The following tales are, with one exception, taken from the second volume of Count L. N. Tolstoy’s collected works, and are representative of his literary activity between 1852 and 1859.
The first story, though only a fragment of a projected novel to be called “A Russian Proprietor,” is perfect and complete in itself. One cannot help feeling that it is autobiographical; Count Tolstoy himself, it will be remembered, having suddenly quitted the University of Kazan, in spite of the entreaties of his friends, and retired to his paternal estate of Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula. The aunt whose letter is quoted in the first chapter must have been Count Tolstoy’s aunt, mentioned in the second chapter of “My Confession.”
The “Recollections of a Scorer” and “Two Hussars” are both evidently reminiscent of Count Tolstoy’s gambling-days. Both must have been suggested by some such terrible experience as that told of the count’s gambling-debt in the Caucasus.
“Lucerne” and “Albert” are likewise evidently transcripts from the author’s own experience. The strange benefactor in each, and the shadowy Prince Nekhliudof, are all Count Tolstoy in phases quite distinct from what he is at present.
“The Three Deaths,” written in 1859, has little of the sombre power of “Iván Ilyitch.” The scalpel which was so remorselessly applied to the soul in the latter is wholly hidden. It is realism pure and simple; and the contrast between the death of the peasant and of the lady is left to inference, made all the stronger by the unexpected and grandiose finale in the death of the tree.
In interesting contrast to these characteristic stories is the little gem entitled “A Prisoner in the Caucasus,” which is found in Vol. IV. of the Count’s works under the heading “Tales for Children.” The style is perfectly simple and lucid; the pictures of life in the Tatar village among the mountains are intensely vivid, painted with strong and masterly touches; and the reader will not soon forget the little laughing maiden Dina, with the rubles jingling in her braided hair. She stands forth as one of the most fascinating of the author’s creations.
NATHAN HASKELL DOLE.
Boston, Dec. 5, 1887.
Prince Nekhliudof was nineteen years of age when, at the end of his third term at the university, he came to spend his summer vacation on his estate. He was alone there all the summer.
In the autumn he wrote in his unformed, boyish hand, a letter to his aunt, the Countess Biéloretskaïa, who, according to his notion, was his best friend, and the most genial woman in the world. The letter was in French, and was to the following effect: —
“Dear Auntie, — I have adopted a resolution upon which must depend the fate of my whole existence. I have left the university in order to devote myself to a country life, because I feel that I was born for it. For God’s sake, dear auntie, don’t make sport of me. You say that I am young. Perhaps I am still almost a child; but this does not prevent me from feeling sure of my vocation, from wishing to accomplish it successfully, and from loving it.
“As I have already written you, I found our affairs in indescribable confusion. Wishing to bring order out of chaos, I made an investigation, and discovered that the principal trouble was due to the most wretched miserable condition of the peasants, and that this trouble could be remedied only by work and patience.
“If you could only see two of my peasants, David and Iván, and the way that they and their families live, I am convinced that one glance at these two unfortunates would do more to persuade you than all that I can tell you in justification of my resolve. Is not my obligation sacred and clear, to labor for the welfare of these seven hundred human beings for whom I must be responsible to God? Would it not be a sin to leave them to the mercy of harsh elders and overseers, so as to carry out plans of enjoyment or ambition? And why should I seek in any other sphere the opportunity of being useful, and doing good, when such a noble, brilliant, and paramount duty lies right at hand?
“I feel that I am capable of being a good farmer; and in order to make myself such an one as I understand the word to mean, I do not need my diploma as B.A., nor the rank which you so expect of me. Dear auntie, do not make ambitious plans for me: accustom yourself to the thought that I am going on an absolutely peculiar path, but one that is good, and, I think, will bring me to happiness. I have thought and thought about my future duties, have written out some rules of conduct, and, if God only gives me health and strength, I shall succeed in my undertaking.
“Do not show this letter to my brother Vásya: I am afraid of his ridicule. He generally dictates to me, and I am accustomed to give way to him. Whilst Vanya may not approve of my resolve, at least he will understand it.”
The countess replied to her nephew in the following letter, also written in French: —
“Your letter, dear Dmitri, showed nothing else to me than that you have a warm heart; and I have never had reason to doubt that. But, my dear, our good tendencies do us more harm in life than our bad ones. I will not tell you that you are committing a folly, that your behavior annoys me; but I will do my best to make one argument have an effect upon you. Let us reason together, my dear.
“You say you feel that your vocation is for a country life; that you wish to make your serfs happy, and that you hope to be a good farmer.
“In the first place, I must tell you that we feel sure of our vocation only when we have once made a mistake in one; secondly, that it is easier to win happiness for ourselves than for others; and thirdly, that, in order to be a good master, it is necessary to be a cold and austere man, which you will never in this world succeed in being, even though you strive to make believe that you are.
“You consider your arguments irresistible, and go so far as to adopt them as rules for the conduct of life; but at my age, my dear, people don’t care for arguments and rules, but only for experience. Now, experience tells me that your plans are childish.
“I am now in my fiftieth year, and I have known many fine men; but I have never heard of a young man of good family and ability burying himself in the country under the pretext of doing good.
“You have always wished to appear original, but your originality is nothing else than morbidly developed egotism. And, my dear, choose some better-trodden path. It will lead you to success; and success, if it is not necessary for you as success, is at least indispensable in giving you the possibility of doing good which you desire. The poverty of a few serfs is an unavoidable evil, or, rather, an evil which cannot be remedied by forgetting all your obligations to society, to your relatives, and to yourself.
“With your intellect, with your kind heart, and your love for virtue, no career would fail to bring you success; but at all events choose one which would be worth your while, and bring you honor.
