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Ch. 8: Sergei Nikolayevitch Tolstoy

I CAN remember my Uncle Seryozha (Sergei) from my earliest childhood. He lived at Pirogovo, twenty miles from Yasnaya, and visited us often.

As a young man he was very handsome. He had the same features as my father, but he was slenderer and more aristocratic-looking. He had the same oval face, the same nose, the same intelligent gray eyes, and the same thick, overhanging eyebrows. The only difference between his face and my father's was defined by the fact that in those distant days, when my father cared for his personal appearance, he was always worrying about his ugliness, while Uncle Seryozha was considered, and really was, a very handsome man.

This is what my father says about Uncle Seryozha in his fragmentary reminiscences:

"I and Nitenka[11] were chums, Nikolenka I revered, but Seryozha I admired enthusiastically and imitated; I loved him and wished to be he.

"I admired his handsome exterior, his singing,—he was always a singer,—his drawing, his gaiety, and above all, however strange a thing it may seem to say, the directness of his egoism.[12]

"I always remembered myself, was aware of myself, always divined rightly or wrongly what others thought about me and felt toward me; and this spoiled the joy of life for me. This was probably the reason why I particularly delighted in the opposite of this in other people; namely, directness of egoism. That is what I especially loved in Seryozha, though the word 'loved' is inexact.

"I loved Nikolenka, but I admired Seryozha as something alien and incomprehensible to me. It was a human life very beautiful, but completely incomprehensible to me, mysterious, and therefore especially attractive.

"He died only a few days ago, and while he was ill and while he was dying he was just as inscrutable and just as dear to me as he had been in the distant days of our childhood.

"In these latter days, in our old age, he was fonder of me, valued my attachment more, was prouder of me, wanted to agree with me, but could not, and remained just the same as he had always been; namely, something quite apart, only himself, handsome, aristocratic, proud, and, above all, truthful and sincere to a degree that I never met in any other man.

"He was what he was; he concealed nothing, and did not wish to appear anything different."

Uncle Seryozha never treated children affectionately; on the contrary, he seemed to put up with us rather than to like us. But we always treated him with particular reverence. The result, as I can see now, partly of his aristocratic appearance, but chiefly because of the fact that he called my father "Lyovotchka" and treated him just as my father treated us.

He was not only not in the least afraid of him, but was always teasing him, and argued with him like an elder person with a younger. We were quite alive to this.

Of course every one knew that there were no faster dogs in the world than our black-and-white Darling and her daughter Wizard. Not a hare could get away from them. But Uncle Seryozha said that the gray hares about us were sluggish creatures, not at all the same thing as steppe hares, and neither Darling nor Wizard would get near a steppe hare.

We listened with open mouths, and did not know which to believe, papa or Uncle Seryozha.

Uncle Seryozha went out coursing with us one day. A number of gray hares were run down, not one, getting away; Uncle Seryozha expressed no surprise, but still maintained that the only reason was because they were a poor lot of hares. We could not tell whether he was right or wrong.

Perhaps, after all, he was right, for he was more of a sportsman than papa and had run down ever so many wolves, while we had never known papa run any wolves down.

Afterward papa kept dogs only because there was Agafya Mikhailovna to be thought of, and Uncle Seryozha gave up sport because it was impossible to keep dogs.

"Since the emancipation of the peasants," he said, "sport is out of the question; there are no huntsmen to be had, and the peasants turn out with sticks and drive the sportsmen off the fields. What is there left to do nowadays? Country life has become impossible."

With all his good breeding and sincerity, Uncle Seryozha never concealed any characteristic but one; with the utmost shyness he concealed the tenderness of his affections, and if it ever forced itself into the light, it was only in exceptional circumstances and that against his will.

He displayed with peculiar clearness a family characteristic which was partly shared by my father, namely, an extraordinary restraint in the expression of affection, which was often concealed under the mask of indifference and sometimes even of unexpected harshness. In the matter of wit and sarcasm, on the other hand, he was strikingly original.

At one period he spent several winters in succession with his family in Moscow. One time, after a historic concert given by Anton Rubinstein, at which Uncle Seryozha and his daughter had been, he came to take tea with us in Weavers' Row.[13]

My father asked him how he had liked the concert.

"Do you remember Himbut, Lyovotchka? Lieutenant Himbut, who was forester near Yasnaya? I once asked him what was the happiest moment of his life. Do you know what he answered?

"'When I was in the cadet corps,' he said, 'they used to take down my breeches now and again and lay me across a bench and flog me. They flogged and they flogged; when they stopped, that was the happiest moment of my life.' Well, it was only during the entr'actes, when Rubinstein stopped playing, that I really enjoyed myself."

He did not always spare my father.

Once when I was out shooting with a setter near Pirogovo, I drove in to Uncle Seryozha's to stop the night.

I do not remember apropos of what, but Uncle Seryozha averred that Lyovotchka was proud. He said:

"He is always preaching humility and non-resistance, but he is proud himself.

