I tried to get up as early as possible in the morning. As a rule we, that is my mother, my sister and I, used to get up about eight o’clock. Versilov used to lie comfortably in bed till half-past nine. Punctually at half-past eight my mother used to bring me up my coffee. But this time I slipped out of the house at eight o’clock without waiting for it. I had the day before mapped out roughly my plan of action for the whole of this day. In spite of my passionate resolve to carry out this plan I felt that there was a very great deal of it that was uncertain and indefinite in its most essential points. That was why I lay all night in a sort of half-waking state; I had an immense number of dreams, as though I were light-headed, and I hardly fell asleep properly all night. In spite of that I got up feeling fresher and more confident than usual. I was particularly anxious not to meet my mother. I could not have avoided speaking to her on a certain subject, and I was afraid of being distracted from the objects I was pursuing by some new and unexpected impression.
It was a cold morning and a damp, milky mist hovered over everything. I don’t know why, but I always like the early workaday morning in Petersburg in spite of its squalid air; and the self-centred people, always absorbed in thought, and hurrying on their affairs, have a special attraction for me at eight o’clock in the morning. As I hasten on my road I particularly like either asking some one a practical question, or being asked one by some passer-by: both question and answer are always brief, clear, and to the point; they are spoken without stopping and almost always in a friendly manner, and there is a greater readiness to answer than at any other hour. In the middle of the day, or in the evening, the Petersburger is far more apt to be abusive or jeering. It is quite different early in the morning, before work has begun, at the soberest and most serious hour of the day. I have noticed that.
I set off again for the Petersburg Side. As I had to be back in Fontanka by twelve o’clock to see Vassin (who was always more likely to be at home at midday), I hurried on without stopping, though I had a great longing to have a cup of coffee. It was absolutely necessary to find Efim Zvyerev at home too; I went to him and almost missed him; he had finished his coffee and was just ready to go out.
“What brings you here so often?” was how he greeted me without getting up from his seat.
“I will explain that directly.”
The early morning everywhere, including Petersburg, has a sobering effect on a man’s nature. Some of the passionate dreams of night evaporate completely with the light and chill of morning, and it has happened to me myself sometimes to recall in the morning my dreams and even my actions of the previous night, with shame and self-reproach. But I will remark, however, in passing, I consider a Petersburg morning — which might be thought the most prosaic on the terrestrial globe — almost the most fantastic in the world. That is my personal view, or rather impression, but I am prepared to defend it. On such a Petersburg morning, foul, damp and foggy, the wild dream of some Herman out of Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” (a colossal figure, an extraordinary and regular Petersburg type — the type of the Petersburg period!) would, I believe, be more like solid reality. A hundred times over, in such a fog, I have been haunted by a strange but persistent fancy: “What if this fog should part and float away, would not all this rotten and slimy town go with it, rise up with the fog, and vanish like smoke, and the old Finnish marsh be left as before, and in the midst of it, perhaps, to complete the picture, a bronze horseman on a panting, overdriven steed.” In fact I cannot find words for my sensations, for all this is fantastic after all — poetic, and therefore nonsensical; nevertheless I have often been and often am haunted by an utterly senseless question: “Here they are all flitting to and fro, but how can one tell, perhaps all this is some one’s dream, and there is not one real person here, nor one real action. Some one who is dreaming all this will suddenly wake up — and everything will suddenly disappear.” But I am digressing.