“I believe that you are sincere, when you say that you are free from ambition; but you are deceiving yourself. Ambition is a virtue at your age, and with your means it becomes a fault and an absurdity when a man is no longer in the condition to satisfy this passion.
“And you will experience this if you do not change your intention. Good-by, dear Mitya. It seems to me that I have all the more love for you on account of your foolish but still noble and magnanimous plan. Do as you please, but I forewarn you that I shall not be able to sympathize with you.”
The young man read this letter, considered it long and seriously, and finally, having decided that his genial aunt might be mistaken, sent in his petition for dismissal from the university, and took up his residence at his estate.
The young proprietor had, as he wrote his aunt, devised a plan of action in the management of his estate; and his whole life and activity were measured by hours, days, and months.
Sunday was reserved for the reception of petitioners, domestic servants, and peasants, for the visitation of the poor serfs belonging to the estate, and the distribution of assistance with the approval of the Commune, which met every Sunday evening, and was obliged to decide who should have help, and what amount should be given.
In such employments passed more than a year, and the young man was now no longer a novice either in the practical or theoretical knowledge of estate management.
It was a clear July Sunday when Nekhliudof, having finished his coffee and run through a chapter of “Maison Rustique,” put his note-book and a packet of bank-notes into the pocket of his light overcoat, and started out of doors. It was a great country-house with colonnades and terraces where he lived, but he occupied only one small room on the ground floor. He made his way over the neglected, weed-grown paths of the old English garden, toward the village, which was distributed along both sides of the highway.
Nekhliudof was a tall, slender young man, with long, thick, wavy auburn hair, with a bright gleam in his dark eyes, a clear complexion, and rosy lips where the first down of young manhood was now beginning to appear.
In all his motions and gait, could be seen strength, energy, and the good-natured self-satisfaction of youth.
The serfs, in variegated groups, were returning from church: old men, maidens, children, mothers with babies in their arms, dressed in their Sunday best, were scattering to their homes; and as they met the bárin they bowed low and made room for him to pass.
After Nekhliudof had walked some distance along the street, he stopped, and drew from his pocket his note-book, on the last page of which, inscribed in his own boyish hand, were a number of names of his serfs with memoranda. He read, “Iván Churis asks for aid;” and then, proceeding still farther along the street, entered the gate of the second hut on the right.
Churis’s domicile consisted of a half-decayed structure, with musty corners; the sides were rickety. It was so buried in the ground, that the banking, made of earth and dung, almost hid the two windows. The one on the front had a broken sash, and the shutters were half torn away; the other was small and low, and was stuffed with flax. A boarded entry with rotting sills and low door, another small building still older and still lower-studded than the entry, a gate, and a barn were clustered about the principal hut.
All this had once been covered by one irregular roof; but now only over the eaves hung the thick straw, black and decaying. Above, in places, could be seen the frame-work and rafters.
In front of the yard were a well with rotten curb, the remains of a post, and the wheel, and a mud-puddle stirred up by the cattle where some ducks were splashing.
Near the well stood two old willows, split and broken, with their whitish-green foliage. They were witnesses to the fact that some one, some time, had taken interest in beautifying this place. Under one of them sat a fair-haired girl of seven summers, watching another little girl of two, who was creeping at her feet. The watch-dog gambolling about them, as soon as he saw the bárin, flew headlong under the gate, and there set up a quavering yelp expressive of panic.
“Iván at home?” asked Nekhliudof.
The little girl seemed stupefied at this question, and kept opening her eyes wider and wider, but made no reply. The baby opened her mouth, and set up a yell.
A little old woman, in a torn checkered skirt, belted low with an old red girdle, peered out of the door, and also said nothing. Nekhliudof approached the entry, and repeated his inquiry.
“Yes, he’s at home,” replied the little old woman in a quavering voice, bowing low, and evincing timidity and agitation.
After Nekhliudof had asked after her health, and passed through the entry into the little yard, the old woman, resting her chin in her hand, went to the door, and, without taking her eyes off the bárin, began gently to shake her head.
The yard was in a wretched condition, with heaps of old blackened manure that had not been carried away: on the manure were thrown in confusion a rotting block, pitchforks, and two harrows.
There were pent-houses around the yard, under one side of which stood a wooden plough, a cart without a wheel, and a pile of empty good-for-nothing bee-hives thrown one upon another. The roof was in disrepair; and one side had fallen in so that the covering in front rested, not on the supports, but on the manure.
Churis, with the edge and head of an axe, was breaking off the wattles that strengthened the roof. Iván was a peasant, fifty years of age. In stature, he was short. The features of his tanned oval face, framed in a dark auburn beard and hair where a trace of gray was beginning to appear, were handsome and expressive. His dark blue eyes gleamed with intelligence and lazy good-nature, from under half-shut lids. His small, regular mouth, sharply defined under his sandy thin mustache when he smiled, betrayed a calm self-confidence, and a certain bantering indifference toward all around him.
By the roughness of his skin, by his deep wrinkles, by the veins that stood out prominently on his neck, face, and hands, by his unnatural stoop and the crooked position of his legs, it was evident that all his life had been spent in hard work, far beyond his strength.
His garb consisted of white hempen drawers, with blue patches on the knees, and a dirty shirt of the same material, which kept hitching up his back and arms. The shirt was belted low in the waist by a girdle, from which hung a brass key.
“Good-day,” said the bárin, as he stepped into the yard. Churis glanced around, and kept on with his work; making energetic motions, he finished clearing away the wattles from under the shed, and then only, having struck the axe into the block, he came out into the middle of the yard.