I was late for dinner, but they had not yet sat down to table, they had waited for me. Perhaps because I did not often dine with them, some special additions to the menu had been made on my account: with the savouries there were sardines and so on. But to my surprise and regret, I found them all rather worried and out of humour. Liza scarcely smiled when she saw me, and mother was obviously uneasy; Versilov gave me a smile, but it was a forced one. “Have they been quarrelling?” I wondered. Everything went well at first, however; Versilov only frowned over the soup with dumplings in it, and made wry faces when he was handed the beef olives.
“I have only to mention that a particular dish does not suit me, for it to reappear next day,” he pronounced in vexation.
“But how’s one to invent things, Andrey Petrovitch? There’s no inventing a new dish of any sort,” my mother answered timidly.
“Your mother is the exact opposite of some of our newspapers, to whom whatever is new is good,” Versilov tried to make a joke in a more playful and amiable voice; but it somehow fell flat, and only added to the discomfiture of my mother, who of course could make nothing of the comparison of herself with the newspapers, and looked about her in perplexity. At that moment Tatyana Pavlovna came in, and announcing that she had already dined, sat down near mother, on the sofa.
I had not yet succeeded in gaining the good graces of that lady, quite the contrary in fact; she used to fall foul of me more than ever, for everything, and about everything. Her displeasure had of late become more accentuated than ever; she could not endure the sight of my foppish clothes, and Liza told me that she almost had a fit when she heard that I kept a coachman and a smart turn-out. I ended by avoiding meeting her as far as possible. Two months before, when the disputed inheritance was given up to Prince Sergay, I had run to Tatyana Pavlovna, meaning to talk over Versilov’s conduct with her, but I met with no trace of sympathy; on the contrary she was dreadfully angry: she was particularly vexed that the whole had been given back, instead of half the fortune; she observed sharply:
“I’ll bet you are persuaded that he has given up the money and challenged the prince to a duel, solely to regain the good opinion of Arkady Makarovitch.”
And indeed she was almost right. I was in reality feeling something of the sort at the time.
As soon as she came in I saw at once that she would infallibly attack me. I was even inclined to believe that she had come in expressly with that object, and so I immediately became exceptionally free-and-easy in my manner; this was no effort to me, for what had just happened had left me still radiant and joyful. I may mention once and for all that a free-and-easy manner never has been right for me, that is to say, it never suits me, but always covers me with disgrace. So it happened now. I instantly said the wrong thing, with no evil intent, but simply from thoughtlessness; noticing that Liza was horribly depressed, I suddenly blurted out, without thinking of what I was saying:
“I haven’t dined here for such ages, and now I have come, see how bored you are, Liza!”
“My head aches,” answered Liza.
“Good gracious!” said Tatyana Pavlovna, instantly catching at it. “What if you are ill? Arkady Makarovitch has deigned to come to dinner, you must dance and be merry.”
“You really are the worry of my life, Tatyana Pavlovna. I will never come again when you are here!” and I brought my hand down on the table with genuine vexation; mother started, and Versilov looked at me strangely. I laughed at once and begged their pardon.
“Tatyana Pavlovna, I take back the word ‘worry,’” I said, turning to her, with the same free-and-easy tone.
“No, no,” she snapped out, “it’s much more flattering to be a worry to you than to be the opposite, you may be sure of that.”
“My dear boy, one must learn to put up with the small worries of life,” Versilov murmured with a smile, “life is not worth living without them.”
“Do you know, you are sometimes a fearful reactionary,” I cried, laughing nervously.
“My dear boy, it doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does! Why not tell the blunt truth to an ass, if he is an ass?”
“Surely you are not speaking of yourself? To begin with, I can’t judge anyone, and I don’t want to.”
“Why don’t you want to, why can’t you?”
“Laziness and distaste. A clever woman told me once that I had no right to judge others because ‘I don’t know how to suffer,’ that before judging others, one must gain the right to judge, from suffering. Rather exalted, but, as applied to me, perhaps it’s true, so that I very readily accepted the criticism.”
“Wasn’t it Tatyana Pavlovna who told you that?” I cried.
“Why, how do you know?” said Versilov, glancing at me with some surprise.
“I knew it from Tatyana Pavlovna’s face: she gave a sudden start.”
I guessed by chance. The phrase, as it appeared later, actually had been uttered by Tatyana Pavlovna, the evening before, in a heated discussion. And indeed, I repeat, I had, brimming over with joy and expansiveness, swooped down upon them at an unfortunate moment; all of them had their separate troubles, and they were heavy ones.
