Title: Speak Not Of Love
Fandom: War and Peace
Characters/Pairings: Dolokhov/Helene; Anatole, Pierre, Hippolyte, Vasili, Galina Dolokhov
Rating: R (for like one sex scene)
Word Count: ~20k
Summary: When she is 16 years old, the beautiful and socially successful Princess Kuragin falls in love with an officer of little means and no connections. So starts an affair which will span years, marked by repressed passion, unspoken words of love and a constant impossibility of being together.
Notes: Written for het_bigbang. red_b_rackham has made gorgeous art for this story, which you can find here.
The mirror of Princess Helene Kuragin’s dressing room showed a fine portrait of a young society maiden about to come out at her first real ball. A girl of sixteen going on seventeen with silky curls folded up into a fashionable hairstyle, small gloved hands, a prominent breast laced up into a corset and a long off-white gown which accentuated her hips and brought out the color of her hair, lips and crystal-grey eyes.
The girl gave herself a calm, charming smile and tried to settle her nerves. She had been preparing for this moment for years. The parties that she had been to before were all very private, but this was the first time that she would be at a true ball, the sort of high society event which would define her life from this night. She tried to picture the older noblemen, their gossipy wives, the other marriageable girls and, of course, the young men. Like most girls her age, Helene saw before her an officer when she thought of the latter category, but her more sensible side was telling her that she may have to catch the eye of a plain civilian if he were a good match.
The one advantage Helene felt she had over her age mates was that she did not get quite as caught up in romantic fantasies very often and she considered herself quite practical. Her self-control was always monitored by her French governess and she was certain that she could take both a victory and a defeat with the same expression.
Nonetheless, she was sixteen and this was her first ball.
“Helene, are you almost ready?” The girl turned as her father’s voice came floating up to her room from somewhere in the vicinity of the grand staircase. Helene grabbed her fan, smoothed the folds of her dress and went to the door. She opened it with a nervous jerk, only to find her elder brother standing there.
“Ah, finally, Papa sent me to fetch you,” Prince Hippolyte intoned without much interest. He looked over her, squinting slightly for his eyesight had always been bad but he refused to wear glasses. “You look lovely, Helene. My baby sister is all grown up.”
Helene gave him a scornful look. “I’m hardly your baby sister, seeing as there are merely three years between us. If you chose to act like an old man at nineteen, Hippolyte, that is your problem.” She smirked familiarly at him and gave his arm a small whack with her fan.
Hippolyte shrugged and offered her his arm. Helene took it and lifted her chin, practicing for the promenade without even meaning to. Sequences of dance steps replayed themselves in her head and she smiled inwardly to herself when she could recall all that had been taught her by her dance master. At the top of the stairs, she smiled, in the same practiced manner she had in her own room before the mirror and allowed Hippolyte to lead her down. Below, her father, mother and younger brother were waiting.
Vasili Kuragin looked up and smiled at his daughter. “Ah ma charmante, Helene! See now, Hippolyte, why can you not dress sensibly like your sister?”
“I do not understand, Father. This color is very fashionable right now.” Hippolyte looked uncertainly down at his cream britches and dark green frockcoat. Helene caught Anatole’s eye and smiled slightly; her brother grinned childishly in return. Hippolyte let go of her arm and looked between his two siblings uncertainly. “Well, if there is an issue, I cold always change, but—“
“No, no, we can’t be any more late than we already are,” Vasili said resignedly, waving his hand at his elder son. “Your clothes will have to do.”
“It’s not like Hippolyte has anything more normal to wear,” Anatole piped up.
“Anatole, behave yourself,” Aline Kuragin put in, giving the boy’s shoulder a sharp squeeze. “You have been disobedient all evening. Enough already or I will have to tell your tutor to punish you.”
Anatole pouted. “But you will not let me go to the ball. Why can’t I go, Mama? I dance as well as Helene.”
“Because you are not old enough. Anatole, this is final,” Vasili put in sharply. “In three years I will consider it.”
“Three years, that’s forever!” Anatole made a dramatic gesture and sank back into childish pouting.
“Don’t worry, Toto. I’ll tell you all about it!” Helene promised happily, ruffling Anatole’s hair affectionately. Despite their difference in age, Helene had always been far closer to Anatole than to Hippolyte. He leveled her out somehow. His impulsiveness contrasted with her conservative caution. Helene cared little for the social norms themselves but she cared that people think that she cared about them. Anatole, however, did not care and did not wish to pretend like he did.
Anatole followed the rest of the family out onto the porch and watched as they got into the carriage. Helene felt her nerves spike and suddenly wished that Anatole was coming with them so that they could giggle together on the way there, sharing little jokes and stories as they had done as children whenever there was a tense situation. She looked out the window of the carriage and waved, clutching at her fan with the other hand.
Anatole waved back and shouted his goodbyes as they drove off, bouncing on the balls of his feet. When the carriage turned the corner and Helene could no longer see him, she sat straight and focused her eyes ahead, resigning herself to listening to her father’s lecture on how she should behave herself – even though the rules of etiquette were well known to her – and who, among the guests, was the most interesting and important persons.
The carriage ride seemed to last for ages.
The double doors to the grand ballroom opened to reveal a spectacular chamber lit by hundreds of candles. The large chandeliers glittered spectacularly in the bright light. Helene tried to not look around with too much awe as they entered the ballroom, her parents in front and she on Hippolyte’s arm behind them. The lively music resonated within her and she instantly felt like dancing.
