Part 2: The Corps of Pages, Section 6
Part 2: The Corps of Pages, Section 6
While I was in the fourth form I became interested in history, and with the aid of notes made during the lessons, and helping myself with reading, I wrote quite a course of early medieval history for my own use. Next year, the struggle between Pope Boniface VIII and the imperial power attracted my special attention, and now it became my ambition to be admitted to the Imperial Library as a reader, to study that great struggle. That was contrary to the rules of the library, pupils of secondary schools not being admitted; our good Herr Becker, however, smoothed the way out of the difficulty, and I was allowed at last to enter the sanctuary, and to take a seat at one of the readers' small tables, on one of the red velvet sofas which then formed a part of the furniture of the reading-room.
From the various textbooks and some books from our own library, I soon got to the sources. Knowing no Latin, I discovered, nevertheless, a rich supply of original sources in Old Teutonic and Old French, and found an immense esthetic enjoyment in the quaint structure and expressiveness of the Old French in the chronicles. Quite a new structure of society and quite a world of complicated relations opened before me; and from that time I learned to value far more highly the original sources of history than the works of modernized generalizations in which the prejudices of modern politics, or even mere current formulæ, are often substituted for the real life of the period. Nothing gives more impetus to one's intellectual development than some sort of independent research, and these studies of mine afterwards helped me very much.
Unhappily I had to abandon them when we reached the second form (the last but one). The pages had to study during the last two years nearly all that was taught in other military schools in three special forms, and we had a vast amount of work to do for the school. Natural sciences, mathematics, and military sciences necessarily relegated history to the background.
In the second form we began seriously to study physics. We had an excellent teacher, a very intelligent man with a sarcastic turn of mind, who hated learning from memory, and managed to make us think, instead of merely learning facts. He was a good mathematician, and taught us physics on a mathematical basis, admirably explaining at the same time the leading ideas of physical research and physical apparatus. Some of his questions were so original and his explanations so good that they engraved themselves forever in my memory.
Our textbook of physics was not bad (most textbooks for the military schools had been written by the best men at the time), but it was rather old, and our teacher, who followed his own system in teaching, began to prepare a short summary of his lessons, a sort of aide-mémoire. However, after a few weeks it so happened that the task of writing this summary fell upon me, and our teacher, acting as a true pedagogist, trusted it entirely to me, only reading the proofs. When we came to the chapters on heat, electricity, and magnetism, they had to written entirely anew, with more developments, and this I did, thus preparing a nearly complete textbook of physics, which was printed for the use of the school.
In the second form we also began to study chemistry, and in this, too, we had a first-rate teacher, -- a passionate lover of the subject, who had himself made valuable original researches. The years 1859-61 were years of universal revival of taste for the exact sciences. Grove, Clausius, Joule, and Séguin showed that heat and all physical forces are but divers modes of motion; Hemholtz began about that time his epoch-making researches in sound; Tyndall, in his popular lectures, made one touch, so to say, the very atoms and molecules. Gerhardt and Avogadro introduced the theory of substitutions, and Mendeléeff, Lothar Meyer, and Newlands discovered the periodical law of elements; Darwin, with his "Origin of Species," revolutionized all biological sciences; while Karl Vogt and Molechott, following Claude Bernard, laid the foundations of true psychology in physiology. It was a time of scientific revival, and the current which carried minds toward natural science was irresistible. Numbers of excellent books were published at that time in Russian translations, and I soon understood that whatever one's subsequent studies might be, a thorough knowledge of the natural sciences and familiarity with their methods must lie at the foundation. Five or six of us joined together to get some sort of laboratory for ourselves. With the elementary apparatus recommended for beginners in Stöckhardt's excellent textbook, we started our laboratory in a small bedroom of two of our comrades, the brothers Zasetsky. Their father, an old admiral in retirement, was delighted to see his sons engaged in so useful a pursuit, and did not object to our coming together on Sundays and during the holidays in that room, by the side of his own study. With Stöckhardt's book as a guide, we systematically made all experiments. I must say that once we nearly set the house on fire, and that more than once we poisoned all the rooms with chlorine and similar stuffs. But the old admiral, when we related the adventure at dinner time, took it very nicely, and told us how he and his comrades also nearly set a house on fire in the far less useful pursuit of punch making; while the mother only said, admist her paroxysms of coughing: "Of course, if it is necessary for your learning to handle such nasty smelling things, then there's nothing to be done!"
After dinner she usually took her seat at the piano, and till late at night we would go on singing duets, trios and choruses from the operas. Or we would take the score of some Italian or Russian opera and go through it from beginning to the end, -- the mother and her daughter acting as the prima donnas, while we managed more or less to successfully to maintain all the other parts. Chemistry and music thus went hand in hand.
Higher mathematics also absorbed a great deal of my time. Several of us had already decided that we should not enter a regiment of the Guard, where all our time would be given to military drill and parades, and we intended to enter, after promotion, one of the military academies, -- artillery or engineering. In order to do so we had to prepare in higher geometry, differential calculus, and the beginnings of integral calculus, and we took private lessons for that purpose. At the same time, elementary astronomy being taught to us under the name of mathematical geography, I plunged into astronomical reading, especially during the last year of my stay at school. The never-ceasing life of the universe, which I conceived as life and evolution, became for me an inexhaustible source of higher poetical thought, and gradually the sense of Man's oneness with Nature, both animate and inanimate - the Poetry of Nature - became the philosophy of my life.
