Christmas, 1811

Some bloggers and BookTubers have been presenting Christmas material from novels, for example, this selection from “Little House In the Big Woods.” That one is part of a full series of Christmas-related readings, and I don’t have enough reading under me to list that many readings. But I’ll give one.

It’s a scene, or rather a series of scenes, from “War and Peace” that amazed me when I read the novel last year. Tolstoy is known as a Deep Thinker, and the titles of his novels do him no favors because no one expects his novels to have scenes like this one, which shows a group of young people attracted by holiday fun, by each other, and by tons of Russian snow.

The scene basically spoils nothing of the novel’s plot; it’s just an interlude: Natasha is merely waiting at home, with nothing to do, so bored that she’s begun harassing the servants with tasks that she invents for them to do. So her little gang of familiares and friends get into the spirit of 19th-century cross-dressing and take their show on the road; the costume party is bookended by sleigh rides.

A couple of movies have depicted these scenes, so I’ve thrown in screenshots and YouTube links.

This translation is by Louise and Aylmer Maude, from chapters 11-12 of Book Seven (1810-11).

“Natásha! Now it’s your turn. Sing me something,” they heard the countess say. “Why are you sitting there like conspirators?”

“Mamma, I don’t at all want to,” replied Natásha, but all the same she rose.

None of them, not even the middle-aged Dimmler, wanted to break off their conversation and quit that corner in the sitting room, but Natásha got up and Nicholas sat down at the clavichord. Standing as usual in the middle of the hall and choosing the place where the resonance was best, Natásha began to sing her mother’s favorite song.

She had said she did not want to sing, but it was long since she had sung, and long before she again sang, as she did that evening. The count, from his study where he was talking to Mítenka, heard her and, like a schoolboy in a hurry to run out to play, blundered in his talk while giving orders to the steward, and at last stopped, while Mítenka stood in front of him also listening and smiling. Nicholas did not take his eyes off his sister and drew breath in time with her. Sónya, as she listened, thought of the immense difference there was between herself and her friend, and how impossible it was for her to be anything like as bewitching as her cousin. The old countess sat with a blissful yet sad smile and with tears in her eyes, occasionally shaking her head. She thought of Natásha and of her own youth, and of how there was something unnatural and dreadful in this impending marriage of Natásha and Prince Andrew.

Dimmler, who had seated himself beside the countess, listened with closed eyes.

“Ah, Countess,” he said at last, “that’s a European talent, she has nothing to learn—what softness, tenderness, and strength….”

“Ah, how afraid I am for her, how afraid I am!” said the countess, not realizing to whom she was speaking. Her maternal instinct told her that Natásha had too much of something, and that because of this she would not be happy. Before Natásha had finished singing, fourteen-year-old Pétya rushed in delightedly, to say that some mummers had arrived.

Natásha stopped abruptly.

“Idiot!” she screamed at her brother and, running to a chair, threw herself on it, sobbing so violently that she could not stop for a long time.

“It’s nothing, Mamma, really it’s nothing; only Pétya startled me,” she said, trying to smile, but her tears still flowed and sobs still choked her.

The mummers (some of the house serfs) dressed up as bears, Turks, innkeepers, and ladies—frightening and funny—bringing in with them the cold from outside and a feeling of gaiety, crowded, at first timidly, into the anteroom, then hiding behind one another they pushed into the ballroom where, shyly at first and then more and more merrily and heartily, they started singing, dancing, and playing Christmas games. The countess, when she had identified them and laughed at their costumes, went into the drawing room. The count sat in the ballroom, smiling radiantly and applauding the players. The young people had disappeared.

Half an hour later there appeared among the other mummers in the ballroom an old lady in a hooped skirt—this was Nicholas. A Turkish girl was Pétya. A clown was Dimmler. An hussar was Natásha, and a Circassian was Sónya with burnt-cork mustache and eyebrows.

After the condescending surprise, nonrecognition, and praise, from those who were not themselves dressed up, the young people decided that their costumes were so good that they ought to be shown elsewhere.

Nicholas, who, as the roads were in splendid condition, wanted to take them all for a drive in his troyka, proposed to take with them about a dozen of the serf mummers and drive to “Uncle’s.”

“No, why disturb the old fellow?” said the countess. “Besides, you wouldn’t have room to turn round there. If you must go, go to the Melyukóvs’.”

