“I TELL you what,” said Prince Valkovsky, as he seated himself beside me in the carriage, “what if we were to go to supper now, hein? What do you say to that?”
“I don’t know, prince,” I answered, hesitating, “I never eat supper.”
“Well, of course, we’ll have a talk, too, over supper,” he added, looking intently and slyly into my face.
There was no misunderstanding! “He means to speak out,” I thought; “and that’s just what I want.” I agreed.
“That’s settled, then. To B.‘s, in Great Morskaya.”
“A restaurant?” I asked with some hesitation.
“Yes, why not? I don’t often have supper at home. Surely you won’t refuse to be my guest?”
“But I’ve told you already that I never take supper.”
“But once in a way doesn’t matter; especially as I’m inviting you. . .”
Which meant he would pay for me. I am certain that he added that intentionally. I allowed myself to be taken, but made up my mind to pay for myself in the restaurant. We arrived. The prince engaged a private room, and with the taste of a connoisseur selected two or three dishes. They were expensive and so was the bottle of delicate wine which he ordered. All this was beyond my means. I looked at the bill of fare and ordered half a woodcock and a glass of Lafitte. The prince looked at this.
“You won’t sup with me! Why, this is positively ridiculous! Pardon, mon ami, but this is . . . revolting punctiliousness. It’s the paltriest vanity. There’s almost a suspicion of class feeling about this. I don’t mind betting that’s it. I assure you you’re offending me.”
But I stuck to my point.
“But, as you like,” he added. “I won’t insist. . . . Tell me, Ivan Petrovitch, may I speak to you as a friend?”
“I beg you to do so.”
“Well, then, to my thinking such punctiliousness stands in your way. All you people stand in your own light in that way. You are a literary man; you ought to know the world, and you hold yourself aloof from everything. I’m not talking of your woodcock now, but you are ready to refuse to associate with our circle altogether, and that’s against your interests. Apart from the fact that you lose a great deal, a career, in fact, if only that you ought to know what you’re describing, and in novels we have counts and princes and boudoirs. . . . But what am I saying! Poverty is all the fashion with you now, lost coats,* inspectors, quarrelsome officers, clerks, old times, dissenters, I know, I know . . . .”
The reference is to Gogol’s story “The Lost Coat.”— Translator’s note
“But you are mistaken, prince. If I don’t want to get into your so-called ‘higher circle,’ it’s because in the first place it’s boring, and in the second I’ve nothing to do there; though, after all, I do sometimes . . . .”
“I know; at Prince R.‘s, once a year. I’ve met you there. But for the rest of the year you stagnate in your democratic pride, and languish in your garrets, though not all of you behave like that. Some of them are such adventurers that they sicken me . . . .”
“I beg you, prince, to change the subject and not to return to our garrets.”
“Dear me, now you’re offended. But you know you gave me permission to speak to you as a friend. But it’s my fault; I have done nothing to merit your friendship. The wine’s very decent. Try it.”
He poured me out half a glass from his bottle.
“You see, my dear Ivan Petrovitch, I quite understand that to force one’s friendship upon anyone is bad manners. We’re not all rude and insolent with you as you imagine. I quite understand that you are not sitting here from affection for me, but simply because I promised to talk to you. That’s so, isn’t it?”
“And as you’re watching over the interests of a certain person you want to hear what I am going to say. That’s it, isn’t it?” he added with a malicious smile.
“You are not mistaken,” I broke in impatiently. (I saw that he was one of those men who if anyone is ever so little in their power cannot resist making him feel it. I was in his power. I could not get away without hearing what he intended to say, and he knew that very well. His tone suddenly changed and became more and more insolently familiar and sneering.) “You’re not mistaken, prince, that’s just what I’ve come for, otherwise I should not be sitting here . . . so late.”
I had wanted to say “I would not on any account have been supping with you,” but I didn’t say this, and finished my phrase differently, not from timidity, but from my cursed weakness and delicacy. And really, how can one be rude to a man to his face, even if he deserves it, and even though one may wish to be rude to him? I fancied the prince detected this from my eyes, and looked at me ironically as I finished my sentence, as though enjoying my faintheartedness, and as it were challenging me with his eyes: “So you don’t dare to be rude; that’s it, my boy!” This must have been so, for as I finished he chuckled, and with patronizing friendliness slapped me on the knee.
“You’re amusing, my boy!” was what I read in his eyes.
“Wait a bit!” I thought to myself.
“I feel very lively to-night!” said he,” and I really don’t know why. Yes, yes, my boy! It was just that young person I wanted to talk to you about. We must speak quite frankly; talk till we reach some conclusion, and I hope that this time you will thoroughly understand me. I talked to you just now about that money and that old fogey of a father, that babe of sixteen summers. . . . Well! It’s not worth mentioning it now. That was only talk, you know! Ha-ha-ha! You’re a literary man, you ought to have guessed that.”
