Leo Tolstoy.

What to Do? online

. (page 3 of 19)
Online LibraryLeo TolstoyWhat to Do? → online text (page 3 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


not talk quietly about any thing, that I got disagreeably excited; and
they proved to me, especially, that the existence of such unfortunates
could not possibly furnish any excuse for imbittering the lives of those
about me.

I felt that this was perfectly just, and held my peace; but in the depths
of my soul I was conscious that I was in the right, and I could not
regain my composure.

And the life of the city, which had, even before this, been so strange
and repellent to me, now disgusted me to such a degree, that all the
pleasures of a life of luxury, which had hitherto appeared to me as
pleasures, become tortures to me. And try as I would, to discover in my
own soul any justification whatever for our life, I could not, without
irritation, behold either my own or other people's drawing-rooms, nor our
tables spread in the lordly style, nor our equipages and horses, nor
shops, theatres, and assemblies. I could not behold alongside these the
hungry, cold, and down-trodden inhabitants of the Lyapinsky house. And I
could not rid myself of the thought that these two things were bound up
together, that the one arose from the other. I remember, that, as this
feeling of my own guilt presented itself to me at the first blush, so it
persisted in me, but to this feeling a second was speedily added which
overshadowed it.

When I mentioned my impressions of the Lyapinsky house to my nearest
friends and acquaintances, they all gave me the same answer as the first
friend at whom I had begun to shout; but, in addition to this, they
expressed their approbation of my kindness of heart and my sensibility,
and gave me to understand that this sight had so especially worked upon
me because I, Lyof Nikolaevitch, was very kind and good. And I willingly
believed this. And before I had time to look about me, instead of the
feeling of self-reproach and regret, which I had at first experienced,
there came a sense of satisfaction with my own kindliness, and a desire
to exhibit it to people.

"It really must be," I said to myself, "that I am not especially
responsible for this by the luxury of my life, but that it is the
indispensable conditions of existence that are to blame. In truth, a
change in my mode of life cannot rectify the evil which I have seen: by
altering my manner of life, I shall only make myself and those about me
unhappy, and the other miseries will remain the same as ever. And
therefore my problem lies not in a change of my own life, as it had first
seemed to me, but in aiding, so far as in me lies, in the amelioration of
the situation of those unfortunate beings who have called forth my
compassion. The whole point lies here, - that I am a very kind, amiable
man, and that I wish to do good to my neighbors." And I began to think
out a plan of beneficent activity, in which I might exhibit my
benevolence. I must confess, however, that while devising this plan of
beneficent activity, I felt all the time, in the depths of my soul, that
that was not the thing; but, as often happens, activity of judgment and
imagination drowned that voice of conscience within me. At that
juncture, the census came up. This struck me as a means for instituting
that benevolence in which I proposed to exhibit my charitable
disposition. I knew of many charitable institutions and societies which
were in existence in Moscow, but all their activity seemed to me both
wrongly directed and insignificant in comparison with what I intended to
do. And I devised the following scheme: to arouse the sympathy of the
wealthy for the poverty of the city, to collect money, to get people
together who were desirous of assisting in this matter, and to visit all
the refuges of poverty in company with the census, and, in addition to
the work of the census, to enter into communion with the unfortunate, to
learn the particulars of their necessities, and to assist them with
money, with work, by sending them away from Moscow, by placing their
children in school, and the old people in hospitals and asylums. And not
only that, I thought, but these people who undertake this can be formed
into a permanent society, which, by dividing the quarters of Moscow among
its members, will be able to see to it that this poverty and beggary
shall not be bred; they will incessantly annihilate it at its very
inception; then they will fulfil their duty, not so much by healing as by
a course of hygiene for the wretchedness of the city. I fancied that
there would be no more simply needy, not to mention abjectly poor
persons, in the town, and that all of us wealthy individuals would
thereafter be able to sit in our drawing-rooms, and eat our five-course
dinners, and ride in our carriages to theatres and assemblies, and be no
longer annoyed with such sights as I had seen at the Lyapinsky house.

