But, again anticipating the course of events, I find it is necessary to explain to the reader something of what is coming, for the logical sequence of the story is obscured by such numerous incidents, that otherwise it would be impossible to understand it.
That something is the “deadly noose” to which Tatyana Pavlovna let slip an allusion. It appeared that Anna Andreyevna had ventured at last on the most audacious step that could be imagined in her position; she certainly had a will of her own! On the pretext of his health the old prince had been in the nick of time carried off to Tsarskoe Syelo so that the news of his approaching marriage with Anna Andreyevna might not be spread abroad, but might for the time be stifled, so to say, in embryo, yet the feeble old man, with whom one could do anything else, would not on any consideration have consented to give up his idea and jilt Anna Andreyevna, who had made him an offer. On this subject he was a paragon of chivalry, so that he might sooner or later bestir himself and suddenly proceed to carry out his intentions with that irresistible force which is so very frequently met with in weak characters, for they often have a line beyond which they cannot be driven. Moreover, he fully recognised the delicacy of the position of Anna Andreyevna, for whom he had an unbounded respect; he was quite alive to the possibility of rumours, of gibes, of injurious gossip. The only thing that checked him and kept him quiet for the time was that Katerina Nikolaevna had never once allowed herself to drop the faintest hint reflecting on Anna Andreyevna in his presence, or to raise the faintest objection to his intention of marrying her; on the contrary, she showed the greatest cordiality and every attention to her father’s fiancée. In this way Anna Andreyevna was placed in an extremely awkward position, perceiving with her subtle feminine instinct that she would wound all the old prince’s tenderest feelings, and would arouse his distrust and even, perhaps, his indignation by the slightest criticism of Katerina Nikolaevna, whom he worshipped, too, and now more than ever just because she had so graciously and dutifully consented to his marriage. And so for the present the conflict was waged on that plane: the two rivals vied with one another in delicacy and patience, and as time went on the prince did not know which of them to admire the most, and like all weak but tender-hearted people, he ended by being miserable and blaming himself for everything. His depression of spirits reached a morbid point, I was told: his nerves were thoroughly upset, and instead of regaining health in Tsarskoe, he was, so I was assured, on the point of taking to his bed.
Here I may note in parenthesis what I only learnt long afterwards that Büring had bluntly proposed to Katerina Nikolaevna that they should take the old gentleman abroad, inducing him to go by some sort of strategy, letting people know privately meanwhile that he had gone out of his mind, and obtaining a doctor’s certificate to that effect abroad. But Katerina Nikolaevna would not consent to that on any account; so at least it was declared afterwards. She seems to have rejected the project with indignation. All this is only a rather roundabout rumour, but I believe it.
And just when things had reached this apparently hopeless position, Anna Andreyevna suddenly learnt through Lambert that there was in existence a letter, in which the daughter had consulted a lawyer about declaring her father insane. Her proud and revengeful mind was roused to the utmost. Recalling previous conversations with me and putting together many trifling circumstances, she could not doubt the truth of it. Then, inevitably, the plan of a bold stroke matured in her resolute, inflexible, feminine heart. . . . That plan was to tell the prince all about it, suddenly, with no preliminaries or negotiations, to frighten him, to give him a shock, to prove to him that what inevitably awaited him was the lunatic asylum, and if he were perverse, if he refused to believe and expressed indignation, to show him his daughter’s letter, as though to say, “Since there was once an intention of declaring him insane, it might well be tried again in order to prevent his marriage.” Then to take the frightened and shattered old man to Petersburg — STRAIGHT TO MY LODGING.
It was a terrible risk, but she had complete confidence in her powers. Here I will digress for a moment to observe that the later course of events proved that she had not been mistaken as to the effect of this blow; what is more, the effect of it exceeded her expectations. The news of the existence of this letter produced, perhaps, a far stronger effect on the old prince than she or any of us had anticipated. I had no idea until then that the old prince had heard of this letter before; but like all weak and timid people he did not believe the rumour, and did his utmost to dismiss it from his mind in order to preserve his serenity; what is more, he reproached himself for his baseness in being ready to believe it. I may add that the fact, that is the existence of the letter, had a far greater effect on Katerina Nikolaevna than I had expected. . . . In fact, this scrap of paper turned out to be of far greater consequence than I, carrying it in my pocket, had imagined. But I am running too far ahead.
But why, I shall be asked to my lodgings? Why convey the old prince to my pitiful little den, and alarm him, perhaps, by the sordidness of his surroundings? If not to his own home (where all her plans might be thwarted at once), why not to some “sumptuous” private apartments, as Lambert urged? But it was just on this that Anna Andreyevna reckoned in her desperate step.
