The Autobiography of a Revolutionist: The Corps of Pages
IN August, 1857, the long-cherished ambition of my father was realized. There was a vacancy in the corps of pages which I could fill before I had got beyond the age to which admission was limited, and I was taken to St. Petersburg and entered the school. Only a hundred and fifty boys — mostly children of the nobility belonging to the court — received education in this privileged corps, which combined the character of a military school endowed with special rights and of a court institution attached to the imperial household. After a stay of four or five years in the corps of pages, those who had passed the final examinations were received as officers in any regiment of the guard or of the army they chose, irrespective of the number of vacancies in that regiment; and each year the first sixteen pupils of the highest form were nominated pages de chambre ; that is, they were personally attached to the several members of the imperial family, — the Emperor, the Empress, the grand duchesses, and the grand dukes.
That was considered, of course, a great honor ; and, moreover, the young men upon whom this honor was bestowed became known at the court, and had afterward every chance of being nominated aides-de-camp of the Emperor or of one of the grand dukes, and consequently had every facility for making a brilliant career in the service of the state. Fathers and mothers of families connected with the court took due care, therefore, that their boys should not miss entering the corps of pages, even though entrance had to be secured at the expense of other candidates who never saw a place opening for them. Now that I was in the select corps my father could give a free flight to his ambitious dreams.
The corps was divided into five forms, of which the highest was the first, and the lowest the fifth, and the intention was that I should enter the fourth form. However, as it appeared at the examinations that I was not sufficiently familiar with decimal fractions, and as the fourth form contained that year over forty pupils, while only twenty had been mustered for the filth form, I was enrolled in the latter.
I felt extremely vexed at this decision. It was with reluctance that I entered a military school, and now I should have to stay in it five years instead of four. What should I do in the fifth form, when I knew already all that would be taught in it ? With tears in my eyes I spoke of it to the inspector (the head of the educational department), but he answered me with a joke. “ You know,” he remarked, “what Cæsar said, —better to be the first in a village than the second in Rome.” To which I warmly replied that I should prefer to be the very last, if only I could leave the military school as soon as possible. “ Perhaps, after some time, you will like the school,” he remarked, and from that day he took a liking to me.
To the teacher of arithmetic, who also tried to console me, I gave my word of honor that I would never cast a glance into his textbook ; “ and nevertheless you will have to give me the highest marks.”
I kept my word; but thinking now of this scene, I fancy that the pupil was not even then of a very docile disposition.
And yet, as I look back upon that remote past, I cannot but feel grateful for having been put in the lower form. Having only to repeat during the first year what I already knew, I got into the habit of learning my lessons by merely listening to what the teachers said in the classroom; and, the lessons over, I had plenty of time to read and to write to my heart’s content. When I reached the higher " special ” forms, I was better prepared to master the variety of subjects we had to study. All children, I now think, would be benefited very much if serious teaching did not begin for them before they have reached a certain development, usually attained at about the age of fifteen. After that age they learn very quickly, and far better, what would have taken them years to master when younger ; and those early years could be so well utilized in many other ways. Besides, I spent more than half of the first winter in the hospital. Like all children who are not born at St. Petersburg, I had to pay a heavy tribute to “ the capital on the swamps of Finland,” in the shape of several attacks of local cholera, and finally one of typhoid fever.
When I entered the corps of pages, its inner life was undergoing a profound change. All Russia awakened at that time from the heavy slumber and the nightmare of the terrible years of Nicholas I.’s reign. Our school also felt the effects of that revival. I do not know, in fact, what would have become of me, had I entered the corps of pages one or two years sooner. Either my will would have been totally broken, or I should have been excluded from the school with no one knows what consequences. Happily, the transition period was already in full sway in the year 1857.
The director of the corps was an excellent old man, General Zheltúkhin. But he was the nominal head only. The real master of the school was “ the Colonel,”— Colonel Girardot, a Frenchman in the Russian service. People said he was a Jesuit, and so he was, I believe. His ways, at any rate, were thoroughly imbued with the teachings of Loyola, and his educational methods were those of the French Jesuit colleges.
Imagine a short, extremely thin man, with dark, piercing, and furtive eyes, wearing very short clipped mustaches, which gave him the expression of a cat; very quiet and firm; not remarkably intelligent, but exceedingly cunning; a despot at the bottom of his heart, who was capable of hating—intensely hating — the boy who would not fall under his fascination, and of expressing that hatred, not by silly persecutions, but, unceasingly, by his general behavior, — by an occasionally dropped word, a gesture, a smile, an interjection. His walk was more like gliding along, and the exploring glances he used to cast round without turning his head completed the illusion. A stamp of cold dryness was impressed on his lips, even when he tried to look well disposed, and that expression became still more harsh when his mouth was contorted by a smile of discontent or of contempt. With all this there was nothing of a commander in him ; you would rather think, at first sight, of a benevolent father who talks to his children as if they were full-grown people. And yet, you soon felt that every one and everything had to bend before his will. Woe to the boy who would not feel happy or unhappy according to the degree of good will shown toward him by the Colonel.
The words “the Colonel” were continually on all lips. Other officers went by their nicknames, but no one dared to give a nickname to the Colonel. A sort of mystery hung about him, as if he were omniscient and everywhere present. True, he spent all the day and part of the night in the school. Even when we were in the classes he prowled about, visiting our drawers, which he opened with his own keys. As to the night, he gave a good portion of it to the task of inscribing in certain small books, — of which he had quite a library, — in separate columns, by special signs and in inks of different colors, all the faults and virtues of each boy.
