Count Tolstoy at Home

The bargain for the petticoat was closed at two rubles, its real worth, subject to “sister’s approbation,”—an afterthought on the part of the pretty woman. When she brought it to us at the house, a couple of hours later, modestly concealed under her apron, and with her sister’s blessing, she demanded half a ruble more, because we had not beaten her down, and perhaps also as an equivalent for sister’s consent.

She showed us her cottage, which was luxurious, since it had a brick half for winter use, exactly corresponding to the summer half of logs. Behind, in a wattled enclosure, were the animals and farming implements. It was not a cheerful dwelling, with its tiny windows, wall benches to serve as seats and beds, pine table, images in the corner, great whitewashed oven, in which the cooking was done, and on which, near the ceiling, they could sleep, and sheepskin coats as well as other garments lying about.

Practically, a small Russian village consists of one street, since those peasants who live on the occasional parallel or side lanes are “no account folks,” and not in fashion. It seemed inconsistent that ranks and degrees should exist in peasant villages; but human nature is much the same in the country as in capitals, even in the village of the man who advocates absolute equality of poverty, and despite the views of my merry izvóstchik Alexéi.

The aged mother of the woman to whom the count’s daughter was carrying a gift of a new kerchief was at home, and bestowed some smacking hisses in thanks. The old woman even ran after us to discharge another volley of gratitude on the young countess’s pretty cheeks.

In the evening we set out once more for the village, to see the choral dances and hear the songs with which the peasants celebrate their holidays. A dozen or so of small peasant girls, pupils of the count’s daughter, who had invited themselves to swing on the Giant Steps on the lawn opposite the count’s study windows, abandoned their amusement and accompanied us down the avenue, fairly howling an endless song in shrill voices that went through one’s nerves.

The Giant Steps I may describe here, since it is a favorite gymnastic apparatus. A tall, stout mast is planted securely in the earth. On its iron-bound top rests a heavy iron ring, which moves freely and to which are attached six or eight heavy cables touching the ground. Each cable is grasped by a person as high up as the arms will reach. All run round, holding the ropes, until sufficient impetus is acquired; then they sail through the air supported only by the arms. For small children the cables are looped and padded into seats close to the ground; but these can also be used in the ordinary way.

As we emerged from the shadows of the avenue and proceeded up the broad grassy village street to the place of assembly, the children dispersed. A crowd was collected at a fairly level spot ready for the dancing. All wore their gayest clothes. The full moon, with brilliant Jupiter close beside her, furnished an ideally picturesque light, and displayed the scene to the greatest advantage. Low gray cottages framed the whole.

It was a grand occasion. One of the count’s sons had brought his violin, his cousin had a balalaika, a triangular peasant guitar, and one of the lackeys had his harmonica, to play for the dancing. The young men sat on a rough improvised bench; the servant stood beside them. The peasants seemed shy. They hesitated and argued a good deal over beginning each song. Finally they joined hands and circled slowly to the tones of the generally monotonous air. Some of the melodies were lively and pleasing, but the Great Russian peasant woman’s voice is undeniably shrill. The dancing, when some bold peasants ventured to enter the circle, after much urging and pushing, was far tamer and more unvarying than I had seen elsewhere. We felt very grateful to the maid, Tatiána, for stepping forward with spirit and giving us a touch of the genuine thing.

Alas! the fruits of Tatiána’s civilization were but too visible in her gown of yellow print flounced to the waist and with a tight-fitting bodice. The peasant costume suits the dance far better. Her partner was unworthy of her, and did not perform the squat-and-leap step in proper form. She needed Fómitch, the butler, who had been obliged to stay at home and serve tea; to his regret, no doubt, since we were informed that “he danced as though he had ten devils in his body.” As we saw no prospect of any devils at all,—and they are very necessary for the proper dash in Russian dancing,—we strolled home, past the pond where the women were wont to wash their clothes, and up the dark avenue. Perhaps the requisite demons arrived after our departure. It was a characteristic scene, and one not readily to be forgotten.

One of the most enjoyable incidents of the evening was the rehearsal of the maid’s coquettish steps and graces given by one of our young hostesses for the benefit of those members of the family who had not been present. It reminded us of the scene in War and Peace after the hunt, when charming young Countess Natálya Ilínitchna astonishes her old relative by her artistic performance of the Russian dance, which she must have inherited with the traditions of her native land, since she had never learned it.

Balaláika duets were one of the joys of our evenings under the trees, after dinner. The young men played extremely well, and the popular airs were fascinating. Our favorite was the Báruinya Sudáruinya, which invariably brings out volleys of laughter and plaudits when it is sung on the stage. Even a person who hears it played for the first time and is ignorant of the words is constrained to laughter by the merry air. In the evenings there were also hare-and-hounds hunts through the meadows and forests, bonfires over which the younger members of the family jumped in peasant fashion, and other amusements.

In consequence of vegetarian indiscretions and of trifling with his health in other ways during the exceptionally hot weather then prevailing, the count fell ill. When he got about a little he delighted to talk of death. He said he felt that he was not going to live long, and was glad of it. He asked what we thought of death and the other world, declaring that the future life must be far better than this, though in what it consisted he could not feel any certainty. Naturally he did not agree with our view, that for the lucky ones this world provides a very fair idea of heaven, because his ideal was not happiness for all, but misery for all. He will be forced to revise this ideal if he ever really comes to believe in heaven.

During this illness I persuaded him to read Looking Backward, which I had received as I was leaving Moscow. When I presented it to him he promised to examine it “some time;” but when I give books I like to hear the opinion of the recipient in detail, and I had had experience when I gave him Robert Elsmere. Especially in this case was I anxious to discuss the work.

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