Her chief object was to confront the prince with the document; but nothing would have induced me to give it up. And as there was no time to lose, Anna Andreyevna, relying on her power to carry off the position, resolved to begin without the document, bringing the old prince straight to me — for what purpose? To catch me by that same step; so to say, to kill two birds with one stone. She reckoned on working upon me by the sudden blow, the shock, the unexpectedness of it. She anticipated that when I found the old man in my room, when I saw his helplessness and his alarm, and heard them all imploring me, I should give in and show the document! I must confess her calculation was crafty and clever, and showed psychological insight; what is more, she was very nearly successful. . . . As for the old man, Anna Andreyevna had succeeded in bringing him away, and had forced him to believe her simply by telling him that she was bringing him TO ME. All this I learned later; the mere statement that the letter was in my hands extinguished in his timid heart the last doubts of the fact — so great were his love and respect for me!
I may remark, too, that Anna Andreyevna herself never for a moment doubted that I still had the letter and had not let it go out of my hands: her great mistake was that she had a wrong conception of my character and was synically reckoning on my innocence, my good-nature, and even my sentimentality; and, on the other hand, she imagined that even if I had made up my mind to give up the letter, to Katerina Nikolaevna for instance, I should only do so under special conditions, and she made haste to anticipate those conditions by the suddenness, the unexpectedness of her master-stroke.
And, finally, Lambert confirmed her in all this. I have mentioned already that Lambert’s position at this time was most critical; the traitor would have liked above everything to lure me from Anna Andreyevna so that with him I might sell the letter to Mme. Ahmakov, which he, for some reason, considered a more profitable course; but since nothing would induce me to give up the document till the last moment, he decided, at any rate, to act with Anna Andreyevna also, that he might not risk losing everything, and therefore he did his utmost to force his services on her till the very last hour, and I know that he even offered to procure a priest, if necessary . . . but Anna Andreyevna had asked him, with a contemptuous smile, not to suggest this. Lambert struck her as horribly coarse, and aroused her utmost aversion; but to be on the safe side she still accepted his services, as a spy for instance. By the way, I do not know for certain to this day whether they bought over Pyotr Ippolitovitch, my landlord, and whether he got anything at all from them for his services, or whether he simply worked for them for the joy of intrigue; but that he acted as a spy upon me, and that his wife did also, I know for a fact.
The reader will understand now that though I was to some extent forewarned, yet I could not have guessed that the next day, or the day after, I should find the old prince in my lodgings and in such circumstances. Indeed, I never could have conceived of such audacity from Anna Andreyevna. One may talk freely and hint at anything one likes, but to decide, to act, and to carry things out — well, that really is character!
I waked up late in the morning. I slept an exceptionally sound and dreamless sleep, as I remember with wonder, so that I waked up next morning feeling unusually confident again, as though nothing had happened the day before. I intended not going first to mother’s but straight to the church of the cemetery, with the idea of returning to mother’s after the ceremony and remaining the rest of the day. I was firmly convinced that in any case I should meet him sooner or later at mother’s.
Neither Alphonsine nor the landlord had been at the flat for a long time. I would not on any account question the landlady, and, indeed, I made up my mind to cut off all relations with them for the future, and even to give up my lodgings as soon as I could; and so, as soon as my coffee had been brought, I put the hook on the door again. But suddenly there was a knock at the door, and to my surprise it turned out to be Trishatov.
I opened the door at once and, delighted to see him, asked him to come in, but he refused.
“I will only say two words from the door . . . or, perhaps, I will come in, for I fancy one must talk in a whisper here; only I won’t sit down. You are looking at my horrid coat: Lambert took my great-coat.”
He was, in fact, wearing a wretched old great-coat, which did not fit him. He stood before me without taking off his hat, a gloomy, dejected figure, with his hands in his pockets.
“I won’t sit down, I won’t sit down. Listen, Dolgoruky, I know nothing in detail, but I know that Lambert is preparing some treachery against you at once, and you won’t escape it — and that’s certain. And so be careful; I was told by that pock-marked fellow, do you remember him? But he did not tell me anything more about it, so I can’t tell you. I’ve only come to warn you — good-bye.”
“But sit down, dear Trishatov; though I’m in a hurry I’m so glad to see you . . . .” I cried.
“I won’t sit down, I won’t sit down; but I shall remember you were glad to see me. Oh, Dolgoruky, why deceive others? I’ve consciously of my own free will consented to every sort of abomination, to things so vile, that I can’t speak of them before you. Now we are at the pock-marked fellow’s. Good-bye. I am not worthy to sit down with you.”
“Nonsense, Trishatov, dear . . . .”
