THE long-cherished ambition of my father was thus realized. There was a vacancy in the corps of pages which I could fill before I had got beyond the age to which admission was limited, and I was taken to St. Petersburg and entered the school. Only a hundred and fifty boys --- mostly children of the nobility belonging to the court --- received education in this privileged corps, which combined the character of a military school endowed with special rights and of a court institution attached to the imperial household. After a stay of four or five years in the corps of pages, those who had passed the final examinations were received as officers in any regiment of the guard or of the army they chose, irrespective of the number of vacancies in that regiment; and each year the first sixteen pupils of the highest form were nominated pages de chambre; that is, they were personally attached to the several members of the imperial family, --- the emperor, the empress, the grand duchesses, and the grand dukes. That was considered, of course, a great honor; and, moreover, the young men upon whom this honor was bestowed became known at the court, and had afterward every chance of being nominated aides-de-camp of the emperor or of one of the grand dukes, and consequently had every facility for making a brilliant career in the service of the state. Fathers and mothers of families connected with the court took due care, therefore, that their boys should not miss entering the corps of pages, even though entrance had to be secured at the expense of other candidates who never saw a vacancy opening for them. Now that I was in the select corps my father could give free play to his ambitious dreams.
The corps was divided into five forms, of which the highest was the first, and the lowest the fifth, and the intention was that I should enter the fourth form. However, as it appeared at the examinations that I was not sufficiently familiar with decimal fractions, and as the fourth form contained that year over forty pupils, while only twenty had been mustered for the fifth form, I was enrolled in the latter.
I felt extremely vexed at this decision. It was with reluctance that I entered a military school, and now I should have to stay in it five years instead of four. What should I do in the fifth form, when I knew already all that would be taught in it? With tears in my eyes I spoke of it to the inspector (the head of the educational department), but he answered me with a joke. "You know," he remarked, "what Cæsar said, --- better to be the first in a village than the second in Rome." To which I warmly replied that I should prefer to be the very last, if only I could leave the military school as soon as possible. "Perhaps, after some time, you will like the school," he remarked, and from that day he became friendly to me.
To the teacher of arithmetic, who also tried to console me, I gave my word of honor that I would never cast a glance into his textbook; "and nevertheless you will have to give me the highest marks." I kept my word; but thinking now of this scene, I fancy that the pupil was not of a very docile disposition.
And yet, as I look back upon that remote past, I cannot but feel grateful for having been put in the lower form. Having only to repeat during the first year what I already knew, I got into the habit of learning my lessons by merely listening to what the teachers said in the class-room; and, the lessons over, I had plenty of time to read and to write to my heart's content. I never prepared for the examinations, and used to spend the time which was allowed for that in reading aloud, to a few friends, dramas of Shakespeare or of Ostróvsky. When I reached the higher "special" forms, I was also better prepared to master the variety of subjects we had to study. Besides, I spent more than half of the first winter in the hospital. Like all children who are not born at St. Petersburg, I had to pay a heavy tribute to "the capital on the swamps of Finland," in the shape of several attacks of local cholera, and finally one of typhoid fever.
When I entered the corps of pages, its inner life was undergoing a profound change. All Russia awakened at that time from the heavy slumber and the terrible nightmare of Nicholas I.'s reign. Our school also felt the effects of that revival. I do not know, in fact, what would have become of me, had I entered the corps of pages one or two years sooner. Either my will would have been totally broken, or I should have been excluded from the school with no one knows what consequences. Happily, the transition period was already in full sway in the year 1857.
The director of the corps was an excellent old man, General Zheltúkhin. But he was the nominal head only. The real master of the school was "the Colonel," --- Colonel Girardot, a Frenchman in the Russian service. People said he was a Jesuit, and so he was, I believe. His ways, at any rate, were thoroughly imbued with the teachings of Loyola, and his educational methods were those of the French Jesuit colleges.