I must say by way of preface that there are projects and dreams in every one’s experience so eccentric that they might well be taken at first sight for madness. It was with such a phantasy in my mind that I arrived that morning at Efim’s — I went to Efim because I had no one else in Petersburg to whom I could apply on this occasion. Yet Efim was the last person to whom I should have gone with such a proposition if I had had any choice. When I was sitting opposite him, I was actually struck myself with the thought that I was the incarnation of fever and delirium, sitting opposite the incarnation of prose and the golden mean. Yet on my side there was an idea and true feeling, while on his there was nothing but the practical conviction, that things were not done like that. In short I explained to him briefly and clearly that I had absolutely no one else in Petersburg whom I could send by way of a second in matter vitally affecting my honour; that he, Efim, was an old comrade, and therefore had no right to refuse, and that I wanted to challenge a lieutenant in the Guards, Prince Sokolsky, because more than a year ago he had given my father a slap in the face at Ems. I may mention by the way that Efim knew all the details of my family circumstances, my relations with Versilov, and almost all that I knew myself of Versilov’s career; I had on various occasions talked to him of my private affairs, except, of course, of certain secrets. He sat and listened as his habit was, all ruffling up his feathers like a sparrow in a cage, silent and serious, with his puffy face and his untidy, flaxen-white hair. A set smile of mockery never left his lips. This smile was all the nastier for being quite unintentional and unconscious; it was evident that he genuinely and sincerely considered himself at that moment vastly superior to me in intellect and character. I suspected, too, that he despised me for the scene the evening before at Dergatchev’s; that was bound to be so. Efim was the crowd, Efim was the man in the street, and the man in the street has no reverence for anything but success.
“And Versilov knows nothing of this?” he asked.
“Of course not.”
“Then what right have you to meddle in his affairs? That’s the first question. And the second one is, what do you want to show by it?”
I was prepared for the objection, and at once explained to him that it was not so stupid as he supposed. To begin with, the insolent prince would be shown that there are people, even in our class, who know what is meant by honour; and secondly, Versilov would be put to shame and learn a lesson. And in the third place, what mattered most of all, even if Versilov had been right in refusing to challenge him in accordance with his convictions at the time, he would see that there was some one who was capable of feeling the insult to him so keenly that he accepted it as an insult to himself, and was prepared to lay down his life for his, Versilov’s, interests . . . although he was leaving him for ever . . . .
“Wait a minute, don’t shout, my aunt does not like it. Tell me, is it this same Prince Sokolsky that Versilov is at law with about a will? If so, this will be quite a new and original way of winning a lawsuit — to kill your opponent in a duel.”
I explained to him en toutes lettres, that he was simply silly and impertinent, and that if his sarcastic grin was growing broader and broader, it only showed his conceit and commonplaceness, and that he was incapable of imagining that I had had the lawsuit in my mind from the very beginning, and that reflection on that subject was not confined to his sagacity. Then I informed him that the case was already decided, and, moreover, it had not been brought by Prince Sokolsky but by the Princes Sokolsky, so that if a Prince Sokolsky were killed the others would be left, but that no doubt it would be necessary to put off the challenge till the end of the time within which an appeal was possible, not that the Solkoskys would as a fact appeal, but simply as a matter of good form. When the latest possible date for an appeal had passed, the challenge would follow; that I had come about it now, not that the duel would take place immediately, but that I must be prepared at any rate in time to find a second, if he, Efim, refused, as I knew no one. That was why, I said, I had come.
“Well, come and talk about it then, or else you’ll be leading us a wild-goose chase.”
He stood up and took his cap.
“So you’ll go then?”
“No, of course I won’t.”
“Well, for one reason if I agreed now that I would go then, you would begin hanging about here every evening till the time for the appeal was over. And besides, it’s simply nonsense, and that’s all about it. And am I going to mess up my career for you? Why, Prince Sokolsky will ask me at once: ‘Who sent you?’—‘Dolgoruky’— ‘And what’s Dolgoruky got to do with Versilov?’ And am I to explain your pedigree to him, pray? Why, he’d burst out laughing!”
“Then you give him a punch in the face!”
“But it’s all gibberish.”
“You’re afraid! You so tall and the strongest at the grammar school!”
“I’m afraid, of course, I am afraid. Besides, the prince won’t fight, for they only fight their equals.”
“I am a gentleman, too, by education. I have rights, I am his equal . . . on the contrary, he is not my equal.”
“You are a small boy.”
“How a small boy?”
