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XIII. THE TRAITRESS
After luncheon we began to play at round games, in which I took a lively
part. While indulging in "cat and mouse", I happened to cannon rather
awkwardly against the Kornakoffs' governess, who was playing with us, and,
stepping on her dress, tore a large hole in it. Seeing that the girls—particularly
Sonetchka—were anything but displeased at the spectacle of the
governess angrily departing to the maidservants' room to have her dress
mended, I resolved to procure them the satisfaction a second time.
Accordingly, in pursuance of this amiable resolution, I waited until my
victim returned, and then began to gallop madly round her, until a
favourable moment occurred for once more planting my heel upon her dress
and reopening the rent. Sonetchka and the young princesses had much ado to
restrain their laughter, which excited my conceit the more, but St.
Jerome, who had probably divined my tricks, came up to me with the frown
which I could never abide in him, and said that, since I seemed disposed
to mischief, he would have to send me away if I did not moderate my
However, I was in the desperate position of a person who, having staked
more than he has in his pocket, and feeling that he can never make up his
account, continues to plunge on unlucky cards—not because he hopes
to regain his losses, but because it will not do for him to stop and
consider. So, I merely laughed in an impudent fashion and flung away from
After "cat and mouse", another game followed in which the gentlemen sit on
one row of chairs and the ladies on another, and choose each other for
partners. The youngest princess always chose the younger Iwin, Katenka
either Woloda or Ilinka, and Sonetchka Seriosha—nor, to my extreme
astonishment, did Sonetchka seem at all embarrassed when her cavalier went
and sat down beside her. On the contrary, she only laughed her sweet,
musical laugh, and made a sign with her head that he had chosen right.
Since nobody chose me, I always had the mortification of finding myself
left over, and of hearing them say, "Who has been left out? Oh, Nicolinka.
Well, DO take him, somebody." Consequently, whenever it came to my turn to
guess who had chosen me, I had to go either to my sister or to one of the
ugly elder princesses. Sonetchka seemed so absorbed in Seriosha that in
her eyes I clearly existed no longer. I do not quite know why I called her
"the traitress" in my thoughts, since she had never promised to choose me
instead of Seriosha, but, for all that, I felt convinced that she was
treating me in a very abominable fashion. After the game was finished, I
actually saw "the traitress" (from whom I nevertheless could not withdraw
my eyes) go with Seriosha and Katenka into a corner, and engage in secret
confabulation. Stealing softly round the piano which masked the conclave,
I beheld the following:
Katenka was holding up a pocket-handkerchief by two of its corners, so as
to form a screen for the heads of her two companions. "No, you have lost!
You must pay the forfeit!" cried Seriosha at that moment, and Sonetchka,
who was standing in front of him, blushed like a criminal as she replied,
"No, I have NOT lost! HAVE I, Mademoiselle Katherine?" "Well, I must speak
the truth," answered Katenka, "and say that you HAVE lost, my dear."
Scarcely had she spoken the words when Seriosha embraced Sonetchka, and
kissed her right on her rosy lips! And Sonetchka smiled as though it were
nothing, but merely something very pleasant!
Horrors! The artful "traitress!"
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XIV. THE RETRIBUTION
Instantly, I began to feel a strong contempt for the female sex in general
and Sonetchka in particular. I began to think that there was nothing at
all amusing in these games—that they were only fit for girls, and
felt as though I should like to make a great noise, or to do something of
such extraordinary boldness that every one would be forced to admire it.
