Chapter XXI - Landed Proprietors Of The Old School
Of all the foreign countries in which I have travelled, Russia certainly bears off the palm in the matter of hospitality. Every spring I found myself in possession of a large number of invitations from landed proprietors in different parts of the country--far more than I could possibly accept--and a great part of the summer was generally spent in wandering about from one country- house to another. I have no intention of asking the reader to accompany me in all these expeditions--for though pleasant in reality, they might be tedious in description--but I wish to introduce him to some typical examples of the landed proprietors. Among them are to be found nearly all ranks and conditions of men, from the rich magnate, surrounded with the refined luxury of West- European civilisation, to the poor, ill-clad, ignorant owner of a few acres which barely supply him with the necessaries of life. Let us take, first of all, a few specimens from the middle ranks.
In one of the central provinces, near the bank of a sluggish, meandering stream, stands an irregular group of wooden constructions--old, unpainted, blackened by time, and surmounted by high, sloping roofs of moss-covered planks. The principal building is a long, one-storied dwelling-house, constructed at right angles to the road. At the front of the house is a spacious, ill-kept yard, and at the back an equally spacious shady, garden, in which art carries on a feeble conflict with encroaching nature. At the other side of the yard, and facing the front door--or rather the front doors, for there are two--stand the stables, hay-shed, and granary, and near to that end of the house which is farthest from the road are two smaller houses, one of which is the kitchen, and the other the Lyudskaya, or servants' apartments. Beyond these we can perceive, through a single row of lime-trees, another group of time-blackened wooden constructions in a still more dilapidated condition. That is the farmyard.
There is certainly not much symmetry in the disposition of these buildings, but there is nevertheless a certain order and meaning in the apparent chaos. All the buildings which do not require stoves are built at a considerable distance from the dwelling-house and kitchen, which are more liable to take fire; and the kitchen stands by itself, because the odour of cookery where oil is used is by no means agreeable, even for those whose olfactory nerves are not very sensitive. The plan of the house is likewise not without a certain meaning. The rigorous separation of the sexes, which formed a characteristic trait of old Russian society, has long since disappeared, but its influence may still be traced in houses built on the old model. The house in question is one of these, and consequently it is composed of three sections--at the one end the male apartments, at the other the female apartments, and in the middle the neutral territory, comprising the dining-room and the salon. This arrangement has its conveniences, and explains the fact that the house has two front doors. At the back is a third door, which opens from the neutral territory into a spacious verandah overlooking the garden.
Here lives, and has lived for many years, Ivan Ivanovitch K----, a gentleman of the old school, and a very worthy man of his kind. If we look at him as he sits in his comfortable armchair, with his capacious dressing-gown hanging loosely about him, we shall be able to read at a glance something of his character. Nature endowed him with large bones and broad shoulders, and evidently intended him to be a man of great muscular power, but he has contrived to frustrate this benevolent intention, and has now more fat than muscle. His close-cropped head is round as a bullet, and his features are massive and heavy, but the heaviness is relieved by an expression of calm contentment and imperturbable good-nature, which occasionally blossoms into a broad grin. His face is one of those on which no amount of histrionic talent could produce a look of care and anxiety, and for this it is not to blame, for such an expression has never been demanded of it. Like other mortals, he sometimes experiences little annoyances, and on such occasions his small grey eyes sparkle and his face becomes suffused with a crimson glow that suggests apoplexy; but ill-fortune has never been able to get sufficiently firm hold of him to make him understand what such words as care and anxiety mean. Of struggle, disappointment, hope, and all the other feelings which give to human life a dramatic interest, he knows little by hearsay and nothing by experience. He has, in fact, always lived outside of that struggle for existence which modern philosophers declare to be the law of nature.
Somewhere about seventy years ago Ivan Ivan'itch was born in the house where he still lives. His first lessons he received from the parish priest, and afterwards he was taught by a deacon's son, who had studied in the ecclesiastical seminary to so little purpose that he was unable to pass the final examination. By both of these teachers he was treated with extreme leniency, and was allowed to learn as little as he chose. His father wished him to study hard, but his mother was afraid that study might injure his health, and accordingly gave him several holidays every week. Under these circumstances his progress was naturally not very rapid, and he was still very slightly acquainted with the elementary rules of arithmetic, when his father one day declared that he was already eighteen years of age, and must at once enter the service.
But what kind of service? Ivan had no natural inclination for any kind of activity. The project of entering him as a Junker in a cavalry regiment, the colonel of which was an old friend of the family, did not at all please him. He had no love for military service, and positively disliked the prospect of an examination. Whilst seeming, therefore, to bow implicitly to the paternal authority, he induced his mother to oppose the scheme.