I looked at him with amazement, I don’t think he was drunk.
“As for that girl, I respect her, I assure you; I like her in fact. She’s a little capricious but ‘there’s no rose without thorn,’ as they used to say fifty years ago, and it was well said too: thorns prick. But that’s alluring and though my Alexey’s a fool, I’ve forgiven him to some extent already for his good taste. In short, I like such young ladies, and I have” (and he compressed his lips with immense significance) “views of my own, in fact. . . . But of that later . . . .”
“Prince! Listen, prince! “ I cried. “I don’t understand your quick change of front but . . . change the subject, if you please.”
“You’re getting hot again! Very good. . . . I’ll change it, I’ll change it! But I’ll tell you what I want to ask you, my good friend: have you a very great respect for her?”
“Of course,” I answered, with gruff impatience.
“Ah, indeed. And do you love her?” he continued, grinning revoltingly and screwing up his eyes.
“You are forgetting yourself!” I cried.
“There, there, I won’t! Don’t put yourself out! I’m in wonderful spirits today. I haven’t felt so gay for a long time. Shall we have some champagne? What do you say, my poet?
“I won’t have any. I don’t want it.”
“You don’t say so! You really must keep me company today. I feel so jolly, and as I’m soft-hearted to sentimentality I can’t bear to be happy alone. Who knows, we may come to drinking to our eternal friendship. Ha-ha-ha! No, my young friend, you don’t know me yet! I’m certain you’ll grow to love me. I want you this evening to share my grief and my joy, my tears and my laughter, though I hope that I at least may not shed any. Come, what do you say, Ivan Petrovitch? You see, you must consider that if I don’t get what I want, all my inspiration may pass, be wasted and take wing and you’ll hear nothing. And you know you’re only sitting here in the hope of hearing something. Aren’t you?” he added, winking at me insolently again. “So make your choice.”
The threat was a serious one. I consented. “Surely he doesn’t want to make me drunk?” I thought. This is the place, by the way, to mention a rumour about the prince which had reached me long before. It was said that though he was so elegant and decorous in society he sometimes was fond of getting drunk at night, of drinking like a fish, of secret debauchery, of loathsome and mysterious vices. . . . I had heard awful rumours about him. It was said that Alyosha knew his father sometimes drank, and tried to conceal the fact from everyone, especially from Natasha. Once he let something slip before me, but immediately changed the subject and would not answer my questions. I had not heard it from him, however, and I must admit I had not believed it. Now I waited to see what was coming.
The champagne was brought; the prince poured out a glass for himself and another for me.
“A sweet, sweet girl, though she did scold me,” he went on, sipping his wine with relish, “but these sweet creatures are particularly sweet just at those moments. . . . And, you know, she thought no doubt she had covered me with shame; do you remember that evening when she crushed me to atoms? Ha-ha-ha! And how a blush suits her! Are you a connoisseur in women? Sometimes a sudden flush is wonderfully becoming to a pale cheek. Have you noticed that? Oh dear, I believe you’re angry again!”
“Yes, I am angry!” I cried, unable to restrain myself. “And I won’t have you speak of Natalya Nikolaevna . . . that is, speak in that tone . . . I . . . I won’t allow you to do it!”
“Oho! Well, as you like, I’ll humour you and change the conversation. I am as yielding and soft as dough. Let’s talk of you. I like you, Ivan Petrovitch. If only you knew what a friendly, what a sincere interest I take in you.”
“Prince, wouldn’t it be better to keep to the point?” I interrupted.
“You mean talk of our affair. I understand you with half a word, mon ami, but you don’t know how closely we are touching on the point if we speak of you and you don’t interrupt me of course. And so I’ll go on. I wanted to tell you, my priceless Ivan Petrovitch, that to live as you’re living is simply self-destruction, Allow me to touch on this delicate subject; I speak as a friend. You are poor, you ask your publisher for money in advance, you pay your trivial debts, with what’s left you live for six months on tea, and shiver in your garret while you wait for your novel to be written for your publisher’s magazine. That’s so, isn’t it?
“If it is so, anyway it’s . . .”
“More creditable than stealing, cringing, taking bribes, intriguing and so on, and so on. I know, I know what you want to say, all that’s been printed long ago.”
“And so there’s no need for you to talk about my affairs. Surely, prince, I needn’t give you a lesson in delicacy!”