Having concocted this plan, I wrote an article on the subject; and before
sending it to the printer, I went to some acquaintances, from whom I
hoped for sympathy. I said the same thing to every one whom I met that
day (and I applied chiefly to the rich), and nearly the same that I
afterwards printed in my memoir; proposed to take advantage of the census
to inquire into the wretchedness of Moscow, and to succor it, both by
deeds and money, and to do it in such a manner that there should be no
poor people in Moscow, and so that we rich ones might be able, with a
quiet conscience, to enjoy the blessings of life to which we were
accustomed. All listened to me attentively and seriously, but
nevertheless the same identical thing happened with every one of them
without exception. No sooner did my hearers comprehend the question,
than they seemed to feel awkward and somewhat mortified. They seemed to
be ashamed, and principally on my account, because I was talking
nonsense, and nonsense which it was impossible to openly characterize as
such. Some external cause appeared to compel my hearers to be forbearing
with this nonsense of mine.

"Ah, yes! of course. That would be very good," they said to me. "It is
a self-understood thing that it is impossible not to sympathize with
this. Yes, your idea is a capital one. I have thought of that myself,
but . . . we are so indifferent, as a rule, that you can hardly count on
much success . . . however, so far as I am concerned, I am, of course,
ready to assist."

They all said something of this sort to me. They all agreed, but agreed,
so it seemed to me, not in consequence of my convictions, and not in
consequence of their own wish, but as the result of some outward cause,
which did not permit them not to agree. I had already noticed this, and,
since not one of them stated the sum which he was willing to contribute,
I was obliged to fix it myself, and to ask: "So I may count on you for
three hundred, or two hundred, or one hundred, or twenty-five rubles?"
And not one of them gave me any money. I mention this because, when
people give money for that which they themselves desire, they generally
make haste to give it. For a box to see Sarah Bernhardt, they will
instantly place the money in your hand, to clinch the bargain. Here,
however, out of all those who agreed to contribute, and who expressed
their sympathy, not one of them proposed to give me the money on the
spot, but they merely assented in silence to the sum which I suggested.
In the last house which I visited on that day, in the evening, I
accidentally came upon a large company. The mistress of the house had
busied herself with charity for several years. Numerous carriages stood
at the door, several lackeys in rich liveries were sitting in the ante-
chamber. In the vast drawing-room, around two tables and lamps, sat
ladies and young girls, in costly garments, dressing small dolls; and
there were several young men there also, hovering about the ladies. The
dolls prepared by these ladies were to be drawn in a lottery for the
poor.

The sight of this drawing-room, and of the people assembled in it, struck
me very unpleasantly. Not to mention the fact that the property of the
persons there congregated amounted to many millions, not to mention the
fact that the mere income from the capital here expended on dresses,
laces, bronzes, brooches, carriages, horses, liveries, and lackeys, was a
hundred-fold greater than all that these ladies could earn; not to
mention the outlay, the trip hither of all these ladies and gentlemen;
the gloves, linen, extra time, the candles, the tea, the sugar, and the
cakes had cost the hostess a hundred times more than what they were
engaged in making here. I saw all this, and therefore I could
understand, that precisely here I should find no sympathy with my
mission: but I had come in order to make my proposition, and, difficult
as this was for me, I said what I intended. (I said very nearly the same
thing that is contained in my printed article.)

Out of all the persons there present, one individual offered me money,
saying that she did not feel equal to going among the poor herself on
account of her sensibility, but that she would give money; how much money
she would give, and when, she did not say. Another individual and a
young man offered their services in going about among the poor, but I did
not avail myself of their offer. The principal person to whom I
appealed, told me that it would be impossible to do much because means
were lacking. Means were lacking because all the rich people in Moscow
were already on the lists, and all of them were asked for all that they
could possibly give; because on all these benefactors rank, medals, and
other dignities were bestowed; because in order to secure financial
success, some new dignities must be secured from the authorities, and
that this was the only practical means, but this was extremely difficult.

