Standing at his old window in suite 317, the Count thinks to himself that one must eventually choose a philosophy that helps one make sense of life. For most Russians, their philosophies had been found within the Church, but many of the Count’s schoolmates turned their back on the Church and instead turned to Darwin or Nietzsche or Hegel. The Count instead had always leaned heavily on the influence of weather: snows, summers, clouds, rains, and “the reshaping of destinies by the slightest change in the thermometer.”
In this chapter, the Count introduces his guiding philosophy, which plays into a very broad theme of the novel: that fate is built from a series of small, chance details. In a way, Towles also affirms his own belief in this philosophy, at least as far as the narrative is concerned, because so many of the novel’s details play a large part in its outcome later on.
The Count gives an example as he looks out his window: only three weeks before, the square had been empty. With a slight increase in temperature, the trees began to blossom, and couples began to sit on the benches. History could also be transformed by temperature: the Count cites Napoleon’s disastrous attempt to invade Russia in winter as an example.
The Count gives a few examples of his philosophy of chance occurrences: slight changes in temperature can have a large effect on the atmosphere of a city, or even the progress of a country.
The Count gives a final example. When he and his friends had been invited to the birthday party of Princess Novobaczky, the temperature dropped just below freezing on the night of the party. A cold fall rain then became a magical snowfall just as the Count set out. On the way, the Count’s carriage was run from the road by a young officer of the Hussars. The Count arrived late, at the same time as a friend. He then watched as his friend got out of his carriage, only to slip promptly on a patch of ice. The two then made their way inside.
The Count then gives a more personal example, the details of which (the weather at the party, the friend who slips on a patch of ice, the appearance of the young officer) will not only have consequences through this chapter, but also have a large effect on the circumstances surrounding the death of the Count’s sister and resulting decisions he makes for the rest of his life.
When the Count and his friend entered the dining room, they discovered that the Count had been placed just to the right of the princess, while the young officer who had run him off the road was seated on her left. The officer clearly fancied himself the primary recipient of her attention; however, he was quickly distracted by the English roast that the chef had prepared. And so, the Count entertained the princess instead.
Two details here also play into the outcome of the night: first, the luck of the Count to be seated next to the princess, and second, the officer’s distraction due to the delicious food that had been prepared for the evening, leaving the Count to form a relationship with her instead.
At the end of the dinner, when the orchestra began in the ballroom, the officer held out his hand for the princess. At that moment, the Count’s friend reappeared, and said that due to his fall, he’d rather play a game of cards than dance. The Count agreed to play with him, but the officer also overheard this exchange and joined the game as well, passing the princess on to another gentleman.
Here, Towles starts to weave the different details in order to show how one affects another: the slip on the ice has led to a game of chance instead of dancing, as well as to the officer once again shunning the princess.
After two hours, the officer had lost one thousand rubles to the Count. The Count graciously decided to tear up his marker and call it even in the princess’s honor. The story made its way around the ballroom, and the princess sought out the Count in order to thank him for his gallantry. The Count then waltzed with the princess, and, when it became too warm, took her arm and escorted her to the terrace.
Here Towles highlights how there were several dimensions to fate’s apparent conspiracy on this night: not only the chance of the ballroom being so warm or the rain turning to a snowfall to allow the Count and the princess to steal away outside, but also the luck of the Count winning a thousand rubles from the officer.
The Count sums up the events, saying that if the roast had not been perfect, the Count’s friend had not fallen on the ice, the card game had not been played, and the ballroom fires not been stoked so high, he would never have ended up in the arms of the princess. The Count also thinks, ominously, that the events following that evening would also never have come to pass, but he is interrupted in his thoughts.
As the Count has mentioned previously in the novel, fate would not have the reputation it does if things turned out the way one expects. So, while this evening had certainly turned out in the Count’s favor, it began a chain of events, which he describes later in the novel, whereby he misses the death of his sister.
The residents of suite 317 interrupt the Count’s musings at the window, asking who he is. He quickly lies that he is from the drapers, says that everything seems in order, and leaves. He returns to the lobby and asks Vasily about Nina’s whereabouts; Vasily responds that Nina is in the ballroom.
The fact that the Count has once again returned to suite 317 demonstrates how he is still somewhat stuck in the past, trying to relive the experiences he had as a free man and a member of the upper class.
Now thirteen, Nina has given up many of her favorite pastimes in exchange for books and professors. When the Count finds her in the ballroom, she and a boy named Boris are testing Newton’s calculation of gravity and Galileo’s principle that objects with different masses fall at the same speed. The Count watches as they drop a coin and an egg from the ballroom balcony. The Count asks if Nina can join him for dinner. When she says she has another experiment to run in the Red Square, he is disappointed, but leaves her to her work.
