The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter IX.

“You will not deny, I am sure,” said Gavrila Ardalionovitch, turning to Burdovsky, who sat looking at him with wide-open eyes, perplexed and astonished. You will not deny, seriously, that you were born just two years after your mother’s legal marriage to Mr. Burdovsky, your father. Nothing would be easier than to prove the date of your birth from well-known facts; we can only look on Mr. Keller’s version as a work of imagination, and one, moreover, extremely offensive both to you and your mother. Of course he distorted the truth in order to strengthen your claim, and to serve your interests. Mr. Keller said that he previously consulted you about his article in the paper, but did not read it to you as a whole. Certainly he could not have read that passage. .. . .

“As a matter of fact, I did not read it,” interrupted the boxer, “but its contents had been given me on unimpeachable authority, and I . . .”

“Excuse me, Mr. Keller,” interposed Gavrila Ardalionovitch. “Allow me to speak. I assure you your article shall be mentioned in its proper place, and you can then explain everything, but for the moment I would rather not anticipate. Quite accidentally, with the help of my sister, Varvara Ardalionovna Ptitsin, I obtained from one of her intimate friends, Madame Zoubkoff, a letter written to her twenty-five years ago, by Nicolai Andreevitch Pavlicheff, then abroad. After getting into communication with this lady, I went by her advice to Timofei Fedorovitch Viazovkin, a retired colonel, and one of Pavlicheff’s oldest friends. He gave me two more letters written by the latter when he was still in foreign parts. These three documents, their dates, and the facts mentioned in them, prove in the most undeniable manner, that eighteen months before your birth, Nicolai Andreevitch went abroad, where he remained for three consecutive years. Your mother, as you are well aware, has never been out of Russia. . . . It is too late to read the letters now; I am content to state the fact. But if you desire it, come to me tomorrow morning, bring witnesses and writing experts with you, and I will prove the absolute truth of my story. From that moment the question will be decided.”

These words caused a sensation among the listeners, and there was a general movement of relief. Burdovsky got up abruptly.

“If that is true,” said he, “I have been deceived, grossly deceived, but not by Tchebaroff: and for a long time past, a long time. I do not wish for experts, not I, nor to go to see you. I believe you. I give it up. . . . But I refuse the ten thousand roubles. Good-bye.”

“Wait five minutes more, Mr. Burdovsky,” said Gavrila Ardalionovitch pleasantly. “I have more to say. Some rather curious and important facts have come to light, and it is absolutely necessary, in my opinion, that you should hear them. You will not regret, I fancy, to have the whole matter thoroughly cleared up.”

Burdovsky silently resumed his seat, and bent his head as though in profound thought. His friend, Lebedeff’s nephew, who had risen to accompany him, also sat down again. He seemed much disappointed, though as self-confident as ever. Hippolyte looked dejected and sulky, as well as surprised. He had just been attacked by a violent fit of coughing, so that his handkerchief was stained with blood. The boxer looked thoroughly frightened.

“Oh, Antip!” cried he in a miserable voice, “I did say to you the other day — the day before yesterday — that perhaps you were not really Pavlicheff’s son!”

There were sounds of half-smothered laughter at this.

“Now, that is a valuable piece of information, Mr. Keller,” replied Gania. “However that may be, I have private information which convinces me that Mr. Burdovsky, though doubtless aware of the date of his birth, knew nothing at all about Pavlicheff’s sojourn abroad. Indeed, he passed the greater part of his life out of Russia, returning at intervals for short visits. The journey in question is in itself too unimportant for his friends to recollect it after more than twenty years; and of course Mr. Burdovsky could have known nothing about it, for he was not born. As the event has proved, it was not impossible to find evidence of his absence, though I must confess that chance has helped me in a quest which might very well have come to nothing. It was really almost impossible for Burdovsky or Tchebaroff to discover these facts, even if it had entered their heads to try. Naturally they never dreamt . . .

Here the voice of Hippolyte suddenly intervened.

