The Insulted and the Injured, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter IV

I have mentioned already that he was a widower. He had married in his early youth, and married for money. From his parents in Moscow, who were completely ruined, he received hardly anything. Vassilyevskoe was mortgaged over and over again. It was encumbered with enormous debts. At twenty-two the prince, who was forced at that time to take service in a government department in Moscow, had not a farthing, and made his entrance into life as the “beggar offspring of an ancient line.” His marriage to the elderly daughter of a tax contractor saved him.

The contractor, of course, cheated him over the dowry, but anyway he was able with his wife’s money to buy back his estate, and to get on to his feet again. The contractor’s daughter, who had fallen to the prince’s lot, was scarcely able to write, could not put two words together, was ugly, and had only one great virtue: she was good-natured and submissive. The prince took the utmost advantage of this quality in her. After the first year of marriage, he left his wife, who had meanwhile borne him a son, at Moscow, in charge of her father, the contractor, and went off to serve, in another province, where, through the interest of a powerful relation in Petersburg, he obtained a prominent post. His soul thirsted for distinction, advancement, a career, and realizing that he could not live with his wife either in Petersburg or Moscow, he resolved to begin his career in the provinces until something better turned up. It is said that even in the first year of his marriage he wore his wife out by his brutal behaviour. This rumour always revolted Nikolay Sergeyitch, and he hotly defended the prince, declaring that he was incapable of a mean action. But seven years later his wife died, and the bereaved husband immediately returned to Petersburg. In Petersburg he actually caused some little sensation. With his fortune, his good looks and his youth, his many brilliant qualities, his wit, his taste, and his unfailing gaiety he appeared in Petersburg not as a toady and fortune-hunter, but as a man in a fairly independent position. It is said that there really was something fascinating about him; something dominating and powerful. He was extremely attractive to women, and an intrigue with a society beauty gave him a scandalous renown. He scattered money without stint in spite of his natural economy, which almost amounted to niggardliness; he lost money at cards when suitable, and could lose large sums without turning a hair. But he had not come to Petersburg for the sake of amusement. He was bent on making his career and finally establishing his position. He attained this object. Count Nainsky, his distinguished relative, who would have taken no notice of him if he had come as an ordinary applicant, was so struck by his success in society that he found it suitable and possible to show him particular attention, and even condescended to take his seven-year-old son to be brought up in his house. To this period belongs the prince’s visit to Vassilyevskoe and his acquaintance with Nikolay Sergeyitch. Attaining at last, through the influence of the count, a prominent post in one of the most important foreign embassies, he went abroad. Later, rumours of his doings were rather vague. People talked of some unpleasant adventure that had befallen him abroad, but no one could explain exactly what it was. All that was known was that he succeeded in buying an estate of four hundred serfs, as I have mentioned already. It was many years later that he returned from abroad; he was of high rank in the service and at once received a very prominent post in Petersburg. Rumours reached Ichmenyevka that he was about to make a second marriage which would connect him with a very wealthy, distinguished and powerful family. “He is on the high road to greatness,” said Nikolay Sergeyitch, rubbing his hands with pleasure. I was at Petersburg then, at the university, and I remember Nikolay Sergeyitch wrote on purpose to ask me to find out whether the report was true. He wrote to the prince, too, to solicit his interest for me, but the prince left the letter unanswered. I only knew that the prince’s son, who had been brought up first in the count’s household and afterwards at the lycee, had now finished his studies at the age of nineteen. I wrote about this to Nikolay Sergeyitch, and told him, too, that the prince was very fond of his son, and spoilt him, and was already making plans for his future. All this I learnt from fellow-students who knew the young prince. It was about this time, that one fine morning Nikolay Sergeyitch received a letter from Prince Valkovsky that greatly astonished him.

The prince, who had till now, as I have mentioned already, confined himself to dry business correspondence with Nikolay Sergeyitch, wrote to him now in the most minute, unreserved, and friendly way about his intimate affairs. He complained of his son, said that the boy was grieving him by his misconduct, that of course the pranks of such a lad were not to be taken too seriously (he was obviously trying to justify him), but that he had made up his mind to punish his son, to frighten him; in fact, to send him for some time into the country in charge of Nikolay Sergeyitch. The prince wrote that he was reckoning absolutely on “his kind-hearted, generous Nikolay Sergeyitch, and even more upon Anna Andreyevna.” He begged them both to receive the young scapegrace into their family, to teach him sense in solitude, to be fond of him if they could, and above all, to correct his frivolous character “by instilling the strict and salutary principles so essential to the conduct of life.” Nikolay Sergeyitch, of course, undertook the task with enthusiasm. The young prince arrived. They welcomed him like a son. Nikolay Sergeyitch very soon grew as fond of him as of his own Natasha. Even later on, after the final breach between the boy’s father and Nikolay Sergeyitch, the latter sometimes would brighten up speaking of his Alyosha, as he was accustomed to call Prince Alexey Petrovitch. He really was a very charming boy; handsome, delicate and nervous as a woman, though at the same time he was merry and simple-hearted, with an open soul capable of the noblest feelings, and a loving heart, candid, and grateful. He became the idol of the household. In spite of his nineteen years he was a perfect child. It was difficult to imagine what his father, who, it was said, loved him so much, could have sent him away for. It was said that he had led an idle and frivolous life in Petersburg, that he had disappointed his father by refusing to enter the service. Nikolay Sergeyitch did not question Alyosha, since the prince had evidently been reticent in his letter as to the real cause of his son’s banishment. There were rumours, however, of some unpardonable scrape of Alyosha’s, of some intrigue with a lady, of some challenge to a duel, of some incredible loss at cards; there was even talk of his having squandered other people’s money. There was also a rumour that the prince had decided to banish his son for no misdeed at all, but merely from certain purely egoistic motives. Nikolay Sergeyitch repelled this notion with indignation, especially as Alyosha was extraordinarily fond of his father, of whom he had known nothing throughout his childhood and boyhood. He talked of him with admiration and enthusiasm; it was evident that he was completely under his influence. Alyosha chattered sometimes, too, about a countess with whom both he and his father were flirting, and told how he, Alyosha, had cut his father out, and how dreadfully vexed his father was about it. He always told this story with delight, with childlike simplicity, with clear, merry laughter, but Nikolay Sergeyitch checked him at once. Alyosha also confirmed the report that his father was intending to marry.

