WHILE HALF of Russia was conquered, and the inhabitants of Moscow were fleeing to remote provinces, and one levy of militia after another was being raised for the defence of the country, we, not living at the time, cannot help imagining that all the people in Russia, great and small alike, were engaged in doing nothing else but making sacrifices, saving their country, or weeping over its downfall. The tales and descriptions of that period without exception tell us of nothing but the self-sacrifice, the patriotism, the despair, the grief, and the heroism of the Russians. In reality, it was not at all like that. It seems so to us, because we see out of the past only the general historical interest of that period, and we do not see all the personal human interests of the men of that time. And yet in reality these personal interests of the immediate present are of so much greater importance than public interests, that they prevent the public interest from ever being felt—from being noticed at all, indeed. The majority of the people of that period took no heed of the general progress of public affairs, and were only influenced by their immediate personal interests. And those very people played the most useful part in the work of the time.
Those who were striving to grasp the general course of events, and trying by self-sacrifice and heroism to take a hand in it, were the most useless members of society; they saw everything upside down, and all that they did with the best intentions turned out to be useless folly, like Pierre's regiment, and Mamonov's, that spent their time pillaging the Russian villages, like the lint scraped by the ladies, that never reached the wounded, and so on. Even those who, being fond of talking on intellectual subjects and expressing their feelings, discussed the position of Russia, unconsciously imported into their talk a shade of hypocrisy or falsity or else of useless fault-finding and bitterness against persons, whom they blamed for what could be nobody's fault.
In historical events we see more plainly than ever the law that forbids us to taste of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It is only unselfconscious activity that bears fruit, and the man who plays a part in an historical drama never understands its significance. If he strives to comprehend it, he is stricken with barrenness
The significance of the drama taking place in Russia at that time was the less easy to grasp, the closer the share a man was taking in it. In Petersburg, and in the provinces remote from Moscow, ladies and gentlemen in volunteer uniforms bewailed the fate of Russia and the ancient capital, and talked of self-sacrifice, and so on. But in the army, which had retreated behind Moscow, men scarcely talked or thought at all about Moscow, and, gazing at the burning city, no one swore to be avenged on the French, but every one was thinking of the next quarter's pay due to him, of the next halting-place, of Matryoshka the canteen-woman, and so on.
Nikolay Rostov, without any idea of self-sacrifice, simply because the war had happened to break out before he left the service, took an immediate and continuous part in the defence of his country, and consequently he looked upon what was happening in Russia without despair or gloomy prognostications. If he had been asked what he thought of the present position of Russia, he would have said that it was not his business to think about it, that that was what Kutuzov and the rest of them were for, but that he had heard that the regiments were being filled up to their full complements, and that they must therefore be going to fight for a good time longer, and that under the present circumstances he might pretty easily obtain the command of a regiment within a couple of years.
Since this was his point of view, it was with no regret at taking no part in the approaching battle, but with the greatest satisfaction—which he did not conceal, and his comrades fully understood—that he received the news of his appointment to go to Voronezh to purchase remounts for his division.
A few days before the battle of Borodino, Nikolay received the sums of money and official warrants required, and, sending some hussars on before him, he drove with posting-horses to Voronezh.
Only one who has had the same experience—that is, has spent several months continuously in the atmosphere of an army in the field—can imagine the delight Nikolay felt when he got out of the region overspread by the troops with their foraging parties, trains of provisions, and hospitals; when he saw no more soldiers, army waggons, and filthy traces of the camp, but villages of peasants and peasant women, gentlemen's country houses, fields with grazing oxen, and station-houses and sleepy overseers, he rejoiced as though he were seeing it all for the first time. What in particular remained for a long while a wonder and a joy to him was the sight of women, young and healthy, without dozens of officers hanging about every one of them; and women, too, who were pleased and flattered at an officer's cracking jokes with them.
In the happiest frame of mind, Nikolay reached the hotel at Voronezh at night, ordered everything of which he had so long been deprived in the army, and next day, after shaving with special care and putting on the full-dress uniform he had not worn for so long past, he drove off to present himself to the authorities.
The commander of the militia of the district was a civilian general, an old gentleman, who evidently found amusement in his military duties and rank. He gave Nikolay a brusque reception (supposing that this was the military manner), and cross-examining him with an important air, as though he had a right to do so, he expressed his approval and disapproval, as though called upon to give his verdict on the management of the war. Nikolay was in such high spirits that this only amused him.
From the commander of militia, he went to the governor's. The governor was a brisk little man, very affable and unpretentious. He mentioned to Nikolay the stud-farms, where he might obtain horses, recommended him to a horse-dealer in the town, and a gentleman living twenty versts from the town, who had the best horses, and promised him every assistance.