“I don’t understand it,” I went on, “because it’s all so abstract; it’s dreadful how fond you are of abstract discussion, Andrey Petrovitch; it’s a sign of egoism; only egoists are fond of generalization.”
“That’s not a bad saying, but don’t persecute me.”
“But let me ask,” I insisted expansively, “what’s the meaning of ‘gaining the right to judge?’ Anyone who is honest may be a judge, that’s my idea.”
“You won’t find many judges in that case.”
“I know one anyway.”
“He is sitting and talking to me now.”
Versilov laughed strangely, he stooped down to my ear, and taking me by the shoulder whispered, “He is always lying to you.”
I don’t know to this day what was in his mind, but evidently he was in some agitation at the time (in consequence of something he had learned, as I found out later). But those words, “he is always lying to you,” were so unexpected and uttered so earnestly, and with such a strange and far from playful expression, that it gave me a nervous shudder. I was almost alarmed and looked at him wildly; but Versilov made haste to laugh.
“Well, thank God!” murmured my mother, who was uneasy at seeing him whisper to me, “I was almost thinking. . . . Don’t be angry with us, Arkasha; you’ll have clever friends apart from us, but who is going to love you, if we don’t love one another?”
“The love of one’s relations is immoral, mother, just because it’s undeserved; love ought to be earned.”
“You’ll earn it later on, but here you are loved without.”
Every one suddenly laughed.
“Well, mother, you may not have meant to shoot, but you hit your bird!” I cried, laughing, too.
“And you actually imagined that there’s something to love you for,” cried Tatyana Pavlovna, falling upon me again: “You are not simply loved for nothing, you are loved in spite of loathing.”
“Oh not a bit of it,” I cried gaily; “do you know, perhaps, some one told me to-day I was loved.”
“Said it laughing at you!” Tatyana Pavlovna said suddenly with a sort of unnatural malignity, as though she had just been waiting for me to say that, “yes, a person of delicacy, especially a woman, would be moved to disgust by the uncleanness of your soul. Your hair is done with a smart parting, you have fine linen, and a suit made by a French tailor, but it’s all uncleanness really! Who’s paid your tailor’s bill, who keeps you, and gives you money to play roulette with? Think who it is you’ve been so shameless as to sponge on!”
My mother flushed painfully, and I had never seen a look of such shame on her face before. Everything seemed to be giving way within me.
“If I am spending money it’s my own, and I am not bound to give an account of it to anyone,” I blurted out, turning crimson.
“Whose own? What money’s your own?”
“If it’s not mine, it’s Andrey Petrovitch’s. He won’t refuse it me. . . . I borrowed from what Prince Sergay owes Andrey Petrovitch . . . .”
“My dear boy,” Versilov said firmly, all of a sudden, “not a farthing of that money is mine.”
The phrase was horribly significant. I was dumbfoundered. Oh, of course, considering my paradoxical and careless attitude at that time, I might quite well have turned it off with some outburst of “generous” feeling, or high-sounding phrase, or something, but I suddenly caught on Liza’s face a resentful accusing expression, an expression I had not deserved, almost a sneer, and a devil seemed to prompt me.
“You seem,” I said, turning to her suddenly, “to visit Darya Onisimovna very often at Prince Sergay’s flat, miss, so will you be pleased to give her this three hundred roubles, which you’ve given me such a nagging about already to-day?”
I took out the money and held it out to her. But will it be believed that those mean words were uttered entirely without motive, that is, without the faintest allusion to anything. And indeed there could have been no such allusion, for at that moment I knew absolutely nothing. Perhaps I had just a desire to vex her by something comparatively most innocent, by way of a gibe, “Since you are such an interfering young lady, wouldn’t you like to return the money yourself to the prince, a charming young man and a Petersburg officer, as you are so anxious to meddle in young men’s business.” But what was my amazement when my mother got up, and, with a menacing gesture, cried:
“How dare you! How dare you!”
I could never have conceived of anything like it from her, and I too jumped up from my seat, not exactly in alarm, but with a sort of anguish, a poignant wound in my heart, suddenly realizing that something dreadful had happened. But unable to control herself, mother hid her face in her hands and ran out of the room. Liza followed her out without so much as a glance at me. Tatyana Pavlovna gazed at me for half a minute in silence.
