Part 1: Childhood, Section 4
Part 1: Childhood, Section 4
Two years after the death of our mother our father married again. He had already cast his eyes upon a nice looking young person, who belonged to a wealthy family, when the fates decided another way. One morning, while he was still in his dressing-gown, the servants rushed madly into his room, announcing the arrival of General Timofeeff, the commander of the sixth army corps, to which our father belonged. This favorite of Nicholas I. was a terrible man. He would order a soldier to be flogged almost to death for a mistake made during a parade, or he would degrade an officer and send him as a private to Siberia because he had met him in the street with the hooks of his high, stiff collar unfastened. With Nicholas General Timofeeff's word was all-powerful. The general, who had never before been in our house, came to propose to our father to marry his wife's niece, Mademoiselle Elisabeth Karandino, one of several daughters of an admiral of the Black Sea fleet, -a young lady with a classical Greek profile, said to have been very beautiful. Father accepted, and his second wedding, like the first, was solemnized with great pomp. "You young people understand nothing of this kind of thing," he said in conclusion, after having told me the story more than once, with a very fine humor which I will not attempt to reproduce, "But do you know what it meant at that time, - the commander of an army corps? Above all, that one-eyed devil, as we used to call him, coming himself to propose ? Of course she had no dowry ; only a big trunk filled with their ladies' finery, and that Martha, her one serf, dark as a gypsy, sitting upon it."
I have no recollection whatever of this event. I only remember a big drawing room in a richly furnished house, and in that room a young lady, attractive, but with a rather too sharp southern look, gamboling with us, and saying, "You see what a jolly mama you will have;" to which Sasha and I, sulkily looking at her replied, "Our mama has flown away to the sky." We regarded so much liveliness with suspicion.
Winter came, and a new life began for us. Our house was sold, and another was bought and furnished completely anew. All that could convey a reminiscence of our mother disappeared,- her portraits, her paintings, her embroideries. In vain Madame Burman implored to be retained in our house, and promised to devote herself to the baby our stepmother was expecting as to her own child: She was sent away. "Nothing of the Sulimas in my house," she was told. All connection with our uncles and aunts and our grandmother was broken. Uliana was married to Frol, who became a major-domo, while she was a housekeeper; and for our education a richly paid French tutor, M. Poulain, and a miserably paid Russian student, N.P. Smirnoff, was engaged.
Many of the sons of the Moscow nobles were educated at that time by Frenchmen, who represented the debris of Napoleon's Grande Armee. M. Poulain was one of them. He had just finished the education of the youngest son of the novelist Zagoskin, and his pupil, Serge, enjoyed in the Old Equerries' Quarter the reputation of being so well brought up that our father did not hesitate to engage M. Poulain for the consideration sum of six hundred rubles a year.
M. Poulain brought with him his setter, Tresor, his coffee-pot Napoleon, and his French textbooks, and he began to rule over us and the serf Matvei who was attached to our service.
His plan of education was very simple. After having woke us up he attended to his coffee, which he used to take in his room. While we were preparing the morning lessons he made his toilet with minute care: he shampooed his gray hair so as to conceal his growing baldness, put on his tail-coat, sprinkled and washed himself with eau-de-cologne, and then escorted us downstairs to say good morning to our parents. We used to find our father and stepmother at breakfast and on approaching them we recited in the most official way, "Bonjour, mon cher papa," and "Bonjour, ma chere maman," and kissed their hands. M. Poulain made a very complicated and elegant obeisance in pronouncing the words, "Bonjour, monsieur le prince," and "Bonjour, madame le princesse," after which the procession immediately withdrew and retired upstairs. This ceremony was repeated every morning.
Then our work began. M. Poulain changed his tail-coat for a dressing-gown, covered his head with a leather cap, and dropping into an easy-chair said, "Recite the lesson."
We recited it "by heart," from one mark which was made in the book with the nail to the next mark. M. Poulain had brought with him the grammar of Noel and Chapsal, memorable to more than one generation of Russian boys and girls; a book of French dialogues; a history of the world, in one volume. We had to commit to memory the grammar, the dialogues, the history, and the geography.