The opportunity soon arrived. St. Jerome said something to Mimi, and then
left the room, I could hear his footsteps ascending the staircase, and
then passing across the schoolroom, and the idea occurred to me that Mimi
must have told him her story about my being found on the landing, and
thereupon he had gone to look at the register. (In those days, it must be
remembered, I believed that St. Jerome's whole aim in life was to annoy
me.) Some where I have read that, not infrequently, children of from
twelve to fourteen years of age—that is to say, children just
passing from childhood to adolescence—are addicted to incendiarism,
or even to murder. As I look back upon my childhood, and particularly upon
the mood in which I was on that (for myself) most unlucky day, I can quite
understand the possibility of such terrible crimes being committed by
children without any real aim in view—without any real wish to do
wrong, but merely out of curiosity or under the influence of an
unconscious necessity for action. There are moments when the human being
sees the future in such lurid colours that he shrinks from fixing his
mental eye upon it, puts a check upon all his intellectual activity, and
tries to feel convinced that the future will never be, and that the past
has never been. At such moments—moments when thought does not shrink
from manifestations of will, and the carnal instincts alone constitute the
springs of life—I can understand that want of experience (which is a
particularly predisposing factor in this connection) might very possibly
lead a child, aye, without fear or hesitation, but rather with a smile of
curiosity on its face, to set fire to the house in which its parents and
brothers and sisters (beings whom it tenderly loves) are lying asleep. It
would be under the same influence of momentary absence of thought—almost
absence of mind—that a peasant boy of seventeen might catch sight of
the edge of a newly-sharpened axe reposing near the bench on which his
aged father was lying asleep, face downwards, and suddenly raise the
implement in order to observe with unconscious curiosity how the blood
would come spurting out upon the floor if he made a wound in the sleeper's
neck. It is under the same influence—the same absence of thought,
the same instinctive curiosity—that a man finds delight in standing
on the brink of an abyss and thinking to himself, "How if I were to throw
myself down?" or in holding to his brow a loaded pistol and wondering,
"What if I were to pull the trigger?" or in feeling, when he catches sight
of some universally respected personage, that he would like to go up to
him, pull his nose hard, and say, "How do you do, old boy?"
Under the spell, then, of this instinctive agitation and lack of
reflection I was moved to put out my tongue, and to say that I would not
move, when St. Jerome came down and told me that I had behaved so badly
that day, as well as done my lessons so ill, that I had no right to be
where I was, and must go upstairs directly.
At first, from astonishment and anger, he could not utter a word.
"C'est bien!" he exclaimed eventually as he darted towards me. "Several
times have I promised to punish you, and you have been saved from it by
your Grandmamma, but now I see that nothing but the cane will teach you
obedience, and you shall therefore taste it."
This was said loud enough for every one to hear. The blood rushed to my
heart with such vehemence that I could feel that organ beating violently—could
feel the colour rising to my cheeks and my lips trembling. Probably I
looked horrible at that moment, for, avoiding my eye, St. Jerome stepped
forward and caught me by the hand. Hardly feeling his touch, I pulled away
my hand in blind fury, and with all my childish might struck him.
"What are you doing?" said Woloda, who had seen my behaviour, and now
approached me in alarm and astonishment.
"Let me alone!" I exclaimed, the tears flowing fast. "Not a single one of
you loves me or understands how miserable I am! You are all of you odious
and disgusting!" I added bluntly, turning to the company at large.
At this moment St. Jerome—his face pale, but determined—approached
me again, and, with a movement too quick to admit of any defence, seized
my hands as with a pair of tongs, and dragged me away. My head swam with
excitement, and I can only remember that, so long as I had strength to do
it, I fought with head and legs; that my nose several times collided with
a pair of knees; that my teeth tore some one's coat; that all around me I
could hear the shuffling of feet; and that I could smell dust and the
scent of violets with which St. Jerome used to perfume himself.
Five minutes later the door of the store-room closed behind me.
"Basil," said a triumphant but detestable voice, "bring me the cane."
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Could I at that moment have supposed that I should ever live to survive
the misfortunes of that day, or that there would ever come a time when I
should be able to look back upon those misfortunes composedly?
As I sat there thinking over what I had done, I could not imagine what the
matter had been with me. I only felt with despair that I was for ever
At first the most profound stillness reigned around me—at least, so
it appeared to me as compared with the violent internal emotion which I
had been experiencing; but by and by I began to distinguish various
sounds. Basil brought something downstairs which he laid upon a chest
outside. It sounded like a broom-stick. Below me I could hear St. Jerome's
grumbling voice (probably he was speaking of me), and then children's
voices and laughter and footsteps; until in a few moments everything
seemed to have regained its normal course in the house, as though nobody
knew or cared to know that here was I sitting alone in the dark
I did not cry, but something lay heavy, like a stone, upon my heart. Ideas
and pictures passed with extraordinary rapidity before my troubled
imagination, yet through their fantastic sequence broke continually the
remembrance of the misfortune which had befallen me as I once again
plunged into an interminable labyrinth of conjectures as to the
punishment, the fate, and the despair that were awaiting me. The thought
occurred to me that there must be some reason for the general dislike—even
contempt—which I fancied to be felt for me by others. I was firmly
convinced that every one, from Grandmamma down to the coachman Philip,
despised me, and found pleasure in my sufferings. Next an idea struck me
that perhaps I was not the son of my father and mother at all, nor
Woloda's brother, but only some unfortunate orphan who had been adopted by
them out of compassion, and this absurd notion not only afforded me a
certain melancholy consolation, but seemed to me quite probable. I found
it comforting to think that I was unhappy, not through my own fault, but
because I was fated to be so from my birth, and conceived that my destiny
was very much like poor Karl Ivanitch's.