“Can you really have meant to jeer?” she exclaimed enigmatically, looking at me in profound astonishment, but without waiting for me to answer, she, too, ran out to join them. With an unsympathetic, almost angry expression, Versilov got up from the table, and took his hat from the corner.
“I imagine that you are not so much a fool as an innocent,” he mumbled to me ironically. “If they come back, tell them to have their pudding without waiting for me. I am going out for a little.”
I remained alone; at first I felt bewildered, then I felt resentful, but afterwards I saw clearly that I was to blame. However, I did not know exactly how I was to blame, I simply had a feeling of it. I sat in the window and waited. After waiting ten minutes, I, too, took my hat, and went upstairs to the attic, which had been mine. I knew that they, that is my mother and Liza, were there, and that Tatyana Pavlovna had gone away. And so I found them on my sofa, whispering together about something. They left off whispering at once, when I appeared; to my amazement they were not angry with me; mother anyway smiled at me.
“I am sorry, mother,” I began.
“Never mind!” mother cut me short, “only love each other and never quarrel and God will send you happiness.”
“He is never nasty to me, mother, I assure you,” Liza said with conviction and feeling.
“If it hadn’t been for that Tatyana Pavlovna nothing would have happened,” I cried; “she’s horrid!”
“You see, mother? You hear?” said Liza with a motion towards me.
“What I want to tell you both is this,” I declared: “if there is anything nasty in the world, it’s I that am nasty, and all the rest is delightful!”
“Arkasha, don’t be angry, darling, but if you really would give up . . .”
“Gambling, you mean, gambling? I will give it up, mother. I am going there for the last time to-day — especially since Andrey Petrovitch himself has declared that not a farthing of that money is his, you can’t imagine how I blush. . . . I must go into it with him, though . . . Mother darling, last time I was here I said something clumsy . . . it was nonsense, darling; I truly want to believe, it was only swagger, I love Christ . . . .”
On my last visit there had been a conversation about religion. Mother had been much grieved and upset. When she heard my words now, she smiled at me as though I were a little child.
“Christ forgives everything, Arkasha; he forgives your wrongdoing and worse than yours. Christ is our Father, Christ never fails us, and will give light in the blackest night . . . .”
I said good-bye to them, and went away, thinking over the chances of seeing Versilov that day; I had a great deal to talk over with him, and it had been impossible that afternoon. I had a strong suspicion that he would be waiting for me at my lodging. I walked there on foot; it had turned colder and begun to freeze and walking was very pleasant.
I lived near the Voznesenky Bridge, in a huge block of flats overlooking the courtyard. Almost as I went into the gate I ran into Versilov coming out.
“As usual when I go for a walk, I only get as far as your lodging, and I’ve been to Pyotr Ippolitovitch’s, but I got tired of waiting for you; your people there are for ever quarrelling, and to-day his wife is even a little tearful; I looked in and came away.”
For some reason I felt annoyed.
“I suppose you never go to see anyone except me and Pyotr Ippolitovitch; you have no one else in all Petersburg to go to.”
“My dear fellow . . . but it doesn’t matter.”
“Where are you going now?”
“I am not coming back to you. If you like we’ll go for a walk, it’s a glorious evening.”
“If instead of abstract discussions, you had talked to me like a human being, and had for instance given me the merest hint about that confounded gambling, I should perhaps not have let myself be drawn into it like a fool,” I said suddenly.
“You regret it? That’s a good thing,” he answered, bringing out his words reluctantly; “I always suspected that play was not a matter of great consequence with you, but only a temporary aberration. . . . You are right, my dear boy, gambling is beastly, and what’s more one may lose.”
“And lose other people’s money, too.”
“Have you lost other people’s money?”
“I have lost yours. I borrowed of Prince Sergay, from what was owing you. Of course it was fearfully stupid and absurd of me . . . to consider your money mine, but I always meant to win it back.”
“I must warn you once more, my dear boy, that I have no money in Prince Sergay’s hands. I know that young man is in straits himself, and I am not reckoning on him for anything, in spite of his promises.”
“That makes my position twice as bad. . . . I am in a ludicrous position! And what grounds has he for lending me money, and me for borrowing in that case?”
“That’s your affair. . . . But there’s not the slightest reason for you to borrow money from him, is there?”
“Except that we are comrades . . . .”
“No other reason? Is there anything which has made you feel it possible to borrow from him? Any consideration whatever?”
“What sort of consideration do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“So much the better if you don’t, and I will own, my boy, that I was sure of it. Brisons-là, mon cher, and do try to avoid playing somehow.”
