Count Tolstoy at Home

The count has no longer a school for the peasant children, by the way. The necessity for that is past. But he must have been an original professor. A friend of mine in St. Petersburg, who was interested, during the sixties, in the secular Sunday-schools for workingmen who could not attend on week days, repeated to me the count’s method as imparted to her by himself while visiting the capital. He objected to the rules which compelled the men to be regular in attendance, on the ground that learning must not be acquired thus mechanically, under compulsion, but when the scholar feels an inward impulse. He would not listen to the suggestion that this method would hardly answer when study must be prosecuted on specified days under penalty of eternal ignorance. He said that when he found his peasant pupils indisposed to learn, he dismissed the school, went home, and occupied himself in his own affairs. After an interval, more or less long, a scuffling of feet and a rapping would become audible at the door, and small voices would plead “Please, Lyeff Nikolá’itch, we want to study. Please come and teach us.” He went, and they made rapid progress because all was purely voluntary.

One of the whitened stone wings of the old manor house stands unchanged. It is occupied in summer by the countess’s sister and her family. She is a handsome and clever woman, who translates, and who has written some strong short stories. The wing used by the count has been enlarged to meet the requirements of the large family, and yet it is not a great or imposing house. At one end a stone addition, like the original building, contains, on the ground floor, the count’s two rooms, which open on an uncovered stone terrace facing the hedge-enclosed lawn, with beds of bright flowers bordering it, and the stately lindens of the grand avenues waving their crests beyond in the direction of the ponds. Over these rooms and the vestibule is the hall, indispensable as a dining-room and a play-room for the small children in wet weather and in winter. A wooden addition at the other end furnishes half a dozen rooms for members of the family, the tutor, and the maids. Near by stand several log cottages,—the bakehouse, the servants’ dining-room, and other necessary offices.

The count’s study is very plain. The walls are in part lined with bookcases; in part they are covered with portraits of relatives and of distinguished persons whom he admires. There are more bookcases in the vestibule, for people are constantly sending him books of every conceivable sort. I imagine that the first copies of every book, pamphlet, and journal on any hobby or “ism,” especially from America, find their way to the address of Count Tolstóy. He showed me some very wild products of the human brain. The hail upstairs has a polished wood floor, as is usual with such rooms, and a set of very simple wicker furniture. Portraits of ancestors, some of whom figure in War and Peace, hang upon the walls. A piano, on which the count sometimes plays, and a large table complete the furniture. Everything in the house is severely simple. If I take the liberty of going into these details, it is in the interest of justice. The house has been described in print—from imagination, it would seem—as “a castle luxuriously furnished,” and the count has been reproached with it. Cheap as the furniture is, he grumbled at it when it was purchased; he grumbles at it still, and to me spoke of it as “sinful luxury.” But then he cannot be regarded a fair judge of what constitutes luxury.

The whole house, outside and in, is modest in the extreme. The park with its avenues of lindens, which were in full bloom during our visit, the ponds and lawns and forest, must have been superb in the time of his grandfather, and even of his mother, from whom he inherited it. A grove and thicket now occupy the site of the former manor, and screen the view of each wing from the other. Vegetable gardens and berry patches lie near at hand, and beds of brilliant but not rare flowers enliven the immediate vicinity of the house.

The estate is large and fertile, though it does not lie in the famous “black-earth zone.” This begins a few miles south of it.

Plain wholesome food, simple dress, an open-air life without fixed programme, were what we found. In the morning, after drinking tea or coffee, with bread and butter, in the hall, we usually strolled through the lovely forest, filled with flowers and perfumes, to the little river about a mile distant for a bath. The unpainted board bath house had seats running along the walls, and steps leading down into the water. A framework supporting thick screens of golden rye straw extended far out over the stream. A door upstream swung open at will for ambitious swimmers. It was a solitary spot. The peasant girls pitching hay in the meadows beyond with three-pronged boughs stripped of their leaves were the only persons we ever saw. Clad in their best scarlet cotton sarafáni and head kerchiefs, they added greatly to the beauty of the landscape. Haying is such easy work compared to the rest of the summer labors that the best gowns are donned as if for a festival.

If the boys had stolen a march on us those hot mornings, when we had dispensed with every article of clothing not absolutely necessary, we lay in the shadow of the fragrant birches at the top of the hill on the soft, short sward, which seems in Russia to grow as thick in dense forests as in open glades, and waited until they could tear themselves from the cool embrace of the stream. Then we went in, great and small, but with no bathing-dress. The use of such a garment on such an occasion would be regarded as a sign that one was afflicted with some bodily defect which one was anxious to conceal. By the time we had refreshed ourselves and rambled back, searching for early mushrooms through the forest or the great plantation of birches set out by the count’s own hands a quarter of a century before, and grown now to stout and serviceable giants, the twelve o’clock breakfast was ready under the trees. At this informal meal every one sat where he pleased and helped himself. At dinner, on the contrary, my place was always at the count’s left hand. We sat on whatever offered itself. Sometimes I had a wooden chair, sometimes a bit of the long bench like a plasterer’s horse. Once, when some one rose suddenly from the other end of this, I tumbled over on the count and narrowly escaped wrecking his dinner.

At no meal did the count ever eat a mouthful of meat, despite urgent persuasion. Boiled buckwheat groats, salted cucumbers, black bread, eggs with spinach, tea and coffee, sour levas (beer made from black bread), and cabbage soup formed the staple of his diet, even when ill, and when most people would have avoided the cucumbers and kvas, at least.

The family generally met as a whole for the first time at breakfast. The count had been busy at work in the fields, in writing or reading in his study; the boys with their tutor; the countess copying her husband’s manuscript and ordering the household. After breakfast every one did what he pleased until dinner. There was riding, driving, anything that the heat permitted. A second bath, late in the afternoon, was indulged in when it was very hot. The afternoon bathing party generally drove down in a linéika, a sort of long jaunting-car with a central bench, not too wide, on which the passengers sit back to back, their feet resting on a narrow footboard which curves over the wheels as a shield. This linéika had also crossseats at each end, and with judicious packing could be made to hold sixteen persons. As it was upholstered in leather and had no springs, there was some art in keeping one’s seat when the three horses were going at full speed over the uneven forest road.

After breakfast I sometimes sat under the trees with the countess, and helped her sew on baby Ivan’s clothes, for the pleasure of her conversation. Nothing could be more fascinating. This beautiful woman has not rusted during her long residence in the country. There are few better informed women than she, few better women of business, few women who are so clever and practical.

One day, as I was sitting, armed with thimble and needle, waiting for her, the count discovered a hole in his pocket, and asked his niece to mend it for him.

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