“Well, certainly you needn’t. But what’s to be done if it’s just that delicate chord we must touch upon? There’s no avoiding it. But there, let’s leave garrets alone. I’m by no means fond of them, except in certain cases,” he added with a loathsome laugh. “But what surprises me is that you should be so set on playing a secondary part. Certainly one of you authors, I remember, said somewhere that the greatest achievement is for a man to know how to restrict himself to a secondary role in life. . . . I believe it’s something of that sort. I’ve heard talk of that somewhere too, but you know Alyosha has carried off your fiancee. I know that, and you, like some Schiller, are ready to go to the stake for them, you’re waiting upon them, and almost at their beck and call. . . . You must excuse me, my dear fellow, but it’s rather a sickening show of noble feeling. I should have thought you must be sick of it! It’s really shameful! I believe I should die of vexation in your place, and worst of all the shame of it, the shame of it!”
“Prince, you seem to have brought me here on purpose to insult me!” I cried, beside myself with anger.
“Oh no, my dear boy, not at all. At this moment I am simply a matter-of-fact person, and wish for nothing but your happiness. In fact I want to put everything right. But let’s lay all that aside for a moment; you hear me to the end, try not to lose your temper if only for two minutes. Come, what do you think, how would it be for you to get married? You see, I’m talking of quite extraneous matters now. Why do you look at me in such astonishment?”
“I’m waiting for you to finish,” I said, staring at him indeed with astonishment.
“But there’s no need to enlarge. I simply wanted to know what you’d say if any one of your friends, anxious to secure your genuine permanent welfare, not a mere ephemeral happiness, were to offer you a girl, Young and pretty, but . . . of some little experience; I speak allegorically but you’ll understand, after the style of Natalya Nikolaevna, say, of course with a suitable compensation (observe I am speaking of an irrelevant case, not of our affair); well, what would you say?”
“I say you’re . . . mad.”
“Ha-ha-ha! Bah! Why, you’re almost ready to beat me!”
I really was ready to fall upon him. I could not have restrained myself longer. He produced on me the impression of some sort of reptile, some huge spider, which I felt an intense desire to crush. He was enjoying his taunts at me. He was playing with me like a cat with a mouse, supposing that I was altogether in his power. It seemed to me (and I understood it) that he took a certain pleasure, found a certain sensual gratification in the shamelessness, in the insolence, in the cynicism with which at last he threw off his mask before me. He wanted to enjoy my surprise, my horror. He had a genuine contempt for me and was laughing at me.
I had a foreboding from the very beginning that this was all premeditated, and that there was some motive behind it, but I was in such a position that whatever happened I was bound to listen to him. It was in Natasha’s interests and I was obliged to make up my mind to everything and endure it, for perhaps the whole affair was being settled at that moment. But how could I listen to his base, cynical jeers at her expense, how could I endure this coolly! And, to make things worse, he quite realized that I could not avoid listening to him, and that redoubled the offensiveness of it. Yet he is in need of me himself, I reflected, and I began answering him abruptly and rudely. He understood it.
“Look here, my young friend,” he began, looking at me seriously, “we can’t go on like this, you and I, and so we’d better come to an understanding. I have been intending, you see, to speak openly to you about something, and you are bound to be so obliging as to listen, whatever I may say. I want to speak as I choose and as I prefer; yes, in the present case that’s necessary. So how is it to be, my young friend, will you be so obliging?”
I controlled myself and was silent, although he was looking at me with such biting mockery, as though he were challenging me to the most outspoken protest. But he realized that I had already agreed not to go, and he went on,
“Don’t be angry with me, my friend! You are angry at something, aren’t you? Merely at something external, isn’t it? Why, you expected nothing else of me in substance, however I might have spoken to you, with perfumed courtesy, or as now; so the drift would have been the same in any case. You despise me, don’t you? You see how much charming simplicity there is in me, what candour, what bonhomie! I confess everything to you, even my childish caprices. Yes, mon cher, yes, a little more bonhomie on your side too, and we should agree and get on famously, and understand one another perfectly in the end. Don’t wonder at me. I am so sick of all this innocence, all these pastoral idyllics of Alyosha’s, all this Schillerism, all the loftiness of this damnable intrigue with this Natasha (not that she’s not a very taking little girl) that I am, so to speak, glad of an opportunity to have my fling at them. Well, the opportunity has come. Besides, I am longing to pour out my heart to you. Ha! ha! ha!”
“You surprise me, prince, and I hardly recognize you. You are sinking to the level of a Polichinello. These unexpected revelations . . . .”
