As we talked the whole evening and stayed together till midnight, I am not recording the whole conversation, but am only selecting what cleared up for me one enigmatic point in his life.
I will begin by saying that I have no doubt that he loved my mother, and though he did abandon her and “break off all relations with her” when he went away, it was, of course, only because he was bored or something of that kind, which is apt to happen indeed to every one on earth, but which is always difficult to explain. Abroad, after some length of time, however, he suddenly began to love mother again, at a distance, that is in thought, and sent for her. I shall be told perhaps that it was a “caprice,” but I think differently: to my mind it was a question of all that can be serious in human life, in spite of the apparent sloppiness which I am ready, if you like, to some extent to admit. But I swear that I put his grieving for Europe unmistakably on a level with, and in fact incomparably higher than, any modern practical activity in the construction of railways. His love for humanity I recognize as a most sincere and deep feeling, free from any sort of pose, and his love for mother as something quite beyond dispute, though perhaps a little fantastic. Abroad, in melancholy and happiness, and I may add in the strictest monastic solitude (this fact I learned afterwards through Tatyana Pavlovna), he suddenly thought of mother — to be exact, thought of her “hollow cheeks,” and at once sent for her.
“My dear,” he blurted out among other things, “I suddenly reflected that my serving the idea did not release me, as a morally rational creature, from the duty of making, in the course of my life, at least one fellow-creature happy, in a practical way.”
“Can such a bookish thought have really been the reason of it?” I asked him with surprise.
“It’s not a bookish thought. Though — perhaps it is. It was everything together; you know I loved your mother really, sincerely, not bookishly. If I hadn’t loved her, I shouldn’t have sent for her, but should have made happy some casual German, man or woman, if I had formulated that thought. To make in one’s lifetime at least one fellow-creature happy, in a practical way, that is really happy, I would make a binding duty for every educated man; just as I would make it a law or an obligation for every peasant to plant at least one tree in his life to counteract the deforestation of Russia; though indeed one tree in one’s lifetime isn’t much, one might order him to plant one every year. The man of higher education and culture, pursuing higher ideas, sometimes loses sight of reality altogether becomes ridiculous, capricious and cold, and indeed I may say stupid, not only in practical life but in theory. The duty not to neglect practice and to make at least one real person happy would correct everything and would give fresh life even to the philanthropist himself.
“As a theory this is very absurd; but if it were adopted in practice and became a habit, it would not be stupid at all. I have experienced it myself: so soon as I began to develop this idea of a new creed, and at first of course in jest, I suddenly began to realize the depth of the love for your mother that lay hidden in my heart. Until then I had not understood that I loved her. While I lived with her I was only charmed with her while she was pretty, then I began to be moody and changeable. It was only in Germany that I understood that I loved her. It began with her hollow cheeks, of which I could never think, and sometimes not even see, without a pain in my heart, real physical pain. There are memories that hurt, my dear, that cause actual pain. Almost everyone has some such memories, only people forget them, but it does happen that they suddenly recall them, or perhaps only some feature of them, and then they cannot shake them off. I began to recall a thousand details of my life with Sonia. In the end they recalled themselves, and came crowding on my mind, and almost tortured me while I was waiting for her coming. What distressed me most of all was the memory of her everlasting submissiveness to me, and the way she continually thought herself inferior to me, in every respect, even — imagine it — physically; she was ashamed and flushed crimson when I looked at her hands and fingers, which were by no means aristocratic, and not her fingers only — she was ashamed of everything in herself, in spite of my loving her beauty. She was always shrinkingly modest with me, but what was wrong was that in it there was always a sort of fear, in short she thought herself something insignificant beside me, something almost unseemly in fact. I used really sometimes to think at first that she still looked upon me as her master, and was afraid of me, but it was not that at all. Yet, I assure you, no one was more capable of understanding my failings, and I have never in my life met a woman with so much insight and delicacy of heart. Oh, how unhappy she was if I insisted at first, when she was so pretty, on her dressing smartly; it was a question of vanity, and some other feeling, that was wounded. She realized that it would never be in her line to be a lady, and that in any dress but her own she would simply be ridiculous. As a woman she did not want to be ridiculous in her dress, and knew that every woman has HER OWN style of dress, which thousands and hundreds of thousands of women will never understand — so long as they are dressed in the fashion. She feared my ironical looks — that was what she feared!
