Childhood By Leo Tolstoy

Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Leo Tolstoy – Childhood – Contents

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Mamma was no longer with us, but our life went on as usual. We went to bed and got up at the same times and in the same rooms; breakfast, luncheon, and supper continued to be at their usual hours; everything remained standing in its accustomed place; nothing in the house or in our mode of life was altered: only, she was not there.

Yet it seemed to me as though such a misfortune ought to have changed everything. Our old mode of life appeared like an insult to her memory. It recalled too vividly her presence.

The day before the funeral I felt as though I should like to rest a little after luncheon, and accordingly went to Natalia Savishna’s room with the intention of installing myself comfortably under the warm, soft down of the quilt on her bed. When I entered I found Natalia herself lying on the bed and apparently asleep, but, on hearing my footsteps, she raised herself up, removed the handkerchief which had been protecting her face from the flies, and, adjusting her cap, sat forward on the edge of the bed. Since it frequently happened that I came to lie down in her room, she guessed my errand at once, and said:

“So you have come to rest here a little, have you? Lie down, then, my dearest.”

“Oh, but what is the matter with you, Natalia Savishna?” I exclaimed as I forced her back again. “I did not come for that. No, you are tired yourself, so you LIE down.”

“I am quite rested now, darling,” she said (though I knew that it was many a night since she had closed her eyes). “Yes, I am indeed, and have no wish to sleep again,” she added with a deep sigh.

I felt as though I wanted to speak to her of our misfortune, since I knew her sincerity and love, and thought that it would be a consolation to me to weep with her.

“Natalia Savishna,” I said after a pause, as I seated myself upon the bed, “who would ever have thought of this?”

The old woman looked at me with astonishment, for she did not quite understand my question.

“Yes, who would ever have thought of it?” I repeated.

“Ah, my darling,” she said with a glance of tender compassion, “it is not only ‘Who would ever have thought of it?’ but ‘Who, even now, would ever believe it?’ I am old, and my bones should long ago have gone to rest rather than that I should have lived to see the old master, your Grandpapa, of blessed memory, and Prince Nicola Michaelovitch, and his two brothers, and your sister Amenka all buried before me, though all younger than myself—and now my darling, to my never-ending sorrow, gone home before me! Yet it has been God’s will. He took her away because she was worthy to be taken, and because He has need of the good ones.”

This simple thought seemed to me a consolation, and I pressed closer to Natalia. She laid her hands upon my head as she looked upward with eyes expressive of a deep, but resigned, sorrow. In her soul was a sure and certain hope that God would not long separate her from the one upon whom the whole strength of her love had for many years been concentrated.

“Yes, my dear,” she went on, “it is a long time now since I used to nurse and fondle her, and she used to call me Natasha. She used to come jumping upon me, and caressing and kissing me, and say, ‘MY Nashik, MY darling, MY ducky,’ and I used to answer jokingly, ‘Well, my love, I don’t believe that you DO love me. You will be a grown-up young lady soon, and going away to be married, and will leave your Nashik forgotten.’ Then she would grow thoughtful and say, ‘I think I had better not marry if my Nashik cannot go with me, for I mean never to leave her.’ Yet, alas! She has left me now! Who was there in the world she did not love? Yes, my dearest, it must never be POSSIBLE for you to forget your Mamma. She was not a being of earth—she was an angel from Heaven. When her soul has entered the heavenly kingdom she will continue to love you and to be proud of you even there.”

“But why do you say ‘when her soul has entered the heavenly kingdom’?” I asked. “I believe it is there now.”

“No, my dearest,” replied Natalia as she lowered her voice and pressed herself yet closer to me, “her soul is still here,” and she pointed upwards. She spoke in a whisper, but with such an intensity of conviction that I too involuntarily raised my eyes and looked at the ceiling, as though expecting to see something there. “Before the souls of the just enter Paradise they have to undergo forty trials for forty days, and during that time they hover around their earthly home.” [A Russian popular legend.]

She went on speaking for some time in this strain—speaking with the same simplicity and conviction as though she were relating common things which she herself had witnessed, and to doubt which could never enter into any one’s head. I listened almost breathlessly, and though I did not understand all she said, I never for a moment doubted her word.

“Yes, my darling, she is here now, and perhaps looking at us and listening to what we are saying,” concluded Natalia. Raising her head, she remained silent for a while. At length she wiped away the tears which were streaming from her eyes, looked me straight in the face, and said in a voice trembling with emotion:

“Ah, it is through many trials that God is leading me to Him. Why, indeed, am I still here? Whom have I to live for? Whom have I to love?”

“Do you not love US, then?” I asked sadly, and half-choking with my tears.

“Yes, God knows that I love you, my darling; but to love any one as I loved HER—that I cannot do.”

She could say no more, but turned her head aside and wept bitterly. As for me, I no longer thought of going to sleep, but sat silently with her and mingled my tears with hers.

Presently Foka entered the room, but, on seeing our emotion and not wishing to disturb us, stopped short at the door.

