The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 6

The First Interview with Smerdyakov

THIS was the third time that Ivan had been to see Smerdyakov since his return from Moscow. The first time he had seen him and talked to him was on the first day of his arrival, then he had visited him once more, a fortnight later. But his visits had ended with that second one, so that it was now over a month since he had seen him. And he had scarcely heard anything of him.

Ivan had only returned five days after his father’s death, so that he was not present at the funeral, which took place the day before he came back. The cause of his delay was that Alyosha, not knowing his Moscow address, had to apply to Katerina Ivanovna to telegraph to him, and she, not knowing his address either, telegraphed to her sister and aunt, reckoning on Ivan’s going to see them as soon as he arrived in Moscow. But he did not go to them till four days after his arrival. When he got the telegram, he had, of course, set off post-haste to our town. The first to meet him was Alyosha, and Ivan was greatly surprised to find that, in opposition to the general opinion of the town, he refused to entertain a suspicion against Mitya, and spoke openly of Smerdyakov as the murderer. Later on, after seeing the police captain and the prosecutor, and hearing the details of the charge and the arrest, he was still more surprised at Alyosha, and ascribed his opinion only to his exaggerated brotherly feeling and sympathy with Mitya, of whom Alyosha, as Ivan knew, was very fond.

By the way, let us say a word or two of Ivan’s feeling to his brother Dmitri. He positively disliked him; at most, felt sometimes a compassion for him, and even that was mixed with great contempt, almost repugnance. Mitya’s whole personality, even his appearance, was extremely unattractive to him. Ivan looked with indignation on Katerina Ivanovna’s love for his brother. Yet he went to see Mitya on the first day of his arrival, and that interview, far from shaking Ivan’s belief in his guilt, positively strengthened it. He found his brother agitated, nervously excited. Mitya had been talkative, but very absent-minded and incoherent. He used violent language, accused Smerdyakov, and was fearfully muddled. He talked principally about the three thousand roubles, which he said had been “stolen” from him by his father.

“The money was mine, it was my money,” Mitya kept repeating. “Even if I had stolen it, I should have had the right.”

He hardly contested the evidence against him, and if he tried to turn a fact to his advantage, it was in an absurd and incoherent way. He hardly seemed to wish to defend himself to Ivan or anyone else. Quite the contrary, he was angry and proudly scornful of the charges against him; he was continually firing up and abusing everyone. He only laughed contemptuously at Grigory’s evidence about the open door, and declared that it was “the devil that opened it.” But he could not bring forward any coherent explanation of the fact. He even succeeded in insulting Ivan during their first interview, telling him sharply that it was not for people who declared that “everything was lawful,” to suspect and question him. Altogether he was anything but friendly with Ivan on that occasion. Immediately after that interview with Mitya, Ivan went for the first time to see Smerdyakov.

In the railway train on his way from Moscow, he kept thinking of Smerdyakov and of his last conversation with him on the evening before he went away. Many things seemed to him puzzling and suspicious. when he gave his evidence to the investigating lawyer Ivan said nothing, for the time, of that conversation. He put that off till he had seen Smerdyakov, who was at that time in the hospital.

Doctor Herzenstube and Varvinsky, the doctor he met in the hospital, confidently asserted in reply to Ivan’s persistent questions, that Smerdyakov’s epileptic attack was unmistakably genuine, and were surprised indeed at Ivan asking whether he might not have been shamming on the day of the catastrophe. They gave him to understand that the attack was an exceptional one, the fits persisting and recurring several times, so that the patient’s life was positively in danger, and it was only now, after they had applied remedies, that they could assert with confidence that the patient would survive. “Though it might well be,” added Doctor Herzenstube, “that his reason would be impaired for a considerable period, if not permanently.” On Ivan’s asking impatiently whether that meant that he was now mad, they told him that this was not yet the case, in the full sense of the word, but that certain abnormalities were perceptible. Ivan decided to find out for himself what those abnormalities were.

At the hospital he was at once allowed to see the patient. Smerdyakov was lying on a truckle-bed in a separate ward. There was only one other bed in the room, and in it lay a tradesman of the town, swollen with dropsy, who was obviously almost dying; he could be no hindrance to their conversation. Smerdyakov grinned uncertainly on seeing Ivan, and for the first instant seemed nervous. So at least Ivan fancied. But that was only momentary. For the rest of the time he was struck, on the contrary, by Smerdyakov’s composure. From the first glance Ivan had no doubt that he was very ill. He was very weak; he spoke slowly, seeming to move his tongue with difficulty; he was much thinner and sallower.Throughout the interview, which lasted twenty minutes, he kept complaining of headache and of pain in all his limbs. His thin emasculate face seemed to have become so tiny; his hair was ruffled, and his crest of curls in front stood up in a thin tuft. But in the left eye, which was screwed up and seemed to be insinuating something, Smerdyakov showed himself unchanged. “It’s always worth while speaking to a clever man.” Ivan was reminded of that at once. He sat down on the stool at his feet. Smerdyakov, with painful effort, shifted his position in bed, but he was not the first to speak. He remained dumb, and did not even look much interested.