The dilemma in which Ivan found himself was this: in deference to his father he wished to be in the service and gain that official rank which every Russian noble desires to possess, and at the same time, in deference to his mother and his own tastes, he wished to remain at home and continue his indolent mode of life. The Marshal of the Noblesse, who happened to call one day, helped him out of the difficulty by offering to inscribe him as secretary in the Dvoryanskaya Opeka, a bureau which acts as curator for the estates of minors. All the duties of this office could be fulfilled by a paid secretary, and the nominal occupant would be periodically promoted as if he were an active official. This was precisely what Ivan required. He accepted eagerly the proposal, and obtained, in the course of seven years, without any effort on his part, the rank of "collegiate secretary," corresponding to the "capitaine-en- second" of the military hierarchy. To mount higher he would have had to seek some place where he could not have fulfilled his duty by proxy, so he determined to rest on his laurels, and sent in his resignation.
Immediately after the termination of his official life his married life began. Before his resignation had been accepted he suddenly found himself one morning on the high road to matrimony. Here again there was no effort on his part. The course of true love, which is said never to run smooth for ordinary mortals, ran smooth for him. He never had even the trouble of proposing. The whole affair was arranged by his parents, who chose as bride for their son the only daughter of their nearest neighbour. The young lady was only about sixteen years of age, and was not remarkable for beauty, talent, or any other peculiarity, but she had one very important qualification--she was the daughter of a man who had an estate contiguous to their own, and who might give as a dowry a certain bit of land which they had long desired to add to their own property. The negotiations, being of a delicate nature, were entrusted to an old lady who had a great reputation for diplomatic skill in such matters, and she accomplished her mission with such success that in the course of a few weeks the preliminaries were arranged and the day fixed for the wedding. Thus Ivan Ivan'itch won his bride as easily as he had won his tchin of "collegiate secretary."
Though the bridegroom had received rather than taken to himself a wife, and did not imagine for a moment that he was in love, he had no reason to regret the choice that was made for him. Maria Petrovna was exactly suited by character and education to be the wife of a man like Ivan Ivan'itch. She had grown up at home in the society of nurses and servant-maids, and had never learned anything more than could be obtained from the parish priest and from "Ma'mselle," a personage occupying a position midway between a servant-maid and a governess. The first events of her life were the announcement that she was to be married and the preparations for the wedding. She still remembers the delight which the purchase of her trousseau afforded her, and keeps in her memory a full catalogue of the articles bought. The first years of her married life were not very happy, for she was treated by her mother-in-law as a naughty child who required to be frequently snubbed and lectured; but she bore the discipline with exemplary patience, and in due time became her own mistress and autocratic ruler in all domestic affairs. From that time she has lived an active, uneventful life. Between her and her husband there is as much mutual attachment as can reasonably be expected in phlegmatic natures after half a century of matrimony. She has always devoted her energies to satisfying his simple material wants--of intellectual wants he has none--and securing his comfort in every possible way. Under this fostering care he "effeminated himself" (obabilsya), as he is wont to say. His love of shooting died out, he cared less and less to visit his neighbours, and each successive year he spent more and more time in his comfortable arm-chair.
The daily life of this worthy couple is singularly regular and monotonous, varying only with the changing seasons. In summer Ivan Ivan'itch gets up about seven o'clock, and puts on, with the assistance of his valet de chambre, a simple costume, consisting chiefly of a faded, plentifully stained dressing-gown. Having nothing particular to do, he sits down at the open window and looks into the yard. As the servants pass he stops and questions them, and then gives them orders, or scolds them, as circumstances demand. Towards nine o'clock tea is announced, and he goes into the dining-room--a long, narrow apartment with bare wooden floor and no furniture but a table and chairs, all in a more or less rickety condition. Here he finds his wife with the tea-urn before her. In a few minutes the grandchildren come in, kiss their grandpapa's hand, and take their places round the table. As this morning meal consists merely of bread and tea, it does not last long; and all disperse to their several occupations. The head of the house begins the labours of the day by resuming his seat at the open window. When he has smoked some cigarettes and indulged in a proportionate amount of silent contemplation, he goes out with the intention of visiting the stables and farmyard, but generally before he has crossed the court he finds the heat unbearable, and returns to his former position by the open window. Here he sits tranquilly till the sun has so far moved round that the verandah at the back of the house is completely in the shade, when he has his arm-chair removed thither, and sits there till dinner-time.
Maria Petrovna spends her morning in a more active way. As soon as the breakfast table has been cleared she goes to the larder, takes stock of the provisions, arranges the menu du jour, and gives to the cook the necessary materials, with detailed instructions as to how they are to be prepared. The rest of the morning she devotes to her other household duties.
