The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 6

A Laceration in the Cottage

HE certainly was really grieved in a way he had seldom been before. He had rushed in like a fool, and meddled in what? In a love-affair. “But what do I know about it? What can I tell about such things?” he repeated to himself for the hundredth time, flushing crimson. “Oh, being ashamed would be nothing; shame is only the punishment I deserve. The trouble is I shall certainly have caused more unhappiness. . . . And Father Zossima sent me to reconcile and bring them together. Is this the way to bring them together?” Then he suddenly remembered how he had tried to join their hands, and he felt fearfully ashamed again. “Though I acted quite sincerely, I must be more sensible in the future,” he concluded suddenly, and did not even smile at his conclusion.

Katerina Ivanovna’s commission took him to Lake Street, and his brother Dmitri lived close by, in a turning out of Lake Street. Alyosha decided to go to him in any case before going to the captain, though he had a presentiment that he would not find his brother. He suspected that he would intentionally keep out of his way now, but he must find him anyhow. Time was passing: the thought of his dying elder had not left Alyosha for one minute from the time he set off from the monastery.

There was one point which interested him particularly about Katerina Ivanovna’s commission; when she had mentioned the captain’s son, the little schoolboy who had run beside his father crying, the idea had at once struck Alyosha that this must be the schoolboy who had bitten his finger when he, Alyosha, asked him what he had done to hurt him. Now Alyosha felt practically certain of this, though he could not have said why. Thinking of another subject was a relief, and he resolved to think no more about the “mischief” he had done, and not to torture himself with remorse, but to do what he had to do, let come what would. At that thought he was completely comforted. Turning to the street where Dmitri lodged, he felt hungry, and taking out of his pocket the roll he had brought from his father’s, he ate it. It made him feel stronger.

Dmitri was not at home. The people of the house, an old cabinet-maker, his son, and his old wife, looked with positive suspicion at Alyosha. “He hasn’t slept here for the last three nights. Maybe he has gone away,” the old man said in answer to Alyosha’s persistent inquiries. Alyosha saw that he was answering in accordance with instructions. When he asked whether he were not at Grushenka’s or in hiding at Foma’s (Alyosha spoke so freely on purpose), all three looked at him in alarm. “They are fond of him, they are doing their best for him,” thought Alyosha. “That’s good.”

At last he found the house in Lake Street. It was a decrepit little house, sunk on one side, with three windows looking into the street, and with a muddy yard, in the middle of which stood a solitary cow. He crossed the yard and found the door opening into the passage. On the left of the passage lived the old woman of the house with her old daughter. Both seemed to be deaf. In answer to his repeated inquiry for the captain, one of them at last understood that he was asking for their lodgers, and pointed to a door across the passage. The captain’s lodging turned out to be a simple cottage room. Alyosha had his hand on the iron latch to open the door, when he was struck by the strange hush within. Yet he knew from Katerina Ivanovna’s words that the man had a family. “Either they are all asleep or perhaps they have heard me coming and are waiting for me to open the door. I’d better knock first,” and he knocked. An answer came, but not at once, after an interval of perhaps ten seconds.

“Who’s there?” shouted someone in a loud and very angry voice.

Then Alyosha opened the door and crossed the threshold. He found himself in a regular peasant’s room. Though it was large, it was cumbered up with domestic belongings of all sorts, and there were several people in it. On the left was a large Russian stove. From the stove to the window on the left was a string running across the room, and on it there were rags hanging. There was a bedstead against the wall on each side, right and left, covered with knitted quilts. On the one on the left was a pyramid of four print-covered pillows, each smaller than the one beneath. On the other there was only one very small pillow. The opposite corner was screened off by a curtain or a sheet hung on a string. Behind this curtain could be seen a bed made up on a bench and a chair. The rough square table of plain wood had been moved into the middle window. The three windows, which consisted each of four tiny greenish mildewy panes, gave little light, and were close shut, so that the room was not very light and rather stuffy. On the table was a frying pan with the remains of some fried eggs, a half-eaten piece of bread, and a small bottle with a few drops of vodka.

