Kraft had been somewhere in the service, and at the same time had been a paid assistant of Andronikov’s in the management of the private business which the deceased gentleman had always carried on in addition to his official duties. What mattered to me was, that from his close association with Andronikov, Kraft might well know a great deal of what interested me. But Marie Ivanovna, the wife of Nikolay Semyonovitch, with whom I had boarded so many years while I was at the grammar school in Moscow, was a favourite niece of Andronikov and was brought up by him, and from her I learnt that Kraft had actually been “commissioned” to give me something. I had been expecting him for a whole month.
He lived in a little flat of two rooms quite apart from the rest of the house, and at the moment, having only just returned, he had no servant. His trunk stood open, not yet unpacked. His belongings lay about on the chairs, and were spread out on the table in front of the sofa: his travelling bag, his cashbox, his revolver and so on. As we went in, Kraft seemed lost in thought, as though he had altogether forgotten me. He had perhaps not noticed that I had not spoken to him on the way. He began looking for something at once, but happening to catch a glimpse of himself in the looking-glass he stood still for a full minute gazing at his own face. Though I noticed this peculiar action, and recalled it all afterwards, I was depressed and disturbed. I was not feeling equal to concentrating my mind. For a moment I had a sudden impulse to go straight away and to give it all up for ever. And after all what did all these things amount to in reality? Was it not simply an unnecessary worry I had taken upon myself? I sank into despair at the thought that I was wasting so much energy perhaps on worthless trifles from mere sentimentality, while I had facing me a task that called for all my powers. And meanwhile my incapacity for any real work was clearly obvious from what had happened at Dergatchev’s.
“Kraft, shall you go to them again?” I asked him suddenly.
He turned slowly to me as though hardly understanding me. I sat down on a chair.
“Forgive them,” said Kraft suddenly.
I fancied, of course, that this was a sneer, but looking attentively at him, I saw such a strange and even wonderful ingenuousness in his face that I positively wondered at his asking me so earnestly to “forgive” them. He brought up a chair and sat down beside me.
“I know that I am perhaps a medley of all sorts of vanities and nothing more,” I began, “but I’m not apologizing.”
“And you’ve no need to apologize to anyone,” he said, quietly and earnestly. He talked all the time quietly and very slowly.
“I may be guilty in my own eyes. . . . I like being guilty in my own eyes. . . . Kraft, forgive me for talking nonsense. Tell me, surely you don’t belong to that circle? That’s what I wanted to ask.”
“They are no sillier than other people and no wiser; they are mad like every one else . . . .”
“Why, is every one mad?” I asked, turning towards him with involuntary curiosity.
“All the best people are mad nowadays; it’s the carnival of mediocrity and ineptitude and nothing else. . . . But it’s not worth talking about.”
As he talked he looked away into the air and began sentences and broke off without finishing them. I was particularly struck by a note of despondency in his voice.
“Surely Vassin is not one of them, Vassin has a mind, Vassin has a moral idea!” I cried.
“There are no moral ideas now. It suddenly appears that there is not one left and, what’s worse, that there never have been any.”
“Never have been any in the past?”
“Let us leave that!” he brought out with unmistakable weariness.
I was touched by his sorrowful earnestness. Ashamed of my own egoism I began to drop into his tone.
“The present day,” he began after a pause lasting two minutes, looking away into space, “the present day is the golden age of mediocrity and callousness, of a passion for ignorance, idleness, inefficiency, a craving for everything ready-made. No one thinks; it’s rare for anyone to work out an idea for himself.”
He broke off again and paused for a while; I listened. “Nowadays they are stripping Russia of her forests, and exhausting her natural wealth, turning the country into a waste and making it only fit for the Kalmucks. If a man looks forward and plants a tree every one laughs at him, and tells him he won’t live to enjoy it. On the other hand those with aspirations discuss nothing but what will be in a thousand years. The idea that sustained men has utterly gone. It’s as though they were all at an hotel and were leaving Russia to-morrow. They are alive if they could only . . . .”