“Do you want anything, my good Foka?” asked Natalia as she wiped away her tears.

“If you please, half-a-pound of currants, four pounds of sugar, and three pounds of rice for the kutia.” [Cakes partaken of by the mourners at a Russian funeral.]

“Yes, in one moment,” said Natalia as she took a pinch of snuff and hastened to her drawers. All traces of the grief, aroused by our conversation disappeared on, the instant that she had duties to fulfil, for she looked upon those duties as of paramount importance.

“But why FOUR pounds?” she objected as she weighed the sugar on a steelyard. “Three and a half would be sufficient,” and she withdrew a few lumps. “How is it, too, that, though I weighed out eight pounds of rice yesterday, more is wanted now? No offence to you, Foka, but I am not going to waste rice like that. I suppose Vanka is glad that there is confusion in the house just now, for he thinks that nothing will be looked after, but I am not going to have any careless extravagance with my master’s goods. Did one ever hear of such a thing? Eight pounds!”

“Well, I have nothing to do with it. He says it is all gone, that’s all.”

“Hm, hm! Well, there it is. Let him take it.”

I was struck by the sudden transition from the touching sensibility with which she had just been speaking to me to this petty reckoning and captiousness. Yet, thinking it over afterwards, I recognised that it was merely because, in spite of what was lying on her heart, she retained the habit of duty, and that it was the strength of that habit which enabled her to pursue her functions as of old. Her grief was too strong and too true to require any pretence of being unable to fulfil trivial tasks, nor would she have understood that any one could so pretend. Vanity is a sentiment so entirely at variance with genuine grief, yet a sentiment so inherent in human nature, that even the most poignant sorrow does not always drive it wholly forth. Vanity mingled with grief shows itself in a desire to be recognised as unhappy or resigned; and this ignoble desire—an aspiration which, for all that we may not acknowledge it is rarely absent, even in cases of the utmost affliction—takes off greatly from the force, the dignity, and the sincerity of grief. Natalia Savishna had been so sorely smitten by her misfortune that not a single wish of her own remained in her soul—she went on living purely by habit.

Having handed over the provisions to Foka, and reminded him of the refreshments which must be ready for the priests, she took up her knitting and seated herself by my side again. The conversation reverted to the old topic, and we once more mourned and shed tears together. These talks with Natalia I repeated every day, for her quiet tears and words of devotion brought me relief and comfort. Soon, however, a parting came. Three days after the funeral we returned to Moscow, and I never saw her again.

Grandmamma received the sad tidings only on our return to her house, and her grief was extraordinary. At first we were not allowed to see her, since for a whole week she was out of her mind, and the doctors were afraid for her life. Not only did she decline all medicine whatsoever, but she refused to speak to anybody or to take nourishment, and never closed her eyes in sleep. Sometimes, as she sat alone in the arm-chair in her room, she would begin laughing and crying at the same time, with a sort of tearless grief, or else relapse into convulsions, and scream out dreadful, incoherent words in a horrible voice. It was the first dire sorrow which she had known in her life, and it reduced her almost to distraction. She would begin accusing first one person, and then another, of bringing this misfortune upon her, and rail at and blame them with the most extraordinary virulence. Finally she would rise from her arm-chair, pace the room for a while, and end by falling senseless to the floor.

Once, when I went to her room, she appeared to be sitting quietly in her chair, yet with an air which struck me as curious. Though her eyes were wide open, their glance was vacant and meaningless, and she seemed to gaze in my direction without seeing me. Suddenly her lips parted slowly in a smile, and she said in a touchingly, tender voice: “Come here, then, my dearest one; come here, my angel.” Thinking that it was myself she was addressing, I moved towards her, but it was not I whom she was beholding at that moment. “Oh, my love,” she went on, “if only you could know how distracted I have been, and how delighted I am to see you once more!” I understood then that she believed herself to be looking upon Mamma, and halted where I was. “They told me you were gone,” she concluded with a frown; “but what nonsense! As if you could die before ME!” and she laughed a terrible, hysterical laugh.

Only those who can love strongly can experience an overwhelming grief. Yet their very need of loving sometimes serves to throw off their grief from them and to save them. The moral nature of man is more tenacious of life than the physical, and grief never kills.

After a time Grandmamma’s power of weeping came back to her, and she began to recover. Her first thought when her reason returned was for us children, and her love for us was greater than ever. We never left her arm-chair, and she would talk of Mamma, and weep softly, and caress us.

Nobody who saw her grief could say that it was consciously exaggerated, for its expression was too strong and touching; yet for some reason or another my sympathy went out more to Natalia Savishna, and to this day I am convinced that nobody loved and regretted Mamma so purely and sincerely as did that simple-hearted, affectionate being.

With Mamma’s death the happy time of my childhood came to an end, and a new epoch—the epoch of my boyhood—began; but since my memories of Natalia Savishna (who exercised such a strong and beneficial influence upon the bent of my mind and the development of my sensibility) belong rather to the first period, I will add a few words about her and her death before closing this portion of my life.