“No, you see, Dolgoruky, I keep a bold face before every one, and I’m going to have a rollicking time. I shall soon have a better fur coat than my old one, and shall be driving a fast trotter. But I shall know in my own mind that I did not sit down in your room, because I judge myself unworthy, because I’m low compared with you. It will always be nice for me to remember that when I’m in the midst of disgraceful debauchery. Good-bye, good-bye. And I won’t give you my hand; why, Alphonsine won’t take my hand. And please don’t follow me or come to see me, that’s a compact between us.”
The strange boy turned and went out. I had no time then, but I made up my mind to seek him out as soon as I had settled our affairs.
I won’t describe the rest of that morning, though there is a great deal that might be recalled. Versilov was not at the funeral service in the church, and I fancy from their faces I could have gathered that they did not expect him there. Mother prayed devoutly and seemed entirely absorbed in the service; there were only Liza and Tatyana Pavlovna by the coffin. But I will describe nothing, nothing. After the burial we all returned and sat down to a meal, and again I gathered by their faces that he was not expected to it. When we rose from the table, I went up to mother, embraced her and congratulated her on her birthday; Liza did the same after me.
“Listen, brother,” Liza whispered to me on the sly; “they are expecting him.”
“I guessed so, Liza. I see it.”
“He’s certainly coming.”
“So they must have heard something positive,” I thought, but I didn’t ask any question. Though I’m not going to describe my feelings, all this mystery began to weigh like a stone upon my heart again in spite of my confident mood. We all settled down in the drawing-room, near mother, at the round table. Oh, how I liked being with her then, and looking at her! Mother suddenly asked me to read something out of the Gospel. I read a chapter from St. Luke. She did not weep, and was not even very sorrowful, but her face had never seemed to me so full of spiritual meaning. There was the light of thought in her gentle eyes, but I could not trace in them any sign that she expected something with apprehension. The conversation never flagged; we recalled many reminiscences of Makar Ivanovitch; Tatyana Pavlovna, too, told us many things about him of which I had no idea before. And, in fact, it would make an interesting chapter if it were all written down. Even Tatyana Pavlovna wore quite a different air from usual: she was very gentle, very affectionate, and, what is more, also very quiet, though she talked a good deal to distract mother’s mind. But one detail I remember well: mother was sitting on the sofa, and on a special round table on her left there lay, apparently put there for some purpose, a plain antique ikon, with halos on the heads of the saints, of which there were two. This ikon had belonged to Makar Ivanovitch — I knew that, and knew also that the old man had never parted from it, and looked upon it with superstitious reverence. Tatyana Pavlovna glanced at it several times.
“Listen, Sofia,” she said, suddenly changing the conversation; “instead of the ikon’s lying down, would it not be better to stand it up on the table against the wall, and to light the lamp before it?”
“No, better as it is,” said mother.
“I dare say you’re right; it might seem making too much fuss . . . .”
I did not understand at the time, but this ikon had long ago been verbally bequeathed by Makar Ivanovitch to Andrey Petrovitch, and mother was preparing to give it to him now.
It was five o’clock in the afternoon; we were still talking when I noticed a sudden quiver in mother’s face; she drew herself up quickly and began listening, while Tatyana Pavlovna, who was speaking at the time, went on talking without noticing anything. I at once turned to the door, and an instant later saw Andrey Petrovitch in the doorway. He had come in by the back stairs, through the kitchen and the passage, and mother was the only one of us who had heard his footsteps. Now I will describe the whole of the insane scene that followed, word by word, and gesture by gesture; it was brief.
To begin with, I did not, at the first glance anyway, observe the slightest change in his face. He was dressed as always, that is almost foppishly; in his hand was a small but expensive nosegay of fresh flowers. He went up and handed it to mother with a smile; she was looking at him with frightened perplexity, but she took the nosegay, and a faint flush at once glowed on her pale cheeks, and there was a gleam of pleasure in her eyes.
“I knew you would take it like that, Sonia,” he said. As we all got up when he came in, he took Liza’s easy-chair, which was on the left of mother, and sat down in it without noticing he was taking her seat. And so he was quite close to the little table on which the ikon was lying.
“Good evening to you all; I felt I must bring you this nosegay on your birthday, Sonia, and so I did not go to the funeral, as I could not come to the grave with a nosegay; and you didn’t expect me at the funeral, I know. The old man certainly won’t be angry at these flowers, for he bequeathed us joy himself, didn’t he? I believe he’s here somewhere in the room.”
Mother looked at him strangely; Tatyana Pavlovna seemed to wince.
“Who’s here in the room?” she asked.
“Makar Ivanovitch. Never mind. You know that the man who is not entirely a believer in these marvels is always more prone to superstition. . . . But I had better tell you about the nosegay: how I succeeded in bringing it I don’t know. Three times on the way I had a longing to throw it in the snow and trample on it.”
