The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter XIV.

“I have no wit, Nastasia Philipovna,” began Ferdishenko, “and therefore I talk too much, perhaps. Were I as witty, now, as Mr. Totski or the general, I should probably have sat silent all the evening, as they have. Now, prince, what do you think? — are there not far more thieves than honest men in this world? Don’t you think we may say there does not exist a single person so honest that he has never stolen anything whatever in his life?”

“What a silly idea,” said the actress. “Of course it is not the case. I have never stolen anything, for one.”

“H’m! very well, Daria Alexeyevna; you have not stolen anything — agreed. But how about the prince, now — look how he is blushing!”

“I think you are partially right, but you exaggerate,” said the prince, who had certainly blushed up, of a sudden, for some reason or other.

“Ferdishenko — either tell us your story, or be quiet, and mind your own business. You exhaust all patience,” cuttingly and irritably remarked Nastasia Philipovna.

“Immediately, immediately! As for my story, gentlemen, it is too stupid and absurd to tell you.

“I assure you I am not a thief, and yet I have stolen; I cannot explain why. It was at Semeon Ivanovitch Ishenka’s country house, one Sunday. He had a dinner party. After dinner the men stayed at the table over their wine. It struck me to ask the daughter of the house to play something on the piano; so I passed through the corner room to join the ladies. In that room, on Maria Ivanovna’s writing-table, I observed a three-rouble note. She must have taken it out for some purpose, and left it lying there. There was no one about. I took up the note and put it in my pocket; why, I can’t say. I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but it was done, and I went quickly back to the dining-room and reseated myself at the dinner-table. I sat and waited there in a great state of excitement. I talked hard, and told lots of stories, and laughed like mad; then I joined the ladies.

“In half an hour or so the loss was discovered, and the servants were being put under examination. Daria, the housemaid was suspected. I exhibited the greatest interest and sympathy, and I remember that poor Daria quite lost her head, and that I began assuring her, before everyone, that I would guarantee her forgiveness on the part of her mistress, if she would confess her guilt. They all stared at the girl, and I remember a wonderful attraction in the reflection that here was I sermonizing away, with the money in my own pocket all the while. I went and spent the three roubles that very evening at a restaurant. I went in and asked for a bottle of Lafite, and drank it up; I wanted to be rid of the money.

“I did not feel much remorse either then or afterwards; but I would not repeat the performance — believe it or not as you please. There — that’s all.”

“Only, of course that’s not nearly your worst action,” said the actress, with evident dislike in her face.

“That was a psychological phenomenon, not an action,” remarked Totski.

“And what about the maid?” asked Nastasia Philipovna, with undisguised contempt.

“Oh, she was turned out next day, of course. It’s a very strict household, there!”

“And you allowed it?”

“I should think so, rather! I was not going to return and confess next day,” laughed Ferdishenko, who seemed a little surprised at the disagreeable impression which his story had made on all parties.

“How mean you were!” said Nastasia.

“Bah! you wish to hear a man tell of his worst actions, and you expect the story to come out goody-goody! One’s worst actions always are mean. We shall see what the general has to say for himself now. All is not gold that glitters, you know; and because a man keeps his carriage he need not be specially virtuous, I assure you, all sorts of people keep carriages. And by what means?”

In a word, Ferdishenko was very angry and rapidly forgetting himself; his whole face was drawn with passion. Strange as it may appear, he had expected much better success for his story. These little errors of taste on Ferdishenko’s part occurred very frequently. Nastasia trembled with rage, and looked fixedly at him, whereupon he relapsed into alarmed silence. He realized that he had gone a little too far.

“Had we not better end this game?” asked Totski.

“It’s my turn, but I plead exemption,” said Ptitsin.

“You don’t care to oblige us?” asked Nastasia.

“I cannot, I assure you. I confess I do not understand how anyone can play this game.”

“Then, general, it’s your turn,” continued Nastasia Philipovna, “and if you refuse, the whole game will fall through, which will disappoint me very much, for I was looking forward to relating a certain ‘page of my own life.’ I am only waiting for you and Afanasy Ivanovitch to have your turns, for I require the support of your example,” she added, smiling.

“Oh, if you put it in that way “ cried the general, excitedly, “I’m ready to tell the whole story of my life, but I must confess that I prepared a little story in anticipation of my turn.”

Nastasia smiled amiably at him; but evidently her depression and irritability were increasing with every moment. Totski was dreadfully alarmed to hear her promise a revelation out of her own life.