They approached the host and hostess and Helene, automatically, on habit, sank into a brief, respectful curtsey. She gave a calm smile, which betrayed none of her internal agitation. There were some more introductions which went by in a haze. Finally, her father offered her a glass of champaign off the tray of a passing waiter and said, “Go on, my dear. Find your friends and dance.” He touched her cheek with encouraging fondness.
“Yes, Father.” She turned and headed for the opposite side of the room. Helene lifted the flute to her lips and drank in hopes that the alcohol would go to her head just a little and her nerves would calm. On the opposite side of the ballroom gathered several small clusters of young maidens. Helene knew some of them, although she would not call them her friends. For whatever reason, girls did not care much for her and she did not care too much for their company either. There was something in the romantic babblings of most girls of marriageable age which made Helene wish she could roll her eyes without looking indecent.
Helene joined the first group of girls she came across. Among them were Annette Rzhevsky, Princess Anastasia Hovansky, Countess Alexandra Zakrevsky and Maria Rokotov. Annette was a petite girl of nineteen. Her pale blue dress brought out her blue eyes tastefully and everything about her face was fresh and dainty, except for her nose which was just a little too large for her face. She lacked a titled but her dowry was rumored to be quite significant, therefore her dance card was already half full. She was a romantic girl, like most, but Helene sensed that she at least had enough sense to hold these sentiments for suitable men.
Anastasia, was a fair-haired and pink faced young woman of twenty. She was fiddling nervously with her fan, as she usually did at any social event. She had been out in society for three years now and yet very few suitors had asked for her hand, of which she had only seriously considered one and her parents none. There was nothing exactly revolting about the girl, but Helene, who had a manner of learning from other’s imperfections and mistakes, could instinctively tell that she lacked a certain female grace and her clumsiness was well known. Perhaps this was the effect of trying to emulate her two elder brothers, yet Helene doubted that Anastasia would be more successful with a saber than she was with a fan.
Alexandra was far too tall for a girl as she was taller than at least half the young men Helene knew. Aside from her astounding height, the countess was quite lovely. Her delicate features, full, kissable lips and smooth skin made her face one of the most attractive in the room. She wore her auburn hair in a simple yet elegant bun with large flowered clips. Helene did not feel intimidated by her, yet she was very well aware that Alexandra was competition, even if only for the taller half of the male population. She was mild in manner and light in step when she danced and her rather impressive breast and wide hops – not to mention the sizeable dowry – made her a very desirable dance partner. At seventeen, she still had plenty of time to secure a husband.
Maria Rokotov Helene was not very familiar with. She did notice, however, that the girl was extremely beautiful. Dark haired with eyes as dark as coal, there was almost something wild in her features, if only it wasn’t for her perfectly smooth, pale skin without a single freckle on it. Despite her petite frame she was very shapely with a tiny waste, wide hips and a supple breast. Her dress was plane, obviously not very expensive, but its bright crimson brought out both the lush darkness of her hair and the fairness of her skin. Helene, trying to remember what she might have heard of the girl or her family, gathered that she was probably not very well dowered and therefore had mostly her reputation and charms to rely on. In the end, that was the most important capital to have, Helene figured, and decided that it would do to be cautious of this girl.
“I think the champaign is great,” Anastasia said liltingly, fanning herself quickly. It was a little stuffy in the room from all the people and the warm night outside, but Helene preferred a more languid pace to fanning herself as it seemed more feminine and reserved to her.
“Oh what of the drinks? The music is more important at a ball,” Annette put in. “I cannot wait for the Mazurkas. Prince Kuragin has asked me and I think he is a very good dancer.”
“My brother does dance better than he speaks, I will give him that,” Helene put in. “When did he ask?”
“Oh just earlier today. He sent a note. Your brother is very gallant, Helene, you should not judge him so.” Annette gave her a reproachful look.
My brother is an idiot and I feel sorry for you if he is the best you can do, Helene wanted to say. Instead she merely fanned herself and smiled calmly.
“Now ladies, I think we can all agree, that the men are the most important in this affair, as without them, we would be forced to dance with each other,” Maria added in a tone such that Helene could not quite be certain if she was speaking in jest or seriously. Maria flushed just slightly, very prettily, yet Helene could see through this façade of an innocent maiden. Maria was a lot better versed in the practicality of flirtation than she let on.
The other girls tittered at the suggestion that they could possibly be forced to dance with each other. “Don’t talk nonsense,” Alexandra said mildly. “Look instead over there. Doesn’t Dmitri Gregorievitch have the best taste in dress? I could swear that is the latest Paris tailing. What would you say ladies?”
I think Dmitri Gregorievitch is a pompous, boring ass, Helene thought, but said instead, “I believe so. Although the tailcoat is a dreadful color on him. Dark crimson does not go well with the red hair, don’t you find?”
The other girls voiced disagreement, except for Maria who said plainly, “Oh yes, perhaps. Black would look much better. But it is nothing compared to the dress of Countess Legovsky, just look. Although she is a very sweet old lady.”
The discussion of others took its usual course, in which Helene held her tongue yet did voice pointed disapproval when she felt she could get away with it. Yet, even this reserved decent earned her cries of “Oh! Helene, you are so sharp tongued!” and “Oh, our Helene is hard to please!” And yet they all seemed to look at her, waiting for her opinion and judgment. When Countess Zakrevsky approached them to speak to her daughter, Alexandra exclaimed, “Mama! You know Helene Kuragin. She is so charming.” Helene spoke with the older woman with the sort of studied reverence expected of her and the Countess seemed to leave very satisfied with her. Helene watched as the older woman approached her friends and soon the old crones were looking over in their direction and Helene, with much satisfaction, understood that they were talking about her.
