Gentle Spirit, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Part I

Chapter I

Who I was and who she was

Oh, while she is still here, it is still all right; I go up and look at her every minute; but tomorrow they will take her away — and how shall I be left alone? Now she is on the table in the drawing-room, they put two card tables together, the coffin will be here tomorrow — white, pure white “gros de Naples” — but that’s not it . . .

I keep walking about, trying to explain it to myself. I have been trying for the last six hours to get it clear, but still I can’t think of it all as a whole.

The fact is I walk to and fro, and to and fro.

This is how it was. I will simply tell it in order. (Order!)

Gentlemen, I am far from being a literary man and you will see that; but no matter, I’ll tell it as I understand it myself. The horror of it for me is that I understand it all!

It was, if you care to know, that is to take it from the beginning, that she used to come to me simply to pawn things, to pay for advertising in the VOICE to the effect that a governess was quite willing to travel, to give lessons at home, and so on, and so on. That was at the very beginning, and I, of course, made no difference between her and the others: “She comes,” I thought, “like any one else,” and so on.

But afterwards I began to see a difference. She was such a slender, fair little thing, rather tall, always a little awkward with me, as though embarrassed (I fancy she was the same with all strangers, and in her eyes, of course, I was exactly like anybody else — that is, not as a pawnbroker but as a man).

As soon as she received the money she would turn round at once and go away. And always in silence. Other women argue so, entreat, haggle for me to give them more; this one did not ask for more . . . .

I believe I am muddling it up.

Yes; I was struck first of all by the things she brought: poor little silver gilt earrings, a trashy little locket, things not worth sixpence. She knew herself that they were worth next to nothing, but I could see from her face that they were treasures to her, and I found out afterwards as a fact that they were all that was left her belonging to her father and mother.

Only once I allowed myself to scoff at her things. You see I never allow myself to behave like that. I keep up a gentlemanly tone with my clients: few words, politeness and severity. “Severity, severity!”

But once she ventured to bring her last rag, that is, literally the remains of an old hareskin jacket, and I could not resist saying something by way of a joke. My goodness! how she flared up! Her eyes were large, blue and dreamy but — how they blazed. But she did not drop one word; picking up her “rags” she walked out.

It was then for the first time I noticed her particularly, and thought something of the kind about her — that it, something of a particular kind. Yes, I remember another impression — that is, if you will have it, perhaps the chief impression, that summed up everything. It was that she was terribly young, so young that she looked just fourteen. And yet she was within three months of sixteen. I didn’t mean that, though, that wasn’t what summed it all up. Next day she came again. I found out later that she had been to Dobranravov’s and to Mozer’s with that jacket, but they take nothing but gold and would have nothing to say to it. I once took some stones from her (rubbishy little ones) and, thinking it over afterwards, I wondered: I, too, only lend on gold and silver, yet from her I accepted stones. That was my second thought about her then; that I remember. That time, that is when she came from Mozer’s, she brought an amber cigar-holder. It was a connoisseur’s article, not bad, but again, of no value to us, because we only deal in gold. As it was the day after her “mutiny”, I received her sternly. Sternness with me takes the form of dryness. As I gave her two roubles, however, I could not resist saying, with a certain irritation, “I only do it for you, of course; Mozer wouldn’t take such a thing.”

The word “for you” I emphasised particularly, and with a particular implication.

I was spiteful. She flushed up again when she heard that “for you”, but she did not say a word, she did not refuse the money, she took it — that is poverty! But how hotly she flushed! I saw I had stung her. And when she had gone out, I suddenly asked myself whether my triumph over her was worth two roubles. He! He!! He!!! I remember I put that question to myself twice over, “was is worth it? was it worth it? ”

And, laughing, I inwardly answered it in the affirmative. And I felt very much elated. But that was not an evil feeling; I said it with design, with a motive; I wanted to test her, because certain ideas with regard to her had suddenly come into my mind. That was the third thing I thought particularly about her. . . . Well, it was from that time it all began. Of course, I tried at once to find out all her circumstances indirectly, and awaited her coming with a special impatience. I had a presentiment that she would come soon. When she came, I entered into affable conversation with her, speaking with unusual politeness. I have not been badly brought up and have manners. H’m. It was then I guessed that she was soft-hearted and gentle.

The gentle and soft-hearted do not resist long, and though they are by no means very ready to reveal themselves, they do not know how to escape from a conversation; they are niggardly in their answers, but they do answer, and the more readily the longer you go on. Only, on your side you must not flag, if you want them to talk. I need hardly say that she did not explain anything to me then. About the Voice and all that I found out afterwards. She was at that time spending her last farthing on advertising, haughtily at first, of course. “A governess prepared to travel and will send terms on application,” but, later on: “willing to do anything, to teach, to be a companion, to be a housekeeper, to wait on an invalid, plain sewing, and so on, and so on”, the usual thing! Of course, all this was added to the advertisement a bit at a time and finally, when she was reduced to despair, it came to: “without salary in return for board.” No, she could not find a situation. I made up my mind then to test her for the last time. I suddenly took up the Voice of the day and showed her an advertisement. “A young person, without friends and relations, seeks a situation as a governess to young children, preferably in the family of a middle-aged widower. Might be a comfort in the home.”

