Part 2: The Corps of Pages, Section 3
Part 2: The Corps of Pages, Section 3
My brother Alexander was at that time at Moscow, in a corps of cadets, and we maintained a lively correspond. ence. As long as I stayed at home this was impossible, because our father considered it his prerogative to read all letters addressed to our house, and he would soon have 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 police, during one of their raids, robbed him even of these treasures.
Our first letters were mostly about the little details 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"-- 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 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! -- 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 I 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. But the reaction against art, which arose among the Russian youth in the early sixties, and which Turgué has depicted in Bazráoff ("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 Nekráoff whose verses were very often unmusical, but appealed most to my heart by their sympathy for "the downtrodden and ill-treated."
"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 one 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 guise 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 Weltanshauung, 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 ill 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:-
"But you will never link hearts together
Unless the linking springs from your own heart."
Alexander, in the: meantime, had embraced with his usual passion the Lutheran faith. He kind 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 encyclopedists, 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 a 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 Königsberg 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, pub fished three lectures on transformism and my brother took up at once his ideas concerning the variablility 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 double. 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 afterwards 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-Lamarckiane. 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 talked 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 Baptists 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 passion ately that he. even wrote letters to our stepmother, trying 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 ourstepmother'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 trades mart, affected a pig-headed indifference to tariff questions!"
Every summer about one half of the pages were taken to a camp 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, neverthelese, 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, telling me to come out to the entrance hall. I went. " Come to the coachmen's house," the old major-domo Frol whispered to me. " Alexander Alexéievich is here."
I dashed across the yard, up the flight of steps leading to the coachman'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 anyone; 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 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 Smolénsk boulevard, within a stones 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 is 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 coachman 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 nebulae and Leplace'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, "Pétinka, go and show thyself in the hall; they are moving about and may ask for thee."
I emplored S´sha 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 again to the coachman's house. Alexander 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. He took a some small coin to hire a cab, and so he came earlier than on his first visit.
He intended to come the 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 as carried away unconscious on a sheet, and then the degradation 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 wispered a word to anyone of the family. They and I were the only ones in the house who ever knew aything about it.
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