Imagine a short, extremely thin man, with dark, piercing, and furtive eyes, wearing short clipped mustaches, which gave him the expression of a cat; very quiet and firm; not remarkably intelligent, but exceedingly cunning; a despot at the bottom of his heart, who was capable of hating --- intensely hating --- the boy who would not fall under his fascination, and of expressing that hatred, not by silly persecutions, but unceasingly, by his general behavior, --- by an occasionally dropped word, a gesture, a smile, an interjection. His walk was more like gliding along, and the exploring glances he used to cast round without turning his head completed the illusion. A stamp of cold dryness was impressed on his lips, even when he tried to look well disposed, and that expression became still more harsh when his mouth was contorted by a smile of discontent or of contempt. With all this there was nothing of a commander in him; you would rather think, at first sight, of a benevolent father who talks to his children as if they were full-grown people. And yet, you soon felt that every one and everything had to bend before his will. Woe to the boy who would not feel happy or unhappy according to the degree of good disposition shown toward him by the Colonel.
The words "the Colonel" were continually on all lips. Other officers went by their nicknames, but no one dared to give a nickname to Girardot. A sort of mystery hung about him, as if he were omniscient and everywhere present. True, he spent all the day and part of the night in the school. Even when we were in the classes he prowled about, visiting our drawers, which he opened with his own keys. As to the night, he gave a good portion of it to the task of inscribing in small books, --- of which he had quite a library, --- in separate columns, by special signs and in inks of different colors, all the faults and virtues of each boy.
Play, jokes, and conversation stopped when we saw him slowly moving along through our spacious rooms, hand in hand with one of his favorites, balancing his body forward and backward; smiling at one boy, keenly looking into the eyes of another, casting an indifferent glance upon a third, and giving a slight contortion to his lip as he passed a fourth: and from these looks every one knew that he liked the first boy, that to the second he was indifferent, that he intentionally did not notice the third, and that he disliked the fourth. This dislike was enough to terrify most of his victims, --- the more so as no reason could be given for it. Impressionable boys had been brought to despair by that mute, unceasingly displayed aversion and those suspicious looks; in others the result had been a total annihilation of will, as one of the Tolstois --- Theodor, also a pupil of Girardot --- has shown in an autobiographic novel, "The Diseases of the Will."
The inner life of the corps was miserable under the rule of the Colonel. In all boarding-schools the newly entered boys are subjected to petty persecutions. The "greenhorns" are put in this way to a test. What are they worth? Are they not going to turn "sneaks"? And then the "old hands" like to show to newcomers the superiority of an established brotherhood. So it is in all schools and in prisons. But under Girardot's rule these persecutions took on a harsher aspect, and they came, not from the comrades of the same form, but from the first form, the pages de chambre, who were non-commissoned officers, and whom Girardot had placed in a quite exceptional, superior position. His system was to give them carte blanche; to pretend that he did not know even the horrors they were enacting; and to maintain through them a severe discipline. To answer a blow received from a page de chambre would have meant, in the times of Nicholas I., to be sent to a battalion of soldiers' sons, if the fact became public; and to revolt in any way against the mere caprice of a page de chambre meant that the twenty youths of the first form, armed with their heavy oak rulers, would assemble in a room, and, with Girardot's tacit approval, administer a severe beating to the boy who had shown such a spirit of insubordination.
Accordingly, the first form did what they liked; and not further back than the preceding winter one of their favorite games had been to assemble the "greenhorns" at night in a room, in their night-shirts, and to make them run round, like horses in a circus, while the pages de chambre, armed with thick india-rubber whips, standing some in the centre and the others on the outside, pitilessly whipped the boys. As a rule the "circus" ended in an Oriental fashion, in an abominable way. The moral conceptions which prevailed at that time, and the foul talk which went on in the school concerning what occurred at night after circus, were such that the least said about them the better.
The Colonel knew all this. He had a perfectly organized system of espionage, and nothing escaped his knowledge. But so long as he was not known to know it, all was right. To shut his eyes to what was done by the first form was the foundation of his system of maintaining discipline.
However, a new spirit was awakened in the school, and only a few months before I entered it a revolution had taken place. That year the third form was different from what it had hitherto been. It contained a number of young men who really studied and read a good deal; some of them became, later, men of mark. My first acquaintance with one of them --- let me call him von Schauff --- was when he was reading Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason." Besides, they had amongst them some of the strongest youths of the school. The tallest member of the corps was in that form, as also a very strong young man, Kóshtoff, a great friend of von Schauff. The third form did not bear the yoke of the pages de chambre with the same docility as their predecessors; they were disgusted with what was going on; and in consequence of an incident, which I prefer not to describe, a fight took place between the third and the first form, with the result that the pages de chambre got a very severe thrashing from their subordinates. Girardot hushed up the affair, but the authority of the first form was broken down. The india-rubber whips remained, but were never again brought into use. The circuses and the like became things of the past.