“A terrible longing. You must have pity on me and my poor head, Sonia. I longed to, because they are too beautiful. Is there any object in the world more beautiful than a flower? I carried it, with snow and frost all round. Our frost and flowers — such an incongruity! I wasn’t thinking of that though, I simply longed to crush it because it was so lovely. Sonia, though I’m disappearing again now, I shall soon come back, for I believe I shall be afraid. If I am afraid, who will heal me of my terrors, where can I find an angel like Sonia? . . . What is this ikon you’ve got here? Ah, Makar Ivanovitch’s, I remember. It belonged to his family, his ancestors; he would never part from it; I know, I remember he left it to me; I quite remember . . . and I fancy it’s an unorthodox one. Let me have a look at it.”
He took up the ikon, carried it to the light and looked at it intently, but, after holding it a few seconds only, laid it on the table before him. I was astonished, but all his strange speech was uttered so quickly that I had not time to reflect upon it. All I remember is that a sick feeling of dread began to clutch at my heart. Mother’s alarm had passed into perplexity and compassion; she looked on him as some one, above all, to be pitied; it had sometimes happened in the past that he had talked almost as strangely as now. Liza, for some reason, became suddenly very pale, and strangely made a sign to me with a motion of her head towards him. But most frightened of all was Tatyana Pavlovna.
“What’s the matter with you, Andrey Petrovitch darling?” she inquired cautiously.
“I really don’t know, Tatyana Pavlovna dear, what’s the matter with me. Don’t be uneasy, I still remember that you are Tatyana Pavlovna, and that you are dear. But I’ve only come for a minute though; I should like to say something nice to Sonia, and I keep trying to find the right word, though my heart is full of words, which I don’t know how to utter; yes, really, all such strange words somehow. Do you know I feel as though I were split in two”— he looked round at us all with a terribly serious face and with perfectly genuine candour. “Yes, I am really split in two mentally, and I’m horribly afraid of it. It’s just as though one’s second self were standing beside one; one is sensible and rational oneself, but the other self is impelled to do something perfectly senseless, and sometimes very funny; and suddenly you notice that you are longing to do that amusing thing, goodness knows why; that is you want to, as it were, against your will; though you fight against it with all your might, you want to. I once knew a doctor who suddenly began whistling in church, at his father’s funeral. I really was afraid to come to the funeral to-day, because, for some reason, I was possessed by a firm conviction that I should begin to whistle or laugh in church, like that unfortunate doctor, who came to rather a bad end. . . . And I really don’t know why, but I’ve been haunted by the thought of that doctor all day; I am so haunted by him that I can’t shake him off. Do you know, Sonia, here I’ve taken up the ikon again” (he had picked it up and was turning it about in his hand), “and do you know, I have a dreadful longing now, this very second, to smash it against the stove, against this corner. I am sure it would break into two halves — neither more nor less.”
What was most striking was that he said this without the slightest trace of affectation or whimsical caprice; he spoke quite simply, but that made it all the more terrible; and he seemed really frightened of something; I noticed suddenly that his hands were trembling a little.
“Andrey Petrovitch!” cried mother, clasping her hands.
“Let the ikon alone, let it alone, Andrey Petrovitch, let it alone, put it down!” cried Tatyana Pavlovna, jumping up. “Undress sad go to bed. Arkady, run for the doctor!”
“But . . . but what a fuss you’re making,” he said gently, scrutinising us all intently. Then he suddenly put both elbows on the table and leaned his head in his hands.
“I’m scaring you, but I tell you what, my friends, try to comfort me a little, sit down again, and all be calm, if only for a minute! Sonia, I did not come to talk of this at all; I came to tell you something, but it was quite different. Good-bye, Sonia, I’m going off on my wanderings again, as I have left you several times before . . . but, no doubt, I shall come back to you again one day — in that sense you are inevitable. To whom should I come back, when all is over? Believe, Sonia, that I’ve come to you now as to an angel, and not as to an enemy; how could you be an enemy to me, how could you be an enemy! Don’t imagine that I came to break this ikon, for do you know, Sonia, I am still longing to break it all the same . . . .”
When Tatyana Pavlovna had cried out “Let the ikon alone,” she had snatched it out of his hands and was holding it in hers. Suddenly, at his last word, he jumped up impulsively, snatched the ikon in a flash from Tatyana’s hands, and with a ferocious swing smashed it with all his might against the corner of the tiled stove. The ikon was broken into two pieces. . . . He turned to us and his pale face suddenly flushed red, almost purple, and every feature in his face quivered and worked.
“Don’t take it for a symbol, Sonia; it’s not as Makar’s legacy I have broken it, but only to break something . . . and, anyway, I shall come back to you, my last angel! You may take it as a symbol, though; of course it must have been so! . . .”