Towards one o'clock dinner is announced, and Ivan Ivan'itch prepares his appetite by swallowing at a gulp a wineglassful of home-made bitters. Dinner is the great event of the day. The food is abundant and of good quality, but mushrooms, onions, and fat play a rather too important part in the repast, and the whole is prepared with very little attention to the recognised principles of culinary hygiene. Many of the dishes, indeed, would make a British valetudinarian stand aghast, but they seem to produce no bad effect on those Russian organisms which have never been weakened by town life, nervous excitement, or intellectual exertion.
No sooner has the last dish been removed than a deathlike stillness falls upon the house: it is the time of the after-dinner siesta. The young folks go into the garden, and all the other members of the household give way to the drowsiness naturally engendered by a heavy meal on a hot summer day. Ivan Ivan'itch retires to his own room, from which the flies have been carefully expelled. Maria Petrovna dozes in an arm-chair in the sitting-room, with a pocket- handkerchief spread over her face. The servants snore in the corridors, the garret, or the hay-shed; and even the old watch-dog in the corner of the yard stretches himself out at full length on the shady side of his kennel.
In about two hours the house gradually re-awakens. Doors begin to creak; the names of various servants are bawled out in all tones, from bass to falsetto; and footsteps are heard in the yard. Soon a man-servant issues from the kitchen bearing an enormous tea-urn, which puffs like a little steam-engine. The family assembles for tea. In Russia, as elsewhere, sleep after a heavy meal produces thirst, so that the tea and other beverages are very acceptable. Then some little delicacies are served--such as fruit and wild berries, or cucumbers with honey, or something else of the kind, and the family again disperses. Ivan Ivan'itch takes a turn in the fields on his begovuiya droshki--an extremely light vehicle composed of two pairs of wheels joined together by a single board, on which the driver sits stride-legged; and Maria Petrovna probably receives a visit from the Popadya (the priest's wife), who is the chief gossipmonger of the neighbourhood. There is not much scandal in the district, but what little there is the Popadya carefully collects, and distributes among her acquaintances with undiscriminating generosity.
In the evening it often happens that a little group of peasants come into the court, and ask to see the "master." The master goes to the door, and generally finds that they have some favour to request. In reply to his question, "Well, children, what do you want?" they tell their story in a confused, rambling way, several of them speaking at a time, and he has to question and cross- question them before he comes to understand clearly what they desire. If he tells them he cannot grant it, they probably do not accept a first refusal, but endeavour by means of supplication to make him reconsider his decision. Stepping forward a little, and bowing low, one of the group begins in a half-respectful, half- familiar, caressing tone: "Little Father, Ivan Ivan'itch, be gracious; you are our father, and we are your children"--and so on. Ivan Ivan'itch good-naturedly listens, and again explains that he cannot grant what they ask; but they have still hopes of gaining their point by entreaty, and continue their supplications till at last his patience is exhausted and he says to them in a paternal tone, "Now, enough! enough! you are blockheads--blockheads all round! There's no use talking; it can't be done." And with these words he enters the house, so as to prevent all further discussion.
A regular part of the evening's occupation is the interview with the steward. The work that has just been done, and the programme for the morrow, are always discussed at great length; and much time is spent in speculating as to the weather during the next few days. On this latter point the calendar is always carefully consulted, and great confidence is placed in its predictions, though past experience has often shown that they are not to be implicitly trusted. The conversation drags on till supper is announced, and immediately after that meal, which is an abridged repetition of dinner, all retire for the night.
Thus pass the days and weeks and months in the house of Ivan Ivan'itch, and rarely is there any deviation from the ordinary programme. The climate necessitates, of course, some slight modifications. When it is cold, the doors and windows have to be kept shut, and after heavy rains those who do not like to wade in mud have to remain in the house or garden. In the long winter evenings the family assembles in the sitting-room, and all kill time as best they can. Ivan Ivan'itch smokes and meditates or listens to the barrel-organ played by one of the children. Maria Petrovna knits a stocking. The old aunt, who commonly spends the winter with them, plays Patience, and sometimes draws from the game conclusions as to the future. Her favourite predictions are that a stranger will arrive, or that a marriage will take place, and she can determine the sex of the stranger and the colour of the bridegroom's hair; but beyond this her art does not go, and she cannot satisfy the young ladies' curiosity as to further details.
