Count Tolstoy at Home

Mrs. F. came to the countess with her griefs, and the latter helped her with food, clothing, and in other ways. “One day nothing remained in the house to eat but a single crust. F. was ill. His wife, who was also ill and feeble, went off to work. On her return she found no bread., Some one had come along begging “Khrísti rádi” [for Christ’s sake], and F. had given him the crust, with absolute consistency, it must be confessed. This was the end. There was a scene. The wife went back to her friends. F. also gave up, went off, to Ekaterinoslaff, learned the tailor’s trade, and married again!” How he managed this second marriage without committing bigamy, in view of the laws of Russia on that point, I am at a loss to understand.

“All my husband’s disciples,” said the countess, “are small, blond, sickly, and homely; all as like one to another as a pair of old boots. You have seen them. X. Z.— you know him—had a very pretty talent for verses; but he has ruined it and his mind, and made himself quite an idiot by following my husband’s teachings.”

The count provided a complement to these remarks in a conversation on Russian writers. He said of a certain author: “That man has never been duly appreciated, has never received the recognition which his genius deserves. Yet you know how superbly he writes,—or rather, did write. He has spoiled himself now by imitating me. It is a pity.”

This ingenuous comment is rescued from any tinge of conceit or egotism by its absolute simplicity and truth. The imitation referred to is of the moral Tales for popular reading of the lower classes, which my cabman had studied. The pity of it is, when so many of the contemporary writers of Russia owe their inspiration, their very existence, to Turgeneff and Tolstóy having preceded them, that a man who possesses personal talent and a delightful individual style should sacrifice them. In his case it is unnecessary. Count Tolstóy’s recognition of this fact is characteristic.

The countess’s description of the “adepts” was as clever as the rest of her remarks, and absolutely accurate. One of them was at the house for a day or two. (I had seen them elsewhere as well.) He had evidently got himself a new blouse for the visit. It was of coarse blue and white cloth, checked, and so stiff with newness that, having a long slit and only one button at the back, I could see the whole of his hairy chest every time I looked at him from the left side. I sympathized with Prince, who being next him at table turned back on him and ignored him conversationally; which embarrassed the young man extremely. Apropos of his shirt, I never saw any one but the count himself wear a shirt that a real peasant would have worn; and I do not believe that even he had one of the characteristic red cotton garments which are the peasant’s pride.

I found this adept interesting when sat opposite me, and he incited the count to vivacity. He contributed a very good anecdote illustrative of the count’s followers.

A man in one of the southern governments—which one is immaterial here—sent a quantity of lithographed copies of five or ten forbidden books (Tolstóy’s and others) to a disciple of Tolstóy in one of the northern governments. In the village of this disciple, some young women students in the higher or university courses for women, and followers of Tolstóy, were living for the summer in peasant fashion, and working in the fields, “to the scornful pity of the peasants.” (I italicize this phrase as remarkable on the lips of an adept.) These young women, having heard of the dispatch by post of the books, and being in the town, thought to do the count’s disciple a favor by asking if they had arrived. Had they refrained, nothing would have happened and the books would have been delivered without a question. As it was, attention was attracted to the parcel by the inquiry of these girls of eccentric behavior. The fifty or sixty copies were confiscated; the girls’ passports were taken from them. The disciple appealed to a relative in high official position in their behalf. The girls were informed, in consequence, that they might hire themselves out to work for this disciple of gentle birth as much as they liked; but they were forbidden to work for or among the peasants. The adventure was not ended when this story was told. Whether the students were satisfied with the permission to work I do not know. Probably not; their fellow disciple would not have scorned them as the peasants did, and contradiction, that spice of life to enthusiastic worshipers of impracticable ideas, would have been lacking. In my opinion, the authorities committed an error in judgment. They should have shown more faith in the peasants, the toil, and the girls’ unhardened frames. All three elements combined could have been trusted to effect a permanent cure of those disciples by the end of the harvest, had they been gently encouraged not only to work with the peasants, but to prove that they were capable of toiling and enduring in precisely the same manner and measure.

Still the authorities very naturally looked upon the action of the girls as a case of idtí v naród (going to the people), in the sense understood by the revolutionary propagandists. Their prohibition was based on this ground.

In some way we got upon the subject of English things and ways. The count’s eyes flashed.

“The English are the most brutal nation on earth!” he exclaimed. “Along with the Zulus, that is to say. Both go naked: the Zulus all day long, the Englishwomen as soon as dinner is served. The English worship their muscle; they think of it, talk of it. If I had time, I should like to write a book on their ways. And then their executions, which they go to see as a pleasure!”

I asked which nation was a model, in his opinion.

“The French,” he answered, which seemed to me inconsistent, when he told of the execution which he had witnessed in Paris, where a father had lifted up a little child that it might have a good view of the horrors of the guillotine.

“Defective as is Russian civilization in many respects,” he said, “you will never find the Russian peasant like that. He abhors deliberate murder, like an execution.”

“Yet he will himself commit murder,” I objected. “There has been a perfect flood of murders reported in the newspapers this very spring. Those perpetrated in town were all by men of the peasant class; and most of them were by lads under twenty years of age.”

He insisted that I must have misread the papers. So I proceeded to inquire, “What will a peasant do in case of an execution?”

“He will murder, but without premeditation. What he will do in case of an execution I can illustrate for you by something which occurred, in this very neighborhood some years ago.

“The regimental secretary of a regiment stationed at Z. was persecuted by one of his officers, who found fault with him continually, and even placed him under arrest for days at a time, when the man had only obeyed his own orders. At last the secretary’s patience failed him, and one day he struck the officer. A court-martial followed. I was chosen to defend him. He was sentenced to death. I appealed to the Emperor through Madame A.,—you know her. For some reason she spoke to one of the ministers. “You have not stated the number of his regiment; that is indispensable,” was the reply. Evidently this was a subterfuge, that time might be consumed in correspondence, and the pardon might arrive too late. The reason for this was, in all probability, that just at this time a soldier had struck an officer in Moscow and had been condemned. If one were pardoned, in justice the other must be also. Otherwise discipline would suffer. This coincidence was awkward for the secretary, strong as his case was, and he was shot.

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