The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter VIII.

The flat occupied by Gania and his family was on the third floor of the house. It was reached by a clean light staircase, and consisted of seven rooms, a nice enough lodging, and one would have thought a little too good for a clerk on two thousand roubles a year. But it was designed to accommodate a few lodgers on board terms, and had beer) taken a few months since, much to the disgust of Gania, at the urgent request of his mother and his sister, Varvara Ardalionovna, who longed to do something to increase the family income a little, and fixed their hopes upon letting lodgings. Gania frowned upon the idea. He thought it infra dig, and did not quite like appearing in society afterwards — that society in which he had been accustomed to pose up to now as a young man of rather brilliant prospects. All these concessions and rebuffs of fortune, of late, had wounded his spirit severely, and his temper had become extremely irritable, his wrath being generally quite out of proportion to the cause. But if he had made up his mind to put up with this sort of life for a while, it was only on the plain understanding with his inner self that he would very soon change it all, and have things as he chose again. Yet the very means by which he hoped to make this change threatened to involve him in even greater difficulties than he had had before.

The flat was divided by a passage which led straight out of the entrance-hall. Along one side of this corridor lay the three rooms which were designed for the accommodation of the “highly recommended” lodgers. Besides these three rooms there was another small one at the end of the passage, close to the kitchen, which was allotted to General Ivolgin, the nominal master of the house, who slept on a wide sofa, and was obliged to pass into and out of his room through the kitchen, and up or down the back stairs. Colia, Gania’s young brother, a school-boy of thirteen, shared this room with his father. He, too, had to sleep on an old sofa, a narrow, uncomfortable thing with a torn rug over it; his chief duty being to look after his father, who needed to be watched more and more every day.

The prince was given the middle room of the three, the first being occupied by one Ferdishenko, while the third was empty.

But Gania first conducted the prince to the family apartments. These consisted of a “salon,” which became the dining-room when required; a drawing-room, which was only a drawing-room in the morning, and became Gania’s study in the evening, and his bedroom at night; and lastly Nina Alexandrovna’s and Varvara’s bedroom, a small, close chamber which they shared together.

In a word, the whole place was confined, and a “tight fit” for the party. Gania used to grind his teeth with rage over the state of affairs; though he was anxious to be dutiful and polite to his mother. However, it was very soon apparent to anyone coming into the house, that Gania was the tyrant of the family.

Nina Alexandrovna and her daughter were both seated in the drawing-room, engaged in knitting, and talking to a visitor, Ivan Petrovitch Ptitsin.

The lady of the house appeared to be a woman of about fifty years of age, thin-faced, and with black lines under the eves. She looked ill and rather sad; but her face was a pleasant one for all that; and from the first word that fell from her lips, any stranger would at once conclude that she was of a serious and particularly sincere nature. In spite of her sorrowful expression, she gave the idea of possessing considerable firmness and decision.

Her dress was modest and simple to a degree, dark and elderly in style; but both her face and appearance gave evidence that she had seen better days.

Varvara was a girl of some twenty-three summers, of middle height, thin, but possessing a face which, without being actually beautiful, had the rare quality of charm, and might fascinate even to the extent of passionate regard.

She was very like her mother: she even dressed like her, which proved that she had no taste for smart clothes. The expression of her grey eyes was merry and gentle, when it was not, as lately, too full of thought and anxiety. The same decision and firmness was to be observed in her face as in her mother’s, but her strength seemed to be more vigorous than that of Nina Alexandrovna. She was subject to outbursts of temper, of which even her brother was a little afraid.

The present visitor, Ptitsin, was also afraid of her. This was a young fellow of something under thirty, dressed plainly, but neatly. His manners were good, but rather ponderously so. His dark beard bore evidence to the fact that he was not in any government employ. He could speak well, but preferred silence. On the whole he made a decidedly agreeable impression. He was clearly attracted by Varvara, and made no secret of his feelings. She trusted him in a friendly way, but had not shown him any decided encouragement as yet, which fact did not quell his ardour in the least.