“I, like everyone else,” began the general, “have committed certain not altogether graceful actions, so to speak, during the course of my life. But the strangest thing of all in my case is, that I should consider the little anecdote which I am now about to give you as a confession of the worst of my ‘bad actions.’ It is thirty-five years since it all happened, and yet I cannot to this very day recall the circumstances without, as it were, a sudden pang at the heart.

“It was a silly affair — I was an ensign at the time. You know ensigns — their blood is boiling water, their circumstances generally penurious. Well, I had a servant Nikifor who used to do everything for me in my quarters, economized and managed for me, and even laid hands on anything he could find (belonging to other people), in order to augment our household goods; but a faithful, honest fellow all the same.

“I was strict, but just by nature. At that time we were stationed in a small town. I was quartered at an old widow’s house, a lieutenant’s widow of eighty years of age. She lived in a wretched little wooden house, and had not even a servant, so poor was she.

“Her relations had all died off — her husband was dead and buried forty years since; and a niece, who had lived with her and bullied her up to three years ago, was dead too; so that she was quite alone.

“Well, I was precious dull with her, especially as she was so childish that there was nothing to be got out of her. Eventually, she stole a fowl of mine; the business is a mystery to this day; but it could have been no one but herself. I requested to be quartered somewhere else, and was shifted to the other end of the town, to the house of a merchant with a large family, and a long beard, as I remember him. Nikifor and I were delighted to go; but the old lady was not pleased at our departure.

“Well, a day or two afterwards, when I returned from drill, Nikifor says to me: ‘We oughtn’t to have left our tureen with the old lady, I’ve nothing to serve the soup in.’

“I asked how it came about that the tureen had been left. Nikifor explained that the old lady refused to give it up, because, she said, we had broken her bowl, and she must have our tureen in place of it; she had declared that I had so arranged the matter with herself.

“This baseness on her part of course aroused my young blood to fever heat; I jumped up, and away I flew.

“I arrived at the old woman’s house beside myself. She was sitting in a corner all alone, leaning her face on her hand. I fell on her like a clap of thunder. ‘You old wretch!’ I yelled and all that sort of thing, in real Russian style. Well, when I began cursing at her, a strange thing happened. I looked at her, and she stared back with her eyes starting out of her head, but she did not say a word. She seemed to sway about as she sat, and looked and looked at me in the strangest way. Well, I soon stopped swearing and looked closer at her, asked her questions, but not a word could I get out of her. The flies were buzzing about the room and only this sound broke the silence; the sun was setting outside; I didn’t know what to make of it, so I went away.

“Before I reached home I was met and summoned to the major’s, so that it was some while before I actually got there. When I came in, Nikifor met me. ‘Have you heard, sir, that our old lady is dead?’ ‘DEAD, when?’ ‘Oh, an hour and a half ago.’ That meant nothing more nor less than that she was dying at the moment when I pounced on her and began abusing her.

“This produced a great effect upon me. I used to dream of the poor old woman at nights. I really am not superstitious, but two days after, I went to her funeral, and as time went on I thought more and more about her. I said to myself, ‘This woman, this human being, lived to a great age. She had children, a husband and family, friends and relations; her household was busy and cheerful; she was surrounded by smiling faces; and then suddenly they are gone, and she is left alone like a solitary fly . . . like a fly, cursed with the burden of her age. At last, God calls her to Himself. At sunset, on a lovely summer’s evening, my little old woman passes away — a thought, you will notice, which offers much food for reflection — and behold! instead of tears and prayers to start her on her last journey, she has insults and jeers from a young ensign, who stands before her with his hands in his pockets, making a terrible row about a soup tureen!’ Of course I was to blame, and even now that I have time to look back at it calmly, I pity the poor old thing no less. I repeat that I wonder at myself, for after all I was not really responsible. Why did she take it into her head to die at that moment? But the more I thought of it, the more I felt the weight of it upon my mind; and I never got quite rid of the impression until I put a couple of old women into an almshouse and kept them there at my own expense. There, that’s all. I repeat I dare say I have committed many a grievous sin in my day; but I cannot help always looking back upon this as the worst action I have ever perpetrated.”

“H’m! and instead of a bad action, your excellency has detailed one of your noblest deeds,” said Ferdishenko. “Ferdishenko is ‘done.’”

“Dear me, general,” said Nastasia Philipovna, absently, “I really never imagined you had such a good heart.”

The general laughed with great satisfaction, and applied himself once more to the champagne.