Melyukóva was a widow, who, with her family and their tutors and governesses, lived three miles from the Rostóvs.

“That’s right, my dear,” chimed in the old count, thoroughly aroused. “I’ll dress up at once and go with them. I’ll make Pashette open her eyes.”

But the countess would not agree to his going; he had had a bad leg all these last days. It was decided that the count must not go, but that if Louisa Ivánovna (Madame Schoss) would go with them, the young ladies might go to the Melyukóvs’, Sónya, generally so timid and shy, more urgently than anyone begging Louisa Ivánovna not to refuse.

Sónya’s costume was the best of all. Her mustache and eyebrows were extraordinarily becoming. Everyone told her she looked very handsome, and she was in a spirited and energetic mood unusual with her. Some inner voice told her that now or never her fate would be decided, and in her male attire she seemed quite a different person. Louisa Ivánovna consented to go, and in half an hour four troyka sleighs with large and small bells, their runners squeaking and whistling over the frozen snow, drove up to the porch.

Natásha was foremost in setting a merry holiday tone, which, passing from one to another, grew stronger and reached its climax when they all came out into the frost and got into the sleighs, talking, calling to one another, laughing, and shouting.

Two of the troykas were the usual household sleighs, the third was the old count’s with a trotter from the Orlóv stud as shaft horse, the fourth was Nicholas’ own with a short shaggy black shaft horse. Nicholas, in his old lady’s dress over which he had belted his hussar overcoat, stood in the middle of the sleigh, reins in hand.

It was so light that he could see the moonlight reflected from the metal harness disks and from the eyes of the horses, who looked round in alarm at the noisy party under the shadow of the porch roof.

Natásha, Sónya, Madame Schoss, and two maids got into Nicholas’ sleigh; Dimmler, his wife, and Pétya, into the old count’s, and the rest of the mummers seated themselves in the other two sleighs.

“You go ahead, Zakhár!” shouted Nicholas to his father’s coachman, wishing for a chance to race past him.

The old count’s troyka, with Dimmler and his party, started forward, squeaking on its runners as though freezing to the snow, its deep-toned bell clanging. The side horses, pressing against the shafts of the middle horse, sank in the snow, which was dry and glittered like sugar, and threw it up.

Nicholas set off, following the first sleigh; behind him the others moved noisily, their runners squeaking. At first they drove at a steady trot along the narrow road. While they drove past the garden the shadows of the bare trees often fell across the road and hid the brilliant moonlight, but as soon as they were past the fence, the snowy plain bathed in moonlight and motionless spread out before them glittering like diamonds and dappled with bluish shadows. Bang, bang! went the first sleigh over a cradle hole in the snow of the road, and each of the other sleighs jolted in the same way, and rudely breaking the frost-bound stillness, the troykas began to speed along the road, one after the other.

“A hare’s track, a lot of tracks!” rang out Natásha’s voice through the frost-bound air.

“How light it is, Nicholas!” came Sónya’s voice.

Nicholas glanced round at Sónya, and bent down to see her face closer. Quite a new, sweet face with black eyebrows and mustaches peeped up at him from her sable furs—so close and yet so distant—in the moonlight.

“That used to be Sónya,” thought he, and looked at her closer and smiled.

“What is it, Nicholas?”

“Nothing,” said he and turned again to the horses.

When they came out onto the beaten highroad—polished by sleigh runners and cut up by rough-shod hoofs, the marks of which were visible in the moonlight—the horses began to tug at the reins of their own accord and increased their pace. The near side horse, arching his head and breaking into a short canter, tugged at his traces. The shaft horse swayed from side to side, moving his ears as if asking: “Isn’t it time to begin now?” In front, already far ahead the deep bell of the sleigh ringing farther and farther off, the black horses driven by Zakhár could be clearly seen against the white snow. From that sleigh one could hear the shouts, laughter, and voices of the mummers.

“Gee up, my darlings!” shouted Nicholas, pulling the reins to one side and flourishing the whip.

It was only by the keener wind that met them and the jerks given by the side horses who pulled harder—ever increasing their gallop—that one noticed how fast the troyka was flying. Nicholas looked back. With screams, squeals, and waving of whips that caused even the shaft horses to gallop—the other sleighs followed. The shaft horse swung steadily beneath the bow over its head, with no thought of slackening pace and ready to put on speed when required.

