Youth, by Leo Tolstoy

XI

My Examination in Mathematics

AT the subsequent examinations, I made several new acquaintances in addition to the Graps (whom I considered unworthy of my notice) and Iwin (who for some reason or other avoided me). With some of these new friends I grew quite intimate, and even Ikonin plucked up sufficient courage to inform me, when we next met, that he would have to undergo re-examination in history — the reason for his failure this time being that the professor of that faculty had never forgiven him for last year’s examination, and had, indeed, “almost killed” him for it. Semenoff (who was destined for the same faculty as myself — the faculty of mathematics) avoided every one up to the very close of the examinations. Always leaning forward upon his elbows and running his fingers through his grey hair, he sat silent and alone. Nevertheless, when called up for examination in mathematics (he had no companion to accompany him), he came out second. The first place was taken by a student from the first gymnasium — a tall, dark, lanky, pale-faced fellow who wore a black folded cravat and had his cheeks and forehead dotted all over with pimples. His hands were shapely and slender, but their nails were so bitten to the quick that the finger-ends looked as though they had been tied round with strips of thread. All this seemed to me splendid, and wholly becoming to a student of the first gymnasium. He spoke to every one, and we all made friends with him. To me in particular his walk, his every movement, his lips, his dark eyes, all seemed to have in them something extraordinary and magnetic.

On the day of the mathematical examination I arrived earlier than usual at the hall. I knew the syllabus well, yet there were two questions in the algebra which my tutor had managed to pass over, and which were therefore quite unknown to me. If I remember rightly, they were the Theory of Combinations and Newton’s Binomial. I seated myself on one of the back benches and pored over the two questions, but, inasmuch as I was not accustomed to working in a noisy room, and had even less time for preparation than I had anticipated, I soon found it difficult to take in all that I was reading.

“Here he is. This way, Nechludoff,” said Woloda’s familiar voice behind me.

I turned and saw my brother and Dimitri — their gowns unbuttoned, and their hands waving a greeting to me — threading their way through the desks. A moment’s glance would have sufficed to show any one that they were second-course students — persons to whom the University was as a second home. The mere look of their open gowns expressed at once disdain for the “mere candidate” and a knowledge that the “mere candidate’s” soul was filled with envy and admiration of them. I was charmed to think that every one near me could now see that I knew two real second-course students: wherefore I hastened to meet them half-way.

Woloda, of course, could not help vaunting his superiority a little.

“Hullo, you smug!” he said. “Haven’t you been examined yet?”

“No.”

“Well, what are you reading? Aren’t you sufficiently primed?”

“Yes, except in two questions. I don’t understand them at all.”

“Eh, what?”— and Woloda straightway began to expound to me Newton’s Binomial, but so rapidly and unintelligibly that, suddenly reading in my eyes certain misgivings as to the soundness of his knowledge, he glanced also at Dimitri’s face. Clearly, he saw the same misgivings there, for he blushed hotly, though still continuing his involved explanations.

“No; hold on, Woloda, and let me try and do it,” put in Dimitri at length, with a glance at the professors’ corner as he seated himself beside me.

I could see that my friend was in the best of humours. This was always the case with him when he was satisfied with himself, and was one of the things in him which I liked best. Inasmuch as he knew mathematics well and could speak clearly, he hammered the question so thoroughly into my head that I can remember it to this day. Hardly had he finished when St. Jerome said to me in a loud whisper, “A vous, Nicolas,” and I followed Ikonin out from among the desks without having had an opportunity of going through the OTHER question of which I was ignorant. At the table which we now approached were seated two professors, while before the blackboard stood a gymnasium student, who was working some formula aloud, and knocking bits off the end of the chalk with his too vigorous strokes. He even continued writing after one of the Professors had said to him “Enough!” and bidden us draw our tickets. “Suppose I get the Theory of Combinations?” I thought to myself as my tremulous fingers took a ticket from among a bundle wrapped in torn paper. Ikonin, for his part, reached across the table with the same assurance, and the same sidelong movement of his whole body, as he had done at the previous examination. Taking the topmost ticket without troubling to make further selection, he just glanced at it, and then frowned angrily.

“I always draw this kind of thing,” he muttered.

I looked at mine. Horrors! It was the Theory of Combinations!

“What have you got?” whispered Ikonin at this point.

I showed him.

“Oh, I know that,” he said.

“Will you make an exchange, then?”

“No. Besides, it would be all the same for me if I did,” he contrived to whisper just as the professor called us up to the blackboard. “I don’t feel up to anything to-day.”

“Then everything is lost!” I thought to myself. Instead of the brilliant result which I had anticipated I should be for ever covered with shame — more so even than Ikonin! Suddenly, under the very eyes of the professor, Ikonin turned to me, snatched my ticket out of my hands, and handed me his own. I looked at his ticket. It was Newton’s Binomial!

The professor was a youngish man, with a pleasant, clever expression of face — an effect chiefly due to the prominence of the lower part of his forehead.

“What? Are you exchanging tickets, gentlemen?” he said.

“No. He only gave me his to look at, professor,” answered Ikonin — and, sure enough, the word “professor” was the last word that he uttered there. Once again, he stepped backwards towards me from the table, once again he looked at each of the professors in turn and then at myself, once again he smiled faintly, and once again he shrugged his shoulders as much as to say, “It is no use, my good sirs.” Then he returned to the desks. Subsequently, I learnt that this was the third year he had vainly attempted to matriculate.

I answered my question well, for I had just read it up; and the professor, kindly informing me that I had done even better than was required, placed me fifth.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05