Books and newspapers are rarely seen in the sitting-room, but for those who wish to read there is a book-case full of miscellaneous literature, which gives some idea of the literary tastes of the family during several generations. The oldest volumes were bought by Ivan Ivan'itch's grandfather--a man who, according to the family traditions, enjoyed the confidence of the great Catherine. Though wholly overlooked by recent historians, he was evidently a man who had some pretensions to culture. He had his portrait painted by a foreign artist of considerable talent--it still hangs in the sitting-room--and he bought several pieces of Sevres ware, the last of which stands on a commode in the corner and contrasts strangely with the rude home-made furniture and squalid appearance of the apartment. Among the books which bear his name are the tragedies of Sumarokof, who imagined himself to be "the Russian Voltaire"; the amusing comedies of Von-Wisin, some of which still keep the stage; the loud-sounding odes of the courtly Derzhavin; two or three books containing the mystic wisdom of Freemasonry as interpreted by Schwarz and Novikoff; Russian translations of Richardson's "Pamela," "Sir Charles Grandison," and "Clarissa Harlowe"; Rousseau's "Nouvelle Heloise," in Russian garb; and three or four volumes of Voltaire in the original. Among the works collected at a somewhat later period are translations of Ann Radcliffe, of Scott's early novels, and of Ducray Dumenil, whose stories, "Lolotte et Fanfan" and "Victor," once enjoyed a great reputation. At this point the literary tastes of the family appear to have died out, for the succeeding literature is represented exclusively by Kryloff's Fables, a farmer's manual, a handbook of family medicine, and a series of calendars. There are, however, some signs of a revival, for on the lowest shelf stand recent editions of Pushkin, Lermontof, and Gogol, and a few works by living authors.
Sometimes the monotony of the winter is broken by visiting neighbours and receiving visitors in return, or in a more decided way by a visit of a few days to the capital of the province. In the latter case Maria Petrovna spends nearly all her time in shopping, and brings home a large collection of miscellaneous articles. The inspection of these by the assembled family forms an important domestic event, which completely throws into the shade the occasional visits of peddlers and colporteurs. Then there are the festivities at Christmas and Easter, and occasionally little incidents of less agreeable kind. It may be that there is a heavy fall of snow, so that it is necessary to cut roads to the kitchen and stables; or wolves enter the courtyard at night and have a fight with the watch-dogs; or the news is brought that a peasant who had been drinking in a neighbouring village has been found frozen to death on the road.
Altogether the family live a very isolated life, but they have one bond of connection with the great outer world. Two of the sons are officers in the army and both of them write home occasionally to their mother and sisters. To these two youths is devoted all the little stock of sentimentality which Maria Petrovna possesses. She can talk of them by the hour to any one who will listen to her, and has related to the Popadya a hundred times every trivial incident of their lives. Though they have never given her much cause for anxiety, and they are now men of middle age, she lives in constant fear that some evil may befall them. What she most fears is that they may be sent on a campaign or may fall in love with actresses. War and actresses are, in fact, the two bug-bears of her existence, and whenever she has a disquieting dream she asks the priest to offer up a moleben for the safety of her absent ones. Sometimes she ventures to express her anxiety to her husband, and recommends him to write to them; but he considers writing a letter a very serious bit of work, and always replies evasively, "Well, well, we must think about it."
During the Crimean War Ivan Ivan'itch half awoke from his habitual lethargy, and read occasionally the meagre official reports published by the Government. He was a little surprised that no great victories were reported, and that the army did not at once advance on Constantinople. As to causes he never speculated. Some of his neighbours told him that the army was disorganised, and the whole system of Nicholas had been proved to be utterly worthless. That might all be very true, but he did not understand military and political matters. No doubt it would all come right in the end. All did come right, after a fashion, and he again gave up reading newspapers; but ere long he was startled by reports much more alarming than any rumours of war. People began to talk about the peasant question, and to say openly that the serfs must soon be emancipated. For once in his life Ivan Ivan'itch asked explanations. Finding one of his neighbours, who had always been a respectable, sensible man, and a severe disciplinarian, talking in this way, he took him aside and asked what it all meant. The neighbour explained that the old order of things had shown itself bankrupt and was doomed, that a new epoch was opening, that everything was to be reformed, and that the Emperor, in accordance with a secret clause of the Treaty with the Allies, was about to grant a Constitution! Ivan Ivan'itch listened for a little in silence, and then, with a gesture of impatience, interrupted the speaker: "Polno duratchitsya! enough of fun and tomfoolery. Vassili Petrovitch, tell me seriously what you mean."
When Vassili Petrovitch vowed that he spoke in all seriousness, his friend gazed at him with a look of intense compassion, and remarked, as he turned away, "So you, too, have gone out of your mind!"
The utterances of Vassili Petrovitch, which his lethargic, sober- minded friend regarded as indicating temporary insanity in the speaker, represented fairly the mental condition of very many Russian nobles at that time, and were not without a certain foundation. The idea about a secret clause in the Treaty of Paris was purely imaginary, but it was quite true that the country was entering on an epoch of great reforms, among which the Emancipation question occupied the chief place. Of this even the sceptical Ivan Ivan'itch was soon convinced. The Emperor formally declared to the Noblesse of the province of Moscow that the actual state of things could not continue forever, and called on the landed proprietors to consider by what means the condition of their serfs might be ameliorated. Provincial committees were formed for the purpose of preparing definite projects, and gradually it became apparent that the emancipation of the serfs was really at hand.
