Boyhood, by Leo Tolstoy

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.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tolstoy/leo/t65b/chapter14.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04