The grammar, with its well-known sentences, "What is grammar?" "The art of speaking and writing correctly ," went all right. But the history book, unfortunately, had a preface, which contained an enumeration of all the advantages which can be derived from a knowledge of history. Things went on smoothly enough with the first sentences. We recited: " The prince finds in it magnanimous examples for governing his subjects; the military commander learns from it the noble art of warfare." But the moment we came to law all went wrong. "The jurisconsult meets in it"- but what the learned lawyer meets in history we never came to know. That terrible word "jurisconsult" spoiled all the game. As soon as we reached it we stopped.
"On your knees, gros pouff!" exclaimed Poulain. (That was for me.) "On your knees, grand dada!" (That was for my brother.) And there we knelt, shedding tears and vainly endeavoring to learn all about jurisconsult.
It cost us many pains, that preface! We were already learning all about the Romans, and used to put our sticks in Uliana's scales when she was weighing rice, "just like Brennus;" we jumped from our table and other precipices for the salvation of our country, in imitation of Curtius; but M. Poulain would still from time to time return to the preface, and again put us on our knees for that very same jurisconsult. Was it strange that later on both my brother and I should entertain an undisguised contempt for jurisprudence?
I do not know what would have happened with geography if Monsieur Poulain's book had had a preface. But happily the first twenty pages of the book had been torn away (Serge Zagoskin, I suppose, rendered us that notable service), and so our lessons commenced with the twenty first page, which began, "of the rivers which water France."
It must be confessed that things did not always end with kneeling. there was in the class-room a birch rod, and Poulain resorted to it when there was no hope of progress with the preface or with some dialogue on virtue and propriety; but one day sister Helene, who by this time had left the Catherine Institut des Demoiselles, and now occupied a room underneath ours, hearing our cries, rushed, all in tears, into our father's study, and bitterly reproached him with having handed us to our stepmother, who had abandoned us to "a retired French drummer." "Of course," she cried, "there is no one to take their part, but I cannot see my brothers being treated in this way by a drummer!"
Taken thus unprepared, our father could not make a stand. He began to scold Helene, but ended by approving her devotion to her brothers. Thereafter the birch rod was reserved for teaching the rules of propriety to the setter, Tresor.
No sooner had M. Poulain discharged himself of his heavy educational duties than he became quite another man,- a lively comrade instead of a gruesome teacher. After lunch he took us out for a walk, and there was no end to his tales: we chattered like birds. Though we never went with him beyond the first pages of syntax, we soon learned, nevertheless, "to speak correctly;" we used to think in French; and when he dictated to us half through a book of mythology, correcting our faults by the book, without ever trying to explain to us why a word must be written in a particular way, we had learned "to write correctly."
After dinner we had our lesson with the Russian teacher, a student of the faculty of law in the Moscow University. He taught us all "Russian" subjects,-grammar, arithmetic, history, and so on. But in those years serious teaching had not yet begun. In the meantime he dictated us every day a page of history, and in that practical way we quickly learned to write Russian quite correctly.
Our best time was on Sundays, when all the family, with the exception of us children, went to dine with Madame la Generale Timofeeff. It would also happen occasionally that both M. Poulain and N.P. Smirnoff would be allowed to leave the house, and when this occurred we were placed under the care of Uliana. After a hurriedly eaten dinner we hastened to the great hall, to which the younger housemaids soon repaired. All sorts of games were started,-blind man, vulture and chickens, and so on; and then, all of a sudden, Tikhon, the Jack-of-all-trades, would appear with a violin. Dancing began; not that measured and tiresome dancing, under the direction of a French dancing-master "on India-rubber legs," which made part of our education, but free dancing which was not a lesson, and in which a score of couples turned round any way; and this was only preparatory to the still more animated and rather wild Cossack dance. Tikhon would then hand the violin to one of the older men, and would begin to perform with his legs such wonderful feats that the doors to the hall would soon be filled by the cooks and even the coachmen, who came to see the dance so dear to the Russian heart.
About nine o'clock the big carriage was sent to fetch the family home. Tikhon, brush in hand, crawled on the floor, to make it shine with its virgin glance, and perfect order was restored in the house. And if, next morning, we two had been submitted to the most severe cross-examination, not a word would have been dropped concerning the previous evening's amusements. We never would have betrayed any one of the servants, nor would they have betrayed us. One Sunday, my brother and I, playing alone in the wide hall, ran against a bracket which supported a costly lamp. The lamp was broken to pieces. Immediately a council was held by the servants. No one scolded us; but it was decided that early next morning Tikhon should at his risk and peril slip out of the house and run to the Smith's Bridge in order to buy another lamp of the same pattern. It cost fifteen rubles, -an enormous sum for the servants ; but it was bought, and we never heard a word of reproach about it.
