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Ch. 7: The Letter-Box

IN the summer, when both families were together at Yasnaya, our own and the Kuzminsky's, when both the house and the annex were full of the family and their guests, we used our letter-box.

It originated long before, when I was still small and had only just learned to write, and it continued with intervals till the middle of the eighties.

It hung on the landing at the top of the stairs beside the grandfather's clock; and every one dropped his compositions into it, the verses, articles, or stories that he had written on topical subjects in the course of the week.

On Sundays we would all collect at the round table in the zala, the box would be solemnly opened, and one of the grown-ups, often my father himself, would read the contents aloud.

All the papers were unsigned, and it was a point of honor not to peep at the handwriting; but, despite this, we almost always guessed the author, either by the style, by his self-consciousness, or else by the strained indifference of his expression.

When I was a boy, and for the first time wrote a set of French verses for the letter-box, I was so shy when they were read that I hid under the table, and sat there the whole evening until I was pulled out by force.

For a long time after, I wrote no more, and was always fonder of hearing other people's compositions read than my own.

All the events of our life at Yasnaya Polyana found their echo in one way or another in the letter-box, and no one was spared, not even the grown-ups.

All our secrets, all our love-affairs, all the incidents of our complicated life were revealed in the letter-box, and both household and visitors were good-humoredly made fun of.

Unfortunately, much of the correspondence has been lost, but bits of it have been preserved by some of us in copies or in memory. I cannot recall everything interesting that there was in it, but here are a few of the more interesting things from the period of the eighties.


THE old fogy continues his questions. Why, when women or old men enter the room, does every well-bred person not only offer them a seat, but give them up his own?

Why do they make Ushakof or some Servian officer who comes to pay a visit necessarily stay to tea or dinner?

Why is it considered wrong to let an older person or a woman help you on with your overcoat?

And why are all these charming rules considered obligatory toward others, when every day ordinary people come, and we not only do not ask them to sit down or to stop to dinner or spend the night or render them any service, but would look on it as the height of impropriety?

Where do those people end to whom we are under these obligations? By what characteristics are the one sort distinguished from the others? And are not all these rules of politeness bad, if they do not extend to all sorts of people? And is not what we call politeness an illusion, and a very ugly illusion?


Question: Which is the most "beastly plague," a cattle-plague case for a farmer, or the ablative case for a school-boy?


Answers are requested to the following questions:

Why do Ustyusha, Masha, Alyona, Peter, etc., have to bake, boil, sweep, empty slops, wait at table, while the gentry have only to eat, gobble, quarrel, make slops, and eat again?


My Aunt Tanya, when she was in a bad temper because the coffee-pot had been spilt or because she had been beaten at croquet, was in the habit of sending every one to the devil. My father wrote the following story, "Susoitchik," about it.

The devil, not the chief devil, but one of the rank and file, the one charged with the management of social affairs, Susoitchik by name, was greatly perturbed on the 6th of August, 1884. From the early morning onward, people kept arriving who had been sent him by Tatyana Kuzminsky.

The first to arrive was Alexander Mikhailovitch Kuzminsky; the second was Misha Islavin; the third was Vyatcheslaf; the fourth was Seryozha Tolstoy, and last of all came old Lyoff Tolstoy, senior, accompanied by Prince Urusof. The first visitor, Alexander Mikhailovitch, caused Susoitchik no surprise, as he often paid Susoitchik visits in obedience to the behests of his wife.

"What, has your wife sent you again?"

"Yes," replied the presiding judge of the district-court, shyly, not knowing what explanation he could give of the cause of his visit.

"You come here very often. What do you want?"

"Oh, nothing in particular; she just sent her compliments," murmured Alexander Mikhailovitch, departing from the exact truth with some effort.

"Very good, very good; come whenever you like; she is one of my best workers."

Before Susoitchik had time to show the judge out, in came all the children, laughing and jostling, and hiding one behind the other.

"What brought you here, youngsters? Did my little Tanyitchka send you? That's right; no harm in coming. Give my compliments to Tanya, and tell her that I am always at her service. Come whenever you like. Old Susoitchik may be of use to you."

No sooner had the young folk made their bow than old Lyoff Tolstoy appeared with Prince Urusof.

"Aha! so it's the old boy! Many thanks to Tanyitchka. It's a long time since I have seen you, old chap. Well and hearty? And what can I do for you?"

Lyoff Tolstoy shuffled about, rather abashed.

Prince Urusof, mindful of the etiquette of diplomatic receptions, stepped forward and explained Tolstoy's appearance by his wish to make acquaintance with Tatyana Andreyevna's oldest and most faithful friend.

"Les amis des nos amis sont nos amis."

"Ha! ha! ha! quite so!" said Susoitchik. "I must reward her for to-day's work. Be so kind, Prince, as to hand her the marks of my good-will."

And he handed over the insignia of an order in a morocco case. The insignia consisted of a necklace of imp's tails to be worn about the throat, and two toads, one to be worn on the bosom and the other on the bustle.


Leo Tolstoy