Play, jokes, and conversations stopped when we saw him slowly moving along through our spacious rooms, hand in hand with one of his favorites, balancing his body forward and backward ; smiling at one boy, keenly looking into the eyes of another, casting an indifferent glance upon a third, and giving a slight contortion to his lip as he passed a fourth : and from these looks every one knew that he liked the first boy, that to the second he was indifferent, that he intentionally did not notice the third, and that he disliked the fourth. This dislike was enough to terrify most boys, — the more so as no reason could be given for it. Impressionable boys had been brought to despair by that mute, unceasingly displayed aversion and those suspicious looks; in others the result had been a total annihilation of will, as one of the Tolstoys — Theodor, also a pupil of Girardot — has shown in an autobiographic novel, The Diseases of the Will.
The inner life of the corps was miserable under the rule of the Colonel. In all boarding-schools the newly entered boys are subjected to petty persecutions. The “ greenhorns ” are submitted in this way to a test. What are they worth ? Are they going to turn “ telltales ” ? And then the “ old hands ” like to show to newcomers the superiority of an established brotherhood. So it goes in all schools and in prisons. But under Girardot’s rule these persecutions took on a harsher aspect, and they came, not from the comrades of the same form, but from the first form, — the pages de chambre, who were non-commissioned officers, and whom Girardot had placed in a quite exceptional, superior position. His system was to give them carte blanche ; to pretend that he did not know even the horrors they were enacting ; and to maintain through them a severe discipline.
To answer a blow received from a page de chambre would have meant, in the times of Nicholas I., to be sent to a battalion of soldiers’ sons, if the fact became public ; and to revolt in any way against the mere caprice of a page de chambre meant that the twenty youths of the first form, armed with their heavy oak rulers, would assemble in a room, and, with Girardot’s tacit approval, administer a severe beating to the boy who had shown such a spirit of insubordination.
Accordingly, the first form did what they liked ; and not further back than the preceding winter one of their favorite games had been to assemble the “ greenhorns ” at night in a room, in their nightshirts, and to make them run round, like horses in a circus, while the pages de chambre, armed with thick india-rubber whips, standing some in the centre and the others on the outside, pitilessly whipped the boys. As a rule the “ circus ended in an Oriental fashion, in an abominable way. The moral conceptions which prevailed at that time, and the foul talk which went on in the school concerning what occurred at night after a circus, were such that the least said about them the better.
The Colonel knew all this. He had a perfectly organized system of espionage, and nothing escaped his knowledge. But so long as he was not known to know it, all was right. To shut his eyes to what was done by the first form was the foundation of his system of maintaining discipline.
However, a new spirit was awakened in the school, and only a few months before I entered it a revolution had taken place. That year the third form was different from what it had hitherto been. It contained a number of young men who learned splendidly, and read a good deal; some of them became, later, men of mark. My first acquaintance with one of them — let me call him von Schauff — was when he was reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Besides, they had amongst them some of the strongest youths of the school. The tallest member of the corps was in that form, as also a very strong young man, Kóshtoff, a great friend of von Schauff.
They could not bear the yoke of the pages de chambre with the same docility with which it had been endured up to that time ; they looked with disgust upon what was going on ; and in consequence of an incident, which I prefer not to describe, a fight took place between the third and the first form, with the result that the pages de chambre got a very severe thrashing from their subordinates. Girardot hushed up the affair, but the authority of the first form was broken down. The india-rubber whips remained, but never more were they put to use. The circuses and the rest became things of the past.
That much was won ; but the lowest form, the fifth, composed almost entirely of very young boys who had just entered the school, had still to obey the petty caprices of the pages de chambre without murmuring. We had a beautiful garden, filled with old trees, but the boys of the fifth form could enjoy it little : they were forced to run a roundabout, while the pages de chambre sat in it and chattered, or to send back the balls when these gentlemen played ninepins. A couple of days after I had entered the school, seeing how things stood in the garden, I did not go there, but remained upstairs. I was reading, when a page de chambre, with carroty hair and a face covered with freckles, came upon me, and ordered me to go at once to the garden to run the roundabout.
“ I will not ; you see I am reading,”was my reply.
Anger disfigured his already unpleasant face. He was ready to jump upon me. I took the defensive. He tried to give me blows on the face with his cap. I fenced as best I could. Then he flung his cap on the floor.
“ Pick it up.”
“ Pick it up yourself.”
Such an act of disobedience was unheard of in the school. Why he did not beat me unmercifully on the spot I do not know. He was much older and stronger than I was.
Next day and the following days I received similar commands, but obstinately remained upstairs. Then began the most exasperating petty persecutions at every step, — enough to bring one to despair. Happily, I was always of a jovial disposition, and answered with jokes, or took little heed of them. Still, my younger comrades were so vexed that they asked the third form to interfere, but received the wise reply that it would be impossible to engage in a new fight for such a reason. The third form, however, began to show us in various little ways its friendly disposition ; with von Schauff we had many points of contact.
Moreover, all this soon came to an end. The weather turned rainy, and we spent most of our time indoors. In the garden the first form smoked freely enough, but when we were indoors the smoking club was " the tower.” It was kept beautifully clean, and a fire was always burning there. The pages de chambre severely punished all others whom they caught smoking, but they themselves sat continually at the fireside chattering and enjoying cigarettes. Their favorite smoking time was at night, after all were supposed to have gone to bed at ten ; they kept their club till half past eleven, and, to protect themselves from an unexpected interruption by Girardot, they ordered us to keep watch. The small boys of the fifth form were taken out of their beds in turn, two at a time, and they had to loiter about the staircase till half past eleven, to give notice of the approach of the Colonel.
We decided to put an end to these night watches. Long were the discussions, and the higher forms were consulted as to what was to be done. At last the decision came : “ Refuse, all of you, to keep the watch; and when they begin to beat you, which they are sure to do, go, as many of you as can, in a block, and call in Girardot. He knows it all, but then he will be bound to stop it.’ The question whether that would not be “ reporting ” was settled in the negative by experts in honor matters : the pages de chambre did not behave toward the others like comrades.
