Count Tolstoy at Home

“How had they affected him? Why, he had learned to love all the world better. He knew that if he had a bit of bread he must share it with his neighbor, even if he did find it hard work to support his wife and four small children. Had such a need arisen? Yes; and he had given his children’s bread to others.” (He pretended not to hear when I inquired why he had not given his own share of the bread.) “Was he a more honest man than before? Oh, yes, yes, indeed! He would not take a kopék from any one unless he were justly entitled to it.”

“And Count Tolstóy! A fine man, that! The Emperor had conferred upon him the right to release prisoners from the jail,—had I noticed the big jail, on the left hand, as we drove out of town?” (I took the liberty to doubt this legend, in strict privacy.) “Túla was a very bad place; there were many prisoners. Men went to the bad there from the lack of something to do.” (This man was a philosopher, it seemed.)

So he ran on enthusiastically, twisting round in his seat, letting his horse do as it would, and talking in that soft, gentle, charming way to which a dozen adjectives would fail to do justice, and which appears to be the heritage of almost every Russian, high or low. It was an uncomfortable attitude for us, because it left us nowhere to put our smiles, and we would not for the world have had him suspect that he amused us.

But the gem of his discourse dropped from his lips when I asked him what, in his opinion, would be the result if Count Tolstóy could reconstruct the world on his plan.

“Why, naturally,” he replied, “if all men were equal, I should not be driving you, for example. I should have my own horse and cow and property, and I should do no work!”

I must say that, on reflection, I was not surprised that he should have reached this rather astonishing conclusion. I have no doubt that all of his kind—and it is not a stupid kind, by any means—think the same. I tried to tell him about America, where we are all equals in theory (I omitted “theory”), and yet where some of us still “drive other people,” figuratively speaking. But he only laughed and shook his head, and said he did not believe that all men were equal in such a land any more than they were in Russia. That was the sort of wall against which I was always being brought up, with a more or less painful bump, when I attempted to elucidate the institutions of this land of liberty. He seemed to have it firmly fixed in his brain that, although Count Tolstóy worked in the fields “like one of us poor brethren,” he really did no work whatever.

Thus did I obtain a foretaste of the views held by the peasant class upon the subject of Count Tolstóy’s scheme of reformation, since this man was a peasant himself from one of the neighboring villages, and an average representative of their modes of thought.

At last we reached the stone gateposts which mark the entrance to the park of Yásnaya Polyána (Clearfield), and drove up the formerly splendid and still beautiful avenue of huge white birch trees, from whose ranks many had fallen or been felled. The avenue terminated near the house in hedges of lilacs and acacias.

Most of the family were away in the fields, or bathing in the river. But we were cordially received, assured that our visit was well timed and that there were no guests, and were installed in the room of the count’s eldest son, who was at his business in St. Petersburg.

Then I paid and dismissed the beaming Vánka, whose name chanced to be Alexéi, adding liberal “tea money” for his charming manners and conversation. My sympathy with the hardship of being unable to procure books had moved me so deeply that I had already asked the man for his address, and had promised to send him a complete set of the count’s Tales from Moscow.

 We parted with the highest opinion of each other. Alas! A day or two later, one of the count’s daughters happened to inquire how much I had paid for the carriage, probably in consequence of former experiences, and informed me that I had given just twice as much as any cabman in Túla would have been glad to take. (The boredom of those policemen must have been relieved by another smile behind our backs.) Then I repeated my conversation with that delicately conscientious izvóstchik, nurtured on the Tales, and mentioned my promise. Even the grave count was forced to laugh, and I declared that I should be afraid to send the set of books, for fear of the consequences.

When we were ready, being unfamiliar with the house, we asked the maid to conduct us to the countess. She took this in its literal sense, and ushered us into the bedroom where the countess was dressing, an introduction to country life which was certainly informal enough.

We dined at a long table under the trees at a little distance from the house. The breeze sifted the tiny papery birch seeds into our soup and water. Clouds rolled up, and at every threat of the sky we grasped our plates, prepared to make a dash for the house.

The count, who had been mowing, appeared at dinner in a grayish blouse and trousers and a soft white linen cap. He looked even more weather-beaten in complexion than he had in Moscow during the winter, if that were possible. His broad shoulders seemed to preserve in their enhanced stoop a memory of recent toil. His manner, a combination of gentle simplicity, awkward half-conquered consciousness, and half-discarded polish, was as cordial as ever. His piercing gray-green-blue eyes had lost none of their almost saturnine and withal melancholy expression. His sons were clad in the pretty blouse suits of coarse gray linen which are so common in Russia in the summer, and white linen caps.

After dinner, on that first evening, the countess invited us to go to the fields and see her husband at work. He had not observed the good old recipe, “After dinner, rest a while,” but had set off again immediately, and we had been eager to follow him. We hunted for him through several meadows, and finally came upon him in a sloping orchard lot, seated under the trees, in a violent perspiration. He had wasted no time, evidently. He was resting and chatting with half a dozen peasants of assorted ages. It appeared that he had made a toilet for dinner, since he now wore a blue blouse faded with frequent washing, and ornamented with new dark blue patches on the shoulders. It was the same blouse with which Répin’s portrait of him engaged in ploughing had already made us familiar.

We talked with the peasants. They remained seated, and gave no greeting. I do not think they would have done so on any other estate in Russia. It is not that the count has inspired his humble neighbors with a higher personal sense of independence and the equality of man; all Russian peasants are pretty well advanced along that path already, and they possess a natural dignity which prevents their asserting themselves in an unpleasant manner except in rare cases. When they rise or salute, it is out of politeness, and with no more servility than the same act implies in an officer of the guards in presence of a court dame. The omission on this occasion interested me as significant.

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