During our acquaintance in Moscow, in the winter, with the family of Count Lyeff Nikoláievitch Tolstóy, the famous novelist, the countess had said to us: “You must come and visit us at Yásnaya Polyána next summer. You should see Russian country life, and you will see it with us. Our house is not elegant, but you will find it plain, clean, and comfortable.”
Such an invitation was not to be resisted. When summer came, the family wrote to say that they would meet us at the nearest station, where no carriages were to be had by casual travelers, if we would notify them of our arrival. But the weather had been too bad for country visits, and we were afraid to give Fate a hint of our intentions by announcing our movements; moreover, all the trains seemed to reach that station at a very late hour of the night. We decided to make our appearance from another quarter, in our own conveyance, on a fair day, and long before any meal. If it should prove inconvenient for the family to receive us, they would not be occasioned even momentary awkwardness, and our retreat would be secured. We had seen enough of the charmingly easy Russian hospitality to feel sure of our ground otherwise.
Accordingly we set out for Túla on a June day that was dazzling with sunshine and heat, after the autumnal chill of the recent rains. As we progressed southward from Moscow the country was more varied than north of it, with ever-changing vistas of gently sloping hills and verdant valleys, well cultivated and dotted with thatched cottages which stood flatter on the ground here than where wood is more plentiful.
The train was besieged at every station, during the long halts customary on Russian railways, by hordes of peasant children with bottles of rich cream and dishes of fragrant wild strawberries. The strawberries cost from three to four cents a pound,—not enough to pay for picking,—and the cream from three to five cents a bottle.
Halfway to Túla the train crossed the river Oká, which makes so fine a show when it enters the Volga at Nizhni Nóvgorod, and which even here is imposing in breadth and busy with steamers. It was not far from here that a acquaintance of mine one day overtook a wayfarer. He was weather-beaten and travel-stained, dressed like a peasant, and carried his boots slung over his shoulder. But there was something about him which, to her woman’s eye, seemed out of keeping with his garb. She invited him to take advantage of her carriage. He accepted gladly, and conversed agreeably. It appeared that it was Count Tolstóy making the journey between his estate and Moscow. His utterances produced such an effect upon her young son that the lad insisted upon making his next journey on foot also.
We reached Túla late in the evening. The guidebook says, in that amusing German fashion on which a chapter might be written, that “the town lies fifteen minutes distant from the station.” Ordinarily, that would mean twice or thrice fifteen minutes. But we had a touch of our usual luck in an eccentric cabman. Vánka—the generic name for an izvóstchik is Vánka, that is, Johnny—set out almost before we had taken our seats; we clutched his belt for support, and away we flew through the inky darkness and fathomless dust, outstripping everything on the road. We came to a bridge; one wheel skimmed along high on the side rail, the loose boards rattled ominously beneath the other. There are no regulations for slow driving on Russian bridges beyond those contained in admonitory proverbs and popular legends. One’s eyes usually supply sufficient warning by day. But Vánka was wedded to the true Russian principle, and proceeded in his headlong course na avós (on chance). In vain I cried, “This is not an obstacle race!” He replied cheerfully, “It is the horse!”
We were forced to conclude that we had stumbled upon the hero of Count Tolstóy’s story Khólstomir in that gaunt old horse, racing thus by inspiration, and looking not unlike the portrait of Khólstomir in his sad old age, from the hand of the finest animal-painter in Russia, which, with its companion piece, Khólstomir in his proud youth, hangs on the wall in the count’s Moscow house.
Our mad career ended at what Vánka declared to be the best hotel; the one recommended by the guidebook had been closed for years, he said. I, who had not found the guidebook infallible, believed him, until he landed us at one which looked well enough, but whose chief furnishing was smells of such potency that I fled, handkerchief clapped to nose, while the limp waiter, with his jaw bound up like a figure from a German picture-book, called after me that “perhaps the drains were a little out of order.” Thrifty Vánka, in hopes of a commission, or bent upon paying off a grudge, still obstinately refused to take us to the hotel recommended; but a hint of application to the police decided him to deposit us at another door. This proved to be really the best house in town, though it does not grace the printed list. It was on the usual plan of inns in Russian country towns. There was the large, airy dining-room, with clean lace curtains, polished floor, and table set with foliage plants in fancy pots; the bedrooms, with single iron beds, reservoir washstands, and no bed linen or towels without extra charge.
The next morning we devoted to the few sights of the town. The Kremlin, on flat ground and not of imposing size, makes very little impression after the Moscow Kremlin; but its churches exhibit some charming new fancies in onion-shaped cupolas which we had not noticed elsewhere, and its cathedral contains frescoes of a novel sort. In subject they are pretty equally divided between the Song of Solomon and the Ecumenical Councils, with a certain number of saints, of course, though these are fewer than usual. The artist was evidently a man who enjoyed rich stuffs of flowered patterns and beautiful women.