In view of the last sentiment conveyed in this specimen of Tolstol’s realism in literary work, it may be recalled that in 1901 he was formally excommunicated by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. Tolstoi replied to this edict by a clear enunciation of his religious and theological views. He denies the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and His vicarious atonement, the orthodox conception of the future life, and every kind of sacramentalism. He is substantially in the position of a modern spiritual Unitarian.
THE day after the festival of St. Nicholas, which comes in winter, Vasili Andreich Breckhounoff set out for a neighboring landowner’s to buy a wood about which there had been a good deal of haggling. Vasili offered seven thousand rubles for it, but the young owner demanded ten thousand. The wood was worth more than twenty thousand. Vasili had heard that timber-merchants from another part of the province intended to bid for this Goriatchkin wood, and he wished to get ahead of them. As he was a churchwarden, as well as innkeeper, and a merchant of the second guild, he had to wait until the festival was over. He sent Nikita, his man servant, to hitch up the horse, for all the other servants were drunk. Nikita was an habitual drunkard, but had not touched a drop since Advent. He had sold his jacket and leather boots for drink before it, and then he had taken the pledge.
Nikita was fifty, a peasant, and had been in service nearly all his life. He was liked for his strength and industry, and especially for his good-nature; but he would lose a place because he got violently drunk two or three times a year, and was then very quarrelsome. Vasili Andreich had sent him away several times, but took him back again, because he was honest, kind to animals, and very cheap. He gave him only half what he was worth, paid him irregularly, and usually in goods (rated at their full value) from his shop. Nikita’s wife, Marfa, did not wish him to live at home, because she had been living for twenty years with a cooper; and besides, although Nikita was perfectly gentle when sober, she was much afraid of him when he was drunk. Vasili actually made her think he was very generous with her, when she came to get from him the goods, and a few rubles, for Nikita’s services. Vasili had talked this until he almost believed it himself.
Nikita, with his bold, light step, went to the stable to harness the horse. Mouhorty, a strong, brown cob, with sloping haunches and a beautiful head, neighed a welcome. Nikita always talked to him as if the animal understood all he said.
“Were you dull, little fool? We must hurry, but you shall have a drink first, little fool. Heh, you little rascal ! Have your fun,” he said, as Mouhorty pretended he wished to kick Nikita, being very careful not to do so. After a good drink, the horse frisked, in his youth and liveliness, as he was led back and put into the shafts of the little sledge.
“Keep still, little one! You can’t bite me.” Nikita put some fresh straw into the sledge. “Now the sackcloth on top, and the rug over that, so that it’ll be nice to sit on,” he said to himself. Then he drove to the gateway.
It was three o’clock, and a gloomy, windy, frosty day; the snow whirling off the roofs, and twisting in spirals. Vassili Andreich came out with a cigarette between his lips, smiling so that his white teeth gleamed. He arranged the collar of his sheepskin-lined coat about his clean-shaven face, his felt boots squeaking on the trampled snow. The coat was girded in with a belt.
Vasili’s pale wife, with a woolen shawl round her head, stood at the door. “I think you ought to take Nikita with you,” she said timidly.
” Do you suppose I don’t know the way? ” he retorted con-sequentially.
“You’ve got money with you, and the weather isn’t lifting any,” she persisted. “I beg you to take him, for God’s sake.”
“I’m ready, Vasili Andreich,” said Nikita cheerfully. “Why shouldn’t you? Shall I come?”
“Well, I suppose we must satisfy the old lady,” said Vasili Andreich, smiling and winking at Nikita. ” Only you’ll have to put on something warmer.” Nikita’s ragged sheepskin jacket was torn and full of holes. “Hurry up.”
“In a breath, my little father Vasili Andreich.” Nikita rushed into the workmen’s cottage. He took a miserable, worn caftan from off the stove, put it -on, working his arms to fit into it tightly, took his gloves, hurried back, and squeezed into the front of the little sledge. Vasili Andreich in his two shoubas almost filled the low back. He gathered up the reins, and the horse stepped off briskly along the frozen road to the village.
They had not gone far when they found the wind stronger than they had expected, and the road was almost hidden by the snow. The Teliatinsk wood was only a dark mass through the powdery particles.