"Why conceal the secret any longer, now that I have discovered it?" I
reflected. "To-morrow I will go to Papa and say to him, 'It is in vain for
you to try and conceal from me the mystery of my birth. I know it
already.' And he will answer me, 'What else could I do, my good fellow?
Sooner or later you would have had to know that you are not my son, but
were adopted as such. Nevertheless, so long as you remain worthy of my
love, I will never cast you out.' Then I shall say, 'Papa, though I have
no right to call you by that name, and am now doing so for the last time,
I have always loved you, and shall always retain that love. At the same
time, while I can never forget that you have been my benefactor, I cannot
remain longer in your house. Nobody here loves me, and St. Jerome has
wrought my ruin. Either he or I must go forth, since I cannot answer for
myself. I hate the man so that I could do anything—I could even kill
him.' Papa will begin to entreat me, but I shall make a gesture, and say,
'No, no, my friend and benefactor! We cannot live together. Let me go'—and
for the last time I shall embrace him, and say in French, 'O mon pere, O
mon bienfaiteur, donne moi, pour la derniere fois, ta benediction, et que
la volonte de Dieu soit faite!'"
I sobbed bitterly at these thoughts as I sat on a trunk in that dark
storeroom. Then, suddenly recollecting the shameful punishment which was
awaiting me, I would find myself back again in actuality, and the dreams
had fled. Soon, again, I began to fancy myself far away from the house and
alone in the world. I enter a hussar regiment and go to war. Surrounded by
the foe on every side, I wave my sword, and kill one of them and wound
another—then a third,—then a fourth. At last, exhausted with
loss of blood and fatigue, I fall to the ground and cry, "Victory!" The
general comes to look for me, asking, "Where is our saviour?" whereupon I
am pointed out to him. He embraces me, and, in his turn, exclaims with
tears of joy, "Victory!" I recover and, with my arm in a black sling, go
to walk on the boulevards. I am a general now. I meet the Emperor, who
asks, "Who is this young man who has been wounded?" He is told that it is
the famous hero Nicolas; whereupon he approaches me and says, "My thanks
to you! Whatsoever you may ask for, I will grant it." To this I bow
respectfully, and, leaning on my sword, reply, "I am happy, most august
Emperor, that I have been able to shed my blood for my country. I would
gladly have died for it. Yet, since you are so generous as to grant any
wish of mine, I venture to ask of you permission to annihilate my enemy,
the foreigner St. Jerome" And then I step fiercely before St. Jerome and
say, "YOU were the cause of all my fortunes! Down now on your knees!"
Unfortunately this recalled to my mind the fact that at any moment the
REAL St. Jerome might be entering with the cane; so that once more I saw
myself, not a general and the saviour of my country, but an unhappy,
Then the idea of God occurred to me, and I asked Him boldly why He had
punished me thus, seeing that I had never forgotten to say my prayers,
either morning or evening. Indeed, I can positively declare that it was
during that hour in the store-room that I took the first step towards the
religious doubt which afterwards assailed me during my youth (not that
mere misfortune could arouse me to infidelity and murmuring, but that, at
moments of utter contrition and solitude, the idea of the injustice of
Providence took root in me as readily as bad seed takes root in land well
soaked with rain). Also, I imagined that I was going to die there and
then, and drew vivid pictures of St. Jerome's astonishment when he entered
the store-room and found a corpse there instead of myself! Likewise,
recollecting what Natalia Savishna had told me of the forty days during
which the souls of the departed must hover around their earthly home, I
imagined myself flying through the rooms of Grandmamma's house, and seeing
Lubotshka's bitter tears, and hearing Grandmamma's lamentations, and
listening to Papa and St. Jerome talking together. "He was a fine boy,"
Papa would say with tears in his eyes. "Yes," St. Jerome would reply, "but
a sad scapegrace and good-for-nothing." "But you should respect the dead,"
would expostulate Papa. "YOU were the cause of his death; YOU frightened
him until he could no longer bear the thought of the humiliation which you
were about to inflict upon him. Away from me, criminal!" Upon that St.