On my return home that night, I lay down to sleep not only with a
presentment that my idea would come to nothing, but with shame and a
consciousness that all day long I had been engaged in a very repulsive
and disgraceful business. But I did not give up this undertaking. In
the first place, the matter had been begun, and false shame would have
prevented my abandoning it; in the second place, not only the success of
this scheme, but the very fact that I was busying myself with it,
afforded me the possibility of continuing to live in the conditions under
which I was then living; failure entailed upon me the necessity of
renouncing my present existence and of seeking new paths of life. And
this I unconsciously dreaded, and I could not believe the inward voice,
and I went on with what I had begun.

Having sent my article to the printer, I read the proof of it to the City
Council (_Dum_). I read it, stumbling, and blushing even to tears, I
felt so awkward. And I saw that it was equally awkward for all my
hearers. In answer to my question at the conclusion of my reading, as to
whether the superintendents of the census would accept my proposition to
retain their places with the object of becoming mediators between society
and the needy, an awkward silence ensued. Then two orators made
speeches. These speeches in some measure corrected the awkwardness of my
proposal; sympathy for me was expressed, but the impracticability of my
proposition, which all had approved, was demonstrated. Everybody
breathed more freely. But when, still desirous of gaining my object, I
afterwards asked the superintendents separately: Were they willing, while
taking the census, to inquire into the needs of the poor, and to retain
their posts, in order to serve as go-betweens between the poor and the
rich? they all grew uneasy again. They seemed to say to me with their
glances: "Why, we have just condoned your folly out of respect to you,
and here you are beginning it again!" Such was the expression of their
faces, but they assured me in words that they agreed; and two of them
said in the very same words, as though they had entered into a compact
together: "We consider ourselves _morally bound_ to do this." The same
impression was produced by my communication to the student-census-takers,
when I said to them, that while taking our statistics, we should follow
up, in addition to the objects of the census, the object of benevolence.
When we discussed this, I observed that they were ashamed to look the
kind-hearted man, who was talking nonsense, in the eye. My article
produced the same impression on the editor of the newspaper, when I
handed it to him; on my son, on my wife, on the most widely different
persons. All felt awkward, for some reason or other; but all regarded it
as indispensable to applaud the idea itself, and all, immediately after
this expression of approbation, began to express their doubts as to its
success, and began for some reason (and all of them, too, without
exception) to condemn the indifference and coldness of our society and of
every one, apparently, except themselves.

In the depths of my own soul, I still continued to feel that all this was
not at all what was needed, and that nothing would come of it; but the
article was printed, and I prepared to take part in the census; I had
contrived the matter, and now it was already carrying me a way with it.



CHAPTER IV.


At my request, there had been assigned to me for the census, a portion of
the Khamovnitchesky quarter, at the Smolensk market, along the Prototchny
cross-street, between Beregovoy Passage and Nikolsky Alley. In this
quarter are situated the houses generally called the Rzhanoff Houses, or
the Rzhanoff fortress. These houses once belonged to a merchant named
Rzhanoff, but now belong to the Zimins. I had long before heard of this
place as a haunt of the most terrible poverty and vice, and I had
accordingly requested the directors of the census to assign me to this
quarter. My desire was granted.

On receiving the instructions of the City Council, I went alone, a few
days previous to the beginning of the census, to reconnoitre my section.
I found the Rzhanoff fortress at once, from the plan with which I had
been furnished.

I approached from Nikolsky Alley. Nikolsky Alley ends on the left in a
gloomy house, without any gates on that side; I divined from its
appearance that this was the Rzhanoff fortress.

Passing down Nikolsky Street, I overtook some lads of from ten to
fourteen years of age, clad in little caftans and great-coats, who were
sliding down hill, some on their feet, and some on one skate, along the
icy slope beside this house. The boys were ragged, and, like all city
lads, bold and impudent. I stopped to watch them. A ragged old woman,
with yellow, pendent cheeks, came round the corner. She was going to
town, to the Smolensk market, and she groaned terribly at every step,
like a foundered horse. As she came alongside me, she halted and drew a
hoarse sigh. In any other locality, this old woman would have asked
money of me, but here she merely addressed me.

