The Snowstorm
by Leo Tolstoy


It was I think already near midnight when the little old man and Vasily, who had gone after the runaway horses, rode up to us. They had managed to catch the horses and to find and overtake us; but how they had managed to do this in the thick blinding snow storm amid the bare steppe will always remain a mystery to me. The old man, swinging his elbows and legs, was riding the shaft-horse at a trot (the two side-horses were attached to its collar: one dare not let horses loose in a snow storm). When he came abreast of us he again began to scold my driver.

‘Look at the cross-eyed devil, really …’

‘Eh, Uncle Mitrich!’ the folk-tale teller in the second sledge called out: ‘Are you alive? Get in here with us.’

But the old man did not reply and continued his abuse. When he thought he had said enough he rode up to the second sledge.

‘Have you caught them all?’ someone in it asked.

‘What do you think?’

His small figure threw itself forward on the back of the trotting horse, then jumped down on the snow, and without stopping he ran after the sledge and tumbled in, his legs sticking out over its side. The tall Vasily silently took his old place in the front sledge beside Ignashka, and the two began to look for the road together.

‘How the old man nags … O Lord!’ muttered my driver.

For a long time after that we drove on without stopping over the white wasteland, in the cold, pellucid, and quivering light of the snow storm. I’d open my eyes and the same clumsy snow-covered cap and back would be jolting before me: the same low shaft-bow, under which, between the taut leather reins and always at the same distance from me, the head of our shaft-horse kept bobbing with its black mane blown to one side by the wind, while looking across its back I could see the same little piebald horse on the right, with its tail tied up short, and the swingletree which sometimes knocked against the front of the sledge. I’d look down and there was the same scurrying snow through which our runners were cutting, and which the wind resolutely bore away to one side. In front, always at the same distance away, glided the first troika, while to right and left everything glimmered white and dim. Vainly did my eye look for any new object: neither post, nor haystack, nor fence was to be seen. Everywhere all was white and shifting: now the horizon seemed immeasurably distant, now it closed in on all sides to within two paces of me; suddenly a high white wall would seem to rise up on the right and run beside the sledge, then it would suddenly vanish and rise again in front, only to glide on further and further away and again disappear. I’d look up and it would seem lighter for a moment, as if I might see the stars through the haze, but the stars would run away higher and higher from my sight and only the snow would be visible, falling past my eyes onto my face and the collar of my fur cloak. The sky everywhere remained equally light, equally white, monotonous, colourless, and constantly shifting. The wind seemed to be changing: now it blew in my face and the snow plastered my eyes, now it blew from one side and annoyingly tossed the fur collar of my cloak against my head and mockingly flapped my face with it; now it howled through some opening. I heard the soft incessant crunching of the hoofs and the runners on the snow, and the clang of the bells dying down when we drove through deep drifts. Only now and then, when we drove against the snow and glided over bare frozen ground, did Ignashka’s energetic whistling and the sonorous sound of the bell with its accompanying bare fifth reach me and give sudden relief to the dismal character of the wasteland; and then again the bells would sound monotonous, playing always with insufferable precision the same tune, which I involuntarily imagined I was hearing. One of my feet began to feel the frost, and when I turned to wrap myself up better, the snow that had settled on my collar and cap sifted down my neck and made me shiver, but on the whole I still felt warm in my fur coat, and drowsiness overcame me.




Recollections and pictures of the distant past superseded one another with increasing rapidity in my imagination.

‘That advice-giver who is always calling out from the second sledge—what sort of fellow can he be?’ I thought. ‘Probably red-haired, thick-set, and with short legs, like Fyodor Filippych, our old butler.’ And I saw the staircase of our big house and five domestic serfs with heavy steps bringing a piano from the wing on slings made of towels, and Fyodor Filippych with the sleeves of his nankeen coat turned up, holding one of the pedals, running forward, lifting a latch, pulling here at the slings, pushing there, crawling between people’s legs, getting into everybody’s way, and shouting incessantly in an anxious voice:

‘Lean it against yourselves, you there in front, you in front! That’s the way—the tail end up, up, up! Turn into the door! That’s the way.’

‘Just let us do it, Fyodor Filippych! We can manage it alone,’ timidly remarks the gardener, quite red with straining, as he is pressed against the bannisters, with great effort holding up one corner of the grand piano.