A woman of genteel appearance, wearing a cotton gown, was sitting on a chair by the bed on the left. Her face was thin and yellow, and her sunken cheeks betrayed at the first glance that she was ill. But what struck Alyosha most was the expression in the poor woman’s eyes — a look of surprised inquiry and yet of haughty pride. And while he was talking to her husband, her big brown eyes moved from one speaker to the other with the same haughty and questioning expression. Beside her at the window stood a young girl, rather plain, with scanty reddish hair, poorly but very neatly dressed. She looked disdainfully at Alyosha as he came in. Beside the other bed was sitting another female figure. She was a very sad sight, a young girl of about twenty, but hunchback and crippled “with withered legs,” as Alyosha was told afterwards. Her crutches stood in the corner close by. The strikingly beautiful and gentle eyes of this poor girl looked with mild serenity at Alyosha. A man of forty-five was sitting at the table, finishing the fried eggs. He was spare, small, and weakly built. He had reddish hair and a scanty light-coloured beard, very much like a wisp of tow (this comparison and the phrase “a wisp of tow” flashed at once into Alyosha’s mind for some reason, he remembered it afterwards). It was obviously this gentleman who had shouted to him, as there was no other man in the room. But when Alyosha went in, he leapt up from the bench on which he was sitting, and, hastily wiping his mouth with a ragged napkin, darted up to Alyosha.

“It’s a monk come to beg for the monastery. A nice place to come to!” the girl standing in the left corner said aloud. The man spun round instantly towards her and answered her in an excited and breaking voice:

“No, Varvara, you are wrong. Allow me to ask,” he turned again to Alyosha, “what has brought you to our retreat?”

Alyosha looked attentively at him. It was the first time he had seen him. There was something angular, flurried and irritable about him. Though he had obviously just been drinking, he was not drunk. There was extraordinary impudence in his expression, and yet, strange to say, at the same time there was fear. He looked like a man who had long been kept in subjection and had submitted to it, and now had suddenly turned and was trying to assert himself. Or, better still, like a man who wants dreadfully to hit you but is horribly afraid you will hit him. In his words and in the intonation of his shrill voice there was a sort of crazy humour, at times spiteful and at times cringing, and continually shifting from one tone to another. The question about “our retreat” he had asked, as it were, quivering all over, rolling his eyes, and skipping up so close to Alyosha that he instinctively drew back a step. He was dressed in a very shabby dark cotton coat, patched and spotted. He wore checked trousers of an extremely light colour, long out of fashion, and of very thin material. They were so crumpled and so short that he looked as though he had grown out of them like a boy.

“I am Alexey Karamazov,” Alyosha began in reply.

“I quite understand that, sir,” the gentleman snapped out at once to assure him that he knew who he was already. “I am Captain Snegiryov, sir, but I am still desirous to know precisely what has led you — ”

“Oh, I’ve come for nothing special. I wanted to have a word with you — if only you allow me.”

“In that case, here is a chair, sir; kindly be seated. That’s what they used to say in the old comedies, ‘kindly be seated,’” and with a rapid gesture he seized an empty chair (it was a rough wooden chair, not upholstered) and set it for him almost in the middle of the room; then, taking another similar chair for himself, he sat down facing Alyosha, so close to him that their knees almost touched.

“Nikolay Ilyitch Snegiryov, sir, formerly a captain in the Russian infantry, put to shame for his vices, but still a captain. Though I might not be one now for the way I talk; for the last half of my life I’ve learnt to say ‘sir.’ It’s a word you use when you’ve come down in the world.”

“That’s very true,” smiled Alyosha. “But is it used involuntarily or on purpose?”

“As God’s above, it’s involuntary, and I usen’t to use it! I didn’t use the word ‘sir’ all my life, but as soon as I sank into low water I began to say ‘sir.’ It’s the work of a higher power. I see you are interested in contemporary questions, but how can I have excited your curiosity, living as I do in surroundings impossible for the exercise of hospitality?”