And with sudden haste he went out of the room, going again through the kitchen (where he had left his fur coat and cap). I won’t attempt to describe what happened to mother: in mortal terror she stood clasping her hands above her, and she suddenly screamed after him:
“Andrey Petrovitch, come back, if only to say good-bye, dear!”
“He’ll come, Sofia, he’ll come! Don’t worry yourself!” Tatyana shrieked, trembling all over in a terrible rage, a really brutal rage. “Why, you heard he promised to come back himself! Let him go and amuse himself for the last time, the fool. He’s getting old — and who’ll nurse him when he’s bedridden except you, his old nurse? Why, he tells you so himself, he’s not ashamed . . . .”
As for us, Liza was in a swoon; I would have run after him, but I rushed to mother. I threw my arms round her and held her tight. Lukerya ran in with a glass of water for Liza, but mother soon came to herself, she sank on the sofa, hid her face in her hands, and began crying.
“But . . . but you’d better run after him,” Tatyana Pavlovna shouted suddenly with all her might, as though she had suddenly waked up. “Go along . . . go along . . . overtake him, don’t leave him for a minute, go along, go along!” She pulled me forcibly away from mother. “Oh, I shall run myself.”
“Arkasha, oh, run after him, make haste!” mother cried suddenly, too.
I ran off, full speed, through the kitchen and through the yard, but there was no sign of him anywhere. In the distance I saw black shadows in the darkness; I ran after them and examined each passer-by carefully as I overtook them. So I ran on to the cross-roads.
“People are not angry with the insane,” suddenly flashed through my mind, “but Tatyana was wild with rage at him, so he’s not mad at all . . . .” Oh, it seemed to me all the time that it was symbolic, and that he was bent on putting an end to everything as he did to the ikon, and showing that to us, to mother, and all. But that second self was unmistakably beside him, too; of that there could be no doubt . . . .
He was nowhere to be found, however, and I could not run to him. It was difficult to believe that he would have simply gone home. Suddenly an idea flashed upon me and I rushed off to Anna Andreyevna.
Anna Andreyevna had just returned, and I was shown up at once. I went in, controlling myself as far as I could. Without sitting down, I at once described to her the scene which had just taken place, that is the “second self.” I shall never forget the greedy but pitilessly composed and self-complacent curiosity with which she listened, also standing, and I shall never forgive her for it.
“Where is he? Perhaps you know?” I ended, insistently. “Tatyana Pavlovna sent me to you yesterday . . . .”
“I sent for you, too, yesterday. Yesterday he was at Tsarskoe Syelo; he came to see me, too. And now” (she looked at her watch), “now it is seven o’clock. . . . So he’s pretty sure to be at home.”
“I see that you know all about it — so tell me, tell me,” I cried.
“I know a good deal; but I don’t know everything. Of course, there’s no reason to conceal it from you . . . .” She scanned me with a strange glance, smiling and as though deliberating. “Yesterday morning, in answer to her letter, he made Katerina Nikolaevna a formal offer of marriage.”
“That’s false,” I said, opening my eyes wide.
“The letter went through my hands; I took it to her myself, unopened. This time he behaved ‘chivalrously’ and concealed nothing from me.”
“Anna Andreyevna, I can’t understand it!”
“Of course, it’s hard to understand it, but it’s like a gambler who stakes his last crown, while he has a loaded pistol ready in his pocket — that’s what his offer amounts to. It’s ten to one she won’t accept his offer; but still he’s reckoning on that tenth chance, and I confess that’s very curious; I imagine, though, that it may be a case of frenzy, that ‘second self,’ as you said so well just now.”
“And you laugh? And am I really to believe that the letter was given through you? Why, you are the fiancée of her father? Spare me, Anna Andreyevna!”
“He asked me to sacrifice my future to his happiness, though he didn’t really ask; it was all done rather silently. I simply read it all in his eyes. Oh, my goodness, what will he do next! Why, he went to Königsberg to ask your mother’s leave to marry Katerina Nikolaevna’s step-daughter. That’s very like his pitching on me for his go-between and confidante yesterday.”
She was rather pale. But her calmness was only exaggerated sarcasm. Oh, I forgave her much then, as I began to grasp the position. For a minute I pondered; she waited in silence.
“Do you know,” I laughed suddenly, “you delivered the letter because there was not the slightest risk for you, because there’s no chance of a marriage, but what of him? Of her, too? Of course she will reject his offer and then . . . what may not happen then? Where is he now, Anna Andreyevna?” I cried. “Every minute is precious now, any minute there may be trouble!”
“He’s at home. I have told you so. In the letter to Katerina Nikolaevna, which I delivered, he asked her in ANY CASE to grant him an interview in his lodgings to-day at seven o’clock this evening. She promised.”