“If only you had told me before! You seem half-hearted about it even now.”
“If I had spoken to you about it before, we should only have quarrelled, and you wouldn’t have let me come and see you in the evenings so readily. And let me tell you, my dear, that all such saving counsels and warnings are simply an intrusion into another person’s conscience, at another person’s expense. I have done enough meddling with the consciences of others, and in the long run I get nothing but taunts and rebuffs for it. Taunts and rebuffs, of course, don’t matter; the point is that one never obtains one’s object in that way: no one listens to you, however much you meddle . . . and every one gets to dislike you.”
“I am glad that you have begun to talk to me of something besides abstractions. I want to ask you one thing, I have wanted to for a long time, but it’s always been impossible when I’ve been with you. It is a good thing we are in the street. Do you remember that evening, the last evening I spent in your house, two months ago, how we sat upstairs in my ‘coffin,’ and I questioned you about mother and Makar Ivanovitch; do you remember how free and easy I was with you then? How could you allow a young puppy to speak in those terms of his mother? And yet you made not the faintest sign of protest; on the contrary, ‘you let yourself go,’ and so made me worse than ever.”
“My dear boy, I’m very glad to hear . . . such sentiments, from you. . . . Yes, I remember very well; I was actually waiting to see the blush on your cheek, and if I fell in with your tone, it was just to bring you to the limit . . . .”
“And you only deceived me then, and troubled more than ever the springs of purity in my soul! Yes, I’m a wretched raw youth, and I don’t know from minute to minute what is good and what is evil. Had you given me the tiniest hint of the right road, I should have realized things and should have been eager to take the right path. But you only drove me to fury.”
“Cher enfant, I always foresaw that, one way or another, we should understand one another; that ‘blush’ has made its appearance of itself, without my aid, and that I swear is better for you. . . . I notice, my dear boy, that you have gained a great deal of late . . . can it be the companionship of that princeling?”
“Don’t praise me, I don’t like it. Don’t leave me with a painful suspicion that you are flattering me without regard for truth, so as to go on pleasing me. Well, lately . . . you see . . . I’ve been visiting ladies. I am very well received, you know, by Anna Andreyevna, for instance.”
“I know that from her, my dear boy. Yes, she is very charming and intelligent. Mais brisons-là, mon cher. It’s odd how sick I feel of everything to-day, spleen I suppose. I put it down to haemorrhoids. How are things at home? All right? You made it up, of course, and embraces followed? Celà va sans dire. It’s melancholy sometimes to go back to them, even after the nastiest walk. In fact, I sometimes go a longer way round in the rain, simply to delay the moment of returning to the bosom of my family. . . . And how bored I am there, good God, how bored!”
“Mother . . .”
“Your mother is a most perfect and delightful creature, mais. . . . In short I am probably unworthy of them. By the way, what’s the matter with them to-day? For the last few days they’ve all been out of sorts somehow. . . . I always try to ignore such things you know, but there is something fresh brewing to-day. . . . Have you noticed nothing?”
“I know nothing positive, and in fact I should not have noticed it at all it if hadn’t been for that confounded Tatyana Pavlovna, who can never resist trying to get her knife in. You are right; there is something wrong. I found Liza at Anna Andreyevna’s this morning, and she was so . . . she surprised me in fact. You know, of course, that she visits Anna Andreyevna?”
“I know, my dear. And you . . . when were you at Anna Andreyevna’s, to-day? At what time? I want to know for a reason.”
“From two till three. And only fancy as I was going out Prince Sergay arrived . . . .”
Then I described my whole visit very circumstantially. He listened without speaking; he made no comment whatever on the possibility of a match between Prince Sergay and Anna Andreyevna; in response to my enthusiastic praise of Anna Andreyevna he murmured again that “she was very charming.”
“I gave her a great surprise this morning, with the latest bit of drawing-room gossip that Mme. Ahmakov is to be married to Baron Büring,” I said all of a sudden, as though something were torn out of me.
“Yes? Would you believe it, she told me that ‘news’ earlier in the day, much earlier than you can have surprised her with it.”
“What do you mean?” I was simply struck dumb. “From whom could she have heard it? Though after all, there’s no need to ask; of course she might have heard it before I did; but only imagine, she listened to me when I told her as though it were absolutely news to her! But . . . but what of it? Hurrah for ‘breadth!’ One must take a broad view of people’s characters, mustn’t one? I, for instance, should have poured it all out at once, and she shuts it up in a snuff box . . . and so be it, so be it, she is none the less a most delightful person, and a very fine character!”