“Excuse me, Kraft, you said they worried their heads about what would happen in a thousand years. But you despair about the future of Russia . . . isn’t that an anxiety of the same sort?”
“It — it’s the most essential question in the world!” he said irritably, and jumped up quickly from his seat.
“Ah, yes! I forgot,” he said suddenly in quite a different voice, looking at me in perplexity. “I asked you to come for something special and meanwhile . . . for heaven’s sake excuse me.”
He seemed suddenly to wake up from a sort of dream, and was almost disconcerted; he took a letter out of a portfolio on the table and gave it to me.
“This is what I have to give you. It’s a document of some importance,” he began, speaking collectedly and with a businesslike air. Long afterwards, when I recalled it, I was struck by this faculty in him (at an hour such as this was — for him!) of turning such wholehearted attention on another person’s affairs and going into them with such firmness and composure.
“It is a letter of Stolbyeev’s, that is of the man whose will gave rise to Versilov’s lawsuit with the Princes Sokolsky. The case is just being decided in the court, and will certainly be decided in Versilov’s favour; the law is on his side. Meanwhile, in this letter, a private letter written two years ago, the deceased sets forth his real dispositions, or more accurately his desires, and expresses them rather in favour of the Sokolskys than of Versilov. At any rate the points on which the Sokolskys rest their case in contesting the will are materially strengthened by this letter. Versilov’s opponents would give a great deal for this letter, though it really has no positive legal value. Alexey Nikanoritch (Andronikov), who managed Versilov’s affairs, kept this letter and not long before his death gave it to me, telling me to ‘take care of it’; perhaps he had a presentiment that he was dying and was anxious about his papers. I was unwilling to judge of Alexey Nikanoritch’s intentions in the case, and I must confess that at his death I found myself in disagreeable uncertainty what to do with this document, especially as the case was so soon to be concluded. But Marie Ivanovna, in whom Alexey Nikanoritch seems to have put great confidence in his lifetime, helped me out of the difficulty. She wrote to me three weeks ago telling me that I was to give the letter to you, as this would, she BELIEVED (her own expression) be in accordance with the wishes of the deceased, and I am very glad that I can at last give it to you.”
“Tell me,” I said, dumbfoundered at this new and unexpected information, “what am I to do with this letter now? How am I to act?”
“That’s for you to decide.”
“Impossible; my hands are tied, you must admit that! Versilov is so reckoning on this fortune . . . and, you know, he’ll be utterly lost without it; and it suddenly appears that a document like this exists!”
“It only exists here in this room.”
“Is that really so?” I looked at him attentively.
“If you can’t decide how to act in this case, what can I advise you?”
“But I can’t give it to the Sokolskys either. I should ruin all Versilov’s hopes, and be a traitor to him besides . . . . On the other hand if I give it to Versilov I plunge the innocent into poverty, and I should put Versilov in a hopeless dilemma too; he would either have to give up the fortune or become a thief.”
“You exaggerate the importance of the matter.”
“Tell me one thing: is this letter decisive, conclusive?”
“No, it isn’t. I’m not much of a lawyer. A lawyer on the other side would, no doubt, know how to make use of such a document and to turn it to account; but Alexey Nikanoritch considered positively that if this letter were put forward it would have no great legal value, so that Versilov’s case might be won all the same. This letter is more a matter of conscience, so to say . . . .”
“But that’s what matters most of all,” I interrupted, “just because it would put Versilov in a hopeless dilemma.”
“He may on the contrary destroy the document, and so escape all danger.”
“Have you any grounds for supposing such a thing of him, Kraft? That’s what I want to know; that’s why I’m here.”
“I believe every one would do the same in his place.”
“Would you behave so, yourself?”
“I’m not going to receive a fortune, so I can’t tell about myself.”