Ivan Ivan'itch was alarmed at the prospect of losing his authority over his serfs. Though he had never been a cruel taskmaster, he had not spared the rod when he considered it necessary, and he believed birch twigs to be a necessary instrument in the Russian system of agriculture. For some time he drew consolation from the thought that peasants were not birds of the air, that they must under all circumstances require food and clothing, and that they would be ready to serve him as agricultural labourers; but when he learned that they were to receive a large part of the estate for their own use, his hopes fell, and he greatly feared that he would be inevitably ruined.
These dark forebodings have not been by any means realised. His serfs were emancipated and received about a half of the estate, but in return for the land ceded they paid him annually a considerable sum, and they were always ready to cultivate his fields for a fair remuneration. The yearly outlay was considerably greater, but the price of grain rose, and this counterbalanced the additional yearly expenditure. The administration of the estate has become much less patriarchal; much that was formerly left to custom and tacit understanding is now regulated by express agreement on purely commercial principles; a great deal more money is paid out and a great deal more received; there is much less authority in the hands of the master, and his responsibilities are proportionately diminished; but in spite of all these changes, Ivan Ivan'itch would have great difficulty in deciding whether he is a richer or a poorer man. He has fewer horses and fewer servants, but he has still more than he requires, and his mode of life has undergone no perceptible alteration. Maria Petrovna complains that she is no longer supplied with eggs, chickens, and homespun linen by the peasants, and that everything is three times as dear as it used to be; but somehow the larder is still full, and abundance reigns in the house as of old.
Ivan Ivan'itch certainly does not possess transcendent qualities of any kind. It would be impossible to make a hero out of him, even though his own son should be his biographer. Muscular Christians may reasonably despise him, an active, energetic man may fairly condemn him for his indolence and apathy. But, on the other hand, he has no very bad qualities. His vices are of the passive, negative kind. He is a respectable if not a distinguished member of society, and appears a very worthy man when compared with many of his neighbours who have been brought up in similar conditions. Take, for instance, his younger brother Dimitri, who lives a short way off.
Dimitri Ivanovitch, like his brother Ivan, had been endowed by nature with a very decided repugnance to prolonged intellectual exertion, but as he was a man of good parts he did not fear a Junker's examination--especially when he could count on the colonel's protection--and accordingly entered the army. In his regiment were a number of jovial young officers like himself, always ready to relieve the monotony of garrison life by boisterous dissipation, and among these he easily acquired the reputation of being a thoroughly good fellow. In drinking bouts he could hold his own with the best of them, and in all mad pranks invariably played the chief part. By this means he endeared himself to his comrades, and for a time all went well. The colonel had himself sown wild oats plentifully in his youth, and was quite disposed to overlook, as far as possible, the bacchanalian peccadilloes of his subordinates. But before many years had passed, the regiment suddenly changed its character. Certain rumours had reached headquarters, and the Emperor Nicholas appointed as colonel a stern disciplinarian of German origin, who aimed at making the regiment a kind of machine that should work with the accuracy of a chronometer.
This change did not at all suit the tastes of Dimitri Ivan'itch. He chafed under the new restraints, and as soon as he had gained the rank of lieutenant retired from the service to enjoy the freedom of country life. Shortly afterwards his father died, and he thereby became owner of an estate, with two hundred serfs. He did not, like his elder brother, marry, and "effeminate himself," but he did worse. In his little independent kingdom--for such was practically a Russian estate in the good old times--he was lord of all he surveyed, and gave full scope to his boisterous humour, his passion for sport, and his love of drinking and dissipation. Many of the mad pranks in which he indulged will long be preserved by popular tradition, but they cannot well be related here.
Dimitri Ivan'itch is now a man long past middle age, and still continues his wild, dissipated life. His house resembles an ill- kept, disreputable tavern. The floor is filthy, the furniture chipped and broken, the servants indolent, slovenly, and in rags. Dogs of all breeds and sizes roam about the rooms and corridors. The master, when not asleep, is always in a more or less complete state of intoxication. Generally he has one or two guests staying with him--men of the same type as himself--and days and nights are spent in drinking and card-playing. When he cannot have his usual boon-companions he sends for one or two small proprietors who live near--men who are legally nobles, but who are so poor that they differ little from peasants. Formerly, when ordinary resources failed, he occasionally had recourse to the violent expedient of ordering his servants to stop the first passing travellers, whoever they might be, and bring them in by persuasion or force, as circumstances might demand. If the travellers refused to accept such rough, undesired hospitality, a wheel would be taken off their tarantass, or some indispensable part of the harness would be secreted, and they might consider themselves fortunate if they succeeded in getting away next morning.*
* This custom has fortunately gone out of fashion even in outlying districts, but an incident of the kind happened to a friend of mine as late as 1871. He was detained against his will for two whole days by a man whom he had never seen before, and at last effected his escape by bribing the servants of his tyrannical host.
