The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter IV.

THE time appointed was twelve o’clock, and the prince, returning home unexpectedly late, found the general waiting for him. At the first glance, he saw that the latter was displeased, perhaps because he had been kept waiting. The prince apologized, and quickly took a seat. He seemed strangely timid before the general this morning, for some reason, and felt as though his visitor were some piece of china which he was afraid of breaking.

On scrutinizing him, the prince soon saw that the general was quite a different man from what he had been the day before; he looked like one who had come to some momentous resolve. His calmness, however, was more apparent than real. He was courteous, but there was a suggestion of injured innocence in his manner.

“I’ve brought your book back,” he began, indicating a book lying on the table. “Much obliged to you for lending it to me.”

“Ah, yes. Well, did you read it, general? It’s curious, isn’t it?” said the prince, delighted to be able to open up conversation upon an outside subject.

“Curious enough, yes, but crude, and of course dreadful nonsense; probably the man lies in every other sentence.”

The general spoke with considerable confidence, and dragged his words out with a conceited drawl.

“Oh, but it’s only the simple tale of an old soldier who saw the French enter Moscow. Some of his remarks were wonderfully interesting. Remarks of an eye-witness are always valuable, whoever he be, don’t you think so

“Had I been the publisher I should not have printed it. As to the evidence of eye-witnesses, in these days people prefer impudent lies to the stories of men of worth and long service. I know of some notes of the year 1812, which — I have determined, prince, to leave this house, Mr. Lebedeff’s house.”

The general looked significantly at his host.

“Of course you have your own lodging at Pavlofsk at — at your daughter’s house,” began the prince, quite at a loss what to say. He suddenly recollected that the general had come for advice on a most important matter, affecting his destiny.

“At my wife’s; in other words, at my own place, my daughter’s house.”

“I beg your pardon, I—”

“I leave Lebedeff’s house, my dear prince, because I have quarrelled with this person. I broke with him last night, and am very sorry that I did not do so before. I expect respect, prince, even from those to whom I give my heart, so to speak. Prince, I have often given away my heart, and am nearly always deceived. This person was quite unworthy of the gift.”

“There is much that might be improved in him,” said the prince, moderately, “but he has some qualities which — though amid them one cannot but discern a cunning nature — reveal what is often a diverting intellect.”

The prince’s tone was so natural and respectful that the general could not possibly suspect him of any insincerity.

“Oh, that he possesses good traits, I was the first to show, when I very nearly made him a present of my friendship. I am not dependent upon his hospitality, and upon his house; I have my own family. I do not attempt to justify my own weakness. I have drunk with this man, and perhaps I deplore the fact now, but I did not take him up for the sake of drink alone (excuse the crudeness of the expression, prince); I did not make friends with him for that alone. I was attracted by his good qualities; but when the fellow declares that he was a child in 1812, and had his left leg cut off, and buried in the Vagarkoff cemetery, in Moscow, such a cock-and-bull story amounts to disrespect, my dear sir, to — to impudent exaggeration.”

“Oh, he was very likely joking; he said it for fun.”

“I quite understand you. You mean that an innocent lie for the sake of a good joke is harmless, and does not offend the human heart. Some people lie, if you like to put it so, out of pure friendship, in order to amuse their fellows; but when a man makes use of extravagance in order to show his disrespect and to make clear how the intimacy bores him, it is time for a man of honour to break off the said intimacy., and to teach the offender his place.”

The general flushed with indignation as he spoke.

“Oh, but Lebedeff cannot have been in Moscow in 1812. He is much too young; it is all nonsense.”

“Very well, but even if we admit that he was alive in 1812, can one believe that a French chasseur pointed a cannon at him for a lark, and shot his left leg off? He says he picked his own leg up and took it away and buried it in the cemetery. He swore he had a stone put up over it with the inscription: ‘Here lies the leg of Collegiate Secretary Lebedeff,’ and on the other side, ‘Rest, beloved ashes, till the morn of joy,’ and that he has a service read over it every year (which is simply sacrilege), and goes to Moscow once a year on purpose. He invites me to Moscow in order to prove his assertion, and show me his leg’s tomb, and the very cannon that shot him; he says it’s the eleventh from the gate of the Kremlin, an old-fashioned falconet taken from the French afterwards.”