It was now Totski’s turn, and his story was awaited with great curiosity — while all eyes turned on Nastasia Philipovna, as though anticipating that his revelation must be connected somehow with her. Nastasia, during the whole of his story, pulled at the lace trimming of her sleeve, and never once glanced at the speaker. Totski was a handsome man, rather stout, with a very polite and dignified manner. He was always well dressed, and his linen was exquisite. He had plump white hands, and wore a magnificent diamond ring on one finger.

“What simplifies the duty before me considerably, in my opinion,” he began, “is that I am bound to recall and relate the very worst action of my life. In such circumstances there can, of course, be no doubt. One’s conscience very soon informs one what is the proper narrative to tell. I admit, that among the many silly and thoughtless actions of my life, the memory of one comes prominently forward and reminds me that it lay long like a stone on my heart. Some twenty years since, I paid a visit to Platon Ordintzeff at his country-house. He had just been elected marshal of the nobility, and had come there with his young wife for the winter holidays. Anfisa Alexeyevna’s birthday came off just then, too, and there were two balls arranged. At that time Dumas-fils’ beautiful work, La Dame aux Camelias — a novel which I consider imperishable — had just come into fashion. In the provinces all the ladies were in raptures over it, those who had read it, at least. Camellias were all the fashion. Everyone inquired for them, everybody wanted them; and a grand lot of camellias are to be got in a country town — as you all know — and two balls to provide for!

“Poor Peter Volhofskoi was desperately in love with Anfisa Alexeyevna. I don’t know whether there was anything — I mean I don’t know whether he could possibly have indulged in any hope. The poor fellow was beside himself to get her a bouquet of camellias. Countess Sotski and Sophia Bespalova, as everyone knew, were coming with white camellia bouquets. Anfisa wished for red ones, for effect. Well, her husband Platon was driven desperate to find some. And the day before the ball, Anfisa’s rival snapped up the only red camellias to be had in the place, from under Platon’s nose, and Platon — wretched man — was done for. Now if Peter had only been able to step in at this moment with a red bouquet, his little hopes might have made gigantic strides. A woman’s gratitude under such circumstances would have been boundless — but it was practically an impossibility.

“The night before the ball I met Peter, looking radiant. ‘What is it?’ I ask. ‘I’ve found them, Eureka!” ‘No! where, where?’ ‘At Ekshaisk (a little town fifteen miles off) there’s a rich old merchant, who keeps a lot of canaries, has no children, and he and his wife are devoted to flowers. He’s got some camellias.’ ‘And what if he won’t let you have them?’ ‘I’ll go on my knees and implore till I get them. I won’t go away.’ ‘When shall you start?’ ‘Tomorrow morning at five o’clock.’ ‘Go on,’ I said, ‘and good luck to you.’

“I was glad for the poor fellow, and went home. But an idea got hold of me somehow. I don’t know how. It was nearly two in the morning. I rang the bell and ordered the coachman to be waked up and sent to me. He came. I gave him a tip of fifteen roubles, and told him to get the carriage ready at once. In half an hour it was at the door. I got in and off we went.

“By five I drew up at the Ekshaisky inn. I waited there till dawn, and soon after six I was off, and at the old merchant Trepalaf’s.

“‘Camellias!’ I said, ‘father, save me, save me, let me have some camellias!’ He was a tall, grey old man — a terrible-looking old gentleman. ‘Not a bit of it,’ he says. ‘I won’t.’ Down I went on my knees. ‘Don’t say so, don’t — think what you’re doing!’ I cried; ‘it’s a matter of life and death!’ ‘If that’s the case, take them,’ says he. So up I get, and cut such a bouquet of red camellias! He had a whole greenhouse full of them — lovely ones. The old fellow sighs. I pull out a hundred roubles. ‘No, no!’ says he, ‘don’t insult me that way.’ ‘Oh, if that’s the case, give it to the village hospital,’ I say. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘that’s quite a different matter; that’s good of you and generous. I’ll pay it in there for you with pleasure.’ I liked that old fellow, Russian to the core, de la vraie souche. I went home in raptures, but took another road in order to avoid Peter. Immediately on arriving I sent up the bouquet for Anfisa to see when she awoke.

“You may imagine her ecstasy, her gratitude. The wretched Platon, who had almost died since yesterday of the reproaches showered upon him, wept on my shoulder. Of course poor Peter had no chance after this.

“I thought he would cut my throat at first, and went about armed ready to meet him. But he took it differently; he fainted, and had brain fever and convulsions. A month after, when he had hardly recovered, he went off to the Crimea, and there he was shot.

“I assure you this business left me no peace for many a long year. Why did I do it? I was not in love with her myself; I’m afraid it was simply mischief — pure ‘cussedness’ on my part.