“Allow me, Mr. Ivolgin,” he said irritably. “What is the good of all this rigmarole? Pardon me. All is now clear, and we acknowledge the truth of your main point. Why go into these tedious details? You wish perhaps to boast of the cleverness of your investigation, to cry up your talents as detective? Or perhaps your intention is to excuse Burdovsky, by roving that he took up the matter in ignorance? Well, I consider that extremely impudent on your part! You ought to know that Burdovsky has no need of being excused or justified by you or anyone else! It is an insult! The affair is quite painful enough for him without that. Will nothing make you understand?”

“Enough! enough! Mr. Terentieff,” interrupted Gania.

“Don’t excite yourself; you seem very ill, and I am sorry for that. I am almost done, but there are a few facts to which I must briefly refer, as I am convinced that they ought to be clearly explained once for all . . . .” A movement of impatience was noticed in his audience as he resumed: “I merely wish to state, for the information of all concerned, that the reason for Mr. Pavlicheff’s interest in your mother, Mr. Burdovsky, was simply that she was the sister of a serf-girl with whom he was deeply in love in his youth, and whom most certainly he would have married but for her sudden death. I have proofs that this circumstance is almost, if not quite, forgotten. I may add that when your mother was about ten years old, Pavlicheff took her under his care, gave her a good education, and later, a considerable dowry. His relations were alarmed, and feared he might go so far as to marry her, but she gave her hand to a young land-surveyor named Burdovsky when she reached the age of twenty. I can even say definitely that it was a marriage of affection. After his wedding your father gave up his occupation as land-surveyor, and with his wife’s dowry of fifteen thousand roubles went in for commercial speculations. As he had had no experience, he was cheated on all sides, and took to drink in order to forget his troubles. He shortened his life by his excesses, and eight years after his marriage he died. Your mother says herself that she was left in the direst poverty, and would have died of starvation had it not been for Pavlicheff, who generously allowed her a yearly pension of six hundred roubles. Many people recall his extreme fondness for you as a little boy. Your mother confirms this, and agrees with others in thinking that he loved you the more because you were a sickly child, stammering in your speech, and almost deformed — for it is known that all his life Nicolai Andreevitch had a partiality for unfortunates of every kind, especially children. In my opinion this is most important. I may add that I discovered yet another fact, the last on which I employed my detective powers. Seeing how fond Pavlicheff was of you — it was thanks to him you went to school, and also had the advantage of special teachers — his relations and servants grew to believe that you were his son, and that your father had been betrayed by his wife. I may point out that this idea was only accredited generally during the last years of Pavlicheff’s life, when his next-of-kin were trembling about the succession, when the earlier story was quite forgotten, and when all opportunity for discovering the truth had seemingly passed away. No doubt you, Mr. Burdovsky, heard this conjecture, and did not hesitate to accept it as true. I have had the honour of making your mother’s acquaintance, and I find that she knows all about these reports. What she does not know is that you, her son, should have listened to them so complaisantly. I found your respected mother at Pskoff, ill and in deep poverty, as she has been ever since the death of your benefactor. She told me with tears of gratitude how you had supported her; she expects much of you, and believes fervently in your future success . . . ”

“Oh, this is unbearable!” said Lebedeff’s nephew impatiently. “What is the good of all this romancing?”

“It is revolting and unseemly!” cried Hippolyte, jumping up in a fury.

Burdovsky alone sat silent and motionless.

“What is the good of it?” repeated Gavrila Ardalionovitch, with pretended surprise. “Well, firstly, because now perhaps Mr. Burdovsky is quite convinced that Mr. Pavlicheff’s love for him came simply from generosity of soul, and not from paternal duty. It was most necessary to impress this fact upon his mind, considering that he approved of the article written by Mr. Keller. I speak thus because I look on you, Mr. Burdovsky, as an honourable man. Secondly, it appears that there was no intention of cheating in this case, even on the part of Tchebaroff. I wish to say this quite plainly, because the prince hinted a while ago that I too thought it an attempt at robbery and extortion. On the contrary, everyone has been quite sincere in the matter, and although Tchebaroff may be somewhat of a rogue, in this business he has acted simply as any sharp lawyer would do under the circumstances. He looked at it as a case that might bring him in a lot of money, and he did not calculate badly; because on the one hand he speculated on the generosity of the prince, and his gratitude to the late Mr. Pavlicheff, and on the other to his chivalrous ideas as to the obligations of honour and conscience. As to Mr. Burdovsky, allowing for his principles, we may acknowledge that he engaged in the business with very little personal aim in view. At the instigation of Tchebaroff and his other friends, he decided to make the attempt in the service of truth, progress, and humanity. In short, the conclusion may be drawn that, in spite of all appearances, Mr. Burdovsky is a man of irreproachable character, and thus the prince can all the more readily offer him his friendship, and the assistance of which he spoke just now . . . ”