“And, meanwhile both his legs are still on his body,” said the prince, laughing. “I assure you, it is only an innocent joke, and you need not be angry about it.”

“Excuse me — wait a minute — he says that the leg we see is a wooden one, made by Tchernosvitoff.”

“They do say one can dance with those!”

“Quite so, quite so; and he swears that his wife never found out that one of his legs was wooden all the while they were married. When I showed him the ridiculousness of all this, he said, ‘Well, if you were one of Napoleon’s pages in 1812, you might let me bury my leg in the Moscow cemetery.’

“Why, did you say —” began the prince, and paused in confusion.

The general gazed at his host disdainfully.

“Oh, go on,” he said, “finish your sentence, by all means. Say how odd it appears to you that a man fallen to such a depth of humiliation as I, can ever have been the actual eye-witness of great events. Go on, I don’t mind! Has he found time to tell you scandal about me?”

“No, I’ve heard nothing of this from Lebedeff, if you mean Lebedeff.”

“H’m; I thought differently. You see, we were talking over this period of history. I was criticizing a current report of something which then happened, and having been myself an eye-witness of the occurrence — you are smiling, prince — you are looking at my face as if —”

“Oh no! not at all — I—”

“I am rather young-looking, I know; but I am actually older than I appear to be. I was ten or eleven in the year 1812. I don’t know my age exactly, but it has always been a weakness of mine to make it out less than it really is.

“I assure you, general, I do not in the least doubt your statement. One of our living autobiographers states that when he was a small baby in Moscow in 1812 the French soldiers fed him with bread.”

“Well, there you see!” said the general, condescendingly. “There is nothing whatever unusual about my tale. Truth very often appears to be impossible. I was a page — it sounds strange, I dare say. Had I been fifteen years old I should probably have been terribly frightened when the French arrived, as my mother was (who had been too slow about clearing out of Moscow); but as I was only just ten I was not in the least alarmed, and rushed through the crowd to the very door of the palace when Napoleon alighted from his horse.”

“Undoubtedly, at ten years old you would not have felt the sense of fear, as you say,” blurted out the prince, horribly uncomfortable in the sensation that he was just about to blush.

“Of course; and it all happened so easily and naturally. And yet, were a novelist to describe the episode, he would put in all kinds of impossible and incredible details.”

“Oh,” cried the prince, “I have often thought that! Why, I know of a murder, for the sake of a watch. It’s in all the papers now. But if some writer had invented it, all the critics would have jumped down his throat and said the thing was too improbable for anything. And yet you read it in the paper, and you can’t help thinking that out of these strange disclosures is to be gained the full knowledge of Russian life and character. You said that well, general; it is so true,” concluded the prince, warmly, delighted to have found a refuge from the fiery blushes which had covered his face.

“Yes, it’s quite true, isn’t it?” cried the general, his eyes sparkling with gratification. “A small boy, a child, would naturally realize no danger; he would shove his way through the crowds to see the shine and glitter of the uniforms, and especially the great man of whom everyone was speaking, for at that time all the world had been talking of no one but this man for some years past. The world was full of his name; I— so to speak — drew it in with my mother’s milk. Napoleon, passing a couple of paces from me, caught sight of me accidentally. I was very well dressed, and being all alone, in that crowd, as you will easily imagine . . .

“Oh, of course! Naturally the sight impressed him, and proved to him that not ALL the aristocracy had left Moscow; that at least some nobles and their children had remained behind.”