“Ha! ha! ha! to be sure that’s partly true! A charming comparison, ha-ha-ha! I’m out for a spree, my boy, I’m out for a spree! I’m enjoying myself! And you, my poet, must show me every possible indulgence. But we’d better drink,” he concluded filling up his glass, perfectly satisfied with himself. “I tell you what, my boy, that stupid evening at Natasha’s, do you remember, was enough to finish me off completely. It’s true she was very charming in herself, but I came away feeling horribly angry, and I don’t want to forget it. Neither to forget it nor to conceal it. Of course our time will come too, and it’s coming quickly indeed, but we’ll leave that for now. And among other things, I wanted to explain to you that I have one peculiarity of which you don’t know yet, that is my hatred for all these vulgar and worthless naivities and idyllic nonsense; and one of the enjoyments I relish most has always been putting on that style myself, falling in with that tone, making much of some ever-young Schiller, and egging him on, and then, suddenly, all at once, crushing him at one blow, suddenly taking off my mask before him, and suddenly distorting my ecstatic countenance into a grimace, putting out my tongue at him when he is least of all expecting such a surprise. What? You don’t understand that, you think it nasty, stupid, undignified perhaps, is that it?”
“Of course it is.”
“You are candid. I dare say, but what am I to do if they plague me? I’m stupidly candid too, but such is my character. But I want to tell you some characteristic incidents in my life. It will make you understand me better, and it will be very interesting. Yes, I really am, perhaps, like a Polichinello today, but a Polichinello is candid, isn’t he?”
“Listen, prince, it’s late now, and really . . . ”
“What? Good heavens, what impatience! Besides what’s the hurry? You think I’m drunk. Never mind. So much the better. Ha-ha-ha! These friendly interviews are always remembered so long afterwards, you know, one recalls them with such enjoyment. You’re not a good-natured man, Ivan Petrovitch. There’s no sentimentality, no feeling about you. What is a paltry hour or two to you for the sake of a friend like me? Besides, it has a bearing on a certain affair. . . . Of course you must realize that, and you a literary man too; yes, you ought to bless the chance. You might create a type from me, ha-ha-ha! My word, how sweetly candid I am today!”
He was evidently drunk. His face changed and began to assume a spiteful expression. He was obviously longing to wound, to sting, to bite, to jeer. “In a way it’s better he’s drunk,” I thought, “men always let things out when they’re drunk.” But he knew what he was about.
“My young friend,” he began, unmistakably enjoying himself, “I made you a confession just now, perhaps an inappropriate one, that I sometimes have an irresistible desire to put out my tongue at people in certain cases. For this naive and simple-hearted frankness you compare me to Polichinello, which really amuses me. But if you wonder or reproach me for being rude to you now, and perhaps as unmannerly as a peasant, with having changed my tone to you in fact, in that case you are quite unjust. In the first place it happens to suit me, and secondly I am not at home, but out with you . . . by which I mean we’re out for a spree together like good friends, and thirdly I’m awfully given to acting on my fancies. Do you know that once I had a fancy to become a metaphysician and a philanthropist, and came round almost to the same ideas as you? But that was ages ago, in the golden days of my youth. I remember at that time going to my home in the country with humane intentions, and was, of course, bored to extinction. And you wouldn’t believe what happened to me then. In my boredom I began to make the acquaintance of some pretty little girls . . . What, you’re not making faces already? Oh, my young friend! Why, we’re talking as friends now! One must sometimes enjoy oneself, one must sometimes let oneself go! I have the Russian temperament, you know, a genuine Russian temperament, I’m a patriot, I love to throw off everything; besides one must snatch the moment to enjoy life.. We shall die — and what comes then! Well, so I took to dangling after the girls. I remember one little shepherdess had a husband, a handsome lad he was. I gave him a sound thrashing and meant to send him for a soldier (past pranks, my poet), but I didn’t send him for a soldier. He died in my hospital. I had a hospital in the village, with twelve beds, splendidly fitted up; such cleanliness, parquet floors. I abolished it long ago though, but at that time I was proud of it: I was a philanthropist. Well, I nearly flogged the peasant to death on his wife’s account. . . . Why are you making faces again? It disgusts you to hear about it? It revolts your noble feelings? There, there, don’t upset yourself! All that’s a thing of the past. I did that when I was in my romantic stage. I wanted to be a benefactor of humanity, to found a philanthropic society. . . . That was the groove I was in at that time. And then it was I went in for thrashing. Now I never do it; now one has to grimace about it; now we all grimace about it — such are the times. . . . But what amuses me most of all now is that fool Ichmenyev. I’m convinced that he knew all about that episode with the peasant . . . and what do you think? In the goodness of his heart, which is made, I do believe, of treacle, and because he was in love with me at that time, and was cracking me up to himself, he made up his mind not to believe a word of it, and he didn’t believe a word of it; that is, he refused to believe in the fact and for twelve years he stood firm as a rock for me, till he was touched himself. Ha-ha-ha! But all that’s nonsense! Let us drink, my young friend. Listen: are you fond of women?”
I made no answer. I only listened to him. He was already beginning the second bottle.
“Well, I’m fond of talking about them over supper. I could introduce you after supper to a Mlle. Philiberte I know. Hein? What do you say? But what’s the matter? You won’t even look at me . . . hm!”