“Just a small boy; we are both boys but he is grown up.”
“You fool! But I might have been married a year ago by the law.”
“Well, get married then, but anyway you are a ——! you will grow up one day!”
I saw, of course, that he thought fit to jeer at me. I might not indeed have told all this foolish episode, and it would have been better in fact for it to have perished in obscurity; besides, it’s revolting in its pettiness and gratuitousness, though it had rather serious consequences.
But to punish myself still further I will describe it fully. Realizing that Efim was jeering at me, I permitted myself to push him on the shoulder with my right hand, or rather my right fist. Then he took me by the shoulder, turned me upside down and — proved to me conclusively that he was the strongest of us at the grammar school.
The reader will doubtless imagine that I was in a terrible state of mind when I came out from Efim’s; he will be mistaken, however. I quite realized that what had happened was only schoolboyishness, but the gravity of my purpose remained unchanged. I got some coffee at Vassilyevsky Island, purposely avoiding the restaurant I had been at the evening before on the Petersburg Side; the restaurant and its nightingale were doubly hateful to me. It is a strange characteristic of mine that I am capable of hating places and things as though they were people. On the other hand I have happy places in Petersburg, that is places where I have at some time or other been happy. And I am careful of those places, and purposely avoid visiting them as far as possible, that later on when I am alone and unhappy I may go back to them to brood over my griefs and my memories. Over my coffee I did full justice to Efim and his common sense. Yes, he was more practical than I was, but I doubt whether he was in closer touch with reality. A realism that refuses to look beyond the end of its nose is more dangerous than the maddest romanticism, because it is blind. But while I did justice to Efim (who probably at that moment imagined that I was wandering about the streets swearing)— I did not give up one point in my convictions, and I have not to this day. I have seen people who at the first bucket of cold water have abandoned their course of action, and even their idea, and begun laughing themselves at what an hour before they looked upon as sacred. Oh, how easily that is done! Even if Efim were more right than I in the main, and I were foolish beyond all foolishness and giving myself airs, yet at the very bottom of it all there was a point of view upon which I was right: there was something to be said on my side also, and what is more, too, it was something they could never understand.
I reached Vassin’s in Fontanka, near the Semyonovsky bridge, at twelve o’clock punctually, but I did not find him at home. His work was in Vassilyevsky Island, and he was only at home at certain fixed hours, almost always at midday. And as it was a holiday I made sure of finding him; not finding him I decided to wait, although it was my first visit.
I reasoned that the matter of the letter was a question of conscience, and in choosing Vassin to decide it I was showing him the deepest respect, which no doubt must be flattering to him. Of course, I was really worried by this letter and was genuinely persuaded of the necessity of an outside opinion; but I suspect that I could have got out of my difficulty without any outside help. And what is more I was aware of that myself; I had only to give the letter to Versilov, to put it into his hands and then let him do what he liked with it — that would have settled it. To set myself up as judge, as arbitrator in a matter of this sort was indeed utterly irregular. By confining myself to handing over the letter, especially in silence, I should have scored at once, putting myself into a position of superiority over Versilov. For renouncing all the advantages of the inheritance as far as I was concerned (for some part of it would have been sure, sooner or later, to have fallen to me as Versilov’s son), I should have secured for ever a superior moral attitude in regard to Versilov’s future action. Nobody, on the other hand, could reproach me for ruining the Sokolskys, since the document had no decisive legal value. All this I thought over and made perfectly clear to myself, sitting in Vassin’s empty room, and it even occurred to me suddenly that I had come to Vassin’s, so thirsting for his advice how to act, simply to show him what a generous and irreproachable person I was, and so to avenge myself for my humiliation before him the previous evening.
As I recognized all this, I felt great vexation; nevertheless I did not go away, but sat on, though I knew for certain that my vexation would only grow greater every five minutes.