“Very well,” I said, putting the letter in my pocket. “The matter’s settled for the present. Listen, Kraft. Marie Ivanovna, who has, I assure you, told me a great deal, said to me that you and only you could tell me the truth of what happened at Ems a year and a half ago between Versilov and Mme. Ahmakov. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you as a sun that would throw light on everything. You don’t know my position, Kraft. I beseech you to tell me the whole truth. What I want to know is what kind of man He is, and now — now I need to know it more than ever.”
“I wonder Marie Ivanovna did not tell you all about it herself; she might have heard it all from Andronikov, and of course she has heard it and very likely knows more than I do.”
“Andronikov was not clear about it himself, so Marie Ivanovna told me. It seems a maze to which no one has the clue. The devil himself would be lost in it. I know that you were at Ems yourself at the time.”
“I never knew the whole of it, but what I do know I will willingly tell you if you like, though I doubt whether I shall satisfy you.”
I won’t reproduce his story word for word, but will only give a brief summary of it.
A year and a half before, Versilov (through the old prince) became a constant visitor at the Ahmakovs’ (they were all abroad then, at Ems) and made a great impression on the general himself, a man who had during three years of marriage squandered all his wife’s large dowry over cards, and as a result of his irregular life had already had a paralytic stroke, though he was not an old man. He had recovered from it before going abroad, and was staying at Ems for the sake of his daughter by his first wife. She was a girl of seventeen, in delicate health — consumptive — and said to be extremely beautiful, but at the same time very fantastical. She had no dowry; but they rested their hopes, as usual, on the old prince. Mme. Ahmakov was said to be a good stepmother, but the girl, for some reason, became particularly attached to Versilov. He was preaching at that time “something impassioned,” as Kraft expressed it, some sort of new life; “was in a state of religious fervour of the most exalted kind,” in the strange and perhaps ironical phrase of Andronikov, which was repeated to me. But it was noticeable that they all soon began to dislike him. The general was positively afraid of him. Kraft did not altogether deny the rumour that Versilov succeeded in instilling into the invalid husband’s mind the suspicion that his wife, Katerina Nikolaevna, was not indifferent to the young Prince Sokolsky (who had left Ems and was at that time in Paris). He did this not directly, but “after his usual fashion”— by hints, inferences, and all sorts of roundabout ways, “at which he is a great master,” said Kraft. I may say that Kraft considered him, and preferred to consider him, altogether rather as an impostor and an inveterate intriguer than as a man genuinely possessed by some exalted, or at least original, idea. I knew, apart from Kraft, that Versilov, who had at first had an extraordinary influence on Katerina Nikolaevna, had by degrees come to an open rupture with her. What lay behind all this I could not find out from Kraft, but every one confirmed the story of the mutual hatred that had sprung up between them after their friendship. Then came a strange circumstance: Katerina Nikolaevna’s invalid stepdaughter apparently fell in love with Versilov, or was struck by something in him, or was inflamed by his eloquence or I don’t know what; but it is known that at one time Versilov spent almost every day at her side. It ended by the young lady’s suddenly announcing to her father that she wanted to marry Versilov. That this actually had happened was confirmed by every one — by Kraft, by Andronikov, and by Marie Ivanovna, and even Tatyana Pavlovna once spoke about it before me. They asserted also that Versilov not only desired it himself but positively insisted on a marriage with this girl, and that these two creatures of such different species, one old and the other young, were in complete agreement about it. But the father was alarmed at the idea. As he became more estranged from Katerina Nikolaevna, whom he had been very fond of, he now began almost to idolize his daughter, especially after his stroke. But the bitterest opposition to the idea of such a marriage came from Katerina Nikolaevna. There followed a great number of secret and extremely unpleasant family wrangles, disputes, mortifying and in fact revolting scenes. At last the father began to give way before the persistence of the love-sick girl who was, as Kraft expressed it, “fanaticized” by Versilov. But Katerina Nikolaevna still resisted it with implacable hatred. And it is at this stage that the muddle begins which no one can understand. But this was Kraft’s conjecture based on the facts — only a conjecture, however.