He seemed to ponder. But he suddenly raised his head, glanced at me as it were significantly, and went on:
“I tell you what, my poet, I want to reveal to you a mystery of nature of which it seems to me you are not in the least aware, I’m certain that you’re calling me at this moment a sinner, perhaps even a scoundrel, a monster of vice and corruption. But I can tell you this. If it were only possible (which, however, from the laws of human nature never can be possible), if it were possible for every one of us to describe all his secret thoughts, without hesitating to disclose what he is afraid to tell and would not on any account tell other people, what he is afraid to tell his best friends, what, indeed, he is even at times afraid to confess to himself, the world would be filled with such a stench that we should all be suffocated. That’s why, I may observe in parenthesis, our social proprieties and conventions are so good. They have a profound value, I won’t say for morality, but simply for self-preservation, for comfort, which, of course, is even more, since morality is really that same comfort, that is, it’s invented simply for the sake of comfort. But we’ll talk of the proprieties later; I’m wandering from the point, remind me later. I will conclude by saying: you charge me with vice, corruption, immorality, but perhaps I’m only to blame for being more open than other people, that’s all; for not concealing what other people hide even from themselves, as I said before. . . . It’s horrid of me but it’s what I want to do just now. But don’t be uneasy,” he added with an ironical smile, “I said ‘to blame’ but I’m not asking forgiveness. Note this too: I’m not putting you to the blush. I’m not asking you whether you haven’t yourself some such secrets, in order to justify myself. I am behaving quite nicely and honourably. I always behave like a gentleman . . . ”
“This is simply silly talk,” I said, looking at him with contempt.
“Silly talk! Ha-ha-ha! But shall I tell you what you’re thinking? You’re wondering why I brought you here, and am suddenly, without rhyme or reason, beginning to be so open with you. Isn’t that it?”
“Well, that you will find out later.”
“The simplest explanation is that you’ve drunk two bottles and . . . are not sober.”
“You mean I’m simply drunk. That maybe, too. ‘Not sober!’ That’s a milder way of putting it than drunk. Oh, youth, brimming over with delicacy! But . . . we seem to have begun abusing one another again, and we were talking of something so interesting. Yes, my poet, if there is anything sweet and pretty left in the world it’s women.”
“Do you know, prince, I still can’t understand why you have selected me as a confidant of your secrets and your amorous propensities.”
“Hm! But I told you that you’d learn that later on, Don’t excite yourself; but what if I’ve no reason; you’re a poet, you’ll understand me, but I’ve told you that already. There’s a peculiar gratification in suddenly removing the mask, in the cynicism with which a man suddenly exposes himself before another without even deigning to consider decency in his presence. I’ll tell you an anecdote. There was a crazy official in Paris, who was afterwards put into a madhouse when it was realized that he was mad. Well, when he went out of his mind this is what he thought of to amuse himself. He undressed at home, altogether, like Adam, only keeping on his shoes and socks, put on an ample cloak that came down to his heels, wrapped himself round in it, and with a grave and majestic air went out into the street. Well, if he’s looked at sideways — he’s a man like anyone else, going for a walk in a long cloak to please himself. But whenever he met anyone in a lonely place where there was no one else about, he walked up to him in silence, and with the most serious and profoundly thoughtful air suddenly stopped before him, threw open his cloak and displayed himself in all the . . . purity of his heart! That used to last for a minute, then he would wrap himself up again, and in silence, without moving a muscle of his face, he would stalk by the petrified spectator, as grave and majestic as the ghost in Hamlet. That was how he used to behave with everyone, men, women, and children, and that was his only pleasure. Well, some degree of the same pleasure may be experienced when one flabbergasts some romantic Schiller, by putting out one’s tongue at him when he least expects it. Flabbergast — what a word! I met it somewhere in one of you modern writers!”
“Well, that was a madman, but you. . .”
“I’m in my right mind?”
Prince Valkovsky chuckled.
“You’re right there, my boy!” he added, with a most insolent expression of face.
“Prince,” I said, angered by his insolence, “you hate us all, including me, and you’re revenging yourself on me for everyone and everything. It all comes from your petty vanity. You’re spiteful, and petty in your spite. We have enraged you, and perhaps what you are most angry about is that evening. Of course, there’s no way in which you could pay me out more effectually than by this absolute contempt. You throw off the most ordinary, universally obligatory civility which we all owe to one another. You want to show me clearly that you don’t even deign to consider decency before me, so openly and unexpectedly throwing off your filthy mask before me, and exhibiting yourself in such moral cynicism . . . ”
“Why are you saying all this to me?” he asked, looking rudely and maliciously at me. “To show your insight?”
“To show that I understand you, and to put it plainly before you.”