Jerome would fall upon his knees and implore forgiveness, and when the
forty days were ended my soul would fly to Heaven, and see there something
wonderfully beautiful, white, and transparent, and know that it was Mamma.
And that something would embrace and caress me. Yet, all at once, I should
feel troubled, and not know her. "If it be you," I should say to her,
"show yourself more distinctly, so that I may embrace you in return." And
her voice would answer me, "Do you not feel happy thus?" and I should
reply, "Yes, I do, but you cannot REALLY caress me, and I cannot REALLY
kiss your hand like this." "But it is not necessary," she would say.
"There can be happiness here without that,"—and I should feel that
it was so, and we should ascend together, ever higher and higher, until—Suddenly
I feel as though I am being thrown down again, and find myself sitting on
the trunk in the dark store-room (my cheeks wet with tears and my thoughts
in a mist), yet still repeating the words, "Let us ascend together, higher
and higher." Indeed, it was a long, long while before I could remember
where I was, for at that moment my mind's eye saw only a dark, dreadful,
illimitable void. I tried to renew the happy, consoling dream which had
been thus interrupted by the return to reality, but, to my surprise, I
found that, as soon as ever I attempted to re-enter former dreams, their
continuation became impossible, while—which astonished me even more—they
no longer gave me pleasure.
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XVI. "KEEP ON GRINDING, AND YOU'LL HAVE FLOUR"
I PASSED the night in the store-room, and nothing further happened, except
that on the following morning—a Sunday—I was removed to a
small chamber adjoining the schoolroom, and once more shut up. I began to
hope that my punishment was going to be limited to confinement, and found
my thoughts growing calmer under the influence of a sound, soft sleep, the
clear sunlight playing upon the frost crystals of the windowpanes, and the
familiar noises in the street.
Nevertheless, solitude gradually became intolerable. I wanted to move
about, and to communicate to some one all that was lying upon my heart,
but not a living creature was near me. The position was the more
unpleasant because, willy-nilly, I could hear St. Jerome walking about in
his room, and softly whistling some hackneyed tune. Somehow, I felt
convinced that he was whistling not because he wanted to, but because he
knew it annoyed me.
At two o'clock, he and Woloda departed downstairs, and Nicola brought me
up some luncheon. When I told him what I had done and what was awaiting me
"Pshaw, sir! Don't be alarmed. 'Keep on grinding, and you'll have flour.'"
Although this expression (which also in later days has more than once
helped me to preserve my firmness of mind) brought me a little comfort,
the fact that I received, not bread and water only, but a whole luncheon,
and even dessert, gave me much to think about. If they had sent me no
dessert, it would have meant that my punishment was to be limited to
confinement; whereas it was now evident that I was looked upon as not yet
punished—that I was only being kept away from the others, as an
evil-doer, until the due time of punishment. While I was still debating
the question, the key of my prison turned, and St. Jerome entered with a
severe, official air.
"Come down and see your Grandmamma," he said without looking at me.
I should have liked first to have brushed my jacket, since it was covered
with dust, but St. Jerome said that that was quite unnecessary, since I
was in such a deplorable moral condition that my exterior was not worth
considering. As he led me through the salon, Katenka, Lubotshka, and
Woloda looked at me with much the same expression as we were wont to look
at the convicts who on certain days filed past my grandmother's house.
Likewise, when I approached Grandmamma's arm-chair to kiss her hand, she
withdrew it, and thrust it under her mantilla.
"Well, my dear," she began after a long pause, during which she regarded
me from head to foot with the kind of expression which makes one uncertain
where to look or what to do, "I must say that you seem to value my love
very highly, and afford me great consolation." Then she went on, with an
emphasis on each word, "Monsieur St. Jerome, who, at my request, undertook
your education, says that he can no longer remain in the house. And why?
Simply because of you." Another pause ensued. Presently she continued in a
tone which clearly showed that her speech had been prepared beforehand, "I
had hoped that you would be grateful for all his care, and for all the
trouble that he has taken with you, that you would have appreciated his
services; but you—you baby, you silly boy!—you actually dare
to raise your hand against him! Very well, very good. I am beginning to
think that you cannot understand kind treatment, but require to be treated
in a very different and humiliating fashion. Go now directly and beg his
pardon," she added in a stern and peremptory tone as she pointed to St.
