The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter XII.

Colia took the prince to a public-house in the Litaynaya, not far off. In one of the side rooms there sat at a table — looking like one of the regular guests of the establishment — Ardalion Alexandrovitch, with a bottle before him, and a newspaper on his knee. He was waiting for the prince, and no sooner did the latter appear than he began a long harangue about something or other; but so far gone was he that the prince could hardly understand a word.

“I have not got a ten-rouble note,” said the prince; “but here is a twenty-five. Change it and give me back the fifteen, or I shall be left without a farthing myself.”

“Oh, of course, of course; and you quite understand that I—”

“Yes; and I have another request to make, general. Have you ever been at Nastasia Philipovna’s?”

“I? I? Do you mean me? Often, my friend, often! I only pretended I had not in order to avoid a painful subject. You saw today, you were a witness, that I did all that a kind, an indulgent father could do. Now a father of altogether another type shall step into the scene. You shall see; the old soldier shall lay bare this intrigue, or a shameless woman will force her way into a respectable and noble family.”

“Yes, quite so. I wished to ask you whether you could show me the way to Nastasia Philipovna’s tonight. I must go; I have business with her; I was not invited but I was introduced. Anyhow I am ready to trespass the laws of propriety if only I can get in somehow or other.”

“My dear young friend, you have hit on my very idea. It was not for this rubbish I asked you to come over here” (he pocketed the money, however, at this point), “it was to invite your alliance in the campaign against Nastasia Philipovna tonight. How well it sounds, ‘General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin.’ That’ll fetch her, I think, eh? Capital! We’ll go at nine; there’s time yet.”

“Where does she live?”

“Oh, a long way off, near the Great Theatre, just in the square there — It won’t be a large party.”

The general sat on and on. He had ordered a fresh bottle when the prince arrived; this took him an hour to drink, and then he had another, and another, during the consumption of which he told pretty nearly the whole story of his life. The prince was in despair. He felt that though he had but applied to this miserable old drunkard because he saw no other way of getting to Nastasia Philipovna’s, yet he had been very wrong to put the slightest confidence in such a man.

At last he rose and declared that he would wait no longer. The general rose too, drank the last drops that he could squeeze out of the bottle, and staggered into the street.

Muishkin began to despair. He could not imagine how he had been so foolish as to trust this man. He only wanted one thing, and that was to get to Nastasia Philipovna’s, even at the cost of a certain amount of impropriety. But now the scandal threatened to be more than he had bargained for. By this time Ardalion Alexandrovitch was quite intoxicated, and he kept his companion listening while he discoursed eloquently and pathetically on subjects of all kinds, interspersed with torrents of recrimination against the members of his family. He insisted that all his troubles were caused by their bad conduct, and time alone would put an end to them.

At last they reached the Litaynaya. The thaw increased steadily, a warm, unhealthy wind blew through the streets, vehicles splashed through the mud, and the iron shoes of horses and mules rang on the paving stones. Crowds of melancholy people plodded wearily along the footpaths, with here and there a drunken man among them.

“Do you see those brightly-lighted windows?” said the general. “Many of my old comrades-in-arms live about here, and I, who served longer, and suffered more than any of them, am walking on foot to the house of a woman of rather questionable reputation! A man, look you, who has thirteen bullets on his breast! . . . You don’t believe it? Well, I can assure you it was entirely on my account that Pirogoff telegraphed to Paris, and left Sebastopol at the greatest risk during the siege. Nelaton, the Tuileries surgeon, demanded a safe conduct, in the name of science, into the besieged city in order to attend my wounds. The government knows all about it. ‘That’s the Ivolgin with thirteen bullets in him!’ That’s how they speak of me. . . . Do you see that house, prince? One of my old friends lives on the first floor, with his large family. In this and five other houses, three overlooking Nevsky, two in the Morskaya, are all that remain of my personal friends. Nina Alexandrovna gave them up long ago, but I keep in touch with them still . . . I may say I find refreshment in this little coterie, in thus meeting my old acquaintances and subordinates, who worship me still, in spite of all. General Sokolovitch (by the way, I have not called on him lately, or seen Anna Fedorovna) . . . You know, my dear prince, when a person does not receive company himself, he gives up going to other people’s houses involuntarily. And yet . . . well . . . you look as if you didn’t believe me. . . . Well now, why should I not present the son of my old friend and companion to this delightful family — General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin? You will see a lovely girl — what am I saying — a lovely girl? No, indeed, two, three! Ornaments of this city and of society: beauty, education, culture — the woman question — poetry — everything! Added to which is the fact that each one will have a dot of at least eighty thousand roubles. No bad thing, eh? . . . In a word I absolutely must introduce you to them: it is a duty, an obligation. General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin. Tableau!”

