During our acquaintance in Moscow, in the winter, with the family of Count Lyeff Nikoláievitch Tolstóy, the famous novelist, the countess had said to us: “You must come and visit us at Yásnaya Polyána next summer. You should see Russian country life, and you will see it with us. Our house is not elegant, but you will find it plain, clean, and comfortable.”
Such an invitation was not to be resisted. When summer came, the family wrote to say that they would meet us at the nearest station, where no carriages were to be had by casual travelers, if we would notify them of our arrival. But the weather had been too bad for country visits, and we were afraid to give Fate a hint of our intentions by announcing our movements; moreover, all the trains seemed to reach that station at a very late hour of the night. We decided to make our appearance from another quarter, in our own conveyance, on a fair day, and long before any meal. If it should prove inconvenient for the family to receive us, they would not be occasioned even momentary awkwardness, and our retreat would be secured. We had seen enough of the charmingly easy Russian hospitality to feel sure of our ground otherwise.
Accordingly we set out for Túla on a June day that was dazzling with sunshine and heat, after the autumnal chill of the recent rains. As we progressed southward from Moscow the country was more varied than north of it, with ever-changing vistas of gently sloping hills and verdant valleys, well cultivated and dotted with thatched cottages which stood flatter on the ground here than where wood is more plentiful.
The train was besieged at every station, during the long halts customary on Russian railways, by hordes of peasant children with bottles of rich cream and dishes of fragrant wild strawberries. The strawberries cost from three to four cents a pound,—not enough to pay for picking,—and the cream from three to five cents a bottle.
Halfway to Túla the train crossed the river Oká, which makes so fine a show when it enters the Volga at Nizhni Nóvgorod, and which even here is imposing in breadth and busy with steamers. It was not far from here that a acquaintance of mine one day overtook a wayfarer. He was weather-beaten and travel-stained, dressed like a peasant, and carried his boots slung over his shoulder. But there was something about him which, to her woman’s eye, seemed out of keeping with his garb. She invited him to take advantage of her carriage. He accepted gladly, and conversed agreeably. It appeared that it was Count Tolstóy making the journey between his estate and Moscow. His utterances produced such an effect upon her young son that the lad insisted upon making his next journey on foot also.
We reached Túla late in the evening. The guidebook says, in that amusing German fashion on which a chapter might be written, that “the town lies fifteen minutes distant from the station.” Ordinarily, that would mean twice or thrice fifteen minutes. But we had a touch of our usual luck in an eccentric cabman. Vánka—the generic name for an izvóstchik is Vánka, that is, Johnny—set out almost before we had taken our seats; we clutched his belt for support, and away we flew through the inky darkness and fathomless dust, outstripping everything on the road. We came to a bridge; one wheel skimmed along high on the side rail, the loose boards rattled ominously beneath the other. There are no regulations for slow driving on Russian bridges beyond those contained in admonitory proverbs and popular legends. One’s eyes usually supply sufficient warning by day. But Vánka was wedded to the true Russian principle, and proceeded in his headlong course na avós (on chance). In vain I cried, “This is not an obstacle race!” He replied cheerfully, “It is the horse!”
We were forced to conclude that we had stumbled upon the hero of Count Tolstóy’s story Khólstomir in that gaunt old horse, racing thus by inspiration, and looking not unlike the portrait of Khólstomir in his sad old age, from the hand of the finest animal-painter in Russia, which, with its companion piece, Khólstomir in his proud youth, hangs on the wall in the count’s Moscow house.
Our mad career ended at what Vánka declared to be the best hotel; the one recommended by the guidebook had been closed for years, he said. I, who had not found the guidebook infallible, believed him, until he landed us at one which looked well enough, but whose chief furnishing was smells of such potency that I fled, handkerchief clapped to nose, while the limp waiter, with his jaw bound up like a figure from a German picture-book, called after me that “perhaps the drains were a little out of order.” Thrifty Vánka, in hopes of a commission, or bent upon paying off a grudge, still obstinately refused to take us to the hotel recommended; but a hint of application to the police decided him to deposit us at another door. This proved to be really the best house in town, though it does not grace the printed list. It was on the usual plan of inns in Russian country towns. There was the large, airy dining-room, with clean lace curtains, polished floor, and table set with foliage plants in fancy pots; the bedrooms, with single iron beds, reservoir washstands, and no bed linen or towels without extra charge.
The next morning we devoted to the few sights of the town. The Kremlin, on flat ground and not of imposing size, makes very little impression after the Moscow Kremlin; but its churches exhibit some charming new fancies in onion-shaped cupolas which we had not noticed elsewhere, and its cathedral contains frescoes of a novel sort. In subject they are pretty equally divided between the Song of Solomon and the Ecumenical Councils, with a certain number of saints, of course, though these are fewer than usual. The artist was evidently a man who enjoyed rich stuffs of flowered patterns and beautiful women.