If the teaching in our school had been limited to the subjects I have mentioned, our time would have been pretty well occupied. But we also had to study in the domain of humanitarian science, history, law, -- that is, the main outlines of the Russian code, -- and political economy in its essential leading principles, including a course of comparative statistics; and we had to master formidable courses of military science, -- tactics, military history (the campaigns of 1812 and 1815 in all their details), artillery and field fortification. Looking back now upon this education, I think that apart from the subjects relating to military warfare, for which more detailed studies in the exact sciences might have been advantageously substituted, the variety of subjects which we were taught was not beyond the capacity of the average youth. Owing to a pretty good knowledge of elementary mathematics and physics, which we gained in the lower forms, most of us managed to do all the work. Some studies were neglected by the majority of us, especially law, as also modern history, for which we had unfortunately an old wreck of a master, who was kept at his post only in order to give him his full old-age pension. Moreover, some latitude was given us in the choice of the subjects we liked best, and while we underwent severe examination in these chosen subjects, we were treated rather leniently in the remainder. But the chief cause of the relative success which was obtained in the school was that the teaching was rendered as concrete as possible. As soon as we had learned elementary geometry on paper, we relearned it in the field, with poles and the surveyor's chain, and next with the astrolabe, the compass, and the surveyor's table. After such a concrete training, elementary astronomy offered no difficulties, while the surveys themselves were an endless source of enjoyment.
The same system of concrete teaching was applied to fortification. In the winter we solved such problems as, for instance, the following: Having a thousand men and a fortnight at your disposal, build the strongest fortification you can build, to protect that bridge for a retreating army; and we hotly discussed our schemes with the teacher when he criticized them. In the summer we applied our knowledge in the field. To these practical exercises I attribute the ease with which most of us mastered such a variety of scientific subjects at the age of seventeen or eighteen.
With all that, we had plenty of time for amusement and all sorts of frolics. Our best time was when the examinations were over, and we had three or four weeks quite free before going to camp, or when we returned from camp, and had another three weeks free before the beginning of lessons. The few of us who remained then in the school were allowed, during the vacations, to go out just as we liked, always finding bed and food at the school. I worked in the library, or visited the picture galleries of the Hermitage, studying one by one all the best pictures of each school separately; or I went to the different Crown manufactories of playing-cards, cottons, iron, china, and glass which are open to the public. Sometimes we went out rowing on the Nevá, spending the whole night on the river; sometimes in the Gulf of Finland with fishermen, -- a melancholy northern night, during which the morning dawn meets the afterglow of the setting sun, and a book can be read in the open air at midnight. For all this we found plenty of time.
After my visits to the manufactories I took a liking to strong and perfect machinery. Seeing how a gigantic paw, coming out of a chanty, grasps a log floating in the Nevá, pulls it inside, and puts it under the saws, which cut it into boards; or how a huge red-hot iron bar is transformed into a rail after it has passed between two cylinders, I understood the poetry of machinery. In our present factories, machinery work is killing for the worker, because he becomes a lifelong servant to a given machine, and never is anything else. But this is a matter of bad organization, and has nothing to do with the machine itself. Overwork and lifelong monotony are equally bad whether the work is done with the hand, with plain tools, or with a machine. But apart from these, I fully understand the pleasure that man can derive from a consciousness of the might of his machine, the intelligent character of its work, the gracefulness of its movements, and the correctness of what it is doing; and I think that William Morris's hatred of machines only proved that the conception of the machine's power and gracefulness was missing in his great poetical genius.
Music also played a very great part in my development. From it I borrowed even greater joy and enthusiasm than from poetry. The Russian opera hardly existed in those times; but the Italian opera, which had a number of first-rate stars in it, was the most popular institution at St Petersburg. When the prima donna Bosio fell ill, thousands of people, chiefly of the youth, stood till late at night at the door of her hotel to get news of her. She was not beautiful, but seemed so much so when she sang that young men madly in love with her could be counted by the hundred; and when she died, she had a burial such as no one had ever had at St Petersburg before. All St Petersburg was then divided into two camps: the admirers of the Italian opera, and those of the French stage, which even then was showing in germ the putrid Offenbachian current that a few years later infected all Europe. One form was also divided, half and half, between these two camps, and I belonged to the former. We were not permitted to go to the pit or to the balcony, while all the boxes in the Italian opera were always taken months in advance, by subscription, and even transmitted in certain families as an hereditary possession. But we gained admission, on Saturday nights, to the passages in the uppermost gallery, and had to stand there in a Turkish bath atmosphere, while to conceal our showy uniforms we used to war our black overcoats, lined with wadding and with a fur collar, tightly buttoned in spite of the heat. It is a wonder that none of us got pneumonia in this way, especially as we came out overheated with the ovations which we used to make to our favorite singers, and stood afterwards at the stage door to catch one more glimpse of our favorites, and to cheer them. The Italian opera, in those years, was in some strange way intimately connected with the radical movement, and the revolutionary recitatives in "Wilhelm Tell" and "The Puritans" were always met with stormy applause and vociferations which went straight to the heart of Alexander II; while in the sixth-story galleries, and in the smoking-room of the opera, and at the stage door the best part of the St Petersburg youth came together in a common idealist worship of a noble art. All this may seem childish; but many higher ideas and pure inspirations were kindled in us by this worship of our favorite artists.
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