But Fyodor Filippych will not be quiet.

‘What does it mean?’ I reflect. ‘Does he think he is useful or necessary for the work in hand, or is he simply glad God has given him this self-confident persuasive eloquence, and enjoys dispensing it? That must be it.’ And then somehow I see the lake, and tired domestic serfs up to their knees in the water dragging a fishing-net, and again Fyodor Filippych with a watering can, shouting at everybody as he runs up and down on the bank, now and then approaching the brink to empty out some turbid water and to take up fresh, while holding back the golden carp with his hand. But now it is a July noon. I am going somewhere over the freshly mown grass in the garden, under the burning, vertical rays of the sun; I am still very young, and I feel a lack of something and a desire to fill that lack. I go to my favourite place by the lake, between the briar-rose bed and the birch-lined lane, and lie down to sleep. I remember the feeling with which, lying down, I looked across between the prickly red stems of the rose trees at the dark, dry, crumbly earth, and at the bright blue mirror of the lake. It is a feeling of naive self-satisfaction and melancholy. Everything around me is beautiful, and that beauty affects me so powerfully that it seems to me that I myself am good, and the one thing that vexes me is that nobody is there to admire me. It is hot. I try to sleep so as to console myself, but the flies, the unendurable flies, give me no peace here either: they gather round me and, with a kind of dull persistence, hard as cherry-stones, jump from my forehead onto my hands. A bee buzzes not far from me in the blazing sunlight; yellow-winged butterflies fly from one blade of grass to another as if exhausted by the heat. I look up: my eyes hurt as the sun glitters too brightly through the light foliage of the curly birch tree whose branches sway softly high above me, and it seems hotter than ever. I cover my face with my handkerchief: it feels stifling, and the flies seem to stick to my hands which begin to perspire. In the very centre of the wild rose bush sparrows begin to bustle about. One of them hops to the ground about two feet from me, energetically pretends to peck at the ground a couple of times, flies back into the bush, rustling the twigs, and chirping merrily flies away. Another also hops down, jerks his little tail, looks about him, chirps, and flies off quick as an arrow after the first one. From the lake comes a sound of a beetle* beating wet linen, and the sound reverberates and is borne down along the lake. Sounds of laughter and the voices and splashing of bathers are heard. A gust of wind rustles the crowns of the birch trees, still far from me; now it comes nearer and I hear it stir the grass, and now the leaves of the wild roses begin to flutter, pressed against their stems, and at last a fresh stream of air reaches me, lifting a corner of my handkerchief and tickling my moist face. Through the gap where the corner of the kerchief was lifted a fly comes in and flutters with fright close to my moist mouth. A dry twig presses against my back. No, I can’t lie still: I had better go and have a bathe. But just then, close to the rose bush, I hear hurried steps and a woman’s frightened voice:

‘O God! How could such a thing happen! And none of the men are here!’

‘What is it? What is it?’ running out into the sunshine I ask a woman serf who hurries past me groaning. She only looks round, waves her arms, and runs on. But here comes seventy-year-old Matryona hurrying to the lake, holding down with one hand the kerchief which is slipping off her head, and hopping and dragging one of her feet in its worsted stocking. Two little girls come running up hand in hand, and a ten-year-old boy, wearing his father’s coat and clutching the homespun skirt of one of the girls, keeps close behind them.

‘What has happened?’ I ask them.

‘A peasant is drowning.’


‘In the lake.’

‘Who is he? One of ours?’

‘No, a stranger.’

Ivan the coachman, dragging his heavy boots through the newly mown grass, and the fat clerk Yakov, all out of breath, run to the pond and I after them.

I remember the feeling which said to me: ‘There you are, plunge in and pull out the peasant and save him, and everyone will admire you,’ which was exactly what I wanted.

‘Where is he? Where?’ I ask the throng of domestic serfs gathered on the bank.

‘Out there, in the very deepest part near the other bank, almost at the boathouse,’ says the washerwoman, hanging the wet linen on her wooden yoke. ‘I look, and see him dive; he just comes up and is gone, then comes up again and calls out: “I’m drowning, help!” and goes down again, and nothing but bubbles come up. Then I see that the man is drowning, so I give a yell: “Hey, everybody! A peasant’s drowning!”’

And lifting the yoke to her shoulder the laundress waddles sideways along the path away from the lake.