“I suppose you told your wife not to let the cooper get drunk,” said Vasili Andreich, without reflecting that Nikita might not find the subject humorous.
“God be with them, Vasili Andreich. As long as she doesn’t harm the boy, I don’t meddle in that business.”
Then Vasili Andreich began to talk about selling a horse to Nikita.
The wind blew on Nikita’s side, and he turned up his collar. He shivered, and he breathed into his collar to warm himself. Vasili Andreich decided to take the shorter route, though the road was little used for driving, and had few sign-posts, or else hidden ones. He turned to the left when he got to an oak sapling, but after driving ten minutes he brought the steaming horse to a walk, and told Nikita, who had been dozing, that he couldn’t see any post. Nikita got out, and walked about in the snow up to his knees to find the road.
” Go to the right,” he said, when he came back.
Vasili did so, and they drove for some time. Neither the wind nor the snow abated. Suddenly Nikita said:
“Why, we’re in the Zakharevevski field.”
“It’s a lie!” retorted Vasili Andreich, speaking in a common peasant voice, which was not heard in his home.
But at Nikita’s suggestion he drove on. The horse suddenly sank into a ditch, and Vasili Andreich wished to stop; but Nikita said:
“Let him go! We’ve got in, and we’ve got to get out. Now then, my pretty! Now, deary 1” he said cheerfully to the horse, as he sprang out of the sledge. The animal gave a spring, and they came out on the frozen bank.
” Give him the rein. He will get somewhere,” said Nikita, clambering in.
In fact, after a while the horse struck the road, and soon they came to a street. In a yard some frozen linen flapped dismally in the wind. They had arrived at Grishkino. Somebody gave them directions how to get to Goriatchkin, and they went on. The snow-storm was fiercer. They had hard work distinguishing the sign-posts, as the wind blew in their faces, and it was not long before they lost their way again. Vasili Andreich gave the reins to Nikita, because his hands, despite the warm gloves, were beginning to freeze. Nikita let the horse have his head, and the clever animal, turning one ear and then the other, finally began to turn round.
“He can do anything but talk!” said Nikita admiringly. “See him! Go on, my beauty. You know. So, so!”
Mouhorty brought them back to Grishkino, where they stopped at the house of Tarass and warmed themselves. Nikita was terribly chilled. He put the horse in the stable and went into the house. The samovar was hissing on the floor near the stove. As he came in the wrinkled old mistress was giving Vasili Andreich a glass of vodka. The smell of it was a sore temptation to Nikita, in his chilled, miserable condition; but he struggled with himself, and refused it when they offered him some. However, he had the comfort of swallowing five cups of hot tea. They were urged to remain for the night, and Nikita would gladly have done so; but Vasili Andreich, picturing somebody getting ahead of him in the purchase of the wood, decided to go on. Petroukha, a young man, drove ahead to guide them to the place where they should turn.
Then they went on, Vasili Andreich driving. Nikita let his head sink into his coat-collar to keep warm. At last they lost their way again, and Vasili Andreich gave the reins to Nikita. After a while the horse, which could hardly do more than walk, stopped short. Nikita jumped lightly out and went in front to see what was the matter, when his feet slipped, and he fell into a ravine. He tried to climb up, but had to go on farther before he was able to do so. His master angrily asked where he had been, and declared that they must turn back. He again surrendered the reins to Nikita and soon the horse stopped once more, at another gully.
At last, after trying in vain to get anywhere, the horse flagged so that they got out and helped the sledge along. Soon the horse stopped, panting, and Vasili Andreich was so used up that he declared he could do no more, and sank in the sledge. The wind would increase, then die down a little, and they had to wait to be able to speak to each other.
At last, when a quieter moment came, Nikita took off his gloves and, breathing on his hands, began to unharness the horse.
“I’ve no strength left, and the poor dear is used up. He can’t get anywhere.” He pointed to the heaving, wet sides of the patient creature. “We must stay here all night.”
“But we’ll be frozen!” said Vasili Andreich.
“What then? Can we help it, if we are?” said Nikita.
He turned the sledge to face the wind, and tying the shafts together with the saddle-girths, raised them on end and fastened them to the fore part.
“If the snow covers us, good folks will see the shafts, and will dig us out,” he remarked.