“Can you. talk to me?” asked Ivan. “I won’t tire you much.”

“Certainly I can,” mumbled Smerdyakov, in a faint voice. “Has your honour been back long?” he added patronisingly, as though encouraging a nervous visitor.

“I only arrived to-day. . . . To see the mess you are in here.”

Smerdyakov sighed.

“Why do you sigh? You knew of it all along,” Ivan blurted out.

Smerdyakov was stolidly silent for a while.

“How could I help knowing? It was clear beforehand. But how could I tell it would turn out like that?”

“What would turn out? Don’t prevaricate! You’ve foretold you’d have a fit; on the way down to the cellar, you know. You mentioned the very spot.”

“Have you said so at the examination yet?” Smerdyakov queried with composure.

Ivan felt suddenly angry.

“No, I haven’t yet, but I certainly shall. You must explain a great deal to me, my man; and let me tell you, I am not going to let you play with me!”

“Why should I play with you, when I put my whole trust in you, as in God Almighty?” said Smerdyakov, with the same composure, only for a moment closing his eyes.

“In the first place,” began Ivan, “I know that epileptic fits can’t be told beforehand. I’ve inquired; don’t try and take me in. You can’t foretell the day and the hour. How was it you told me the day and the hour beforehand, and about the cellar, too? How could you tell that you would fall down the cellar stairs in a fit, if you didn’t sham a fit on purpose?”

“I had to go to the cellar anyway, several times a day, indeed,” Smerdyakov drawled deliberately. “I fell from the garret just in the same way a year ago. It’s quite true you can’t tell the day and hour of a fit beforehand, but you can always have a presentiment of it.”

“But you did foretell the day and the hour!”

“In regard to my epilepsy, sir, you had much better inquire of the doctors here. You can ask them whether it was a real fit or a sham; it’s no use my saying any more about it.”

“And the cellar? How could you know beforehand of the cellar?”

“You don’t seem able to get over that cellar! As I was going down to the cellar, I was in terrible dread and doubt. What frightened me most was losing you and being left without defence in all the world. So I went down into the cellar thinking, ‘Here, it’ll come on directly, it’ll strike me down directly, shall I fall?’ And it was through this fear that I suddenly felt the spasm that always comes . . . and so I went flying. All that and all my previous conversation with you at the gate the evening before, when I told you how frightened I was and spoke of the cellar, I told all that to Doctor Herzenstube and Nikolay Parfenovitch, the investigating lawyer, and it’s all been written down in the protocol. And the doctor here, Mr. Varvinsky, maintained to all of them that it was just the thought of it brought it on, the apprehension that I might fall. It was just then that the fit seized me. And so they’ve written it down, that it’s just how it must have happened, simply from my fear.”

As he finished, Smerdyakov. drew a deep breath, as though exhausted.

“Then you have said all that in your evidence?” said Ivan, somewhat taken aback. He had meant to frighten him with the threat of repeating their conversation, and it appeared that Smerdyakov had already reported it all himself.

“What have I to be afraid of? Let them write down the whole truth,” Smerdyakov pronounced firmly.

“And have you told them every word of our conversation at the gate?”

“No, not to say every word.”

“And did you tell them that you can sham fits, as you boasted then?”

“No, I didn’t tell them that either.”

“Tell me now, why did you send me then to Tchermashnya?”

“I was afraid you’d go away to Moscow; Tchermashnya is nearer, anyway.”

“You are lying; you suggested my going away yourself; you told me to get out of the way of trouble.”

“That was simply out of affection and my sincere devotion to you, foreseeing trouble in the house, to spare you. Only I wanted to spare myself even more. That’s why I told you to get out of harm’s way, that you might understand that there would be trouble in the house, and would remain at home to protect your father.”

“You might have said it more directly, you blockhead!” Ivan suddenly fired up.

“How could I have said it more directly then? It was simply my fear that made me speak, and you might have been angry, too. I might well have been apprehensive that Dmitri Fyodorovitch would make a scene and carry away that money, for he considered it as good as his own; but who could tell that it would end in a murder like this? I thought that he would only carry off the three thousand that lay under the master’s mattress in the envelope, and you see, he’s murdered him. How could you guess it either, sir?”

“But if you say yourself that it couldn’t be guessed, how could I have guessed and stayed at home? You contradict yourself!” said Ivan, pondering.

“You might have guessed from my sending you to Tchermashnya and not to Moscow.”