“Hush! hush! Gavrila Ardalionovitch!” cried Muishkin in dismay, but it was too late.

“I said, and I have repeated it over and over again,” shouted Burdovsky furiously, “that I did not want the money. I will not take it . . . why . . . I will not . . . I am going away!”

He was rushing hurriedly from the terrace, when Lebedeff’s nephew seized his arms, and said something to him in a low voice. Burdovsky turned quickly, and drawing an addressed but unsealed envelope from his pocket, he threw it down on a little table beside the prince.

“There’s the money! . . . How dare you? . . . The money!”

“Those are the two hundred and fifty roubles you dared to send him as a charity, by the hands of Tchebaroff,” explained Doktorenko.

“The article in the newspaper put it at fifty!” cried Colia.

“I beg your pardon,” said the prince, going up to Burdovsky. “I have done you a great wrong, but I did not send you that money as a charity, believe me. And now I am again to blame. I offended you just now.” (The prince was much distressed; he seemed worn out with fatigue, and spoke almost incoherently.) “I spoke of swindling . . . but I did not apply that to you. I was deceived . . . . I said you were . . . afflicted . . . like me . . . But you are not like me . . . you give lessons . . . you support your mother. I said you had dishonoured your mother, but you love her. She says so herself . . . I did not know . . . Gavrila Ardalionovitch did not tell me that . . . Forgive me! I dared to offer you ten thousand roubles, but I was wrong. I ought to have done it differently, and now . . . there is no way of doing it, for you despise me . . . ”

“I declare, this is a lunatic asylum!” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna.

“Of course it is a lunatic asylum!” repeated Aglaya sharply, but her words were overpowered by other voices. Everybody was talking loudly, making remarks and comments; some discussed the affair gravely, others laughed. Ivan Fedorovitch Epanchin was extremely indignant. He stood waiting for his wife with an air of offended dignity. Lebedeff’s nephew took up the word again.

“Well, prince, to do you justice, you certainly know how to make the most of your — let us call it infirmity, for the sake of politeness; you have set about offering your money and friendship in such a way that no self-respecting man could possibly accept them. This is an excess of ingenuousness or of malice — you ought to know better than anyone which word best fits the case.”

“Allow me, gentlemen,” said Gavrila Ardalionovitch, who had just examined the contents of the envelope, “there are only a hundred roubles here, not two hundred and fifty. I point this out, prince, to prevent misunderstanding.”

“Never mind, never mind,” said the prince, signing to him to keep quiet.

“But we do mind,” said Lebedeff’s nephew vehemently. “Prince, your ‘never mind’ is an insult to us. We have nothing to hide; our actions can bear daylight. It is true that there are only a hundred roubles instead of two hundred and fifty, but it is all the same.”

“Why, no, it is hardly the same,” remarked Gavrila Ardalionovitch, with an air of ingenuous surprise.

“Don’t interrupt, we are not such fools as you think, Mr. Lawyer,” cried Lebedeff’s nephew angrily. “Of course there is a difference between a hundred roubles and two hundred and fifty, but in this case the principle is the main point, and that a hundred and fifty roubles are missing is only a side issue. The point to be emphasized is that Burdovsky will not accept your highness’s charity; he flings it back in your face, and it scarcely matters if there are a hundred roubles or two hundred and fifty. Burdovsky has refused ten thousand roubles; you heard him. He would not have returned even a hundred roubles if he was dishonest! The hundred and fifty roubles were paid to Tchebaroff for his travelling expenses. You may jeer at our stupidity and at our inexperience in business matters; you have done all you could already to make us look ridiculous; but do not dare to call us dishonest. The four of us will club together every day to repay the hundred and fifty roubles to the prince, if we have to pay it in instalments of a rouble at a time, but we will repay it, with interest. Burdovsky is poor, he has no millions. After his journey to see the prince Tchebaroff sent in his bill. We counted on winning . . . Who would not have done the same in such a case?”