In the time of serfage the domestic serfs had much to bear from their capricious, violent master. They lived in an atmosphere of abusive language, and were subjected not unfrequently to corporal punishment. Worse than this, their master was constantly threatening to "shave their forehead"--that is to say, to give them as recruits--and occasionally he put his threat into execution, in spite of the wailings and entreaties of the culprit and his relations. And yet, strange to say, nearly all of them remained with him as free servants after the Emancipation.
In justice to the Russian landed proprietors, I must say that the class represented by Dimitri Ivan'itch has now almost disappeared. It was the natural result of serfage and social stagnation--of a state of society in which there were few legal and moral restraints, and few inducements to honourable activity.
Among the other landed proprietors of the district, one of the best known is Nicolai Petrovitch B----, an old military man with the rank of general. Like Ivan Ivan'itch, he belongs to the old school; but the two men must be contrasted rather than compared. The difference in their lives and characters is reflected in their outward appearance. Ivan Ivan'itch, as we know, is portly in form and heavy in all his movements, and loves to loll in his arm-chair or to loaf about the house in a capacious dressing-gown. The General, on the contrary, is thin, wiry, and muscular, wears habitually a close-buttoned military tunic, and always has a stern expression, the force of which is considerably augmented by a bristly moustache resembling a shoe-brush. As he paces up and down the room, knitting his brows and gazing at the floor, he looks as if he were forming combinations of the first magnitude; but those who know him well are aware that this is an optical delusion, of which he is himself to some extent a victim. He is quite innocent of deep thought and concentrated intellectual effort. Though he frowns so fiercely he is by no means of a naturally ferocious temperament. Had he passed all his life in the country he would probably have been as good-natured and phlegmatic as Ivan Ivan'itch himself, but, unlike that worshipper of tranquillity, he had aspired to rise in the service, and had adopted the stern, formal bearing which the Emperor Nicholas considered indispensable in an officer. The manner which he had at first put on as part of his uniform became by the force of habit almost a part of his nature, and at the age of thirty he was a stern disciplinarian and uncompromising formalist, who confined his attention exclusively to drill and other military duties. Thus he rose steadily by his own merit, and reached the goal of his early ambition--the rank of general.
As soon as this point was reached he determined to leave the service and retire to his property. Many considerations urged him to take this step. He enjoyed the title of Excellency which he had long coveted, and when he put on his full uniform his breast was bespangled with medals and decorations. Since the death of his father the revenues of his estate had been steadily decreasing, and report said that the best wood in his forest was rapidly disappearing. His wife had no love for the country, and would have preferred to settle in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but they found that with their small income they could not live in a large town in a style suitable to their rank.
The General determined to introduce order into his estate, and become a practical farmer; but a little experience convinced him that his new functions were much more difficult than the commanding of a regiment. He has long since given over the practical management of the property to a steward, and he contents himself with exercising what he imagines to be an efficient control. Though he wishes to do much, he finds small scope for his activity, and spends his days in pretty much the same way as Ivan Ivan'itch, with this difference, that he plays cards whenever he gets an opportunity, and reads regularly the Moscow Gazette and Russki Invalid, the official military paper. What specially interests him is the list of promotions, retirements, and Imperial rewards for merit and seniority. When he sees the announcement that some old comrade has been made an officer of his Majesty's suite or has received a grand cordon, he frowns a little more than usual, and is tempted to regret that he retired from the service. Had he waited patiently, perhaps a bit of good fortune might have fallen likewise to his lot. This idea takes possession of him, and during the remainder of the day he is taciturn and morose. His wife notices the change, and knows the reason of it, but has too much good sense and tact to make any allusion to the subject.
Anna Alexandrovna--as the good lady is called--is an elderly dame who does not at all resemble the wife of Ivan Ivan'itch. She was long accustomed to a numerous military society, with dinner- parties, dancing, promenades, card-playing, and all the other amusements of garrison life, and she never contracted a taste for domestic concerns. Her knowledge of culinary affairs is extremely vague, and she has no idea of how to make preserves, nalivka, and other home-made delicacies, though Maria Petrovna, who is universally acknowledged to be a great adept in such matters, has proposed a hundred times to give her some choice recipes. In short, domestic affairs are a burden to her, and she entrusts them as far as possible to the housekeeper. Altogether she finds country life very tiresome, but, possessing that placid, philosophical temperament which seems to have some casual connection with corpulence, she submits without murmuring, and tries to lighten a little the unavoidable monotony by paying visits and receiving visitors. The neighbours within a radius of twenty miles are, with few exceptions, more or less of the Ivan Ivan'itch and Maria Petrovna type--decidedly rustic in their manners and conceptions; but their company is better than absolute solitude, and they have at least the good quality of being always able and willing to play cards for any number of hours. Besides this, Anna Alexandrovna has the satisfaction of feeling that amongst them she is almost a great personage, and unquestionably an authority in all matters of taste and fashion; and she feels specially well disposed towards those of them who frequently address her as "Your Excellency."