Nicholas overtook the first sleigh. They were driving downhill and coming out upon a broad trodden track across a meadow, near a river.

“Where are we?” thought he. “It’s the Kosóy meadow, I suppose. But no—this is something new I’ve never seen before. This isn’t the Kosóy meadow nor the Dëmkin hill, and heaven only knows what it is! It is something new and enchanted. Well, whatever it may be…” And shouting to his horses, he began to pass the first sleigh.

Zakhár held back his horses and turned his face, which was already covered with hoarfrost to his eyebrows.

Nicholas gave the horses the rein, and Zakhár, stretching out his arms, clucked his tongue and let his horses go.

“Now, look out, master!” he cried.

Faster still the two troykas flew side by side, and faster moved the feet of the galloping side horses. Nicholas began to draw ahead. Zakhár, while still keeping his arms extended, raised one hand with the reins.

“No you won’t, master!” he shouted.

Nicholas put all his horses to a gallop and passed Zakhár. The horses showered the fine dry snow on the faces of those in the sleigh—beside them sounded quick ringing bells and they caught confused glimpses of swiftly moving legs and the shadows of the troyka they were passing. The whistling sound of the runners on the snow and the voices of girls shrieking were heard from different sides.

Again checking his horses, Nicholas looked around him. They were still surrounded by the magic plain bathed in moonlight and spangled with stars.

“Zakhár is shouting that I should turn to the left, but why to the left?” thought Nicholas. “Are we getting to the Melyukóvs’? Is this Melyukóvka? Heaven only knows where we are going, and heaven knows what is happening to us—but it is very strange and pleasant whatever it is.” And he looked round in the sleigh.

“Look, his mustache and eyelashes are all white!” said one of the strange, pretty, unfamiliar people—the one with fine eyebrows and mustache.

“I think this used to be Natásha,” thought Nicholas, “and that was Madame Schoss, but perhaps it’s not, and this Circassian with the mustache I don’t know, but I love her.”

“Aren’t you cold?” he asked.

They did not answer but began to laugh. Dimmler from the sleigh behind shouted something—probably something funny—but they could not make out what he said.

“Yes, yes!” some voices answered, laughing.

“But here was a fairy forest with black moving shadows, and a glitter of diamonds and a flight of marble steps and the silver roofs of fairy buildings and the shrill yells of some animals. And if this is really Melyukóvka, it is still stranger that we drove heaven knows where and have come to Melyukóvka,” thought Nicholas.

It really was Melyukóvka, and maids and footmen with merry faces came running, out to the porch carrying candles.

“Who is it?” asked someone in the porch.

“The mummers from the count’s. I know by the horses,” replied some voices.

Go to the one-hour mark here for the sleigh race:

Pelagéya Danílovna Melyukóva, a broadly built, energetic woman wearing spectacles, sat in the drawing room in a loose dress, surrounded by her daughters whom she was trying to keep from feeling dull. They were quietly dropping melted wax into snow and looking at the shadows the wax figures would throw on the wall, when they heard the steps and voices of new arrivals in the vestibule.

Hussars, ladies, witches, clowns, and bears, after clearing their throats and wiping the hoarfrost from their faces in the vestibule, came into the ballroom where candles were hurriedly lighted. The clown—Dimmler—and the lady—Nicholas—started a dance. Surrounded by the screaming children the mummers, covering their faces and disguising their voices, bowed to their hostess and arranged themselves about the room.

“Dear me! there’s no recognizing them! And Natásha! See whom she looks like! She really reminds me of somebody. But Herr Dimmler—isn’t he good! I didn’t know him! And how he dances. Dear me, there’s a Circassian. Really, how becoming it is to dear Sónya. And who is that? Well, you have cheered us up! Nikíta and Vanya—clear away the tables! And we were sitting so quietly. Ha, ha, ha!… The hussar, the hussar! Just like a boy! And the legs!… I can’t look at him…” different voices were saying.

Natásha, the young Melyukóvs’ favorite, disappeared with them into the back rooms where a cork and various dressing gowns and male garments were called for and received from the footman by bare girlish arms from behind the door. Ten minutes later, all the young Melyukóvs joined the mummers.

Pelagéya Danílovna, having given orders to clear the rooms for the visitors and arranged about refreshments for the gentry and the serfs, went about among the mummers without removing her spectacles, peering into their faces with a suppressed smile and failing to recognize any of them. It was not merely Dimmler and the Rostóvs she failed to recognize, she did not even recognize her own daughters, or her late husband’s, dressing gowns and uniforms, which they had put on.