"Look there," said she, pointing at the boys who were sliding, "all they
do is to play their pranks! They'll turn out just such Rzhanoff fellows
as their fathers."

One of the boys clad in a great-coat and a visorless cap, heard her words
and halted: "What are you scolding about?" he shouted to the old woman.
"You're an old Rzhanoff nanny-goat yourself!"

I asked the boy:

"And do you live here?"

"Yes, and so does she. She stole boot-legs," shouted the boy; and
raising his foot in front, he slid away.

The old woman burst forth into injurious words, interrupted by a cough.
At that moment, an old man, all clad in rags, and as white as snow, came
down the hill in the middle of the street, flourishing his hands [in one
of them he held a bundle with one little _kalatch_ and _baranki_" {39}].
This old man bore the appearance of a person who had just strengthened
himself with a dram. He had evidently heard the old woman's insulting
words, and he took her part.

"I'll give it to you, you imps, that I will!" he screamed at the boys,
seeming to direct his course towards them, and taking a circuit round me,
he stepped on to the sidewalk. This old man creates surprise on the
Arbata by his great age, his weakness, and his indigence. Here he was a
cheery laboring-man returning from his daily toil.

I followed the old man. He turned the corner to the left, into
Prototchny Alley, and passing by the whole length of the house and the
gate, he disappeared through the door of the tavern.

Two gates and several doors open on Prototchny Alley: those belonging to
a tavern, a dram-shop, and several eating and other shops. This is the
Rzhanoff fortress itself. Every thing here is gray, dirty, and
malodorous - both buildings and locality, and court-yards and people. The
majority of the people whom I met here were ragged and half-clad. Some
were passing through, others were running from door to door. Two were
haggling over some rags. I made the circuit of the entire building from
Prototchny Alley and Beregovoy Passage, and returning I halted at the
gate of one of these houses. I wished to enter, and see what was going
on inside, but I felt that it would be awkward. What should I say when I
was asked what I wanted there? I hesitated, but went in nevertheless. As
soon as I entered the court-yard, I became conscious of a disgusting
odor. The yard was frightfully dirty. I turned a corner, and at the
same instant I heard to my left and overhead, on the wooden balcony, the
tramp of footsteps of people running, at first along the planks of the
balcony, and then on the steps of the staircase. There emerged, first a
gaunt woman, with her sleeves rolled up, in a faded pink gown, and little
boots on her stockingless feet. After her came a tattered man in a red
shirt and very full trousers, like a petticoat, and with overshoes. The
man caught the woman at the bottom of the steps.

"You shall not escape," he said laughing.

"See here, you cock-eyed devil," began the woman, evidently flattered by
this pursuit; but catching sight of me, she shrieked viciously, "What do
you want?"

As I wanted nothing, I became confused and beat a retreat. There was
nothing remarkable about the place; but this incident, after what I had
witnessed on the other side of the yard, the cursing old woman, the jolly
old man, and the lads sliding, suddenly presented the business which I
had concocted from a totally different point of view. I then
comprehended for the first time, that all these unfortunates to whom I
was desirous of playing the part of benefactor, besides the time, when,
suffering from cold and hunger, they awaited admission into the house,
had still other time, which they employed to some other purpose, that
there were four and twenty hours in every day, that there was a whole
life of which I had never thought, up to that moment. Here, for the
first time, I understood, that all those people, in addition to their
desire to shelter themselves from the cold and to obtain a good meal,
must still, in some way, live out those four and twenty hours each day,
which they must pass as well as everybody else. I comprehended that
these people must lose their tempers, and get bored, show courage, and
grieve and be merry. Strange as this may seem, when put into words, I
understood clearly for the first time, that the business which I had
undertaken could not consist alone in feeding and clothing thousands of
people, as one would feed and drive under cover a thousand sheep, but
that it must consist in doing good to them.

And then I understood that each one of those thousand people was exactly
such a man, - with precisely the same past, with the same passions,
temptations, failings, with the same thoughts, the same
perplexities, - exactly such a man as myself, and then the thing that I
had undertaken suddenly presented itself to me as so difficult that I
felt my powerlessness; but the thing had been begun, and I went on with
it.



