Count Tolstoy at Home

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She had not her implements. I volunteered,—to do the mending, not to lend the wherewithal. The pocket was of black silk, my thread of white cotton, but that was of no consequence. I seated myself comfortably on the sand, and speedily discovered not one hole, but a row of holes such as wear along the seams of pockets. The count was greatly annoyed at the trouble he was giving me, protested as I began on each new hole, and was very, restless. I was finally obliged to speak.

“Lyeff Nikolá’itch,” I said, “do me the favor to sit still. Your reputation as well as mine is involved in this work. It must be done thoroughly and neatly quite as much for your sake as for mine.”

“How so?” he asked in surprise.

“My woman’s reputation for neat mending trembles in the balance; and do not you advocate the theory that we should help our fellow-men? You have helped others; it is your turn now to be experimented on. And besides, if the fellow-man obstinately refuses to be helped by others, how are we to do our duty by him? How could you work for others, if they persisted in following out the other half of your doctrine and doing everything for themselves? It is plain that you understand how to render services far better than to receive them. Reform. Submit.”

The count laughed, with a sort of grim bewilderment in his eye, and behaved in an exemplary manner for the few remaining moments. I mentally thanked Fate for providing me with an opportunity for suggesting an object lesson on a point which had puzzled me not a little, and which I had been pining to attack in some form. He did not explain away my difficulties, it is true, but I was satisfied with having presented the other side of the shield to his attention.

On another occasion, as we sat under the trees, a peasant came, scythe on shoulder, to complain to the countess of his wrongs. No one ever went to to the count, knowing that his wife had full management. Peasants who came in deputation to parley about hiring or buyng extra land, and so on, applied directly to her. The comrades of this Vasíly Alexéi’itch had got two buckets of vodka, and had forced him, who detested liquor, to drink of it. Then they had become quarrelsome (he was peaceable), and they had torn his shirt—so hereupon he flung back his coat, worn in Russian fashion with the sleeves hanging, and let his faded red cotton shirt fall from his muscular shoulders, leaving him nude to the waist, save for a cheap little baptismal cross suspended round his neck by a cord. The small boys sent up a shout of laughter at his story and his action. The countess rebuked him sharply for such conduct before the children, and refused to in interfere in the quarrel. The man pulled his torn shirt over his body and slouched off. That evening, after tea, the count happened to hit upon a couple of Mr. Rider Haggard’s books for discussion and, for the benefit of those in the company who had not read it, gave the chief points of She in particularly lively style, which kept us all in laughter. In describing the heroine, he said that “she was clothed in an airy garment, like Vasily Alexéi’itch;” and again that “she dropped her garment, and stood like Vasily Alexéi’itch.” He pronounced She and other works of Haggard “the lowest type of literature,” and said that “it was astonishing how so many English people could go wild over them.” He seemed to read everything, good and bad, and to possess not only an omnivorous literary appetite, but a wonderful memory for books, even in small details.

Among the innumerable things which he read were Mormon publications, sent him regularly from headquarters. I cannot explain the object of the Mormons in making him the point of attack. He thought very highly of the doctrines of the Mormons as set forth by themselves, and could not understand why they were “persecuted” in America. No one had ever sent him documents on the other side of the question, and he seemed as ignorant of it as I was of the Mormon arguments. In answer to his queries, I told him that the problems involved were too numerous, serious, and complicated for me to enter upon; that the best way, under such circumstances, was for him to read statements set down in black and white by recognized authorities on the subject; and that I would cause books on the matter to be forwarded to him, which I did. But he persisted that our government is in the wrong.

“It is a shame,” said he, “that in a great and free country like America a community of people should keep so oppressed, and not allowed that liberty of which you boast.”

“You know your Dickens well,” I answered. “Have you any recollection of Martin Chuzzlewit? You will remember that when Martin was in America with Mark Tapley he saw a slave being sold. Mark Tapley observed that ‘the Americans were so fond of liberty that they took liberties with her.’ That is, in brief, what ails the Mormons. The only argument in favor of them which can possibly be made is that their practice, not their preaching, offers the only solution of your own theory that all women should be married. But that theory has never been advanced in extenuation of their behavior. I offer it to you brand new, as a slight illustration of a very unpleasant subject.”

One day, during a chat in his study, he had praised Dickens.

“There are three requisites which go to make a perfect writer,” he remarked. “First, he must have something worth saying. Second, he must have a proper way of saying it. Third, he must have sincerity. Dickens had all three of these qualities. Thackeray had not much to say; he had a great deal of art in saying it; but he had not enough sincerity. Dostóevsky possessed all three requisites. Nekrásoff knew well how to express himself, but he did not possess the first quality; he forced himself to say something, whatever would catch the public at the moment, of which he was a very keen judge. As he wrote to stilt the popular taste, believing not at all in what he said, he had none of the third requisite.” He declared that America had not as yet produced any first-class woman writer, like George Eliot and George Sand.

Count Tolstóy’s latest book at that time was What to Do? It was much discussed, though not very new. It will be remembered that in the final chapter of that work he argues that woman’s whole duty consists in marrying and having as large a family as possible. But in speaking of Mr. Howells’s The Undiscovered Country, which he had just discovered,—it was odd to think he had never heard of Mr. Howells before,—he remarked, in connection with the Shakers, that “it was a good thing that they did not marry.”

He said this more than once and at some length. I did not like to enter on the subject lest he should go too far, in his earnestness, before the assembled company. Therefore I seized an opportunity to ask his wife how he reconciled that remark with his creed that all women should marry.

She answered that it certainly was not consistent, but that her husband changed his opinion every two years; and, to my consternation, she instantly appealed to him. He did not go into details, however. He pulled out a letter which he had received from a Russian woman, a stranger to him. The writer said: “While acknowledging the justice of your views, I must remark that marriage is a fate which is not possible to every woman.

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