First of all, I began to feel an intense dislike for Vassin’s room. “Show me your room and I will tell you your character,” one really may say that. Vassin had a furnished room in a flat belonging to people evidently poor, who let lodgings for their living and had other lodgers besides Vassin. I was familiar with poky apartments of this sort, scarcely furnished, yet with pretensions to comfort: there is invariably a soft sofa from the second-hand market, which is dangerous to move; a washing-stand and an iron bed shut off by a screen. Vassin was evidently the best and the most to be depended on of the lodgers. Lodging-house keepers always have one such best lodger, and particularly try to please him. They sweep and tidy his room more carefully, and hang lithographs over his sofa; under the table they lay an emaciated-looking rug. People who are fond of stuffy tidiness and, still more, of obsequious deference in their landladies are to be suspected. I felt convinced that Vassin himself was flattered by his position as best lodger. I don’t know why, but the sight of those two tables piled up with books gradually enraged me. The books, the papers, the inkstand, all were arrayed with a revolting tidiness, the ideal of which would have coincided with the loftiest conceptions of a German landlady and her maidservant. There were a good many books, not merely magazines and reviews, but real books, and he evidently read them, and he probably sat down to read or to write with an extremely important and precise expression. I don’t know why, but I prefer to see books lying about in disorder. Then, at any rate, work is not made into a sacred rite. No doubt Vassin was extremely polite to his visitors, but probably every gesture he made told them plainly, “I will spend an hour and a half with you, and afterwards, when you go away, I’ll set to work.” No doubt one might have a very interesting conversation with him and hear something new from him, but he would be thinking, “Here we are talking now, and I am interesting you very much, but when you go away, I shall proceed to something more interesting . . . .” Yet I did not go away, but went on sitting there. That I had absolutely no need of his advice I was by now thoroughly convinced.
I stayed for over an hour sitting on one of the two rush-bottom chairs which had been placed by the window. It enraged me, too, that time was passing and that before evening I had to find a lodging. I was so bored that I felt inclined to take up a book, but I did not. At the very thought of distracting my mind I felt more disgusted than ever. For more than an hour there had been an extraordinary silence, when I began gradually and unconsciously to distinguish the sound of whispering, which kept growing louder, and came from somewhere close by, the other side of a door that was blocked up by the sofa. There were two voices, evidently women’s, so much I could hear, but I could not distinguish the words. And yet I was so bored that I began to listen. It was obvious that they were talking earnestly and passionately, and that they were not talking about patterns. They were discussing or disputing about something, or one voice was persuading, or entreating, while the other was refusing or protesting. They must have been other lodgers. I soon got tired, and my ear became accustomed to the sound, so that though I went on listening, it was only mechanically, and sometimes quite without remembering that I was listening, when suddenly something extraordinary happened, as though some one had jumped down off a chair on to both feet, or had suddenly leapt up and stamped; then I heard a moan, then suddenly a shriek, or rather not a shriek but an infuriated animal squeal, reckless whether it could be overheard or not.
I rushed to the door and opened it; another door at the end of the corridor was opened simultaneously, the door of the landlady’s room as I learned later, and from it two inquisitive faces peeped out. The shriek, however, ceased at once, and suddenly the door next to mine opened, and a young woman — so at least she seemed to me — dashed out, and rushed downstairs. The other woman, who was elderly, tried to stop her, but did not succeed, and could only moan after her:
“Olya, Olya, where are you going? Och!” But noticing our two open doors, she promptly closed hers, leaving a crack through which she listened till Olya’s footsteps had died away completely on the stairs. I turned to my window. All was silence. It was a trivial and perhaps ridiculous incident, and I left off thinking of it.
About a quarter of an hour later I heard in the corridor at Vassin’s door a loud and free-and-easy masculine voice. Some one took hold of the door-handle, and opened the door far enough for me to see in the passage a tall man who had already obviously seen and indeed had carefully scrutinized me, although he had not yet entered the room, but still holding the door-handle went on talking to the landlady at the other end of the passage. The landlady called back to him in a thin, piping little voice which betrayed that he was an old acquaintance, respected and valued by her as a visitor of consequence, and a gentleman of a merry disposition. The merry gentleman shouted witticisms, but his theme was only the impossibility of finding Vassin at home. He declared that this was his destiny from his birth up, that he would wait again as before. And all this, no doubt, seemed the height of wit to the landlady. Finally the visitor flung the door wide open and came in.