“But it was particularly sad for me to recall the look of deep amazement which I often caught fixed upon me, during the time we were together: in her eyes there was the fullest comprehension of her lot and of the future awaiting her, so that I too felt weighed down, by that look in them, though I must admit, in those days, I did not discuss things with her, and treated all this somewhat disdainfully. And, you know, she wasn’t always such a timorous, shy creature as she is now; even now it happens that she will all at once grow gay, and look as pretty as a girl of twenty; and in those days in her youth she was very fond of chattering and laughing, only with people she was at home with, with girls and women belonging to the household; and how she started if I came on her unawares, if she were laughing, how she blushed, and how timorously she looked at me! Once, not long before I went abroad, almost on the eve of my breaking off all relations with her, in fact, I went into her room and found her alone, at a little table, without any work in her hands, but deep in thought, resting her elbow on the table. It had hardly ever happened to her before to sit without work. At that time I had quite given up showing her affection. I succeeded in stealing in very quietly, on tiptoe, and suddenly embracing and kissing her. . . . She leapt up — and I shall never forget the rapture, the bliss in her eyes, and suddenly it was succeeded by a swift rush of colour, and her eyes flashed. Do you know what I read in those flashing eyes? ‘You are kissing me as a charity — that’s what it is!’ She began sobbing hysterically, making the excuse that I had startled her, but even at the time it made me think. And, in fact, all such reminiscences are very dreary things, dear boy. It’s like those PAINFUL scenes which you sometimes find in the works of great artists, which one remembers ever afterwards with pain; for instance, Othello’s last monologue in Shakespeare, Yevgeny, at the feet of Tatyana, or the meeting of the runaway convict with the little girl on the cold night at the well, in ‘Les Miserables’ of Victor Hugo; it stabs the heart once for all, and leaves a wound for ever. Oh, how eager I was for Sonia to come and how I longed to hold her in my arms! I dreamed with feverish impatience of a complete new programme of existence; I dreamed that gradually, by systematic efforts, I would break down that constant fear of me in her soul, would make her appreciate her own value, and all in which she was actually superior to me. Oh, I knew quite well, even then, that I always began to love your mother as soon as we were parted, and always grew cold to her at once as soon as we were together again; but that time, it was different, then it was different.”
I was astonished: “And SHE?” the idea flashed across me.
“Well, and how did mother and you meet then?” I asked cautiously.
“Then? Oh, we didn’t meet then at all. She only got as far as Königsberg, and stopped there, and I was on the Rhine. I didn’t go to her, and I told her to stay there and wait. We only saw each other again long after, oh, long after, when I went to her to ask her to consent to my marriage . . . .”
Now I’m coming to the core of it all, that is, as far as I was able to grasp it myself; for, indeed, his own account began to be somewhat disconnected. His talk became ten times as incoherent and rambling as soon as he reached this part of the story.
He met Katerina Nikolaevna suddenly, just when he was expecting mother, at the moment of most impatient expectation. They were all, at the time, on the Rhine, at some spa, all drinking the waters. Katerina Nikolaevna’s husband was by then almost dying, he had, at any rate, been given up by the doctors. She made an impression on him at the first meeting, as it were cast a sort of spell upon him. It was a case of fate. It’s remarkable that recalling it and writing it down now, I don’t remember that he once used the word “love” in connection with her, or spoke of “being in love.” The word “fate” I remember.
And, of course, it was fate. He did NOT CHOOSE it, “he did not want to love her.” I don’t know whether I can give a clear account of it, but his whole soul was in revolt at the fact that this could have happened to him. Everything in him that was free was annihilated by this meeting. And the man was fettered for life to a woman who had really nothing to do with him. He did not desire this slavery of passion. To state the fact plainly, Katerina Nikolaevna is a type rare amongst society women — a type perhaps unique in that circle. That is, she is an extremely good-natured and straightforward woman. I’ve heard, indeed I know for a fact that this was what made her irresistible in the fashionable world whenever she made her appearance in it. (She used at times to withdraw into complete seclusion.)
Versilov did not believe, of course, when he first met her, that she was like that; in fact, he believed she was the exact opposite, that she was a hypocrite and a Jesuit. At this point I will anticipate by quoting her own criticism of him: she declared that he could not help thinking what he did of her “because an idealist always runs his head against reality and is more inclined than other people to assume anything horrid.”
I don’t know if this is true of idealists in general, but it was entirely true of him, no doubt. I may perhaps add here my own judgment, which flashed across my mind while I was listening to him then: I thought that he loved mother, more so to say with the humane love one feels for all mankind, than with the simple love with which women are loved as a rule, and that as soon as he met a woman whom he began to love with that simple love, he at once turned against that love — most probably because the feeling was new to him. Perhaps, though, this idea is incorrect; I did not of course utter it to him. It would have been indelicate, and he really was in such a condition that it was almost necessary to spare him: he was agitated; at some points in his story he simply broke off, and was silent for some moments, walking about the room with a vindictive face.