“She’s going to his lodging? How can that be?”
“Why not, the lodging is Darya Onisimovna’s; they might very well meet there as her guests . . . .”
“But she’s afraid of him. . . . He may kill her.”
Anna Andreyevna only smiled.
“In spite of the terror which I detected in her myself, Katerina Nikolaevna has always from the first cherished a certain reverence and admiration for the nobility of Andrey Petrovitch’s principles and the loftiness of his mind. She is trusting herself to him this once, so as to have done with him for ever. In his letter he gave her the most solemn and chivalrous promise that she should have nothing to fear. . . . In short, I don’t remember the words of the letter, but she trusted herself . . . so to speak, for the last time . . . and so to speak, responding with the same heroic feelings. There may have been a sort of chivalrous rivalry on both sides.”
“But the second self, the second self!” I exclaimed; “besides, he’s out of his mind!”
“Yesterday, when she gave her promise to grant him an interview, Katerina Nikolaevna probably did not conceive of the possibility of that.”
I suddenly turned and was rushing out . . . to him, to them, of course! But from the next room I ran back for a second.
“But, perhaps, that is just what would suit you, that he should kill her!” I cried, and ran out of the house.
I was shaking all over, as though in a fit, but I went into the lodging quietly, through the kitchen, and asked in a whisper to see Darya Onisimovna; she came out at once and fastened a gaze of intense curiosity upon me.
“His honour . . . he’s not at home.”
But in a rapid whisper I explained, bluntly and exactly, that I knew all about it from Anna Andreyevna, and that I had just come from her.
“Darya Onisimovna, where are they?”
“They are in the room where you sat the day before yesterday, at the table.”
“Darya Onisimovna, let me go in!”
“Not in there, but in the next room. Darya Onisimovna, Anna Andreyevna wishes it, perhaps; if she didn’t wish it, she wouldn’t have told me herself. They won’t hear me . . . she wishes it herself . . . .”
“And if she doesn’t wish it?” said Darya Onisimovna, her eyes still riveted upon me.
“Darya Onisimovna, I remember your Olya; let me in.”
Her lips and chin suddenly began to quiver.
“Dear friend . . . for Olya’s sake . . . for the sake of your feeling . . . don’t desert Anna Andreyevna. My dear! you won’t desert her, will you? You won’t desert her?”
“No, I won’t!”
“Give me your solemn promise, you won’t rush out upon them, and won’t call out if I hide you in there?”
“I swear on my honour, Darya Onisimovna.”
She took me by my coat, led me into a dark room — next to the one where they were sitting — guided me, almost noiselessly, over the soft carpet to the doorway, stationed me at the curtain that hung over it, and lifting the curtain a fraction of an inch showed me them both.
I remained; she went away. Of course, I remained. I knew that I was eavesdropping, spying on other people’s secrets, but I remained. How could I help remaining with the thought of the ‘second self’ in my mind! Why, he had smashed the ikon before my eyes!
They were sitting facing one another at the table at which we had yesterday drunk to his “resurrection.” I got a good view of their faces. She was wearing a simple black dress, and was as beautiful and apparently calm as always. He was speaking; she was listening with intense and sympathetic attention. Perhaps there was some trace of timidity in her, too. He was terribly excited. I had come in the middle of their conversation, and so for some time I could make nothing of it. I remember she suddenly asked:
“And I was the cause?”
“No, I was the cause,” he answered; “and you were only innocently guilty. You know that there are the innocently guilty. Those are generally the most unpardonable crimes, and they almost always bring their punishment,” he added, laughing strangely. “And I actually thought for a moment that I had forgotten you and could laugh at my stupid passion . . . but you know that. What is he to me, though, that man you’re going to marry? Yesterday I made you an offer, forgive me for it; it was absurd and yet I had no alternative but that. . . . What could I have done but that absurd thing? I don’t know . . . .”
As he said this, he laughed hopelessly, suddenly lifting his eyes to her; till then he had looked away as he talked. If I had been in her place, I should have been frightened at that laugh, I felt that. He suddenly got up from his chair.
“Tell me, how could you consent to come here?” he asked suddenly, as though remembering the real point. “My invitation and my whole letter was absurd. . . . Stay, I can quite imagine how it came to pass that you consented to come, but — why did you come? that’s the question. Can you have come simply from fear?”
“I came to see you,” she said, looking at him with timid caution. Both were silent for half a minute. Versilov sank back in his chair, and in a voice soft but almost trembling and full of intense feeling began:
“It’s so terribly long since I’ve seen you, Katerina Nikolaevna, so long that I scarcely thought it possible I should ever be sitting beside you again as I now am, looking into your face and listening to your voice. . . . For two years we’ve not seen each other, for two years we’ve not talked. I never thought to speak to you again. But so be it, what is past is past, and what is will vanish like smoke to-morrow — so be it! I assent because there is no alternative again, but don’t let your coming be in vain,” he added suddenly, almost imploringly; “since you have shown me this charity and have come, don’t let it be in vain; answer me one question!”