He was a well-dressed gentleman, evidently turned out by a good tailor, as they say, “like a real gentleman,” though there was nothing of “the real gentleman” about him, in spite, I fancy, of his desire to appear one. He was not exactly free and easy, but somehow naturally insolent, which is anyway less offensive than an insolence practised before the looking-glass. His brown, slightly grizzled hair, his black eyebrows, big beard and large eyes instead of helping to define his character, actually gave him something universal, like every one else. This sort of man laughs and is ready to laugh, but for some reason one is never cheerful in his company. He quickly passes from a jocular to a dignified air, from dignity to playfulness or winking, but all this seems somehow put on and causeless. . . . However, there is no need to describe him further. I came later on to know this gentleman more intimately, and therefore I have a more definite impression of him now than when he opened the door and came into the room. However, even now I should find it difficult to say anything exact or definite about him, because the chief characteristic of such people is just their incompleteness, their artificiality and their indefiniteness.
He had scarcely sat down when it dawned upon me that he must be Vassin’s stepfather, one M. Stebelkov, of whom I had already heard something, but so casually that I couldn’t tell what it was: I could only remember that it was not to his advantage. I knew that Yassin had long ago been left an orphan under this gentleman’s control, but that for some years past he had not been under his influence, that their aims and interests were different, and that they lived entirely separated in all respects. It came back to my mind, too, that this Stebelkov had some money, that he was, indeed, something of a speculator and spendthrift; in fact I had probably heard something more definite about him, but I have forgotten. He looked me up and down, without bowing to me, however, put his top hat down on a table in front of the sofa, kicked away the table with an air of authority, and instead of quietly sitting down, flung himself full length on the sofa (on which I had not ventured to sit) so that it positively creaked, and dangling his legs held his right foot up in the air and began admiring the tip of his patent-leather boot. Of course he turned at once to me and stared at me with his big and rather fixed-looking eyes.
“I don’t find him in,” he gave me a slight nod.
I did not speak.
“Not punctual! He has his own ideas. From the Petersburg Side?”
“You mean you’ve come from the Petersburg Side?” I asked him in my turn.
“No, I asked whether you had.”
“I . . . yes, I have . . . but how did you know?”
“How did I know? H’m!” He winked, but did not deign to explain.
“I don’t live on the Petersburg Side, but I’ve just been there and have come from there.”
He remained silent, still with the same significant smile, which I disliked extremely. There was something stupid in his winking.
“From M. Dergatchev’s?” he said at last.
“From Dergatchev’s?” I opened my eyes. He gazed at me triumphantly. “I don’t know him.”
“Well, as you please,” I answered. I began to loathe him.
“H’m. . . . To be sure. No, excuse me: you buy a thing at a shop, at another shop next door another man buys something else, and what, do you suppose? Money from a tradesman who is called a money-lender . . . for money too is an article of sale, and a money-lender is a tradesman too. . . . You follow me?”
“Certainly I follow.”
“A third purchaser comes along, and pointing to one shop, he says, ‘This is sound.’ Then he points to the other shop and says, ‘This is unsound.’ What am I to conclude about this purchaser?”
“How can I tell.”
“No, excuse me. I’ll take an example, man lives by good example. I walk along the Nevsky Prospect, and observe on the other side of the street a gentleman whose character I should like to investigate more closely. We walk, one each side of the street as far as the gate leading to Morskaya, and there, just where the English shop is, we observe a third gentleman, who has just been run over. Now mark: a fourth gentleman walks up, and wishes to investigate the character of all three of us, including the man who has been run over, from the point of view of practicability and soundness. . . . Do you follow?”
