Indeed there was no need: a higher consideration swallowed up all petty feelings, and one powerful emotion made up to me for everything. I went out in a sort of ecstasy. As I stepped into the street I was ready to sing aloud. To match my mood it was an exquisite morning, sunshine, people out walking, noise, movement, joyousness, and crowds. Why, had not that woman insulted me? From whom would I have endured that look and that insolent smile without instant protest however stupid it might be. I did not mind about that. Note that she had come expressly to insult me as soon as she could, although she had never seen me. In her eyes I was an “envoy from Versilov,” and she was convinced at that time, and for long afterwards, that Versilov held her fate in his hands and could ruin her at once if he wanted to, by means of a certain document; she suspected that, anyway. It was a duel to the death. And yet — I was not offended! It was an insult, but I did not feel it. How should I? I was positively glad of it; though I had come here to hate her I felt I was beginning to love her.
I don’t know whether the spider perhaps does not hate the fly he has marked and is snaring. Dear little fly! It seems to me that the victim is loved, or at least may be loved. Here I love my enemy; I am delighted, for instance, that she is so beautiful. I am delighted, madam, that you are so haughty and majestic. If you were meeker it would not be so delightful. You have spat on me — and I am triumphant. If you were literally to spit in my face I should really not be angry because you — are my victim; MINE and not HIS. How fascinating was that idea! Yes, the secret consciousness of power is more insupportably delightful than open domination. If I were a millionaire I believe I should take pleasure in going about in the oldest clothes and being taken for a destitute man, almost a beggar, being jostled and despised. The consciousness of the truth would be enough for me.
That is how I should interpret my thoughts and happiness, and much of what I was feeling that day. I will only add that in what I have just written there is too much levity; in reality my feeling was deeper and more modest. Perhaps even now I am more modest in myself than in my words and deeds — God grant it may be so!
Perhaps I have done amiss in sitting down to write at all. Infinitely more remains hidden within than comes out in words. Your thought, even if it is an evil one, is always deeper while it is in your mind; it becomes more absurd and dishonourable when it is put into words. Versilov once said to me that the opposite was true only with horrid people, they simply tell lies, it is easy for them; but I am trying to write the whole truth, and that’s fearfully difficult!
On that 19th of September I took one other “step.”
For the first time since I arrived I had money in my pocket, for the sixty roubles I had saved up in two years I had given to my mother, as I mentioned before. But, a few days before, I had determined that on the day I received my salary I would make an “experiment” of which I had long been dreaming. The day before I had cut out of the paper an address; it was an advertisement that on the 19th of September at twelve o’clock in the morning, in such-and-such a street, at number so-and-so, there would be a sale by the local police authority of the effects of Mme. Lebrecht, and that the catalogue, valuation, and property for sale could be inspected on the day of the auction, and so on.
It was just past one. I hurried to the address on foot. I had not taken a cab for more than two years — I had taken a vow not to (or I should never have saved up my sixty roubles). I had never been to an auction, I had never ALLOWED myself this indulgence. And though my present step was only an EXPERIMENT yet I had made up my mind not to take even that step till I had left the grammar school, when I should break off with everything, hide myself in my shell, and become perfectly free. It is true that I was far from being in my shell and far from being free yet, but then I was only taking this step by way of an experiment — simply to look into it, as it were to indulge a fancy, and after that not to recur to it perhaps for a long while, till the time of beginning seriously. For every one else this was only a stupid little auction, but for me it was the first plank in the ship in which a Columbus would set out to discover his America. That was my feeling then.
When I arrived I went into the furthest corner of the yard of the house mentioned in the advertisement, and entered Mme. Lebrecht’s flat, which consisted of an entry and four small low-pitched rooms. In the first room there was a crowd of about thirty persons, half of them people who had come to bargain, while the rest, judging from their appearance, were either inquisitive outsiders, or connoisseurs, or representatives of Mme. Lebrecht. There were merchants and Jews gloating over the objects made of gold, and a few people of the well-dressed class. The very faces of some of these gentlemen remain stamped in my memory. In the doorway leading to the room on the right there was placed a table so that it was impossible to pass; on it lay the things catalogued for sale. There was another room on the left, but the door into it was closed, though it was continually being opened a little way, and some one could be seen peeping through the crack, no doubt some one of the numerous family of Mme. Lebrecht, who must have been feeling very much ashamed at the time. At the table between the doors, facing the public, sat the warrant officer, to judge by his badge, presiding over the sale. I found the auction half over; I squeezed my way up to the table as soon as I went in. Some bronze candlesticks were being sold. I began looking at the things.