Just so just so! He wanted to win over the aristocracy! When his eagle eye fell on me, mine probably flashed back in response.’ Voila un garcon bien eveille! Qui est ton pere?’ I immediately replied, almost panting with excitement, ‘A general, who died on the battle-fields of his country! “Le fils d’un boyard et d’un brave, pardessus le marche. J’aime les boyards. M’aimes-tu, petit?’ To this keen question I replied as keenly, ‘The Russian heart can recognize a great man even in the bitter enemy of his country.’ At least, I don’t remember the exact words, you know, but the idea was as I say. Napoleon was struck; he thought a minute and then said to his suite: ‘I like that boy’s pride; if all Russians think like this child’, then he didn’t finish, hut went on and entered the palace. I instantly mixed with his suite, and followed him. I was already in high favour. I remember when he came into the first hall, the emperor stopped before a portrait of the Empress Katherine, and after a thoughtful glance remarked, ‘That was a great woman,’ and passed on.

“Well, in a couple of days I was known all over the palace and the Kremlin as ‘le petit boyard.’ I only went home to sleep. They were nearly out of their minds about me at home. A couple of days after this, Napoleon’s page, De Bazancour, died; he had not been able to stand the trials of the campaign. Napoleon remembered me; I was taken away without explanation; the dead page’s uniform was tried on me, and when I was taken before the emperor, dressed in it, he nodded his head to me, and I was told that I was appointed to the vacant post of page.

“Well, I was glad enough, for I had long felt the greatest sympathy for this man; and then the pretty uniform and all that — only a child, you know — and so on. It was a dark green dress coat with gold buttons — red facings, white trousers, and a white silk waistcoat — silk stockings, shoes with buckles, and top-boots if I were riding out with his majesty or with the suite.

“Though the position of all of us at that time was not particularly brilliant, and the poverty was dreadful all round, yet the etiquette at court was strictly preserved, and the more strictly in proportion to the growth of the forebodings of disaster.”

“Quite so, quite so, of course!” murmured the poor prince, who didn’t know where to look. “Your memoirs would be most interesting.”

The general was, of course, repeating what he had told Lebedeff the night before, and thus brought it out glibly enough, but here he looked suspiciously at the prince out of the corners of his eyes.

“My memoirs!” he began, with redoubled pride and dignity. “Write my memoirs? The idea has not tempted me. And yet, if you please, my memoirs have long been written, but they shall not see the light until dust returns to dust. Then, I doubt not, they will be translated into all languages, not of course on account of their actual literary merit, but because of the great events of which I was the actual witness, though but a child at the time. As a child, I was able to penetrate into the secrecy of the great man’s private room. At nights I have heard the groans and wailings of this ‘giant in distress.’ He could feel no shame in weeping before such a mere child as I was, though I understood even then that the reason for his suffering was the silence of the Emperor Alexander.”

“Yes, of course; he had written letters to the latter with proposals of peace, had he not?” put in the prince.

“We did not know the details of his proposals, but he wrote letter after letter, all day and every day. He was dreadfully agitated. Sometimes at night I would throw myself upon his breast with tears (Oh, how I loved that man!). ‘Ask forgiveness, Oh, ask forgiveness of the Emperor Alexander!’ I would cry. I should have said, of course, ‘Make peace with Alexander,’ but as a child I expressed my idea in the naive way recorded. ‘Oh, my child,’ he would say (he loved to talk to me and seemed to forget my tender years), ‘Oh, my child, I am ready to kiss Alexander’s feet, but I hate and abominate the King of Prussia and the Austrian Emperor, and — and — but you know nothing of politics, my child.’ He would pull up, remembering whom he was speaking to, but his eyes would sparkle for a long while after this. Well now, if I were to describe all this, and I have seen greater events than these, all these critical gentlemen of the press and political parties — Oh, no thanks! I’m their very humble servant, but no thanks!”

“Quite so — parties — you are very right,” said the prince. “I was reading a book about Napoleon and the Waterloo campaign only the other day, by Charasse, in which the author does not attempt to conceal his joy at Napoleon’s discomfiture at every page. Well now, I don’t like that; it smells of ‘party,’ you know. You are quite right. And were you much occupied with your service under Napoleon?”