“Excuse me, with great difficulty.”
“Quite so; just what I thought. I’ll change the subject. I was at the springs in Germany, the mineral springs, as I had frequently been before, no matter which springs. I go to drink the waters and see an Englishman. It is difficult as you know to make acquaintance with an Englishman; two months later, having finished my cure, we were walking, a whole party of us, with alpenstocks on the mountain, no matter what mountain. At a pass there is an étape, the one where the monks make Chartreuse, note that. I meet a native standing in solitude looking about him in silence. I wish to form my conclusions in regard to his soundness: what do you think, can I apply for conclusions to the crowd of Englishmen with whom I am travelling solely because I was unable to talk to them at the springs?”
“How can I tell? Excuse me, it’s very difficult to follow you.”
“Difficult, is it?”
“Yes, you weary me.”
“H’m.” He winked and made a gesture, probably intended to suggest victory and triumph; then with stolid composure he took out of his pocket a newspaper which he had evidently only just bought, unfolded it and began reading the last page, apparently intending to leave me undisturbed. For five minutes he did not look at me.
“Brestograevskies haven’t gone smash, eh! Once they’ve started, they go on! I know a lot that have gone smash.”
He looked at me with intense earnestness.
“I don’t know much about the Stock Exchange so far,” I answered.
“You disapprove of it.”
“I don’t disapprove of money but . . . but I think ideas come first and money second.”
“That is, allow me to say. . . . Here you have a man, so to say, with his own capital . . . .”
“A lofty idea comes before money, and a society with money but without a lofty idea comes to grief.”
I don’t know why, but I began to grow hot. He looked at me rather blankly, as though he were perplexed, but suddenly his whole face relaxed in a gleeful and cunning smile.
“Versilov, hey? He’s fairly scored, he has! Judgment given yesterday, eh?”
I suddenly perceived to my surprise that he knew who I was, and perhaps knew a great deal more. But I don’t understand why I flushed and stared in a most idiotic way without taking my eyes off him. He was evidently triumphant. He looked at me in high glee, as though he had found me out and caught me in the cleverest way.
“No,” he said, raising both his eyebrows; “you ask me about M. Versilov. What did I say to you just now about soundness? A year and a half ago over that baby he might have made a very perfect little job, but he came to grief.”
“Over what baby?”
“The baby who is being brought up now out of the way, but he won’t gain anything by it . . . because . . . .”
“What baby? What do you mean?”
“His baby, of course, his own by Mlle. Lidya Ahmakov. . . . ‘A charming girl very fond of me . . . .’ phosphorus matches — eh?”
“What nonsense, what a wild story! He never had a baby by Mlle. Ahmakov!”
“Go on! I’ve been here and there, I’ve been a doctor and I’ve been an accoucheur. My name’s Stebelkov, haven’t you heard of me? It’s true I haven’t practised for a long time, but practical advice on a practical matter I could give.”
“You’re an accoucheur . . . did you attend Mlle. Ahmakov?”
“No, I did not attend her. In a suburb there was a doctor Granz, burdened with a family; he was paid half a thaler, such is the position of doctors out there, and no one knew him either, so he was there instead of me. . . . I recommended him, indeed, because he was so obscure and unknown. You follow? I only gave practical advice when Versilov, Andrey Petrovitch, asked for it; but he asked me in dead secret, tête-à-tête. But Andrey Petrovitch wanted to catch two hares at once.”
I listened in profound astonishment.
“‘Chase two hares, catch neither,’ according to the popular, or rather peasant, proverb. What I say is: exceptions continually repeated become a general rule. He went after another hare, or, to speak plain Russian, after another lady, and with no results. Hold tight what you’ve got. When he ought to be hastening a thing on, he potters about: Versilov, that ‘petticoat prophet,’ as young Prince Sokolsky well described him before me at the time. Yes, you had better come to me! If there is anything you want to know about Versilov, you had better come to me!”