The interaction with Nina is also laden with small, symbolic details that tie into the Count’s imminent attempt to jump off of the roof. When she does not join him for dinner, he grows even more lonely and depressed. Though Towles does not reveal at what point the Count decides that jumping from the roof will be his method of killing himself, the sight of various objects being dropped from the ballroom balcony could serve as inspiration, or at least foreshadowing.
At ten o’clock, the Count is finishing dinner and a bottle of White at the Boyarsky. That morning, he had set his financial accounts in order, paid a visit to the barber, and written a letter to Mishka. He donned his burgundy smoking jacket and in its pocket placed a gold coin with instructions for his funeral. He had asked to be buried in his family’s plot at Idlehour, in the suit that he has laid out on his bed.
In a chapter that is so concerned with fate, it is ironic that in preparing for his death the Count tries to have as much control over what will happen to him as possible. This instinct makes sense, as his primary motivation for committing suicide is a lack of control over his life and the changes occurring around him.
The Count takes comfort that everything is in order, and also that the world will continue without him. The night before, he had seen Vasily produce a map of Moscow for a guest, and he had not recognized more than half of the street names on the map. The blue and gold lobby of the Bolshoi had been painted over; a famous statue of Gogol had been replaced with one of Gorky.
The changes the Count brings up demonstrates some of the transformations going on in Moscow that he feels are out of his control, and thus why he feels it is so important for him to provide instructions following his death so that he can at least feel in control of his own fate.
The changes in the hotel have been just as striking as those outside of them. The staffing trend of hiring inexperienced waiters at the Boyarsky has continued, Marina now has a junior seamstress, and Nina is moving with her father to an apartment for Party officials. Mishka had followed Katerina back to Kiev. Abram, the handyman with whom the Count still occasionally shares a cup of coffee on the roof, is soon to retire.
The Count observes how many of his friends are progressing, changing, or moving away and continuing with their lives. By contrast, the Count feels immobile in a world whose values are becoming at odds with his own priorities.
The Count remembers the first night of his house arrest, when he had thought about the Grand Duke’s advice to master his circumstances. But now he thinks of another story the Grand Duke had told him, in which an Imperial Russian Navy ship was struck by a mine when it was returning home during the Russo-Japanese war. Even though the battle had been won and the ship’s Admiral could see the shores of Russia, the Admiral had ascended to the helm and gone down with his ship.
In contrast to the advice that a person should master his circumstances, the Count uses the second story about the Admiral to argue (to himself) that when circumstances have made life untenable, a person should remain true to himself while reconciling with death. In this metaphor, the Count is the admiral, and the ship is the aristocracy as a whole. When the Count gives up his notions of leading an aristocratic life, he is able to escape this fate.
The Count goes to the Shalyapin for a final glass of brandy. As he drinks, he overhears a conversation between a young Brit and a German traveler. The British man is very enthusiastic about Russia, but the German man argues that the only contribution Russia had made to the West was the invention of vodka. The German says that he will buy a glass of vodka for anyone who can name three more contributions.
The challenge that the German man makes to anyone listening hits the Count in particular because, in spite of the Bolsheviks and the changes in Russian society, the Count still bears a deep love for his country that becomes an important reason he wishes to stay alive.
The Count steps in, taking up the challenge. He issues his own challenge: that for each contribution he names, the three men will drink a glass of vodka together. Audrius lays out the glasses for him. The Count names the first: writers Chekhov and Tolstoy. He says that Chekhov is precise, while Tolstoy’s narratives are unchallenged in scope as they span from the parlor to the battlefield. They drink.
The three contributions that the Count names are in many ways a repudiation of the Bolsheviks. Chekhov and Tolstoy are both writers entrenched in the time of the aristocracy—and eventually Mishka’s editor will even ask him to censor one of Chekhov’s lines.
The second contribution, the Count continues, is act one, scene one of The Nutcracker. He argues that Tchaikovsky captures Christmas better than any other composer, and that every European child imagines Christmas as it is depicted in the ballet. They drink another glass.
The second contribution the Count names is also deeply rooted in an aristocratic tradition, depicting a wealthy young girl celebrating a lavish Christmas.
For the third contribution, the Count simply gestures to a waiter that has appeared with a silver platter (conjured via a quick note to Audrius he had written on the back of a napkin). The waiter reveals a serving of caviar along with blini and sour cream. The German smiles at the appearance of the food, and puts his head down, too drunk to take the third drink.
