In late December, the Count notices a draft coming from an unattended coatroom as he walks to dinner. Overcome with curiosity, he steps inside and examines the array of coats, noting the smells of perfume or the smoke of a fireplace. He reminisces about how he and Helena would venture out on Christmas Eve, braving the cold to visit neighbors and enjoy feasts and fireplaces. On the way home, they would listen to the bells pealing from the Church of the Ascension.
Many of the chapters in the first book of the novel include flashbacks such as this (and the one in the previous chapter, as another example). These flashbacks demonstrate how the Count is still mired in the past and upset about the direction of the future. As the novel goes on, these flashbacks grow fewer and fewer as the Count finds more and more joy and purpose in his present life.
The Count contrasts this memory with the memory of his return from Paris in 1918, when he had come upon the same church. The Bolsheviks heaved the bells from the Church one by one, presumably to reclaim the metal and manufacture artillery. The coatroom attendant returns and shakes the Count from his memory.
This memory expands on the criticism of the Bolsheviks. In a later chapter, the narrator explains that people struggle to find places to pray because so many churches have been destroyed, making the case that some of the new regime’s progress actually comes at a cost for the general public.
The Count goes to the Piazza, and is a bit disappointed to find it undecorated for Christmas. He is cheered, however, when he sees Nina at her usual table, and that she has ordered a tower of ice creams for dessert. The Count asks if she is excited to begin school in January; she remarks that even though everyone says they enjoyed school, she is not looking forward to it.
The Count continues to take on a fatherly role with Nina. When she goes to school, however, she will follow the pattern of most children and start to grow out of her childhood habits and playmates, leaving the Count once again without a friend.
The Count tells Nina that school will broaden her horizons; Nina counters by saying that travel would broaden her horizons more effectively. She wonders why people would rather listen to Scheherazade—an opera she had attended the night before—than actually go to Arabia. The Count concedes that she makes a good argument.
While the Count concedes the argument, he does not point out that the new Soviet regime has made it impossible for its citizens to travel, as it refuses to allow any migration in or out of the country. This is another way in which progress in Russia has come at the expense of certain freedoms.
The Count moves on to say how fortunate he feels to have become Nina’s friend. He gives her a Christmas present: his grandmother’s opera glasses. She is surprised by this gesture, and admits to him that he knows her better than anyone. As the two say goodnight, Nina gives the Count a gift in return, but says he must not open it until midnight.
By giving Nina his grandmother’s glasses, he not only reminds her of her interest in princesses, but the glasses also serve as a kind of heirloom from a man who has lost all of his biological family.
After Nina leaves the Piazza, the Count notices a young couple at a table nearby who seem to be on a first date. The woman appears very serious; the man seems nervous and trying to impress her. Just as the man starts to form a good impression by revealing that his grandmother had taken him to The Nutcracker every year, the Bishop interrupts and asks if they are ready to order, which they clearly are not. The Count is furious at his lack of tact.
The Count continues to note how unaware the Bishop is of the needs of his customers. The Count comes to associate this flaw with the Bolsheviks because the Bishop received his job through friends in the party. The Count’s criticisms and knowledge help his own success when he eventually takes a job as a waiter in the Boyarsky years later.
The couple orders two bowls of the Latvian stew, and the Bishop asks if they would like wine to go with it. When the man struggles with choosing a wine, the Bishop suggests a wine that the Count knows is both too expensive and will clash with the dinner they have selected. He thinks to himself that there is no substitute for experience, and leans over to suggest a different wine. He then orders the same dish as the couple. As they eat, they raise a glass to him in gratitude and kinship.
When the Count corrects the Bishop, his dislike for the man becomes mutual. The Bishop, in turn, views the Count’s corrections as elitism This incident later causes the Bishop to have the wine labels removed from all of the hotel’s wine bottles, an act that disturbs the Count greatly because he views it as an attack on individualism and history.
The Count returns to the lobby, noticing a set of musicians. He recognizes one of them as former prince Nikolai Petrov. The Prince tells the Count about the whereabouts of various relatives who have left Russia, and then laments that it is not easy for people like himself and the Count to find work. The Prince says he has to dash off, but that perhaps he and the Count could meet for a drink on the upcoming Saturday.
The Count sees how others of his class have been able to cope with the changes in society. The Count is pleased to see that the former Prince has been able to find a job as a musician and feel like he is leading a purposeful life, which is something that the Count is also eventually able to do.
In a footnote, the narrator notes that many names in Russian novels are notorious for their length and that it is often difficult for readers to keep track of characters. The narrator informs the reader that the Prince is a relatively unimportant character and will not keep the appointment with the Count. Instead, on Saturday his room will be searched, and a picture of the Tsar will be found in an old textbook of his. As this is illegal, he will be taken to prison and sentenced to never again set foot in Russia’s six largest cities (a punishment called a Minus Six).
Again, the narrator points out some of the more drastic actions of the Bolsheviks. The discovery of an old picture of the Tsar in a textbook of the Prince’s causes him to be arrested, even though it was (presumably) unintentionally kept. This incident illustrates the lengths to which the Bolsheviks will go to literally erase or strike out any evidence whatsoever of the old ways of life.
The narrator then states that while the Prince is a character that the reader needn’t bother to remember, a “round-faced fellow with a receding hairline” in the next chapter will become a very important character.
The Count returns to his room, and, noting that it is only eleven o’clock, he decides to read A Christmas Carol until the clock strikes twelve and he can open his present from Nina. The Count’s mind wanders to his youth as he remembers his Christmases as a child. He and Helena would wait all night until his father would give the signal to open the drawing room. He would then be enchanted by the tree in the drawing room, the bowls of oranges and candies, and the simplicity of an unexpected gift like a wooden sword that could provide hours of adventure.
The second Christmas episode that the Count recalls from his past illustrates how loving his family had been, and how their absence has left him with an additional emptiness that adds to his feeling of being erased and forgotten. Thus, he attempts to fill this emptiness with his friendships with Mishka, Nina, and later Anna and other members of the hotel staff.
When the clock chimes midnight, the Count sets his book aside and opens Nina’s gift. Inside lies a smaller box, then another and another until the sixth box is no larger than a matchbox. Inside it, the Count finds Nina’s passkey.
Nina’s gift to the Count not only communicates the depth of their friendship, but also symbolizes his newfound freedom in the hotel.
The Count returns to A Christmas Carol, reaching the part where Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present. He had forgotten the visit Scrooge pays to a family of miners in a ramshackle hut, and then another visit to two lighthouse keepers, and then another on the deck of a ship. The Count is warmed by reading of these visits, or perhaps by the chance meeting with the Prince, or by Nina’s friendship, he thinks. He falls asleep with a great sense of well-being.
Even though the Count is warmed by “Christmas Present” both in A Christmas Carol and in his own life, the future seems more ominous, as the narrator has already indicated that the Count’s encounters with both of these people will soon take a turn for the worse. The Prince, as the narrator has explained, will be arrested, while Nina, having gifted her passkey to the Count, will soon stop going on adventures with him because she becomes so immersed in school.
The narrator warns, however, that had the Count looked into his future, he would have seen that less than four years later, the Count would climb to the roof of the hotel in order to throw himself into the street below.
The narrator confirms this ominous feeling in explaining that the Count will soon try to kill himself. Once again, this provides the narrative with a clear sense of destiny, because the future seems so fixed.