Boyhood, by Leo Tolstoy

XV. Dreams

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 lost.

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 store-room!

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, pitiful creature.

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