“You are Count Ilya Andreitch's son? My wife was a great friend of your mamma's. We receive on Thursdays: to-day is Thursday, pray come in, quite without ceremony,” said the governor, as he took leave of him.
Nikolay took a posting carriage, and making his quartermaster get in beside him, galloped straight off from the governor's to the gentleman with the stud of fine horses twenty versts away.
During the early days of his stay in Voronezh, everything seemed easy and pleasant to Nikolay, and, as is always the case, when a man is himself in a happy frame of mind, everything went well and prospered with him.
The country gentleman turned out to be an old cavalry officer, a bachelor, a great horse-fancier, a sportsman, and the owner of a smoking-room, of hundred-year-old herb-brandy, of some old Hungarian wine, and of superb horses.
In a couple of words, Nikolay had bought for six thousand roubles seventeen stallions, all perfect examples of their several breeds (as he said), as show specimens of his remounts. After dining and drinking a glass or so too much of the Hungarian wine, Rostov, exchanging kisses with the country gentleman, with whom he was already on the friendliest terms, galloped back over the most atrociously bad road in the happiest frame of mind, continually urging the driver on, so that he might be in time for the soirée at the governor's.
After dressing, scenting himself, and douching his head with cold water, Nikolay made his appearance at the governor's, a little late, but with the phrase, “Better late than never,” ready on the tip of his tongue.
It was not a ball, and nothing had been said about dancing; but every one knew that Katerina Petrovna would play waltzes and écossaises on the clavichord, and that there would be dancing, and every one reckoning on it, had come dressed for a ball.
Provincial life in the year 1812 went on exactly the same as always, the only difference being that the provincial towns were livelier owing to the presence of many wealthy families from Moscow, that, as in everything going on at that time in Russia, there was perceptible in the gaiety a certain devil-may-care, desperate recklessness, and also that the small talk indispensable between people was now not about the weather and common acquaintances, but about Moscow and the army and Napoleon.
The gathering at the governor's consisted of the best society in Voronezh.
There were a great many ladies, among them several Moscow acquaintances of Nikolay's; but among the men there was no one who could be compared with the cavalier of St. George, the gallant hussar, the good-natured, well-bred Count Rostov. Among the men there was an Italian prisoner—an officer of the French army; and Nikolay felt that the presence of this prisoner gave an added lustre to him—the Russian hero. He was, as it were, a trophy of victory. Nikolay felt this, and it seemed to him as though every one looked at the Italian in the same light, and he treated the foreign officer with gracious dignity and reserve.
As soon as Nikolay came in in his full-dress uniform of an officer of hussars, diffusing a fragrance of scent and wine about him, and said himself and heard several times said to him, the words, “Better late than never,” people clustered round him. All eyes were turned on him, and he felt at once that he had stepped into a position that just suited him in a provincial town—a position always agreeable, but now after his long privation of such gratifications, intoxicatingly delightful—that of a universal favourite. Not only at the posting-stations, at the taverns, and in the smoking-room of the horse-breeding gentleman, had he found servant-girls flattered by his attention, but here, at the governor's assembly, there were (so it seemed to Nikolay) an inexhaustible multitude of young married ladies and pretty girls, who were only waiting with impatience for him to notice them. The ladies and the young girls flirted with him, and the old people began even from this first evening bestirring themselves to try and get this gallant young rake of an hussar married and settled down. Among the latter was the governor's wife herself, who received Rostov as though he were a near kinsman, and called him “Nikolay.”
Katerina Petrovna did in fact proceed to play waltzes and écossaises, and dancing began, in which Nikolay fascinated the company more than ever by his elegance. He surprised every one indeed by his peculiarly free and easy style in dancing. Nikolay was a little surprised himself at his own style of dancing at that soirée. He had never danced in that manner at Moscow, and would indeed have regarded such an extremely free and easy manner of dancing as not correct, as bad style; but here he felt it incumbent on him to astonish them all by something extraordinary, something that they would be sure to take for the usual thing in the capital, though new to them in the provinces.
All the evening Nikolay paid the most marked attention to a blue-eyed, plump, and pleasing little blonde, the wife of one of the provincial officials. With the naïve conviction of young men who are enjoying themselves, that other men's wives are created for their special benefit, Rostov never left this lady's side, and treated her husband in a friendly way, almost as though there were a private understanding between them, as though they knew without speaking of it how capitally they, that is, how Nikolay and the wife, would get on. The husband did not, however, appear to share this conviction, and tried to take a gloomy tone with Rostov. But Nikolay's good-humoured naïveté was so limitless that at times the husband could not help being drawn into his gay humour. Towards the end of the evening, however, as the wife's face grew more flushed and animated, the husband's grew steadily more melancholy and stolid, as though they had a given allowance of liveliness between them, and as the wife's increased, the husband's dwindled.