“Oh, no doubt of it, every one must go his own way. And something more original — these fine characters can sometimes baffle one completely — just imagine. Anna Andreyevna took my breath away this morning by asking: ‘Whether I were in love with Katerina Nikolaevna Ahmakov or not?’”
“What a wild and incredible question!” I cried, dumbfoundered again. There was actually a mist before my eyes I had never yet broached this subject with him, and here he had begun on it himself.
“In what way did she put it?”
“No way, my dear boy, absolutely no way; the snuff-box shut again at once, more closely than ever, and what’s more, observe, I’ve never admitted the conceivability of such questions being addressed to me, nor has she . . . however, you say yourself that you know her and therefore you can imagine how far such a question is characteristic. . . . Do you know anything about it by chance?”
“I am just as puzzled as you are. Curiosity, perhaps, or a joke.”
“Oh, quite the contrary, it was a most serious question, hardly a question in fact, more a cross-examination, and evidently there were very important and positive reasons for it. Won’t you be going to see her? Couldn’t you find out something? I would ask you as a favour, do you see . . .”
“But the strangest thing is that she could imagine you to be in love with Katerina Nikolaevna! Forgive me, I can’t get over my amazement. I should never, never have ventured to speak to you on this subject, or anything like it.”
“And that’s very sensible of you, my dear boy.”
“Your intrigues and your relations in the past — well, of course, the subject’s out of the question between us, and indeed it would be stupid of me, but of late, the last few days, I have several times exclaimed to myself that if you had ever loved that woman, if only for a moment — oh, you could never have made such a terrible mistake in your opinion of her as you did! I know what happened, I know of your enmity, of your aversion, so to say, for each other, I’ve heard of it, I’ve heard too much of it; even before I left Moscow I heard of it, but the fact that stands out so clearly is intense aversion, intense hostility, the very OPPOSITE of love, and Anna Andreyevna suddenly asks point-blank, ‘Do you love her?’ Can she have heard so little about it? It’s wild! She was laughing, I assure you she was laughing!”
“But I observe, my dear boy,” said Versilov, and there was something nervous and sincere in his voice, that went to one’s heart, as his words rarely did: “that you speak with too much heat on this subject. You said just now that you have taken to visiting ladies . . . of course, for me to question you . . . on that subject, as you expressed it. . . . But is not ‘that woman’ perhaps on the list of your new acquaintances?”
“That woman” . . . my voice suddenly quivered; “listen, Andrey Petrovitch, listen. That woman is what you were talking of with Prince Sergay this morning, ‘living life,’ do you remember? You said that living life is something so direct and simple, something that looks you so straight in the face, that its very directness and clearness make us unable to believe that it can be the very thing we’re seeking so laboriously all our lives. . . . With ideas like that, you met the ideal woman and in perfection, in the ideal, you recognized ‘all the vices’! That’s what you did!”
The reader can guess what a state of frenzy I was in.
“All the vices! Oho! I know that phrase,” cried Versilov: “and if things have gone so far, that you are told of such a phrase, oughtn’t I to congratulate you? It suggests such a degree of intimacy, that perhaps you deserve credit for a modesty and reserve of which few young men are capable.”
There was a note of sweet, friendly and affectionate laughter in his voice . . . there was something challenging and charming in his words, and in his bright face, as far as I could see it in the night. He was strangely excited. I beamed all over in spite of myself.
“Modesty, reserve! Oh, no, no!” I exclaimed blushing and at the same time squeezing his hand, which I had somehow seized and was unconsciously holding. “No, there’s no reason! . . . In fact there’s nothing to congratulate me on, and nothing of the sort can ever, ever happen.”
I was breathless and let myself go, I so longed to let myself go, it was so very agreeable to me.
“You know. . . . Well, after all I will . . . just this once. . . . You are my darling, splendid father; you will allow me to call you father; it’s utterly out of the question for a son to speak to his father — for anyone, in fact, to speak to a third person — of his relations with a woman, even if they are of the purest! In fact, the purer they are the greater the obligation of silence. It would be distasteful, it would be coarse; in short, a confidant is out of the question! But if there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, then surely one may speak, mayn’t one?”
“As your heart tells you!”