The turn to watch fell that night to a Prince Sh—, an old hand, and to S—, a newcomer, an extremely timid boy, who even spoke in a girlish voice. Sh— was called upon first, but refused to go, and was left alone. Then two pages de chambre went to the timid S—, who was in bed ; as he refused to obey, they began to flog him brutally with heavy leather braces. Sh—woke up several comrades who were near at hand, and they all ran to find Girardot.
I was also in bed when the two came upon me, ordering me to take the watch.
I refused. Thereupon, seizing two pairs of braces, — we always used to put our clothes in perfect order on a bench by the bedside, braces uppermost, and the necktie across them, — they began to flog me. Sitting up in bed, I fenced with my hands, and had already received several heavy blows, when a command resounded, — “ The first form to the Colonel! ”
The fierce fighters became tame at once, and hurriedly put my things in order.
“ Don’t say a word,” they whispered.
“ The necktie across, in good order,” I said to them, while my shoulders and arms burned from the blows.
What Girardot’s talk with the first form was we did not know; but next day, as we stood in the ranks before marching downstairs to the dining-room, he addressed us in a minor key, saying how sad it was that pages de chambre should have fallen upon a boy who was right in his refusal. And upon whom ? A newcomer, and so timid a boy as S— was. The school were simply disgusted at that Jesuitic speech.
No need to say that that was the end of the watch-keeping, and that it gave a final blow to the worrying of the newcomers: it has never been renewed.
It surely was also a blow to Girardot’s authority, and he resented it very much. He regarded our form, and me especially, with great dislike (the roundabout affair had been reported to him), and he manifested it at every opportunity.
During the first winter I was a frequent inmate of the hospital. After suffering from typhoid fever, during which the director and the doctor bestowed on me a really parental care, I had very bad and persistently recurring gastric attacks. Girardot, as he made his daily rounds of the hospital, seeing me so often there, began to say to me every morning, half jokingly, in French, " Here is a young man who is as healthy as the New Bridge, and loiters in the hospital.”Once or twice I replied jestingly, but at last, seeing malice in this constant repetition, I lost patience. Frequently boys pretended to be ill and went to the hospital when they did not know their lessons; but there was no necessity for me to do so, and, as I never could bear a suspicion of deceit, I grew very angry.
“ How dare you say that ? ” I exclaimed. “ I shall ask the doctor to forbid your entering this room.” and so on.
Girardot recoiled two steps; his dark eyes glittered, his thin lip became still thinner. At last he said, “ I have offended you, have I ? Well, we have in the hall two artillery guns : shall we have a duel ? ”
“ I don’t make jokes, and I tell you that I shall bear no more of your insinuations,” I continued.
He did not repeat his joke, but regarded me with even more dislike than before.
Happily enough, there was little opportunity for punishing me. I did not smoke ; my clothes were always hooked and buttoned, and properly folded at night. I liked all sorts of games, but, plunged as I was in reading and in a correspondence with my brother, I could hardly find time to play a lapta match (a sort of cricket) in the garden, and always hurried back to my books. But when I was caught in fault, it was not I that Girardot punished, but the page de chambre who was my superior. Once, for instance, at dinner, I made a physical discovery : I noticed that the sound given out by a tumbler depends on the amount of water it contains, and at once tried to obtain a chord with four glasses. But there stood Girardot behind me, and without saying a word to me he ordered my page de chambre under arrest. It so happened that this young man was an excellent fellow, a third cousin of mine, who refused even to listen to my excuses, saying, “ All right. I know he dislikes you.” His comrades, though, gave me a warning. “ Take care, naughty boy; we are not going to be punished for you,” they said ; and if reading had not been my all-absorbing occupation, they probably would have made me pay dearly for my physical experiment.
All the comrades and officers spoke of Girardot’s dislike for me ; but I paid no attention to it, and probably increased it by my indifference. For full eighteen months he refused to give me the epaulets, which were usually given to newly entered boys after one or two months’ stay at the school, when they had learned some of the rudiments of military drill; but I felt quite happy without that military decoration. At last, an officer — the best teacher of drill in the school, a man simply enamored of drill—volunteered to teach me ; and when he saw me performing all the tricks to his entire satisfaction, he undertook to introduce me to Girardot. The Colonel refused again, twice in succession, so that the officer took it as a personal offense; and when the director of the corps once asked him why I had no epaulets yet, he bluntly answered, “ The boy is all right; it is the Colonel who does not want him ; ” whereupon, probably after a remark of the director, Girardot himself asked to reëxamine me, and gave me the epaulets that very day.
But the Colonel’s influence was rapidly vanishing. The whole character of the school was changing. For twenty years Girardot had realized his ideal, which was to have the pages nicely combed, curled, and girlish looking, and to send to the court pages as refined as courtiers of Louis XIV. Whether they learned or not, he cared little; his favorites were those whose clothes-baskets were best filled with all sorts of nail-brushes and scent bottles, whose “ private ” uniform (which could be put on when we went home on Sundays) was of the best make, and who knew how to make the most elegant salut oblique. Formerly, when Girardot had held rehearsals of court ceremonies, wrapping up a page in a striped red cotton cover taken from one of our beds, in order that he might represent the Empress at a baisemain, the boys almost religiously approached the imaginary Empress, seriously performed the ceremony of kissing the hand, and retired with a most elegant oblique bow ; but now, though they were very elegant at court, they would perform at the rehearsals such bearlike bows that all roared with laughter, while Girardot was simply raging. Formerly, the younger boys who had been taken to a court levee, and had been curled for that purpose, used to keep their curls as long as they would last; now, on returning from the palace, they hurried to put their heads under the coldwater tap, to get rid of the curls. An effeminate appearance was laughed at. To be sent to the palace to stand as a decoration at a levee was now considered a drudgery rather than a favor. And when the small boys who were occasionally taken to the palace to play with the little grand dukes remarked that one of the latter used, in some game, to make a hard whip out of his handkerchief, and use it freely, one of our boys did the same, and so whipped the grand duke that he cried. Girardot was terrified, while the old Sebastopol admiral who was tutor of the grand duke only praised our boy.