The Imperial Firearms Factory we did not see. We had omitted to obtain from the Minister of War that permission without which no foreigner of either sex can enter, though Russians may do so freely, and we did not care enough about it to await the reply to a telegram. We contented ourselves with assuring the officer in charge that we were utter simpletons in the matter of firearms, afraid of guns even when they were not loaded,—I presume he did not understand that allusion,—and that it was pure curiosity of travelers which had led us to invade his office.
However, there was no dearth of shops where we could inspect all the wares in metal for which this Russian Birmingham has been celebrated ever since the industry was founded by men from Holland, in the sixteenth century. In the matter of samovárs, especially, there is a wide range of choice in this cradle of “the portable domestic hearth,” although there are only two or three among the myriad manufacturers whose goods are famed for that solidity of brass and tin which insures against dents, fractures, and poisoning.
During the morning we ordered round a troika from the posting-house. It did not arrive. Probably it was asleep, like most other things on that warm day. It was too far off to invite investigation, and sallying forth after breakfast to hire an izvóstchik, I became a blessed windfall to a couple of bored policemen, who waked up a cabman for me and took a kindly interest in the inevitable bargaining which ensued. While this was in progress up came two dusty and tattered “pilgrims,”—“ religious tramps” will designate their character with perfect accuracy,—who were sufficiently wide awake to beg—I positively had not a kopék in change; but not even a Russian beggar would believe that. I parried the attack.
“I’m not an Orthodox Christian, my good men. I am sure that you do not want money from a heretic.”
“Never mind; I’m a bachelor,” replied one of them, bravely and consolingly.
When we had all somewhat recovered from this, the policemen, catching the spirit of the occasion, explained to the men that I and my money were extremely dangerous to the Orthodox, both families and bachelors, especially to pious pilgrims to the shrines, such as they were, and they gently but firmly compelled the men to move on, despite their vehement protestations that they were willing to run the risk and accept the largest sort of change from the heretic. But I was obdurate. I knew from experience that for five kopéks, or less, I should receive thanks, reverences to the waist or even to the ground; but that the gift of more than five kopéks would result in a thankless suspicious stare, which would make me feel guilty of some enormous undefined crime. This was Count Tolstóy’s experience also. We devoted ourselves to the cabby once more.
Such a winning fellow as that Vánka was, from the very start! After I had concluded the bargain for an extra horse and an apron which his carriage lacked, he persuaded me that one horse was enough—at the price of two. To save time I yielded, deducting twenty-five cents only from the sum agreed on, lest I should appear too easily cheated. That sense of being ridiculed as an inexperienced simpleton, when I had merely paid my interlocutor the compliment of trusting him, never ceased to be a pain and a terror to me.
The friendly policemen smiled impartially upon Vánka and us, as they helped to pack us in the drozky.
Túla as we saw it on our way out, and as we had seen it during our morning stroll, did not look like a town of sixty-four thousand inhabitants, or an interesting place of residence. It was a good type of the provincial Russian town. There were the broad unpaved, or badly paved, dusty streets. There were the stone official buildings, glaring white in the sun, interspersed with wooden houses, ranging from the pretentious dwelling to the humble shelter of logs.
For fifteen versts (ten miles) after we had left all these behind us we drove through a lovely rolling country, on a fine macadamized highway leading to the south and to Kieff. The views were wide, fresh, and fair. Hayfields, ploughed fields, fields of green oats, yellowing rye, blue-flowered flax, with birch and leaf trees in small groves near at hand, and forests in the distance, varied the scene. Evergreens were rarer here, and oak-trees more plentiful, than north of Moscow. The grass by the roadside was sown thickly with wild flowers: Canterbury bells, campanulas, yarrow pink and white, willow-weed (good to adulterate tea), yellow daisies, spiraea, pinks, cornflowers, melilot, honey-sweet galium, yellow, everlasting, huge deep crimson crane’s-bill, and hosts of others.
Throughout this sweet drive my merry izvóstchik delighted me with his discourse. It began thus. I asked, “Did he know Count Tolstóy?”
“Did he know Count Tolstóy? Everybody knew him. He was the first gentleman in the empire! There was not another such man in all the land.”
“Could he read? Had he read the count’s Tales?”
“Yes. He had read every one of the count’s books that he could lay his hands on. Did I mean the little books with the colored covers and the pictures on the outside?” (He alluded to the little peasant Tales in their original a cheap form, costing two or three cents apiece.) “Unfortunately they were forbidden, or not to be had at the Túla shops, and though there were libraries which had them, they were not for such as he.”
[Author’s note: At this time, in Moscow, the sidewalk bookstalls, such as this man would have been likely to patronize, could not furnish a full set of the Tales in the cheap form. The venders said that they were “forbidden;” but since they openly displayed and sold such as they had, and since any number of complete sets could be obtained at the publishers’ hard by, the prohibition evidently extended only to the issue of a fresh edition. Meanwhile, the Tales complete in one volume were not forbidden. This volume, one of the set of the author’s works published by his wife, cost fifty kopéks (about twenty-five cents), not materially more than the other sort. As there was a profit to the family on this edition, and none on the cheap edition, the withdrawal of the latter may have been merely a private business arrangement, to be expected under the circumstances, and the cry of “prohibition” may have been employed as a satisfactory and unanswerable tradesman’s excuse for not being supplied with the goods desired.]