CHAPTER V.


On the first appointed day, the student enumerators arrived in the
morning, and I, the benefactor, joined them at twelve o'clock. I could
not go earlier, because I had risen at ten o'clock, then I had drunk my
coffee and smoked, while waiting on digestion. At twelve o'clock I
reached the gates of the Rzhanoff house. A policeman pointed out to me
the tavern with a side entrance on Beregovoy Passage, where the census-
takers had ordered every one who asked for them to be directed. I
entered the tavern. It was very dark, ill-smelling, and dirty. Directly
opposite the entrance was the counter, on the left was a room with
tables, covered with soiled cloths, on the right a large apartment with
pillars, and the same sort of little tables at the windows and along the
walls. Here and there at the tables sat men both ragged and decently
clad, like laboring-men or petty tradesmen, and a few women drinking tea.
The tavern was very filthy, but it was instantly apparent that it had a
good trade.

There was a business-like expression on the face of the clerk behind the
counter, and a clever readiness about the waiters. No sooner had I
entered, than one waiter prepared to remove my coat and bring me whatever
I should order. It was evident that they had been trained to brisk and
accurate service. I inquired for the enumerators.

"Vanya!" shouted a small man, dressed in German fashion, who was engaged
in placing something in a cupboard behind the counter; this was the
landlord of the tavern, a Kaluga peasant, Ivan Fedotitch, who hired one-
half of the Zimins' houses and sublet them to lodgers. The waiter, a
thin, hooked-nosed young fellow of eighteen, with a yellow complexion,
hastened up.

"Conduct this gentleman to the census-takers; they went into the main
building over the well." The young fellow threw down his napkin, and
donned a coat over his white jacket and white trousers, and a cap with a
large visor, and, tripping quickly along with his white feet, he led me
through the swinging door in the rear. In the dirty, malodorous kitchen,
in the out-building, we encountered an old woman who was carefully
carrying some very bad-smelling tripe, wrapped in a rag, off somewhere.
From the out-building we descended into a sloping court-yard, all
encumbered with small wooden buildings on lower stories of stone. The
odor in this whole yard was extremely powerful. The centre of this odor
was an out-house, round which people were thronging whenever I passed it.
It merely indicated the spot, but was not altogether used itself. It was
impossible, when passing through the yard, not to take note of this spot;
one always felt oppressed when one entered the penetrating atmosphere
which was emitted by this foul smell.

The waiter, carefully guarding his white trousers, led me cautiously past
this place of frozen and unfrozen uncleanness to one of the buildings.
The people who were passing through the yard and along the balconies all
stopped to stare at me. It was evident that a respectably dressed man
was a curiosity in these localities.

The young man asked a woman "whether she had seen the census-takers?" And
three men simultaneously answered his question: some said that they were
over the well, but others said that they had been there, but had come out
and gone to Nikita Ivanovitch. An old man dressed only in his shirt, who
was wandering about the centre of the yard, said that they were in No.
30. The young man decided that this was the most probable report, and
conducted me to No. 30 through the basement entrance, and darkness and
bad smells, different from that which existed outside. We went
down-stairs, and proceeded along the earthen floor of a dark corridor. As
we were passing along the corridor, a door flew open abruptly, and an old
drunken man, in his shirt, probably not of the peasant class, thrust
himself out. A washerwoman, wringing her soapy hands, was pursuing and
hustling the old man with piercing screams. Vanya, my guide, pushed the
old man aside, and reproved him.

"It's not proper to make such a row," said me, "and you an officer, too!"
and we went on to the door of No. 30.

Vanya gave it a little pull. The door gave way with a smack, opened, and
we smelled soapy steam, and a sharp odor of spoilt food and tobacco, and
we entered into total darkness. The windows were on the opposite side;
but the corridors ran to right and left between board partitions, and
small doors opened, at various angles, into the rooms made of uneven
whitewashed boards. In a dark room, on the left, a woman could be seen
washing in a tub. An old woman was peeping from one of these small doors


1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryLeo TolstoyWhat to Do? → online text (page 3 of 19)