A new spirit, studious and serious, developed in the corps of pages, as in all other schools. In former years, the pages, being sure that in one way or another they would get the necessary marks for being promoted officers of the guard, spent the first years in the school hardly learning at all, and only began to study more or less in the last two forms; now the lower forms learned very well. The moral tone also became quite different from what it was a few years before. Oriental amusements were looked upon with disgust, and an attempt or two to revert to old manners resulted in scandals which reached the St. Petersburg drawing-rooms. Girardot was dismissed. He was only allowed to retain his bachelor apartment in the building of the corps, and we often saw him afterward, wrapped in his long military cloak, pacing along, plunged in reflections, — sad,
I suppose, because he could not but condemn the new spirit which rapidly developed in the corps of pages.
All over Russia people were talking of education. As soon as peace had been concluded at Paris, and the severity of censorship had been slightly relaxed, educational matters began to be eagerly discussed. The ignorance of the masses of the people, the obstacles that had hitherto been put in the way of those who wanted to learn, the absence of schools in the country, the obsolete methods of teaching, and the remedies for these evils became favorite themes of discussion in educated circles, in the press, and even in the drawing-rooms of the aristocracy. The first high schools for girls had been opened in 1857, on an excellent plan and with a splendid teaching staff. As by magic a number of men and women came to the front who not only have since devoted their lives to education, but have proved to be such remarkable practical pedagogists that their writings would occupy a place of honor in every civilized literature, if they were known abroad.
The corps of pages also felt the effect of that revival. Apart from a few exceptions, the general tendency of the three younger forms was to study. The head of the educational department, the inspector, Winkler, who was a well-educated colonel of artillery, a good mathematician, and a man of progressive opinions, hit upon an excellent plan for stimulating that spirit. Instead of the indifferent teachers who formerly used to teach in the lower forms, he endeavored to secure the best ones. In his opinion, no professor was too good to teach the very beginnings of a subject to the youngest boys. Thus, to teach the elements of algebra in the fourth form he invited a first-rate mathematician and a born teacher, Captain Sukhónin, and the form took at once to mathematics. By the way, it so happened that this captain was a tutor of the heir of the throne (Nikolai Alexándrovich, who died at the age of twenty-two), and the heir apparent was brought once a week to the corps of pages to be present at the algebra lessons of Captain Sukhónin. Empress Marie Alexándrovna, who was an educated woman, thought that perhaps the contact with studious boys would stimulate her son to learning. He sat amongst us, and had to answer questions like all the others. But he managed mostly, while the teacher spoke, to make drawings very nicely, or to whisper all sorts of droll things to his neighbors. He was exceedingly goodnatured and gentle in his behavior, but rather superficial in learning as in his affections.
For the fifth form the inspector secured two remarkable men. He entered our classroom, one day, quite radiant, and told us that we should have a rare chance. Professor Klasóvsky, a great classical scholar and expert in Russian literature, had consented to teach us Russian grammar, and would take us through all the five forms in succession, shifting with us every year to the next form. Another university professor, Herr Becker, librarian of the imperial (national) library, would do the same in German. Professor Klasóvsky, he added, was in weak health that winter, but the inspector was sure that we would be very quiet in his class. The chance to have such a teacher was too good to be missed.
He had thought aright. We became very proud of having university professors for teachers, and although there came voices from the Kamchátka (in Russia, the back benches of each class bear the name of that remote and uncivilized peninsula) to the effect that “ the sausage-maker ” — that is, the German — must be kept by all means in obedience, public opinion in our form was decidedly in favor of the professors.
“The sausage-maker ” won our respect at once. A tall man, with an immense forehead and very kind, intelligent eyes, not devoid of a touch of humor, came into our class, and told us in quite good Russian that he intended to divide our form into three sections. The first section would be composed of Germans, who already knew the language, and from whom he would require more serious work ; to the second section he would teach grammar, and later on German literature, in accordance with the established programmes ; and the third section, he concluded with a charming smile, would be the Kamchátka. “ From you,” he said, “ I shall only require that at each lesson you copy four lines which I will choose for you from a book. The four lines copied, you can do what you like ; only do not hinder the rest. And I promise you that in five years you will learn something of German and German literature. Now, who joins the Germans ? You, Stackelberg ? You, Lamsdorf ? Perhaps some one of the Russians ? And who joins the Kamchátka ? ” Five or six boys, who knew not a word of German, took residence in the peninsula. They most conscientiously copied their four lines, — a dozen or a score of lines in the higher forms, — and Becker chose the lines so well, and bestowed so much attention upon the boys, that, by the end of the five years they really knew something of the language and its literature.
I joined the Germans. My brother Alexander insisted so much in his letters upon my acquiring German, which possesses so rich a literature and into which every book of value is translated, that I set myself assiduously to learn it. I translated and studied most thoroughly one page of a rather difficult poetical description of a thunderstorm, and learned by heart, as the professor had advised me, the conjugations, the adverbs, and the prepositions, and began to read. A splendid method it is for learning languages. Becker advised me, moreover, to subscribe to a cheap illustrated weekly, and its illustrations and short stories were a continual inducement to read a few lines or a column. I soon mastered the language.
