Childhood, by Leo Tolstoy

II

Mamma

Mamma was sitting in the drawing-room and making tea. In one hand she was holding the tea-pot, while with the other one she was drawing water from the urn and letting it drip into the tray. Yet though she appeared to be noticing what she doing, in reality she noted neither this fact nor our entry.

However vivid be one’s recollection of the past, any attempt to recall the features of a beloved being shows them to one’s vision as through a mist of tears — dim and blurred. Those tears are the tears of the imagination. When I try to recall Mamma as she was then, I see, true, her brown eyes, expressive always of love and kindness, the small mole on her neck below where the small hairs grow, her white embroidered collar, and the delicate, fresh hand which so often caressed me, and which I so often kissed; but her general appearance escapes me altogether.

To the left of the sofa stood an English piano, at which my dark- haired sister Lubotshka was sitting and playing with manifest effort (for her hands were rosy from a recent washing in cold water) Clementi’s “Etudes.” Then eleven years old, she was dressed in a short cotton frock and white lace-frilled trousers, and could take her octaves only in arpeggio. Beside her was sitting Maria Ivanovna, in a cap adorned with pink ribbons and a blue shawl, Her face was red and cross, and it assumed an expression even more severe when Karl Ivanitch entered the room. Looking angrily at him without answering his bow, she went on beating time with her foot and counting, “ One, two, three — one, two, three,” more loudly and commandingly than ever.

Karl Ivanitch paid no attention to this rudeness, but went, as usual, with German politeness to kiss Mamma’s hand, She drew herself up, shook her head as though by the movement to chase away sad thoughts from her, and gave Karl her hand, kissing him on his wrinkled temple as he bent his head in salutation.

“I thank you, dear Karl Ivanitch,” she said in German, and then, still using the same language asked him how we (the children) had slept. Karl Ivanitch was deaf in one ear, and the added noise of the piano now prevented him from hearing anything at all. He moved nearer to the sofa, and, leaning one hand upon the table and lifting his cap above his head, said with, a smile which in those days always seemed to me the perfection of politeness: “You, will excuse me, will you not, Natalia Nicolaevna?”

The reason for this was that, to avoid catching cold, Karl never took off his red cap, but invariably asked permission, on entering the drawing-room, to retain it on his head.

“Yes, pray replace it, Karl Ivanitch,” said Mamma, bending towards him and raising her voice, “But I asked you whether the children had slept well? ”

Still he did not hear, but, covering his bald head again with the red cap, went on smiling more than ever,

“Stop a moment, Mimi.” said Mamma (now smiling also) to Maria Ivanovna. “It is impossible to hear anything.”

How beautiful Mamma’s face was when she smiled! It made her so infinitely more charming, and everything around her seemed to grow brighter! If in the more painful moments of my life I could have seen that smile before my eyes, I should never have known what grief is. In my opinion, it is in the smile of a face that the essence of what we call beauty lies. If the smile heightens the charm of the face, then the face is a beautiful one. If the smile does not alter the face, then the face is an ordinary one. But if the smile spoils the face, then the face is an ugly one indeed.

Mamma took my head between her hands, bent it gently backwards, looked at me gravely, and said: “You have been crying this morning?”

I did not answer. She kissed my eyes, and said again in German:

“Why did you cry?”

When talking to us with particular intimacy she always used this language, which she knew to perfection.

“I cried about a dream, Mamma” I replied, remembering the invented vision, and trembling involuntarily at the recollection.

Karl Ivanitch confirmed my words, but said nothing as to the subject of the dream. Then, after a little conversation on the weather, in which Mimi also took part, Mamma laid some lumps of sugar on the tray for one or two of the more privileged servants, and crossed over to her embroidery frame, which stood near one of the windows.

“Go to Papa now, children,” she said, “and ask him to come to me before he goes to the home farm.”

Then the music, the counting, and the wrathful looks from Mimi began again, and we went off to see Papa. Passing through the room which had been known ever since Grandpapa’s time as “the pantry,” we entered the study,

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