Nina Alexandrovna was very fond of him, and had grown quite confidential with him of late. Ptitsin, as was well known, was engaged in the business of lending out money on good security, and at a good rate of interest. He was a great friend of Gania’s.

After a formal introduction by Gania (who greeted his mother very shortly, took no notice of his sister, and immediately marched Ptitsin out of the room), Nina Alexandrovna addressed a few kind words to the prince and forthwith requested Colia, who had just appeared at the door, to show him to the “ middle room.”

Colia was a nice-looking boy. His expression was simple and confiding, and his manners were very polite and engaging.

“Where’s your luggage?” he asked, as he led the prince away to his room.

“I had a bundle; it’s in the entrance hall.”

“I’ll bring it you directly. We only have a cook and one maid, so I have to help as much as I can. Varia looks after things, generally, and loses her temper over it. Gania says you have only just arrived from Switzerland? ”

“Yes.”

“Is it jolly there?”

“Very.”

“Mountains?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll go and get your bundle.”

Here Varvara joined them.

“The maid shall bring your bed-linen directly. Have you a portmanteau?”

“No; a bundle — your brother has just gone to the hall for it.”

“There’s nothing there except this,” said Colia, returning at this moment. “Where did you put it?”

“Oh! but that’s all I have,” said the prince, taking it.

“Ah! I thought perhaps Ferdishenko had taken it.”

“Don’t talk nonsense,” said Varia, severely. She seemed put out, and was only just polite with the prince.

“Oho!” laughed the boy, “you can be nicer than that to ME, you know — I’m not Ptitsin!”

“You ought to be whipped, Colia, you silly boy. If you want anything” (to the prince) “please apply to the servant. We dine at half-past four. You can take your dinner with us, or have it in your room, just as you please. Come along, Colia, don’t disturb the prince.”

At the door they met Gania coming in.

“Is father in?” he asked. Colia whispered something in his ear and went out.

“Just a couple of words, prince, if you’ll excuse me. Don’t blab over THERE about what you may see here, or in this house as to all that about Aglaya and me, you know. Things are not altogether pleasant in this establishment — devil take it all! You’ll see. At all events keep your tongue to yourself for TODAY.”

“I assure you I ‘blabbed’ a great deal less than you seem to suppose,” said the prince, with some annoyance. Clearly the relations between Gania and himself were by no means improving.

“Oh I well; I caught it quite hot enough today, thanks to you. However, I forgive you.”

“I think you might fairly remember that I was not in any way bound, I had no reason to be silent about that portrait. You never asked me not to mention it.”

“Pfu! what a wretched room this is — dark, and the window looking into the yard. Your coming to our house is, in no respect, opportune. However, it’s not MY affair. I don’t keep the lodgings.”

Ptitsin here looked in and beckoned to Gania, who hastily left the room, in spite of the fact that he had evidently wished to say something more and had only made the remark about the room to gain time. The prince had hardly had time to wash and tidy himself a little when the door opened once more, and another figure appeared.

This was a gentleman of about thirty, tall, broadshouldered, and red-haired; his face was red, too, and he possessed a pair of thick lips, a wide nose, small eyes, rather bloodshot, and with an ironical expression in them; as though he were perpetually winking at someone. His whole appearance gave one the idea of impudence; his dress was shabby.

He opened the door just enough to let his head in. His head remained so placed for a few seconds while he quietly scrutinized the room; the door then opened enough to admit his body; but still he did not enter. He stood on the threshold and examined the prince carefully. At last he gave the door a final shove, entered, approached the prince, took his hand and seated himself and the owner of the room on two chairs side by side.

“Ferdishenko,” he said, gazing intently and inquiringly into the prince’s eyes.

“Very well, what next?” said the latter, almost laughing in his face.

“A lodger here,” continued the other, staring as before.

“Do you wish to make acquaintance?” asked the prince.

“Ah!” said the visitor, passing his fingers through his hair and sighing. He then looked over to the other side of the room and around it. “Got any money?” he asked, suddenly.

“Not much.”

“How much?”

“Twenty-five roubles.”

“Let’s see it.”

The prince took his banknote out and showed it to Ferdishenko. The latter unfolded it and looked at it; then he turned it round and examined the other side; then he held it up to the light.