The general was in ecstasies, for the prince’s remarks, made, as they evidently were, in all seriousness and simplicity, quite dissipated the last relics of his suspicion.

“I know Charasse’s book! Oh! I was so angry with his work! I wrote to him and said — I forget what, at this moment. You ask whether I was very busy under the Emperor? Oh no! I was called ‘page,’ but hardly took my duty seriously. Besides, Napoleon very soon lost hope of conciliating the Russians, and he would have forgotten all about me had he not loved me — for personal reasons — I don’t mind saying so now. My heart was greatly drawn to him, too. My duties were light. I merely had to be at the palace occasionally to escort the Emperor out riding, and that was about all. I rode very fairly well. He used to have a ride before dinner, and his suite on those occasions were generally Davoust, myself, and Roustan.”

“Constant?” said the prince, suddenly, and quite involuntarily.

“No; Constant was away then, taking a letter to the Empress Josephine. Instead of him there were always a couple of orderlies — and that was all, excepting, of course, the generals and marshals whom Napoleon always took with him for the inspection of various localities, and for the sake of consultation generally. I remember there was one — Davoust — nearly always with him — a big man with spectacles. They used to argue and quarrel sometimes. Once they were in the Emperor’s study together — just those two and myself — I was unobserved — and they argued, and the Emperor seemed to be agreeing to something under protest. Suddenly his eye fell on me and an idea seemed to flash across him.

“‘Child,’ he said, abruptly. ‘If I were to recognize the Russian orthodox religion and emancipate the serfs, do you think Russia would come over to me?’”

“‘Never!’ I cried, indignantly.”

“The Emperor was much struck.”

“‘In the flashing eyes of this patriotic child I read and accept the fiat of the Russian people. Enough, Davoust, it is mere phantasy on our part. Come, let’s hear your other project.’”

“‘Yes, but that was a great idea,” said the prince, clearly interested. “You ascribe it to Davoust, do you?”

“Well, at all events, they were consulting together at the time. Of course it was the idea of an eagle, and must have originated with Napoleon; but the other project was good too — it was the ‘Conseil du lion!’ as Napoleon called it. This project consisted in a proposal to occupy the Kremlin with the whole army; to arm and fortify it scientifically, to kill as many horses as could be got, and salt their flesh, and spend the winter there; and in spring to fight their way out. Napoleon liked the idea — it attracted him. We rode round the Kremlin walls every day, and Napoleon used to give orders where they were to be patched, where built up, where pulled down and so on. All was decided at last. They were alone together — those two and myself.

“Napoleon was walking up and down with folded arms. I could not take my eyes off his face — my heart beat loudly and painfully.

“‘I’m off,’ said Davoust. ‘Where to?’ asked Napoleon.

“‘To salt horse-flesh,’ said Davoust. Napoleon shuddered — his fate was being decided.

“‘Child,’ he addressed me suddenly, ‘what do you think of our plan?’ Of course he only applied to me as a sort of toss-up, you know. I turned to Davoust and addressed my reply to him. I said, as though inspired:

“‘Escape, general! Go home! —’

“The project was abandoned; Davoust shrugged his shoulders and went out, whispering to himself —‘Bah, il devient superstitieux!’ Next morning the order to retreat was given.”

“All this is most interesting,” said the prince, very softly, “if it really was so — that is, I mean —” he hastened to correct himself.

“Oh, my dear prince,” cried the general, who was now so intoxicated with his own narrative that he probably could not have pulled up at the most patent indiscretion.

“You say, if it really was so!’ There was more — much more, I assure you! These are merely a few little political acts. I tell you I was the eye-witness of the nightly sorrow and groanings of the great man, and of that no one can speak but myself. Towards the end he wept no more, though he continued to emit an occasional groan; but his face grew more overcast day by day, as though Eternity were wrapping its gloomy mantle about him. Occasionally we passed whole hours of silence together at night, Roustan snoring in the next room — that fellow slept like a pig. ‘But he’s loyal to me and my dynasty,’ said Napoleon of him.