He thought Versilov had succeeded, IN HIS CHARACTERISTIC WAY, in subtly suggesting to the young person that the reason Katerina Nikolaevna would not agree was that she was in love with him herself, and had been for a long time past worrying him with her jealousy, pursuing him and intriguing; that she had declared her feeling to him and was now ready to horsewhip him for loving some one else: something of that sort, anyway. Worst of all, that he had “hinted” this to the girl’s father, the husband of the “unfaithful” wife, explaining that the prince had only been a passing amusement. The house, of course, began to be a perfect hell. In some versions of the story Katerina Nikolaevna was devoted to her stepdaughter and now was in despair at being calumniated to her, to say nothing of her relations with her invalid husband. And, what is more, there existed another version, which, to my grief, I found Kraft fully believed, and therefore I believed myself (of all this I had heard already). It was maintained (Andronikov, it was said, had heard it from Katerina Nikolaevna herself) that, on the contrary, Versilov had in the past, before his feeling for the girl, made love to Katerina Nikolaevna; that though she had been his friend and had been for a time carried away by his religious exaltation, yet she had constantly opposed and mistrusted him, and that she had met Versilov’s declaration with deep resentment and had ridiculed him vindictively; that she had formally dismissed him for having openly suggested that she should become his wife as her husband was expected to have a second attack very shortly. On this theory Katerina Nikolaevna must have felt a peculiar hatred for Versilov when she saw him afterwards so openly trying to win her stepdaughter’s hand. Marie Ivanovna, who told me all this in Moscow, believed in both versions — both together, that is; she maintained that there was nothing inconsistent in all this, that it was something in the style of la haine dans l’amour, of the wounded pride of love on both sides, etc. etc. — something, in fact, like a very subtle, intricate romance, quite out of keeping with any serious and common-sense man and, moreover, with an element of nastiness in it. But Marie Ivanovna, in spite of her estimable character, had been from childhood upwards saturated with sentiment, from the novels which she read day and night. The sequel exhibited Versilov’s evident baseness, his lying and intriguing, something dark and loathsome in him, the more so as the affair had a tragic ending. The poor infatuated girl poisoned herself, they say, by means of phosphorus matches, though even now I don’t know whether to believe that last detail. They did their utmost to hush it up, anyway. The young lady was ill for a fortnight and then died. So the matches remained an open question, but Kraft firmly believed in them. Shortly afterwards the young lady’s father died too — it was said from his grief, which brought on a second stroke, though this did not occur till three months later. But after the young lady’s funeral the young Prince Sokolsky, who had returned to Ems from Paris, gave Versilov a slap in the face in a public garden, and the latter had not replied with a challenge but had, on the contrary, showed himself next day on the promenade as though nothing had happened. Then every one turned against him, in Petersburg as well. Though Versilov kept up with some acquaintances, they were quite in a different circle. All his aristocratic friends blamed him, though, as a fact, scarcely anyone knew the details; they only knew something of the young lady’s romantic death and the slap in the face. Only two or three persons knew the story fully, so far as that was possible. The one who had known most of all was the deceased, Andronikov, who had for many years had business relations with the Ahmakovs, and had had to do with Katerina Nikolaevna particularly in one case. But he kept all these secrets even from his own family and had only told part of the story to Kraft and Marie Ivanovna, and that from necessity.
“The chief point is that there is a document in existence,” concluded Kraft, “which Mme. Ahmakov is very much afraid of.”