“How strange that it should have browned so,” he said, reflectively. “These twenty-five rouble notes brown in a most extraordinary way, while other notes often grow paler. Take it.”

The prince took his note. Ferdishenko rose.

“I came here to warn you,” he said. “In the first place, don’t lend me any money, for I shall certainly ask you to.”

“Very well.”

“Shall you pay here?”

“Yes, I intend to.”

“Oh! I DON’T intend to. Thanks. I live here, next door to you; you noticed a room, did you? Don’t come to me very often; I shall see you here quite often enough. Have you seen the general?”

“No.”

“Nor heard him?”

“No; of course not.”

“Well, you’ll both hear and see him soon; he even tries to borrow money from me. Avis au lecteur. Good-bye; do you think a man can possibly live with a name like Ferdishenko?”

“Why not?”

“Good-bye.”

And so he departed. The prince found out afterwards that this gentleman made it his business to amaze people with his originality and wit, but that it did not as a rule “come off.” He even produced a bad impression on some people, which grieved him sorely; but he did not change his ways for all that.

As he went out of the prince’s room, he collided with yet another visitor coming in. Ferdishenko took the opportunity of making several warning gestures to the prince from behind the new arrival’s back, and left the room in conscious pride.

This next arrival was a tall red-faced man of about fifty-five, with greyish hair and whiskers, and large eyes which stood out of their sockets. His appearance would have been distinguished had it not been that he gave the idea of being rather dirty. He was dressed in an old coat, and he smelled of vodka when he came near. His walk was effective, and he clearly did his best to appear dignified, and to impress people by his manner.

This gentleman now approached the prince slowly, and with a most courteous smile; silently took his hand and held it in his own, as he examined the prince’s features as though searching for familiar traits therein.

“’Tis he, ’tis he!” he said at last, quietly, but with much solemnity. “As though he were alive once more. I heard the familiar name-the dear familiar name — and, oh. I how it reminded me of the irrevocable past — Prince Muishkin, I believe?”

“Exactly so.”

“General Ivolgin — retired and unfortunate. May I ask your Christian and generic names?”

“Lef Nicolaievitch.”

“So, so — the son of my old, I may say my childhood’s friend, Nicolai Petrovitch.”

“My father’s name was Nicolai Lvovitch.”

“Lvovitch,” repeated the general without the slightest haste, and with perfect confidence, just as though he had not committed himself the least in the world, but merely made a little slip of the tongue. He sat down, and taking the prince’s hand, drew him to a seat next to himself.

“I carried you in my arms as a baby,” he observed.

“Really?” asked the prince. “Why, it’s twenty years since my father died.”

“Yes, yes — twenty years and three months. We were educated together; I went straight into the army, and he —”

“My father went into the army, too. He was a sub-lieutenant in the Vasiliefsky regiment.”

“No, sir — in the Bielomirsky; he changed into the latter shortly before his death. I was at his bedside when he died, and gave him my blessing for eternity. Your mother —” The general paused, as though overcome with emotion.

“She died a few months later, from a cold,” said the prince.

“Oh, not cold — believe an old man — not from a cold, but from grief for her prince. Oh — your mother, your mother! heigh-ho! Youth — youth! Your father and I— old friends as we were — nearly murdered each other for her sake.”

The prince began to be a little incredulous.

“I was passionately in love with her when she was engaged — engaged to my friend. The prince noticed the fact and was furious. He came and woke me at seven o’clock one morning. I rise and dress in amazement; silence on both sides. I understand it all. He takes a couple of pistols out of his pocket — across a handkerchief — without witnesses. Why invite witnesses when both of us would be walking in eternity in a couple of minutes? The pistols are loaded; we stretch the handkerchief and stand opposite one another. We aim the pistols at each other’s hearts. Suddenly tears start to our eyes, our hands shake; we weep, we embrace — the battle is one of self-sacrifice now! The prince shouts, ‘She is yours;’ I cry, ‘She is yours —’ in a word, in a word — You’ve come to live with us, hey?”

“Yes — yes — for a while, I think,” stammered the prince.