‘Oh gracious, what a business!’ says Yakov Ivanov, the office-clerk, in a despairing tone. ‘What a bother there’ll be with the rural court. We’ll never get through with it!’

A peasant carrying a scythe pushes his way through the throng of women, children, and old men who have gathered on the further shore, and hanging his scythe on the branch of a willow slowly begins to take off his boots.

‘Where? Where did he go down?’ I keep asking, wishing to rush there and do something extraordinary.

But they point to the smooth surface of the lake which is occasionally rippled by the passing breeze. I do not understand how he came to drown; the water is still so smooth, lovely, and calm above him, shining golden in the midday sun, and it seems that I can do nothing and can astonish no one, especially as I am a very poor swimmer and the peasant is already pulling his shirt over his head and ready to plunge in. Everybody looks at him hopefully and with bated breath, but after going in up to his shoulders he slowly turns back and puts his shirt on again—he cannot swim.

People still keep on gathering and the throng grows and grows; the women cling to one another, but nobody does anything to help. Those who have just come give advice, and sigh, and their faces express fear and despair; but of those who have been there awhile, some, tired with standing, sit down on the grass, while some go away. Old Matryona asks her daughter whether she shut the oven door, and the boy who is wearing his father’s coat diligently throws small stones into the water.

But now Fyodor Filippych’s dog Tresorka, barking and looking back in perplexity, comes running down the hill, and then Fyodor himself, running downhill and shouting, appears from behind the briar-rose bushes:

‘What are you standing there for?’ he cries, taking off his coat as he runs. ‘A man drowning, and they stand there! … Get me a rope!’

Everybody looks at Fyodor Filippych with hope and fear as, leaning his hand on the shoulder of an obliging domestic serf, he pries off his right boot with the toe of the left.

‘Over there, where the people are, a little to the right of the willow, Fyodor Filippych, just there!’ someone says to him.

‘I know,’ he replies, and knitting his brows, in response, no doubt, to the signs of shame among the crowd of women, he pulls off his shirt, removes the cross from his neck and hands it to the gardener’s boy who stands obsequiously before him, and then, stepping energetically over the cut grass, approaches the lake.

Tresorka, perplexed by the quickness of his master’s movements, has stopped near the crowd and with a smack of his lips eats a few blades of grass near the bank, then looks at his master intently and with a joyful yelp suddenly plunges with him into the water. For a moment nothing can be seen but foam and spray, which even reaches to us; but now Fyodor Filippych, gracefully swinging his arms and rhythmically raising and lowering his back, swims briskly with long strokes to the opposite shore. Tresorka, having swallowed some water, returns hurriedly, shakes himself near the throng, and rubs his back on the grass. Just as Fyodor Filippych reaches the opposite shore two coachmen come running up to the willow with a fishing-net wrapped round a pole. Fyodor Filippych for some unknown reason lifts his arms, dives down once and then a second and a third time, on each occasion squirting a jet of water from his mouth, and gracefully tosses back his hair without answering the questions that are hurled at him from all sides. At last he comes out onto the bank, and as far as I can see only gives instructions as to spreading out the net. The net is drawn in, but there is nothing in it except ooze with a few small carp entangled in it. While the net is being lowered again I go round to that side.

The only sounds to be heard are Fyodor Filippych’s voice giving orders, the plashing of the wet rope on the water, and sighs of terror. The wet rope attached to the right side of the net, more and more covered by grass, comes further and further out of the water.

‘Now then, pull together, harder, all together!’ shouts Fyodor Filippych.

The floats appear dripping with water.

‘Hey, there is something. It’s heavy to pull!’ someone calls out.

But now the net, in which two or three little carp are struggling, is dragged right onto the bank, wetting and pressing down the grass. And in the extended wings of the net, through a thin swaying layer of turbid water, something white comes right into sight. Amid dead silence an impressive, though not loud, gasp of horror passes through the crowd.

‘Pull harder, onto the land!’ comes Fyodor Filippych’s resolute voice, and the drowned body is dragged over the stubble of burdock and thistle, way out to the willow.