Even Maria Rokotov seemed to defer to her while disregarding the opinions of the other ladies in favor of her own. The girl walked the line between interesting and too-outspoken very well and this irritated Helene. So when she finally got invited to dance before Maria, Helene had to admit to herself that she felt a sort of spiteful triumph.
By the time the mazurka began, Helene’s nerves had settled. She could tell that she was making a good impression. Firstly, because her father was looking over at her with a very satisfied expression, that sort of prideful glint in his eyes which he got whenever a social victory fell his way. Secondly, the girls who had first received Helene with such animated friendliness were now watching her suspiciously over their fans. She could almost hear their condescending, judgmental whispers. It did not bother her much. Let them think what they would, it were the men and the older women who held any sort of importance and with those her night was an obvious success. The old crones had pronounced her charming and the men were quickly filling up her dance card.
Helene took a glass from a passing waiter. The champagne stung her lips and tongue and she breathed in slowly, unfolding her off-white fan and using it to cover the lower part of her face as she watched a group of young officers from across the room. Annette Rzhevsky and the two young countesses Svetlov – the red-head twins – joined her and began a lively discussion of the young men. Helene barely heard them, her entire attention on the young men across the floor.
They were officers, mostly of lower ranks, not much older than her. One of them, a warrant officer she would say by the uniform, looked vaguely familiar. Probably one of Anatole’s friends who would come to the house only to disappear with her brother to the playroom or to the garden. He must have felt her gaze for he turned and looked straight at her. Suddenly, she was plunged into a pair of ice blue eyes, cool and sharp yet dancing and amused at the same time. The young officer held her gaze and she suddenly began to feel uncomfortable as he continued to observe her, openly, without much reservation or respect.
Helene suddenly became very aware of herself: her breasts, the low-sitting corset of her off-white gown, her silken gloves and how their fabric slid over her skin, the somewhat-loose pair of pins in her hair which were allowing a couple of her redish-blonde locks to fall low on her forehead. Irritated, frightened that the heat in her cheeks may be from blushing and not dancing or drinking, she snapped her fan shut and looked away from the insolent officer. He unnerved her – no one had ever looked at her that way.
“Oh, Helene he’s looking at you!” one of the twins chirped breathily.
“Who exactly?” she asked, even though she already knew. She could feel that gaze on her, making her skin prickle.
“The officer, that handsome one. Does anyone know his name?”
“He’s coming this way!” Annette whispered, quickly unfolding her fan so that she could hide behind it.
Helene pursed her lips, composed her features and turned slowly. There he was, making his way across the floor, weaving through dancing couples to reach her. She had a few moments to get a good look at him. Definitely handsome with those blue eyes and unruly, light-brown curls. She could almost see herself reaching out and touching them, running her hand through them. It was a silly thought but the boy was magnetic. He was around her age, perhaps slightly older, with a poised, confident stride –maybe a bit too confident – and what looked like a permanent smirk playing around the corners of his mouth.
The officer stopped right before her and gave a short, crisp bow. “Theodore Dolokhov, warrant officer with the Semenov regiment, if you’ll allow an acquaintance.”
Helene looked at him as levelly as she could without giving away some of her bewilderment. He spoke Russian instead of French which was most irregular and he was introducing himself and not even attempting to take her hand. Nevertheless, practicing that perfect composure her governess and father always went on about, Helene curtsied and offered her hand with a reproachful look. “Princess Helene Kuragin.”
Dolokhov’s smile broadened and he kissed her hand. “Anatole’s sister, then. I was correct.”
She gave him her most scornful look, taking her hand back. “Surely you could have found a mutual acquaintance for introductions.”
Her answer was an insolent smirk. “Perhaps. Does the fact that I did not offend you?”
She should have said yes, but instead, setting her finished glass aside, she looked him straight in the eyes and said, “No.” This was a game that two could play and it would, possibly, be the most fun she was to have all night.
“Good. I would have been greatly disappointed otherwise,” Dolokhov informed her nonchalantly. “A mazurka, Princess?”
“I’m sorry. All of mine are taken.” It was true; her card for that round was full.
“Then why are you not dancing?” Dolokhov asked pointedly.
This was unfair, Helene thought. He should not have been allowed to speak so freely to her. Who was he anyway? She did not know of a Dolokhov family. Although, thinking about it, Anatole may have mentioned someone by that name but certainly they could not be anyone of significance if Papa had never spoken to her of them. Yet, Dolokhov was right, as irritating as it was. Her partner was quite late. She unfolded her fan instead of an answer.
“A dance then? No man should get away with leaving a lovely woman waiting.” Dolokhov, persistently, offered her his hand.
Helene looked at it for a moment as though it was something unusual and foreign to her…then took it.
Dolokhov carried her off in a wild whirlwind of the mazurka. He danced strangely, not following all the figures but making up for it with interpretive moves which were surprisingly easy to follow. He simply took her where he wanted her to go and Helene felt unusually free in his arms. She did not know why he could not complete a figure set sometimes, as though he forgot or did not know all the steps. But he danced and she danced and it was one of the most exciting rounds of the evening.
