A Gentleman in Moscow
- Amor Towles
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But once the tea was poured and the tea cakes on the table, Nina adopted a more serious expression—intimating the time had come to speak of weightier concerns. Some might have found this transition a little abrupt or out of keeping with the hour, but not the Count. Quite to the contrary, he thought a prompt dispensing of pleasantries and a quick shift to the business at hand utterly in keeping with the etiquette of tea—perhaps even essential to the institution.
Suffice it to say that when Nina’s tone shifted, the Count was ready. Resting his forearms on his thighs and leaning forward at an angle of seventy degrees, he adopted an expression that was serious yet neutral, so that in an instant he could convey his sympathy, concern, or shared indignation as the circumstances required.
Alongside the stacks of Sèvres plates bearing the hotel’s insignia were samovars that stood two feet tall and soup tureens that looked like the goblets of the gods. There were coffeepots and gravy boats. There was an assortment of utensils, each of which had been designed with the greatest care to serve a single culinary purpose. From among them, Nina picked up what looked like a delicate spade with a plunger and an ivory handle. Depressing the lever, Nina watched as the two opposing blades opened and shut, then she looked to the Count in wonder. “An asparagus server,” he explained. “Does a banquet really need an asparagus server?” “Does an orchestra need a bassoon?”
In the first fifteen minutes, six different administrative matters were raised and dispensed with in quick succession—leading one to imagine that this particular Assembly might actually be concluded before one’s back gave out. But next on the docket was a subject that proved more contentious. It was a proposal to amend the Union’s charter—or more precisely, the seventh sentence of the second paragraph, which the Secretary now read in full. Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence—one that was on intimate terms with the comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.
And as she talked, the Count had to acknowledge once again the virtues of withholding judgment. After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.
As a young man, the Count had prided himself on being one step ahead. The timely appearance, the apt expression, the anticipation of a need, to the Count these had been the very hallmarks of the well-bred man. But under the circumstances, he discovered that being a step behind had merits of its own. For one, it was so much more relaxing. To be a step ahead in matters of romance requires constant vigilance. If one hopes to make a successful advance, one must be mindful of every utterance, attend to every gesture, and take note of every look. In other words, to be a step ahead in romance is exhausting. But to be a step behind? To be seduced? Why, that was a matter of leaning back in one’s chair, sipping one’s wine, and responding to a query with the very first thought that has popped into one’s head.
The Count took another look at the sheet in his hands with a heightened sense of respect. After all, an educated man should admire any course of study no matter how arcane, if it be pursued with curiosity and devotion.
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov stirred at half past eight to the sound of rain on the eaves. With a half-opened eye, he pulled back his covers and climbed from bed. He donned his robe and slipped on his slippers. He took up the tin from the bureau, spooned a spoonful of beans into the Apparatus, and began to crank the crank. Even as he turned the little handle round and round, the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep. As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain. But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists—the aroma of freshly ground coffee.
Licking the thread and closing an eye (just as Marina had taught him), the Count threaded the needle faster than saints enter the gates of heaven. Forming a double loop, tying off a knot, and snipping the thread from the spool, the Count sat upright and set about his work as Marina set about hers (the repair of a pillowcase). As with any sewing circle since the beginning of time, the two in this one were accustomed to sharing observations from their day as they stitched. Most of these observations were met with a Hmm, or an Is that so? without a break in the rhythm of the work; but occasionally, some item that warranted greater attention would bring the stitching to a stop.
Popular wisdom tells us that when the reel of our concerns interferes with our ability to fall asleep, the best remedy is the counting of sheep in a meadow. But preferring to have his lamb encrusted with herbs and served with a red wine reduction, the Count chose a different methodology altogether.
On one level he was astonished by the revelation that Sofia could play the piano at all; on another, that she tackled the primary and subordinate melodies with such skill. But what was truly astonishing was the sensitivity of her musical expression. One could spend a lifetime mastering the technical aspects of the piano and never achieve a state of musical expression—that alchemy by which the performer not only comprehends the sentiments of the composer, but somehow communicates them to her audience through the manner of her play.
Some might wonder that the two men should consider themselves to be old friends having only known each other for four years; but the tenure of friendships has never been governed by the passage of time.
Surely, the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all human interaction. What young lovers have not found themselves at this juncture in a silence so sudden, so seemingly insurmountable that it threatens to cast doubt upon their chemistry as a couple? What husband and wife have not found themselves suddenly unnerved by the fear that they might not ever have something urgent, impassioned, or surprising to say to each other again? So it is with good reason that most of us meet this dangerous interstice with a sense of foreboding.