“You know we shall never see each other again, and what is it to you? Tell me the truth for once, and answer me one question which sensible people never ask. Did you ever love me, or was I . . . mistaken?”
She flushed crimson.
“I did love you,” she brought out.
I expected she would say that. Oh, always truthful, always sincere, always honest!
“And now?” he went on.
“I don’t love you now.”
“And you are laughing?”
“No, I laughed just now by accident, because I knew you would ask, ‘And now.’ And I smiled at that, because when one guesses right one always does smile . . . .”
It seemed quite strange to me; I had never seen her so much on her guard, almost timid, indeed, and embarrassed.
His eyes devoured her.
“I know that you don’t love me . . . and — you don’t love me at all?”
“Perhaps not at all. I don’t love you,” she added firmly, without smiling or flushing. “Yes, I did love you, but not for long. I very soon got over it.”
“I know, I know, you saw that it was not what you wanted, but . . . what do you want? Explain that once more . . . .”
“Have I ever explained that to you? What do I want? Why, I’m the most ordinary woman; I’m a peaceful person. I like . . . I like cheerful people.”
“You see, I don’t know even how to talk to you. I believe that if you could have loved me less, I should have loved you then,” she smiled timidly again. The most absolute sincerity was transparent in her answer; and was it possible she did not realise that her answer was the most final summing up of their relations, explaining everything. Oh, how well he must have understood that! But he looked at her and smiled strangely.
“Is Büring a cheerful person?” he went on, questioning her.
“He ought not to trouble you at all,” she answered with some haste. “I’m marrying him simply because with him I shall be most at peace. My whole heart remains in my own keeping.”
“They say that you have grown fond of society, of the fashionable world again?”
“Not fond of it. I know that there is just the same disorderliness in good society as everywhere else; but the outer forms are still attractive, so that if one lives only to pass the time, one can do it better there than anywhere.”
“I’ve often heard the word ‘disorderliness’ of late; you used to be afraid of my disorderliness, too — chains, ideas, and imbecilities!”
“No, it was not quite that . . . .”
“What then, for God’s sake tell me all, frankly.”
“Well, I’ll tell you frankly, for I look on you as a man of great intellect. . . . I always felt there was something ridiculous about you.” When she had said this she suddenly flushed crimson, as though she feared she had said something fearfully indiscreet.
“For what you have just said I can forgive you a great deal,” he commented strangely.
“I hadn’t finished,” she said hurriedly, still flushing. “It’s I who am ridiculous to talk to you like a fool.”
“No, you are not ridiculous, you are only a depraved, worldly woman,” he said, turning horribly white. “I did not finish either, when I asked you why you had come. Would you like me to finish? There is a document, a letter in existence, and you’re awfully afraid of it, because if that letter comes into your father’s hands, he may curse you, and cut you out of his will. You’re afraid of that letter, and you’ve come for that letter,” he brought out. He was shaking all over, and his teeth were almost chattering. She listened to him with a despondent and pained expression of face.
“I know that you can do all sorts of things to harm me,” she said, as if warding off his words, “but I have come not so much to persuade you not to persecute me, as to see you yourself. I’ve been wanting to meet you very much for a long time. But I find you just the same as ever,” she added suddenly, as though carried away by a special and striking thought, and even by some strange sudden emotion.
“Did you hope to see me different, after my letter about your depravity? Tell me, did you come here without any fear?”
“I came because I once loved you; but do you know, I beg you not to threaten me, please, with anything. While we are now together, don’t remind me of my evil thoughts and feelings. If you could talk to me of something else I should be very glad. Let threats come afterwards; but it should be different now. . . . I came really to see you for a minute and to hear you. Oh, well, if you can’t help it, kill me straight off, only don’t threaten me and don’t torture yourself before me,” she concluded, looking at him in strange expectation, as though she really thought he might kill her. He got up from his seat again, and looking at her with glowing eyes, said resolutely:
“While you are here you will suffer not the slightest annoyance.”
“Oh yes, your word of honour,” she said, smiling.
“No, not only because I gave my word of honour in my letter, but because I want to think of you all night . . . .”
“To torture yourself?”
“I picture you in my mind whenever I’m alone. I do nothing but talk to you. I go into some squalid, dirty hole, and as a contrast you appear to me at once. But you always laugh at me as you do now . . . .” He said this as though he were beside himself . . . .
