Chapter 15

COUNTESS ROSTOV, with her daughters and the greater number of the guests, was sitting in the drawing- room. The count led the gentlemen of the party to his room, calling their attention to his connoisseur’s collection of Turkish pipes. Now and then he went out and inquired, had she come yet? They were waiting for Marya Dmitryevna Ahrosimov, known in society as le terrible dragon, a lady who owed her renown not to her wealth or her rank, but to her mental directness and her open, unconventional behaviour. Marya Dmitryevna was known to the imperial family; she was known to all Moscow and all Petersburg, and both cities, while they marvelled at her, laughed in their sleeves at her rudeness, and told good stories about her, nevertheless, all without exception respected and feared her.

In the count’s room, full of smoke, there was talk of the war, which had been declared in a manifesto, and of the levies of troops. The manifesto no one had yet read, but every one knew of its appearance. The count was sitting on an ottoman with a man smoking and talking on each side of him. The count himself was neither smoking nor talking, but, with his head cocked first on one side and then on the other, gazed with evident satisfaction at the smokers, and listened to the argument he had got up between his two neighbours.

One of these two was a civilian with a thin, wrinkled, bilious, close-shaven face, a man past middle age, though dressed like the most fashionable young man. He sat with his leg up on the ottoman, as though he were at home, and with the amber mouthpiece in the side of his mouth, he smoked spasmodically, puckering up his face. This was an old bachelor, Shinshin, a cousin of the countess’s, famed in Moscow drawing-rooms for his biting wit. He seemed supercilious in his manner to his companion, a fresh, rosy officer of the Guards, irreproachably washed and brushed and buttoned. He held his pipe in the middle of his mouth, and drawing in a little smoke, sent it coiling in rings out of his fine red lips. He was Lieutenant Berg, an officer in the Semenovsky regiment with whom Boris was to go away, and about whom Natasha had taunted Vera, calling Berg her suitor. The count sat between these two listening intently to them. The count’s favourite entertainment, next to playing boston, of which he was very fond, was that of listening to conversation, especially when he had succeeded in getting up a dispute between two talkative friends.

“Come, how is it, mon très honorable Alphonse Karlitch,” said Shinshin, chuckling, and using a combination of the most popular Russian colloquialisms and the most recherchès French expressions, which constituted the peculiarity of his phraseology. “You reckon you’ll get an income from the government, and you want to get a little something from your company too?”

“No, Pyotr Nikolaitch, I only want to show that in the cavalry the advantages are few as compared with the infantry. Consider my position now, for instance, Pyotr Nikolaitch.” Berg talked very precisely, serenely, and politely. All he said was always concerning himself. He always maintained a serene silence when any subject was discussed that had no direct bearing on himself. And he could be silent in that way for several hours at a time, neither experiencing nor causing in others the slightest embarrassment. But as soon as the conversation concerned him personally, he began to talk at length and with visible satisfaction.

“Consider my position, Pyotr Nikolaitch: if I were in the cavalry, I should get no more than two hundred roubles every four months, even at the rank of lieutenant, while as it is I get two hundred and thirty,” he explained with a beaming, friendly smile, looking at Shinshin and the count as though he had no doubt that his success would always be the chief goal of all other people’s wishes. “Besides that, Pyotr Nikolaitch, exchanging into the Guards, I’m so much nearer the front,” pursued Berg, “and vacancies occur so much more frequently in the infantry guards. Then you can fancy how well I can manage on two hundred and thirty roubles. Why, I’m putting by and sending some off to my father too,” he pursued, letting off a ring of smoke.

“There is a balance. A German will thrash wheat out of the head of an axe, as the Russian proverb has it,” said Shinshin, shifting his pipe to the other side of his mouth and winking to the count.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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