When they came off the floor, he asked her for the waltz and she promised him all of them. He asked for the quadrilles as well but she had already given those away and her partners showed up promptly to claim her. When they did not dance, she found Dolokhov to be highly entertaining. They spoke of Anatole first, as a common ground, but then progressed to speaking of their favorite books and plays. She found out he was from Moscow and had come to the capital to serve in the army. His officer stories were highly entertaining and even shocking at times. Dolokhov seemed to straddle that fine line between fascinatingly scandalous and uncouth with the sort of grace and ease that was fascinating and frightening.
When they waltzed, Helene felt herself floating away as the candles blurred around her. Before this, everything in the ballroom had been in perfect, sharp focus. But the music, the sway and Dolokhov’s warm hand at the small of her back made her head swim into a girlish delirium which she had thought she would never be capable of feeling.
At the end of the night, he handed her up into the carriage under her father’s suspicious glare and said, suddenly in French, “Ce fut un plaisir faire votre connaissance.” He kissed her hand and his eyes shown with a happy, confident spark in the early morning light. Helene watched him from the window of the carriage as the horses began their trot. She had a bad feeling that she would not soon forget that face, that voice, low against her ear, and those warm hands at her waist.
Helene undressed slowly, almost carefully, allowing her hands to linger over the folds of her dress, not bothering to hurry the maid. She undid the hairpins herself, watching her reflection in the mirror. Her face was still flushed and she tried to think over the night with a cool rationality and composure, the things she had always prided herself on. But just as her nerves had gotten the better of her before the ball, her excitement was getting the better of her after. She sat down gingerly and watched the mirror as the maid brushed her hair. Her silky dressing gown was light and the cool night air drifting through the window made her shiver slightly, but it also felt nice over her flushed skin.
Helene tried to imagine the faces of the other women and men, calculate who had had more success than her, who less, whom had she managed to impress the most and whom the least. Later, she would feel all of this far more instinctively, with all the weight of experience behind her. But at the moment she was still far too new to this game.
Yet all she could think off was Officer Dolokhov and the way he had said her name, not quite with Russian pronunciation, not quite with French. He was an interesting mixture of everything, that Monsieur Dolokhov, and Helene could not seem to get him or his face out of her head. He spoke freely to her and seemed to not care if she spoke freely to him. It was unthinkable but he made her laugh far more gaily than she would have liked. Yet…she would like to see him again.
A soft, yet insistent knock on the door drew Helene out of her thoughts. She looked up and bit her lip. “You may go,” she threw to the maid and waited until the girl had left the room before running to the door and opening it slightly.
The small, lithe form of her younger brother slipped into the room like a shadow and proceed to the window. Anatole hopped up onto the wide windowsill and swung his legs. “Tell me everything!”
Helene considered him for a moment, then, allowing herself some freedom, skipped girlishly up to the window and sat down beside him. “Oh, Toto it was quite lovely,” she said in a hushed tone. “You should have been there to see all the candles and the dresses and officers in parade uniform! And the band was wonderful. I do enjoy a good band to dance to.”
“Did you dance plenty?” Anatole watched her with an excitement he always showed for all things social, especially relating to dancing.
“Yes. I think I made quite an impression.” Helene grinned happily at him. “I think Papa was very happy with me.” She continued to tell him of the girls she had spoken to and how intolerable most of them were, making fun of the manner in which some of them hid behind their fans or put themselves forward gracelessly, or the simpering way in which others spoke, especially to the men. Anatole giggled, pulled his feat up onto the windowsill and buried his face in them. “I wish I had been there,” he told her, face still hidden from sight. “It must have been lots of fun.” He looked up and considered her carefully for several moments.
“You didn’t tell me of anyone you danced with.”
Helene gave him a weary look. “Must I truly list off every man I danced with? It would take all night,” she teased, giving his shoulder a light slap.
“No, just the more interesting ones,” Anatole prompted, making himself more comfortable on the windowsill. “And hurry up, if my tutor catches me out of bed, I’ll be toast.”
Helene giggled and proceeded to list her conquests. “There was this stately General – Lobinsky. He was rather old but not too bad of a dancer for his age. He had very gallant army stories to tell. There was Prince Andrei Ivanovitch, you know, Papa’s friend. He was very kind and gallant, but not that good of a dancer. Solnikov was entertaining, actually, I was surprised. Oh, and the English ambassador, him too. You know, he is quite attractive for his age, I had always imagined him far stiffer in manner.”
“Oh forget about them, they’re all old,” Anatole drew out, rolling his eyes to emphasize his frustration. “I want to know about the suitors, the officers! You did dance with some of them, didn’t you?”
Helene had avoided speaking of the more attractive young men, mainly because then she lost track and began thinking about Theodore Dolokhov again. This would be no good at all, she didn’t even know when she would meet him again and he was hardly a good match for her. It wasn’t even that Helene longed to get married, in fact she thought she would, if it were up to her, remain unmarried forever, but the more dutiful part of her, the part that Vasili Kuragin had raised, instructed her that some husband would have to be procured eventually and it would suite her well to choose wisely in that regard. “Alright, well Count Polievsky, Major Shishkin – yes, he counts, he’s not even thirty yet—“
“Thirty! Thirty is old!”
“Hush. He is twenty-seven if I remember correctly.” Helene grinned impishly at him and Anatole rolled his eyes and lolled his head against the widow. “Luzhanin, Domsky, Repnin—“
“Anyone you liked in particular?” Helene paused for just long enough for Anatole to catch on. “Oh you did! Who? Was it Polievsky? Theodore told me about him, he’s very funny but also a prude.”