“Who indeed?” exclaimed Prince S.

“I shall certainly go mad, if I stay here!” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna.

“It reminds me,” said Evgenie Pavlovitch, laughing, “of the famous plea of a certain lawyer who lately defended a man for murdering six people in order to rob them. He excused his client on the score of poverty. ‘It is quite natural,’ he said in conclusion, ‘considering the state of misery he was in, that he should have thought of murdering these six people; which of you, gentlemen, would not have done the same in his place?’”

“Enough,” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna abruptly, trembling with anger, “we have had enough of this balderdash!”

In a state of terrible excitement she threw back her head, with flaming eyes, casting looks of contempt and defiance upon the whole company, in which she could no longer distinguish friend from foe. She had restrained herself so long that she felt forced to vent her rage on somebody. Those who knew Lizabetha Prokofievna saw at once how it was with her. “She flies into these rages sometimes,” said Ivan Fedorovitch to Prince S. the next day, “but she is not often so violent as she was yesterday; it does not happen more than once in three years.”

“Be quiet, Ivan Fedorovitch! Leave me alone!” cried Mrs. Epanchin. “Why do you offer me your arm now? You had not sense enough to take me away before. You are my husband, you are a father, it was your duty to drag me away by force, if in my folly I refused to obey you and go quietly. You might at least have thought of your daughters. We can find our way out now without your help. Here is shame enough for a year! Wait a moment ‘till I thank the prince! Thank you, prince, for the entertainment you have given us! It was most amusing to hear these young men . . . It is vile, vile! A chaos, a scandal, worse than a nightmare! Is it possible that there can be many such people on earth? Be quiet, Aglaya! Be quiet, Alexandra! It is none of your business! Don’t fuss round me like that, Evgenie Pavlovitch; you exasperate me! So, my dear,” she cried, addressing the prince, “you go so far as to beg their pardon! He says, ‘Forgive me for offering you a fortune.’ And you, you mountebank, what are you laughing at?” she cried, turning suddenly on Lebedeff’s nephew. “‘We refuse ten thousand roubles; we do not beseech, we demand!’ As if he did not know that this idiot will call on them tomorrow to renew his offers of money and friendship. You will, won’t you? You will? Come, will you, or won’t you?”

“I shall,” said the prince, with gentle humility.

“You hear him! You count upon it, too,” she continued, turning upon Doktorenko. “You are as sure of him now as if you had the money in your pocket. And there you are playing the swaggerer to throw dust in our eyes! No, my dear sir, you may take other people in! I can see through all your airs and graces, I see your game!”

“Lizabetha Prokofievna!” exclaimed the prince.

“Come, Lizabetha Prokofievna, it is quite time for us to be going, we will take the prince with us,” said Prince S. with a smile, in the coolest possible way.

The girls stood apart, almost frightened; their father was positively horrified. Mrs. Epanchin’s language astonished everybody. Some who stood a little way off smiled furtively, and talked in whispers. Lebedeff wore an expression of utmost ecstasy.

“Chaos and scandal are to be found everywhere, madame,” remarked Doktorenko, who was considerably put out of countenance.