“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.
The conversation turned upon the marriage of one of the younger men, which was to come off in a neighboring village two days later, at the conclusion of the fast of SS. Peter and Paul. A middle-aged peasant took up the subject in a rather unpleasant and not very respectful manner, saying that he saw no use for priests, who had everything provided for them (na gatóvayu rúku), and charged so high for baptizing and marrying.
“They demand seven rubles for marrying this fellow,” said he. “I’ll do it for a ruble, and be glad to.”
“If it is so easy, go pass your examinations and become a priest at once,” replied the countess.
“I don’t know enough for that.”
“Then go hire yourself out as clown. You are always making bad jokes.”
The man was subdued. The count took no part in this conversation, and looked somewhat disturbed when the other men joined disagreeably in the laugh against their comrade. He turned the subject.
“Look at the oldest of these men,” he said to us in English. “He has lost the first joint of all the fingers on one hand from frost.”
He was a weak-looking, withered little man, but when they began to mow again, at the count’s suggestion, he grasped his scythe as well as any of them. The scythes were short, thick, straight, looked very heavy, and were set on very long, straight handles, so that it was not necessary to stoop in mowing.
We watched the party for a while. The count made good progress over the uneven ground and thin grass, as though he were used to the work which he has described so inimitably in Anna Karénin. (Another reminder of this book is the old nurse of Levin, who still lives on the place, has charge of the dogs because she is fond of animals, and carries her mania to the extent of feeding and petting the black beetles. The grave of Karl Ivanovitch, the tutor in Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, which lies in the cemetery a mile or two distant, is another memento of his writings.) As we strolled back to the house, we paused to look at the long white stables, the thatched granary with walls of wattled tree boughs, and other farm buildings. In the space between the house and the dining-table we found the children, with their cousins, the French tutor, and the English governess, engaged in a game of ball called wápta, which involves much running and some skill.
To this table the samovár was brought about half past seven, and the early tea, the children’s tea, was served at twilight in the open air heavy with the perfume of the linden-trees. Late tea was always served in the house, in the large hall, accompanied by various viands, and by wild strawberries fetched by the peasant children.
That evening the count talked to me chiefly about the pamphlets on the Hopedale community and the peace doctrines advocated by Adin Ballou, which had been sent to him a short time before from America. He had then learned for the first time that his principles in that direction had been anticipated, and he seemed to be genuinely gratified to know that this was the case. He prophesied that this movement in favor of non-resistance would attract much more attention in the future than it has attracted in the past. The fate of Mr. Ballou’s community did not seem to shake his faith.
Naturally the house was the first point which engaged our attention. In 1860, Count Tolstóy, being then thirty-two years of age, made up his mind unalterably that he would never marry. All the world knows that when the count has irrevocably determined upon anything he immediately furnishes substantial proof of his convictions. On this occasion his demonstration took the form of selling the manor house, which was taken down and set up again on another estate in the same government by the purchaser. The wings of the former house alone remained, detached buildings, such as were used in the olden days to accommodate the embroiderers, weavers, peasant musicians and actors of the private troupes kept by wealthy grandees, as a theatre, or as extra apartments. The count occupied one of these wings.
Two years later he changed his mind and married. He brought his beautiful bride of half his age to this tiny wing,—it chanced to be tiny in this case, and there she lived for seventeen years. The horrible loneliness of it, especially in winter, with not a neighbor for miles, unless one reckon the village at the park gate, which could not have furnished anything but human beings, and never a congenial companion for her! Needless to say that she never had on a low-bodied gown, never went to the theatre or a ball, in all her fair young life; and to the loneliness of the country must be added the absolute loneliness during the absences of the count, who had much reading to do in Moscow for the historical portions of his great war drama. When he got tired of his village school, of his experiments upon the infant peasant mind, of things in general, he could and did go away for rest. The countess did not. Decidedly, the Countess Sophia Tolstóy is one of those truly feminine heroines who are cast into shadow by a brilliant light close to them, but a heroine none the less in more ways than need be mentioned. Her self-denial and courage gave to the world War and Peace and Anna Karénin; and she declares that were it to do over again she would not hesitate a moment. The public owes the count’s wife a great debt of gratitude, and not of reproaches, for bravely opposing his fatal desire to live in every detail the life of a peasant laborer. Can any one blessed with the faintest particle of imagination fail to perceive how great a task it has been to withstand him thus for his own good; to rear nine healthy, handsome, well-bred children out of the much larger family which they have had; to bear the entire responsibility of the household and the business?
She remarked, one day, that there was no crying need for the Russian nobility to follow her husband’s teachings and give away all their goods in order to be on a level with the peasants. Plenty of them would soon attain that blissful state of poverty in the natural course of things, since they were not only growing poorer every year, but the distribution of inheritances among the numerous children was completing the work, and very many would be reduced to laboring with their hands for a living. This is perfectly true. There is no law of primogeniture in Russia. The one established by Peter the Great having produced divers and grievous evils, besides being out of harmony with the Russian character, it was withdrawn. All the male children share equally in the father’s estate as in title. The female children receive by law only an extremely small portion of the inheritance, but their dowry is not limited.