Helene flushed. Theodore? As in Theodore Dolokhov? Now that she thought about it, Anatole mentioned a Theodore quite a lot but she had never put much stake in her brother’s little friends, as most of them were younger than she. “Oh.”
“No, tell me.”
Helene bit her lip. “Your friend Dolokhov and I danced quite a lot.”
Anatole instantly sat up and grabbed her hand, eyes sparking with an amused mischief, an expression Helene knew meant trouble. “I had a feeling the two of you would get along splendidly! Did you—“
“—like him? Was he nice to you?—“
“—What did you think of him?”
Helene pursed her lips. “I thought he was outrageously rude.”
Anatole’s expression fell. He opened and closed his mouth several times, completely unsure of what to say.
“But also very entertaining.”
Helene watched her baby brother instantly brighten. “You’re impossible!” he cried out, nudging her shoulder with a bit more force that she had expected.
“Hush, someone will hear us!”
“I’m glad you did like him,” Anatole continued in an excited half-whisper. “I wouldn’t want you and my best friend to not get along. He is my best friend, you know. We do not see as much of each other, because he is so much older and everything, but Theodore is by far my best friend. He’s very loyal, you know?”
Helene nodded, mulling everything over. She could still vividly remember Dolokhov’s eyes and the amused way he looked at her, not like he disliked her or even disrespected but, but without putting her on any sort of pedestal the way other men did. At first it had been irritating, but later she found it much easier to simply carry a conversation, without feeling like he was expecting her to be something she was not.
“Remember the time I fell off my horse and we had all feared I’d broken my leg?” Anatole continued, oblivious to her thoughtfulness. “It was Theodore who had carried me back to the house. Don’t you remember? I know it was years ago, you probably don’t remember and didn’t recognize him. They used to be our neighbors. At the Moscow estate.”
Some vague memory from several years ago floated back to Helene. She remembered the incident with Anatole’s unfortunate horse ride and that a neighbor’s boy had brought him home. She had been too worried about her brother to really notice, but now that she thought about it, a Dolokhov family had lived next to them. She had only been ten or eleven back then and had little interest in neighbors and especially neighbors’ boys. “Why did they move? Did they sell their estate?”
“Right, I forgot. You were in Paris when it all happened.”
“When what happened?”
“Theodore’s father was killed in a duel. He was just barely thirteen then. His father was killed and the family didn’t have too much debt but there was some and then there was the general…how would you say?...loss of income. So they had to sell the estate. The money was enough to cover the remaining debts and to live on for some time, but it’s not very easy for them. Theodore is their main support right now.” Anatole flushed. “Don’t mention any of this to him ever, or even that I told you. Teddy wouldn’t be happy.”
Helene considered all of this. So Dolokhov was of little means, even if he did not act like it. This was disappointing. Her father did not like her to keep the company of men not of their social status. Anatole, of course, was childishly oblivious to all this.
“I could ask him what he thought of you, if you’d like.”
“No, don’t do that!” Helene protested immediately, grabbing Anatole’s hand. “Don’t tell him anything, don’t ask him anything. He must not know that we talked. He would think I like him more than I do. I don’t want to give him reason…”
Anatole furrowed his brows in confusion. “I don’t understand. I thought you do like him?”
Helene sighed. “Just not a word.”
“You should go to bed, Anatole.” Helene slid off the windowsill and took him by the hand. Anatole allowed her to lead him to the door. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.” He still looked confused when he left and Helene felt that confusion within herself. She had met handsome men before, men she had to admit she desire. But she did not want to desire Dolokhov and, while she desperately wanted him to desire her, there was a danger in that. A danger that his persistence would break whatever resistance she had. She paced to the window and stood there for some time before going to bed, watching as the sky lit up slowly on the horizon, the turquoise stripe widening and expanding, opening up for a new day to reclaim the world.
Helene dreamed of ball gowns, officers’ uniforms and hundreds of candles that night, only to wake up late and think, I wonder if he thought about me all last night.
The Livanov soirée found Helene in a wonderful mood. She felt lovely in her new green dress with its sheer sleeves and elegant lacing. The white ribbon in her curls took forever to wind but now it glittered in the candlelight, adding an extra sparkle to her toilet. She was successful with the rouge that day and she did not need to worry that it looked unnaturally bright or was barely visible. She felt herself to be the picture of perfection. The weather was breaking now, worsening into cold winds and frost bitten nights, taking over everyone’s consciousness unnoticeably, like a shadow or a ghost. There was something ominous in the coming winter, although Helene had always liked the glare of fresh snow and the way the icicles on the roofs sparkled and glinted. She enjoyed free slay rides, although not so much the freezing wind which blew in her face, but the refreshing winter air had a rejuvenating feeling before. Now, the night simply seemed to lengthen and the hours drag more slowly. Helene was not certain what made her brood as of late – it was nothing in particular she brooded about – yet she could neither enjoy her free hours nor concentrate properly on her lessons. Perhaps this was merely an effect of the snow still being some time away and the present condition rather consisting of mud and rain, a constant wet chill in the air.