“Quelle idle, mon cher,” he went on, changing his note and suddenly reverting to his former light-hearted, chatty and good-humoured tone. “You are simply turning me from my subject. Buvons, mon ami, allow me to fill your glass. I only wanted to tell you about a charming and most curious adventure. I will tell it you in outline. I used at one time to know a lady; she was not in her first youth, but about twenty-seven or twenty-eight. She was a beauty of the first rank. What a bust, what a figure, what a carriage! Her eyes were as keen as an eagle’s, but always stem and forbidding; her manner was majestic and unapproachable. She was reputed to be as cold as the driven snow, and frightened everyone by her immaculate, her menacing virtue. Menacing’s the word. There was no one in the whole neighbourhood so harsh in judgement as she. She punished not only vice, but the faintest weakness in other women, and punished it inflexibly, relentlessly. She had great influence in her circle. The proudest and most terribly virtuous old women respected her and even made up to her. She looked upon everyone with impartial severity, like the abbess of a mediaeval convent. Young women trembled before her glances and her criticism. A single remark, a single hint, from her was able to ruin a reputation, so great was her influence in society; even men were afraid of her. Finally she threw herself into a sort of contemplative mysticism of the same calm dignified character. . . . And, would you believe? You couldn’t have found a sinner more profligate than she was, and I was so happy as to gain her complete confidence. I was, in fact, her secret and mysterious lover. Our meetings were contrived in such a clever, masterly fashion that none even of her own household could have the slightest suspicion of them. Only her maid, a very charming French girl, was initiated into all her secrets, but one could rely on that girl absolutely. She had her share in the proceedings — in what way? — I won’t enter into that now. My lady’s sensuality was such that even the Marquis de Sade might have taken lessons from her. But the intensest, the most poignant thrill in this sensuality was its secrecy, the audacity of the deception. This jeering at everything which in public the countess preached as being lofty, transcendent and inviolable, this diabolic inward chuckle, in fact, and conscious trampling on everything held sacred, and all this unbridled and carried to the utmost pitch of licentiousness such as even the warmest imagination could scarcely conceive — in that, above all, lay the keenness of the gratification. Yes, she was the devil incarnate, but it was a devil supremely fascinating. I can’t think of her now without ecstasy. In the very heat of voluptuousness she would suddenly laugh like one possessed, and I understood it thoroughly, I understood that laughter and laughed too. It makes me sigh now when I think of it, though it’s long ago now. She threw me over in a year. If I had wanted to injure her I couldn’t have. Who would have believed me? A character like hers. What do you say, my young friend?”
“Foo, how disgusting!” I answered, listening to this avowal with repulsion.
“You wouldn’t be my young friend if your answer were different. I knew you’d say that. Ha-ha-ha! Wait a bit, mon ami, live longer and you’ll understand, but now, now you still need gilt on your gingerbread. No, you’re not a poet if that’s what you say. That woman understood life and knew how to make the most of it.”
“But why descend to such beastliness?”
“To which that woman descended, and you with her.”
“Ah, you call that beastliness — a sign that you are still in bonds and leading-strings. Of course, I recognize that independence may be shown in quite an opposite direction. Let’s talk more straightforwardly, my friend. . . . you must admit yourself that all that’s nonsense.”
“What isn’t nonsense?”
“What isn’t nonsense is personality — myself. All is for me, the whole world is created for me. Listen, my friend, I still believe that it’s possible to live happily on earth. And that’s the best faith, for without it one can’t even live unhappily: there’s nothing left but to poison oneself. They say that this was what some fool did. He philosophised till he destroyed everything, everything, even the obligation of all normal and natural human duties, till at last he had nothing left. The sum total came to nil, and so he declared that the best thing in life was prussic acid. You say that’s Hamlet. That’s terrible despair in fact, something so grand that we could never dream of it. But you’re a poet, and I’m a simple mortal, and so I say one must look at the thing from the simplest, most practical point of view. I, for instance, have long since freed myself from all shackles, and even obligations. I only recognize obligations when I see I have something to gain by them. You, of course, can’t look at things like that, your legs are in fetters, and your taste is morbid. You talk of the ideal, of virtue. Well, my dear fellow, I am ready to admit anything you tell me to, but what am I to do if I know for a fact that at the root of all human virtues lies the completest egoism? And the more virtuous anything is, the more egoism there is in it. Love yourself, that’s the one rule I recognize. Life is a commercial transaction, don’t waste your money, but kindly pay for your entertainment, and you will be doing your whole duty to your neighbour. Those are my morals, if you really want to know them, though I confess that to my thinking it is better not to pay one’s neighbour, but to succeed in making him do things for nothing. I have no ideals and I don’t want to have them; I’ve never felt a yearning for them. One can live such a gay and charming life without ideals . . . and, en somme, I’m very glad that I can get on without prussic acid. If I were a little more virtuous I could not perhaps get on without it, like that fool philosopher (no doubt a German). No! There’s still so much that’s good left in life! I love consequence, rank, a mansion, a huge stake at cards (I’m awfully fond of cards). But best of all, best of all — woman . . . and woman in all her aspects: I’m even fond of secret, hidden vice, a bit more strange and original, even a little filthy for variety, ha-ha-ha! I’m looking at your face: with what contempt you are looking at me now!”