Among the count’s most ardent followers is one of his daughters. She does everything for herself, according to his teachings, in a manner which American girls, in even moderately well-to-do families, would never dream of: She works for the peasants in various ways, and carries out her father’s ideas in other matters as far as possible. Her Spartan (or Tolstóyan) treatment of herself may be of value in character-building, as mortification of the flesh is supposed to be in general. Practically, I think the relations between peasants and nobles render her sacrifices unavailing. For example: one of the peasant women having taken ill,—there was a good deal sickness in the village,—she went to the hayfield to do the woman’s work and prevent the forfeit of fifteen or twenty cents, the price of the day’s labor. We strolled out to find her. The thermometer must have stood at 100 F, ,and although the dry inland heat can be better borne than the same amount of damp heat, it was far from being comfortable weather even for indolent persons. We found her under a tree, resting and drinking cold tea, while she awaited the return, from some errand of their devising, of the peasant women who had been at work with her. She looked wretchedly ill, and we tried to prevail on her to go back to the house with us. But the count (who was not well enough to work) happened along, and as he said nothing she decided to stay and to resume labor at once, since the women seemed to have been detained.
As we beat a retreat homeward under that burning sun, we discovered the nature of the peasant women’s urgent business. They were engaged in stripping the count’s bushes of their fruit and devouring it by the handful. We could not persuade him to interfere. “They want it, or they would not take it,” he said. It was none of our business, to be sure, but those strong, muscular women offered such a contrast, in physique and conduct, to the fair, delicate young girl whom we had just left that we felt indignant enough to attack them ourselves, if it would have done any good. The next day his daughter was more seriously ill than the peasant woman whose place she had taken. I should not have felt unhappy to learn that those women had been uncomfortably ill in consequence of their greediness.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“The adjutant’s hands trembled so with emotion that he could not apply the bandage to the prisoner’s eyes. Others tried and gave it up. Well, as soon as that man was buried his grave was covered with flowers, crosses, and all sorts of things by the peasants, who came many versts from all directions, as to the grave of a martyr. Masses for the dead were ordered there, in uninterrupted succession, by these poor peasants. The feeling was so great and appeared to be spreading to such an extent that the authorities were forced not only to prohibit access to the grave, but even to level it off so that it could not be found. But an Englishman! If he were told to cut the throat of his own father and eat him, he would do it.”
“Still, in spite of your very striking illustration, and your doubts as to my having read the papers correctly,” I remarked, “I am sure that the Russian peasant does, occasionally, murder with premeditation. He is a fine-tempered, much-enduring, admirable fellow, I admit, but he is human. He cannot be so different in this respect from all other races of men. Moreover, I have the testimony of a celebrated Russian author on my side.”
“What author? What testimony?”
“Have you ever read The Power of Darkness? The amount of deliberation, of premeditation, in any murder is often a matter of opinion; but the murder of the child in the last act of that comedy is surely deliberate enough to admit of no difference of judgment. Don’t you think that the author supports me?”
He gasped at my audacity in quoting his own writings against him, and retreated into the silence which was his resource when he could not or would not answer. Put him in a corner and he would refuse to come out.
Beggars used to come while we were eating out-of-doors; some called themselves “pilgrims.” The count would give them a little money, and they would tramp off again. One day when the birthday of an absent member of the family was being celebrated, and we were drinking healths in vodítchka (a sort of effervescent water flavored with fruit juices), we had a distinguished visitor, “Prince Románoff.” This was the crazy Balákhin mentioned in What to Do? as having had his brain turned by the sight of the luxury in the lives of others. His rags and patches, or rather this conglomeration of patches, surpassed anything we had seen that line. One of the lads jumped up and gave him a glass of raspberry vodítchka, telling him that it was rare old wine. The man sipped it, looked through it, and pretended (I am sure that it was mere pretense) to believe that it was wine. He promised us all large estates when the Emperor should give him back his own, now wrongfully withheld from him.
Balákhin stayed about the place, making himself at home with the servants, for twenty-four hours or more. I believe that he strays about among the landed proprietors of the district as a profession. In spite of his willingness to call himself “Prince Románoff “ as often as any one chose to incite him thereto, this did not impress me as a proof that he was too deranged to earn his own living, with his healthy frame, if he saw fit. I had observed the mania for titles in other persons (not all Russians, by any means) who would vigorously resent the imputation that they should be in a lunatic asylum. Moreover, this imperial “Prince Románoff” never forgot his “manners.” He invariably rose when his superiors (or his inferiors, perhaps I should say) approached, like any other peasant, and he looked far more crafty than crazy.
As the peasants were all busy haying, we postponed our visit to the village until the afternoon of SS. Peter and Paul’s day, in the hope that we should then find some of them at home. The butler’s family were drinking tea on the porch of their neat new log house with a tinned roof, at the end of the village near the park gate. They rose and invited us to honor them with our company and share their meal. We declined, for lack of time.