The only saving grace from all this was that the Petersburg season was in full swing. Amidst the rainy afternoons and gloomy mornings, the city glowed with lights of the opera, the theater and the many sitting rooms which opened their doors for guests, some on Saturdays, some on Mondays and Thursdays while others received on Tuesdays and threw a small party every other Friday. There were always calls to make and people to entertain or be entertained by. Anna Scherer was the newly risen star of the political lot and although Helene found them mostly dull, Hippolyte and her father enjoyed that sort of company. Helene had the suspicion that in her brother’s case, this was more a matter of wanting to carry on with the young Lise Meinen who was a regular at Annette’s. Helene was more interested in the abroad oriented crowd, or at least those who talked of the arts. These sort of social gathering were more likely to have talk of much more interesting matters, social or cultural ones. Politics, in their purest form, interested her little.
One of the wonderful things about the Livanov party was that it was truly a party, not a salon. There was less need for stateliness or involved conversations. Groups would break away and the hostess, although attentive, would allow the guests to enjoy one another. Sometimes, because of the cultural figures that tended to revolve around that family, their house seemed to be chosen as a sort of default flirting ground for young men and girls of marriageable age. Which also made the place ripe for gossip and like most women, Helene enjoyed a good chance to discuss others, albeit her goals in such conversations were more aimed at information rather than at general expression of admiration or spite. Both of those usually looked obvious or ridiculous and seemed to give away for too much about the speaker’s weaknesses.
Helene had known long before coming out into society that she ought to be weary about revealing too much sincere information to any, even close friends, of which she had very few as it was. The only person she trusted fully was Anatole, but he hardly counted as direct family hardly ever does. The revelation of things which were far too personal, unless intended with a specific purpose, was usually far too dangerous. Omission was generally the best course of action. Making up untruths to fill up the place where truths were supposed to be was not necessary and led to problems. Omission was easier to both keep straight and to justify. And sometimes, she also learned, it was better to say little but to the point and be thought intelligent than to say many things, most of which were badly thought through.
Fan in hand, Helene smoothed the creases of her dress one more time before heading downstairs, her thoughts collected and happy to finally have some good music and company to look forward to. The last party had been at the Smirenskys and they were clueless of how to have a good time.
Helene had not seen him since the previous spring and had almost forgotten about him but their sudden near collision in the doorway to the Livanovs’ drawing room brought everything back into sharp focus.
Theodore Dolokhov had hardly changed in the last few months so Helene found herself within the same sphere of complete confidence and charisma that he emanated. When they almost collided in the doorway and she recognized him, Helene dropped her fan out of sheer surprise and felt a sudden, uncomfortable eruption of butterflies in her stomach.
“Very sorry,” he said offhandedly, picking up her fan and handing it to her with a cold, disinterested look. That was before he met her eyes. “Oh. It’s you, Princess.”
Helene fought hard to not flush. She was uncertain what she would have preferred more – that he had retained his cold, yet far more polite tone with her or that he had taken on a more familiar edge in her presence because of last time. “Good evening, Monsieur Dolokhov. You seem very surprised to see me.”
“Not surprised per se…You’re back in Petersburg.”
She gave him an odd look. “I have been all season. Perhaps I should be the one surprised to see you.”
“Do not mind him, Princess. Dolokhov has a way of liking to confuse proper ladies like yourself. He is far more comfortable with the gypsies.” A figure stepped out from behind Theodore and Helene smiled in recognition.
“Ah Vasili Nikolaevitch, I did not think you would be here.” She offered Vasili Onegin her hand and gave Theodore a meaningful look, hoping this would prompt him to some more discretion. Dolokhov merely smirked at her.
“There is far more to do here than the average party. The Livanovs have good food at least.” Onegin gave her a small bow as though in demonstration of his sincerity.
“So what is this about the gypsies?” Helene asked brightly, opening her fan more as a habit of using it as a prop than because she was too warm.
“Nothing to concern yourself with, Princess. Onegin simply has a very long tongue which he cannot find a good use for.”
“Oh that is unkind!” Vasili laughed and gave Helene a knowing look. “Look out for this one, Princess. He enjoys biting.”
“Only idiots such as yourself,” Theodore shot back. “Excuse me, Princess.”
He did not look one bit contrite, so Helene merely lifted her chin, even though a smile was tugging at the corners of her mouth. “Do not worry about me, Vasili Nikolaevitch. Natalie Kerensky is the one who has a way of misunderstanding her suitors.” Onegin took the jibe in stride. Helene knew he had a romantic interest in Natalie, who held herself very liberally, and could not make up his mind if he wanted to propose to her or not. In the meantime, the girl was obviously waiting and getting tired of said wait. “She is here tonight, however, if you would like to give her some friendly counsel,” Helene added.
“Yes, of course, I think I shall leave you two. Theodore, are you riding home with me?”
“No I’m on my own tonight, thank you.”
“Big game last night then.”
A predatory and satisfied smirk settled into the corners of Theodore’s mouth. “Yes. Very.”
Onegin laughed and walked away, still sniggering at his own thoughts. Theodore moved further away from the doorway and Helene followed him without giving it much thought.
“So you play cards?” she asked, her indifference sounding very natural to her, even if inside she was burning with curiosity and a myriad of other feelings she refused to name to herself.
“Yes. Does that bother you?” Dolokhov picked up two glasses of wine off the tray of a passing waiter and handed one to her.
“No.” Helene drank the wine slowly, savoring the liquid and allowing its subtle sting to rest on her tongue. She felt like she was drowning in a wave of her own confusion of her feelings for the man in front of her. Seeing him had been much too pleasant. “All men play cards,” she added in a way to show that she did not find anything overly interesting in this activity. Although she somehow found the mental image of Theodore’s face half hidden behind a fan to cards to be frighteningly arousing. She wanted to see him play, to watch the concentration in his eyes and see the way he watched the other players. Even the way he watched other people in the room was laced with something, some sort of underlying discretion and the furtiveness of a lone wolf hunter.