“And who is this?” she asked her governess, peering into the face of her own daughter dressed up as a Kazán-Tartar. “I suppose it is one of the Rostóvs! Well, Mr. Hussar, and what regiment do you serve in?” she asked Natásha. “Here, hand some fruit jelly to the Turk!” she ordered the butler who was handing things round. “That’s not forbidden by his law.”

Sometimes, as she looked at the strange but amusing capers cut by the dancers, who—having decided once for all that being disguised, no one would recognize them—were not at all shy, Pelagéya Danílovna hid her face in her handkerchief, and her whole stout body shook with irrepressible, kindly, elderly laughter.

“My little Sásha! Look at Sásha!” she said.

After Russian country dances and chorus dances, Pelagéya Danílovna made the serfs and gentry join in one large circle: a ring, a string, and a silver ruble were fetched and they all played games together.

In an hour, all the costumes were crumpled and disordered. The corked eyebrows and mustaches were smeared over the perspiring, flushed, and merry faces. Pelagéya Danílovna began to recognize the mummers, admired their cleverly contrived costumes, and particularly how they suited the young ladies, and she thanked them all for having entertained her so well. The visitors were invited to supper in the drawing room, and the serfs had something served to them in the ballroom.

“Now to tell one’s fortune in the empty bathhouse is frightening!” said an old maid who lived with the Melyukóvs, during supper.

“Why?” said the eldest Melyukóv girl.

“You wouldn’t go, it takes courage….”

“I’ll go,” said Sónya.

“Tell what happened to the young lady!” said the second Melyukóv girl.

“Well,” began the old maid, “a young lady once went out, took a cock, laid the table for two, all properly, and sat down. After sitting a while, she suddenly hears someone coming… a sleigh drives up with harness bells; she hears him coming! He comes in, just in the shape of a man, like an officer—comes in and sits down to table with her.”

“Ah! ah!” screamed Natásha, rolling her eyes with horror.

“Yes? And how… did he speak?”

“Yes, like a man. Everything quite all right, and he began persuading her; and she should have kept him talking till cockcrow, but she got frightened, just got frightened and hid her face in her hands. Then he caught her up. It was lucky the maids ran in just then….”

“Now, why frighten them?” said Pelagéya Danílovna.

“Mamma, you used to try your fate yourself…” said her daughter.

“And how does one do it in a barn?” inquired Sónya.

Natasha and Sonya, asking about the barn, 2016 BBC production (screenshot)

“Well, say you went to the barn now, and listened. It depends on what you hear; hammering and knocking—that’s bad; but a sound of shifting grain is good and one sometimes hears that, too.”

“Mamma, tell us what happened to you in the barn.”

Pelagéya Danílovna smiled.

“Oh, I’ve forgotten…” she replied. “But none of you would go?”

“Yes, I will; Pelagéya Danílovna, let me! I’ll go,” said Sónya.

“Well, why not, if you’re not afraid?”

“Louisa Ivánovna, may I?” asked Sónya.

Whether they were playing the ring and string game or the ruble game or talking as now, Nicholas did not leave Sónya’s side, and gazed at her with quite new eyes. It seemed to him that it was only today, thanks to that burnt-cork mustache, that he had fully learned to know her. And really, that evening, Sónya was brighter, more animated, and prettier than Nicholas had ever seen her before.

“So that’s what she is like; what a fool I have been!” he thought gazing at her sparkling eyes, and under the mustache a happy rapturous smile dimpled her cheeks, a smile he had never seen before.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” said Sónya. “May I go at once?” She got up.

They told her where the barn was and how she should stand and listen, and they handed her a fur cloak. She threw this over her head and shoulders and glanced at Nicholas.

“What a darling that girl is!” thought he. “And what have I been thinking of till now?”

Sónya went out into the passage to go to the barn. Nicholas went hastily to the front porch, saying he felt too hot. The crowd of people really had made the house stuffy.

Outside, there was the same cold stillness and the same moon, but even brighter than before. The light was so strong and the snow sparkled with so many stars that one did not wish to look up at the sky and the real stars were unnoticed. The sky was black and dreary, while the earth was gay.