I looked at the things and wondered what I could buy, and what I could do with bronze candlesticks, and whether my object would be attained, and how the thing would be done, and whether my project would be successful, and whether my project were not childish. All this I wondered as I waited. It was like the sensation one has at the gambling table at the moment before one has put down a card, though one has come to do so, feeling, “if I like I’ll put it down, if I don’t I’ll go away — I’m free to choose!” One’s heart does not begin to throb at that point, but there is a faint thrill and flutter in it — a sensation not without charm. But indecision soon begins to weigh painfully upon one: one’s eyes grow dizzy, one stretches out one’s hand, picks up a card, but mechanically, almost against one’s will, as though some one else were directing one’s hand. At last one has decided and thrown down the card — then the feeling is quite different — immense. I am not writing about the auction; I am writing about myself; who else would feel his heart throbbing at an auction?
Some were excited, some were waiting in silence, some had bought things and were regretting it. I felt no sympathy with a gentleman who, misunderstanding what was said, bought an electro-plated milk-jug in mistake for a silver one for five roubles instead of two; in fact it amused me very much. The warrant officer passed rapidly from one class of objects to another: after the candlesticks, displayed earrings, after earrings an embroidered leather cushion, then a money-box — probably for the sake of variety, or to meet the wishes of the purchasers. I could not remain passive even for ten minutes. I went up to the cushion, and afterwards to the cash-box, but at the critical moment my tongue failed me: these objects seemed to me quite out of the question. At last I saw an album in the warrant officer’s hand.
“A family album in real morocco, second-hand, with sketches in water-colour and crayon, in a carved ivory case with silver clasps — priced two roubles!”
I went up: it looked an elegant article, but the carving was damaged in one place. I was the only person who went up to look at it, all were silent; there was no bidding for it. I might have undone the clasps and taken the album out of the case to look at it, but I did not make use of my privilege, and only waved a trembling hand as though to say “never mind.”
“Two roubles, five kopecks,” I said. I believe my teeth were chattering again.
The album was knocked down to me. I at once took out the money, paid for it, snatched up the album, and went into a corner of the room. There I took it out of its case, and began looking through it with feverish haste — it was the most trumpery thing possible — a little album of the size of a piece of notepaper, with rubbed gilt edges, exactly like the albums girls used to keep in former days when they left school. There were crayon and colour sketches of temples on mountain-sides, Cupids, a lake with floating swans; there were verses:
On a far journey I am starting,
From Moscow I am departing,
From my dear ones I am parting.
And with post-horses flying South.
They are enshrined in my memory!
I made up my mind that I had made a mess of it; if there ever was anything no one could possibly want it was this.
“Never mind,” I decided, “one’s bound to lose the first card; it’s a good omen, in fact.”
I felt thoroughly light-hearted.
“Ach, I’m too late; is it yours? You have bought it?” I suddenly heard beside me the voice of a well-dressed, presentable-looking gentleman in a blue coat. He had come in late.
“I am too late. Ach, what a pity! How much was it?”
“Two roubles, five kopecks.”
“Ach, what a pity! Would you give it up?”
“Come outside,” I whispered to him, in a tremor.
We went out on the staircase.
“I’ll let you have it for ten roubles,” I said, feeling a shiver run down my back.
“Ten roubles! Upon my word!”
“As you like.”
He stared at me open-eyed. I was well dressed, not in the least like a Jew or a second-hand dealer.
“Mercy on us — why it’s a wretched old album, what use is it to anyone? The case isn’t worth anything certainly. You certainly won’t sell it to anyone.”
“I see you will buy it.”
“But that’s for a special reason. I only found out yesterday. I’m the only one who would. Upon my word, what are you thinking about!”
“I ought to have asked twenty-five roubles, but as there was, after all, a risk you might draw back, I only asked for ten to make sure of it. I won’t take a farthing less.”
I turned and walked away.
“Well, take four roubles,” he said, overtaking me in the yard, “come, five!”
I strode on without speaking.
“Well, take it then!”
He took out ten roubles. I gave him the album.
“But you must own it’s not honest! Two roubles — and then ten, eh?”
“Why not honest? It’s a question of market.”
“What do you mean by market!” He grew angry.
“When there’s a demand one has a market — if you hadn’t asked for it I shouldn’t have sold it for forty kopecks.”
Though I was serious and didn’t burst out laughing I was laughing inwardly — not from delight — I don’t know why myself, I was almost breathless.
