I WENT straight to Alyosha’s. He lived with his father in Little Morskaya. Prince Valkovsky had a rather large flat, though he lived alone. Alyosha had two splendid rooms in the flat. I had very rarely been to see him, only once before, I believe, in fact. He had come to see me much oftener, especially at first, during the early period of his connexion with Natasha.
He was not at home. I went straight to his rooms and wrote him the following note:
“Alyosha, you seem to have gone out of your mind. As on Tuesday evening your father himself asked Natasha to do you the honour of becoming your wife, and you were delighted at his doing so, as I saw myself, you must admit that your behaviour is somewhat strange. Do you know what you are doing to Natasha? In any case this note will remind you that your behaviour towards your future wife is unworthy and frivolous in the extreme. I am very well aware that I have no right to lecture you, but I don’t care about that in the least.
“P.S.-She knows nothing about this letter, and in fact it was not she who told me about you.”
I sealed up the letter and left it on his table. In answer to my question the servant said that Alexey Petrovitch was hardly ever at home, and that he would not be back now till the small hours of the morning.
I could hardly get home. I was overcome with giddiness, and my legs were weak and trembling. My door was open. Nikolay Sergeyitch Ichmenyev was sitting waiting for me. He was sitting at the table watching Elena in silent wonder, and she, too, was watching him with no less wonder, though she was obstinately silent. “To be sure,” I thought, “he must think her queer.”
“Well, my boy, I’ve been waiting for you for a good hour, and I must confess I had never expected to find things . . . like this,” he went on, looking round the room, with a scarcely perceptible sign towards Elena.
His face expressed his astonishment. But looking at him more closely I noticed in him signs of agitation and distress. His face was paler than usual.
“Sit down, sit down,” he said with a preoccupied and anxious air. “I’ve come round to you in a hurry. I’ve something to say to you. But what’s the matter? You don’t look yourself.”
“I’m not well. I’ve been giddy all day.”
“Well, mind, you mustn’t neglect that. Have you caught cold, or what?”
“No, it’s simply a nervous attack. I sometimes have them. But aren’t you unwell?”
“No, no! It’s nothing; it’s excitement. I’ve something to say. Sit down.”
I moved a chair over and sat down at the table, facing him. The old man bent forward to me, and said in a half whisper:
“Mind, don’t look at her, but seem as though we were speaking of something else. What sort of visitor is this you’ve got here?”
“I’ll explain to you afterwards, Nikolay Sergeyitch. This poor girl is absolutely alone in the world. She’s the grandchild of that old Smith who used to live here and died at the confectioner’s.”
“Ah, so he had a grandchild! Well, my boy, she’s a queer little thing! How she stares, how she stares! I tell you plainly if you hadn’t come in I couldn’t have stood it another five minutes. She would hardly open the door, and all this time not a word! It’s quite uncanny; she’s not like a human being. But how did she come here? I suppose she came to see her grandfather, not knowing he was died?”
“Yes, she has been very unfortunate. The old man thought of her when he was dying.”
“Hm! She seems to take after her grandfather. You’ll tell me all about that later. Perhaps one could help her somehow, in some way, if she’s so unfortunate. But now, my boy, can’t you tell her to go away, for I want to talk to you of something serious.”
“But she’s nowhere to go. She’s living here.”
I explained in a few words as far as I could, adding that he could speak before her, that she was only a child.
“To be sure . . . she’s a child. But you have surprised me, my boy. She’s staying with you! Good heavens!
And the old man looked at her again in amazement.
Elena, feeling that we were talking about her, sat silent, with her head bent, picking at the edge of the sofa with her fingers. She had already had time to put on her new dress, which fitted her perfectly. Her hair had been brushed more carefully than usual, perhaps in honour of the new dress. Altogether, if it had not been for the strange wildness of her expression, she would have been a very pretty child.
“Short and clear, that’s what I have to tell you,” the old man began again. “It’s a long business, an important business.”
He sat looking down, with a grave and meditative air and in spite of his haste and his “short and clear,” he could find no words to begin. “What’s coming?” I wondered.
“Do you know, Vanya, I’ve come to you to ask a very great favour. But first . . . as I realize now myself, I must explain to you certain circumstances . . . very delicate circumstances.”
He cleared his throat and stole a look at me; looked and flushed red; flushed and was angry with himself for his awkwardness; he was angry and pressed on.
“Well, what is there to explain! You understand yourself The long and short of it is, I am challenging Prince Valkovsky to a duel, and I beg you to make the arrangements and be my second.”
I fell back in my chair and gazed at him, beside myself with astonishment.
“Well, what are you staring at? I’ve not gone out of my mind.”
“But, excuse me, Nikolay Sergeyitch! On what pretext P With what object? And, in fact, how is it possible?”
