see us; come to …” Berg, went on; he was going to say “to dinner,” but on second thoughts he said “to tea,” and putting out his tongue he blew a little ring of tobacco smoke that embodied for him all his dreams of happiness.
The first feeling of hesitation aroused in the parents by Berg's proposal had been followed by the festivity and rejoicing in the family usual on such occasions, but the rejoicing was apparent and not genuine.
A certain embarrassment and shamefacedness could be detected in the feelings of the relations in regard to this marriage. It was as though their conscience smote them for not having been very fond of Vera and of being so ready now to get her off their hands. The old count was more disconcerted over it than any one. He would most likely have been unable to say what made him feel so, but his financial difficulties were at the root of the matter. He absolutely did not know what he had, how much his debts amounted to, and what he would be in a position to give for Vera's dowry. Each of his daughters had at their birth been assigned a portion, consisting of an estate with three hundred serfs on it. But one of those estates had by now been sold, and the other had been mortgaged, and the interest was so much in arrears that it would have to be sold, so that to give this estate was impossible. There was no money either.
Berg had been betrothed more than a month, and it was only a week before the date fixed for the wedding, but the count was still unable to come to a decision on the subject of the dowry, and had not spoken of it to his wife. At one time the count thought of making over the Ryazan estate to Vera, then he thought of selling his forest, then of borrowing money on a note of hand.
A few days before the wedding, Berg went early in the morning into the count's study, and with an agreeable smile, respectfully invited his father-in-law to let him know what fortune would be given with the Countess Vera. The count was so much disconcerted by this long-foreseen inquiry that, without thinking, he said the first thing that came into his head.
“I like your being businesslike about it, I like it; you will be quite satisfied…”
And clapping Berg on the shoulder, he got up, intending to cut short the conversation. But Berg, smiling blandly, announced that if he were not to know for certain what would be given with Vera, and to receive at least part of the dowry in advance, he would be obliged to break off the marriage. “Because, you must consider, count, if I were to allow myself to marry now without having a definite security for the maintenance of my wife I should be acting like a scoundrel…”
The conversation ended by the count, in his anxiety to be generous and to avoid further requests, saying that he would give him a note of hand for eighty thousand. Berg smiled gently, kissed the count on the shoulder, and said that he was very grateful, but could not make his arrangements in his new life without receiving thirty thousand in ready money. “Twenty thousand at least, count,” he added, “and then a note of hand simply for sixty thousand.”
“Yes, yes, very good,” said the count hurriedly. “Only excuse me, my dear boy, I'll give you twenty thousand and the note of hand for eighty thousand as well. That's all right, kiss me.”