“Listen,” I muttered, utterly unable to restrain myself, but speaking in a friendly way and feeling quite fond of him. “Listen, when as a young man the late James Rothschild, the Parisian one, who left seventeen hundred million francs (he nodded), heard of the murder of the Duc de Berri some hours before anybody else he sent the news to the proper quarter, and by that one stroke in an instant made several millions — that’s how people get on!”
“So you’re a Rothschild, are you?” he cried as though indignant with me for being such a fool.
I walked quickly out of the house. One step, and I had made seven roubles ninety-five kopecks. It was a senseless step, a piece of child’s play I admit, but it chimed in with my theories, and I could not help being deeply stirred by it. But it is no good describing one’s feelings. My ten roubles were in my waistcoat pocket, I thrust in two fingers to feel it — and walked along without taking my hand out. After walking a hundred yards along the street I took the note out to look at it, I looked at it and felt like kissing it. A carriage rumbled up to the steps of a house. The house porter opened the door and a lady came out to get into the carriage. She was young, handsome and wealthy-looking, gorgeously dressed in silk and velvet, with a train more than two yards long. Suddenly a pretty little portfolio dropped out of her hand and fell on the ground; she got into the carriage. The footman stooped down to pick the thing up, but I flew up quickly, picked it up and handed it to the lady, taking off my hat. (The hat was a silk one, I was suitably dressed for a young man.) With a very pleasant smile, though with an air of reserve, the lady said to me: “Merci, m’sieu!” The carriage rolled away. I kissed the ten-rouble note.
That same day I was to go and see Efim Zvyerev, one of my old schoolfellows at the grammar school, who had gone to a special college in Petersburg. He is not worth describing, and I was not on particularly friendly terms with him; but I looked him up in Petersburg. He might (through various circumstances which again are not worth relating) be able to give me the address of a man called Kraft, whom it was very important for me to see as soon as he returned from Vilna. Efim was expecting him that day or the next, as he had let me know two days before. I had to go to the Petersburg Side, but I did not feel tired.
I found Efim (who was also nineteen) in the yard of his aunt’s house, where he was staying for the time. He had just had dinner and was walking about the yard on stilts. He told me at once that Kraft had arrived the day before, and was staying at his old lodgings close by, and that he was anxious to see me as soon as possible, as he had something important to tell me.
“He’s going off somewhere again,” added Efim.
As in the present circumstances it was of great importance to see Kraft I asked Efim to take me round at once to his lodging, which it appeared was in a back street only a few steps away. But Efim told me that he had met him an hour ago and that he was on his way to Dergatchev’s.
“But come along to Dergatchev’s. Why do you always cry off? Are you afraid?”
Kraft might as a fact stay on at Dergatchev’s, and in that case where could I wait for him? I was not afraid of going to Dergatchev’s, but I did not want to go to his house, though Efim had tried to get me there three times already. And on each occasion had asked “Are you afraid?” with a very nasty smile at my expense. It was not a case of fear I must state at once; if I was afraid it was of something quite different. This time I made up my mind to go. Dergatchev’s, too, was only a few steps away. On the way I asked Efim if he still meant to run away to America.
“Maybe I shall wait a bit,” he answered with a faint smile.
I was not particularly fond of him; in fact I did not like him at all. He had fair hair, and a full face of an excessive fairness, an almost unseemly childish fairness, yet he was taller than I was, but he would never have been taken for more than seventeen. I had nothing to talk to him about.
“What’s going on there? Is there always a crowd?” I asked.
“But why are you always so frightened?” he laughed again.
“Go to hell!” I said, getting angry.
“There won’t be a crowd at all. Only friends come, and they’re all his own set. Don’t worry yourself.”
“But what the devil is it to me whether they’re his set or not! I’m not one of his set. How can they be sure of me?”
“I am bringing you and that’s enough. They’ve heard of you already. Kraft can answer for you, too.”
“I say, will Vassin be there?”
“I don’t know.”
“If he is, give me a poke and point him out as soon as we go in. As soon as we go in. Do you hear?”
I had heard a good deal about Vassin already, and had long been interested in him.
Dergatchev lived in a little lodge in the courtyard of a wooden house belonging to a merchant’s wife, but he occupied the whole of it. There were only three living rooms. All the four windows had the blinds drawn down. He was a mechanical engineer, and did work in Petersburg. I had heard casually that he had got a good private berth in the provinces, and that he was just going away to it.
As soon as we stepped into the tiny entry we heard voices. There seemed to be a heated argument and some one shouted:
“Quae medicamenta non sanant, ferrum sanat, quae ferrum non sanat — ignis sanat!”