“Not like this! Nothing like the spectacle you have just given us, sir,” answered Lizabetha Prokofievna, with a sort of hysterical rage. “Leave me alone, will you?” she cried violently to those around her, who were trying to keep her quiet. “No, Evgenie Pavlovitch, if, as you said yourself just now, a lawyer said in open court that he found it quite natural that a man should murder six people because he was in misery, the world must be coming to an end. I had not heard of it before. Now I understand everything. And this stutterer, won’t he turn out a murderer?” she cried, pointing to Burdovsky, who was staring at her with stupefaction. “I bet he will! He will have none of your money, possibly, he will refuse it because his conscience will not allow him to accept it, but he will go murdering you by night and walking off with your cashbox, with a clear conscience! He does not call it a dishonest action but ‘the impulse of a noble despair’; ‘a negation’; or the devil knows what! Bah! everything is upside down, everyone walks head downwards. A young girl, brought up at home, suddenly jumps into a cab in the middle of the street, saying: ‘Good-bye, mother, I married Karlitch, or Ivanitch, the other day!’ And you think it quite right? You call such conduct estimable and natural? The ‘woman question’? Look here,” she continued, pointing to Colia, “the other day that whippersnapper told me that this was the whole meaning of the ‘woman question.’ But even supposing that your mother is a fool, you are none the less, bound to treat her with humanity. Why did you come here tonight so insolently? ‘Give us our rights, but don’t dare to speak in our presence. Show us every mark of deepest respect, while we treat you like the scum of the earth.’ The miscreants have written a tissue of calumny in their article, and these are the men who seek for truth, and do battle for the right! ‘We do not beseech, we demand, you will get no thanks from us, because you will be acting to satisfy your own conscience!’ What morality! But, good. heavens! if you declare that the prince’s generosity will, excite no gratitude in you, he might answer that he is not, bound to be grateful to Pavlicheff, who also was only satisfying his own conscience. But you counted on the prince’s, gratitude towards Pavlicheff; you never lent him any money; he owes you nothing; then what were you counting upon if not on his gratitude? And if you appeal to that sentiment in others, why should you expect to be exempted from it? They are mad! They say society is savage and. inhuman because it despises a young girl who has been seduced. But if you call society inhuman you imply that the young girl is made to suffer by its censure. How then, can you hold her up to the scorn of society in the newspapers without realizing that you are making her suffering, still greater? Madmen! Vain fools! They don’t believe in God, they don’t believe in Christ! But you are so eaten. up by pride and vanity, that you will end by devouring each other — that is my prophecy! Is not this absurd? Is it not monstrous chaos? And after all this, that shameless creature will go and beg their pardon! Are there many people like you? What are you smiling at? Because I am not ashamed to disgrace myself before you? — Yes, I am disgraced — it can’t be helped now! But don’t you jeer at me, you scum!” (this was aimed at Hippolyte). “He is almost at his last gasp, yet he corrupts others. You, have got hold of this lad “—(she pointed to Colia); “you, have turned his head, you have taught him to be an atheist, you don’t believe in God, and you are not too old to be whipped, sir! A plague upon you! And so, Prince Lef Nicolaievitch, you will call on them tomorrow, will you?” she asked the prince breathlessly, for the second time.

“Yes.”

“Then I will never speak to you again.” She made a sudden movement to go, and then turned quickly back. “And you will call on that atheist?” she continued, pointing to Hippolyte. “How dare you grin at me like that?” she shouted furiously, rushing at the invalid, whose mocking smile drove her to distraction.

Exclamations arose on all sides.

“Lizabetha Prokofievna! Lizabetha Prokofievna! Lizabetha Prokofievna!”

“Mother, this is disgraceful!” cried Aglaya.

Mrs. Epanchin had approached Hippolyte and seized him firmly by the arm, while her eyes, blazing with fury, were fixed upon his face.

“Do not distress yourself, Aglaya Ivanovitch,” he answered calmly; “your mother knows that one cannot strike a dying man. I am ready to explain why I was laughing. I shall be delighted if you will let me —”

A violent fit of coughing, which lasted a full minute, prevented him from finishing his sentence.

“He is dying, yet he will not stop holding forth!” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna. She loosed her hold on his arm, almost terrified, as she saw him wiping the blood from his lips. “Why do you talk? You ought to go home to bed.”

“So I will,” he whispered hoarsely. “As soon as I get home I will go to bed at once; and I know I shall be dead in a fortnight; Botkine told me so himself last week. That is why I should like to say a few farewell words, if you will let me.”

