THE further I advance in the recital of this period of my life, the more difficult and onerous does the task become. Too rarely do I find among the reminiscences of that time any moments full of the ardent feeling of sincerity which so often and so cheeringly illumined my childhood. Gladly would I pass in haste over my lonely boyhood, the sooner to arrive at the happy time when once again a tender, sincere, and noble friendship marked with a gleam of light at once the termination of that period and the beginning of a phase of my youth which was full of the charm of poetry. Therefore, I will not pursue my recollections from hour to hour, but only throw a cursory glance at the most prominent of them, from the time to which I have now carried my tale to the moment of my first contact with the exceptional personality that was fated to exercise such a decisive influence upon my character and ideas.
Woloda was about to enter the University. Tutors came to give him lessons independently of myself, and I listened with envy and involuntary respect as he drew boldly on the blackboard with white chalk and talked about “functions,” “sines,” and so forth — all of which seemed to me terms pertaining to unattainable wisdom. At length, one Sunday before luncheon all the tutors — and among them two professors — assembled in Grandmamma’s room, and in the presence of Papa and some friends put Woloda through a rehearsal of his University examination — in which, to Grandmamma’s delight, he gave evidence of no ordinary amount of knowledge.
Questions on different subjects were also put to me, but on all of them I showed complete ignorance, while the fact that the professors manifestly endeavoured to conceal that ignorance from Grandmamma only confused me the more. Yet, after all, I was only fifteen, and so had a year before me in which to prepare for the examinations. Woloda now came downstairs for luncheon only, and spent whole days and evenings over his studies in his own room — to which he kept, not from necessity, but because he preferred its seclusion. He was very ambitious, and meant to pass the examinations, not by halves, but with flying colours.
The first day arrived. Woloda was wearing a new blue frockcoat with brass buttons, a gold watch, and shiny boots. At the door stood Papa’s phaeton, which Nicola duly opened; and presently, when Woloda and St. Jerome set out for the University, the girls — particularly Katenka — could be seen gazing with beaming faces from the window at Woloda’s pleasing figure as it sat in the carriage. Papa said several times, “God go with him!” and Grandmamma, who also had dragged herself to the window, continued to make the sign of the cross as long as the phaeton was visible, as well as to murmur something to herself.
When Woloda returned, every one eagerly crowded round him. “How many marks? Were they good ones?” “Yes.” But his happy face was an answer in itself. He had received five marks-the maximum! The next day, he sped on his way with the same good wishes and the same anxiety for his success, and was welcomed home with the same eagerness and joy.
This lasted for nine days. On the tenth day there was to be the last and most difficult examination of all — the one in divinity.
We all stood at the window, and watched for him with greater impatience than ever. Two o’clock, and yet no Woloda.
“Here they come, Papa! Here they come!” suddenly screamed Lubotshka as she peered through the window.
Sure enough the phaeton was driving up with St. Jerome and Woloda — the latter no longer in his grey cap and blue frockcoat, but in the uniform of a student of the University, with its embroidered blue collar, three-cornered hat, and gilded sword.
“Ah! If only SHE had been alive now! “ exclaimed Grandmamma on seeing Woloda in this dress, and swooned away.
Woloda enters the anteroom with a beaming face, and embraces myself, Lubotshka, Mimi, and Katenka — the latter blushing to her ears. He hardly knows himself for joy. And how smart he looks in that uniform! How well the blue collar suits his budding, dark moustache! What a tall, elegant figure is his, and what a distinguished walk!
On that memorable day we all lunched together in Grandmamma’s room. Every face expressed delight, and with the dessert which followed the meal the servants, with grave but gratified faces, brought in bottles of champagne.
Grandmamma, for the first time since Mamma’s death, drank a full glass of the wine to Woloda’s health, and wept for joy as she looked at him.
Henceforth Woloda drove his own turn-out, invited his own friends, smoked, and went to balls. On one occasion, I even saw him sharing a couple of bottles of champagne with some guests in his room, and the whole company drinking a toast, with each glass, to some mysterious being, and then quarrelling as to who should have the bottom of the bottle!
Nevertheless he always lunched at home, and after the meal would stretch himself on a sofa and talk confidentially to Katenka: yet from what I overheard (while pretending, of course, to pay no attention) I gathered that they were only talking of the heroes and heroines of novels which they had read, or else of jealousy and love, and so on. Never could I understand what they found so attractive in these conversations, nor why they smiled so happily and discussed things with such animation.
Altogether I could see that, in addition to the friendship natural to persons who had been companions from childhood, there existed between Woloda and Katenka a relation which differentiated them from us, and united them mysteriously to one another.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00