I certainly was in some uneasiness. I was, of course, not accustomed to society of any kind. At school I had been on familiar terms with my schoolfellows, but I was scarcely friends with anyone; I made a little corner for myself and lived in it. But this was not what disturbed me. In any case I vowed not to let myself be drawn into argument and to say nothing beyond what was necessary, so that no one could draw any conclusions about me; above all — to avoid argument.
In the room, which was really too small, there were seven men; counting the ladies, ten persons. Dergatchev was five-and-twenty, and was married. His wife had a sister and another female relation, who lived with them. The room was furnished after a fashion, sufficiently though, and was even tidy. There was a lithographed portrait on the wall, but a very cheap one; in the corner there was an ikon without a setting, but with a lamp burning before it.
Dergatchev came up to me, shook hands and asked me to sit down.
“Sit down; they’re all our own set here.”
“You’re very welcome,” a rather nice-looking, modestly dressed young woman added immediately, and making me a slight bow she at once went out of the room. This was his wife, and she, too, seemed to have been taking part in the discussion, and went away to nurse the baby. But there were two other ladies left in the room; one very short girl of about twenty, wearing a black dress, also rather nice-looking, and the other a thin, keen-eyed lady of thirty. They sat listening eagerly, but not taking part in the conversation. All the men were standing except Kraft, Vassin and me. Efim pointed them out to me at once, for I had never seen Kraft before, either. I got up and went up to make their acquaintance. Kraft’s face I shall never forget. There was no particular beauty about it, but a positive excess of mildness and delicacy, though personal dignity was conspicuous in everything about him. He was twenty-six, rather thin, above medium height, fair-haired, with an earnest but soft face; there was a peculiar gentleness about his whole personality. And yet if I were asked I would not have changed my own, possibly very commonplace, countenance for his, which struck me as so attractive. There was something in his face I should not have cared to have in mine, too marked a calm (in a moral sense) and something like a secret, unconscious pride. But I probably could not have actually formed this judgment at the time. It seems so to me now, in the light of later events.
“I’m very glad you’ve come,” said Kraft. “I have a letter which concerns you. We’ll stay here a little and then go home.”
Dergatchev was a strong, broad-shouldered, dark-complexioned man of medium height, with a big beard. His eyes showed acuteness, habitual reserve, and a certain incessant watchfulness; though he was for the most part silent, he evidently controlled the conversation. Vassin’s face did not impress me much, though I had heard of him as extraordinarily intelligent: he had fair hair, large light grey eyes, and a very open face. But at the same time there was something, as it were, too hard in it; one had a presentiment that he would not be communicative, but he looked undeniably clever, cleverer than Dergatchev, of a more profound intellect — cleverer than anyone in the room. But perhaps I am exaggerating. Of the other young men I only recall two; one a tall, dark man of twenty-seven, with black whiskers, who talked a great deal, a teacher or something of the sort; the other was a fellow of my own age, with good lines in his face, wearing a Russian tunic without sleeves. He was silent, and listened attentively. He turned out afterwards to be a peasant.
“No, that’s not the way to put it,” the black-whiskered teacher began, obviously continuing the previous discussion. He talked more than anyone in the room.
“I’m not talking of mathematical proofs, but that idea which I am prepared to believe without mathematical proof . . .”
“Wait a bit, Tihomirov,” Dergatchev interrupted loudly, “the new-comers don’t understand. You see,” he suddenly addressed himself to me alone (and I confess if he intended to put me as a novice through an examination or to make me speak, it was adroitly done on his part; I felt it and prepared myself) “it’s all our friend Kraft, who is well known to us all for his character and the solidity of his convictions. From a very ordinary fact he has deduced a very extraordinary conviction that has surprised us all. He has deduced that the Russians are a second-rate people . . .”
“Third-rate,” shouted some one.
“A second-rate people destined to serve as the raw material for a nobler race, and not to play an independent part in the history of humanity. In view of this theory of his, which is perhaps correct, Kraft has come to the conclusion that the activity of every Russian must in the future be paralysed by this idea, that all, so to speak, will fold their hands and . . .”
“Excuse me, Dergatchev, that’s not the way to put it,” Tihomirov interrupted impatiently again (Dergatchev at once gave way), “considering that Kraft has made a serious study of the subject, has made on a physiological basis deductions which he regards as mathematically proved, and has spent perhaps two years on his idea (which I should be prepared a priori to accept with equanimity), considering all this, that is considering Kraft’s excitement and earnestness, the case must be considered as a phenomenon. All this leads up to a question which Kraft cannot understand, and that’s what we must attend to — I mean, Kraft’s not understanding it, for that’s the phenomenon. We must decide whether this phenomenon belongs to the domain of pathology as a solitary instance, or whether it is an occurrence which may be normally repeated in others; that’s what is of interest for the common cause. I believe Kraft about Russia, and I will even say that I am glad of it, perhaps; if this idea were assimilated by all it would free many from patriotic prejudice and untie their hands . . .”