Toward the end of the winter I asked Herr Becker to lend me a copy of Goethe’s Faust. I had read it in a Russian translation ; I had also read Turguéneff’s beautiful novel, Faust ; and I now longed to read the great work in the original. “You will understand nothing in it; it is too philosophical,” Becker said, with his gentle smile ; but he brought me, nevertheless, a little square book, with the pages yellowed by age, containing the immortal drama. He little knew the unfathomable joy that that small square book gave me. I drank in the sense and the music of every line of it, beginning with the very first verses of the ideally beautiful dedication, and soon knew full pages by heart. Faust’s monologue in the forest, and especially the lines in which he speaks of his understanding of nature,
“Thou Not only cold, amazed acquaintance yield’st, But grantest that in her profoundest, breast I gaze, as in the bosom of a friend,”
simply put me in ecstasy, and till now it has retained its power over me. Every verse gradually became a dear friend. And then, is there a higher aesthetic delight than to read poetry in a language which one does not yet quite thoroughly understand ? The whole is veiled with a sort of slight haze, which admirably suits poetry. Words, the trivial meaning of which, when one knows the language colloquially, sometimes interferes with the poetical image they are intended to convey, retain but their subtle, elevated sense ; while the music of the poetry is only the more strongly impressed upon the ear.
Professor Klasóvsky’s first lesson was a revelation to us. He was a small man, about fifty years of age, very rapid in his movements, with bright, intelligent eyes and a slightly sarcastic expression, and the high forehead of a poet. When he came in for his first lesson, he said in a low voice that, suffering from a protracted illness, he could not speak loud enough, and asked us, therefore, to sit closer to him. He placed his chair near the first row of tables, and we clustered round him like a swarm of bees.
He was to teach us Russian grammar; but, instead of the dull grammar lesson, we heard something quite different from what we expected. It was grammar; but here came in a comparison of an old Russian folklore expression with a line from Homer or from the Sanskrit Mahabharata, the beauty of which was rendered in Russian words ; there, a verse from Schiller was introduced, and was followed by a sarcastic remark about some modern society prejudice ; then solid grammar again, and then some wide poetical or philosophical generalization.
Of course, there was much in it that we did not understand, or of which we missed the deeper sense. But do not the bewitching powers of all studies lie in that they continually open up to us new, unsuspected horizons, not yet understood, which entice us to proceed further and further in the penetration of what appears in vague outlines, only, at the first sight? Our hands placed on one another’s shoulders, some of us leaning across the tables of the first row, others standing close behind Klasóvsky, our eyes glittering, we all hung on his lips. The more his voice fell, toward the end of the hour, the more breathlessly we listened. The inspector opened the door of the classroom, to see how we behaved with our new teacher ; but on seeing that motionless swarm he retired on tiptoe. Even Daúroff, a restless spirit, stared at Klasóvsky as if to say, “ That is the sort of man you are ? ” Even von Kleinau, a hopelessly obtuse Circassian with a German name, sat motionless. In most of the others something good and elevated simmered at the bottom of their hearts, as if a vision of an unsuspected world was opening before them. Upon me Klasóvsky had an immense influence, which only grew with years. Winkler’s prophecy, that, after all, I might like the school, was fulfilled.
In western Europe, and probably in America, that type of teacher — “ the teacher of literature ” — is unknown ; but in Russia there is not a man or woman of mark, in literature or in political life, who does not owe the first impulse toward a higher development to his or her teacher of literature. Every school in the world ought to have such a teacher. Each teacher in a school has his own subject, and there is no link between the different subjects. Only the teacher of literature, guided by the general outlines of the programme, but left free to treat it as he likes, can bind together the separate historical and humanitarian sciences that are taught in a school, unify them by a broad philosophical and humane conception, and awaken higher ideas and inspirations in the brains and hearts of the young people. In Russia, that necessary task falls quite naturally upon the teacher of Russian literature. As he speaks of the development of the language, of the contents of the early epic poetry, of popular songs and music, and, later on, of modern fiction, of the scientific, political, and philosophical literature of his own country, and the divers æsthetical, political, and philosophical currents it has reflected, he is bound to introduce that generalized conception of the development of human mind which lies beyond the scope of each of the subjects that are taught separately.
The same thing ought to be done for the natural sciences as well. It is not enough to teach physics and chemistry, astronomy and meteorology, zoölogy and botany. The philosophy of all the natural sciences — a general view of nature as a whole, something on the lines of the first volume of Humboldt’s Cosmos — must be conveyed to the pupils and the students, whatsoever may be the extension given to the study of the natural sciences in the school. The philosophy and the poetry of nature, the methods of all the exact sciences, and an inspired conception of the life of nature must make part of education. Perhaps the teacher of geography might provisionally assume this function ; but then we should require quite a different set of teachers of this subject, and a different set of professors of geography in the universities would be needed. What is now taught under this name is anything you like, but it is not geography.
Another teacher conquered our rather uproarious form in a quite different manner. It was the teacher of writing, the last one of the teaching staff. If the “heathen” — that is, the German and the French teachers — were regarded with little respect, the teacher of writing, Ebert, who was a German Jew, was a real martyr. To be insolent with him was a sort of chic amongst the pages. His poverty alone must have been the reason why he kept to his lesson in our corps. The old hands, who had stayed for two or three years in the fifth form without moving higher up, treated him very badly ; but by some means or other he had made an agreement with them : “ One frolic during each lesson, but no more,” — an agreement which, I am afraid, was not always honestly kept on our side.
One day, one of the residents of the remote peninsula soaked the blackboard sponge with ink and chalk and flung it at the caligraphy martyr. “ Get it, Ebert! ” he shouted, with a stupid smile. The sponge touched Ebert’s shoulder, glanced into his face and down on his white shirt, covering both with ink and chalk.