“Prince, mother begs you to come to her,” said Colia, appearing at the door.

The prince rose to go, but the general once more laid his hand in a friendly manner on his shoulder, and dragged him down on to the sofa.

“As the true friend of your father, I wish to say a few words to you,” he began. “I have suffered — there was a catastrophe. I suffered without a trial; I had no trial. Nina Alexandrovna my wife, is an excellent woman, so is my daughter Varvara. We have to let lodgings because we are poor — a dreadful, unheard-of come-down for us — for me, who should have been a governor-general; but we are very glad to have YOU, at all events. Meanwhile there is a tragedy in the house.”

The prince looked inquiringly at the other.

“Yes, a marriage is being arranged — a marriage between a questionable woman and a young fellow who might be a flunkey. They wish to bring this woman into the house where my wife and daughter reside, but while I live and breathe she shall never enter my doors. I shall lie at the threshold, and she shall trample me underfoot if she does. I hardly talk to Gania now, and avoid him as much as I can. I warn you of this beforehand, but you cannot fail to observe it. But you are the son of my old friend, and I hope —”

“Prince, be so kind as to come to me for a moment in the drawing-room,” said Nina Alexandrovna herself, appearing at the door.

“Imagine, my dear,” cried the general, “it turns out that I have nursed the prince on my knee in the old days.” His wife looked searchingly at him, and glanced at the prince, but said nothing. The prince rose and followed her; but hardly had they reached the drawing-room, and Nina Alexandrovna had begun to talk hurriedly, when in came the general. She immediately relapsed into silence. The master of the house may have observed this, but at all events he did not take any notice of it; he was in high good humour.

“A son of my old friend, dear,” he cried; “surely you must remember Prince Nicolai Lvovitch? You saw him at — at Tver.”

“I don’t remember any Nicolai Lvovitch, Was that your father?” she inquired of the prince.

“Yes, but he died at Elizabethgrad, not at Tver,” said the prince, rather timidly. “So Pavlicheff told me.”

“No, Tver,” insisted the general; “he removed just before his death. You were very small and cannot remember; and Pavlicheff, though an excellent fellow, may have made a mistake.”

“You knew Pavlicheff then?”

“Oh, yes — a wonderful fellow; but I was present myself. I gave him my blessing.”

“My father was just about to be tried when he died,” said the prince, “although I never knew of what he was accused. He died in hospital.”

“Oh! it was the Kolpakoff business, and of course he would have been acquitted.”

“Yes? Do you know that for a fact?” asked the prince, whose curiosity was aroused by the general’s words.

“I should think so indeed!” cried the latter. “The court-martial came to no decision. It was a mysterious, an impossible business, one might say! Captain Larionoff, commander of the company, had died; his command was handed over to the prince for the moment. Very well. This soldier, Kolpakoff, stole some leather from one of his comrades, intending to sell it, and spent the money on drink. Well! The prince — you understand that what follows took place in the presence of the sergeant-major, and a corporal — the prince rated Kolpakoff soundly, and threatened to have him flogged. Well, Kolpakoff went back to the barracks, lay down on a camp bedstead, and in a quarter of an hour was dead: you quite understand? It was, as I said, a strange, almost impossible, affair. In due course Kolpakoff was buried; the prince wrote his report, the deceased’s name was removed from the roll. All as it should be, is it not? But exactly three months later at the inspection of the brigade, the man Kolpakoff was found in the third company of the second battalion of infantry, Novozemlianski division, just as if nothing had happened!”

“What?” said the prince, much astonished.

“It did not occur — it’s a mistake!” said Nina Alexandrovna quickly, looking, at the prince rather anxiously. “Mon mari se trompe,” she added, speaking in French.

“My dear, ‘se trompe’ is easily said. Do you remember any case at all like it? Everybody was at their wits’ end. I should be the first to say ‘qu’on se trompe,’ but unfortunately I was an eye-witness, and was also on the commission of inquiry. Everything proved that it was really he, the very same soldier Kolpakoff who had been given the usual military funeral to the sound of the drum. It is of course a most curious case — nearly an impossible one. I recognize that . . . but —”

“Father, your dinner is ready,” said Varvara at this point, putting her head in at the door.