He had already spent nearly a year in exile. He used to write at stated intervals respectful and sedate letters to his father, and at last was so at home in Vassilyevskoe that when his father himself came in the summer (giving Nikolay Sergeyitch warning of his visit beforehand), the exile began of himself begging his father to let him remain as long as possible at Vassilyevskoe, declaring that a country life was his real vocation. All Alyosha’s impulses and inclinations were the fruit of an excessive, nervous impressionability, a warm heart, and an irresponsibility which at times almost approached incoherence, an extreme susceptibility to every kind of external influence and a complete absence of will. But the prince listened somewhat suspiciously to his request . . . Altogether Nikolay Sergeyitch could hardly recognize his former “friend.” Prince Valkovsky was strangely altered. He suddenly became peculiarly captious with Nikolay Sergeyitch. When they went over the accounts of the estates lie betrayed a revolting greed, a niggardliness, and an incomprehensible suspiciousness. All this deeply wounded the good-hearted Nikolay Sergeyitch; for a long time he refused to believe his senses. Everything this time was just the opposite of what had happened during the first visit, fourteen years before. This time the prince made friends with all his neighbours, all who were of consequence, that is, of course. He did not once visit Nikolay Sergeyitch, and treated him as though he were his subordinate. Suddenly something inexplicable happened. Without any apparent reason a violent quarrel took place between the prince and Nikolay Sergeyitch. Heated, insulting words were overheard, uttered on both sides. Nikolay Sergeyitch indignantly left Vassilyevskoe, but the quarrel did not stop there. A revolting slander suddenly spread all over the neighbourhood. It was asserted that Nikolay Sergeyitch had seen through the young prince’s character, and was scheming to take advantage of his failings for his own objects; that his daughter, Natasha (who was then seventeen), had ensnared the affections of the twenty-year-old boy; that the parents had fostered this attachment though they had pretended to notice nothing; that the scheming and “unprincipled” Natasha had bewitched the youth, and that by her efforts he had been kept for a whole year from seeing any of the girls of good family who were so abundant in the honourable households of the neighbouring landowners. It was asserted that the lovers were already plotting to be married at the village of Grigoryevo, fifteen versts from Vassilyevskoe, ostensibly without the knowledge of Natasha’s parents, though really they knew all about it and were egging their daughter on with their abominable suggestions. In fact, I could fill a volume with all the slander that the local gossips of both sexes succeeded in circulating on this subject. But what was most remarkable was that the prince believed all this implicitly, and had indeed come to Vassilyevskoe simply on account of it, after receiving an anonymous letter from the province. One would have thought that no one who knew anything of Nikolay Sergeyitch could believe a syllable of all the accusations made against him. And yet, as is always the case, everyone was excited, everyone was talking, and, though they did not vouch for the story, they shook their heads and . . . condemned him absolutely. Nikolay Sergeyitch was too proud to defend his daughter to the gossips, and sternly prohibited his Anna Andreyevna from entering into any explanations with the neighbours. Natasha herself, who was so libelled, knew nothing of all these slanders and accusations till fully a year afterwards. They had carefully concealed the whole story from her, and she was as gay and innocent as a child of twelve. Meanwhile the breach grew wider and wider. Busy-bodies lost no time. Slanderers and false witnesses came forward and succeeded in making the prince believe that in Nikolay Sergeyitch’s long years of stewardship at Vassilyevskoe he had by no means been a paragon of honesty and, what is more, that, three years before, Nikolay Sergeyitch had succeeded in embezzling twelve thousand roubles over the sale of the copse; that unimpeachable evidence of this could be brought before the court, especially as he had received no legal authorization for the sale from the prince, but had acted on his own judgement, persuading the prince afterwards of the necessity of the sale, and presenting him with a much smaller sum than he had actually received for the wood. Of course all this was only slander, as was proved later on, but the prince believed it all and called Nikolay Sergeyitch a thief in the presence of witnesses. Nikolay Sergeyitch could not control himself and answered him with a term as insulting. An awful scene took place. A lawsuit immediately followed. Nikolay Sergeyitch, not being able to produce certain documents, and having neither powerful patrons nor experience in litigation, immediately began to get the worst of it. A distraint was laid on his property. The exasperated old man threw up everything and resolved to go to Petersburg to attend to his case himself, leaving an experienced agent to look after his interests in the province. The prince must soon have understood that he had been wrong in accusing Nikolay Sergeyitch. But the insult on both sides had been so deadly that there could be no talk of reconciliation, and the infuriated prince exerted himself to he utmost to get the best of it, that is, to deprive his former steward of his last crust of bread.

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