“An indiscreet, a very indiscreet question: I suppose in the course of your life you’ve known women, you’ve had intimacies? . . . I only ask generally, generally, I don’t mean anything particular!” I blushed, and was almost choking with delight.
“We will assume there have been transgressions.”
“Well then, I want to ask you this, and you tell me what you think of it, as a man of more experience: a woman suddenly says, as she is taking leave of you, casually, looking away, ‘Tomorrow at three o’clock I shall be at a certain place . . . at Tatyana Pavlovna’s, for example,’” I burst out, taking the final plunge. My heart throbbed and stood still; I even ceased speaking, I could not go on. He listened eagerly. “And so next day at three o’clock I went to Tatyana Pavlovna’s, and this is what I thought: ‘when the cook opens the door’— you know her cook —‘I shall ask first thing whether Tatyana Pavlovna is at home? And if the cook says Tatyana Pavlovna is not at home, but there’s a visitor waiting for her,’ what ought I to conclude, tell me if it were you. . . . In short, if you . . .”
“Simply that an appointment had been made you. Then I suppose that did happen, and it happened to-day. Yes?”
“Oh no, no, no, nothing, nothing of the sort! It did happen, but it wasn’t that; it was an appointment, but not of that sort, and I hasten to say so or I should be a blackguard; it did happen, but . . . .”
“My dear fellow, all this begins to be so interesting that I suggest . . .”
“I used to give away ten roubles and twenty-five roubles at a time to those who begged of me. For a drink! just a few coppers, it’s a lieutenant implores your aid, a former lieutenant begging of you!”
Our road was suddenly barred by the figure of a tall beggar possibly, in fact, a retired lieutenant. What was most singular was that he was very well dressed for his profession, and yet he was begging.
I purposely do not omit this paltry incident of the wretched lieutenant, for my picture of Versilov is not complete without the petty details of his surroundings at that minute, which was so momentous for him — momentous it was, and I did not know it!
“If you don’t leave off, sir, I shall call the police at once,” Versilov said, suddenly raising his voice unnaturally, and standing still before the lieutenant. I could never imagine such anger from a man so philosophic, and for such a trivial cause. And, note, our conversation was interrupted at the point of most interest to him, as he had just said himself.
“What, you haven’t a five-kopeck piece?” the lieutenant cried rudely, waving his hand in the air. “And indeed what canaille have five kopecks nowadays! the low rabble! the scoundrels! He goes dressed in beaver, and makes all this to-do about a copper!”
“Constable,” cried Versilov.
But there was no need to shout, a policeman was standing close by, at the corner, and he had heard the lieutenant’s abuse himself.
“I ask you to bear witness to this insult, I ask you to come to the police-station,” said Versilov.
“O-ho, I don’t care, there’s nothing at all you can prove! You won’t show yourself so wonderfully clever!”
“Keep hold of him, constable, and take us to the police-station,” Versilov decided emphatically.
“Surely we are not going to the police-station? Bother the fellow!” I whispered to him.
“Certainly we are, dear boy. The disorderly behaviour in our streets begins to bore one beyond endurance, and if everyone did his duty it would make it better for us all. C’est comique, mais c’est ce que nous ferons.”
For a hundred paces the lieutenant kept up a bold and swaggering demeanour, and talked with heat; he declared “that it was not the thing to do,” that it was “all a matter of five kopecks,” and so on, and so on. But at last he began whispering something to the policeman. The policeman, a sagacious man, with apparently a distaste for exhibitions of “nerves” in the street, seemed to be on his side, though only to a certain degree. He muttered in an undertone, in reply, that “it was too late for that now,” that “it had gone too far,” and that “if you were to apologize, for instance, and the gentleman would consent to accept your apology, then perhaps . . . .”
“Come li-isten, honoured sir, where are we going? I ask you what are we hurrying to and what’s the joke of it?” the lieutenant cried aloud: “if a man who is down on his luck is willing to make an apology . . . in fact, if you want to put him down . . . damn it all! we are not in a drawing-room, we are in the street! For the street, that’s apology enough . . . .”
Versilov stopped, and suddenly burst out laughing; I actually imagined that he had got the whole thing up for amusement, but it was not so.
“I entirely accept your apology, Monsieur l’officier, and I assure you that you are a man of ability. Behave like that in the drawing-room; it will soon pass muster perfectly there, too, and meanwhile here are twenty kopecks for you; eat and drink your fill with it; pardon me, constable, for troubling you; I would have thanked you more substantially for your pains, but you are so highly respectable nowadays. . . . My dear boy,” he added turning to me, “there’s an eating house close here, it’s really a horrible sewer, but one could get tea there, and I invite you to a cup . . . this way, quite close, come along.”