“Pretext! Object!” cried the old man. “That’s good!”
“Very well, very well. I know what you’ll say; but what good will you do by your action? What will be gained by the duel! I must own I don’t understand it.”
“I thought you wouldn’t understand. Listen, our lawsuit over (that is, it will be over in a few days, There are only a few formalities to come). I have lost the case. I’ve to pay ten thousand; that’s the decree of the court. Ichmenyevka is the security for it. So now this base man is secure of his money, and giving up Ichmenyevka I have paid him the damages and become a free man. Now I can hold up my head and say, ‘You’ve been insulting me one way and another, honoured prince, for the last two years; you have sullied my name and the honour of my family, and I have been obliged to bear all this! I could not then challenge you to a duel. You’d have said openly then, ‘You cunning fellow, you want to kill me in order not to pay me the money which you foresee you’ll be sentenced to pay sooner or later. No, first let’s see how the case ends and then you can challenge me.’ Now, honoured prince, the case is settled, you are secure, so now there are no difficulties, and so now will you be pleased to meet me at the barrier?’ That’s what I have to say to you. What, to your thinking haven’t I the right to avenge myself, for everything, for everything?”
His eyes glittered. I looked at him for a long time without speaking. I wanted to penetrate to his secret thought.
“Listen, Nikolay Sergeyitch,” I said at last, making up my mind to speak out on the real point without which we could not understand each other. “Can you be perfectly open with me?
“I can,” he answered firmly.
“Tell me plainly. Is it only the feeling of revenge that prompts you to challenge him, or have you other objects in view?”
“Vanya,” he answered, “you know that I allow no one to touch on certain points with me, but I’ll make an exception in the present case. For you, with your clear insight, have seen at once that we can’t avoid the point. Yes, I have another aim. That aim is to save my lost daughter and to rescue her from the path of ruin to which recent events are driving her now.”
“But how will you save her by this duel? That’s the question.”
“By hindering all that is being plotted among them now. Listen; don’t imagine that I am actuated by fatherly tenderness or any weakness of that sort. All that’s nonsense! I don’t display my inmost heart to anyone. Even you don’t know it. My daughter has abandoned me, has left my house with a lover, and I have cast her out of my heart — I cast her out once for all that very evening — you remember? If you have seen me sobbing over her portrait, it doesn’t follow that I want to forgive her. I did not forgive her then. I wept for my lost happiness, for my vain dreams, but not for her as she is now. I often weep perhaps. I’m not ashamed to own it, just as I’m not ashamed to own that I once loved my child more than anything on earth. All this seems to belie my conduct now. You may say to me ‘If it’s so, if you are indifferent to the fate of her whom you no longer look on as a daughter, why do you interfere in what they are plotting there?’ I answer: in the first place that I don’t want to let that base and crafty man triumph, and secondly, from a common feeling of humanity. If she’s no longer my daughter she’s a weak creature, defenceless and deceived, who is being still more deceived, that she may be utterly ruined. I can’t meddle directly, but indirectly, by a duel, I can. If I am killed or my blood is shed, surely she won’t step over our barrier, perhaps over my corpse, and stand at the altar beside the son of my murderer, like the daughter of that king (do you remember in the book you learnt to read out of?) who rode in her chariot over her father’s body? And, besides, if it comes to a duel, our princes won’t care for the marriage themselves. In short, I don’t want that marriage, and I’ll do everything I can to prevent it. Do you understand me now?”
“No. If you wish Natasha well, how can you make up your mind to hinder her marriage, that is, the one thing that can establish her good name? She has all her life before her; she will have need of her good name.”
“She ought to spit on the opinion of the world. That’s how she ought to look at it. She ought to realize that the greatest disgrace of all for her lies in that marriage, in being connected with those vile people, with that paltry society. A noble pride — that should be her answer to the world. Then perhaps I might consent to hold out a hand to her, and then we would see who dared cry shame on my child!”
Such desperate idealism amazed me. But I saw at once that he was not himself and was speaking in anger.
“That’s too idealistic,” I answered, “and therefore cruel. You’re demanding of her a strength which perhaps you did not give her at her birth. Do you suppose that she is consenting to this marriage because she wants to be a princess? Why, she’s in love; it’s passion; it’s fate. You expect of her a contempt for public opinion while you bow down before it yourself! The prince has insulted you, has publicly accused you of a base scheme to ally yourself with his princely house, and now you are reasoning that if she refuses them now after a formal offer of marriage from their side it will, of course, be the fullest and plainest refutation of the old calumny. That’s what you will gain by it. You are deferring to the opinion of the prince himself, and you’re struggling to make him recognize his mistake. You’re longing to turn him into derision, to revenge yourself on him, and for that you will sacrifice your daughter’s happiness. Isn’t that egoism?”