The chief festivities take place on the "name-days" of the General and his spouse--that is to say, the days sacred to St. Nicholas and St. Anna. On these occasions all the neighbours come to offer their congratulations, and remain to dinner as a matter of course. After dinner the older visitors sit down to cards, and the young people extemporise a dance. The fete is specially successful when the eldest son comes home to take part in it, and brings a brother officer with him. He is now a general like his father.* In days gone by one of his comrades was expected to offer his hand to Olga Nekola'vna, the second daughter, a delicate young lady who had been educated in one of the great Instituts--gigantic boarding-schools, founded and kept up by the Government, for the daughters of those who are supposed to have deserved well of their country. Unfortunately the expected offer was never made, and she and her sister live at home as old maids, bewailing the absence of "civilised" society, and killing time in a harmless, elegant way by means of music, needlework, and light literature.
* Generals are much more common in Russia than in other countries. A few years ago there was an old lady in Moscow who had a family of ten sons, all of whom were generals! The rank may be obtained in the civil as well as the military service.
At these "name-day" gatherings one used to meet still more interesting specimens of the old school. One of them I remember particularly. He was a tall, corpulent old man, in a threadbare frock-coat, which wrinkled up about his waist. His shaggy eyebrows almost covered his small, dull eyes, his heavy moustache partially concealed a large mouth strongly indicating sensuous tendencies. His hair was cut so short that it was difficult to say what its colour would be if it were allowed to grow. He always arrived in his tarantass just in time for the zakuska--the appetising collation that is served shortly before dinner--grunted out a few congratulations to the host and hostess and monosyllabic greetings to his acquaintances, ate a copious meal, and immediately afterwards placed himself at a card-table, where he sat in silence as long as he could get any one to play with him. People did not like, however, to play with Andrei Vassil'itch, for his society was not agreeable, and he always contrived to go home with a well- filled purse.
Andrei Vassil'itch was a noted man in the neighbourhood. He was the centre of a whole cycle of legends, and I have often heard that his name was used with effect by nurses to frighten naughty children. I never missed an opportunity of meeting him, for I was curious to see and study a legendary monster in the flesh. How far the numerous stories told about him were true I cannot pretend to say, but they were certainly not without foundation. In his youth he had served for some time in the army, and was celebrated, even in an age when martinets had always a good chance of promotion, for his brutality to his subordinates. His career was cut short, however, when he had only the rank of captain. Having compromised himself in some way, he found it advisable to send in his resignation and retire to his estate. Here he organised his house on Mahometan rather than Christian principles, and ruled his servants and peasants as he had been accustomed to rule his soldiers--using corporal punishment in merciless fashion. His wife did not venture to protest against the Mahometan arrangements, and any peasant who stood in the way of their realisation was at once given as a recruit, or transported to Siberia, in accordance with his master's demand.* At last his tyranny and extortion drove his serfs to revolt. One night his house was surrounded and set on fire, but he contrived to escape the fate that was prepared for him, and caused all who had taken part in the revolt to be mercilessly punished. This was a severe lesson, but it had no effect upon him. Taking precautions against a similar surprise, he continued to tyrannise and extort as before, until in 1861 the serfs were emancipated, and his authority came to an end.
* When a proprietor considered any of his serfs unruly he could, according to law, have them transported to Siberia without trial, on condition of paying the expenses of transport. Arrived at their destination, they received land, and lived as free colonists, with the single restriction that they were not allowed to leave the locality where they settled.
A very different sort of man was Pavel Trophim'itch, who likewise came regularly to pay his respects and present his congratulations to the General and "Gheneralsha."* It was pleasant to turn from the hard, wrinkled, morose features of the legendary monster to the soft, smooth, jovial face of this man, who had been accustomed to look at the bright side of things, till his face had caught something of their brightness. "A good, jovial, honest face!" a stranger might exclaim as he looked at him. Knowing something of his character and history, I could not endorse such an opinion. Jovial he certainly was, for few men were more capable of making and enjoying mirth. Good he might he also called, if the word were taken in the sense of good-natured, for he never took offence, and was always ready to do a kindly action if it did not cost him any trouble. But as to his honesty, that required some qualification. Wholly untarnished his reputation certainly could not be, for he had been a judge in the District Court before the time of the judicial reforms; and, not being a Cato, he had succumbed to the usual temptations. He had never studied law, and made no pretensions to the possession of great legal knowledge. To all who would listen to him he declared openly that he knew much more about pointers and setters than about legal formalities. But his estate was very small, and he could not afford to give up his appointment.