“I’ve come — about that business.”

“About what business?” the captain interrupted impatiently.

“About your meeting with my brother Dmitri Fyodorovitch,” Alyosha blurted out awkwardly.

“What meeting, sir? You don’t mean that meeting? About my ‘wisp of tow,’ then?” He moved closer so that his knees positively knocked against Alyosha. His lips were strangely compressed like a thread.

“What wisp of tow?” muttered Alyosha.

“He is come to complain of me, father!” cried a voice familiar to Alyosha — the voice of the schoolboy — from behind the curtain. “I bit his finger just now.” The curtain was pulled, and Alyosha saw his assailant lying on a little bed made up on the bench and the chair in the corner under the ikons. The boy lay covered by his coat and an old wadded quilt. He was evidently unwell, and, judging by his glittering eyes, he was in a fever. He looked at Alyosha without fear, as though he felt he was at home and could not be touched.

“What! Did he bite your finger?” The captain jumped up from his chair. “Was it your finger he bit?”

“Yes. He was throwing stones with other schoolboys. There were six of them against him alone. I went up to him, and he threw a stone at me and then another at my head. I asked him what I had done to him. And then he rushed at me and bit my finger badly, I don’t know why.”

“I’ll thrash him, sir, at once — this minute!” The captain jumped up from his seat.

“But I am not complaining at all, I am simply telling you. . . . I don’t want him to be thrashed. Besides, he seems to be ill.”

“And do you suppose I’d thrash him? That I’d take my Ilusha and thrash him before you for your satisfaction? Would you like it done at once, sir?” said the captain, suddenly turning to Alyosha, as though he were going to attack him. “I am sorry about your finger, sir; but instead of thrashing Ilusha, would you like me to chop off my four fingers with this knife here before your eyes to satisfy your just wrath? I should think four fingers would be enough to satisfy your thirst for vengeance. You won’t ask for the fifth one too?” He stopped short with a catch in his throat. Every feature in his face was twitching and working; he looked extremely defiant. He was in a sort of frenzy.

“I think I understand it all now,” said Alyosha gently and sorrowfully, still keeping his seat. “So your boy is a good boy, he loves his father, and he attacked me as the brother of your assailant. . . . Now I understand it,” he repeated thoughtfully. “But my brother Dmitri Fyodorovitch regrets his action, I know that, and if only it is possible for him to come to you, or better still, to meet you in that same place, he will ask your forgiveness before everyone — if you wish it.”

“After pulling out my beard, you mean, he will ask my forgiveness? And he thinks that will be a satisfactory finish, doesn’t he?”

“Oh, no! On the contrary, he will do anything you like and in any way you like.”

“So if I were to ask his highness to go down on his knees before me in that very tavern — ‘The Metropolis’ it’s called — or in the marketplace, he would do it?”

“Yes, he would even go down on his knees.”

“You’ve pierced me to the heart, sir. Touched me to tears and pierced me to the heart! I am only too sensible of your brother’s generosity. Allow me to introduce my family, my two daughters and my son — my litter. If I die, who will care for them, and while I live who but they will care for a wretch like me? That’s a great thing the Lord has ordained for every man of my sort, sir. For there must be someone able to love even a man like me.”

“Ah, that’s perfectly true!” exclaimed Alyosha.

“Oh, do leave off playing the fool! Some idiot comes in, and you put us to shame!” cried the girl by the window, suddenly turning to her father with a disdainful and contemptuous air.

“Wait a little, Varvara!” cried her father, speaking peremptorily but looking at them quite approvingly. “That’s her character,” he said, addressing Alyosha again.

“And in all nature there was naught

That could find favour in his eyes —

or rather in the feminine — that could find favour in her eyes — . But now let me present you to my wife, Arina Petrovna. She is crippled, she is forty-three; she can move, but very little. She is of humble origin. Arina Petrovna, compose your countenance. This is Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov. Get up, Alexey Fyodorovitch.” He took him by the hand and with unexpected force pulled him up. “You must stand up to be introduced to a lady. It’s not the Karamazov, mamma, who . . . h’m . . . etcetera, but his brother, radiant with modest virtues. Come, Arina Petrovna, come, mamma, first your hand to be kissed.”