I heard later from people in the village that, after our return to Moscow, she found time hang very heavy on her hands. Although the drawers and shelves were still under her charge, and she never ceased to arrange and rearrange them—to take things out and to dispose of them afresh—she sadly missed the din and bustle of the seignorial mansion to which she had been accustomed from her childhood up. Consequently grief, the alteration in her mode of life, and her lack of activity soon combined to develop in her a malady to which she had always been more or less subject.

Scarcely more than a year after Mamma’s death dropsy showed itself, and she took to her bed. I can imagine how sad it must have been for her to go on living—still more, to die—alone in that great empty house at Petrovskoe, with no relations or any one near her. Every one there esteemed and loved her, but she had formed no intimate friendships in the place, and was rather proud of the fact. That was because, enjoying her master’s confidence as she did, and having so much property under her care, she considered that intimacies would lead to culpable indulgence and condescension. Consequently (and perhaps, also, because she had nothing really in common with the other servants) she kept them all at a distance, and used to say that she “recognised neither kinsman nor godfather in the house, and would permit of no exceptions with regard to her master’s property.”

Instead, she sought and found consolation in fervent prayers to God. Yet sometimes, in those moments of weakness to which all of us are subject, and when man’s best solace is the tears and compassion of his fellow-creatures, she would take her old dog Moska on to her bed, and talk to it, and weep softly over it as it answered her caresses by licking her hands, with its yellow eyes fixed upon her. When Moska began to whine she would say as she quieted it: “Enough, enough! I know without thy telling me that my time is near.” A month before her death she took out of her chest of drawers some fine white calico, white cambric, and pink ribbon, and, with the help of the maidservants, fashioned the garments in which she wished to be buried. Next she put everything on her shelves in order and handed the bailiff an inventory which she had made out with scrupulous accuracy. All that she kept back was a couple of silk gowns, an old shawl, and Grandpapa’s military uniform—things which had been presented to her absolutely, and which, thanks to her care and orderliness, were in an excellent state of preservation—particularly the handsome gold embroidery on the uniform.

Just before her death, again, she expressed a wish that one of the gowns (a pink one) should be made into a robe de chambre for Woloda; that the other one (a many-coloured gown) should be made into a similar garment for myself; and that the shawl should go to Lubotshka. As for the uniform, it was to devolve either to Woloda or to myself, according as the one or the other of us should first become an officer. All the rest of her property (save only forty roubles, which she set aside for her commemorative rites and to defray the costs of her burial) was to pass to her brother, a person with whom, since he lived a dissipated life in a distant province, she had had no intercourse during her lifetime. When, eventually, he arrived to claim the inheritance, and found that its sum-total only amounted to twenty-five roubles in notes, he refused to believe it, and declared that it was impossible that his sister-a woman who for sixty years had had sole charge in a wealthy house, as well as all her life had been penurious and averse to giving away even the smallest thing should have left no more: yet it was a fact.

Though Natalia’s last illness lasted for two months, she bore her sufferings with truly Christian fortitude. Never did she fret or complain, but, as usual, appealed continually to God. An hour before the end came she made her final confession, received the Sacrament with quiet joy, and was accorded extreme unction. Then she begged forgiveness of every one in the house for any wrong she might have done them, and requested the priest to send us word of the number of times she had blessed us for our love of her, as well as of how in her last moments she had implored our forgiveness if, in her ignorance, she had ever at any time given us offence. “Yet a thief have I never been. Never have I used so much as a piece of thread that was not my own.” Such was the one quality which she valued in herself.

Dressed in the cap and gown prepared so long beforehand, and with her head resting, upon the cushion made for the purpose, she conversed with the priest up to the very last moment, until, suddenly, recollecting that she had left him nothing for the poor, she took out ten roubles, and asked him to distribute them in the parish. Lastly she made the sign of the cross, lay down, and expired—pronouncing with a smile of joy the name of the Almighty.

She quitted life without a pang, and, so far from fearing death, welcomed it as a blessing. How often do we hear that said, and how seldom is it a reality! Natalia Savishna had no reason to fear death for the simple reason that she died in a sure and certain faith and in strict obedience to the commands of the Gospel. Her whole life had been one of pure, disinterested love, of utter self-negation. Had her convictions been of a more enlightened order, her life directed to a higher aim, would that pure soul have been the more worthy of love and reverence? She accomplished the highest and best achievement in this world: she died without fear and without repining.

They buried her where she had wished to lie—near the little mausoleum which still covers Mamma’s tomb. The little mound beneath which she sleeps is overgrown with nettles and burdock, and surrounded by a black railing, but I never forget, when leaving the mausoleum, to approach that railing, and to salute the plot of earth within by bowing reverently to the ground.

Sometimes, too, I stand thoughtfully between the railing and the mausoleum, and sad memories pass through my mind. Once the idea came to me as I stood there: “Did Providence unite me to those two beings solely in order to make me regret them my life long?”

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Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Leo Tolstoy – Childhood – Contents

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