“You are right,” I answered.
“Well, supposing you are right, anyway filth is better than prussic acid, isn’t it?”
“No. Prussic acid is better.”
“I asked you ‘isn’t it’ on purpose to enjoy your answer knew what you’d say. No, my young friend. If you’re a genuine lover of humanity, wish all sensible men the same taste as mine, even with a little filth, or sensible men will soon have nothing to do in the world and there’ll be none but the fools left. It will be good luck for them. Though, indeed, there’s a proverb even now that fools are lucky. And do you know there’s nothing pleasanter than to live with fools and to back them up; it pays! You needn’t wonder at my valuing convention, keeping up certain traditions, struggling for influence; I see, of course, that I’m living in a worthless world; but meanwhile it’s snug there and I back it up, and show I stand firm for it. Though I’d be the first to leave it if occasion arose. I know all your modern ideas, though I’ve never worried about them, and had no reason to. I’ve never had any conscience-pricks about anything. I’ll agree to anything so long as I’m all right, and there are legions like me, and we really are all right. Everything in the world may perish, but we shall not perish. We shall exist as long as the world exists. All the world may sink, but we shall float, we shall always float to the top. Consider, by the way, one thing: how full of life people like us are. We are pre-eminently, phenomenally tenacious of life; has that ever struck you? We live to be eighty, ninety. So nature itself protects us, he-he-he! I particularly want to live to be ninety. I’m not fond of death, and I’m afraid of it. The devil only knows what dying will be like. But why talk of it? It’s that philosopher who poisoned himself that has put me on that track. Damn philosophy! Buvons, mon cher. We began talking about pretty girls . . . Where are you off to?”
“I’m going home, and it’s time for you to go.”
“Nonsense, nonsense! I’ve, so to speak, opened my whole heart to you, and you don’t seem to feel what a great proof of friendship it is. He-he-he! There’s not much love in you, my poet. But wait a minute, I want another bottle . . . ”
“Yes, As for virtue, my young hopeful (you will allow me to call you by that sweet name), who knows, maybe my precepts may come in useful one day. And so, my young hopeful, about virtue I have said already: the more virtuous virtue is, the more egoism there is in it. I should like to tell you a very pretty story apropos of that. I once loved a young girl, and loved her almost genuinely. She even sacrificed a great deal for me.”
“Is that the one you robbed?” I asked rudely, unwilling to restrain myself longer.
Prince Valkovsky started, his face changed, and he fixed his blood-shot eyes on me. There was amazement and fury in them.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said as though to himself, “let me consider, I really am drunk, and it’s difficult for me to reflect.”
He paused, and looked searchingly, with the same spitefulness, at me, holding my hand in his as though afraid I should go away. I am convinced that at that moment he was going over things in his mind, trying to discover where I could have heard of this affair which scarcely anyone knew; and whether there were any danger in my knowing of it. This lasted for a minute; but suddenly his face changed quickly. The same mocking, drunken, good-humoured expression appeared in his eyes. He laughed.
“Ha-ha-ha! You’re a Talleyrand, there’s no other word for you. Why, I really stood before her dumbfounded when she sprang it upon me that I had robbed her! How she shrieked then, how she scolded! She was a violent woman and with no self-control. But, judge for yourself: in the first place I hadn’t robbed her as you expressed it just now. She gave me her money herself, and it was mine. Suppose you were to give me your best dress-coat” (as he said this he looked at my only and rather unshapely dress-coat which had been made for me three years ago by a tailor called Ivan Skornyagin), “that I thanked you and wore it and suddenly a year later you quarrel with me and ask for it back again when I’ve worn it out. . . . That would be ungentlemanly; why give it at all? And, secondly, though the money was mine I should certainly have returned it, but think: where could I have got hold of such a sum all at once? And, above all, I can’t endure all this Schillerism and idyllic nonsense: I’ve told you so already — and that was at the back of it all. You can’t imagine how she posed for my benefit, protesting that she would give me the money (which was mine already). I got angry at last and I suddenly succeeded in judging the position quite correctly, for I never lose my presence of mind; I reflected that by giving her back the money I should perhaps make her unhappy. I should have deprived her of the enjoyment of being miserable entirely owing to me, and of cursing me for it all her life. Believe me, my young friend, there is positively a lofty ecstasy in unhappiness of that kind, in feeling oneself magnanimous and absolutely in the right, and in having every right to call one’s opponent a scoundrel. This ecstasy of spite is often to be met with in these Schilleresque people, of course; afterwards perhaps she may have had nothing to cat, but I am convinced that she was happy. I did not want to deprive her of that happiness and I did not send her back the money. And this fully justified my maxim that the louder and more conspicuous a person’s magnanimity, the greater the amount of revolting egoism underlying it . . . Surely that’s clear to you . . . But . . . you wanted to catch me, ha-ha-ha! . . . Come, confess you were trying to catch me. . . . Oh, Talleyrand!