“I am a fool, a fool! what have I been waiting for?” thought Nicholas, and running out from the porch he went round the corner of the house and along the path that led to the back porch. He knew Sónya would pass that way. Halfway lay some snow-covered piles of firewood and across and along them a network of shadows from the bare old lime trees fell on the snow and on the path. This path led to the barn. The log walls of the barn and its snow-covered roof, that looked as if hewn out of some precious stone, sparkled in the moonlight. A tree in the garden snapped with the frost, and then all was again perfectly silent. His bosom seemed to inhale not air but the strength of eternal youth and gladness.

From the back porch came the sound of feet descending the steps, the bottom step upon which snow had fallen gave a ringing creak and he heard the voice of an old maidservant saying, “Straight, straight, along the path, Miss. Only, don’t look back.”

“I am not afraid,” answered Sónya’s voice, and along the path toward Nicholas came the crunching, whistling sound of Sónya’s feet in her thin shoes.

Sónya came along, wrapped in her cloak. She was only a couple of paces away when she saw him, and to her too he was not the Nicholas she had known and always slightly feared. He was in a woman’s dress, with tousled hair and a happy smile new to Sónya. She ran rapidly toward him.

“Quite different and yet the same,” thought Nicholas, looking at her face all lit up by the moonlight. He slipped his arms under the cloak that covered her head, embraced her, pressed her to him, and kissed her on the lips that wore a mustache and had a smell of burnt cork. Sónya kissed him full on the lips, and disengaging her little hands pressed them to his cheeks.

“Sónya!… Nicholas!”… was all they said. They ran to the barn and then back again, re-entering, he by the front and she by the back porch.

Go to 15:30 here for that scene:

When they all drove back from Pelagéya Danílovna’s, Natásha, who always saw and noticed everything, arranged that she and Madame Schoss should go back in the sleigh with Dimmler, and Sónya with Nicholas and the maids.

On the way back Nicholas drove at a steady pace instead of racing and kept peering by that fantastic all-transforming light into Sónya’s face and searching beneath the eyebrows and mustache for his former and his present Sónya from whom he had resolved never to be parted again. He looked and recognizing in her both the old and the new Sónya, and being reminded by the smell of burnt cork of the sensation of her kiss, inhaled the frosty air with a full breast and, looking at the ground flying beneath him and at the sparkling sky, felt himself again in fairyland.

“Sónya, is it well with thee?” he asked from time to time.

“Yes!” she replied. “And with thee?”

When halfway home Nicholas handed the reins to the coachman and ran for a moment to Natásha’s sleigh and stood on its wing.

“Natásha!” he whispered in French, “do you know I have made up my mind about Sónya?”

“Have you told her?” asked Natásha, suddenly beaming all over with joy.

“Oh, how strange you are with that mustache and those eyebrows!… Natásha—are you glad?”

“I am so glad, so glad! I was beginning to be vexed with you. I did not tell you, but you have been treating her badly. What a heart she has, Nicholas! I am horrid sometimes, but I was ashamed to be happy while Sónya was not,” continued Natásha. “Now I am so glad! Well, run back to her.”

“No, wait a bit…. Oh, how funny you look!” cried Nicholas, peering into her face and finding in his sister too something new, unusual, and bewitchingly tender that he had not seen in her before. “Natásha, it’s magical, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she replied. “You have done splendidly.”

“Had I seen her before as she is now,” thought Nicholas, “I should long ago have asked her what to do and have done whatever she told me, and all would have been well.”

“So you are glad and I have done right?”

“Oh, quite right! I had a quarrel with Mamma some time ago about it. Mamma said she was angling for you. How could she say such a thing! I nearly stormed at Mamma. I will never let anyone say anything bad of Sónya, for there is nothing but good in her.”

“Then it’s all right?” said Nicholas, again scrutinizing the expression of his sister’s face to see if she was in earnest. Then he jumped down and, his boots scrunching the snow, ran back to his sleigh. The same happy, smiling Circassian, with mustache and beaming eyes looking up from under a sable hood, was still sitting there, and that Circassian was Sónya, and that Sónya was certainly his future happy and loving wife.

When they reached home and had told their mother how they had spent the evening at the Melyukóvs’, the girls went to their bedroom. When they had undressed, but without washing off the cork mustaches, they sat a long time talking of their happiness. They talked of how they would live when they were married, how their husbands would be friends, and how happy they would be.

Some screenshots of the sleigh-ride race in Sergei Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” (1966-67):

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