All saw it, and were sure that this time Ebert would leave the room and report the fact to the inspector. But he only exclaimed, as he took out his cotton handkerchief and wiped his face, “ Gentlemen, one frolic, — no more today ! ” “ The shirt is spoiled,” he added in a subdued voice, and continued to correct some one’s book.
We looked stupefied and ashamed. Why, instead of reporting, he had thought at once of the agreement! All feelings turned in his favor. “ What you have done is stupid,” we reproached our comrade. “ He is a poor man, and you have spoiled his shirt! Shame ! ” somebody cried.
The culprit went at once to make excuses. “ One must learn,” was all that Ebert said in reply, with sadness in his voice.
All became silent after that, and at the next lesson, as if we had settled it beforehand, many of us wrote in our best possible handwriting, and took our books to Ebert, asking him to correct them. He was radiant; he felt happy that day.
This fact deeply impressed me, and was never wiped out from my memory. To this day I feel grateful to that remarkable man for his lesson.
With our teacher of drawing, who was named Ganz, we never came to live on good terms. He continually reported those who played in his class. This, in our opinion, he had no right to do, because he was only a teacher of drawing, but especially because he was not an honest man. In the class he paid little attention to most of us, and spent his time in improving the drawings of those who took private lessons from him, or paid him in order to show at the examinations a good drawing and to get a good mark for it. Against those comrades who did so we had no grudge. On the contrary, we thought it quite right that those who had no capacity for mathematics or no memory for geography, and had but poor marks in these subjects, should improve their total of marks by ordering from a draughtsman a drawing or a topographical map for which they would get “ a full twelve.” Only for the first two pupils of the form it would not have been fair to resort to such means, while the remainder could do it with untroubled consciences. But the teacher had no business to make drawings to order; and if he chose to act in this way, he ought to bear with resignation the noise and the tricks of his pupils. That was our ethics. Instead of this, no lesson passed without his lodging complaints, and each time he grew more arrogant.
As soon as we were moved to the fourth form, and felt ourselves naturalized citizens of the corps, we decided to tighten the bridle upon him. " It is your own fault,” our elder comrades told us, " that he takes such airs with you ; we used to keep him in obedience.” So we decided to bring him into subjection.
One day, two excellent comrades of our form approached Ganz with cigarettes in their mouths, and asked him to oblige them with a light. Of course, that was only meant for a joke, — no one ever thought of smoking in the classrooms,— and, according to our rules of propriety, Ganz had merely to send the two boys away ; but he inscribed them in the journal, and they were severely punished. That was the last drop. We decided to give him a “ benefit night.” That meant that one day all the form, provided with rulers borrowed from the upper forms, would start an outrageous noise by striking the rulers against the tables, and send the teacher out of the class. However, the plot offered many difficulties. We had in our form a lot of “ goody ” boys who would promise to join in the demonstration, but at the last moment would grow nervous and draw back, and then the teacher would name the others. In such enterprises unanimity is the first requisite, because the punishment, whatsoever it may be, is always lighter when it falls on the whole class instead of on a few.
The difficulties were overcome with a truly Machiavellian craft. At a given signal all were to turn their backs to Ganz, and then, with the rulers laid in readiness in the desks of the next row, they would produce the required noise. In this way the goody boys would not feel terrified at Ganz’s staring at them. But the signal ? Whistling, as in robbers’ tales, shouting, or even sneezing would not do : Ganz would be capable of naming any one of us as having whistled or sneezed. The signal must be a silent one. One of us, who drew nicely, would take his drawing to show it to Ganz, and the moment he returned and took his seat, — that should be the time !
All went on admirably. Nesàdoff took up his drawing, and Ganz corrected it in a few minutes, which seemed to us an eternity. He returned at last to his seat; he stopped for a moment, looking at us ; he sat down. . . . All the form turned suddenly on their seats, and the rulers rattled merrily within the desks, while some of us shouted amidst the noise, “ Ganz out! Down with him ! ” The noise was deafening ; all the forms knew that Ganz had got his benefit night. He stood there, murmuring something, and finally went out. An officer ran in, — the noise continued ; then the sub-inspector dashed in, and after him the inspector. The noise stopped at once. Scolding began.
“The elder under arrest at once!” the inspector commanded ; and I, who was the first in the form, and consequently the elder, was marched to the black cell. That spared me seeing what followed. The director came; Ganz was asked to name the ringleaders, but he could name nobody. “ They all turned their backs to me, and began the noise,” was his reply. Thereupon the form was taken downstairs, and although flogging had been completely abandoned in our school, this time the two who had been reported because they asked for a light were flogged with the birch rod, under the pretext that the benefit night was a revenge for their punishment.
I learned this ten days later, when I was allowed to return to the class. My name, which had been inscribed on the red board in the class, was wiped off. To this I was indifferent; but I must confess that the ten days in the cell, without books, seemed to me rather long, so that I composed (in horrible verses) a poem, in which the deeds of the fourth form were duly glorified.
Of course, our form became now the heroes of the school. For a month or so we had to tell and retell all about the affair to the other forms, and received congratulations for having managed it with such unanimity that nobody was caught separately. And then came the Sundays— all the Sundays down to Christmas — that the form had to remain at the school, not being allowed to go home. Being all kept together, we managed to make those Sundays very gay. The mammas of the goody boys brought them heaps of sweets ; those who had some money spent it generously, and mountains of pastry — substantial before dinner, and sweet after it — were absorbed, while in the evenings the friends from the other forms smuggled in quantities of fruit for the brave fourth form.
Ganz gave up inscribing any one ; but drawing was totally lost for us. No one wanted to learn drawing from that mercenary man.