“I am not influenced by patriotism,” said Kraft, speaking with a certain stiffness. All this debate seemed distasteful to him.
“Whether patriotism or not we need not consider,” observed Vassin, who had been very silent.
“But how, tell me, please, could Kraft’s deduction weaken the impulse to the cause of humanity,” shouted the teacher. (He was the only one shouting. All the others spoke in a low voice.) “Let Russia be condemned to second-rateness, but we can still work and not for Russia alone. And, what’s more, how can Kraft be a patriot if he has ceased to believe in Russia?”
“Besides being a German,” a voice interrupted again.
“I am a Russian,” said Kraft.
“That’s a question that has no direct bearing on the subject,” observed Dergatchev to the speaker who had interrupted.
“Take a wider view of your idea,” cried Tihomirov, heeding nothing. “If Russia is only the material for nobler races why shouldn’t she serve as such material? It’s a sufficiently attractive part for her to play. Why not accept the idea calmly, considering how it enlarges the task? Humanity is on the eve of its regeneration, which is already beginning. None but the blind deny the task before us. Let Russia alone, if you’ve lost faith in her, and work for the future, for the future unknown people that will be formed of all humanity without distinction of race. Russia would perish some time, anyway; even the most gifted peoples exist for fifteen hundred or at the most two thousand years. Isn’t it all the same whether it’s two thousand or two hundred? The Romans did not last fifteen hundred years as a vital force, they too have turned into material. They ceased to exist long ago, but they’ve left an idea, and it has become an element in the future of mankind. How can one tell a man there’s nothing to be done? I can’t conceive of a position in which there ever could be nothing to do! Work for humanity and don’t trouble about the rest. There’s so much to do that life isn’t long enough if you look into it more closely.”
“One must live in harmony with the laws of nature and truth,” Mme. Dergatchev observed from the doorway. The door was slightly ajar and one could see that she was standing there, listening eagerly, with the baby at her breast which was covered.
Kraft listened with a faint smile and brought out at last with a somewhat harassed face, but with earnest sincerity:
“I don’t understand how, if one is under the influence of some over-mastering idea which completely dominates one’s mind and one’s heart, one can live for something else which is outside that idea.”
“But if it is logically, mathematically proved to you that your deduction is erroneous — that your whole idea is erroneous, that you have not the slightest right to exclude yourself from working for the welfare of humanity simply because Russia is predestined to a second-rate part, if it is pointed out to you, that in place of your narrow horizon infinity lies open before you, that instead of your narrow idea of patriotism . . .”
“Ah!” Kraft waved his hand gently, “I’ve told you there is no question of patriotism.”
“There is evidently a misunderstanding,” Vassin interposed suddenly, “the mistake arises from the fact that Kraft’s conclusion is not a mere logical theory but, so to say, a theory that has been transmuted into a feeling. All natures are not alike; in some men a logical deduction is sometimes transmuted into a very powerful emotion which takes possession of the whole being, and is sometimes very difficult to dislodge or alter. To cure such a man the feeling itself must be changed, which is only possible by replacing it by another, equally powerful one. That’s always difficult, and in many cases impossible.”
“That’s a mistake,” roared the argumentative teacher, “a logical proof of itself will dissipate prejudices. A rational conviction will give rise to feeling, too. Thought arises from feeling, and dominating a man in its turn formulates new feeling.”
“People are very different. Some change their feelings readily, while for others it’s hard to do so,” responded Vassin, as though disinclined to continue the argument; but I was delighted by his idea.
“That’s perfectly true what you say,” I said, turning to him, all at once breaking the ice and suddenly beginning to speak; “that to change a feeling one must replace it by another. Four years ago a general in Moscow . . . I didn’t know him, you see, but . . . Perhaps he couldn’t have inspired respect of himself . . . And the fact itself may seem irrational but . . . But he had lost a child, that’s to say two little girls who had died one after another of scarlatina. And he was utterly crushed, and did nothing but grieve, so that one couldn’t bear to go and look at him, and he ended by dying scarcely six months later. It’s a fact that he died of it! What could have saved him? The answer is — a feeling of equal strength. One would have had to dig those two little girls out of the grave and give them back to him — that would have been the only thing, I mean in that way. And he died. Yet one might have presented him with excellent reflections: that life is transitory, that all are mortal; one might have produced statistics to show how many children do die of scarlatina . . . he was on the retired list . . . .”