And he kissed his wife’s hand respectfully and even tenderly. The girl at the window turned her back indignantly on the scene; an expression of extraordinary cordiality came over the haughtily inquiring face of the woman.

“Good morning! Sit down, Mr. Tchernomazov,” she said.

“Karamazov, mamma, Karamazov. We are of humble origin,” he whispered again.

“Well, Karamazov, or whatever it is, but I always think of Tchermomazov. . . . Sit down. Why has he pulled you up? He calls me crippled, but I am not, only my legs are swollen like barrels, and I am shrivelled up myself. Once I used to be so fat, but now it’s as though I had swallowed a needle.”

“We are of humble origin,” the captain muttered again.

“Oh, father, father!” the hunchback girl, who had till then been silent on her chair, said suddenly, and she hid her eyes in her handkerchief.

“Buffoon!” blurted out the girl at the window.

“Have you heard our news?” said the mother, pointing at her daughters. “It’s like clouds coming over; the clouds pass and we have music again. When we were with the army, we used to have many such guests. I don’t mean to make any comparisons; everyone to their taste. The deacon’s wife used to come then and say, ‘Alexandr Alexandrovitch is a man of the noblest heart, but Nastasya Petrovna,’ she would say, ‘is of the brood of hell.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s a matter of taste; but you are a little spitfire.’ ‘And you want keeping in your place;’ says she. ‘You black sword,’ said I, ‘who asked you to teach me?’ ‘But my breath,’ says she, ‘is clean, and yours is unclean.’ ‘You ask all the officers whether my breath is unclean.’ And ever since then I had it in my mind. Not long ago I was sitting here as I am now, when I saw that very general come in who came here for Easter, and I asked him: ‘Your Excellency,’ said I, ‘can a lady’s breath be unpleasant?’ ‘Yes,’ he answered; ‘you ought to open a window-pane or open the door, for the air is not fresh here.’ And they all go on like that! And what is my breath to them? The dead smell worse still!. ‘I won’t spoil the air,’ said I, ‘I’ll order some slippers and go away.’ My darlings, don’t blame your own mother! Nikolay Ilyitch, how is it I can’t please you? There’s only Ilusha who comes home from school and loves me. Yesterday he brought me an apple. Forgive your own mother — forgive a poor lonely creature! Why has my breath become unpleasant to you?”

And the poor mad woman broke into sobs, and tears streamed down her cheeks. The captain rushed up to her.

“Mamma, mamma, my dear, give over! You are not lonely. Everyone loves you, everyone adores you.” He began kissing both her hands again and tenderly stroking her face; taking the dinner-napkin, he began wiping away her tears. Alyosha fancied that he too had tears in his eyes. “There, you see, you hear?” he turned with a sort of fury to Alyosha, pointing to the poor imbecile.

“I see and hear,” muttered Alyosha.

“Father, father, how can you — with him! Let him alone!” cried the boy, sitting up in his bed and gazing at his father with glowing eyes.

“Do give over fooling, showing off your silly antics which never lead to anything! shouted Varvara, stamping her foot with passion.

“Your anger is quite just this time, Varvara, and I’ll make haste to satisfy you. Come, put on your cap, Alexey Fyodorovitch, and I’ll put on mine. We will go out. I have a word to say to you in earnest, but not within these walls. This girl sitting here is my daughter Nina; I forgot to introduce her to you. She is a heavenly angel incarnate . . . who has flown down to us mortals, . . . if you can understand.”

“There he is shaking all over, as though he is in convulsions!” Varvara went on indignantly.

“And she there stamping her foot at me and calling me a fool just now, she is a heavenly angel incarnate too, and she has good reason to call me so. Come along, Alexey Fyodorovitch, we must make an end.”

And, snatching Alyosha’s hand, he drew him out of the room into the street.

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