“Very glad, I’m particularly hungry. Yes, yes, a strange coincidence — almost a psychological —”

“Your soup’ll be cold; do come.”

“Coming, coming “ said the general. “Son of my old friend —” he was heard muttering as he went down the passage.

“You will have to excuse very much in my husband, if you stay with us,” said Nina Alexandrovna; “but he will not disturb you often. He dines alone. Everyone has his little peculiarities, you know, and some people perhaps have more than those who are most pointed at and laughed at. One thing I must beg of you-if my husband applies to you for payment for board and lodging, tell him that you have already paid me. Of course anything paid by you to the general would be as fully settled as if paid to me, so far as you are concerned; but I wish it to be so, if you please, for convenience’ sake. What is it, Varia?”

Varia had quietly entered the room, and was holding out the portrait of Nastasia Philipovna to her mother.

Nina Alexandrovna started, and examined the photograph intently, gazing at it long and sadly. At last she looked up inquiringly at Varia.

“It’s a present from herself to him,” said Varia; “the question is to be finally decided this evening.”

“This evening!” repeated her mother in a tone of despair, but softly, as though to herself. “Then it’s all settled, of course, and there’s no hope left to us. She has anticipated her answer by the present of her portrait. Did he show it you himself?” she added, in some surprise.

“You know we have hardly spoken to each other for a whole month. Ptitsin told me all about it; and the photo was lying under the table, and I picked it up.”

“Prince,” asked Nina Alexandrovna, “I wanted to inquire whether you have known my son long? I think he said that you had only arrived today from somewhere.”

The prince gave a short narrative of what we have heard before, leaving out the greater part. The two ladies listened intently.

“I did not ask about Gania out of curiosity,” said the elder, at last. “I wish to know how much you know about him, because he said just now that we need not stand on ceremony with you. What, exactly, does that mean?”

At this moment Gania and Ptitsin entered the room together, and Nina Alexandrovna immediately became silent again. The prince remained seated next to her, but Varia moved to the other end of the room; the portrait of Nastasia Philipovna remained lying as before on the work-table. Gania observed it there, and with a frown of annoyance snatched it up and threw it across to his writing-table, which stood at the other end of the room.

“Is it today, Gania?” asked Nina Alexandrovna, at last.

“Is what today?” cried the former. Then suddenly recollecting himself, he turned sharply on the prince. “Oh,” he growled, “I see, you are here, that explains it! Is it a disease, or what, that you can’t hold your tongue? Look here, understand once for all, prince —”

“I am to blame in this, Gania — no one else,” said Ptitsin.

Gania glanced inquiringly at the speaker.

“It’s better so, you know, Gania — especially as, from one point of view, the matter may be considered as settled,” said Ptitsin; and sitting down a little way from the table he began to study a paper covered with pencil writing.

Gania stood and frowned, he expected a family scene. He never thought of apologizing to the prince, however.

“If it’s all settled, Gania, then of course Mr. Ptitsin is right,” said Nina Alexandrovna. “Don’t frown. You need not worry yourself, Gania; I shall ask you no questions. You need not tell me anything you don’t like. I assure you I have quite submitted to your will.” She said all this, knitting away the while as though perfectly calm and composed.

Gania was surprised, but cautiously kept silence and looked at his mother, hoping that she would express herself more clearly. Nina Alexandrovna observed his cautiousness and added, with a bitter smile:

“You are still suspicious, I see, and do not believe me; but you may be quite at your ease. There shall be no more tears, nor questions — not from my side, at all events. All I wish is that you may be happy, you know that. I have submitted to my fate; but my heart will always be with you, whether we remain united, or whether we part. Of course I only answer for myself — you can hardly expect your sister —”

“My sister again,” cried Gania, looking at her with contempt and almost hate. “Look here, mother, I have already given you my word that I shall always respect you fully and absolutely, and so shall everyone else in this house, be it who it may, who shall cross this threshold.”

Gania was so much relieved that he gazed at his mother almost affectionately.