That much was won; but the lowest form, the fifth, composed almost entirely of very young boys who had just entered the school, had still to obey the petty caprices of the pages de chambre. We had a beautiful garden, filled with old trees, but the boys of the fifth form could enjoy it little: they were forced to run a roundabout, while the pages de chambre sat in it and chattered, or to send back the balls when these gentlemen played ninepins. A couple of days after I had entered the school, seeing how things stood in the garden, I did not go there, but remained upstairs. I was reading, when a page de chambre, with carroty hair and a face covered with freckles, came upon me, and ordered me to go at once to the garden to run the roundabout.
"I shan't; don't you see I am reading?" was my reply.
Anger disfigured his never too pleasant face. He was ready to jump upon me. I took the defensive. He tried to give me blows on the face with his cap. I fenced as best I could. Then he flung his cap on the floor.
"Pick it up."
"Pick it up yourself."
Such an act of disobedience was unheard of in the school. Why he did not beat me unmercifully on the spot I do not know. He was much older and stronger than I was.
Next day and the following days I received similar commands, but obstinately remained upstairs. Then began the most exasperating petty persecutions at every step, --- enough to drive a boy to desperation. Happily, I was always of a jovial disposition, and answered them with jokes, or took little heed of them.
Moreover, it all soon came to an end. The weather turned rainy, and we spent most of our time indoors. In the garden the first form smoked freely enough, but when we were indoors the smoking club was "the tower." It was kept beautifully clean, and a fire was always burning there. The pages de chambre severely punished any of the other boys whom they caught smoking, but they themselves sat continually at the fireside chattering and enjoying cigarettes. Their favorite smoking time was after ten o'clock at night, when all were supposed to have gone to bed; they kept up their club till half past eleven, and, to protect themselves from an unexpected interruption by Girardot, they ordered us to be on the watch. The small boys of the fifth form were taken out of their beds in turn, two at a time, and they had to loiter about the staircase till half past eleven, to give notice of the approach of the Colonel.
We decided to put an end to these night watches. Long were the discussions, and the higher forms were consulted as to what was to be done. At last the decision came: "Refuse, all of you, to keep the watch; and when they begin to beat you, which they are sure to do, go, as many of you as can, in a block, and call in Girardot. He knows it all, but then he will be bound to stop it." The question whether that would not be "reporting" was settled in the negative by experts in matters of honor: the pages de chambre did not behave toward the others like comrades.
The turn to watch fell that night to a Shahovskóy, an old hand, and to Selánoff, a newcomer, an extremely timid boy, who even spoke in a girlish voice. Shahovskóy was called upon first, but refused to go, and was left alone. Then two pages de chambre went to the timid Selánoff, who was in bed; as he refused to obey, they began to flog him brutally with heavy leather braces. Shahovskóy woke up several comrades who were near at hand, and they all ran to find Girardot.
I was also in bed when the two came upon me, ordering me to take the watch. I refused. Thereupon, seizing two pairs of braces, --- we always used to put our clothes in perfect order on a bench by the bedside, braces uppermost, and the necktie across them, --- they began to flog me. Sitting up in bed, I fenced with my hands, and had already received several heavy blows, when a command resounded, --- "The first form to the Colonel!" The fierce fighters became tame at once, and hurriedly put my things in order.
"Don't say a word," they whispered.
"The necktie across, in good order," I said to them, while my shoulders and arms burned from the blows.
What Girardot's talk with the first form was we did not know; but next day, as we stood in the ranks before marching downstairs to the dining-room, he addressed us in a minor key, saying how sad it was that pages de chambre should have fallen upon a boy who was right in his refusal. And upon whom? A newcomer, and so timid a boy as Selánoff was. The whole school was disgusted at this Jesuitic speech.
No need to say that that was the end of the watch-keeping, and that it gave a final blow to the worrying of the newcomers: it has never been renewed.
