THE BEST FRIENDS
Helene fanned out the skirts of her salad-green dress as she perched on the windowsill. She waited for several moments to see if Anatole would notice her and detach himself from his game of toy soldiers, but receiving no response she took a breath and said, “Toto, do you think I would make a bad wife?”
Anatole stopped what he was doing and looked up at her with the sort of childish confusion that younger brothers tend to exhibit wen asked about something too adult by their older sisters, who have recently entered the age of flowering maidenhood. “Ew, why are you asking me about marriage?” he said, pouting and making a face at her.
Helene swatted in his general direction. “I don’t know, because I have no one else to ask.”
“I can’t.” The slight bitterness in her voice finally made Anatole abandon his toys and stand up so he could properly look at her. She could see it in his face – how everything about her was new to him: the long skirts, the fashionable hairstyles, the odd thoughts. But what was she to do? She would be sixteen in under a year and nearly ready for society. It was worth thinking about.
“I don’t know why you would want to get married in the first place,” Anatole said after a moment of thought. “It seems terribly dull. Look at Mama and Papa.”
“Well, he wouldn’t have to be as boring as Mama and Papa.”
“All adults are boring—”
“Anatole, I’m serious!—”
“And so is marriage.”
Helene crossed her arms. “You’re not helping at all.”
Anatole pouted, then, a sly expression curved the corner of his mouth, making Helene perk up in alarm. In three strides, Anatole crossed the distance between them and picked her up off the windowsill. Helene shrieked and held on to his shoulders. This was also new – Anatole was finally tall enough and strong enough to pick her up and carry her a short distance.
“Toto, put me down!”
“You could marry me. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about all that nonsense.”
“We can’t get married, you idiot, we’re siblings.”
“We don’t have to do anything bad.” Anatole finally put her down, but grabbed her hands instead and spun her around in a circle, fanning out the skirts of her dress, just as they had done since they could walk. Anatole liked to stay in motion when discussing something that bothered him. “We could just live together and play in the garden and go riding and go to those fancy parties that Mama and Papa go to, if you really wanted. And we wouldn’t have to deal with Hippolyte.”
Helene giggled. “That’s not all marriage is.”
Anatole stopped, a little too abruptly, making Helene stumble. “Oh, what? You want babies? You never even played with your dolls!”
That wasn’t exactly true. Helene had a large collection of beautiful china dolls, but Anatole was correct that Helene always imagined her dolls as fashionable ladies who came to her salon for tea and not as her children. Apparently, that was how other little girls played with dolls, which had always seemed terribly dull to Helene. “No, I don’t,” she finally admitted, softly.
Anatole stepped forward and embraced her. “This is horribly silly,” he muttered against her temple. Helene knew he was right, but that didn’t make the gnawing feeling inside her go away.
“Do you want to go play in the garden?” she asked, to relieve the tension.
Anatole grinned, grabbed her hand, and led her outside where they could both forget about the rest of their lives.
“Now, Hippolyte, Helene, listen to me,” Vasily Kuragin said to his two eldest children, offering his arm to Helene, which she took mechanically. “Prince Obolensky is a very important personage, so be sharp and on your best behavior.”
Helene noticed how her father mostly looked at Hippolyte while saying this. He knew that she was naturally good with people, especially men. Her age and lack of experience in society was nothing compared to the fresh beauty and grace of a sixteen-year-old debutant, which she knew how to harness and deploy with the sort of ruthlessness her brothers could only dream of.
Hippolyte had always known this – that Helene was their father’s favorite, and for good reason. That Anatole was loved and doted on was a natural consequence of him being the youngest and his personality, which was too careless and carefree for anyone to think of him as competition.
But Helene and Hippolyte, despite their differences in age and gender, had been vying for their father’s attention in constant competition with each other. A competition that Helene had relentlessly won every single time since she had entered her adolescent years and gained some sense.
“Actually, better wait here,” Vasily said, almost as though to himself, untangled himself from Helene and went to fetch Prince Obolensky for introductions, leaving Helene and Hippolyte alone with each other and their wine.
The music entertaining the drawing room made it possible to speak rather freely without being overheard. Helene smiled her calmest smile and said, “Better not tell one of your French jokes, Brother. They come off very clumsy.”
“You’ve only been in society for four months and you think you know everything, don’t you,” Hippolyte sniffed. “This is an evening for adults. Papa should have kept you home with Anatole.”
“He’s better company than you, that’s for sure.”
“I don’t know why you always seek to antagonize me,” Hippolyte muttered after a pause. “We could be much better as a team.”
Helene unfolded her fan and swished it lightly, more for an affectation than to cool herself down. “You mean you would be better. I would only be hindered.”
“There are things you do not yet understand, I see, Sister.”