And this was what he told me about that. When the old prince, Katerina Nikolaevna’s father, was abroad, beginning to recover from his attack, she was so indiscreet as to write to Andronikov in dead secret (Katerina Nikolaevna put implicit faith in him) an extremely compromising letter. During his convalescence the old prince actually did, it was said, display a propensity to waste his money — almost to fling it away, in fact; he began buying, when he was abroad, quite useless but expensive objects, pictures, vases, making donations and subscriptions of large sums to various institutions out there, and goodness knows what. He almost bought, on the sly, for an immense sum, a ruined and encumbered estate from a fashionable Russian spendthrift; and, finally, began even dreaming of matrimony. And in view of all this, Katerina Nikolaevna, who had never left her father’s side during his illness, wrote to Andronikov, as a “lawyer” and “an old friend,” inquiring whether “it would be legally possible to put the old prince under guardianship or to declare him incompetent to manage his own affairs, and, if so, how it could best be done without scandal, that no one might blame her and that her father’s feelings might be spared, etc. etc.” It was said that Andronikov advised her against this and dissuaded her; and later on, when the old prince had completely recovered, it was impossible to return to the idea: but the letter remained in Andronikov’s hands. And now he had died, and Katerina Nikolaevna had at once remembered the letter: if it turned up among the deceased’s papers and fell into the old prince’s hands, he would, no doubt, have cast her off for ever, cut her out of his will and not have given her another farthing during his lifetime. The thought that his own daughter did not believe in his sanity, and even wanted to have him certified as a lunatic would change the lamb into a wild beast. Her husband’s gambling habits had left her at his death without a farthing, and she had only her father to look to. She fully hoped to receive from him a second dowry as ample as the first.
Kraft did not quite know what had become of the letter, but observed that Andronikov never tore up papers of consequence, and he was, besides, a man of “broad principles” as well as “broad intelligence.” (I was positively surprised at the independence of Kraft’s criticism of Andronikov, whom he had loved and respected so much.) But Kraft felt convinced that Versilov had obtained possession of the compromising document through his close relations with Andronikov’s widow and daughters; it was known, indeed, that they had at once, of necessity, handed over all the deceased’s papers to Versilov. He knew, too, that Katerina Nikolaevna was already aware that the letter was in Versilov’s possession and that she was frightened on account of it, imagining that Versilov would take the letter straight to her old father; that on her return from abroad she had searched for the document in Petersburg, had been at the Andronikovs’, and was still hunting for it now, so that she must still have some hope that the letter was not in Versilov’s hands; and, finally, that she had gone to Moscow simply with the same object, and had entreated Marie Ivanovna to look for it among the papers that had remained with her. She had only recently, since her return to Petersburg, heard of the existence of Marie Ivanovna, and of the footing on which the latter had stood with Andronikov.
“You don’t think she found it at Marie Ivanovna’s?” I asked. “I have my own ideas.”
“If Marie Ivanovna has not told even you about it, probably she hasn’t got it.”
“Then you suppose the document is in Versilov’s hands?”
“Most likely it is. I don’t know, though. Anything is possible,” he answered with evident weariness.
I gave up questioning him, and indeed there was no object in doing so. All that mattered most had been made clear to me, in spite of all this sordid tangle; all that I feared most was confirmed.
“It’s all like a delirious nightmare,” I said, deeply dejected, as I took up my hat.
“Is the man so dear to you?” asked Kraft. I read his deep sympathy on his face at that minute.
“I felt I shouldn’t learn the whole story from you,” said I. “Mme. Ahmakov is the only hope left me. I was resting my hopes on her. Perhaps I shall go to her and perhaps not.”
Kraft looked at me with some surprise.
“Good-bye, Kraft,” I said. “Why force oneself on people who don’t want to see one? Isn’t it better to break with everything, eh?”
“And what then?” he asked almost sullenly, keeping his eyes on the ground.
“Retreat within oneself! Break with everything and withdraw within oneself!”
“To America! Within oneself, simply within oneself! That’s my whole idea, Kraft!” I said enthusiastically.
He looked at me with some curiosity.
“Have you such a place ‘within yourself’?”
“Yes. Good-bye, Kraft; thank you. I am sorry to have troubled you. If I were in your place and had that sort of Russia in my head I’d send them all to hell; I’d say: ‘Get out with you; keep your fretting and intriguing to yourselves — it’s nothing to do with me.’”
“Stay a little longer,” he said suddenly when he was already with me at the front door.