It surely was also a blow to Girardot's authority, and he resented it very much. He regarded our form, and me especially, with great dislike (the roundabout affair had been reported to him), and he manifested it at every opportunity.
During the first winter, I was a frequent inmate of the hospital. After suffering from typhoid fever, during which the director and the doctor bestowed on me a really parental care, I had very bad and persistently recurring gastric attacks. Girardot, as he made his daily rounds of the hospital, seeing me so often there, began to say to me every morning, half jokingly, in French, "Here is a young man who is as healthy as the New Bridge, and loiters in the hospital." Once or twice I replied jestingly, but at last, seeing malice in this constant repetition, I lost patience and grew very angry.
"How dare you say that?" I exclaimed. "I shall ask the doctor to forbid your entering this room," and so on.
Girardot recoiled two steps; his dark eyes glittered, his thin lip became still thinner. At last he said, "I have offended you, have I? Well, we have in the hall two artillery guns: shall we have a duel ?"
"I don't make jokes, and I tell you that I shall bear no more of your insinuations," I continued.
He did not repeat his joke, but regarded me with even more dislike than before.
Every one spoke of Girardot's dislike for me; but I paid no attention to it, and probably increased it by my indifference. For full eighteen months he refused to give me the epaulets, which were usually given to newly entered boys after one or two months' stay at the school, when they had learned some of the rudiments of military drill; but I felt quite happy without that military decoration. At last, an officer --- the best teacher of drill in the school, a man simply enamored of drill --- volunteered to teach me; and when he saw me performing all the tricks to his entire satisfaction, he undertook to introduce me to Girardot. The Colonel refused again, twice in succession, so that the officer took it as a personal offense; and when the director of the corps once asked him why I had no epaulets yet, he bluntly answered, "The boy is all right; it is the Colonel who does not want him;" whereupon, probably after a remark of the director, Girardot himself asked to examine me again, and gave me the epaulets that very day.
But the Colonel's influence was rapidly vanishing. The whole character of the school was changing. For twenty years Girardot had realized his ideal, which was to have the boys nicely combed, curled, and girlish looking, and to send to the court pages as refined as courtiers of Louis XIV. Whether they learned or not, he cared little; his favorites were those whose clothes-baskets were best filled with all sorts of nail-brushes and scent bottles, whose "private" uniform (which could be put on when we went home on Sundays) was of the best make, and who knew how to make the most elegant salut oblique. Formerly, when Girardot had held rehearsals of court ceremonies, wrapping up a page in a striped red cotton cover taken from one of our beds, in order that he might represent the Empress at a baisemain, the boys almost religiously approached the imaginary Empress, seriously performed the ceremony of kissing the hand, and retired with a most elegant oblique bow; but now, though they were very elegant at court, they would perform at the rehearsals such bearlike bows that all roared with laughter, while Girardot was simply raging. Formerly, the younger boys who had been taken to a court levee, and had been curled for that purpose, used to keep their curls as long as they would last; now, on returning from the palace, they hurried to put their heads under the cold-water tap, to get rid of the curls. An effeminate appearance was laughed at. To be sent to a levee, to stand there as a decoration, was now considered a drudgery rather than a favor. And when the small boys who were occasionally taken to the palace to play with the little grand dukes remarked that one of the latter used, in some game, to make a hard whip out of his handkerchief, and use it freely, one of our boys did the same, and so whipped the grand duke that he cried. Girardot was terrified, while the old Sebastopol admiral who was tutor of the grand duke only praised our boy.
A new spirit, studious and serious, developed in the corps, as in all other schools. In former years, the pages, being sure that in one way or another they would get the necessary marks for being promoted officers of the guard, spent the first years in the school hardly learning at all, and only began to study more or less in the last two forms; now the lower forms learned very well. The moral tone also became quite different from what it was a few years before. Oriental amusements were looked upon with disgust, and an attempt or two to revert to old manners resulted in scandals which reached the St. Petersburg drawing-rooms. Girardot was dismissed. He was only allowed to retain his bachelor apartment in the building of the corps, and we often saw him afterward, wrapped in his long military cloak, pacing along, plunged in reflections, --- sad, I suppose, because he could not but condemn the new spirit which rapidly developed in the corps of pages.
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