“Sometimes it was very painful to me, and once he caught me with tears in my eyes. He looked at me kindly. ‘You are sorry for me,’ he said, ‘you, my child, and perhaps one other child — my son, the King of Rome — may grieve for me. All the rest hate me; and my brothers are the first to betray me in misfortune.’ I sobbed and threw myself into his arms. He could not resist me — he burst into tears, and our tears mingled as we folded each other in a close embrace.

“‘Write, oh, write a letter to the Empress Josephine!’ I cried, sobbing. Napoleon started, reflected, and said, ‘You remind me of a third heart which loves me. Thank you, my friend;’ and then and there he sat down and wrote that letter to Josephine, with which Constant was sent off next day.”

“You did a good action,” said the prince, “for in the midst of his angry feelings you insinuated a kind thought into his heart.”

“Just so, prince, just so. How well you bring out that fact! Because your own heart is good!” cried the ecstatic old gentleman, and, strangely enough, real tears glistened in his eyes.” Yes, prince, it was a wonderful spectacle. And, do you know, I all but went off to Paris, and should assuredly have shared his solitary exile with him; but, alas, our destinies were otherwise ordered! We parted, he to his island, where I am sure he thought of the weeping child who had embraced him so affectionately at parting in Moscow; and I was sent off to the cadet corps, where I found nothing but roughness and harsh discipline. Alas, my happy days were done!

“‘I do not wish to deprive your mother of you, and, therefore, I will not ask you to go with me,’ he said, the morning of his departure, ‘but I should like to do something for you.’ He was mounting his horse as he spoke. ‘Write something in my sister’s album for me,’ I said rather timidly, for he was in a state of great dejection at the moment. He turned, called for a pen, took the album. ‘How old is your sister?’ he asked, holding the pen in his hand. ‘Three years old,’ I said. ‘Ah, petite fille alors!’ and he wrote in the album:

‘Ne mentes jamais! NAPOLEON (votre ami sincere).’

“Such advice, and at such a moment, you must allow, prince, was —”

“Yes, quite so; very remarkable.”

“This page of the album, framed in gold, hung on the wall of my sister’s drawing-room all her life, in the most conspicuous place, till the day of her death; where it is now, I really don’t know. Heavens! it’s two o’clock! HOW I have kept you, prince! It is really most unpardonable of me.

The general rose.

“Oh, not in the least,” said the prince. “ On the contrary, I have been so much interested, I’m really very much obliged to you.”

“Prince,”, said the general, pressing his hand, and looking at him with flashing eyes, and an expression as though he were under the influence of a sudden thought which had come upon him with stunning force. “Prince, you are so kind, so simple-minded, that sometimes I really feel sorry for you! I gaze at you with a feeling of real affection. Oh, Heaven bless you! May your life blossom and fructify in love. Mine is over. Forgive me, forgive me!”

He left the room quickly, covering his face with his hands.

The prince could not doubt the sincerity of his agitation. He understood, too, that the old man had left the room intoxicated with his own success. The general belonged to that class of liars, who, in spite of their transports of lying, invariably suspect that they are not believed. On this occasion, when he recovered from his exaltation, he would probably suspect Muishkin of pitying him, and feel insulted.

“Have I been acting rightly in allowing him to develop such vast resources of imagination?” the prince asked himself. But his answer was a fit of violent laughter which lasted ten whole minutes. He tried to reproach himself for the laughing fit, but eventually concluded that he needn’t do so, since in spite of it he was truly sorry for the old man. The same evening he received a strange letter, short but decided. The general informed him that they must part for ever; that he was grateful, but that even from him he could not accept “signs of sympathy which were humiliating to the dignity of a man already miserable enough.”

When the prince heard that the old man had gone to Nina Alexandrovna, though, he felt almost easy on his account.

We have seen, however, that the general paid a visit to Lizabetha Prokofievna and caused trouble there, the final upshot being that he frightened Mrs. Epanchin, and angered her by bitter hints as to his son Gania.