“I was not at all afraid for myself, Gania, as you know well. It was not for my own sake that I have been so anxious and worried all this time! They say it is all to be settled to-day. What is to be settled?”

“She has promised to tell me tonight at her own house whether she consents or not,” replied Gania.

“We have been silent on this subject for three weeks,” said his mother, “and it was better so; and now I will only ask you one question. How can she give her consent and make you a present of her portrait when you do not love her? How can such a — such a —”

“Practised hand — eh?”

“I was not going to express myself so. But how could you so blind her?”

Nina Alexandrovna’s question betrayed intense annoyance. Gania waited a moment and then said, without taking the trouble to conceal the irony of his tone:

“There you are, mother, you are always like that. You begin by promising that there are to be no reproaches or insinuations or questions, and here you are beginning them at once. We had better drop the subject — we had, really. I shall never leave you, mother; any other man would cut and run from such a sister as this. See how she is looking at me at this moment! Besides, how do you know that I am blinding Nastasia Philipovna? As for Varia, I don’t care — she can do just as she pleases. There, that’s quite enough!”

Gania’s irritation increased with every word he uttered, as he walked up and down the room. These conversations always touched the family sores before long.

“I have said already that the moment she comes in I go out, and I shall keep my word,” remarked Varia.

“Out of obstinacy” shouted Gania. “You haven’t married, either, thanks to your obstinacy. Oh, you needn’t frown at me, Varvara! You can go at once for all I care; I am sick enough of your company. What, you are going to leave us are you, too?” he cried, turning to the prince, who was rising from his chair.

Gania’s voice was full of the most uncontrolled and uncontrollable irritation.

The prince turned at the door to say something, but perceiving in Gania’s expression that there was but that one drop wanting to make the cup overflow, he changed his mind and left the room without a word. A few minutes later he was aware from the noisy voices in the drawing room, that the conversation had become more quarrelsome than ever after his departure.

He crossed the salon and the entrance-hall, so as to pass down the corridor into his own room. As he came near the front door he heard someone outside vainly endeavouring to ring the bell, which was evidently broken, and only shook a little, without emitting any sound.

The prince took down the chain and opened the door. He started back in amazement — for there stood Nastasia Philipovna. He knew her at once from her photograph. Her eyes blazed with anger as she looked at him. She quickly pushed by him into the hall, shouldering him out of her way, and said, furiously, as she threw off her fur cloak:

“If you are too lazy to mend your bell, you should at least wait in the hall to let people in when they rattle the bell handle. There, now, you’ve dropped my fur cloak — dummy!”

Sure enough the cloak was lying on the ground. Nastasia had thrown it off her towards the prince, expecting him to catch it, but the prince had missed it.

“Now then — announce me, quick!”

The prince wanted to say something, but was so confused and astonished that he could not. However, he moved off towards the drawing-room with the cloak over his arm.

“Now then, where are you taking my cloak to? Ha, ha, ha! Are you mad?”

The prince turned and came back, more confused than ever. When she burst out laughing, he smiled, but his tongue could not form a word as yet. At first, when he had opened the door and saw her standing before him, he had become as pale as death; but now the red blood had rushed back to his cheeks in a torrent.

“Why, what an idiot it is!” cried Nastasia, stamping her foot with irritation. “Go on, do! Whom are you going to announce?”

“Nastasia Philipovna,” murmured the prince.

“And how do you know that?” she asked him, sharply.

“I have never seen you before!”

“Go on, announce me — what’s that noise?”

“They are quarrelling,” said the prince, and entered the drawing-room, just as matters in there had almost reached a crisis. Nina Alexandrovna had forgotten that she had “submitted to everything!” She was defending Varia. Ptitsin was taking her part, too. Not that Varia was afraid of standing up for herself. She was by no means that sort of a girl; but her brother was becoming ruder and more intolerable every moment. Her usual practice in such cases as the present was to say nothing, but stare at him, without taking her eyes off his face for an instant. This manoeuvre, as she well knew, could drive Gania distracted.

Just at this moment the door opened and the prince entered, announcing:

“Nastasia Philipovna!”

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