“How could I guess it from that?”

Smerdyakov seemed much exhausted, and again he was silent for a minute.

“You might have guessed from the fact of my asking you not to go to Moscow, but to Tchermashnya, that I wanted to have you nearer, for Moscow’s a long way off, and Dmitri Fyodorovitch, knowing you are not far off, would not be so bold. And if anything had happened, you might have come to protect me, too, for I warned you of Grigory Vassilyevitch’s illness, and that I was afraid of having a fit. And when I explained those knocks to you, by means of which one could go in to the deceased, and that Dmitri Fyodorovitch knew them all through me, I thought that you would guess yourself that he would be sure to do something, and so wouldn’t go to Tchermashnya even, but would stay.”

“He talks very coherently,” thought Ivan, “though he does mumble; what’s the derangement of his faculties that Herzenstube talked of?”

“You are cunning with me, damn you!” he exclaimed, getting angry.

“But I thought at the time that you quite guessed,” Smerdyakov parried with the simplest air.

“If I’d guessed, I should have stayed,” cried Ivan.

“Why, I thought that it was because you guessed, that you went away in such a hurry, only to get out of trouble, only to run away and save yourself in your fright.”

“You think that everyone is as great a coward as yourself?”

“Forgive me, I thought you were like me.”

“Of course, I ought to have guessed,” Ivan said in agitation; “and I did guess there was some mischief brewing on your part . . . only you are lying, you are lying again,” he cried, suddenly recollecting. “Do you remember how you went up to the carriage and said to me, ‘It’s always worth while speaking to a clever man’? So you were glad I went away, since you praised me?”

Smerdyakov sighed again and again. A trace of colour came into his face.

“If I was pleased,” he articulated rather breathlessly, “it was simply because you agreed not to go to Moscow, but to Tchermashnya. For it was nearer, anyway. Only when I said these words to you, it was not by way of praise, but of reproach. You didn’t understand it.”

“What reproach?”

“Why, that foreseeing such a calamity you deserted your own father, and would not protect us, for I might have been taken up any time for stealing that three thousand.”

“Damn you!” Ivan swore again. “Stay, did you tell the prosecutor and the investigating lawyer about those knocks?”

“I told them everything just as it was.”

Ivan wondered inwardly again.

“If I thought of anything then,” he began again, “it was solely of some wickedness on your part. Dmitri might kill him, but that he would steal — I did not believe that then. . . . But I was prepared for any wickedness from you. You told me yourself you could sham a fit. What did you say that for?”

“It was just through my simplicity, and I never have shammed a fit on purpose in my life. And I only said so then to boast to you. It was just foolishness. I liked you so much then, and was open-hearted with you.”

“My brother directly accuses you of the murder and theft.”

“What else is left for him to do?” said Smerdyakov, with a bitter grin. “And who will believe him with all the proofs against him? Grigory Vassilyevitch saw the door open. What can he say after that? But never mind him! He is trembling to save himself.”

He slowly ceased speaking; then suddenly, as though on reflection, added:

“And look here again. He wants to throw it on me and make out that it is the work of my hands — I’ve heard that already. But as to my being clever at shamming a fit: should I have told you beforehand that I could sham one, if I really had had such a design against your father? If I had been planning such a murder could I have been such a fool as to give such evidence against myself beforehand? And to his son, too! Upon my word! Is that likely? As if that could be; such a thing has never happened. No one hears this talk of ours now, except Providence itself, and if you were to tell of it to the prosecutor and Nikolay Parfenovitch you might defend me completely by doing so, for who would be likely to be such a criminal, if he is so open-hearted beforehand? Anyone can see that.”

“Well,” and Ivan got up to cut short the conversation, struck by Smerdyakov’s last argument. “I don’t suspect you at all, and I think it’s absurd, indeed, to suspect you. On the contrary, I am grateful to you for setting my mind at rest. Now I am going, but I’ll come again. Meanwhile, good-bye. Get well. Is there anything you want?”

“I am very thankful for everything. Marfa Ignatyevna does not forget me, and provides me anything I want, according to her kindness. Good people visit me every day.”

“Good-bye. But I shan’t say anything of your being able to sham a fit, and I don’t advise you to, either,” something made Ivan say suddenly.

“I quite understand. And if you don’t speak of that, I shall say nothing of that conversation of ours at the gate.”

Then it happened that Ivan went out, and only when he had gone a dozen steps along the corridor, he suddenly felt that there was an insulting significance in Smerdyakov’s last words. He was almost on the point of turning back, but it was only a passing impulse, and muttering, “Nonsense!” he went out of the hospital.

