Childhood, by Leo Tolstoy

XVII

The Princess Kornakoff

“Yes, show her in,” said Grandmamma, settling herself as far back in her arm-chair as possible. The Princess was a woman of about forty-five, small and delicate, with a shrivelled skin and disagreeable, greyish-green eyes, the expression of which contradicted the unnaturally suave look of the rest of her face. Underneath her velvet bonnet, adorned with an ostrich feather, was visible some reddish hair, while against the unhealthy colour of her skin her eyebrows and eyelashes looked even lighter and redder that they would other wise have done. Yet, for all that, her animated movements, small hands, and peculiarly dry features communicated something aristocratic and energetic to her general appearance. She talked a great deal, and, to judge from her eloquence, belonged to that class of persons who always speak as though some one were contradicting them, even though no one else may be saying a word. First she would raise her voice, then lower it and then take on a fresh access of vivacity as she looked at the persons present, but not participating in the conversation, with an air of endeavouring to draw them into it.

Although the Princess kissed Grandmamma’s hand and repeatedly called her “my good Aunt,” I could see that Grandmamma did not care much about her, for she kept raising her eyebrows in a peculiar way while listening to the Princess’s excuses why Prince Michael had been prevented from calling, and congratulating Grandmamma “as he would like so-much to have done.” At length, however, she answered the Princess’s French with Russian, and with a sharp accentuation of certain words.

“I am much obliged to you for your kindness,” she said. “As for Prince Michael’s absence, pray do not mention it. He has so much else to do. Besides, what pleasure could he find in coming to see an old woman like me?” Then, without allowing the Princess time to reply, she went on: “How are your children my dear?”

“Well, thank God, Aunt, they grow and do their lessons and play — particularly my eldest one, Etienne, who is so wild that it is almost impossible to keep him in order. Still, he is a clever and promising boy. Would you believe it, cousin” this last to Papa, since Grandmamma altogether uninterested in the Princess’s children, had turned to us, taken my verses out from beneath the presentation box, and unfolded them again), “would you believe it, but one day not long ago —” and leaning over towards Papa, the Princess related something or other with great vivacity. Then, her tale concluded, she laughed, and, with a questioning look at Papa, went on:

“What a boy, cousin! He ought to have been whipped, but the trick was so spirited and amusing that I let him off.” Then the Princess looked at Grandmamma and laughed again.

“Ah! So you WHIP your children, do you” said Grandmamma, with a significant lift of her eyebrows, and laying a peculiar stress on the word “WHIP.”

“Alas, my good Aunt,” replied the Princess in a sort of tolerant tone and with another glance at Papa, “I know your views on the subject, but must beg to be allowed to differ with them. However much I have thought over and read and talked about the matter, I have always been forced to come to the conclusion that children must be ruled through FEAR. To make something of a child, you must make it FEAR something. Is it not so, cousin? And what, pray, do children fear so much as a rod?”

As she spoke she seemed, to look inquiringly at Woloda and myself, and I confess that I did not feel altogether comfortable.

“Whatever you may say,” she went on, “a boy of twelve, or even of fourteen, is still a child and should be whipped as such; but with girls, perhaps, it is another matter.”

“How lucky it is that I am not her son!” I thought to myself.

“Oh, very well,” said Grandmamma, folding up my verses and replacing them beneath the box (as though, after that exposition of views, the Princess was unworthy of the honour of listening to such a production). “Very well, my dear,” she repeated “But please tell me how, in return, you can look for any delicate sensibility from your children?”

Evidently Grandmamma thought this argument unanswerable, for she cut the subject short by adding:

“However, it is a point on which people must follow their own opinions.”

The Princess did not choose to reply, but smiled condescendingly, and as though out of indulgence to the strange prejudices of a person whom she only PRETENDED to revere.

“Oh, by the way, pray introduce me to your young people,” she went on presently as she threw us another gracious smile.

Thereupon we rose and stood looking at the Princess, without in the least knowing what we ought to do to show that we were being introduced.

“Kiss the Princess’s hand,” said Papa.

“Well, I hope you will love your old aunt,” she said to Woloda, kissing his hair, “even though we are not near relatives. But I value friendship far more than I do degrees of relationship,” she added to Grandmamma, who nevertheless, remained hostile, and replied:

“Eh, my dear? Is that what they think of relationships nowadays?”

“Here is my man of the world,” put in Papa, indicating Woloda;

“and here is my poet,” he added as I kissed the small, dry hand of the Princess, with a vivid picture in my mind of that same hand holding a rod and applying it vigorously.

“WHICH one is the poet?” asked the Princess.

“This little one,” replied Papa, smiling; “the one with the tuft of hair on his top-knot.”

“Why need he bother about my tuft?” I thought to myself as I retired into a corner. “Is there nothing else for him to talk about?”

I had strange ideas on manly beauty. I considered Karl Ivanitch one of the handsomest men in the world, and myself so ugly that I had no need to deceive myself on that point. Therefore any remark on the subject of my exterior offended me extremely. I well remember how, one day after luncheon (I was then six years of age), the talk fell upon my personal appearance, and how Mamma tried to find good features in my face, and said that I had clever eyes and a charming smile; how, nevertheless, when Papa had examined me, and proved the contrary, she was obliged to confess that I was ugly; and how, when the meal was over and I went to pay her my respects, she said as she patted my cheek;

“You know, Nicolinka, nobody will ever love you for your face alone, so you must try all the more to be a good and clever boy.”

Although these words of hers confirmed in me my conviction that I was not handsome, they also confirmed in me an ambition to be just such a boy as she had indicated. Yet I had my moments of despair at my ugliness, for I thought that no human being with such a large nose, such thick lips, and such small grey eyes as mine could ever hope to attain happiness on this earth. I used to ask God to perform a miracle by changing me into a beauty, and would have given all that I possessed, or ever hoped to possess, to have a handsome face,

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