I repeat, I had never seen him so excited, though his face was full of brightness and gaiety; yet I noticed that when he was taking the coin out of his purse to give it to the officer, his hands trembled, and his fingers refused to obey him, so that at last he asked me to take out the money, and give it to the man for him; I cannot forget it.
He took me to a little restaurant on the canal side, in the basement. The customers were few. A loud barrel-organ was playing out of tune, there was a smell of dirty dinner napkins; we sat down in a corner.
“Perhaps you don’t know. I am sometimes so bored . . . so horribly bored in my soul . . . that I like coming to all sorts of stinking holes like this. These surroundings, the halting tune from ‘Lucia,’ the waiters in their unseemly Russian getup, the fumes of cheap tobacco, the shouts from the billiard-room, it’s all so vulgar and prosaic that it almost borders on the fantastic. . . . Well, my dear boy, that son of Mars interrupted us, I believe, at the most interesting moment. . . . Here’s the tea; I like the tea here. . . . Imagine Pyotr Ippolitovitch suddenly began to-day assuring the other lodger, the one marked with small-pox, that during the last century a special committee of lawyers was appointed in the English parliament to examine the trial of Christ before the High Priest and Pilate, with the sole object of finding how the case would have gone nowadays by modern law, and that the inquiry was conducted with all solemnity, with counsel for the prosecution and all the rest of it. . . . And that the jury were obliged to uphold the original verdict. . . . A wonderful story! That fool of a lodger began to argue about it, lost his temper, quarrelled and declared he should leave next day. . . . The landlady dissolved in tears at the thought of losing his rent . . . Mais passons. In these restaurants they sometimes have nightingales. Do you know the old Moscow anecdote à la Pyotr Ippolitovitch? A nightingale was singing in a Moscow restaurant, a merchant came in; ‘I must have my fancy, whatever it costs, said he, ‘what’s the price of the nightingale?’ ‘A hundred roubles.’ ‘Roast it and serve it.’ So they roasted it and served it up. ‘Cut me off two-pennorth.’ I once told it to Pyotr Ippolitovitch, but he did not believe it, and was quite indignant.”
He said a great deal more. I quote these fragments as a sample of his talk. He repeatedly interrupted me every time I opened my mouth to begin my story. He began each time talking of some peculiar and utterly irrelevant nonsense; he talked gaily, excitedly; laughed, goodness knows what at, and even chuckled in an undignified way, as I had never seen him do before. He swallowed a glass of tea at one gulp, and poured out another. Now I can understand it, he was like a man who had received a precious, interesting, and long-expected letter, and who lays it down before him and purposely refrains from opening it, turning it over and over in his hands, examining the envelope and the seal, going to see to things in another room, in short deferring the interesting moment of perusal, knowing that it cannot escape him. And all this he does to make his enjoyment more complete.
I told him all there was to tell, of course, everything from the very beginning, and it took me perhaps an hour telling it. And indeed how could I have helped telling him? I had been dying to talk of it that afternoon. I began with our very first meeting at the old prince’s on the day she arrived from Moscow; then I described how it had all come about by degrees. I left nothing out, and indeed I could not have left anything out; he led me on, he guessed what was coming and prompted me. At moments it seemed to me that something fantastic was happening, that he must have been sitting or standing behind the door, for those two months; he knew beforehand every gesture I made, every feeling I had felt. I derived infinite enjoyment from this confession to him, for I found in him such intimate softness, such deep psychological subtlety, such a marvellous faculty for guessing what I meant from half a word. He listened as tenderly as a woman. And above all he knew how to save me from feeling ashamed; at times he stopped me at some detail; often when he stopped me he repeated nervously: “Don’t forget details; the great thing is, not to forget any details; the more minute a point is, the more important it may sometimes be.” And he interrupted me several times with words to that effect. Oh, of course I began at first in a tone of superiority, superiority to her, but I quickly dropped into sincerity. I told him honestly that I was ready to kiss the spot on the floor where her foot had rested. The most beautiful and glorious thing was that he absolutely understood that she might “be suffering from terror over the letter” and yet remain the pure and irreproachable being she had revealed herself to be. He absolutely realized what was meant by the word “student.” But when I was near the end of my story I noticed that behind his good-natured smile there were signs in his face from time to time of some impatience, some abruptness and preoccupation; when I came to the letter, I thought to myself:
“Shall I tell him the exact truth or not?” and I did not tell it, in spite of my enthusiasm. I note this here that I may remember it all my life. I explained to him, as I had done to her, that it had been destroyed by Kraft. His eyes began to glow; a strange line, a line of deep gloom was visible on his forehead.