One of the count’s daughters had told me of a curious difference existing between the cut of the aprons of maidens and of those of married women. I had been incredulous, and she suggested that I put the matter to the test by asking the first married woman whom we should see. We found a pretty woman, with beautiful brown eyes and exquisite teeth (whose whiteness and soundness are said to be the result of the sour black bread which the peasants eat exclusively), standing at the door of her cottage.
“Here’s your chance!
“Show me your window, please,” I said.
She laughed, and turned her back to me. There was the “window,” sure enough. The peasant apron, which is fastened under the armpits, is pretty evenly distributed as to fullness all the way round, and in the case of a maiden falls in straight lines in the back. But the married woman makes hers with a semicircular opening a few inches below the band. The points of the opening are connected by a loop of fringe, a couple of cords not always tied, or anything that comes handy apparently for ornament. Now when the husband feels moved to demonstrate his affection for his spouse by administering a beating, he is not obliged to fumble and grope among those straight folds for the awkward triangular little opening, quite unsuited to accommodate his fist. He can grasp her promptly by the neck of her chemise and this comfortable semicircle, and not force her to doubt his love by delay and hesitation in expression. I asked the pretty woman if her husband found it very useful. “Sometimes,” she answered nonchalantly. The Russian peasant theory is: “No beating, no jealousy; no jealousy, no love.
She offered to sell us a new petticoat similar to the one which she wore. It was of homespun, hard-twisted wool étamine, very durable, of a sort which is made, with slight variations; in several governments. Ordinarily, in this district, it is of a bright scarlet plaited off with lines of white and yellow. A breadth of dark blue cotton cloth is always inserted in the left side. When a woman is in mourning, the same plaid on a dark blue foundation is used. Married women wear coarse chemises and aprons of homespun linen and their braided hair coiled on top of the head imparts a coronet shape to the gay cotton kerchief which is folded across the brow and knotted at the nape of the neck.
Young girls wear cotton chemises and aprons and print dresses, all purchased, not home made. It is considered that if a girl performs her due share of the house and field work she will not have time to weave more than enough linen for her wedding outfit, and the purchase of what is needed before that unhappy event is regarded as a certificate of industry. I call it an unhappy event because from the moment of her betrothal the prospective bride wears mourning garments. Black beads for the neck are the height of fashion here.
The girl’s gown, called a sarafán, is plaited straight and full into a narrow band, and suspended just below the armpits by cross-bands over the shoulders. She prefers for it plain scarlet cotton (kumátch), or scarlet printed in designs of yellow, white, and green. Her head kerchief matches in style. Her betrothal gown and kerchief have a dark blue or black ground with colored figures.
The bargain for the petticoat was closed at two rubles, its real worth, subject to “sister’s approbation,”—an afterthought on the part of the pretty woman. When she brought it to us at the house, a couple of hours later, modestly concealed under her apron, and with her sister’s blessing, she demanded half a ruble more, because we had not beaten her down, and perhaps also as an equivalent for sister’s consent.
She showed us her cottage, which was luxurious, since it had a brick half for winter use, exactly corresponding to the summer half of logs. Behind, in a wattled enclosure, were the animals and farming implements. It was not a cheerful dwelling, with its tiny windows, wall benches to serve as seats and beds, pine table, images in the corner, great whitewashed oven, in which the cooking was done, and on which, near the ceiling, they could sleep, and sheepskin coats as well as other garments lying about.
Practically, a small Russian village consists of one street, since those peasants who live on the occasional parallel or side lanes are “no account folks,” and not in fashion. It seemed inconsistent that ranks and degrees should exist in peasant villages; but human nature is much the same in the country as in capitals, even in the village of the man who advocates absolute equality of poverty, and despite the views of my merry izvóstchik Alexéi.
The aged mother of the woman to whom the count’s daughter was carrying a gift of a new kerchief was at home, and bestowed some smacking hisses in thanks. The old woman even ran after us to discharge another volley of gratitude on the young countess’s pretty cheeks.
In the evening we set out once more for the village, to see the choral dances and hear the songs with which the peasants celebrate their holidays. A dozen or so of small peasant girls, pupils of the count’s daughter, who had invited themselves to swing on the Giant Steps on the lawn opposite the count’s study windows, abandoned their amusement and accompanied us down the avenue, fairly howling an endless song in shrill voices that went through one’s nerves.
The Giant Steps I may describe here, since it is a favorite gymnastic apparatus. A tall, stout mast is planted securely in the earth. On its iron-bound top rests a heavy iron ring, which moves freely and to which are attached six or eight heavy cables touching the ground. Each cable is grasped by a person as high up as the arms will reach. All run round, holding the ropes, until sufficient impetus is acquired; then they sail through the air supported only by the arms. For small children the cables are looped and padded into seats close to the ground; but these can also be used in the ordinary way.
As we emerged from the shadows of the avenue and proceeded up the broad grassy village street to the place of assembly, the children dispersed. A crowd was collected at a fairly level spot ready for the dancing. All wore their gayest clothes. The full moon, with brilliant Jupiter close beside her, furnished an ideally picturesque light, and displayed the scene to the greatest advantage. Low gray cottages framed the whole.