I stopped, out of breath, and looked round.
“That’s nothing to do with it,” said some one.
“The instance you have quoted, though it’s not quite in the same category, is very similar and illustrates the subject,” said Vassin, turning to me.
Here I must confess why I was so delighted with what Vassin had said about the “idea transmuted into feeling,” and at the same time I must confess to a fiendish disgrace. Yes, I was afraid to go to Dergatchev’s, though not for the reason Efim imagined. I dreaded going because I had been afraid of them even before I left Moscow. I knew that they (or some of their sort, it’s all the same) were great in argument and would perhaps shatter “my idea.” I was firmly resolved in myself that I wouldn’t give away my idea or say a word to them about it; but they (or again some of their sort) might easily say something to me which would destroy my faith in my “idea,” even though I might not utter a syllable about it. There were questions connected with my “idea” which I had not settled, but I did not want anyone to settle them but myself. For the last two years I had even given up reading for fear of meeting with some passage opposed to my “idea” which might shake me. And all at once Vassin had solved the difficulty and reassured me on the most essential point. Alter all, what was I afraid of and what could they do to me, whatever skill in argument they might have? I perhaps was the only one who understood what Vassin meant by “an idea transformed into an emotion.” It’s not enough to refute a fine idea, one must replace it by something fine of equal strength; or else, refusing absolutely to part with my feeling, in my heart I should refute the refutation, however strong the argument might be, whatever they might say. And what could they give me in place of it? And therefore I might be braver, I was bound to be more manly. While I was delighted with Vassin, I felt ashamed, and felt myself an insignificant child.
Then there followed fresh ignominy. It was not a contemptible desire to show off my intelligence that made me break the ice and speak, it was an impulse to “throw myself on his neck.” The impulse to throw myself on people’s necks that they might think well of me and take me to their hearts or something of the sort (pure beastliness, in fact) I look upon as the most abject of my weaknesses, and I suspected it in myself long ago; in fact, when I was in the corner in which I entrenched myself for so many years, though I don’t regret doing so, I knew I ought to behave in company with more austerity. What comforted me after every such ignominious scene was that my “idea” was as great a secret as ever, and that I hadn’t given it away. With a sinking at my heart I sometimes imagined that when I did let out my idea to some one I should suddenly have nothing left, that I should become like every one else, and perhaps I should give up the idea; and so I was on my guard and preserved it, and trembled at the thought of chattering. And now at Dergatchev’s, almost at the first contact with anyone, I broke down. I hadn’t betrayed anything, of course, but I had chattered unpardonably; it was ignominious. It is a horrid thing to remember! No, I must not associate with people. I think so even now. Forty years hence I will speak. My idea demands a corner.
As soon as Vassin expressed approval I felt irresistibly impelled to talk.
“I consider that every one has a right to have his own feelings . . . if they are from conviction . . . and that no one should reproach him with them,” I went on, addressing Vassin. Though I spoke boldly, it was as though I was not speaking, not my own tongue moving in my mouth.
“Re-all-ly?” the same voice which had interrupted Dergatchev and shouted at Kraft that he was a German interposed with an ironical drawl. Regarding the speaker as a complete nonentity, I addressed the teacher as though he had called out to me.
“It’s my conviction that I should not dare to judge anyone,” I said, quivering, and conscious that I was going to make a fool of myself.
“Why so mysterious?” cried the voice of the nonentity again.
“Every man has his own idea,” I went on, gazing persistently at the teacher, who for his part held his tongue and looked at me with a smile.
“Yours is?” cried the nonentity.
“Too long to describe. . . . But part of my idea is that I should be left alone. As long as I’ve two roubles I want to be independent of every one (don’t excite yourself, I know the objection that will be made) and to do nothing — not even to work for that grand future of humanity which Mr. Kraft is invited to work for. Personal freedom, that is, my own, is the first thing, and I don’t care about anything else.”
My mistake was that I lost my temper.
“In other words you advocate the tranquillity of the well-fed cow?”