My brother Alexander was at that time at Moscow, in a corps of cadets, and we maintained a lively correspondence. As long as I was at home that would have been impossible, because our father considered it his prerogative to read all letters addressed to our house; he would have soon put an end to any but a commonplace correspondence. Now we were free to discuss in our letters whatever we liked. The only difficulty was to get money for stamps; but we soon learned to write in such fine characters that we could convey an incredible amount of matter in each letter. Alexander, whose handwriting was beautiful, contrived to get four printed pages on one single page of note paper, and his microscopic lines were as legible as the best small type print. It is a pity that these letters, which he kept as precious relics, have disappeared. The state’s police, during one of their raids, robbed him even of these treasures.
Our first letters were mostly about the petty things of my new surroundings, but our correspondence soon took a more serious character. My brother could not write about trifles. Even in society he became animated only when some serious discussion was engaged in, and he complained of feeling “ a dull pain in the brain ” — a physical pain, as he used to say — when he was with people who cared only for small talk. He was very much in advance of me in his intellectual development, and all the time he urged me forward, raising new scientific and philosophical questions one after another, and advising me what to read or to study. What a happiness it was for me to have such a brother ! — a brother who, moreover, loved me passionately. To him I owe the best part of my development.
Sometimes he would advise me to read poetry, and would send me in his letters quantities of verses and whole poems, which he wrote from memory. “ Read poetry,” he wrote: “ poetry makes men better. How often, in my after life, I realized the truth of this remark of his ! “ Read poetry : it makes men better.” He himself was a poet, and had a wonderful facility for writing most musical verses; indeed, I think it a great pity that he abandoned poetry. The reaction against art, which arose among the Russian youth in the early sixties, and which Turgueneff has depicted in Bazároff (Fathers and Sons), induced him to look upon his verses with contempt, and to plunge headlong into the natural sciences. I must say, however, that my favorite poet was none of those whom his poetical gift, his musical ear, and his philosophical turn of mind made him like best. His favorite Russian poet was Venevítinoff, while mine was Nekrásoff, whose verses were very often unmusical, but appealed most to my heart by their sympathy for “ the downtrodden and offended.”
“ One must have a set purpose in his life,” he wrote me once. “ Without an aim, without a purpose, life is not life.” And he advised me to get a purpose in my life worth living for. I was too young then to find one ; but something undetermined, vague, “ good ” altogether, already rose under that appeal, even though I could not say what that “ good ” would be.
Our father gave us very little spending money, and I never had any to buy a single book; but if Alexander got a few rubles from some aunt, he never spent a penny of it for pleasure, but bought a book and sent it to me. He objected, though, to indiscriminate reading. “ One must have some question,” he wrote, “ addressed to the book he is going to read.” However, I did not then appreciate this remark, and cannot think now without amazement of the number of books, often of a quite special character, which I read, in all branches, but particularly in the domain of history. I did not waste my time upon French novels, since Alexander, years before, had characterized them in one blunt sentence : “ They are stupid and full of bad language.”
The great questions concerning the conception we should form of the universe — our Weltanschauung, as the Germans say — were, of course, the dominant subjects in our correspondence. In our childhood we had never been religious. We were taken to church ; but in a Russian church, in a small parish or in a village, the solemn attitude of the people is far more impressive than the mass itself. Of all that I ever had heard in church only two things had impressed me : the twelve passages from the Gospels, relative to the sufferings of the Christ, which are read in Russia at the night service on the eve of Good Friday, and the short prayer condemning the spirit of domination, which is recited during the Great Lent, and is really beautiful by reason of its simple, unpretentious words and feeling. Púshkin has rendered it into Russian verse.
Later on, at St. Petersburg, I went several times to a Roman Catholic church, but the theatrical character of the service and the absence of real feeling in it shocked me, the more so when I saw there with what simple faith some retired Polish soldier or a peasant woman would pray in a remote corner. I also went to a Protestant church; but coming out of it I caught myself murmuring Goethe’s words : —
Unless the linking springs from your own heart.”
Alexander, in the meantime, had embraced with his usual passion the Lutheran faith. He had read Michelet’s book on Servetus, and had worked out for himself a religion on the lines of that great fighter. He studied with enthusiasm the Augsburg declaration, which he copied out and sent me, and our letters now became full of discussions about grace, and of texts from the apostles Paul and James. I followed my brother, but theological discussions did not deeply interest me. Since I had recovered from the typhoid fever I had taken to quite different reading.
Our sister Hélène, who was now married, was at St. Petersburg, and every Saturday night I went to visit her. Her husband had a good library, in which the French philosophers of the last century and the modern French historians were well represented, and I plunged into them. Such books were prohibited in Russia, and evidently could not be taken to school ; so I spent most of the night, every Saturday, in reading the works of the encyclopædists, the philosophical dictionary of Voltaire, the writings of the Stoics, especially Marcus Aurelius, and so on. The infinite immensity of the universe, the greatness of nature, its poetry, its ever throbbing life, impressed me more and more ; and that never ceasing life and its harmonies gave me the ecstasy of admiration which the young soul thirsts for, while my favorite poets supplied me with an expression in words of that awakening love of mankind and faith in its progress which make the best part of youth and impress man for all his life.
Alexander, by this time, had gradually come to a Kantian agnosticism, and the “ relativity of perceptions,” " perceptions in time and space, and time only,” and so on, filled pages and pages in our letters, the writing of which became more and more microscopical as the subjects under discussion grew in importance. But neither then nor later on, when we used to spend hours and hours in discussing Kant’s philosophy, could my brother convert me to become a disciple of the Konigsberg philosopher.