The old man sat gloomy and frowning, and for a long time he answered not a word.
“You’re unjust to me, Vanya,” he said at last, and a tear glistened on his eyelashes. “I swear you are unjust. But let us leave that! I can’t turn my heart inside out before you,” he went on, getting up and taking his hat. “One thing I will say — you spoke just now of my daughter’s happiness. I have absolutely and literally no faith in that happiness. Besides which, the marriage will never come off, apart from my interference.”
“How so? What makes you think so? Perhaps you know something?” I cried with curiosity.
“No. I know nothing special. But that cursed fox can never have brought himself to such a thing. It’s all nonsense, all a trap. I’m convinced of that, and, mark my words, it will turn out so. And secondly, even if this marriage did take place, which could only happen if that scoundrel has some special, mysterious interests to be served by it — interests which no one knows anything about, and I’m utterly at a loss to understand — tell me, ask your own heart, will she be happy in that marriage? Taunts, humiliations, with the partner of her life a wretched boy who is weary of her love already, and who will begin to neglect her, insult her, and humiliate her as soon as he is married. At the same time her own passion growing stronger as his grows cooler; jealousy, tortures, hell, divorce, perhaps crime itself. . . . No, Vanya! If you’re all working for that end, and you have a hand in it, you’ll have to answer to God for it. I warn you, though it will be too late then! Good-bye.”
I stopped him.
“Listen, Nikolay Sergeyitch. Let us decide to wait a bit. Let me assure you that more than one pair of eyes is watching over this affair. And perhaps it will be settled of itself in the best possible way without violence and artificial interference, such as a duel, for instance. Time is the very best arbiter. And, finally, let me tell you, your whole plan is utterly impossible. Could you for a moment suppose that Prince Valkovsky would accept your challenge?”
“Not accept it? What do you mean by that?”
“I swear he wouldn’t; and believe me, he’d find a perfectly satisfactory way out of it; he would do it all with pedantic dignity and meanwhile you would be an object of derision. . .”
“Upon my word, my boy, upon my word! You simply overwhelm me! How could he refuse to accept it? No, Vanya, you’re simply a romancer, a regular romancer! Why, do you suppose there is anything unbecoming in his fighting me? I’m just as good as he is. I’m an old man, ail insulted father. You’re a Russian author, and therefore also a respectable person. You can be a second and . . . and . . . I can’t make out what more you want . . . . ..
“Well, you’ll see. He’ll bring forward such excuses that you’ll be the first to see that it will be utterly impossible for you to fight him.”
“Hm! . . . very well, my friend. Have it your own way wait, for a certain time, that is. We’ll see what time will do. But one thing, my dear, give me your word of honour that you’ll not speak of this conversation there, nor to Anna Andreyevna.”
“Do me another favour, Vanya: never begin upon the subject again.”
“Very well. I promise.”
“And one more request: I know, my dear, that it’s dull for you perhaps, but come and see us as often as ever you can. My poor Anna Andreyevna is so fond of you, and . . . and . . . she’s so wretched without you. . . . You understand, Vanya.”
And he pressed my hand warmly. I promised him with all my heart.
“And now, Vanya, the last delicate question. Have you any money?
“Money?” I repeated with surprise.
“Yes.” (And the old man flushed and looked down.) “I look at you, my boy, at your lodgings . . . at your circumstances . . . and when I think that you may have other, outside expenses (and that you may have them just now), then . . . Here, my boy, a hundred and fifty roubles as a first instalment . . . .”
“A hundred and fifty! As a first instalment. And you’ve just lost your case!”
“Vanya, I see you didn’t understand me at all! You may have exceptional calls on you, understand that. In some cases money may help to an independent position, an independent decision. Perhaps you don’t need it now, but won’t you need it for something in the future? In any case I shall leave it with you. It’s all I’ve been able to get together. If you don’t spend it you can give it back. And now good-bye. My God, how pale you are! Why, you’re quite ill . . .”
I took the money without protest. It was quite clear why he left it with me.
“I can scarcely stand up,” I answered.
“You must take care of yourself, Vanya, darling! Don’t go out today. I shall tell Anna Andreyevna what a state you’re in. Oughtn’t you to have a doctor? I’ll see how you are tomorrow; I’ll try my best to come, anyway, if only I can drag my legs along myself. Now you’d better lie down . . . Well, good-bye. Good-bye, little girl; she’s turned her back! Listen, my dear, here are another five roubles. That’s for the child, but don’t tell her I gave it her. Simply spend it for her. Get her some shoes or underclothes. She must need all sorts of things. Good-bye, my dear . . . .”
I went down to the gate with him. I had to ask the porter to go out to get some food for me. Elena had had no dinner.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07