“I’ve known ladies to engage in this activity.”
“Not the way men do.”
“Oh certainly. Such is the difference of the sexes.” He threw a look at her over his shoulder before returning to watching the room at large. “Although, I could teach you to play like a man, if you would like.”
“I have no need for men’s things.”
Dolokhov laughed. Helene looked oddly at him as she did not see why her statement was so amusing. Frankly, she meant it. She was not one of those unfortunate girls who somehow managed to pine their life away, wishing they were something they were not in body. Helene liked her dresses and ribbons, dances and coquettish games. Being a man was far too crude and the social currency with which men bought their position was not quite that of a woman and Helene considered that she liked her own currency better. It was easier to obtain and although a greater commitment to maintain, the outcome satisfied her.
“This is less about being a man, as you call it, as simply life. Strategy, Princess, is a brilliant thing.”
She looked over at him, then surveyed the drawing room with its various groups, mostly gendered, mostly separated by age. She imagined herself in an isolated corner with Dolokhov and all the raciest scenes from French romance novels which she had ever snuck into her room and read in the middle of the night – only to, as of late, shut them up half way without finishing the entire novel, and declaring them incorrigible – came flooding into her mind and creating an embarrassing flush on her cheeks and a tightness in her abdomen. Helene took out her fan and began to slowly fan herself, continuing to feign only the slightest elevated interest. “Only if you believe you can accomplish this by the time the dessert is served.”
Dolokhov grinned. “I doubt we will need all night.” He turned and led to her to an empty card table.
Helene felt like there was a double entendre to both his words and his expression, but she did not wish to contemplate it in case there was something indecent in either. Not that she would mind, in theory, but then she would have to deal with this situation before it got out of hand and at the moment, she simply wanted to enjoy herself. And if that meant drowning just a little in a pair of icy blue eyes she would do just that.
Helene found herself laughing shortly after she and Dolokhov began their isolation at the card table. Simply laughing and disregarding all the social plans she had construed in her mind for that night. She could hardly help it – the tricks that Dolokhov showed her were so silly and almost obvious that she doubted that he actually ever used them in a game, even considering that he did use tricks. They played a simple social game in which he promised to not employ any of his “dishonorable” moves and Helene played carelessly, not caring if she won or lost.
“Are you really a sharper?” she asked finally, her curiosity getting the best of her. “I don’t mean to be rude, but are you?”
Dolokhov smirked. “Hardly, Princess. It would be far too much of a hassle. I do not mind risks, but I hate unnecessary issues. I simply know the game and that is enough.”
Helene smiled, almost earnestly. Knowing the game – they were alike in that, even if the games they chose to play were different. “So it is not the idea of cheating being dishonorable that stops you?”
“Goodness no. Who does that stop nowadays?”
Helene began to say something, to continue their banter only to realize that perhaps he was joking. “Monsieur Dolokhov, that is quite irregular!” she laughed.
Dolokhov winked at her and switched seats to sit beside her rather than across the table. Helene instantly felt the heat of his body and became acutely aware of her own. “Tell me, Princess, is rule breaking not exciting sometimes?”
Helene looked at him, suddenly unsure what the correct answer should be. She tried it this way and that in her mind, finally giving up on a direct answer and merely smiling, just a little warmly, just a bit invitingly, before looking away at the cards strewn across the card table. “I would not want to play for real with you, Monsieur Dolokhov.”
He laughed, but softer, more intimately this time. “I will tell you, Princess, that few people do. Unless they are drunk.”
“No! Look then, spirits relieve people of their inhibitions.” He stood up and took two more glasses from a passing waiter to replace their empty ones.
Helene took her glass and looked over its rim at Dolokhov. “And…which inhibitions are you trying to rid me of?”
“Oh I think you have few of those as it is. Of the bad sort, I mean.”
“The bad sort?”
“Yes. The ones that don’t allow a person to live up to their full potential and box them in.”
“So being reserved is a bad thing?”
Theodore gave her an exasperated look. “Being afraid is a bad thing. Especially when you are afraid of yourself.”
There was something strange in those words, Helene gathered, it wasn’t simply talk, the sort of empty social philosophizing that many others indulged in. He seemed to mean something behind those words, but Helene could not figure out what. “I am looking forward to tonight’s improvised ball,” she said as a way to break the sudden tension. “What about you?”
“On you, Princess.”
“Yes. Would you do me the favor of a cotillion or a mazurka?”
“Which one would you prefer?”
She gave him a cheeky smile. “You may have the cotillion then.”
Dolokhov merely smiled. “As you please.” He rose and swept the cards up into a neat stack with a single motion, gave her a slightly exaggerated bow and left. Helene watched him go with an indescribable feeling of frustration and anticipation. He wanted her, it seemed, but on his own term, never hers and she could not figure out if that annoyed her or made her want him more.
Helene found her flirtation with Dolokhov to be quite pleasant. Neither of them ever spoke any words that might give away or even hint at the feelings growing between them. In fact Helene hardly stopped to consider them for herself. She found that dwelling on such thoughts put her at odds with what she believed she ought to be doing – which was consequently what her father felt she should be doing – yet there was no denying that the more time went by, the more attached to Dolokhov she became. Now, if he was not at a certain party or ball she was disappointed and far more bored than usual.