His chief feeling was one of relief at the fact that it was not Smerdyakov, but Mitya, who had committed the murder, though he might have been expected to feel the opposite. He did not want to analyse the reason for this feeling, and even felt a positive repugnance at prying into his sensations. He felt as though he wanted to make haste to forget something. In the following days he became convinced of Mitya’s guilt, as he got to know all the weight of evidence against him. There was evidence of people of no importance, Fenya and her mother, for instance, but the effect of it was almost overpowering. As to Perhotin, the people at the tavern, and at Plotnikov’s shop, as well as the witnesses at Mokroe, their evidence seemed conclusive. It was the details that were so damning. The secret of the knocks impressed the lawyers almost as much as Grigory’s evidence as to the open door. Grigory’s wife, Marfa, in answer to Ivan’s questions, declared that Smerdyakov had been lying all night the other side of the partition wall, “He was not three paces from our bed,” and that although she was a sound sleeper she waked several times and heard him moaning, “He was moaning the whole time, moaning continually.”

Talking to Herzenstube, and giving it as his opinion that Smerdyakov was not mad, but only rather weak, Ivan only evoked from the old man a subtle smile.

“Do you know how he spends his time now?” he asked; “learning lists of French words by heart. He has an exercise-book under his pillow with the French words written out in Russian letters for him by someone, he he he!”

Ivan ended by dismissing all doubts. He could not think of Dmitri without repulsion. Only one thing was strange, however. Alyosha persisted that Dmitri was not the murderer, and that “in all probability” Smerdyakov was. Ivan always felt that Alyosha’s opinion meant a great deal to him, and so he was astonished at it now. Another thing that was strange was that Alyosha did not make any attempt to talk about Mitya with Ivan, that he never began on the subject and only answered his questions. This, too, struck Ivan particularly.

But he was very much preoccupied at that time with something quite apart from that. On his return from Moscow, he abandoned himself hopelessly to his mad and consuming passion for Katerina Ivanovna. This is not the time to begin to speak of this new passion of Ivan’s, which left its mark on all the rest of his life: this would furnish the subject for another novel, which I may perhaps never write. But I cannot omit to mention here that when Ivan, on leaving Katerina Ivanovna with Alyosha, as I’ve related already, told him, “I am not keen on her,” it was an absolute lie: he loved her madly, though at times he hated her so that he might have murdered her. Many causes helped to bring about this feeling. Shattered by what had happened with Mitya, she rushed on Ivan’s return to meet him as her one salvation. She was hurt, insulted and humiliated in her feelings. And here the man had come back to her, who had loved her so ardently before (oh! she knew that very well), and whose heart and intellect she considered so superior to her own. But the sternly virtuous girl did not abandon herself altogether to the man she loved, in spite of the Karamazov violence of his passions and the great fascination he had for her. She was continually tormented at the same time by remorse for having deserted Mitya, and in moments of discord and violent anger (and they were numerous) she told Ivan so plainly. This was what he had called to Alyosha “lies upon lies.” There was, of course, much that was false in it, and that angered Ivan more than anything. . . . But of all this later.

He did, in fact, for a time almost forget Smerdyakov’s existence, and yet, a fortnight after his first visit to him, he began to be haunted by the same strange thoughts as before. It’s enough to say that he was continually asking himself, why was it that on that last night in Fyodor Pavlovitch’s house he had crept out on to the stairs like a thief and listened to hear what his father was doing below? Why had he recalled that afterwards with repulsion? Why next morning, had he been suddenly so depressed on the journey? Why, as he reached Moscow, had he said to himself, “I am a scoundrel”? And now he almost fancied that these tormenting thoughts would make him even forget Katerina Ivanovna, so completely did they take possession of him again. It was just after fancying this, that he met Alyosha in the street. He stopped him at once, and put a question to him:

“Do you remember when Dmitri burst in after dinner and beat father, and afterwards I told you in the yard that I reserved ‘the right to desire’? . . . Tell me, did you think then that I desired father’s death or not?”

“I did think so,” answered Alyosha, softly.

“It was so, too; it was not a matter of guessing. But didn’t you fancy then that what I wished was just that one reptile should devour another’; that is, just that Dmitri should kill father, and as soon as possible . . . and that I myself was even prepared to help to bring that about?”

Alyosha turned rather pale, and looked silently into his brother’s face.

“Speak!” cried Ivan, “I want above everything to know what you thought then. I want the truth, the truth!”

He drew a deep breath, looking angrily at Alyosha before his answer came.

“Forgive me, I did think that, too, at the time,” whispered Alyosha, and he did not add one softening phrase.

“Thanks,” snapped Ivan, and, leaving Alyosha, he went quickly on his way. From that time Alyosha noticed that Ivan began obviously to avoid him and seemed even to have taken a dislike to him, so much so that Alyosha gave up going to see him. Immediately after that meeting with him, Ivan had not gone home, but went straight to Smerdyakov again.

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