I was a little surprised. I went back and sat down again. Kraft sat opposite. We looked at each other with a sort of smile. I can see it all now. I remember that I felt a sort of wonder at him.
“What I like in you is that you’re so — courteous,” I said suddenly.
“I feel that, because I don’t often succeed in being courteous myself, though I should like to. And yet perhaps it’s better for people to be rude to one; at least they save one from the misfortune of liking them.”
“What hour of the day do you like best?” he asked, evidently not listening to me.
“What hour? I don’t know. I don’t like sunset.”
“No?” he brought out with a peculiar curiosity.
“Are you going away again?”
“Yes. I’m going away.”
“Surely you don’t want a revolver to get to Vilna?” I asked, without the faintest hidden meaning in my words — and indeed there was no meaning at all! I asked the question simply because I happened to glance at the revolver and I was at a loss for something to say.
He turned and looked intently at the revolver.
“No, I take it simply from habit.”
“If I had a revolver I should keep it hidden somewhere, locked up. It really is a temptation, you know. I may not believe in an epidemic of suicide, but if it’s always catching my eye, there really are moments, you know, when it might tempt one.”
“Don’t talk about it,” he said, and suddenly got up from his chair.
“I wasn’t thinking of myself,” I said, standing up too. “I’m not going to use it. If you were to give me three lives it wouldn’t be enough for me.”
“Long life to you,” broke from him.
He gave me an absent-minded smile and, strange to say, walked straight into the passage as though to show me out, probably not noticing what he was doing.
“I wish you every sort of success, Kraft,” I said, as I went out on to the stairs.
“That’s as it may be,” he answered firmly.
“Till we meet again.”
“That’s as it may be, too.”
I remember his last glance at me.
And this was the man for whom my heart had been beating all those years! And what had I expected from Kraft, what new information?
As I came away from Kraft’s I felt very hungry. It was evening and I had had no dinner. I went to a little restaurant in Great Prospect that I might not have to spend more than twenty, or at most twenty-five, kopecks — I would not have allowed myself to spend more at that time. I took some soup for myself, and as I ate it I sat looking out of window. There were a great many people in the room, and there was a smell of burnt meat, restaurant napkins, and tobacco. It was nasty. Over my head a dumb nightingale, gloomy and pensive, was pecking at the bottom of its cage. There was a noise in the adjoining billiard-room, but I sat there and sank into deep thought. The setting sun (why was Kraft surprised at my not liking the sunset?) aroused in me a new and unexpected sensation quite out of keeping with my surroundings. I was haunted by the soft look in my mother’s eyes, her dear eyes which had been watching me so timidly the whole month. Of late I had been very rude at home, to her especially. I had a desire to be rude to Versilov, but not daring, in my contemptible way tormented her instead. I had thoroughly frightened her, in fact; often she looked at me with such imploring eyes when Andrey Petrovitch came in, afraid of some outburst on my part. It was a very strange thing that, sitting here in the restaurant, I realized for the first time that, while Versilov spoke to me familiarly, she always addressed me deferentially. I had wondered at it before and had not been impressed in her favour by it, but now I realized it particularly, and strange ideas passed one after another through my brain. I sat there a long time, till it got quite dark. I thought about my sister too.
It was a fateful moment for me. At all costs I must decide. Could I be incapable of decision? What is the difficulty of breaking with them if they don’t want me either? My mother and sister? But I should not leave them, anyway, however things turned out.
It is true that the entrance of that man into my life, though only for an instant in my early childhood, was the turning-point from which my conscious development began. Had he not met me then, my mind, my way of thinking, my fate, would certainly have been different, even in spite of the character ordained me by destiny, which I could not anyway have escaped.