Vasili managed to light a cigarette; but he got only a few puffs before the wind blew the tobacco away. Nikita covered the horse with the rug. ” Poor darling, he is in a sweat. Now, you’ll be warmer, little fool.”
” We would be warmer together,” said Vasili Andreich, “but there isn’t room for two in the sledge.”
“I’ll find a place,” replied Nikita. “Let me have some of the sacking and the straw.” He dug a hole for himself behind the sledge, put some straw into it, and, having pulled his cap down over his eyes, wrapped his caftan close, put the sacking over him, and sat down on the straw, with the sledge at his back for shelter.
In the sledge, Vasili Andreich began to wonder how they could have so lost themselves. Then he meditated about the wood he was to purchase, and what a success he had made by being energetic. He might become a millionaire ! He wanted someone to talk to about himself. Then he felt vexed for having listened to Nikita. They could have gone back to Grishkino. Ugh! How cold it was.
The moon had risen, and it was lighter. He looked back at the moujik. Nikita had not stirred. “He’ll be frozen. What a fool I was to bring him.” He tried to go to sleep, But he was so chilled and cramped that he could not get any comfortable position. Was it getting near morning? He managed to look at his watch, though he had difficulty in lighting a match. It was ten minutes past twelve.
What a long, cold night was before him! Then he heard a new sound. It was a wolf, and pretty near, too. He was now wide awake, and thoroughly upset in his mind. He did not know whether he was trembling from cold or from fear. He could not keep still. Suddenly, he thought : “What use in lying here and waiting for death? Better get on the horse and go. It’s all the same to him”he looked at Nikita” whether he dies or not. But, thank God, I’ve got something to live for.”
He got the horse close to the sledge, climbed on his back, and rested his feet in the long collar-straps. The shaking of the sledge roused Nikita, who mumbled something.
“This comes of listening to fools like youto be lost without any reason!” Vasili Andreich yelled back at him, as he urged the horse in the direction where he thought the wood and the woodman’s box must be.
Nikita had not moved until then from the time he had sat down. His whole existence had inured him to patient endurance of discomfort. The chill that possessed his body more and more meant death. But the Great Master who had sent him into life would look after him when he went out of life. Nikita thought of the sins of his life, sins which were the fruit of his nature. The Master would feel differently, because his life was pleasant, and he was not worn out with work and hardships. “I guess the dear man is sorry he came,” he reflected. His thoughts be-came hazy, and he slept. The creaking of the sleigh had roused him, and he realized the situation. But he could make no effort to get away himself, for he had not the strength. He had asked Vasili to leave the rug, since he would not need it. But now he got into his master’s place in the sleigh, and crouched in the straw, shivering. Then he felt himself becoming unconscious. Well, if he was ever to wake up and go on, as he had been doing His holy will be done. Should he awake in another world, fresh and joyous, where his mother would love him, and there would be games as in his childhood, and fine meadows and forests, and sledging in winter-His holy will be done. And Nikita lost consciousness.
Meanwhile, Vasili Andreich urged his horse on through the snow that blinded him, trying to keep his shouba tightly around him. The horse did his best to respond. At last, something dark showed through the snow, and Vasili Andreich’s heart beat gladly at the thought that it was the wall of a house. But it was only a boundary-line of tall wormwood, bending beneath the tormenting wind. For some reason it made Vasili Andreich shudder, and he hurried his horse, not noticing that he had changed his direction. After a while he renewed the same hope, only to find that it was from the same wormwood. He noticed horse’s tracks, and deduced from their freshness that they were those of his own horse, and hence that he had simply made a circle. “I shall be lost in this way!” he muttered, but urged his horse on again. Suddenly he heard a deafening cry, and everything seemed to shake beneath him. He clutched the horse’s neck, and it was a few seconds before Vasili realized that it was only Mouhorty, neighing with all his might, perhaps to encourage himself, or possibly calling for assistance. Vasili Andreich cursed him for this fright, but still it was not dispelled. He was chilled, lonely, and all of a tremble. He gave up the idea of finding the woodman’s box, or a village. Now his one thought was to get back to the sledge and not perish alone.