She soon divined his secret. Oh, perhaps she flirted with him on purpose; even the most candid women are base in these cases, and it is their overwhelming instinct. It ended in a rupture full of rankling bitterness, and I believe he tried to kill her; he frightened her, and would have killed her, perhaps, “but it was all turned to hatred.” Then there came a strange period: he was suddenly possessed by the strange idea of torturing himself by a discipline, “the same as that used by the monks. Gradually, by systematic practice, you overcome your will, beginning with the most absurd and trivial things, and end by conquering your will completely, and become free.” He added that this practice of the monks is a serious thing; in the course of a thousand years it has been brought by them to a science. But what is most remarkable is that he gave himself up to this idea of discipline, not in order to get rid of the image of Katerina Nikolaevna, but in the full conviction that he had not only ceased to love her, but hated her. He so thoroughly believed in his hatred for her as to conceive the idea of loving and marrying her step-daughter, who had been seduced by Prince Sergay, to persuade himself absolutely of this new love, and to win the poor imbecile’s heart completely, by his devotion making her perfectly happy. Why, instead of devoting himself to her, he did not think of mother, who was all this time waiting for him at Königsberg, remained for me inexplicable. . . . He quite forgot mother, indeed, and even neglected to send money for her maintenance, so that Tatyana Pavlovna had to come to her rescue; yet finally he did go to mother “to ask her permission” to marry the young lady, pleading that “such a bride was not a woman.” Oh, perhaps all this is only a portrait of a theoretical man, as Katerina Nikolaevna said of him later. But why is it, though, that these theoretical people (if they really are theoretical people) are capable of such very real suffering, and end in such very real tragedy? On that evening, however, I looked at it differently, and I was disturbed by the thought:
“All your development, your whole soul, has been won by the suffering and the struggle of your whole life, while her perfection has cost her nothing. That’s unjust. . . . Woman is revolting in that way.” I said this without the least intention of flattering him, speaking with warmth and indignation.
“Perfection? Her perfection? But she has no sort of perfection!” he said suddenly, seeming almost surprised at my words. “She is the most ordinary woman, she is really a contemptible woman. . . . But she is bound to have every perfection!”
“Why is she bound to?”
“Because she has such power, she is bound to have every sort of perfection!” he cried vindictively.
“The saddest thing is that you are so harassed even now,” I could not help blurting out suddenly.
“How harassed!” he repeated my words again, standing still before me as though in some perplexity. And suddenly a slow, gentle, dreamy smile lighted up his whole face, and he held up his finger as though considering. Then as though waking up, he took from the table an open letter, and flung it down in front of me.
“Read it! You must know everything . . . and why have you made me rake up all this bygone foolishness? . . . It has only roused up nasty and spiteful feelings in my heart . . . .”
I cannot describe my astonishment. The letter was from her to him, received by him that afternoon at five o’clock. I read it, almost shaking with emotion. It was not long, and was written so simply and straightforwardly, that as I read it I seemed to see her before me and hear her words. With the most simple truthfulness (and so almost touchingly) she confessed her terror, and then simply besought him to “leave her in peace.” In conclusion, she told him that she definitely was to marry Büring. Till then she had never written a word to him.
And this is what I could make out of his explanation:
As soon as he had read the letter that day, he was aware of a new sensation: for the first time in those fatal two years he felt not the slightest hatred for her, or the slightest shock of emotion, such as had “driven him out of his mind” at a mere rumour of Büring. “On the contrary, I sent her my blessing, with perfect sincerity,” he told me, with deep feeling. I heard these words with ecstasy. Then all the passion and agony that had possessed him had vanished all at once of itself, like a dream, like an obsession that had lasted two years. Hardly yet able to believe in himself he hastened to mother’s and — arrived at the very moment when she was set free by the death of the old man who had bequeathed her to him. The coincidence of these two events had deeply stirred his soul. Not long afterwards he rushed to find me — and that immediate thought of me I shall never forget.
I shall never forget the end of that evening either. The whole man was suddenly transformed again. We did not separate till late at night. The effect that all he told me had upon me I will describe later, in its proper place, and will confine myself now to a few words, in conclusion, about him. Reflecting upon it now, I realize that what captivated me so much at the time was his humility, so to speak, with me, his frank sincerity with a boy like me! “It was infatuation, but my blessings on it!” he exclaimed. “But for that blind obsession I might perhaps have never discovered in my heart my sole queen, my suffering darling — your mother.” These passionate words, wrung from him by over-mastering feeling, I note particularly, in view of what followed. But at the time he gained complete possession of my heart and conquered it.
I remember in the end we became very cheerful. He asked for some champagne, and we drank to mother, and to the “future.” Oh, he was so full of life, and so eager to live! But we suddenly became extremely merry, not from the wine: we only drank two glasses. I don’t know why, but in the end we laughed almost helplessly. We began talking of quite extraneous matters; he began telling me an anecdote and I told him one. And our laughter and our anecdotes, were by no means malicious or amusing, but we were merry. He was unwilling to let me go: “Stay, stay a little longer,” he repeated, and I stayed. He even came out to see me home; it was an exquisite evening, with a slight frost. “Tell me, have you sent her an answer yet?” I asked, quite casually, as I pressed his hand for the last time at the cross road.
“No, not yet, but that’s no matter. Come to-morrow, come early. . . . Oh, and another thing: drop Lambert altogether and tear up that ‘document,’ and make haste about it. Goodbye!”
Saying this he went away quickly; I remained standing still, and so much taken aback that I could not bring myself to call after him. The expression, the “document,” startled me particularly: how could he have known of it, and that particular word too, if not from Lambert? I went home in great confusion. And how can it have happened, the question flashed upon me suddenly, that such an obsession for two years can have vanished like a dream, like a vapour, like a phantom.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07