“If I hadn’t seized that bouquet from under his nose he might have been alive now, and a happy man. He might have been successful in life, and never have gone to fight the Turks.”

Totski ended his tale with the same dignity that had characterized its commencement.

Nastasia Philipovna’s eyes were flashing in a most unmistakable way, now; and her lips were all a-quiver by the time Totski finished his story.

All present watched both of them with curiosity.

“You were right, Totski,” said Nastasia, “it is a dull game and a stupid one. I’ll just tell my story, as I promised, and then we’ll play cards.”

“Yes, but let’s have the story first!” cried the general.

“Prince,” said Nastasia Philipovna, unexpectedly turning to Muishkin, “here are my old friends, Totski and General Epanchin, who wish to marry me off. Tell me what you think. Shall I marry or not? As you decide, so shall it be.”

Totski grew white as a sheet. The general was struck dumb. All present started and listened intently. Gania sat rooted to his chair.

“Marry whom?” asked the prince, faintly.

“Gavrila Ardalionovitch Ivolgin,” said Nastasia, firmly and evenly.

There were a few seconds of dead silence.

The prince tried to speak, but could not form his words; a great weight seemed to lie upon his breast and suffocate him.

“N-no! don’t marry him!” he whispered at last, drawing his breath with an effort.

“So be it, then. Gavrila Ardalionovitch,” she spoke solemnly and forcibly, “you hear the prince’s decision? Take it as my decision; and let that be the end of the matter for good and all.”

“Nastasia Philipovna!” cried Totski, in a quaking voice.

“Nastasia Philipovna!” said the general, in persuasive but agitated tones.

Everyone in the room fidgeted in their places, and waited to see what was coming next.

“Well, gentlemen!” she continued, gazing around in apparent astonishment; “what do you all look so alarmed about? Why are you so upset?”

“But — recollect, Nastasia Philipovna.” stammered Totski, “you gave a promise, quite a free one, and — and you might have spared us this. I am confused and bewildered, I know; but, in a word, at such a moment, and before company, and all so-so-irregular, finishing off a game with a serious matter like this, a matter of honour, and of heart, and —”

“I don’t follow you, Afanasy Ivanovitch; you are losing your head. In the first place, what do you mean by ‘before company’? Isn’t the company good enough for you? And what’s all that about ‘a game’? I wished to tell my little story, and I told it! Don’t you like it? You heard what I said to the prince? ‘As you decide, so it shall be!’ If he had said ‘yes,’ I should have given my consent! But he said ‘no,’ so I refused. Here was my whole life hanging on his one word! Surely I was serious enough?”

“The prince! What on earth has the prince got to do with it? Who the deuce is the prince?” cried the general, who could conceal his wrath no longer.

“The prince has this to do with it — that I see in him. for the first time in all my life, a man endowed with real truthfulness of spirit, and I trust him. He trusted me at first sight, and I trust him!”

“It only remains for me, then, to thank Nastasia Philipovna for the great delicacy with which she has treated me,” said Gania, as pale as death, and with quivering lips. “That is my plain duty, of course; but the prince — what has he to do in the matter?”

“I see what you are driving at,” said Nastasia Philipovna. “You imply that the prince is after the seventy-five thousand roubles — I quite understand you. Mr. Totski, I forgot to say, ‘Take your seventy-five thousand roubles’— I don’t want them. I let you go free for nothing take your freedom! You must need it. Nine years and three months’ captivity is enough for anybody. Tomorrow I shall start afresh — today I am a free agent for the first time in my life.

“General, you must take your pearls back, too — give them to your wife — here they are! Tomorrow I shall leave this flat altogether, and then there’ll be no more of these pleasant little social gatherings, ladies and gentlemen.”

So saying, she scornfully rose from her seat as though to depart.

“Nastasia Philipovna! Nastasia Philipovna!”

The words burst involuntarily from every mouth. All present started up in bewildered excitement; all surrounded her; all had listened uneasily to her wild, disconnected sentences. All felt that something had happened, something had gone very far wrong indeed, but no one could make head or tail of the matter.

At this moment there was a furious ring at the bell, and a great knock at the door — exactly similar to the one which had startled the company at Gania’s house in the afternoon.

“Ah, ah! here’s the climax at last, at half-past twelve!” cried Nastasia Philipovna. “Sit down, gentlemen, I beg you. Something is about to happen.”

So saying, she reseated herself; a strange smile played on her lips. She sat quite still, but watched the door in a fever of impatience.

“Rogojin and his hundred thousand roubles, no doubt of it,” muttered Ptitsin to himself.

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