Jerome, "Do you hear me?"
I followed the direction of her finger with my eye, but on that member
alighting upon St. Jerome's coat, I turned my head away, and once more
felt my heart beating violently as I remained where I was.
"What? Did you not hear me when I told you what to do?"
I was trembling all over, but I would not stir.
"Koko," went on my grandmother, probably divining my inward sufferings,
"Koko," she repeated in a voice tender rather than harsh, "is this you?"
"Grandmamma, I cannot beg his pardon for—" and I stopped suddenly,
for I felt the next word refuse to come for the tears that were choking
"But I ordered you, I begged of you, to do so. What is the matter with
"I-I-I will not—I cannot!" I gasped, and the tears, long pent up and
accumulated in my breast, burst forth like a stream which breaks its dikes
and goes flowing madly over the country.
"C'est ainsi que vous obeissez a votre seconde mere, c'est ainsi que vous
reconnaissez ses bontes!" remarked St. Jerome quietly, "A genoux!"
"Good God! If SHE had seen this!" exclaimed Grandmamma, turning from me
and wiping away her tears. "If she had seen this! It may be all for the
best, yet she could never have survived such grief—never!" and
Grandmamma wept more and more. I too wept, but it never occurred to me to
ask for pardon.
"Tranquillisez-vous au nom du ciel, Madame la Comtesse," said St. Jerome,
but Grandmamma heard him not. She covered her face with her hands, and her
sobs soon passed to hiccups and hysteria. Mimi and Gasha came running in
with frightened faces, salts and spirits were applied, and the whole house
was soon in a ferment.
"You may feel pleased at your work," said St. Jerome to me as he led me
from the room.
"Good God! What have I done?" I thought to myself. "What a terribly bad
boy I am!"
As soon as St. Jerome, bidding me go into his room, had returned to
Grandmamma, I, all unconscious of what I was doing, ran down the grand
staircase leading to the front door. Whether I intended to drown myself,
or whether merely to run away from home, I do not remember. I only know
that I went blindly on, my face covered with my hands that I might see
"Where are you going to?" asked a well-known voice. "I want you, my boy."
I would have passed on, but Papa caught hold of me, and said sternly:
"Come here, you impudent rascal. How could you dare to do such a thing as
to touch the portfolio in my study?" he went on as he dragged me into his
room. "Oh! you are silent, eh?" and he pulled my ear.
"Yes, I WAS naughty," I said. "I don't know myself what came over me
"So you don't know what came over you—you don't know, you don't
know?" he repeated as he pulled my ear harder and harder. "Will you go and
put your nose where you ought not to again—will you, will you?"
Although my ear was in great pain, I did not cry, but, on the contrary,
felt a sort of morally pleasing sensation. No sooner did he let go of my
ear than I seized his hand and covered it with tears and kisses.
"Please whip me!" I cried, sobbing. "Please hurt me the more and more, for
I am a wretched, bad, miserable boy!"
"Why, what on earth is the matter with you?" he said, giving me a slight
push from him.
"No, I will not go away!" I continued, seizing his coat. "Every one else
hates me—I know that, but do YOU listen to me and protect me, or
else send me away altogether. I cannot live with HIM. He tries to
humiliate me—he tells me to kneel before him, and wants to strike
me. I can't stand it. I'm not a baby. I can't stand it—I shall die,
I shall kill myself. HE told Grandmamma that I was naughty, and now she is
ill—she will die through me. It is all his fault. Please let me—W-why
The tears choked my further speech. I sat down on the sofa, and, with my
head buried on Papa's knees, sobbed until I thought I should die of grief.
"Come, come! Why are you such a water-pump?" said Papa compassionately, as
he stooped over me.
"He is such a bully! He is murdering me! I shall die! Nobody loves me at
all!" I gasped almost inaudibly, and went into convulsions.
Papa lifted me up, and carried me to my bedroom, where I fell asleep.
When I awoke it was late. Only a solitary candle burned in the room, while
beside the bed there were seated Mimi, Lubotshka, and our doctor. In their
faces I could discern anxiety for my health, so, although I felt so well
after my twelve-hours' sleep that I could have got up directly, I thought
it best to let them continue thinking that I was unwell.