But it turned out that this man was only a dream, the dream of my childhood. I had invented him myself, and in reality he was a different man who fell far below my imagination. I had come to find a genuine man, not a man like this. And why had I fallen in love with him once and for ever in that brief moment when I saw him as a child? That “for ever” must vanish. Some time, if I have space for it, I will describe that meeting, the most futile incident leading up to nothing. But I had built it up into a pyramid. I had begun building that pyramid as I lay in my little bed, when, falling asleep, I could dream and weep — what for I cannot tell. Because I had been abandoned? Because I was tormented? But I was only tormented a little, and only for two years at Touchard’s, the school into which he thrust me before leaving me for ever. Afterwards no one tormented me; quite the contrary; I looked scornfully at my schoolfellows. And I can’t endure the self-pity of the forlorn. There is no rôle more revolting than that of the orphan, the illegitimate, the outcast and all such wretched creatures, for whom I never feel any pity when they solemnly parade before the public and begin piteously but insistently whining of how they have been treated. I could beat them all! Will none of the filthy, conventional herd understand that it would be ten times as creditable to hold their tongues, not to whine and not to DEIGN to complain! And if he does deign he deserves his fate, the bastard. That’s my view!
But what is absurd is not that I used to dream of him in my little bed but that, almost forgetting my chief object, I have come here for the sake of him, of that “imagined” man. I have come to help him to stamp out a calumny, to crush his enemies. The document of which Kraft had spoken, that woman’s letter to Andronikov about which she was so afraid, which might ruin her and reduce her to poverty, which she supposed to be in Versilov’s hands, was not in his possession but in mine, sewn up in my coat pocket! I had sewn it there myself, and no one in the whole world knew of it. The fact that the romantic Marie Ivanovna, in whose keeping the letter was left “to be preserved,” thought fit to give it to me and to no one else was only her own idea and a matter for her to decide, which I am not called upon to explain, though I may discuss it later if it seems appropriate. But, armed with this unexpected weapon, I could not help yielding to the temptation to come to Petersburg. Of course, I proposed to assist this man secretly without display or excitement, without expecting his praise or his embraces. And never, never would I condescend to reproach him for anything. And indeed, was it his fault that I had fallen in love with him and had created a fantastic ideal of him? Though, indeed, I did not perhaps love him at all! His original mind, his interesting character, his intrigues and adventures, and what my mother had been to him — all that, it seemed could not keep me. It was enough that my fantastic doll was shattered, and that I could not, perhaps, love him any more. And so what was keeping me? why was I sticking there? — that was the question. The upshot of it all was that only I was a fool, no one else.
But, expecting honesty from others, I will be honest myself. I must confess that the letter sewn up in my pocket did not only arouse in me the passionate desire to rush to Versilov’s aid. Now it is quite clear to me, and even then I thought of it with a blush. I had visions of a woman — a proud, aristocratic creature — whom I should meet face to face. She would laugh at me, despise me, as though I were a mouse; she would not even suspect that her future was in my power. This idea intoxicated me even in Moscow, and still more in the train on the way; I have confessed this already. Yes, I hated that woman, but already I loved her as my victim; and all this was true, all this was real. But this was childishness which I should not have expected even from anyone like me. I am describing my feelings then, that is, what passed through my mind as I sat in the restaurant under the nightingale and made up my mind to break with them for ever. The memory of my recent meeting with that woman sent a rush of colour to my face. An ignominious meeting! An ignominious and stupid impression, and — what mattered most — it showed my incapacity for action. It proved — I thought then — that I was not strong enough to withstand the stupidest lure, though I told Kraft myself just now that I had my place “within myself,” and work of my own, and that if I had three lives they wouldn’t be enough for me. I said that proudly. My having abandoned my idea and mixed myself up with Versilov’s affairs was to some extent excusable, but that I should run from side to side like a frightened hare and be drawn into every trifle — that, of course, was simply my own folly. What induced me to go to Dergatchev’s and to burst out with my imbecilities, though I knew long ago that I am incapable of saying anything cleverly or sensibly, that it is always better for me to be silent? And some Vassin or other reassures me with the reflection that I’ve fifty years of life ahead of me and so I’ve no need to worry. It was a good reply, I admit, and did credit to his unmistakable intelligence; it was good because it was the simplest, and what is simplest is never understood till the last, when everything that is cleverer or stupider has been tried already. But I knew that answer before Vassin; I’d had an inkling of that thought more than three years ago; what’s more, my “idea” was to some extent included in it. Such were my reflections in the restaurant.