Natural sciences — that is, mathematics, physics, and astronomy — were my chief studies. In the year 1858, before Darwin had brought out his immortal work, a professor of zoology at the Moscow University, Roulier, published three lectures on transformism, and my brother took up at once his ideas concerning the variability of species. He was not satisfied, however, with approximate proofs only, and began to study a number of special books on heredity and the like; communicating to me in his letters the main facts, as well as his ideas and his doubts. The appearance of The Origin of Species did not settle his doubts on several special points, but only raised new questions and gave him the impulse for further studies. We afterward discussed — and that discussion lasted for many years — various questions relative to the origin of variations, their chances of being transmitted and being accentuated ; in short, those questions which have been raised quite lately in the Weismann-Spencer controversy, in Galton’s researches, and in the works of the modern Neo-Lamarckians. Owing to his philosophical and critical mind, Alexander had noticed at once the fundamental importance of these questions for the theory of variability of species, even though they were so often overlooked then by many naturalists.
I must also mention a temporary excursion into the domain of political economy. In the years 1858 and 1859 every one in Russia spoke of political economy ; lectures on free trade and protective duties attracted crowds of people, and my brother, who was not yet absorbed by the variability of species, took a lively though temporary interest in economical matters, sending me for reading the Political Economy of Jean Baptiste Say. I read a few chapters only : tariffs and banking operations did not interest me in the least; but Alexander took up these matters so passionately that he even wrote letters to our stepmother, trying to interest her in the intricacies of the customs duties. Later on, in Siberia, as we were re-reading some of the letters of that period, we laughed like children when we fell upon one of his epistles in which he complained of our stepmother’s incapacity to be moved even by such burning questions, and raged against a greengrocer whom he had caught in the street, and who, “ would you believe it,” he wrote with signs of exclamation, “ although he was a tradesman, affected a pig-headed indifference to tariff matters ! ”
Every summer about one half of the pages were taken to a military camp, with the other military schools, at Peterhof. The lower forms, however, were dispensed from joining the camp, and I spent the first two summers at Nikólskoye. To leave the school, to take the train to Moscow, and there to meet Alexander was such a happy prospect that I used to count the days that had to pass till that glorious one should arrive. But on one occasion a great disappointment awaited me at Moscow. Alexander had not passed his examinations, and was left for another year in the same form. He was, in fact, too young to enter the special classes ; but our father was very angry with him, nevertheless, and would not permit us to see each other. I felt very sad. We were not children any more, and had so much to say to each other. I tried to obtain permission to go to our aunt Sulíma, at whose house I might meet Alexander, but it was absolutely refused. After our father remarried we were never allowed to see our mother’s relations.
That spring our Moscow house was full of guests. Every night the reception rooms were flooded with lights, the band played, the confectioner was busy making ices and pastry, and card-playing went on in the great hall till a late hour. I strolled aimlessly about in the brilliantly illuminated rooms, and felt unhappy.
One night, after ten, a servant beckoned me, asking if I would come out to the entrance hall. I went. “ Como to the coachmen’s house,” the old majordomo Frol whispered to me. “Alexander Alexéevich is here.”
I dashed across the yard, up the flight of steps leading to the coachmen’s house, and into a wide, half-dark room, where, at the immense dining-table of the servants, I saw Alexander.
“ Sásha, dear, how did you come?” and in a moment we rushed into each other’s arms, hugging each other and unable to speak from emotion.
“Hush, hush! they may overhear you,” said the servants’ cook, Praskóvia, wiping away her tears with her apron. “ Poor orphans ! If your mother were only alive ” —
Old Frol stood, his head deeply bent, his eyes also twinkling.
“ Look here, Pétya, not a word to any one ; to no one,” he said, while Praskóvia placed on the table an earthenware jar full of porridge for Alexander.
He, glowing with health, in his cadet uniform, already had begun to talk about all sorts of matters, while he rapidly emptied the porridge pot. I could hardly make him tell me how he came there at such a late hour. We lived then near the Smolénsky boulevard, within a stone’s throw of the house where our mother died, and the corps of cadets was at the opposite outskirts of Moscow, full five miles away.
He had made a doll out of bedclothes, and had put it in his bed, under the blankets ; then he went to the tower, descended from a window, came out unnoticed, and walked the whole distance.
“ Were you not afraid at night, in the deserted fields round your corps?” I asked.
“ What had I to fear ? Only lots of dogs were upon me ; I had teased them myself. To - morrow I shall take my sword with me.”
The coachmen and other servants came in and out; they sighed as they looked at us, and took seats at a distance, along the walls, exchanging words in a subdued tone, so as not to disturb us ; while we two, in each other’s arms, sat there till midnight, talking about nebulæ and Laplace’s hypothesis, the structure of matter, the struggles of the papacy under Boniface VIII. with the imperial power, and so on.
From time to time one of the servants would hurriedly run in, saying. “ P;*tinka, go and show thyself in the hall; they may ask for thee.”
I implored Sásha not to come next night; but he came, nevertheless, — not without having had a scrimmage with the dogs, against whom he had taken his sword. I responded with feverish haste, when, earlier than the day before, I was called once more to the coachmen’s house. Sásha had made part of the journey in a cab. The previous night, one of the servants had brought him what he had got from the card-players and asked him to take it. Sásha took some small coin to hire a cab, and so he came earlier than on his first visit.
He intended to come next night, too, but for some reason it would have been dangerous for the servants, and we decided to part till the autumn. A short “official note made me understand next day that his nocturnal escapades had passed unnoticed. How terrible would have been the punishment, if they had been discovered ! It is awful to think of it: flogging before the corps till he was carried away unconscious on a sheet, and then dismissal to a soldiers’ sons’ battalion,— anything was possible, in those times.
What our servants would have suffered for hiding us, if information of the affair had reached our father’s ears, would have been equally terrible ; but they knew how to keep secrets, and not to betray one another. They all knew of the visits of Alexander, but none of them whispered a word to any one of the family. They and I were the only ones in the house who ever knew anything about it.