None of the changes produced in my conception of things were so striking as the one which led me to cease to see in one of our chambermaids a mere servant of the female sex, but, on the contrary, a WOMAN upon whom depended, to a certain extent, my peace of mind and happiness. From the time of my earliest recollection I can remember Masha an inmate of our house, yet never until the occurrence of which I am going to speak—an occurrence which entirely altered my impression of her—had I bestowed the smallest attention upon her. She was twenty-five years old, while I was but fourteen. Also, she was very beautiful. But I hesitate to give a further description of her lest my imagination should once more picture the bewitching, though deceptive, conception of her which filled my mind during the period of my passion. To be frank, I will only say that she was extraordinarily handsome, magnificently developed, and a woman—as also that I was but fourteen.
At one of those moments when, lesson-book in hand, I would pace the room, and try to keep strictly to one particular crack in the floor as I hummed a fragment of some tune or repeated some vague formula—in short, at one of those moments when the mind leaves off thinking and the imagination gains the upper hand and yearns for new impressions—I left the schoolroom, and turned, with no definite purpose in view, towards the head of the staircase.
Somebody in slippers was ascending the second flight of stairs. Of course I felt curious to see who it was, but the footsteps ceased abruptly, and then I heard Masha's voice say:
"Go away! What nonsense! What would Maria Ivanovna think if she were to come now?"
"Oh, but she will not come," answered Woloda's voice in a whisper.
"Well, go away, you silly boy," and Masha came running up, and fled past me.
I cannot describe the way in which this discovery confounded me. Nevertheless the feeling of amazement soon gave place to a kind of sympathy with Woloda's conduct. I found myself wondering less at the conduct itself than at his ability to behave so agreeably. Also, I found myself involuntarily desiring to imitate him.
Sometimes I would pace the landing for an hour at a time, with no other thought in my head than to watch for movements from above. Yet, although I longed beyond all things to do as Woloda had done, I could not bring myself to the point. At other times, filled with a sense of envious jealousy, I would conceal myself behind a door and listen to the sounds which came from the maidservants' room, until the thought would occur to my mind, "How if I were to go in now and, like Woloda, kiss Masha? What should I say when she asked me—ME with the huge nose and the tuft on the top of my head—what I wanted?" Sometimes, too, I could hear her saying to Woloda,
"That serves you right! Go away! Nicolas Petrovitch never comes in here with such nonsense." Alas! she did not know that Nicolas Petrovitch was sitting on the staircase just below and feeling that he would give all he possessed to be in "that bold fellow Woloda's" place! I was shy by nature, and rendered worse in that respect by a consciousness of my own ugliness. I am certain that nothing so much influences the development of a man as his exterior—though the exterior itself less than his belief in its plainness or beauty.
Yet I was too conceited altogether to resign myself to my fate. I tried to comfort myself much as the fox did when he declared that the grapes were sour. That is to say, I tried to make light of the satisfaction to be gained from making such use of a pleasing exterior as I believed Woloda to employ (satisfaction which I nevertheless envied him from my heart), and endeavoured with every faculty of my intellect and imagination to console myself with a pride in my isolation.