“So be it. Cows don’t hurt anyone. I owe no one anything. I pay society in the form of taxes that I may not be robbed, killed or assaulted, and no one dare demand anything more. I personally, perhaps, may have other ideas, and if I want to serve humanity I shall, and perhaps ten times as much as those who preach about it; only I want no one to dare to demand it of me, to force me to it like Mr. Kraft. I must be perfectly free not to lift a finger if I like. But to rush and ‘fall on everybody’s neck’ from love to humanity, and dissolve in tears of emotion — is only a fashion. And why should I be bound to love my neighbour, or your future humanity which I shall never see, which will never know anything about me, and which will in its turn disappear and leave no trace (time counts for nothing in this) when the earth in its turn will be changed into an iceberg, and will fly off into the void with an infinite multitude of other similar icebergs; it’s the most senseless thing one could possibly imagine. That’s your teaching. Tell me why I am bound to be so noble, especially if it all lasts only for a moment?”
“P-pooh!” cried a voice.
I had fired off all this with nervous exasperation, throwing off all restraint. I knew that I was making a fool of myself, but I hurried on, afraid of being interrupted. I felt that my words were pouring out like water through a sieve, incoherently, nineteen to the dozen, but I hurried on to convince them and get the better of them. It was a matter of such importance to me. I had been preparing for it for three years. But it was remarkable that they were all suddenly silent, they said absolutely nothing, every one was listening. I went on addressing my remarks to the teacher.
“That’s just it. A very clever man has said that nothing is more difficult than to answer the question ‘Why we must be honourable.’ You know there are three sorts of scoundrels in the world; naïve scoundrels, that is, convinced that their villany is the highest virtue; scoundrels who are ashamed, that is, ashamed of their own villany, though they fully intend to persevere with it; and lastly simple scoundrels, pure-bred scoundrels. For example I had a schoolfellow called Lambert who told me at sixteen that when he came into his fortune it would be his greatest satisfaction to feed on meat and bread while the children of the poor were dying of hunger; and when they had no fuel for their fires he would buy up a whole woodstack, build it up in a field and set fire to it there, and not give any of it to the poor. Those were his feelings! Tell me, what am I to say to a pure-blooded scoundrel like that if he asks me why he should be honourable? Especially now in these times which you have so transformed, for things have never been worse than they are now. Nothing is clear in our society. You deny God, you see, deny heroism. What blind, deaf, dull-witted stagnation of mind can force me to act in one way, if it’s more to my advantage to do the opposite? You say ‘a rational attitude to humanity is to your own advantage, too’; but what if I think all these rational considerations irrational, and dislike all these socialist barracks and phalanxes? What the devil do I care for them or for the future when I shall only live once on earth! Allow me to judge of my advantage for myself; it’s more amusing. What does it matter to me what will happen in a thousand years to your humanity if, on your principles, I’m to get for it neither love, nor future life, nor recognition of my heroism? No, if that’s how it is I’d rather live in the most ignorant way for myself and let them all go to perdition!”
“An excellent sentiment!”
“Though I’m always ready to go with them.”
“That’s one better!”— the same voice again.
The others still remained silent, they all scrutinized me, staring; but little by little in different parts of the room there rose a titter, subdued indeed, but they were all laughing at me to my face. Vassin and Kraft were the only ones not laughing, the gentleman with the black whiskers was sniggering too; he sneered at me persistently and listened.
“I’m not going to tell you my idea,” I cried, quivering all over, “nothing would induce me, but I ask you on the other hand, from your point of view — don’t imagine I’m speaking for myself, for I dare say I love humanity a thousand times more than all of you put together! Tell me, and you must, you are bound now to answer because you are laughing, tell me, what inducement do you hold out to me to follow you? Tell me, how do you prove to me that you’ll make things better? How will you deal with my individual protest in your barracks? I have wanted to meet you, gentlemen, for ever so long. You will have barracks, communistic homes, stricte necessaire, atheism, and communistic wives without children — that’s your ideal, I know all about it. And for all this, for this little part of mediocre advantage which your rational system guarantees me, for a bit of bread and a warm corner you take away all my personal liberty! For instance; if my wife’s carried off, are you going to take away my personal liberty so that I mayn’t bash my rival’s brains in? You’ll tell me I shall be more sensible then myself, but what will the wife say to a husband so sensible, if she has the slightest self-respect? Why it’s unnatural; you ought to be ashamed!”
“You’re a specialist on the woman question then?” the voice of the nonentity pronounced malignantly.
For one instant I had an impulse to fly at him and pommel him with my fists. He was a short fellow with red hair and freckles though what the devil does his appearance matter?
“Don’t excite yourself. I’ve never once had relations with a woman,” I rapped out, for the first time addressing him directly.
“A priceless avowal which might have been made more politely in the presence of ladies.”
But there was a general movement among them; they were all looking for their hats and taking leave — not on my account, of course, but simply because it was time to break up. But I was crushed with shame at the way they all ignored me. I jumped up, too.