I felt disgusted as I made my way towards Semyonovsky Polk at eight o’clock in the evening, worn out with walking and with thinking. It was quite dark by then and the weather had changed; it was dry, but a horrid Petersburg wind had sprung up, blowing keenly and malignantly on my back and whirling up the dust and sand. How many sullen faces of poor people hurrying home to their corners from work and trade! Every one had his own sullen anxiety in his face, and there was perhaps not one common uniting thought in the crowd! Kraft was right; every one was different. I met a little boy, so little that it was strange he could be out alone in the street at that hour; he seemed to have lost his way. A peasant-woman stopped for a minute to listen to him, but, not understanding what he said, waved her hand and went on, leaving him alone in the darkness. I was going towards him, but he suddenly took fright and ran away.
As I approached the house I made up my mind that I should never go and see Vassin. I had an intense longing as I went up the stairs to find them at home alone, without Versilov, that I might have time before he came in to say something nice to my mother or to my dear sister, to whom I had scarcely said anything particular all that month. It so happened that he was not at home.
By the way, as I am bringing on to the scene this “new character” (I am speaking of Versilov), I will introduce briefly a formal account of him, though it is of no significance. I do this to make things more comprehensible for the reader, and because I can’t foresee where this account could fit in in the later part of my story.
He studied at the university but went into a cavalry regiment of the guards. He married Mlle. Fanariotov and retired from the army. He went abroad, and on his return lived a life of worldly gaiety in Moscow. On his wife’s death he spent some time in the country; then came the episode with my mother. Then he lived for a long time somewhere in the south. During the war with Europe he served in the army but did not reach the Crimea and was never in action. At the conclusion of the war he left the service and went abroad. He took my mother with him, though he left her at Königsberg. The poor woman used sometimes, shaking her head, to tell with a sort of horror how she had spent six months there with her little girl, not knowing the language, absolutely friendless, and in the end penniless, as though she were lost in a forest. Then Tatyana Pavlovna came to fetch her and took her back to some place in the Novgorod Province. Then, on the emancipation of the serfs, Versilov became one of the first “mediators,” and is said to have performed his duties admirably; but he soon gave this up, and in Petersburg was occupied with the conduct of various private lawsuits. Andronikov always had a high opinion of his capacity; he had a great respect for him, and only said he did not understand his character. Then Versilov gave that up too, and went abroad again — this time for a long period, several years. Then came his close intimacy with old Prince Sokolsky. During this period his financial position underwent two or three radical changes. At one time he fell into complete poverty, then grew wealthy and rose again.
Having brought my story to this point, I am determined to describe my “idea” too. For the first time since its conception I will translate it into words. I am determined to reveal it, so to speak, to the reader, partly for the sake of greater clearness in what I have to explain further. And it is not only confusing for the reader; even I, the author, am beginning to get muddled by the difficulty of explaining each step without explaining what led up to it and induced me to take it. By keeping up this “attitude of silence” I have clumsily descended to one of those “literary graces” which I have ridiculed above. Before entering upon my Petersburg romance with all my ignominious adventures in it, I find this preface is necessary. But I was not tempted to silence for the sake of literary “grace” but was forced to it by the nature of the case, that is, the difficulty of the case; even now, when it is all over, I find it very difficult to put this idea into words. Besides, I must describe it in its aspect at that time, that is, the form it took and the way I looked at it, not now, but then, and that is a fresh difficulty. To describe some things is almost impossible. The ideas that are the simplest and the clearest are the most difficult to understand. If before the discovery of America Columbus had begun telling his idea to other people, I am convinced that for a very long time people would not have understood him. And indeed they did not understand him. I don’t mean to compare myself with Columbus, and if anyone imagines that I do he ought to be ashamed of himself, that’s all.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53