“Look here how this lady has advertised this morning, and by the evening she will certainly have found a situation. That’s the way to advertise.”

Again she flushed crimson and her eyes blazed, she turned round and went straight out. I was very much pleased, though by that time I felt sure of everything and had no apprehensions; nobody will take her cigar-holders, I thought. Besides, she has got rid of them all. And so it was, two days later, she came in again, such a pale little creature, all agitation — I saw that something had happened to her at home, and something really had. I will explain directly what had happened, but now I only want to recall how I did something chic, and rose in her opinion. I suddenly decided to do it. The fact is she was pawning the ikon (she had brought herself to pawn it!) . . Ah! listen! listen! This is the beginning now, I’ve been in a muddle. You see I want to recall all this, every detail, every little point. I want to bring them all together and look at them as a whole and — I cannot . . . It’s these little things, these little things. . . . It was an ikon of the Madonna. A Madonna with the Babe, and old-fashioned, homely one, and the setting was silver gilt, worth — well, six roubles perhaps. I could see the ikon was precious to her; she was pawning it whole, not taking it out of the setting. I said to her —

“You had better take it out of the setting, and take the ikon home; for it’s not the thing to pawn.”

“Why, are you forbidden to take them?”

“No, it’s not that we are forbidden, but you might, perhaps, yourself . . .”

“Well, take it out.”

“I tell you what. I will not take it out, but I’ll set it here in the shrine with the other ikons,” I said, on reflection. “Under the little lamp” (I always had the lamp burning as soon as the shop was opened), “and you simply take ten roubles.”

“Don’t give me ten roubles. I only want five; I shall certainly redeem it.”

“You don’t want ten? The ikon’s worth it,” I added noticing that her eyes flashed again.

She was silent. I brought out five roubles.

“Don’t despise any one; I’ve been in such straits myself; and worse too, and that you see me here in this business . . . is owing to what I’ve been through in the past . . . .”

“You’re revenging yourself on the world? Yes?” she interrupted suddenly with rather sarcastic mockery, which, however, was to a great extent innocent (that is, it was general, because certainly at that time she did not distinguish me from others, so that she said it almost without malice).

“Aha,” thought I; “so that’s what you’re like. You’ve got character; you belong to the new movement.”

“You see!” I remarked at once, half-jestingly, half-mysteriously, “I am part of that part of the Whole that seeks to do ill, but does good . . . .”

Quickly and with great curiosity, in which, however, there was something very childlike, she looked at me.

“Stay . . . what’s that idea? Where does it come from? I’ve heard it somewhere . . .”

“Don’t rack your brains. In those words Mephistopheles introduces himself to Faust. Have you read Faust?”

“Not . . . not attentively.”

“That is, you have not read it at all. You must read it. But I see an ironical look in your face again. Please don’t imagine that I’ve so little taste as to try to use Mephistopheles to commend myself to you and grace the role of pawnbroker. A pawnbroker will still be a pawnbroker. We know.”

“You’re so strange . . . I didn’t mean to say anything of that sort.”

She meant to say: “I didn’t expect to find you were an educated man”; but she didn’t say it; I knew, though, that she thought that. I had pleased her very much.

“You see,” I observed, “One may do good in any calling — I’m not speaking of myself, of course. Let us grant that I’m doing nothing but harm, yet . . .”

“Of course, one can do good in every position,” she said, glancing at me with a rapid, profound look. “Yes, in any position,” she added suddenly.

Oh, I remember, I remember all those moments! And I want to add, too, that when such young creatures, such sweet young creatures want to say something so clever and profound, they show at once so truthfully and naively in their faces, “Here I am saying something clever and profound now” — and that is not from vanity, as it is with any one like me, but one sees that she appreciates it awfully herself, and believes in it, and thinks a lot of it, and imagines that you think a lot of all that, just as she does. Oh, truthfulness! it’s by that they conquer us. How exquisite it was in her!

I remember it, I have forgotten nothing! As soon as she had gone, I made up my mind. That same day I made my last investigations and found out every detail of her position at the moment; every detail of her past I had learned already from Lukerya, at that time a servant in the family, whom I had bribed a few days before. This position was so awful that I can’t understand how she could laugh as she had done that day and feel interest in the words of Mephistopheles, when she was in such horrible straits. But — that’s youth! That is just what I thought about her at the time with pride and joy; for, you know, there’s a greatness of soul in it — to be able to say, “Though I am on the edge of the abyss, yet Goethe’s grand words are radiant with light.” Youth always has some greatness of soul, if its only a spark and that distorted. Though it’s of her I am speaking, of her alone. And, above all, I looked upon her then as mine and did not doubt of my power. You know, that’s a voluptuous idea when you feel no doubt of it.

But what is the matter with me? If I go on like this, when shall I put it all together and look at it as a whole. I must make haste, make haste — that is not what matters, oh, my God!

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