“Allow me to ask your name. You kept looking at me,” said the teacher, coming up to me with a very nasty smile.
“No, simply Dolgoruky, legally the son of a former serf, Makar Dolgoruky, but the illegitimate son of my former master, Monsieur Versilov. Don’t make a mistake, gentlemen, I don’t tell you this to make you all fall upon my neck and begin howling like calves from sentimentality.”
There was a loud and unceremonious roar of laughter, so much so that the baby, who was asleep in the next room, waked up and began squealing. I trembled with fury. Every one shook hands with Dergatchev and went out without taking the slightest notice of me.
“Come along,” said Kraft, touching me.
I went up to Dergatchev, pressed his hand and shook it vigorously several times.
“You must excuse Kudryumov’s being so rude to you” (Kudryumov was the red-haired man), said Dergatchev.
I followed Kraft out. I was not in the least ashamed.
There is of course an immense difference between what I am now and what I was then.
Still “not in the least ashamed” I overtook Vassin on the stairs, leaving Kraft behind as of secondary importance, and with the most natural air as though nothing had happened I asked:
“I believe you know my father, I mean Versilov.”
“He’s not exactly an acquaintance of mine,” Vassin answered at once (and without a trace of that insulting refinement of politeness which delicate people adopt when they speak to people who have just disgraced themselves), “but I do know him a little; I have met him and I’ve heard him talk.”
“If you’ve heard him no doubt you do know him, for you are you! What do you think of him? Forgive the abrupt question but I need to know. It’s what YOU would think, just your opinion that I need.”
“You are asking a great deal of me. I believe that man is capable of setting himself tremendous tasks and possibly carrying them through — but without rendering an account of his doings to anyone.”
“That’s true, that’s very true — he’s a very proud man! Is he a sincere man? Tell me, what do you think about his being a Catholic? But I forgot, perhaps you don’t know?”
If I had not been so excited I should not, of course, have fired off such questions so irrelevantly at a man of whom I had heard but whom I had never seen before. I was surprised that Vassin did not seem to notice how rude I was.
“I heard something about it, but I don’t know how far it may be true,” he answered in the same calm and even tone as before.
“Not a bit! It’s false! Do you suppose he can believe in God?”
“He — is a very proud man, as you said just now, and many very proud people like to believe in God, especially those who despise other people. Many strong natures seem to have a sort of natural craving to find some one or something to which they can do homage. Strong natures often find it very difficult to bear the burden of their strength.”
“Do you know that must be awfully true,” I cried again. “Only I should like to understand . . .”
“The reason is obvious. They turn to God to avoid doing homage to men, of course without recognizing how it comes about in them; to do homage to God is not so humiliating. They become the most fervent of believers — or to be more accurate the most fervently desirous of believing; but they take this desire for belief itself. These are the people who most frequently become disillusioned in the end. As for Monsieur Versilov, I imagine that he has some extremely sincere characteristics. And altogether he interested me.”
“Vassin!” I cried, “you rejoice my heart! It’s not your intelligence I wonder at; I am astonished that you, a man of such a lofty nature and so far above me, can walk with me and talk to me as simply and courteously as though nothing had happened!”
“You are too flattering, and all that has happened is that you have shown a weakness for abstract conversation. You have probably been through a long period of silence.”
“For three years I have been silent; for three years I have been preparing to speak . . . You couldn’t of course have thought me a fool, you’re so extraordinarily clever, though no one could have behaved more stupidly; but you must have thought me a scoundrel.”
“Yes, certainly! Tell me, don’t you secretly despise me for saying I was Versilov’s illegitimate son. . . . Boasting I was the son of a serf?”
“You worry yourself too much. If you think you did wrong in saying so you’ve only to avoid saying it again. You have fifty years before you.”
“Oh, I know that I ought to be very silent with other people. This throwing oneself on people’s necks is the lowest of all vices; I told them so just now, and here I am doing it to you! But there is a difference, isn’t there? If you realize that difference, if you are capable of realizing it, then I bless this moment!”
Vassin smiled again.
“Come and see me if you care to,” he said. “I have work now and am busy, but I shall be pleased to see you.”
“I thought from your face just now that you were too hard and uncommunicative.”
“That may very well be true. I saw something of your sister Lizaveta Makarovna at Luga, last year. . . . Kraft has stopped and I believe is waiting for you. He has to turn here.”
I pressed Vassin’s hand warmly, and ran up to Kraft, who had walked on ahead all the while I talked to Vassin. We walked in silence to his lodgings. I could not speak to him and did not want to. One of the strongest traits in Kraft’s character was delicacy.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53