The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 6

Smerdyakov

HE did in fact find his father still at table. Though there was a dining-room in the house, the table was laid as usual in the drawing room, which was the largest room, and furnished with old-fashioned ostentation. The furniture was white and very old, upholstered in old, red, silky material. In the spaces between the windows there were mirrors in elaborate white and gilt frames, of old-fashioned carving. On the walls, covered with white paper, which was torn in many places, there hung two large portraits — one of some prince who had been governor of the district thirty years before, and the other of some bishop, also long since dead. In the corner opposite the door there were several ikons, before which a lamp was lighted at nightfall . . . not so much for devotional purposes as to light the room. Fyodor Pavlovitch used to go to bed very late, at three or four o’clock in the morning,and would wander about the room at night or sit in an armchair, thinking. This had become a habit with him. He often slept quite alone in the house, sending his servants to the lodge; but usually Smerdyakov remained, sleeping on a bench in the hall.

When Alyosha came in, dinner was over, but coffee and preserves had been served. Fyodor Pavlovitch liked sweet things with brandy after dinner. Ivan was also at table, sipping coffee. The servants, Grigory and Smerdyakov, were standing by. Both the gentlemen and the servants seemed in singularly good spirits. Fyodor Pavlovitch was roaring with laughter. Before he entered the room, Alyosha heard the shrill laugh he knew so well, and could tell from the sound of it that his father had only reached the good-humoured stage, and was far from being completely drunk.

“Here he is! Here he is!” yelled Fyodor Pavlovitch, highly delighted at seeing Alyosha. “Join us. Sit down. Coffee is a lenten dish, but it’s hot and good. I don’t offer you brandy, you’re keeping the fast. But would you like some? No; I’d better give you some of our famous liqueur. Smerdyakov, go to the cupboard, the second shelf on the right. Here are the keys. Look sharp!”

Alyosha began refusing the liqueur.

“Never mind. If you won’t have it, we will,” said Fyodor Pavlovitch, beaming. “But stay — have you dined?”

“Yes,” answered Alyosha, who had in truth only eaten a piece of bread and drunk a glass of kvass in the Father Superior’s kitchen. “Though I should be pleased to have some hot coffee.”

“Bravo, my darling! He’ll have some coffee. Does it want warming? No, it’s boiling. It’s capital coffee: Smerdyakov’s making. My Smerdyakov’s an artist at coffee and at fish patties, and at fish soup, too. You must come one day and have some fish soup. Let me know beforehand. . . . But, stay; didn’t I tell you this morning to come home with your mattress and pillow and all? Have you brought your mattress? He he he!”

“No, I haven’t,” said Alyosha, smiling, too.

“Ah, but you were frightened, you were frightened this morning, weren’t you? There, my darling, I couldn’t do anything to vex you. Do you know, Ivan, I can’t resist the way he looks one straight in the face and laughs? It makes me laugh all over. I’m so fond of him. Alyosha, let me give you my blessing — a father’s blessing.”

Alyosha rose, but Fyodor Pavlovitch had already changed his mind.

“No, no,” he said. “I’ll just make the sign of the cross over you, for now. Sit still. Now we’ve a treat for you, in your own line, too. It’ll make you laugh. Balaam’s ass has begun talking to us here — and how he talks! How he talks!

Balaam’s ass, it appeared, was the valet, Smerdyakov. He was a young man of about four and twenty, remarkably unsociable and taciturn. Not that he was shy or bashful. On the contrary, he was conceited and seemed to despise everybody.

But we must pause to say a few words about him now. He was brought up by Grigory and Marfa, but the boy grew up “with no sense of gratitude,” as Grigory expressed it; he was an unfriendly boy, and seemed to look at the world mistrustfully. In his childhood he was very fond of hanging cats, and burying them with great ceremony. He used to dress up in a sheet as though it were a surplice, and sang, and waved some object over the dead cat as though it were a censer. All this he did on the sly, with the greatest secrecy. Grigory caught him once at this diversion and gave him a sound beating. He shrank into a corner and sulked there for a week. “He doesn’t care for you or me, the monster,” Grigory used to say to Marfa, “and he doesn’t care for anyone. Are you a human being?” he said, addressing the boy directly. “You’re not a human being. You grew from the mildew in the bath-house. That’s what you are,” Smerdyakov, it appeared afterwards, could never forgive him those words. Grigory taught him to read and write, and when he was twelve years old, began teaching him the Scriptures. But this teaching came to nothing. At the second or third lesson the boy suddenly grinned.

“What’s that for?” asked Grigory, looking at him threateningly from under his spectacles.

“Oh, nothing. God created light on the first day, and the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. Where did the light come from on the first day?”