“But you must be mad! It is ridiculous! You should take care of yourself; what is the use of holding a conversation now? Go home to bed, do!” cried Mrs. Epanchin in horror.

“When I do go to bed I shall never get up again,” said Hippolyte, with a smile. “I meant to take to my bed yesterday and stay there till I died, but as my legs can still carry me, I put it off for two days, so as to come here with them to-day — but I am very tired.”

“Oh, sit down, sit down, why are you standing?”

Lizabetha Prokofievna placed a chair for him with her own hands.

“Thank you,” he said gently. “Sit opposite to me, and let us talk. We must have a talk now, Lizabetha Prokofievna; I am very anxious for it.” He smiled at her once more. “Remember that today, for the last time, I am out in the air, and in the company of my fellow-men, and that in a fortnight I shall I certainly be no longer in this world. So, in a way, this is my farewell to nature and to men. I am not very sentimental, but do you know, I am quite glad that all this has happened at Pavlofsk, where at least one can see a green tree.”

“But why talk now?” replied Lizabetha Prokofievna, more and more alarmed; “are quite feverish. Just now you would not stop shouting, and now you can hardly breathe. You are gasping.”

“I shall have time to rest. Why will you not grant my last wish? Do you know, Lizabetha Prokofievna, that I have dreamed of meeting you for a long while? I had often heard of you from Colia; he is almost the only person who still comes to see me. You are an original and eccentric woman; I have seen that for myself — Do you know, I have even been rather fond of you?”

“Good heavens! And I very nearly struck him!”

“You were prevented by Aglaya Ivanovna. I think I am not mistaken? That is your daughter, Aglaya Ivanovna? She is so beautiful that I recognized her directly, although I had never seen her before. Let me, at least, look on beauty for the last time in my life,” he said with a wry smile. “You are here with the prince, and your husband, and a large company. Why should you refuse to gratify my last wish?”

“Give me a chair!” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, but she seized one for herself and sat down opposite to Hippolyte. “Colia, you must go home with him,” she commanded and tomorrow I will come my self. ”

“Will you let me ask the prince for a cup of tea? . . . I am exhausted. Do you know what you might do, Lizabetha Prokofievna? I think you wanted to take the prince home with you for tea. Stay here, and let us spend the evening together. I am sure the prince will give us all some tea. Forgive me for being so free and easy — but I know you are kind, and the prince is kind, too. In fact, we are all good-natured people — it is really quite comical.”

The prince bestirred himself to give orders. Lebedeff hurried out, followed by Vera.

“It is quite true,” said Mrs. Epanchin decisively. “Talk, but not too loud, and don’t excite yourself. You have made me sorry for you. Prince, you don’t deserve that I should stay and have tea with you, yet I will, all the same, but I won’t apologize. I apologize to nobody! Nobody! It is absurd! However, forgive me, prince, if I blew you up — that is, if you like, of course. But please don’t let me keep anyone,” she added suddenly to her husband and daughters, in a tone of resentment, as though they had grievously offended her. “I can come home alone quite well.”

But they did not let her finish, and gathered round her eagerly. The prince immediately invited everyone to stay for tea, and apologized for not having thought of it before. The general murmured a few polite words, and asked Lizabetha Prokofievna if she did not feel cold on the terrace. He very nearly asked Hippolyte how long he had been at the University, but stopped himself in time. Evgenie Pavlovitch and Prince S. suddenly grew extremely gay and amiable. Adelaida and Alexandra had not recovered from their surprise, but it was now mingled with satisfaction; in short, everyone seemed very much relieved that Lizabetha Prokofievna had got over her paroxysm. Aglaya alone still frowned, and sat apart in silence. All the other guests stayed on as well; no one wanted to go, not even General Ivolgin, but Lebedeff said something to him in passing which did not seem to please him, for he immediately went and sulked in a corner. The prince took care to offer tea to Burdovsky and his friends as well as the rest. The invitation made them rather uncomfortable. They muttered that they would wait for Hippolyte, and went and sat by themselves in a distant corner of the verandah. Tea was served at once; Lebedeff had no doubt ordered it for himself and his family before the others arrived. It was striking eleven.

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