It was a grand occasion. One of the count’s sons had brought his violin, his cousin had a balalaika, a triangular peasant guitar, and one of the lackeys had his harmonica, to play for the dancing. The young men sat on a rough improvised bench; the servant stood beside them. The peasants seemed shy. They hesitated and argued a good deal over beginning each song. Finally they joined hands and circled slowly to the tones of the generally monotonous air. Some of the melodies were lively and pleasing, but the Great Russian peasant woman’s voice is undeniably shrill. The dancing, when some bold peasants ventured to enter the circle, after much urging and pushing, was far tamer and more unvarying than I had seen elsewhere. We felt very grateful to the maid, Tatiána, for stepping forward with spirit and giving us a touch of the genuine thing.
Alas! the fruits of Tatiána’s civilization were but too visible in her gown of yellow print flounced to the waist and with a tight-fitting bodice. The peasant costume suits the dance far better. Her partner was unworthy of her, and did not perform the squat-and-leap step in proper form. She needed Fómitch, the butler, who had been obliged to stay at home and serve tea; to his regret, no doubt, since we were informed that “he danced as though he had ten devils in his body.” As we saw no prospect of any devils at all,—and they are very necessary for the proper dash in Russian dancing,—we strolled home, past the pond where the women were wont to wash their clothes, and up the dark avenue. Perhaps the requisite demons arrived after our departure. It was a characteristic scene, and one not readily to be forgotten.
One of the most enjoyable incidents of the evening was the rehearsal of the maid’s coquettish steps and graces given by one of our young hostesses for the benefit of those members of the family who had not been present. It reminded us of the scene in War and Peace after the hunt, when charming young Countess Natálya Ilínitchna astonishes her old relative by her artistic performance of the Russian dance, which she must have inherited with the traditions of her native land, since she had never learned it.
Balaláika duets were one of the joys of our evenings under the trees, after dinner. The young men played extremely well, and the popular airs were fascinating. Our favorite was the Báruinya Sudáruinya, which invariably brings out volleys of laughter and plaudits when it is sung on the stage. Even a person who hears it played for the first time and is ignorant of the words is constrained to laughter by the merry air. In the evenings there were also hare-and-hounds hunts through the meadows and forests, bonfires over which the younger members of the family jumped in peasant fashion, and other amusements.
In consequence of vegetarian indiscretions and of trifling with his health in other ways during the exceptionally hot weather then prevailing, the count fell ill. When he got about a little he delighted to talk of death. He said he felt that he was not going to live long, and was glad of it. He asked what we thought of death and the other world, declaring that the future life must be far better than this, though in what it consisted he could not feel any certainty. Naturally he did not agree with our view, that for the lucky ones this world provides a very fair idea of heaven, because his ideal was not happiness for all, but misery for all. He will be forced to revise this ideal if he ever really comes to believe in heaven.
During this illness I persuaded him to read Looking Backward, which I had received as I was leaving Moscow. When I presented it to him he promised to examine it “some time;” but when I give books I like to hear the opinion of the recipient in detail, and I had had experience when I gave him Robert Elsmere. Especially in this case was I anxious to discuss the work.
At first he was very favorably impressed, and said that he would translate the book into Russian. He believed that this was the true way that people should have, literally, all things in common, and so on. I replied that matters would never arrive at the state described unless this planet were visited by another deluge, and neither Noah nor any other animal endowed with the present human attributes saved to continue this selfish species. I declared that nothing short of a new planet, Utopia, and a newly created, selected, and combined race of Utopian angels, would ever get as far as the personages in that book, not to speak of remaining in equilibrium on that dizzy point when it should have been once attained. He disagreed with me, and an argument royal ensued. In the course of it he said that this only objection lay in the degree of luxury in which the characters of the new perfection lived.
“What harm is there in comfort and luxury to any extent,” I asked, “provided that all enjoy it?
“Luxury is all wrong,” he answered severely. “You perceive the sinful luxury in which I live,” waving his hand towards the excessively plain furniture, and animadverting with special bitterness on the silver forks and spoons. “It is all a fallacy that we can raise those below us by remaining above them. We must descend to their level in habits, intelligence, and life; then all will rise together.”
“Even bread must have yeast; and if we all make ourselves exactly alike, who is to act as yeast? Are we to adopt all vices of the lower classes? That would be the speediest way of putting ourselves on a complete equality with them. But if some of us do not remain yeast, we shall all turn out the flattest sort of dough.”
“We certainly cannot change the position of a thing unless we go close enough to grasp it, unless we are on the same plane with it.”
“Perhaps not; but being on the same plane does not always answer. Did you ever see an acrobat try that trick? He puts one leg on the table, then tries to lift his whole body by grasping the other leg and putting it on a level to begin with. Logically, it ought to succeed and carry the body with it, if your theory is correct. However, it remains merely a curious and amusing experiment, likely to result in a broken neck to any one not skilled in gymnastics, and certain to end in a tumble even for the one who is thus skilled.”