Grigory was thunderstruck. The boy looked sarcastically at his teacher. There was something positively condescending in his expression. Grigory could not restrain himself. “I’ll show you where!” he cried, and gave the boy a violent slap on the cheek. The boy took the slap without a word, but withdrew into his corner again for some days. A week later he had his first attack of the disease to which he was subject all the rest of his life — epilepsy. When Fyodor Pavlovitch heard of it, his attitude to the boy seemed changed at once. Till then he had taken no notice of him, though he never scolded him, and always gave him a copeck when he met him. Sometimes, when he was in good humour, he would send the boy something sweet from his table. But as soon as he heard of his illness, he showed an active interest in him, sent for a doctor, and tried remedies, but the disease turned out to be incurable. The fits occurred, on an average, once a month, but at various intervals. The fits varied too, in violence: some were light and some were very severe. Fyodor Pavlovitch strictly forbade Grigory to use corporal punishment to the boy, and began allowing him to come upstairs to him. He forbade him to be taught anything whatever for a time, too. One day when the boy was about fifteen, Fyodor Pavlovitch noticed him lingering by the bookcase, and reading the titles through the glass. Fyodor Pavlovitch had a fair number of books — over a hundred — but no one ever saw him reading. He at once gave Smerdyakov the key of the bookcase. “Come, read. You shall be my librarian. You’ll be better sitting reading than hanging about the courtyard. Come, read this,” and Fyodor Pavlovitch gave him Evenings in a Cottage near Dikanka.

He read a little but didn’t like it. He did not once smile, and ended by frowning.

“Why? Isn’t it funny?” asked Fyodor Pavlovitch. Smerdyakov did not speak.

“Answer stupid!”

“It’s all untrue,” mumbled the boy, with a grin.

“Then go to the devil! You have the soul of a lackey. Stay, here’s Smaragdov’s Universal History. That’s all true. Read that.”

But Smerdyakov did not get through ten pages of Smaragdov. He thought it dull. So the bookcase was closed again.

Shortly afterwards Marfa and Grigory reported to Fyodor Pavlovitch that Smerdyakov was gradually beginning to show an extraordinary fastidiousness. He would sit before his soup, take up his spoon and look into the soup, bend over it, examine it, take a spoonful and hold it to the light.

“What is it? A beetle?” Grigory would ask.

“A fly, perhaps,” observed Marfa.

The squeamish youth never answered, but he did the same with his bread, his meat, and everything he ate. He would hold a piece on his fork to the light, scrutinise it microscopically, and only after long deliberation decide to put it in his mouth.

“Ach! What fine gentlemen’s airs!” Grigory muttered, looking at him.

When Fyodor Pavlovitch heard of this development in Smerdyakov he determined to make him his cook, and sent him to Moscow to be trained. He spent some years there and came back remarkably changed in appearance. He looked extraordinarily old for his age. His face had grown wrinkled, yellow, and strangely emasculate. In character he seemed almost exactly the same as before he went away. He was just as unsociable, and showed not the slightest inclination for any companionship. In Moscow, too, as we heard afterwards, he had always been silent. Moscow itself had little interest for him; he saw very little there, and took scarcely any notice of anything. He went once to the theatre, but returned silent and displeased with it. On the other hand, he came back to us from Moscow well dressed, in a clean coat and clean linen. He brushed his clothes most scrupulously twice a day invariably, and was very fond of cleaning his smart calf boots with a special English polish, so that they shone like mirrors. He turned out a first rate cook. Fyodor Pavlovitch paid him a salary, almost the whole of which Smerdyakov spent on clothes, pomade, perfumes, and such things. But he seemed to have as much contempt for the female sex as for men; he was discreet, almost unapproachable, with them. Fyodor Pavlovitch began to regard him rather differently. His fits were becoming more frequent, and on the days he was ill Marfa cooked, which did not suit Fyodor Pavlovitch at all.

“Why are your fits getting worse?” asked Fyodor Pavlovitch, looking askance at his new cook. “Would you like to get married? Shall I find you a wife?”

But Smerdyakov turned pale with anger, and made no reply. Fyodor Pavlovitch left him with an impatient gesture. The great thing was that he had absolute confidence in his honesty. It happened once, when Fyodor Pavlovitch was drunk, that he dropped in the muddy courtyard three hundred-rouble notes which he had only just received. He only missed them next day, and was just hastening to search his pockets when he saw the notes lying on the table. Where had they come from? Smerdyakov had picked them up and brought them in the day before.

“Well, my lad, I’ve never met anyone like you,” Fyodor Pavlovitch said shortly, and gave him ten roubles. We may add that he not only believed in his honesty, but had, for some reason, a liking for him, although the young man looked as morosely at him as at everyone and was always silent. He rarely spoke. If it had occurred to anyone to wonder at the time what the young man was interested in, and what was in his mind, it would have been impossible to tell by looking at him. Yet he used sometimes to stop suddenly in the house, or even in the yard or street, and would stand still for ten minutes, lost in thought. A physiognomist studying his face would have said that there was no thought in it, no reflection, but only a sort of contemplation. There is a remarkable picture by the painter Kramskoy, called “Contemplation.” There is a forest in winter, and on a roadway through the forest, in absolute solitude, stands a peasant in a torn kaftan and bark shoes. He stands, as it were, lost in thought. Yet he is not thinking; he is “contemplating.” If anyone touched him he would start and look at one as though awakening and bewildered. It’s true he would come to himself immediately; but if he were asked what he had been thinking about, he would remember nothing. Yet probably he has, hidden within himself, the impression which had dominated him during the period of contemplation. Those impressions are dear to him and no doubt he hoards them imperceptibly, and even unconsciously. How and why, of course, he does not know either. He may suddenly, after hoarding impressions for many years, abandon everything and go off to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage for his soul’s salvation, or perhaps he will suddenly set fire to his native village, and perhaps do both. There are a good many “contemplatives” among the peasantry. Well, Smerdyakov was probably one of them, and he probably was greedily hoarding up his impressions, hardly knowing why.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:49