“At once? Now? You must have forgotten . . . “ began the prince.

“No, I have forgotten nothing. Come! This is the house — up this magnificent staircase. I am surprised not to see the porter, but . . . . it is a holiday . . . and the man has gone off . . . Drunken fool! Why have they not got rid of him? Sokolovitch owes all the happiness he has had in the service and in his private life to me, and me alone, but . . . here we are.”

The prince followed quietly, making no further objection for fear of irritating the old man. At the same time he fervently hoped that General Sokolovitch and his family would fade away like a mirage in the desert, so that the visitors could escape, by merely returning downstairs. But to his horror he saw that General Ivolgin was quite familiar with the house, and really seemed to have friends there. At every step he named some topographical or biographical detail that left nothing to be desired on the score of accuracy. When they arrived at last, on the first floor, and the general turned to ring the bell to the right, the prince decided to run away, but a curious incident stopped him momentarily.

“You have made a mistake, general,” said he. “ The name on the door is Koulakoff, and you were going to see General Sokolovitch.”

“Koulakoff . . . Koulakoff means nothing. This is Sokolovitch’s flat, and I am ringing at his door. . . . What do I care for Koulakoff? . . . Here comes someone to open.”

In fact, the door opened directly, and the footman in formed the visitors that the family were all away.

“What a pity! What a pity! It’s just my luck!” repeated Ardalion Alexandrovitch over and over again, in regretful tones. “ When your master and mistress return, my man, tell them that General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin desired to present themselves, and that they were extremely sorry, excessively grieved . . . ”

Just then another person belonging to the household was seen at the back of the hall. It was a woman of some forty years, dressed in sombre colours, probably a housekeeper or a governess. Hearing the names she came forward with a look of suspicion on her face.

“Marie Alexandrovna is not at home,” said she, staring hard at the general. “She has gone to her mother’s, with Alexandra Michailovna.”

“Alexandra Michailovna out, too! How disappointing! Would you believe it, I am always so unfortunate! May I most respectfully ask you to present my compliments to Alexandra Michailovna, and remind her . . . tell her, that with my whole heart I wish for her what she wished for herself on Thursday evening, while she was listening to Chopin’s Ballade. She will remember. I wish it with all sincerity. General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin!”

The woman’s face changed; she lost her suspicious expression.

“I will not fail to deliver your message,” she replied, and bowed them out.

As they went downstairs the general regretted repeatedly that he had failed to introduce the prince to his friends.

“You know I am a bit of a poet,” said he. “Have you noticed it? The poetic soul, you know.” Then he added suddenly —“But after all . . . after all I believe we made a mistake this time! I remember that the Sokolovitch’s live in another house, and what is more, they are just now in Moscow. Yes, I certainly was at fault. However, it is of no consequence.”

“Just tell me,” said the prince in reply, “may I count still on your assistance? Or shall I go on alone to see Nastasia Philipovna?”

“Count on my assistance? Go alone? How can you ask me that question, when it is a matter on which the fate of my family so largely depends? You don’t know Ivolgin, my friend. To trust Ivolgin is to trust a rock; that’s how the first squadron I commanded spoke of me. ‘Depend upon Ivolgin,’ said they all, ‘he is as steady as a rock.’ But, excuse me, I must just call at a house on our way, a house where I have found consolation and help in all my trials for years.”

“You are going home?”

“No . . . I wish . . . to visit Madame Terentieff, the widow of Captain Terentieff, my old subordinate and friend. She helps me to keep up my courage, and to bear the trials of my domestic life, and as I have an extra burden on my mind today . . . ”

“It seems to me,” interrupted the prince, “that I was foolish to trouble you just now. However, at present you . . . Good-bye!”

“Indeed, you must not go away like that, young man, you must not!” cried the general. “My friend here is a widow, the mother of a family; her words come straight from her heart, and find an echo in mine. A visit to her is merely an affair of a few minutes; I am quite at home in her house. I will have a wash, and dress, and then we can drive to the Grand Theatre. Make up your mind to spend the evening with me. . . . We are just there — that’s the house . . . Why, Colia! you here! Well, is Marfa Borisovna at home or have you only just come?”

“Oh no! I have been here a long while,” replied Colia, who was at the front door when the general met him. “I am keeping Hippolyte company. He is worse, and has been in bed all day. I came down to buy some cards. Marfa Borisovna expects you. But what a state you are in, father!” added the boy, noticing his father’s unsteady gait. “Well, let us go in.”