And now I see my good old aunt in her silk dress, with her face ready to burst into tears. I see her lilac parasol with its fringe, which seems somehow incongruous in this scene of death, so terrible in its simplicity. I remember the disappointment her face expressed because arnica* could be of no use, and I also remember the painful feeling of annoyance I experienced when, with the naive egotism of love, she said: ‘Come away my dear. Oh, how dreadful it is! And you always go bathing and swimming by yourself.’

I remember how bright and hot the sun was as it baked the powdery earth underfoot; how it sparkled and mirrored in the lake; how the plump carp plashed near the banks and shoals of little fish rippled the water in the middle; how a hawk hovering high in the air circled over the ducklings, which quacking and splashing had come swimming out through the reeds into the middle of the lake; how curling white thunder-clouds gathered on the horizon; how the mud drawn out onto the bank by the net gradually receded; and how as I crossed the dyke I again heard the strokes of a beetle reverberating over the lake.

But this beetle sounds as if two beetles were beating together in thirds, and that sound torments and worries me, the more so because I know that this beetle is a bell, and that Fyodor Filippych will not make it stop. Then this beetle, like an instrument of torture, presses my foot which is freezing, and I fall asleep.

I am awakened, as it seems to me, by our galloping very fast and by two voices calling out quite close to me:

‘I say, Ignat! Eh, Ignat!’ my driver is saying. ‘You take my passenger. You have to go on anyhow, but what’s the use of my goading my horses uselessly? You take him!’

Ignat’s voice quite close to me replies:

‘And what do I get for making myself responsible for the passenger? Will you stand me a bottle?’

‘Oh, come, a bottle … say half a bottle.’

‘Half a bottle, indeed!’ shouts another voice. ‘Wear out the horses for half a bottle!’

I open my eyes. Before them still flickers the same intolerable swaying snow, the same drivers and horses, but now we are abreast of another sledge. My driver has overtaken Ignat, and we drive side by side for some time. Though the voice from the other sledge advises him not to accept less than a bottle, Ignat suddenly reins in his troika.

‘Well, shift over. So be it! It’s your luck. You’ll stand half a bottle when we return tomorrow. Is there much luggage?’

My driver jumps out into the snow with unusual alacrity for him, bows to me, and begs me to change over into Ignat’s sledge. I am quite willing to, but evidently the God-fearing peasant is so pleased that he has to pour out his gratitude and delight to someone. He bows and thanks me, Alyoshka, and Ignat.

‘There now, the Lord be praised! What has it been like … O Lord! We’ve been driving half the night and didn’t know where we were going. He’ll get you there, dear sir, but my horses are quite worn out.’

And he shifts my things with increased zeal.

While my things were being transferred I went to the second sledge, following the wind, which almost lifted me off my feet. That sledge was more than six inches deep in snow, especially from the side where a coat had been arranged on the two men’s heads to shelter them from the wind, but behind the coat it was quiet and comfortable. The old man still lay with his legs sticking out, and the storyteller was still going on with his tale:

‘Well, when the general comes to Mary in prison, in the King’s name, you know, Mary at once says to him: “General, I don’t need you and can’t love you, and so, you see, you are not my lover, but my lover is the prince himself …”’

‘And just then …’ he went on, but seeing me he stopped for a moment and began filling his pipe.

‘Well, sir, have you come to listen to the tale?’ asked the other whom I called the advice-giver.

‘Yes, you’re well off here, quite merry,’ I said.

‘Why not? It whiles away the time, anyhow it keeps one from thinking.’

‘And do you know where we are now?’

This question did not seem to please the drivers.

‘Who can make out where we are? Maybe we’ve driven into Kalmyk territory,’* answered the advice-giver.

‘Then what are we going to do?’ I asked.

‘What can we do? We’ll go on, and maybe we’ll get somewhere,’ he said in a dissatisfied tone.

‘But suppose we don’t get anywhere, and the horses stick in the snow, what then?’

‘What then? Why, nothing.’

‘But we might freeze.’

‘Of course we might, because one can’t even see any haystacks: that means we have got right among the Kalmyks. The chief thing is to watch the snow.’

‘And you seem afraid of getting frozen, sir,’ remarked the old man in a shaky voice.

Though he seemed to be chaffing me, it was evident that he was chilled to his very bones.

‘Yes, it is getting very cold,’ I said.

‘Eh, sir, you should do as I do, take a run now and then, that will warm you up.’

‘Yes, the chief thing is to have a run behind the sledge,’ said the advice-giver.