“Good-bye,” I slid, getting up.
“One minute! Two words in conclusion!” he shouted, suddenly dropping his disgusting tone and speaking seriously. “Listen to my last words: from all I have said to you it follows clearly and unmistakably (I imagine you have observed it yourself) that I will never give up what’s to my advantage for anyone. I’m fond of money and I need it. Katerina Fyodorovna has plenty. Her father held a contract for the vodka tax for ten years. She has three millions and those three millions would be very useful to me. Alyosha and Katya are a perfect match for one another; they are both utter fools; and that just suits me. And, therefore, I desire and intend their marriage to take place as soon as possible. In a fortnight or three weeks the countess and Katya are going to the country. Alyosha must escort them. Warn Natalya Nikolaevna that there had better be no idyllic nonsense, no Schillerism, that they had better not oppose me. I’m revengeful and malicious; I shall stand up for myself. I’m not afraid of her. Everything will no doubt be as I wish it, and therefore if I warn her now it is really more for her sake. Mind there’s no silliness, and that she behaves herself sensibly. Otherwise it will be a bad look-out for her, very. She ought to be grateful to me that I haven’t treated her as I ought to have done, by law. Let me tell you, my poet, that the law protects the peace of the family, it guaranteed a son’s obedience to his father, and that those who seduce children from their most sacred duties to their parents are not encouraged by the laws. Remember, too, that I have connexions, that she has none, and . . . surely you must realize what I might do to her. . . . But I have not done it, for so far she has behaved reasonably. Don’t be uneasy. Every moment for the last six months, every action they have taken has been watched by sharp eyes. And I have known everything to the smallest trifle. And so I have waited quietly for Alyosha to drop her of himself, and that process is beginning and meanwhile it has been a charming distraction for him. I have remained a humane father in his imagination, and I must have him think of me like that. Ha-ha-ha! When I remember that I was almost paying her compliments the other evening for having been so magnanimous and disinterested as not to marry him! I should like to know how she could have married him. As for my visit to her then, all that was simply because the time had come to put an end to the connexion. But I wanted to verify everything with my own eyes, my own experience. Well, is that enough for you? Or perhaps you want to know too why I brought you here, why I have carried on like this before you, why I have been so simple and frank with you, when all this might have been said without any such frank avowals — yes?”
I controlled myself and listened eagerly. I had no need to answer more.
“Solely, my young friend, that I have noticed in you more common sense and clear-sightedness about things than in either of our young fools. You might have known before the sort of man I am, have made surmises and conjectures about me, but I wanted to save you the trouble, and resolved to show you face to face who it is you hare to deal with. A first-hand impression is a great thing. Understand me, mon ami: you know whom you have to deal with, you love her, and so I hope now that you will use all your influence (and you have an influence over her) to save her from certain unpleasantness. Otherwise there will be such unpleasantness, and I assure you, I assure you it will be no joking matter. Finally, the third reason for my openness with you . . . (but of course you’ve guessed that, my dear boy) yes, I really did want to spit upon the whole business and to spit upon it before your eyes, too!”
Under the Russian system of regulation a girl in an irregular position may easily become the object of persecution and blackmail on the part of the police de moeurs, and this is what is suggested here. — Translator’s note.
“And you’ve attained your object, too,” said I, quivering with excitement. “I agree that you could not have shown your spite and your contempt for me and for all of us better than by your frankness to me. Far from being apprehensive that your frankness might compromise you in my eyes, you are not even ashamed to expose yourself before me. You have certainly been like that madman in the cloak. You have not considered me as a human being.”
“You have guessed right, my young friend,” he said, getting up, “you have seen through it all. You are not an author for nothing. I hope that we are parting as friends. Shan’t we drink bruderschaft together?”
“You are drunk, and that is the only reason that I don’t answer you as you deserve . . . .”
“Again a figure of silence! — you haven’t said all you might have said. Ha-ha-ha! You won’t allow me to pay for you?”
“Don’t trouble yourself. I’ll pay for myself.”
“Ah, no doubt of it. Aren’t we going the same way?”
“I am not coming with you.”
“Farewell, my poet. I hope you’ve understood me . . . .”
He went out, stepping rather unsteadily and not turning to me again. The footman helped him into his carriage. I went my way. It was nearly three o’clock in the morning. It was raining The night was dark . . . .
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53