“I have never laughed at you, never!” she exclaimed in a voice full of feeling, and with a look of the greatest compassion in her face. “In coming here I tried my utmost to do it so that you should have no reason to be mortified,” she added suddenly. “I came here to tell you that I almost love you. . . . Forgive me, perhaps I used the wrong words,” she went on hurriedly.
“How is it you cannot dissemble? Why is it you are such a simple creature? Why is it you’re not like all the rest? . . . Why, how can you tell a man you are turning away that you ‘almost love him’?”
“It’s only that I could not express myself,” she put in hurriedly. “I used the wrong words; it’s because I’ve always felt abashed and unable to talk to you from the first time I met you, and if I used the wrong words, saying that I almost love you, in my thought it was almost so — so that’s why I said so, though I love you with that . . . well, with that GENERAL love with which one loves every one and which one is never ashamed to own . . . .”
He listened in silence, fixing his glowing eyes upon her.
“I am offending you, of course,” he went on, as though beside himself. “This must really be what they call passion . . . . All I know is that in your presence I am done for, in your absence, too. It’s just the same whether you are there or not, wherever you may be you are always before me. I know, too, that I can hate you intensely, more than I can love you. But I’ve long given up thinking about anything now — it’s all the same to me. I am only sorry I should love a woman like you.”
His voice broke; he went on, as it were, gasping for breath.
“What is it to you? You think it wild of me to talk like that!” He smiled a pale smile. “I believe, if only that would charm you, I would be ready to stand for thirty years like a post on one leg. . . . I see you are sorry for me; your face says ‘I would love you if I could but I can’t . . . .’ Yes? Never mind, I’ve no pride. I’m ready to take any charity from you like a beggar — do you hear, any . . . a beggar has no pride.”
She got up and went to him. “Dear friend,” she said, with inexpressible feeling in her face, touching his shoulder with her hand, “I can’t hear you talk like that! I shall think of you all my life as some one most precious, great-hearted, as some thing most sacred of all that I respect and Love. Andrey Petrovitch, understand what I say. Why, it’s not for nothing I’ve come here now, dear friend . . . dear to me then and now: I shall never forget how deeply you stirred my mind when first we met. Let us part as friends, and you will be for me the most earnest and dearest thought in my whole life.”
“Let us part and then I will love you; I will love you — only let us part. Listen,” he brought out, perfectly white, “grant me one charity more: don’t love me, don’t live with me, let us never meet; I will be your slave if you summon me, and I will vanish at once if you don’t want to see me, or hear me, only . . . ONLY DON’T MARRY ANYONE!”
It sent a pang to my heart to hear those words. That naïvely humiliating entreaty was the more pitiful, the more heartrending for being so flagrant and impossible. Yes, indeed, he was asking charity! Could he imagine she would consent? Yet he had humbled himself to put it to the test; he had tried entreating her! This depth of spiritual degradation was insufferable to watch. Every feature in her face seemed suddenly distorted with pain, but before she had time to utter a word, he suddenly realised what he had done.
“I will STRANGLE you,” he said suddenly, in a strange distorted voice unlike his own.
But she answered him strangely, too, and she, too, spoke in a different voice, unlike her own.
“If I granted you charity,” she said with sudden firmness, “you would punish me for it afterwards worse than you threaten me now, for you would never forget that you stood before me as a beggar. . . . I can’t listen to threats from you!” she added, looking at him with indignation, almost defiance.
“‘Threats from you,’ you mean — from such a beggar. I was joking,” he said softly, smiling. “I won’t touch you, don’t be afraid, go away . . . and I’ll do my utmost to send you that letter — only go; go! I wrote you a stupid letter, and you answered my stupid letter in kind by coming; we are quits. This is your way.” He pointed towards the door. (She was moving towards the room in which I was standing behind the curtain.)
“Forgive me if you can,” she said, stopping in the doorway.
“What if we meet some day quite friends and recall this scene with laughter?” he said suddenly, but his face was quivering all over like the face of a man in convulsions.
“Oh, God grant we may!” she cried, clasping her hands, though she watched his face timidly, as though trying to guess what he meant.
“Go along. Much sense we have, the pair of us, but you. . . . Oh, you are one of my own kind! I wrote you a mad letter, and you agreed to come to tell me that ‘you almost love me.’ Yes, we are possessed by the same madness! Be always as mad, don’t change, and we shall meet as friends — that I predict, that I swear!”
“And then I shall certainly love you, for I feel that even now!” The woman in her could not resist flinging those last words to him from the doorway.
She went out. With noiseless haste I went into the kitchen, and scarcely glancing at Darya Onisimovna, who was waiting for me, I went down the back staircase and across the yard into the street, but I had only time to see her get into the sledge that was waiting for her at the steps. I ran down the street.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49