On meeting Colia the prince determined to accompany the general, though he made up his mind to stay as short a time as possible. He wanted Colia, but firmly resolved to leave the general behind. He could not forgive himself for being so simple as to imagine that Ivolgin would be of any use. The three climbed up the long staircase until they reached the fourth floor where Madame Terentieff lived.

“You intend to introduce the prince?” asked Colia, as they went up.

“Yes, my boy. I wish to present him: General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin! But what’s the matter? . . . what? . . . How is Marfa Borisovna?”

“You know, father, you would have done much better not to come at all! She is ready to eat you up! You have not shown yourself since the day before yesterday and she is expecting the money. Why did you promise her any? You are always the same! Well, now you will have to get out of it as best you can.”

They stopped before a somewhat low doorway on the fourth floor. Ardalion Alexandrovitch, evidently much out of countenance, pushed Muishkin in front.

“I will wait here,” he stammered. “I should like to surprise her. . . . . ”

Colia entered first, and as the door stood open, the mistress of the house peeped out. The surprise of the general’s imagination fell very flat, for she at once began to address him in terms of reproach.

Marfa Borisovna was about forty years of age. She wore a dressing-jacket, her feet were in slippers, her face painted, and her hair was in dozens of small plaits. No sooner did she catch sight of Ardalion Alexandrovitch than she screamed:

“There he is, that wicked, mean wretch! I knew it was he! My heart misgave me!”

The old man tried to put a good face on the affair.

“Come, let us go in — it’s all right,” he whispered in the prince’s ear.

But it was more serious than he wished to think. As soon as the visitors had crossed the low dark hall, and entered the narrow reception-room, furnished with half a dozen cane chairs, and two small card-tables, Madame Terentieff, in the shrill tones habitual to her, continued her stream of invectives.

“Are you not ashamed? Are you not ashamed? You barbarian! You tyrant! You have robbed me of all I possessed — you have sucked my bones to the marrow. How long shall I be your victim? Shameless, dishonourable man!”

“Marfa Borisovna! Marfa Borisovna! Here is . . . the Prince Muishkin! General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin,” stammered the disconcerted old man.

“Would you believe,” said the mistress of the house, suddenly addressing the prince, “would you believe that that man has not even spared my orphan children? He has stolen everything I possessed, sold everything, pawned everything; he has left me nothing — nothing! What am I to do with your IOU’s, you cunning, unscrupulous rogue? Answer, devourer I answer, heart of stone! How shall I feed my orphans? with what shall I nourish them? And now he has come, he is drunk! He can scarcely stand. How, oh how, have I offended the Almighty, that He should bring this curse upon me! Answer, you worthless villain, answer!”

But this was too much for the general.

“Here are twenty-five roubles, Marfa Borisovna . . . it is all that I can give . . . and I owe even these to the prince’s generosity — my noble friend. I have been cruelly deceived. Such is . . . life . . . Now . . . Excuse me, I am very weak,” he continued, standing in the centre of the room, and bowing to all sides. “I am faint; excuse me! Lenotchka . . . a cushion . . . my dear!”

Lenotchka, a little girl of eight, ran to fetch the cushion at once, and placed it on the rickety old sofa. The general meant to have said much more, but as soon as he had stretched himself out, he turned his face to the wall, and slept the sleep of the just.

With a grave and ceremonious air, Marfa Borisovna motioned the prince to a chair at one of the card-tables. She seated herself opposite, leaned her right cheek on her hand, and sat in silence, her eyes fixed on Muishkin, now and again sighing deeply. The three children, two little girls and a boy, Lenotchka being the eldest, came and leant on the table and also stared steadily at him. Presently Colia appeared from the adjoining room.

“I am very glad indeed to have met you here, Colia,” said the prince. “Can you do something for me? I must see Nastasia Philipovna, and I asked Ardalion Alexandrovitch just now to take me to her house, but he has gone to sleep, as you see. Will you show me the way, for I do not know the street? I have the address, though; it is close to the Grand Theatre.”

“Nastasia Philipovna? She does not live there, and to tell you the truth my father has never been to her house! It is strange that you should have depended on him! She lives near Wladimir Street, at the Five Corners, and it is quite close by. Will you go directly? It is just half-past nine. I will show you the way with pleasure.”

Colia and the prince went off together. Alas! the latter had no money to pay for a cab, so they were obliged to walk.

“I should have liked to have taken you to see Hippolyte,” said Colia. “He is the eldest son of the lady you met just now, and was in the next room. He is ill, and has been in bed all day. But he is rather strange, and extremely sensitive, and I thought he might be upset considering the circumstances in which you came . . . Somehow it touches me less, as it concerns my father, while it is HIS mother. That, of course, makes a great difference. What is a terrible disgrace to a woman, does not disgrace a man, at least not in the same way. Perhaps public opinion is wrong in condemning one sex, and excusing the other. Hippolyte is an extremely clever boy, but so prejudiced. He is really a slave to his opinions.”

