Childhood, by Leo Tolstoy

XV

Childhood

HAPPY, happy, never-returning time of childhood! How can we help loving and dwelling upon its recollections? They cheer and elevate the soul, and become to one a source of higher joys.

Sometimes, when dreaming of bygone days, I fancy that, tired out with running about, I have sat down, as of old, in my high arm- chair by the tea-table. It is late, and I have long since drunk my cup of milk. My eyes are heavy with sleep as I sit there and listen. How could I not listen, seeing that Mamma is speaking to somebody, and that the sound of her voice is so melodious and kind? How much its echoes recall to my heart! With my eyes veiled with drowsiness I gaze at her wistfully. Suddenly she seems to grow smaller and smaller, and her face vanishes to a point; yet I can still see it — can still see her as she looks at me and smiles. Somehow it pleases me to see her grown so small. I blink and blink, yet she looks no larger than a boy reflected in the pupil of an eye. Then I rouse myself, and the picture fades. Once more I half-close my eyes, and cast about to try and recall the dream, but it has gone,

I rise to my feet, only to fall back comfortably into the armchair.

“There! You are failing asleep again, little Nicolas,” says Mamma. “You had better go to by-by.”

“No, I won’t go to sleep, Mamma,” I reply, though almost inaudibly, for pleasant dreams are filling all my soul. The sound sleep of childhood is weighing my eyelids down, and for a few moments I sink into slumber and oblivion until awakened by some one. I feel in my sleep as though a soft hand were caressing me. I know it by the touch, and, though still dreaming, I seize hold of it and press it to my lips. Every one else has gone to bed, and only one candle remains burning in the drawing-room. Mamma has said that she herself will wake me. She sits down on the arm of the chair in which I am asleep, with her soft hand stroking my hair, and I hear her beloved, well-known voice say in my ear:

“Get up, my darling. It is time to go by-by.”

No envious gaze sees her now. She is not afraid to shed upon me the whole of her tenderness and love. I do not wake up, yet I kiss and kiss her hand.

“Get up, then, my angel.”

She passes her other arm round my neck, and her fingers tickle me as they move across it. The room is quiet and in half-darkness, but the tickling has touched my nerves and I begin to awake. Mamma is sitting near me — that I can tell — and touching me; I can hear her voice and feel her presence. This at last rouses me to spring up, to throw my arms around her neck, to hide my head in her bosom, and to say with a sigh:

“Ah, dear, darling Mamma, how much I love you!”

She smiles her sad, enchanting smile, takes my head between her two hands, kisses me on the forehead, and lifts me on to her lap.

“Do you love me so much, then?” she says. Then, after a few moments’ silence, she continues: “And you must love me always, and never forget me. If your Mamma should no longer be here, will you promise never to forget her — never, Nicolinka? and she kisses me more fondly than ever.

“Oh, but you must not speak so, darling Mamma, my own darling Mamma!” I exclaim as I clasp her knees, and tears of joy and love fall from my eyes.

How, after scenes like this, I would go upstairs, and stand before the ikons, and say with a rapturous feeling, “God bless Papa and Mamma!” and repeat a prayer for my beloved mother which my childish lips had learnt to lisp-the love of God and of her blending strangely in a single emotion!

After saying my prayers I would wrap myself up in the bedclothes. My heart would feel light, peaceful, and happy, and one dream would follow another. Dreams of what? They were all of them vague, but all of them full of pure love and of a sort of expectation of happiness. I remember, too, that I used to think about Karl Ivanitch and his sad lot. He was the only unhappy being whom I knew, and so sorry would I feel for him, and so much did I love him, that tears would fall from my eyes as I thought, “May God give him happiness, and enable me to help him and to lessen his sorrow. I could make any sacrifice for him!” Usually, also, there would be some favourite toy — a china dog or hare — stuck into the bed-corner behind the pillow, and it would please me to think how warm and comfortable and well cared-for it was there. Also, I would pray God to make every one happy, so that every one might be contented, and also to send fine weather to- morrow for our walk. Then I would turn myself over on to the other side, and thoughts and dreams would become jumbled and entangled together until at last I slept soundly and peacefully, though with a face wet with tears.

Do in after life the freshness and light-heartedness, the craving for love and for strength of faith, ever return which we experience in our childhood’s years? What better time is there in our lives than when the two best of virtues — innocent gaiety and a boundless yearning for affection — are our sole objects of pursuit?

Where now are our ardent prayers? Where now are our best gifts — the pure tears of emotion which a guardian angel dries with a smile as he sheds upon us lovely dreams of ineffable childish joy? Can it be that life has left such heavy traces upon one’s heart that those tears and ecstasies are for ever vanished? Can it be that there remains to us only the recollection of them?

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