When I think of it now, and all these scenes come back to my memory, I remember that we never heard coarse language in any of the games, nor saw in the dances anything like the kind of dancing which children are now taken to admire in the theaters. In the servants' house, among themselves, they assuredly used coarse expressions; but we were children,- her children, -and that protected us from anything of the sort.
In those days children were not bewildered by a profusion of toys, as they are now. We had almost none, and were thus compelled to rely upon our own inventiveness. Besides, we both had early aquired a taste for the theater. The inferior carnival theaters, with the thieving and fighting shows, produced no lasting impression upon us: we ourselves played enough at robbers and soldiers. But the great star of the ballet, Fanny Elssler, came to Moscow, and we saw her. When father took a box in the theater, he always secured one of the best, and paid for it well; but then he insisted that all the members of the family should enjoy it to its full value. Small though I was at the time, Fanny Elssler left upon me an impression of a being so full of grace, so light, and so artistie in all her movements that ever since I have been unable to feel the slightest interest in a dance which belongs more in the domain of gymnastics that to the domain of art.
Of course, the ballet that we saw Gitana, the Spanish Gypsy- had to be repeated at home; its substance, not the dances. We had a ready-made stage, as the doorway which led from our bedroom into the classroom had a curtain instead of a door. A few chairs put in a half-circle in front of the curtain, with an easy-chair for M. Poulain, became the hall and the imperial lodge, and an audience could easily be mustered with the Russian teacher, Uliana, and a couple of maids from the servants' rooms.
Two scenes of the ballet had to be represented by some means or other: the one where little Gitana is brought by the gypsies into their camp in a wheelbarrow, and that in which Gitana makes her first appearance on the stage, descending from a hill and crossing a bridge over a brook which reflects her image. The audience burst into frantic applause at this point, and the cheers were evidently called forth- so we thought , at least- by the reflection in the brook.
We found our Gitana in one of the youngest girls in the maid-servants' room. Her rather shabby blue cotton dress was no obstacle to personifying Fanny Elssler. An over turned chair, pushed along by its legs, head downward, was an acceptable substitute for the wheelbarrow. But the brook! Two chairs and the long ironing board of Anrei, the tailor, made the bridge, and a piece of blue cotton made the brook. the image in the brook, however, would not appear full size, do what we might with M. Poulain's little shaving-glass. After many unsuccessful endeavors we had to give it up, but we bribed Uliana to behave as if she saw the image, and to applaud loudly at this passage, so that finally we began to believe that perhaps something of it could be seen.
Racine's "Phedre," or at least the last act of it, also went off nicely; that is , Sasha recited the melodious verses beautifully, - "A peine nous sortions des portes de Trezene;" and I sat absolutely motionless and unconcerned during the whole length of the tragic monologue intended to apprize me of the death of my son, down to the place where, according to the book, I had to exclaim, "O, dieux!"
But whatsoever we might impersonate, all our performances invariably ended with hell. All candles save one were put out, and this one placed behind a transparent paper to imitate flames, while my brother and I , concealed from view, howled in the most appalling way as the condemned. Uliana, who did not like to have any allusion to the Evil One made at bedtime, looked horrified; but I ask myself now whether this extremely concrete representation of hell, with a candle and a sheet of paper, did not contribute to free us both from at an early age from the fear of eternal fire. Our conception of it was too realistic to resist skepticism.
I must have been very much of a child when I saw the great Moscow actors: Schepkin, Sadovskiy, and Shumski, in Gogol's "Revisor" and another comedy; still, I remember not only the salient scenes of the two plays, but even the forms and expressions of those great actors of the realist school which is now so admirably represented by Duse. I remembered them so well that when I saw the same plays given at St. Petersburg, by actors belonging to the French declamatory school, I found no pleasure in their acting, always comparing them with Schepkin and Sadovskiy, by whom my taste in dramatic art was settled.
This makes me think that parents who wish to develop artistic taste in their children ought to take them occasionally to really well acted, good plays, instead of feeding them on a profusion of so-called "children's pantomimes."
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