"Nashenka's[14] sister had a footman called Forna. When he got drunk, he used to get under the staircase, tuck in his legs, and lie down. One day they came and told him that the countess was calling him. 'She can come and find me if she wants me,' he answered.

"Lyovotchka is just the same. When Dolgoruky sent his chief secretary Istomin to ask him to come and have a talk with him about Syntayef, the sectarian, do you know what he answered?

"'Let him come here, if he wants me.' Isn't that just the same as Forna?

"No, Lyovotchka is very proud. Nothing would induce him to go, and he was quite right; but it's no good talking of humility."

During the last years of Sergei Nikolayevitch's life my father was particularly friendly and affectionate with him, and delighted in sharing his thoughts with him.

A. A. Fet in his reminiscences describes the character of all the three Tolstoy brothers with extraordinary perspicacity:

I am convinced that the fundamental type of all the three Tolstoy brothers was identical, just as the type of all maple-leaves is identical, despite the variety of their configurations. And if I set myself to develop the idea, I could show to what a degree all three brothers shared in that passionate enthusiasm without which it would have been impossible for one of them to turn into the poet Lyoff Tolstoy. The difference of their attitude to life was determined by the difference of the ways in which they turned their backs on their unfulfilled dreams. Nikolai quenched his ardor in skeptical derision, Lyoff renounced his unrealized dreams with silent reproach, and Sergei with morbid misanthropy. The greater the original store of love in such characters, the stronger, if only for a time, is their resemblance to Timon of Athens.

In the winter of 1901-02 my father was ill in the Crimea, and for a long time lay between life and death. Uncle Seryozha, who felt himself getting weaker, could not bring himself to leave Pirogovo, and in his own home followed anxiously the course of my father's illness by the letters which several members of our family wrote him, and by the bulletins in the newspapers.

When my father began to improve, I went back home, and on the way from the Crimea went to Pirogovo, in order to tell Uncle Seryozha personally about the course of the illness and about the present condition of my father's health. I remember how joyfully and gratefully he welcomed me.

"How glad I am that you came! Now tell me all about it. Who is with him? All of them? And who nurses him most? Do you go on duty in turn? And at night, too? He can't get out of bed. Ah, that's the worst thing of all!

"It will be my turn to die soon; a year sooner or later, what does it matter? But to lie helpless, a burden to every one, to have others doing everything for you, lifting you and helping you to sit up, that's what's so awful.

"And how does he endure it? Got used to it, you say? No; I cannot imagine having Vera to change my linen and wash me. Of course she would say that it's nothing to her, but for me it would be awful.

"And tell me, is he afraid to die? Does he say not? Very likely; he's a strong man, he may be able to conquer the fear of it. Yes, yes, perhaps he's not afraid; but still—

"You say he struggles with the feeling? Why, of course; what else can one do?

"I wanted to go and be with him; but I thought, how can I? I shall crack up myself, and then there will be two invalids instead of one.

"Yes, you have told me a great deal; every detail is interesting. It is not death that's so terrible, it's illness, helplessness, and, above all, the fear that you are a burden to others. That's awful, awful."

Uncle Seryozha died in 1904 of cancer in the face. This is what my aunt, Maria Nikolayevna,[15] the nun, told me about his death. Almost to the last day he was on his legs, and would not let any one nurse him. He was in full possession of his faculties and consciously prepared for death.

Besides his own family, the aged Maria Mikhailovna and her daughters, his sister, Maria Nikolayevna, who told me the story, was with him, too, and from hour to hour they expected the arrival of my father, for whom they had sent a messenger to Yasnaya. They were all troubled with the difficult question whether the dying man would want to receive the holy communion before he died.

Knowing Sergei Nikolayevitch's disbelief in the religion of the church, no one dared to mention the subject to him, and the unhappy Maria Mikhailovna hovered round his room, wringing her hands and praying.

They awaited my father's arrival impatiently, but were secretly afraid of his influence on his brother, and hoped against hope that Sergei Nikolayevitch would send for the priest before his arrival.

"Imagine our surprise and delight," said Maria Tolstoy, "when Lyovotchka came out of his room and told Maria Mikhailovna that Seryozha wanted a priest sent for. I do not know what they had been talking about, but when Seryozha said that he wished to take the communion, Lyovotchka answered that he was quite right, and at once came and told us what he wanted."

My father stayed about a week at Pirogovo, and left two days before my uncle died.

When he received a telegram to say he was worse, he drove over again, but arrived too late; he was no longer living. He carried his body out from the house with his own hands, and himself bore it to the churchyard.

When he got back to Yasnaya he spoke with touching affection of his parting with this "inscrutable and beloved" brother, who was so strange and remote from him, but at the same time so near and so akin.


[11]: Dmitry. My father's brother Dmitry died in 1856; Nikolai died September 20, 1860.

[12]: That is to say, his eyes went always on the straightest road to attain satisfaction for himself.

[13]: Khamsvniki, a street in Moscow.

[14]: Maria Mikhailovna, his wife.

[15]: Tolstoy's sister. She became a nun after her husband's death and the marriage of her three daughters.

Leo Tolstoy