Epilogue 1 Chapter 7

IN THE AUTUMN of 1813, Nikolay married Princess Marya, and with his wife, and mother, and Sonya, took up his abode at Bleak Hills.

Within four years he had paid off the remainder of his debts without selling his wife's estates, and coming into a small legacy on the death of a cousin, he repaid the loan he had borrowed from Pierre also.

In another three years, by 1820, Nikolay had so well managed his pecuniary affairs that he was able to buy a small estate adjoining Bleak Hills, and was opening negotiations for the repurchase of his ancestral estate of Otradnoe, which was his cherished dream.

Though he took up the management of the land at first from necessity, he soon acquired such a passion for agriculture, that it became his favourite and almost his exclusive interest. Nikolay was a plain farmer, who did not like innovations, especially English ones, just then coming into vogue, laughed at all theoretical treatises on agriculture, did not care for factories, for raising expensive produce, or for expensive imported seed. He did not, in fact, make a hobby of any one part of the work, but kept the welfare of the estate as a whole always before his eyes. The object most prominent to his mind in the estate was not the azote nor the oxygen in the soil or the atmosphere, not a particular plough nor manure, but the principal agent by means of which the azote and the oxygen and the plough and the manure were all made effectual—that is, the labourer, the peasant. When Nikolay took up the management of the land, and began to go into its different branches, the peasant attracted his chief attention. He looked on the peasant, not merely as a tool, but also as an end in himself, and as his critic. At first he studied the peasant attentively, trying to understand what he wanted, what he thought good and bad; and he only made a pretence of making arrangements and giving orders, while he was in reality learning from the peasants their methods and their language and their views of what was good and bad. And it was only when he understood the tastes and impulses of the peasant, when he had learned to speak his speech and to grasp the hidden meaning behind his words, when he felt himself in alliance with him, that he began boldly to direct him—to perform, that is, towards him the office expected of him. And Nikolay's management produced the most brilliant results.

On taking over the control of the property, Nikolay had at once by some unerring gift of insight appointed as bailiff, as village elder, and as delegate the very men whom the peasants would have elected themselves had the choice been in their hands, and the authority once given them was never withdrawn. Before investigating the chemical constituents of manure, or going into “debit and credit” (as he liked sarcastically to call book-keeping), he found out the number of cattle the peasants possessed, and did his utmost to increase the number. He kept the peasants' families together on a large scale, and would not allow them to split up into separate households. The indolent, the dissolute, and the feeble he was equally hard upon and tried to expel them from the community. At the sowing and the carrying of the hay and corn, he watched over his own and the peasants' fields with absolutely equal care. And few landowners had fields so early and so well sown and cut, and few had such crops as Nikolay.

He did not like to have anything to do with the house-serfs, he called them parasites, and everybody said that he demoralised and spoiled them. When any order had to be given in regard to a house-serf, especially when one had to be punished, he was always in a state of indecision and asked advice of every one in the house. But whenever it was possible to send a house-serf for a soldier in place of a peasant, he did so without the smallest compunction. In all his dealings with the peasants, he never experienced the slightest hesitation. Every order he gave would, he knew, be approved by the greater majority of them.

He never allowed himself either to punish a man by adding to his burdens, or to reward him by lightening his tasks simply at the prompting of his own wishes. He could not have said what his standard was of what he ought and ought not to do; but there was a standard firm and rigid in his soul.

Often talking of some failure or irregularity, he would complain of “our Russian peasantry,” and he imagined that he could not bear the peasants.

But with his whole soul he did really love “our Russian peasantry,” and their ways; and it was through that he had perceived and adopted the only method of managing the land which could be productive of good results.

Countess Marya was jealous of this passion of her husband's for agriculture, and regretted she could not share it. But she was unable to comprehend the joys and disappointments he met with in that world apart that was so alien to her. She could not understand why he used to be so particularly eager and happy when after getting up at dawn and spending the whole morning in the fields or the threshing-floor he came back to tea with her from the sowing, the mowing, or the harvest. She could not understand why he was so delighted when he told her with enthusiasm of the well-to-do, thrifty peasant Matvey Ermishin, who had been up all night with his family, carting his sheaves, and had all harvested when no one else had begun carrying. She could not understand why, stepping out of the window on to the balcony, he smiled under his moustaches and winked so gleefully when a warm, fine rain began to fall on his young oats that were suffering from the drought, or why, when a menacing cloud blew over in mowing or harvest time, he would come in from the barn red, sunburnt, and perspiring, with the smell of wormwood in his hair, and rubbing his hands joyfully would say: “Come, another day of this and my lot, and the peasants' too, will all be in the barn.”

Still less could she understand how it was that with his good heart and everlasting readiness to anticipate her wishes, he would be thrown almost into despair when she brought him petitions from peasants or their wives who had appealed to her to be let off tasks, why it was that he, her good-natured Nikolay, obstinately refused her, angrily begging her not to meddle in his business. She felt that he had a world apart, that was intensely dear to him, governed by laws of its own which she did not understand.

Sometimes trying to understand him she would talk to him of the good work he was doing in striving for the good of his serfs; but at this he was angry and answered: “Not in the least; it never even entered my head; and for their good I would not lift my little finger. That's all romantic nonsense and old wives' cackle—all that doing good to one's neighbour. I don't want our children to be beggars; I want to build up our fortunes in my lifetime; that is all. And to do that one must have discipline, one must have strictness … So there!” he would declare, clenching his sanguine fist. “And justice too—of course,” he would add, “because if the peasant is naked and hungry, and has but one poor horse, he can do no good for himself or me.”

And doubtless because Nikolay did not allow himself to entertain the idea that he was doing anything for the sake of others, or for the sake of virtue, everything he did was fruitful. His fortune rapidly increased; the neighbouring serfs came to beg him to purchase them, and long after his death the peasantry preserved a reverent memory of his rule. “He was a master … The peasants' welfare first and then his own. And to be sure he would make no abatements. A real good master—that's what he was!”