A year went by in such a manner and Helene, now surrounded by many suitors of all sorts, had adapted herself to society to the extent where she had a much better sense of what she could or could not get away with. She realized that the difference between discretion and indiscretion was not so large, it truly only mattered if the talents of a person were sufficient to show a situation in a light favorable to themselves or not.
Love was still a scary word, a word she did not wish to use or have anything to do with. She would never say to anyone that she loved Dolokhov, but she had slowly begun to refer to him as Theodore in the privacy of her own mind.
Aloud, in front of anyone else, she did not dare be so informal. Even to Anatole. Especially with Anatole, since he knew her the best and would understand everything that this familiarity meant. The fact that he was best friends with Dolokhov only made the situation infinitely worse. Helene was constantly afraid of what her brother may be saying to Theodore and what sort of things they may be discussing in relation to her. She knew this also made Anatole a potential well of information but she did not dare ask him for fear of giving herself away.
It was bad enough that Anatole was suspicious of her already. He often asked her what she thought of Theodore and always watched her far too closely. She tried to speak well of the man without revealing just how much she favored him over the rest. The better Helene got at manipulating the feelings of men, the more cautious she became in revealing her own affections for any one of them. With Dolokhov this was especially true.
At the end of the summer during that first year of their friendship, Theodore came to their estate to visit on Anatole’s invitation. Helene had taken the chance to go horseback riding with him, sometimes disappearing into the Kuragin woods for two or three hours. She noticed her father watching her as well, but he did not know her quite as intuitively as Anatole knew her. She, Theodore and Anatole went swimming, played a variety of games and spent long hours in the evening talking of highly inconsequential things.
A stormy night found Helene and Dolokhov alone in the drawing room after the rest of the household had gone to bed. He was drinking brandy by the fireplace, staring off into the darkness outside one of the large windows the curtains of which had been left undrawn.
“You are lurking,” she told him, smiling softly. Some of the edge had gone out of her voice as of late whenever she spoke to him. They still teased and she still found him impudent, but there was a clear and understood friendship between them as well.
“Perhaps. I approve of your father’s taste in brandy.”
She smiled. “Any wine for me?”
“It’s your house, I figured you would know.”
“Yes.” Theodore smirked at her and turned back to watching the window. Helene went up to stand beside him and took the brandy glass from his hand without bothering to ask and took a long drink, then offered it back. “I hope you do not mind.”
“Anything for a friend,” Theodore told her, smirking in amusement. He was easily amused by everything, she had figured out a long time ago. Mainly because Dolokhov found a way to be cynical about most things. His family and a couple of his friendships seemed to be the only things he actually took seriously.
Helene turned just in time to see a flash of lighting zig-zag across the horizon, lighting up the sky above the woods. In the flash of lightening the trees seemed to be a single dark mass, gloomy and ominous in the distance. Helene made a startled gesture and found herself transfixed, waiting for the next flash. “Oh…” she breathed finally. “So that’s what you’re watching.”
“A storm is coming,” Theodore said calmly, “Anatole hates them. I always found them somewhat fascinating. What say you, Princess?”
“I…don’t know. I’ve never considered it, I suppose…” Helene thought about it, allowing their conversation to fall into a comfortable silence. Another flash of lightening glared in the distance and, very faintly, an echo of thunder could be heard. “I think everyone wishes, deep inside, that they could be a storm,” she said finally. “The power in that is extraordinary. Everyone wants that.” She looked up at him and found, unexpectedly, that Theodore was watching her not with his usual amusement but with a reserved surprise.
“Even those who have power already?” he quarried, trying to sound disinterested but she could tell he was faking. She could tell because that was the exact same tone in which she feigned disinterest in something or someone.
“No one ever has as much power as they want,” she told him. “No one can have everything that they want, even though they wish they could. What is to stop the lightening from striking the ground?”
“A lightning rod,” Theodore said after a beat. Helene looked around to check his expression, looking for the familiar smirk, but it was not there, instead he was watching her intensely.
Helene turned away from those eyes which seemed to see straight through her. She watched as the storm neared, the lightening breaking the darkness of the night more and more frequently. The thunder was louder now and it resounded in her ears. Suddenly their comfortable silence was laced with an electric spark, like a pregnant storm cloud which could break any moment. Helene felt her heartbeat rise and nothing she did or thought could change the sudden shivers that broke over her body. Finally, unable to stand it, she turned to him and said flatly, “Please don’t look at me like that.”
“Like that.” She waited for the teasing rebuke, for the smirk, but it never came and Helene suddenly wondered what they were doing there, alone in the dark drawing room, late in the evening. She wondered what her father or mother or even Hippolyte would think if they saw her. She knew what Anatole would think and it made a metal ring of dread curl around her insides. She could not allow herself this blunder.
Theodore finally looked away and drained his glass, setting it aside on the mantel. “It is late, Princess. Goodnight.”
He left and Helene felt the emptiness of the room without him. Sooner or later, she realized, she would need to speak to Anatole of this, because if she did not tell someone she felt she might explode.But then Dolokhov left at the end of August for his regiment stationed somewhere in the countryside and Helene did not see him for the next several months. Their picnics, horse rides, card games and readings of Dangerous Liaisons, while not forgotten, were set out of mind for the time being. There was plenty to entertain herself with in Petersburg during the season and Helene, slowly, began to calm. It was all a summer dream, she assured herself. It did not mean anything. Yet, from time to time, she did wish that she could write to him.