* The female form of the word General.
Of these unreformed Courts, which are happily among the things of the past, I shall have occasion to speak in the sequel. For the present I wish merely to say that they were thoroughly corrupt, and I hasten to add that Pavel Trophim'itch was by no means a judge of the worst kind. He had been known to protect widows and orphans against those who wished to despoil them, and no amount of money would induce him to give an unjust decision against a friend who had privately explained the case to him; but when he knew nothing of the case or of the parties he readily signed the decision prepared by the secretary, and quietly pocketed the proceeds, without feeling any very disagreeable twinges of conscience. All judges, he knew, did likewise, and he had no pretension to being better than his fellows.
When Pavel Trophim'itch played cards at the General's house or elsewhere, a small, awkward, clean-shaven man, with dark eyes and a Tartar cast of countenance, might generally be seen sitting at the same table. His name was Alexei Petrovitch T----. Whether he really had any Tartar blood in him it is impossible to say, but certainly his ancestors for one or two generations were all good orthodox Christians. His father had been a poor military surgeon in a marching regiment, and he himself had become at an early age a scribe in one of the bureaux of the district town. He was then very poor, and had great difficulty in supporting life on the miserable pittance which he received as a salary; but he was a sharp, clever youth, and soon discovered that even a scribe had a great many opportunities of extorting money from the ignorant public.
These opportunities Alexei Petrovitch used with great ability, and became known as one of the most accomplished bribe-takers (vzyatotchniki) in the district. His position, however, was so very subordinate that he would never have become rich had he not fallen upon a very ingenious expedient which completely succeeded. Hearing that a small proprietor, who had an only daughter, had come to live in the town for a few weeks, he took a room in the inn where the newcomers lived, and when he had made their acquaintance he fell dangerously ill. Feeling his last hours approaching, he sent for a priest, confided to him that he had amassed a large fortune, and requested that a will should be drawn up. In the will he bequeathed large sums to all his relations, and a considerable sum to the parish church. The whole affair was to be kept a secret till after his death, but his neighbour--the old gentleman with the daughter--was called in to act as a witness. When all this had been done he did not die, but rapidly recovered, and now induced the old gentleman to whom he had confided his secret to grant him his daughter's hand. The daughter had no objections to marry a man possessed of such wealth, and the marriage was duly celebrated. Shortly after this the father died--without discovering, it is to be hoped, the hoax that had been perpetrated--and Alexei Petrovitch became virtual possessor of a very comfortable little estate. With the change in his fortunes he completely changed his principles, or at least his practice. In all his dealings he was strictly honest. He lent money, it is true, at from ten to fifteen per cent., but that was considered in these parts not a very exorbitant rate of interest, nor was he unnecessarily hard upon his debtors.
It may seem strange that an honourable man like the General should receive in his house such a motley company, comprising men of decidedly tarnished reputation; but in this respect he was not at all peculiar. One constantly meets in Russian society persons who are known to have been guilty of flagrant dishonesty, and we find that men who are themselves honourable enough associate with them on friendly terms. This social leniency, moral laxity, or whatever else it may be called, is the result of various causes. Several concurrent influences have tended to lower the moral standard of the Noblesse. Formerly, when the noble lived on his estate, he could play with impunity the petty tyrant, and could freely indulge his legitimate and illegitimate caprices without any legal or moral restraint. I do not at all mean to assert that all proprietors abused their authority, but I venture to say that no class of men can long possess such enormous arbitrary power over those around them without being thereby more or less demoralised. When the noble entered the service he had not the same immunity from restraint--on the contrary, his position resembled rather that of the serf--but he breathed an atmosphere of peculation and jobbery, little conducive to moral purity and uprightness. If an official had refused to associate with those who were tainted with the prevailing vices, he would have found himself completely isolated, and would have been ridiculed as a modern Don Quixote. Add to this that all classes of the Russian people have a certain kindly, apathetic good-nature which makes them very charitable towards their neighbours, and that they do not always distinguish between forgiving private injury and excusing public delinquencies. If we bear all this in mind, we may readily understand that in the time of serfage and maladministration a man could be guilty of very reprehensible practises without incurring social excommunication.
During the period of moral awakening, after the Crimean War and the death of Nicholas I., society revelled in virtuous indignation against the prevailing abuses, and placed on the pillory the most prominent delinquents; but the intensity of the moral feeling has declined, and something of the old apathy has returned. This might have been predicted by any one well acquainted with the character and past history of the Russian people. Russia advances on the road of progress, not in that smooth, gradual, prosaic way to which we are accustomed, but by a series of unconnected, frantic efforts, each of which is naturally followed by a period of temporary exhaustion.