He reiterated his arguments. I retorted that human beings were not moral kangaroos, who could proceed by leaps, and that even the kangaroo is obliged to allow the tip of his tail to follow his paws. I said that in the moral as well in the physical world it is simply a choice between standing still and putting one foot before the other; that one cannot get upstairs by remaining on the bottom step; one member of the body must rise first.
We were obliged to agree to disagree as usual, but I fancy that he may have hanged to my opinion of the subject by this time. I have already noted that he is open to influence.
One evening, as we sat on the steps of the uncovered terrace outside the study, the conversation fell on the book which he was then engaged upon, and which the countess had shown us that she was copying for the fourth time. He had been busy on it for two years. Neither of them went into details or mentioned the plot, but I had heard on my arrival in Russia, twenty months previously, that it related to the murder of a woman by her husband, and had a railway scene in it. I did not interrogate them, and when the count said that he hoped I would translate the book when it should be finished, I accepted the proposal with alacrity. I inquired whether I was to read it then.
“You may if you wish,” was the reply, “but I shall probably make some changes, and I should prefer that you would wait; but that shall be as you please.”
His wife said that he might suddenly take a fancy to view the subject from an entirely different point, and write book all over.
I declined to anticipate my future pleasure by even glancing at it, and asked no questions. Neither did I to see The Fruits of Civilization, which was already written and named. I was not there to exploit their hospitality.
The count and his wife differed on what ought to be the fate of the coming volume. He wished to give it to the world (that is, to some publisher) for nothing. She argued that some one publisher at least, would make money out of it; then why not let his own family have the profit, as was just? He insisted that it was wrong, inconsistent, in the same strain as he discusses the subject of his writings in What to Do? But she urged him, in case he would, not consent to justice, to leave the manuscript with her, unpublished, so that the family could use it after his death. (When the book was ready it was named The Kreutzer Sonata.)
I think that every one must side with the countess in her view of this matter and in her management of the family. It is owing solely to her that the younger members of the family are receiving that education to fit them for their struggle with life which her husband bestowed upon the elder members voluntarily. It is due to her alone, also, that her husband is still alive. It is not an easy task to protect the count against himself. One adds to one’s admiration for the count’s literary genius an admiration for the countess’s talent and good sense by an extended acquaintance with this family.
More than one community has been organized for the express purpose of carrying out the life of toll which Count Tolstóy has advocated at times. One of these communities, of which I had direct information, purchased an estate of a landed proprietor, including the manor house, and began to work. This acquisition of an estate by them, while the count would like to give away his as sinful to retain, does not strike one as a good beginning. However, they did not use the manor house, but lived in one small peasant hut. “They all slept on the floor and benches, men and women,” said a Russian to me. A wealthy man had sold his property to join this community against the wishes of his wife, who accompanied him nevertheless. When her baby came, they allowed her to occupy a room in the mansion and required no work from her, since she had the care of the child.
“They never swept or scrubbed anything, and they propagated every insect known to man, and probably a few new ones.” But the count has never preached this doctrine, or that an indefinite number of persons should occupy a single cottage. Thus do his too enthusiastic disciples discredit him by running into excesses.
So far as he is concerned, there is not the slightest doubt that he would gladly attempt the life which he advocates. But if he were to take up his residence in a peasant’s cottage, and try to support himself on what his labors brought in exclusively, he would be dead in less than a month. He suffers from liver disease; he has not been used to hard labor from early youth; he cannot, at his age, accustom himself to it any more than he can compel his stomach to accept a purely vegetable diet in place of the meat diet on which he has been brought up. He strives conscientiously to do it. Even the fits of illness caused by his severe treatment of himself do not break his spirit. He exercises not the slightest calculation or forethought in the care of his health, either before it breaks down or afterwards. For example: about five years ago he bruised his leg seriously against the wheel of a peasant cart. Instead of resting it he persisted in working. Erysipelas developed. The Túla doctor paid him numerous visits, at fifteen rubles a visit. Then gangrene threatened, and a doctor was sent for from Moscow. He was a celebrity; price, three hundred and fifty rubles. This was penny wise and pound foolish, of course. But in all probability the count feels the responsibility of exerting his will in this matter of labor all the more because it does not come easy to him, and he attributes to weakness of will power what a peasant would recognize as simple physical exhaustion. The peasant would not hesitate to climb to the top of his oven and stay there until his illness was over, with not a thought whether the work were done or not; and yet the peasant would work far beyond the bounds of what one would suppose that a man could endure. But Count Tolstóy overrates his powers of endurance, and, having exhausted his forces in one desperate spurt, he is naturally obliged to spend more than a corresponding amount of time in recuperating, even if no serious complication intervenes; and this gives rise to the accusation of laziness and insincerity from those who chance to see him in one of these intervals of rest.