The simple trick that the Count is able to pull off in summoning the food for the gentlemen at the bar not only helps him win him the challenge, but it also proves how much he is attempting to be in control of his final night.
The Brit is impressed at the magical conjuration of the food, and asks who the Count is. The Count introduces himself, and the Brit introduces himself in turn as Charles Abernathy, presumptive heir to the Earl of Westmorland. Charles comments on the political state of Russia and asks if the Count tried to leave after the Revolution. The Count explains that he came back because of the Revolution, as he had been in Paris due to certain “circumstances.”
The Count opens up to Charles because of their shared background in the upper class of their respective countries. After the Count explains how he missed his sister’s death, it becomes clearer why he came back to Russia during the revolution—because he feared he might miss seeing his grandmother for a final time as well.
Charles is curious about the Count’s “circumstances” in Paris, and the Count retells the story of the Princess Novobaczky’s twenty-first birthday. This time, he continues the story. Seven months later, the Count had returned to the family estate and finds his sister Helena with the young Hussar officer. He had sought out the Count’s sister and courted her in revenge. The Count felt he could not tell his sister the truth.
The Count continues the story he told earlier in the chapter, reinforcing the long chain of details that seemed to conspire against him: had he not humiliated the officer and courted the princess, the officer would never have tried to seduce the Count’s sister, Helena.
The Count waited, hoping that the officer would slip up and reveal his true nature. On Helena’s twentieth birthday, the officer returned to the estate. When she rushed to meet him, she found that he had raped her handmaiden. Helena collapsed in a chair, while the officer smiled and told the Count to call it even in honor of Helena’s birthday.
Even the officer’s actions highlight the importance of small details, as he waits until Helena’s birthday (as a parallel to the princess’s birthday) to carry out his crime. He provides another parallel in using the Count’s own words during their card game (to “call it even”) in a sarcastic, cruel way.
The Count had then taken up a pistol from the wall and followed the officer outside. The officer started to drive away at full speed, and the Count raised his gun and pulled the trigger, knocking the officer off of his carriage. Charles asks if he killed the man. The Count says yes—but he clarifies that the officer died eight months later. The Count had only wounded the officer, but he returned to the war without the use of his right arm. Eight months later, he was knocked from his horse and killed with a bayonet.
The action of shooting the officer is not only borne of chance occurrences, but also serves as a link in a chain of fateful events to come in the future: causing the officer’s death eight months later, causing the Count to miss his sister’s death, and also causing him to refuse to take up arms in the Revolution (which he explains later on in the novel).
The Count concludes his story: after he injured the officer, he was sent to Paris by his grandmother as punishment. But while he was in Paris—exactly ten years ago—Helena had died of scarlet fever, and the Count was unable to be by her side.
Whereas fate had been on the Count’s side at the beginning of the story, it makes for a tragic conclusion when he misses Helena’s death. The Count’s story also explains why friendships are so important to him, as none of his family members remain in his life.
Later, shortly before midnight, the Count climbs to the roof. He looks out on the city for a final time. He thinks that for as long as men have lived, there have been men in exile, but the Russians were the first people to send men into exile at home. When one exiles a man into his own country, there is no way to start again.
The Count thinks here that being imprisoned at home makes him unable to start over, but it is really his pride and the fact that he is holding on to his past that is not allowing him to adapt to his new life.
The Count takes out the Châteauneuf-du-Pape and pours a glass. He raises it to Helena and drinks. He approaches the parapet and says goodbye to his country. But just as he is about to jump, Abram interrupts him. He excitedly tells the Count that the bees have returned, and hands him a spoonful of fresh honey. The Count quickly recognizes the taste of apple, and realizes that the bees had traveled all the way to Nizhny Novgorod—his home province.
For a final time in the chapter, fate intervenes. Abram’s appearance with honey that has come from flowers in his home province saves the Count’s life, and (perhaps subconsciously) spurs him to want to eventually return to his home province, as he does at the end of the novel.
At nearly two in the morning, the Count says goodnight to Abram and returns to his bedroom. He takes the gold coin from his pocket and replaces it inside the Grand Duke’s desk. The following evening at six, when the Boyarsky opens, the Count walks through the doors and asks if Andrey can spare a moment.
In order for the Count to lead a meaningful life, he does return to the advice his godfather gave him and seek to become the master of his own circumstances. The next chapters reveal that the Count becomes a waiter at the Boyarsky, relinquishing the last relic of his aristocratic life and taking a paying job for the first time.