Boyhood, by Leo Tolstoy

VII. Small Shot

“Good gracious! Powder!” exclaimed Mimi in a voice trembling with alarm. “Whatever are you doing? You will set the house on fire in a moment, and be the death of us all!” Upon that, with an indescribable expression of firmness, Mimi ordered every one to stand aside, and, regardless of all possible danger from a premature explosion, strode with long and resolute steps to where some small shot was scattered about the floor, and began to trample upon it.

When, in her opinion, the peril was at least lessened, she called for Michael and commanded him to throw the “powder” away into some remote spot, or, better still, to immerse it in water; after which she adjusted her cap and returned proudly to the drawing- room, murmuring as she went, “At least I can say that they are well looked after.”

When Papa issued from his room and took us to see Grandmamma we found Mimi sitting by the window and glancing with a grave, mysterious, official expression towards the door. In her hand she was holding something carefully wrapped in paper. I guessed that that something was the small shot, and that Grandmamma had been informed of the occurrence. In the room also were the maidservant Gasha (who, to judge by her angry flushed face, was in a state of great irritation) and Doctor Blumenthal — the latter a little man pitted with smallpox, who was endeavouring by tacit, pacificatory signs with his head and eyes to reassure the perturbed Gasha. Grandmamma was sitting a little askew and playing that variety of “patience” which is called “The Traveller”— two unmistakable signs of her displeasure.

“How are you to-day, Mamma?” said Papa as he kissed her hand respectfully. “Have you had a good night?”

“Yes, very good, my dear; you KNOW that I always enjoy sound health,” replied Grandmamma in a tone implying that Papa’s inquiries were out of place and highly offensive. “Please give me a clean pocket-handkerchief,” she added to Gasha.

“I HAVE given you one, madam,” answered Gasha, pointing to the snow-white cambric handkerchief which she had just laid on the arm of Grandmamma’s chair.

“No, no; it’s a nasty, dirty thing. Take it away and bring me a CLEAN one, my dear.”

Gasha went to a cupboard and slammed the door of it back so violently that every window rattled. Grandmamma glared angrily at each of us, and then turned her attention to following the movements of the servant. After the latter had presented her with what I suspected to be the same handkerchief as before, Grandmamma continued:

“And when do you mean to cut me some snuff, my dear?”

“When I have time.”

“What do you say?”

“To-day.”

“If you don’t want to continue in my service you had better say so at once. I would have sent you away long ago had I known that you wished it.”

“It wouldn’t have broken my heart if you had!” muttered the woman in an undertone.

Here the doctor winked at her again, but she returned his gaze so firmly and wrathfully that he soon lowered it and went on playing with his watch-key.

“You see, my dear, how people speak to me in my own house!” said Grandmamma to Papa when Gasha had left the room grumbling.

“Well, Mamma, I will cut you some snuff myself,” replied Papa, though evidently at a loss how to proceed now that he had made this rash promise.

“No, no, I thank you. Probably she is cross because she knows that no one except herself can cut the snuff just as I like it. Do you know, my dear,” she went on after a pause, “that your children very nearly set the house on fire this morning?”

Papa gazed at Grandmamma with respectful astonishment.

“Yes, they were playing with something or another. Tell him the story,” she added to Mimi.

Papa could not help smiling as he took the shot in his hand.

“This is only small shot, Mamma,” he remarked, “and could never be dangerous.”

“I thank you, my dear, for your instruction, but I am rather too old for that sort of thing.”

“Nerves, nerves!” whispered the doctor.

Papa turned to us and asked us where we had got the stuff, and how we could dare to play with it.

“Don’t ask THEM, ask that useless ‘Uncle,’ rather,” put in Grandmamma, laying a peculiar stress upon the word “UNCLE.” “What else is he for?”

“Woloda says that Karl Ivanitch gave him the powder himself,” declared Mimi.

“Then you can see for yourself what use he is,” continued Grandmamma. “ And where IS he — this precious ‘Uncle’? How is one to get hold of him? Send him here.”

“He has gone an errand for me,” said Papa.

“That is not at all right,” rejoined Grandmamma. “He ought ALWAYS to be here. True, the children are yours, not mine, and I have nothing to do with them, seeing that you are so much cleverer than I am; yet all the same I think it is time we had a regular tutor for them, and not this ‘Uncle’ of a German — a stupid fellow who knows only how to teach them rude manners and Tyrolean songs! Is it necessary, I ask you, that they should learn Tyrolean songs? However, there is no one for me to consult about it, and you must do just as you like.”

The word “NOW” meant “NOW THAT THEY HAVE NO MOTHER,” and suddenly awakened sad recollections in Grandmamma’s heart. She threw a glance at the snuff-box bearing Mamma’s portrait and sighed.

“I thought of all this long ago,” said Papa eagerly, “as well as taking your advice on the subject. How would you like St. Jerome to superintend their lessons?”

“Oh, I think he would do excellently, my friend,” said Grandmamma in a mollified tone, “He is at least a tutor comme il faut, and knows how to instruct des enfants de bonne maison. He is not a mere ‘Uncle’ who is good only for taking them out walking.”

“Very well; I will talk to him to-morrow,” said Papa. And, sure enough, two days later saw Karl Ivanitch forced to retire in favour of the young Frenchman referred to.

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