“You are sure you remember, my dear boy, that that letter was burned by Kraft in the candle? You are not mistaken?”
“I am not mistaken,” I repeated.
“The point is that that scrap of paper is of such importance to her, and if you had only had it in your hands to-day, you might . . . .” But what “I might” he did not say. “But you haven’t it in your hands now?”
I shuddered all over inwardly, but not outwardly. Outwardly I did not betray myself, I did not turn a hair; but I was still unwilling to believe in the question:
“Haven’t it in my hands! In my hands now? How could I since Kraft burned it that day?”
“Yes?” A glowing intent look was fastened upon me, a look I shall never forget; he smiled, however, but all his good-nature, all the feminine softness that had been in his expression suddenly vanished. It was replaced by something vague and troubled; he become more and more preoccupied. If he had controlled himself at that moment, as he had till then, he would not have asked me that question about the letter; he had asked it, no doubt, because he was carried away himself. I say this, however, only now; at the time, I did not so quickly perceive the change that had come over him; I still went on plunging, and there was still the same music in my heart. But my story was over; I looked at him.
“It’s strange,” he said suddenly, when I had told him everything to the minutest detail: “it’s a very strange thing, my dear boy: you say that you were there from three o’clock till four and that Tatyana Pavlovna was not at home?”
“From three o’clock till half-past four exactly.”
“Well, only fancy, I went to see Tatyana Pavlovna exactly at half-past four to the minute, and she met me in the kitchen: I nearly always go to see her by the back entrance.”
“What, she met you in the kitchen?” I cried, staggering back in amazement.
“And she told me she could not ask me in; I only stayed two minutes, I only looked in to ask her to come to dinner.”
“Perhaps she had only just come home from somewhere?”
“I don’t know, of course not, though she was wearing a loose dressing-gown. That was at half-past four exactly.”
“But . . . Tatyana Pavlovna didn’t tell you I was there?”
“No, she did not tell me you were there . . . otherwise I should have known it, and should not have asked you about it.”
“Listen, that’s awfully important . . . .”
“Yes . . . from a certain point of view; and you’ve turned quite white, my dear; but, after all, what is there important in it?”
“They’ve been laughing at me as though I were a baby!”
“It’s simply ‘that she was afraid of your impulsiveness,’ as she expressed it herself — and so she felt safer with Tatyana Pavlovna there.”
“But, good God, what a trick! Think, she let me say all that before a third person, before Tatyana Pavlovna; so she heard everything I said! It . . . it’s horrible to conceive of!”
“C’est selon, mon cher. Besides, you spoke just now of ‘breadth’ of view in regard to women and exclaimed ‘Hurrah for breadth’!”
“If I were Othello and you Jago, you could not have done better. . . . I am laughing though! There can be no sort of Othello, because there have been no relations of the kind. And why laugh indeed? It doesn’t matter! I believe she’s infinitely above me all the same, and I have not lost my ideal! . . . If it was a joke on her part I forgive her. A joke with a wretched raw youth doesn’t matter! Besides, I did not pose as anything, and the student — the student was there in her soul, and remained there in spite of everything; it was in her heart, it exists there, and will always exist there! Enough! Listen, what do you think: shall I go to her at once to find out the whole truth or not?”
I said “I am laughing,” but there were tears in my eyes.
“Well, my dear boy, go if you want to.”
“I feel as though I were defiled in soul, from having told you all this. Don’t be angry, dear, but, I repeat, one can’t tell things about a woman to a third person; no confidant will understand. Even an angel wouldn’t understand. If you respect a woman, don’t confide in anyone! If you respect yourself don’t confide in anyone. Now I don’t respect myself. Good-bye for the present; I can’t forgive myself.”
“Nonsense, my dear boy, you exaggerate. You say yourself that ‘there was nothing in it.’”
We came out on the canal bank and said good-bye.
“Will you never give me a real warm kiss, as a child kisses its father?” he said, with a strange quiver in his voice. I kissed him fervently.
“Dear boy . . . may you be always as pure in heart as you are now.”
I had never kissed him before in my life, I never could have conceived that he would like me to.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07