Another point which is too often lost sight of by people who disapprove of his labor theories is that, while he advocates living in all respects like a peasant, descending to that level in mind as well as in body, which doctrine seems to include the incessant toil of the masses, he has also announced his theory that men should divide their time each day between (1) hard labor unto perspiration and callosities; (2) the exercise of some useful handicraft; (3) exercise of the brain in writing and reading; (4) social intercourse, sixteen hours in all. This is not a programme which a peasant could follow out. In summer, during the “suffering” season, the peasant toils in the fields for nearly the whole of the twenty-four hours instead of the four thus allotted. In winter, when no field labor is possible, he is likely to spend much more than four hours at whatever remunerative handicraft he may be acquainted with, or in intercourse with his fellowmen (detrimental as likely as not), and a good deal less in reading at any season of the year, for lack of instruction, interest, or books. On the other hand, this reasonable régime is not practicable for many men of other than peasant rank. It happens to be perfectly practicable for Count Tolstóy when his health permits. But as he has also said much about doing everything for one’s self, earning in some form of common labor all that one spends, those who remember this only, and who know how little can be earned by a whole day’s toil in Russia, not to mention toil divided between two branches, which agriculture does not permit, are not altogether to blame for jumping to the conclusion that the count makes no effort to practice what he preaches. He does what he can. He is reproached with having made over his property to his wife and with living as before. It is really difficult to see what other course is open to him. An unmarried man, under obligations to no one but himself, may reasonably be blamed for not carrying out the doctrine which he volunteers to teach the world. A married man can only be blamed for volunteering the doctrine. No blame can possibly attach to the wife who defends the interests of the family to the extent of working havoc with his doctrines.
Even if Count Tolstóy were able to support himself, he certainly could not support a wife and the nine living children out of sixteen which he has had. There is no justice in expecting the adult members of the family to accept and practice his doctrines. They do not compel him to accept theirs, though they are in the majority. The little ones could not feed themselves, even were they ideal peasant children. It would be nearer the truth to say that the countess has taken possession of the property; she administers it wisely and economically, for the good of the family and her husband. She issued about five years ago a cheaper edition of her husband’s works, the only edition available hitherto having been very expensive. The wisdom of her steps was proved by the large profits derived from it in the course of three years,—fifty thousand dollars,—all of which was applied to the needs of the family.
The count is not the only one at Yásnaya Polyána to deny himself. For the past two winters the whole family have remained on the estate, and have not gone to Moscow, with the exception of one who is in business at the capital, one member who is at his studies, and one who is married and resides on another estate. This is because the income did not amount to a certain sum, a very moderate sum in American eyes, without which a stay in town would have been imprudent.
The question naturally follows: If the countess holds the property, and the count continues to get the good of it, in a modest way; if the count does not do everything for himself, and earn his daily bread by manual toil, is not he mentally unbalanced to proclaim his theories to the world, and to change his mind so often on other points?
The answer is: No. Undoubtedly the count, when he attained to his convictions on the subject of poverty and labor, hoped to carry his family with him. The countess, like a brave woman, like a devoted wife and mother, refused to adopt his views. She is willing to shoulder the responsibility of her refusal, and her conduct is an honor to her. As for his changes of doctrine, we are all very much like him in the matter of inconsistency. Only, as very few of us enjoy the renown or the authority of Count Tolstóy, it rarely occurs to us to proclaim our progressive opinions to the world; at most, one or two experiences cure us of that weakness, even if any one thinks it worth while to notice them in the slightest degree. Very few of us are so deeply rooted in our convictions, or so impressed with their importance to the world as principles, that we will raise a finger to defend them. We alternately know that we shall never change them again, and suspect that we may see something better at any moment; and we refrain from committing ourselves unnecessarily in any form which can be brought up against us hereafter.
The case is precisely the reverse with Count Tolstóy. He is so full of the missionary spirit, so persuaded of the truth and value of his beliefs, that he rushes into print with them instantly. There they are, all ready for those who do not sympathize with him to use as missiles when he gets a new inspiration. Change of opinion is generally progress. Continuity, an absolute lack of change, means stagnation and death in the mental as well as in the physical world. As the count is impressionable and reads much, his reading and meditation are fruitful of novelties, which he bravely submits to the judgment of the world without pausing to consider whether they coincide with his other utterances or not. That he does not always express his abstract ideas clearly is the inevitable result of the lack of philosophical training.
But enthusiastic souls who grieve over the imperfections in the present organization of society are always waiting for some one of warmer zeal lead them. Such persons perceive the ideal side of every argument, interpret doctrines with their hearts, not with their heads, and are fired by the newest conception of social relations. As one of the most marked characteristics of Count Tolstóy lies in infusing his own personality into every word he writes, it is only natural that these people should adopt him as their guide. It is not the fault of any one in particular that he has abandoned a doctrine by the time others have mastered it. The only refuge is in the cry of Hamlet:—
“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite! That ever I was born to set it right.”.
Thus much I think I may say of the home life of the famous Russian writer without sinning against the duties imposed by the frank and cordial hospitality for which we are indebted to the family. It has seemed time to enter a protest against various misrepresentations and misconceptions in regard to them which are current. In conclusion, I beg leave to explain that my spelling of the name is that used by themselves when writing in English, and in print upon their French cards.
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