The North American Review/Volume 145/Number 373/Tolstoi's Short Stories

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Of the six short stories by Count Lyof Tolstoi which have been collected under the title of the first,[1] none, with possibly a single exception, is of recent composition. At the age of twenty-three, Count Tolstoi, fascinated by his brother's account of army life in the Caucasus, left home to serve in the corps of Junkers, or non-commissioned officers of the nobility, and at this time, in the wild magnificence of those mountain regions, he probably made his first literary ventures. To this date are assigned the two sketches of army life which introduce the volume. Of the others, "Polikuschka" was published in a magazine a few years later, while the "Kholstomir" appeared in 1861. It is therefore obviously unfair to compare the work of the young count, full of the romantic enthusiasm of his first military experience, with that of the melancholy mystic, whose theories of social and religious life have attracted so much attention. These early tales, however, if displaying less power and complexity, bear the impress of true genius, and show a development of the imaginative and introspective faculties most unusual in a youth fresh from an incomplete university course. But Tolstoi's genius needs a broader field than the brief limits of a sketch affords. A wide-spreading, windswept steppe is not too wide for this fierce, untamed Mazeppa.

His minute analysis of character, and vivid descriptions of trivial events, is as fascinating in these earlier productions as in the fruits of his later years. We accompany him on his first night march. The crickets and grasshoppers are awake in the tall grass. Frogs are croaking. The army crosses a bridge "amid a crash of cannon, caissons, military wagons, and commanding officers shouting at the top of their voices." We notice "the glow of a cigarette, casting a gleam on a reddish mustache; a fur collar; a hand in a chamois skin glove." We are under fire for the first time. "When I realized that the enemy were firing at us, everything that was in the range of my eyes at that moment assumed a new and majestic character. The stacked muskets, and the smoke of the bonfires, and the blue sky, and the green gun-carriages, and Nikolai's sunburned, mustachioed face—all this seemed to tell me that the shot which at the instant emerged from the smoke, and was flying through space, might be directed straight at my breast." “In the depths of my soul two voices were speaking with equal distinctness; one said, ‘Lord, take my soul in peace;’ the other, ‘I hope I shall not duck my head but smile while the ball is coming.’” We grieve honestly over the deaths of the brave young ensign and of the guileless Velenchuk. We share his dread of seeing the face of the wounded, or standing on the spot marked by the death struggle. Or, we ride with him over the lonely steppe in a blinding snow-storm—our yamschuk is unreliable, his back is not shaped like that of an honest driver,—we are slowly freezing, all trace of the road is lost. Suddenly, the mind reverts to an incident of childhood. It is a warm, idle afternoon, a boy lies musing on a bench in the garden. The flies fall heavily, like cherry-stones, on his heated face. Through the red-stemmed rose-trees he sees the bright blue mirror of the pond. A woman rushes in crying that a muzhik has fallen into the water; he sees again the hastening of the peasants, the fruitless efforts to rescue the man; he longs to jump into the pond, but does not. Then the net is drawn in with its shining carp, and, later, with something terribly still and white. All these things the reader plainly sees, and then he returns, with the dreamer, to the blinding storm and the trackless waste.

The sketch most resembling Tolstoi's later works, in style and subject, is "Polikusha," a powerful story of Russiam peasant life, the plot of which turns on the conscription of a young peasant and his release by a sad tragedy of the ghastly sort in which the author is fond of displaying his skill. But entirely unique and unlike anything from this pen is the last sketch "Kholstomir, the History of a Horse." Never did piebald gelding find a more faithful and sympathetic historian. It might be called a study in equine ethics. The piebald ife old. "There is an honorable old age; there is a miserable old age; there is a pitiable old age; there is also an old age that is both honorable and miserable. The old age which the piebald gelding had reached was of this latter sort." He was of great size; his forelegs were crooked at the knees; his body marked with signs of misfortune and abuse. "The expression of his face was sternly patient, deeply thoughtful and expressive of pain." His ugliness, albeit aristocratic ugliness, for he is of the breed of the Orlofs, and has large black eyes, delicate skin and hair, is the more marked by contrast with the colts of smooth and shiny skin, black and silken forelock, by whom he is surrounded. The description of the horses to whom the hero relates his adventures, as they are standing in the field on a summer morning, is a bit of pastoral poetry worthy of Virgil or Izaak Walton. "Tis the time when the railbird, running from place to place among the thick reeds, passionately calls his mate; when, also, the cuckoo and the quail sing of love; and the flowers send to each other, on the breeze, their aromatic dust." The young colts, the yearlings, and the handsome, coquettish bay mare, whose mission it is to tease the old horse, are frisking about or bending their swan-like, short-shorn necks to nibble at the blades of grass. "One of the older little colts, lifting for the twenty-sixth time his rather short and tangled tail, like a plume, gamboled around his dam, who calmly picked at the herbage, having evidently had time to sum up her son's character, and only occasionally stopping to look askance at him out of her big black eye." The charming pictures of equine beauty could only have been drawn by a lover of fine horses, and as keen in his perceptions as the artist of "The Horse Fair."

  1. "The Invaders" and other stories. By Count Lyof N. Tolstoi. Translated from the Russian by Nathan Haskell Dole. T. Y. Crowell & Co.