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Ch. 9: Fet, Strakhof, Gay

"WHAT'S this saber doing here?" asked a young guardsman, Lieutenant Afanasyi Afanasyevitch Fet, of the footman one day as he entered the hall of Ivan Sergeyevitch Turgenieff's flat in St. Petersburg in the middle of the fifties.

"It is Count Tolstoy's saber; he is asleep in the drawing-room. And Ivan Sergeyevitch is in his study having breakfast," replied Zalchar.

"During the hour I spent with Turgenieff," says Fet, in his reminiscences, "we talked in low voices, for fear of waking the count, who was asleep on the other side of the door."

"He's like that all the time," said Turgenieff, smiling; "ever since he got back from his battery at Sebastopol,[16] and came to stay here, he has been going the pace. Orgies, Gipsies, and gambling all night long, and then sleeps like a dead man till two o'clock in the afternoon. I did my best to stop him, but have given it up as a bad job.

"It was in this visit to St. Petersburg that I and Tolstoy became acquainted, but the acquaintance was of a purely formal character, as I had not yet seen a line of his writings, and had never heard of his name in literature, except that Turgenieff mentioned his 'Stories of Childhood.'"

Soon after this my father came to know Fet intimately, and they struck up a firm and lasting friendship, and established a correspondence which lasted almost till Fet's death.

It was only during the last years of Fet's life, when my father was entirely absorbed in his new ideas, which were so at variance with Afanasyi Afanasyevitch's whole philosophy of life, that they became estranged and met more rarely.

It was at Fet's, at Stepanovka, that my father and Turgenieff quarreled.

Before the railway was made, when people still had to drive, Fet, on his way into Moscow, always used to turn in at Yasnaya Polyana to see my father, and these visits became an established custom. Afterward, when the railway was made and my father was already married, Afanasyi Afanasyevitch still never passed our house without coming in, and if he did, my father used to write him a letter of earnest reproaches, and he used to apologize as if he had been guilty of some fault. In those distant times of which I am speaking my father was bound to Fet by a common interest in agriculture as well as literature.

Some of my father's letters of the sixties are curious in this respect.

For instance, in 1860, he wrote a long dissertation on Turgenieff's novel "On the Eve," which had just come out, and at the end added a postscript: "What is the price of a set of the best quality of veterinary instruments? And what is the price of a set of lancets and bleeding-cups for human use?"

In another letter there is a postscript:

"When you are next in Oryol, buy me six-hundred weight of various ropes, reins, and traces," and on the same page: "'Tender art thou,' and the whole thing is charming. You have never done anything better; it is all charming." The quotation is from Fet's poem:

The lingering clouds' last throng flies over us.

But it was not only community of interests that brought my father and Afanasyi Afanasyevitch together. The reason of their intimacy lay in the fact that, as my father expressed it, they "thought alike with their heart's mind."

I also remember Nikolai Nikolayevitch Strakhof's visits. He was a remarkably quiet and modest man. He appeared at Yasnaya Polyana in the beginning of the seventies, and from that time on came and stayed with us almost every summer till he died.

He had big, gray eyes, wide open, as if in astonishment; a long beard with a touch of gray in it; and when he spoke, at the end of every sentence he gave a shy laugh.

When he addressed my father, he always said "Lef Nikolayevitch" instead of Lyoff Nikolaievich, like other people.

He always stayed down-stairs in my father's study, and spent his whole day there reading or writing, with a thick cigarette, which he rolled himself, in his mouth.

Strakhof and my father came together originally on a purely business footing. When the first part of my father's "Alphabet and Reading-Book" was printed, Strakhof had charge of the proof-reading. This led to a correspondence between him and my father, of a business character at first, later developing into a philosophical and friendly one. While he was writing "Anna Karenina," my father set great store by his opinion and valued his critical instinct very highly.

"It is enough for me that that is your opinion," he writes in a letter of 1872, probably apropos of the "Alphabet."

In 1876, apropos of "Anna Karenina" this time, my father wrote:

"You ask me whether you have understood my novel aright, and what I think of your opinion. Of course you understood it aright. Of course I am overjoyed at your understanding of it; but it does not follow that everybody will understand it as you do."

But it was not only his critical work that drew my father to Strakhof. He disliked critics on the whole and used to say that the only people who took to criticism were those who had no creative faculty of their own. "The stupid ones judge the clever ones," he said of professional critics. What he valued most in Strakhof was the profound and penetrating thinker. He was a "real friend" of my father's,—my father himself so described him,—and I recall his memory with deep affection and respect.

At last I have come to the memory of the man who was nearer in spirit to my father than any other human being, namely, Nikolai Nikolayevitch Gay. Grandfather Gay, as we called him, made my father's acquaintance in 1882. While living on his farm in the Province of Tchernigoff, he chanced to read my father's pamphlet "On the Census," and finding a solution in it of the very questions which were troubling him at the time, without delay he started out and hurried into Moscow. I remember his first arrival, and I have always retained the impression that from the first words they exchanged he and my father understood each other, and found themselves speaking the same language.

Just like my father, Gay was at this time passing through a great spiritual crisis; and traveling almost the same road as my father in his search after truth, he had arrived at the study of the Gospel and a new understanding of it. My sister Tatyana wrote:

For the personality of Christ he entertained a passionate and tender affection, as if for a near and familiar friend whom he loved with all the strength of his soul. Often during heated arguments Nikolai Nikolayevitch would take the Gospel, which he always carried about with him, from his pocket, and read out some passage from it appropriate to the subject in hand. "This book contains everything that a man needs," he used to say on these occasions.

While reading the Gospel, he often looked up at the person he was talking to and went on reading without looking at the book. His face glowed at such moments with such inward joy that one could see how near and dear the words he was reading were to his heart.

He knew the whole Gospel almost by heart, but he said that every time he read it he enjoyed a new and genuine spiritual delight. He said that not only was everything intelligible to him in the Gospel, but that when he read it he seemed to be reading in his own soul, and felt himself capable of rising higher and higher toward God and merging himself in Him.


[16]: Tolstoy was in the artillery, and commanded a battery in the Crimea.

Leo Tolstoy