Suddenly the horse gave way beneath him, and began to struggle. Vasili Andreich jumped off. Mouhorty righted himself, sprang forward, and, neighing, disappeared in the snow-flakes. Vasili Andreich tried to run after him, but pulled up quickly, panting. “How can I leave them?” he thought, as his public houses, the shop, the wood, the farms, rose in his fancy. Was this horror a dream? And would he awake? He prayed to St. Nicholas. He promised a Te Deum and candles if the saint would save him. He felt that he must follow in the horse’s tracks, and he ran, stumbling, picking himself up and falling again. The tracks grew more indistinct. “I am lost!” he groaned. Then he saw something black. He went on. It was Mouhorty, and he was standing near the sledge. Vasili Andreich had fallen into the same ravine as before, and the place where he had got off the horse was not fifty paces from the sledge.
He fastened the horse to the cramp of the fore-carriage. As he was going behind the horse to arrange the rug over him some-thing rose from the snow in the sledge. By a great effort Nikita had raised himself and was waving his hand in front of his nose, as if he were brushing away a fly. Vasili approached him.
“Are you saying anything? ” he asked. “What is the matter with you?”
“Iamdying. That is whatit is,” said Nikita,’ with difficulty. ” Give my wages to the boy or to his motherit’s all the same.”
“But whatare you freezing?” asked Vasili Andreich.
“I feeldeath’s coming. Forgive me, for Christ’s sake,” Nikita replied brokenly, still moving his hand before him.
Vasili Andreich stood a moment, motionless and silent. Then with the same determination with which he used to strike a good bargain, he tucked up the sleeves of his shouba, and with his hands began to dig the snow away from Nikita. When he had cleared it from the sledge also, he ungirded his shouba, and, pushing Nikita back, lay down on him, so that he covered him with his warm body, as well as the shouba, which he tucked in around Nikita. There he lay, listening for the other’s breathing. Nikita soon sighed loudly and moved. He was getting warmer.
“And you talk of dying! Lie still and get warm, like this, and we’ll” But Vasili Andreich stopped, for the tears came to his eyes, and his jaw began to tremble. Somehow, this weakness seemed to give him a sort of glad feeling he never had known before. He wiped his eyes on the fur, and kept the shouba tight when the wind tried to wrench it away.
“Nikita!” he said.
“I’m all right and warm,” came from the other.
“That’s right, brother! I shouid have been lost, and you would have been frozen, and I.”
But his jaws trembled, and his eyes watered again. “Never mind,” he thought. “I know about it myself,” and he was silent. He felt no fear whatever now. He was warm from beneath from Nikita, and warm above from the shouba. But his hands began to freeze from catching back and holding down the shouba. He did not heed that, he was so intent on keeping the moujik warm. Then he had strange thoughts and blended fancies, and must have slept. Then he dreamed again he was lying on his bed, and could not get up; but he had to, for somebody was coming for him. But he does not come; yet the waiting is both painful and joyful. Then it is only contented joy, for the one he awaited came. He is calling Vasili Andreich, and it is the same one that got him to lie on Nikita to warm him. “I’m coming!” he cries joyfully, and it awakes him.
But he is not as when he went asleep. He cannot move his hand, nor his foot, nor turn his head. He is astonished, but not grieved. He knows it is death; but is not grieved. Nikita is lying under him, warm and living, and it seems as if he were Nikita, and Nikita, he, and that the life is in Nikita. He hears the faint snoring of Nikita. “He is alive, and then I am alive,” and something he never had known before came upon him.
When he recalls money, the shop, the house, the buying and selling. and all that of the man Vasili Andreich Brekhounoff, he wonders at him. “Well, well, he didn’t know what he was about! He didn’t know; but I know now. There’s no mistake, now. I know now” And he hears the summons of the one who had called him before, and he says, “I come, I come,” with his whole being, joyously and tenderly. And he feels that he is free, and that nothing can hold him back.
Vasili Andreich neither saw, nor heard, nor felt anything more in this world. The snow raged on, flying about them, and covering up the shouba of the dead Vasili Andreich, the shuddering Mouhorty, and the fast-disappearing sledge in which under his dead master Nikita lay warm.
The next day, about noon, peasants dug them out, and Nikita was kept in the hospital two months. Three of his toes had to be amputated, but he lived twenty years longer, and died sincerely rejoicing that he was relieving his son and daughter-in-law of the burden of him.