He had been turned out in disgrace, eventually, and this was the cause of his bad night and quarrelsome day, which ended in his sudden departure into the street in a condition approaching insanity, as recorded before.

Colia did not understand the position. He tried severity with his father, as they stood in the street after the latter had cursed the household, hoping to bring him round that way.

“Well, where are we to go to now, father?” he asked. “You don’t want to go to the prince’s; you have quarrelled with Lebedeff; you have no money; I never have any; and here we are in the middle of the road, in a nice sort of mess.”

“Better to be of a mess than in a mess! I remember making a joke something like that at the mess in eighteen hundred and forty — forty — I forget. ‘Where is my youth, where is my golden youth?’ Who was it said that, Colia?”

“It was Gogol, in Dead Souls, father,” cried Colia, glancing at him in some alarm.

“‘Dead Souls,’ yes, of course, dead. When I die, Colia, you must engrave on my tomb:

“‘Here lies a Dead Soul, Shame pursues me.’

“Who said that, Colia?”

“I don’t know, father.”

“There was no Eropegoff? Eroshka Eropegoff?” he cried, suddenly, stopping in the road in a frenzy. “No Eropegoff! And my own son to say it! Eropegoff was in the place of a brother to me for eleven months. I fought a duel for him. He was married afterwards, and then killed on the field of battle. The bullet struck the cross on my breast and glanced off straight into his temple. ‘I’ll never forget you,’ he cried, and expired. I served my country well and honestly, Colia, but shame, shame has pursued me! You and Nina will come to my grave, Colia; poor Nina, I always used to call her Nina in the old days, and how she loved. . . . Nina, Nina, oh, Nina. What have I ever done to deserve your forgiveness and long-suffering? Oh, Colia, your mother has an angelic spirit, an angelic spirit, Colia!”

“I know that, father. Look here, dear old father, come back home! Let’s go back to mother. Look, she ran after us when we came out. What have you stopped her for, just as though you didn’t take in what I said? Why are you crying, father?”

Poor Colia cried himself, and kissed the old man’s hands

“You kiss my hands, MINE?”

“Yes, yes, yours, yours! What is there to surprise anyone in that? Come, come, you mustn’t go on like this, crying in the middle of the road; and you a general too, a military man! Come, let’s go back.”

“God bless you, dear boy, for being respectful to a disgraced man. Yes, to a poor disgraced old fellow, your father. You shall have such a son yourself; le roi de Rome. Oh, curses on this house!”

“Come, come, what does all this mean?” cried Colia beside himself at last. “What is it? What has happened to you? Why don’t you wish to come back home? Why have you gone out of your mind, like this?”

“I’ll explain it, I’ll explain all to you. Don’t shout! You shall hear. Le roi de Rome. Oh, I am sad, I am melancholy!

“‘Nurse, where is your tomb?’”

“Who said that, Colia?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know who said it. Come home at once; come on! I’ll punch Gania’s head myself, if you like — only come. Oh, where are you off to again?” The general was dragging him away towards the door a house near. He sat down on the step, still holding Colia by the hand.

“Bend down — bend down your ear. I’ll tell you all — disgrace — bend down, I’ll tell you in your ear.”

“What are you dreaming of?” said poor, frightened Colia, stooping down towards the old man, all the same.

“Le roi de Rome,” whispered the general, trembling all over.

“What? What DO you mean? What roi de Rome?”

“I-I,” the general continued to whisper, clinging more and more tightly to the boy’s shoulder. “I— wish — to tell you — all — Maria — Maria Petrovna — Su — Su — Su. . . . . . . ”

Colia broke loose, seized his father by the shoulders, and stared into his eyes with frenzied gaze. The old man had grown livid — his lips were shaking, convulsions were passing over his features. Suddenly he leant over and began to sink slowly into Colia’s arms.

“He’s got a stroke!” cried Colia, loudly, realizing what was the matter at last.

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