“Do you say he is consumptive?”

“Yes. It really would be happier for him to die young. If I were in his place I should certainly long for death. He is unhappy about his brother and sisters, the children you saw. If it were possible, if we only had a little money, we should leave our respective families, and live together in a little apartment of our own. It is our dream. But, do you know, when I was talking over your affair with him, he was angry, and said that anyone who did not call out a man who had given him a blow was a coward. He is very irritable to-day, and I left off arguing the matter with him. So Nastasia Philipovna has invited you to go and see her?”

“To tell the truth, she has not.”

“Then how do you come to be going there?” cried Colia, so much astonished that he stopped short in the middle of the pavement. “And . . . and are you going to her At Home in that costume?”

“I don’t know, really, whether I shall be allowed in at all. If she will receive me, so much the better. If not, the matter is ended. As to my clothes — what can I do?”

“Are you going there for some particular reason, or only as a way of getting into her society, and that of her friends?”

“No, I have really an object in going . . . That is, I am going on business it is difficult to explain, but . . . ”

“Well, whether you go on business or not is your affair, I do not want to know. The only important thing, in my eyes, is that you should not be going there simply for the pleasure of spending your evening in such company — cocottes, generals, usurers! If that were the case I should despise and laugh at you. There are terribly few honest people here, and hardly any whom one can respect, although people put on airs — Varia especially! Have you noticed, prince, how many adventurers there are nowadays? Especially here, in our dear Russia. How it has happened I never can understand. There used to be a certain amount of solidity in all things, but now what happens? Everything is exposed to the public gaze, veils are thrown back, every wound is probed by careless fingers. We are for ever present at an orgy of scandalous revelations. Parents blush when they remember their old-fashioned morality. At Moscow lately a father was heard urging his son to stop at nothing — at nothing, mind you! — to get money! The press seized upon the story, of course, and now it is public property. Look at my father, the general! See what he is, and yet, I assure you, he is an honest man! Only . . . he drinks too much, and his morals are not all we could desire. Yes, that’s true! I pity him, to tell the truth, but I dare not say so, because everybody would laugh at me — but I do pity him! And who are the really clever men, after all? Money-grubbers, every one of them, from the first to the last. Hippolyte finds excuses for money-lending, and says it is a necessity. He talks about the economic movement, and the ebb and flow of capital; the devil knows what he means. It makes me angry to hear him talk so, but he is soured by his troubles. Just imagine-the general keeps his mother-but she lends him money! She lends it for a week or ten days at very high interest! Isn’t it disgusting? And then, you would hardly believe it, but my mother — Nina Alexandrovna — helps Hippolyte in all sorts of ways, sends him money and clothes. She even goes as far as helping the children, through Hippolyte, because their mother cares nothing about them, and Varia does the same.”

“Well, just now you said there were no honest nor good people about, that there were only money-grubbers — and here they are quite close at hand, these honest and good people, your mother and Varia! I think there is a good deal of moral strength in helping people in suchcircum stances.”

“Varia does it from pride, and likes showing off, and giving herself airs. As to my mother, I really do admire her — yes, and honour her. Hippolyte, hardened as he is, feels it. He laughed at first, and thought it vulgar of her — but now, he is sometimes quite touched and overcome by her kindness. H’m! You call that being strong and good? I will remember that! Gania knows nothing about it. He would say that it was encouraging vice.”

“Ah, Gania knows nothing about it? It seems there are many things that Gania does not know,” exclaimed the prince, as he considered Colia’s last words.

“Do you know, I like you very much indeed, prince? I shall never forget about this afternoon.”

“I like you too, Colia.”

“Listen to me! You are going to live here, are you not?” said Colia. “I mean to get something to do directly, and earn money. Then shall we three live together? You, and I, and Hippolyte? We will hire a flat, and let the general come and visit us. What do you say?”

“It would be very pleasant,” returned the prince. “But we must see. I am really rather worried just now. What! are we there already? Is that the house? What a long flight of steps! And there’s a porter! Well, Colia I don’t know what will come of it all.”

The prince seemed quite distracted for the moment.

“You must tell me all about it tomorrow! Don’t be afraid. I wish you success; we agree so entirely I that can do so, although I do not understand why you are here. Good-bye!” cried Colia excitedly. “Now I will rush back and tell Hippolyte all about our plans and proposals! But as to your getting in — don’t be in the least afraid. You will see her. She is so original about everything. It’s the first floor. The porter will show you.”

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