Helene glanced at him sharply but quickly composed herself. She knew very well what he meant – there were advantages to being a man that would never be there for her. She could be beautiful and charming and desirable. She could even be clever and know how to use all these things, but she could never have the privilege of being given the benefit of the doubt, no matter what she did. She could never truly be free.
“Oh, I know better than you think. But I do well with what I have and you do badly with what you have.”
“Papa has secured for me a position as a secretary to the ambassador in Berlin,” Hippolyte said smugly, pompously, clearly expecting a reaction.
Anatole had forewarned Helene of this development that morning.
“Prince Hovansky asked for my hand in marriage,” she said, in her usual calm tone, once again folding up her fan.
“That’s a lie. I would have known.”
“No, because I turned him down.”
Hippolyte nearly choked on his wine. Regaining some composure, he said, “Papa has scruples about you being too young? Or is it Maman?”
Maman wouldn’t protect me from such a petty thing, Helene thought, with just the remnants of bitterness, but no real bite. “No. But I told him I wasn’t marrying an old, licentious fool with only two estates and just barely a hundred surfs.”
Hippolyte flushed and was stumbling to find something else to say but Helene made an imperious gesture and, despite himself, Hippolyte fell silent. “Papa is back,” she said.
Prince Vasily was indeed approaching with a stately gentleman in uniform. Helene estimated him to be in his late-thirties. “Prince, these are my children. My son, Hippolyte, whom I have previously mentioned to you, and my daughter, Helene.”
Before Hippolyte could say a word, Helene curtsied deep, in a way that would give the prince the best sight of her cleavage, and held out her hand for him to kiss. He took it immediately, his eyes sparking. Helene beamed at him, confident that this was a game she knew how to play. “Good evening, Prince. It is such a pleasure.”
When Anatole was born, Hippolyte had been six. Even as an adult, he remembered standing by the side of the cradle in the nursery and looking at his baby brother with strange awe. Helene had taken little interest in the new addition to their family, and wouldn’t for another year or so, when Anatole would begin following her around the nursery and then the house wherever she went.
Hippolyte’s father had put a hand on his shoulder and said, gravely, “Little brothers always look up to their elders. Be a good example, my dear boy.”
Hippolyte thought he had tried, but Anatole had had a knack for breaking all the rules even as a toddler – he much preferred playing naughty games with Helene, and Hippolyte was certain the first thing Anatole had ever said to him was: “You’re boring.”
It was not that they never had good moments, especially as children. Hippolyte would help Helene smuggle sweets from the kitchen for Anatole when he got in trouble with their tutor, he helped teach Anatole how to ride, and there was one year when they had the same favorite book and Anatole would go to sit on Hippolyte’s lap and demand to be read to.
But as all good things do, this came to an end as they grew older. Perhaps it was the age different, perhaps Anatole’s time abroad or Hippolyte’s. Perhaps it was his and Helene’s rivalry that made Anatole choose sides. The difference in temperament, surely.
But most likely it was that Hippolyte did not know how to approach Anatole – so much younger, so much livelier, who looked down on all the rules Hippolyte lived by and all the pretenses that made the world understandable. Anatole had always seemed like a little, useless fool. Not unloved, but strange and flittering in and out of Hippolyte’s life before they could have any natural interaction.
As teenagers they squabbled. As adults, they mostly ignored each other.
At some point, likely through Helene, he heard that Anatole had found a surrogate older brother in Fyodor Dolokhov. Well, good, Hippolyte thought, A terrible influence, of course, but it suits Anatole, that sort.
When Anatole went to the front, Hippolyte had run a hand through his hair and squeezed his shoulder, muttered something about looking out for himself, and thought that he did not understand why Anatole could not have been a normal persona and safeguarded his career. He could have stayed far from the action, then, in some comfortable post as an aid-de-camp to a headquarters staffer.
And in the grey June morning, watching Anatole ride away, Hippolyte realized that he could not even begin to guess at his brother’s motivations for not trying to avoid his deployment. (It could hardly be patriotism, Anatole was not the sort. But then, what did Hippolyte really know?)
That December, Hippolyte spent Christmas morning in the nursery with his son and nephew. He wore mourning despite the holiday, meaning to wait out the customary period – it was the least he could do. His wife came to sit beside him and after a moment of silence asked, “Do you have any regrets about them?”
Hippolyte picked up his nephew from his cradle and looked into the baby’s face. The child Helene had named Anatole. The child whose father might not survive the war anymore than his namesake did. “Helene – no. We bickered but that was just our way.”’
The baby in Hippolyte’s arms giggled and flailed, nearly hitting him in the nose. In the early days after getting the news of Anatole’s death he had been consumed by guilt – it should have been him who had fought, not Anatole, if someone had to fight at all. But now…
“I wish I had done better at knowing him.”