“What, then, in your opinion, should a woman who has missed that fate do?”
I was interested in his reply, because six months earlier he had advised me to marry. I inquired what answer he intended to send,—that is, if he meant to reply at all. He said that he considered the letter of sufficient importance to merit an answer, and that he should tell her that “every woman who had not married, whatever the reason, ought to impose upon herself the hardest cross which she could devise, and bear it.”
“And so punish herself for the fault of others, perhaps?” I asked. “No. If your correspondent is a woman of sufficient spirit to impose that cross, she will also have sufficient spirit to retort that very few of us choose our own crosses; and that women’s crosses imposed by Fate, Providence, or, whatever one pleases to call it, are generally heavier, more cruel, than any which they could imagine for themselves in the maddest ecstasy of pain-worship. Are the Shaker women, of whom you approve, also to invent crosses? And how about the Shaker men? What is their duty in the matter of invoking suffering?”
He made no reply, except that “non-marriage was the ideal state,” and then relapsed into silence, as was his habit when he did not intend to relinquish his idea. Nevertheless I am convinced that he is always open to the influence quite unconsciously, of course—of argument from any quarter. His changes of belief prove it.
These remarks about the Shakers seemed to indicate that another change was imminent; and as the history of his progress through the links of his chain of reasoning was a subject of the greatest interest to me, I asked his wife for it. It cannot be called anything but a linked progress, since the germs—nay, the nearly full-fledged idea—of his present moral and religious attitude can be found in almost all of his writings from the very beginning.
When the count married, he had attained to that familiar stage in the spiritual life where men have forgotten, or outgrown, or thoroughly neglected for a long time the religious instruction inculcated upon them in theft childhood. There is no doubt that the count had been well grounded in religious tenets and ceremonies; the Russian church is particular on this point, and examinations in “the law of God” form part of the conditions for entrance to the state schools. But, having reached the point where religion has no longer any solid grasp upon a man, he did not like to see other people observe even the forms.
Later on he began a novel, to be called The Decembrists. The Decembrists is the name given to the participants in the disorders of 1825, on the accession of the Emperor Nicholas I to the throne. Among the preparations which he made for this work were excursions taken with the object of acquainting himself with the divers dialects and peculiarities of expression current in the different parts of the empire. These he collected from pilgrims on the highways and byways.
“A pilgrim,” said the witty countess, “is a man who has grown tired of the jars and the cares and responsibilities of the household; out of patience with the family in general. He feels the necessity, inborn in every Russian, for roaming, for getting far away from people, into the country and the forests. So he makes a pilgrimage to some distant shrine. I should like to be a pilgrim myself, but the family ties me down. I feel the need of freshening up my ideas.”
In these excursions the count came to see how great a part religion plays in the life of the lower classes; and he argued that, in order to get into sympathy with them, one must share their ideas as to religion. Accordingly he plunged into it with his customary ardor;—“he has a passionate nature,”—and for several years he attended every church service, observed every rite, kept every fast, and so on. He thought it horrible if those about him did not do the same,—if they neglected a single form. I think it quite probable that he initiated the trouble with his stomach by these fasts. They are nothing to a person who has always been used to them; but when we consider that the longer fasts cover about four solid months, not to mention the usual abstinence on Wednesdays and Fridays and the special abstinences,—and that milk, eggs, cheese, and butter are prohibited, as well as other customary articles of food, it is not difficult to imagine the effect of sudden and strict observance upon a man accustomed during the greater part of his life to a meat diet. The vegetable diet in which he now persists only aggravates the evil in one who is afflicted with liver trouble, and who is too old to train his vital economy in fresh paths.
His religious ardor lasted until he went to church one day, during the last Russo-Turkish war, when prayers were offered for the success of the Russian army. It suddenly struck him that it as inconsistent with “Love your enemies,” “Love one another,” “Do not kill,” that prayers should be offered for the death of enemies. From that day forth he ceased to go to church, as he had also perceived that the practice of religious forms did not, in reality, bring him much nearer to the peasants, and that one must live among them, work among them, to appreciate their point of view.
The only surprising thing about this was that he should never have noticed that the army is prayed for, essentially in the same sense, at every church service. After the petitions for the Emporer and the imperial family, the liturgy proceeds, “And we pray for the army, that Thou wilt assist Them” (that is, be imperial family and its army), “and subdue all foes and enemies under Their feet.” Perhaps these familiar words came home to him with special force on that particular day, as familiar words sometimes do. Possibly it was a special prayer. In any case, the prayer was strictly logical. If you have an army, pray for it; and the only prayer that can be offered is, obviously, not for its defeat. That would be tantamount to praying for the enemy; which might be Scriptural, in one way, but would be neither natural, popular, nor further removed from objections of murder than the other.
But Count Tolstóy was logical, also, in another way. Once started on this train of thought, most worldly institutions of the present day, beginning with the army, appeared to him opposed to the teaching of Christ, on which point no rational man will differ from him. As to the possibility of living the life of Christ, or even the advisability of trying it, at this period of the world, that is quite another matter.
It is not necessary for me to recapitulate here that which all the world knows already,—the minute details of his belief in personal poverty, labor, the renunciation of art and science, and so forth. We discussed them. But I neglected my opportunities to worry him with demands for his catechism, which his visitors delight in grinding out of him as though from a machine, when the reading public must be sufficiently informed on that score already. I have endeavored to set down only the special illustrations of his doctrines, out of the rich mass of his conversation.
Those who have perused attentively his earlier works will have perceived that there is really very little that is absolutely new in these doctrines. They are so strictly the development of ideas which are an integral part of him, through heredity, environment, and personal bias, that the only surprise would be that he should not have ended in this way. Community of goods, mutual help, and kindred doctrines are the national birthright of every Russian, often bartered, it is true. But long residence in the country among the peasants who do not preach these doctrines, but simply practice them, naturally affected the thoughtful student of humanity though he was of a different rank. He began to announce his theories to the world, and found followers, as teachers of these views generally do,—a proof that they satisfy an instinct in the human breast. Solitary country life anywhere is productive of such views.
Disciples, or “adepts,” began to make pilgrimages to the prophet. There is a characteristic, a highly characteristic history of one such who came and established himself in the village at the count’s park gate.
“This F. was a Jew, who did not finish his studies, got led astray by socialists, and joined a community where, like the other members, he lived out of marriage with a young girl student. At last he came across a treatise of Lyeff Nikoláevitch, and decided that he was wrong and Lyeff Nikoláevitch right. He removed to Yásnaya Polyána, married his former mistress, and began to live and work among the peasants.” (He first joined the Russian church, and one of the count’s daughters stood godmother for him.) “His wife worked also; but, with delicate health and two small children to care for, she could do little, through weakness and lack of skill. The peasants laughed at him and at Lyeff Nikoláevitch.”