He was evidently delighted at my open-mouthed astonishment. I had never heard anything before about a baby. And at that moment the door of the next room slammed as some one walked rapidly in.
“Versilov lives in Mozhaisky Street, at Litvinov’s house, No. 17; I have been to the address bureau myself!” a woman’s voice cried aloud in an irritable tone; we could hear every word. Stebelkov raised his eyebrows and held up his finger. “We talk of him here, and there already he’s. . . . Here you have exceptions continually occurring! Quand on parle d’une corde . . . .”
He jumped up quickly and sitting down on the sofa, began listening at the door in front of which the sofa stood. I too was tremendously struck. I reflected that the speaker was probably the same young girl who had run down the stairs in such excitement. But how did Versilov come to be mixed up in this too? Suddenly there came again the same shriek, the furious shriek of some one savage with anger, who has been prevented from getting or doing something. The only difference was that the cries and shrieks were more prolonged than before. There were sounds of a struggle, a torrent of words, “I won’t, I won’t,” “Give it up, give it up at once!” or something of the sort, I don’t remember exactly. Then, just as before, some one rushed to the door and opened it. Both the people in the room rushed out into the passage, one just as before, trying to restrain the other. Stebelkov, who had leapt up from the sofa, and been listening with relish, fairly flew to the door, and with extreme lack of ceremony dashed into the passage straight upon the two. I too, of course, ran to the door. But his appearance in the passage acted like a pail of cold water. The two women vanished instantly, and shut the door with a slam.
Stebelkov was on the point of dashing after them, but he stopped short, held up his finger with a smile, and stood considering. This time I detected in his smile something nasty, evil and malignant. Seeing the landlady, who was again standing in her doorway, he ran quickly across the passage to her on tiptoe; after whispering to her for a minute or two, and no doubt receiving information, he came back to the room, resuming his air of ponderous dignity, picked up his top-hat from the table, looked at himself in the looking-glass as he passed, ruffled up his hair, and with self-complacent dignity went to the next door without even a glance in my direction. For an instant he held his ear to the door, listening, then winked triumphantly across the passage to the landlady, who shook her finger and wagged her head at him, as though to say, “Och, naughty man, naughty man!” Finally with an air of resolute, even of shrinking delicacy, he knocked with his knuckles at the door. A voice asked:
“Will you allow me to enter on urgent business?” Stebelkov pronounced in a loud and dignified voice.
There was a brief delay, yet they did open the door, first only a little way; but Stebelkov at once clutched the door-handle and would not let them close it again. A conversation followed, Stebelkov began talking loudly, still pushing his way into the room. I don’t remember the words, but he was speaking about Versilov, saying that he could tell them, could explain everything — “Yes, I can tell you,” “Yes, you come to me”— or something to that effect. They quickly let him in, I went back to the sofa and began to listen, but I could not catch it all, I could only hear that Versilov’s name was frequently mentioned. From the intonations of his voice I guessed that Stebelkov by now had control of the conversation, that he no longer spoke insinuatingly but authoritatively, in the same style as he had talked to me —“you follow?” “kindly note that,” and so on. With women, though, he must have been extraordinarily affable. Already I had twice heard his loud laugh, probably most inappropriate, because accompanying his voice, and sometimes rising above it, could be heard the voices of the women, and they sounded anything but cheerful, and especially that of the young woman, the one who had shrieked: she talked a great deal, rapidly and nervously, making apparently some accusation or complaint, and seeking judgment or redress. But Stebelkov did not give way, he raised his voice higher and higher, and laughed more and more often; such men are unable to listen to other people. I soon jumped up from the sofa, for it seemed to me shameful to be eavesdropping, and went back again to the rush-bottom chair by the window. I felt convinced that Vassin did not think much of this gentleman, but that, if anyone else had expressed the same opinion, he would have at once defended him with grave dignity, and have observed that, “he was a practical man, and one of those modern business people who were not to be judged from our theoretical and abstract standpoints.” At that instant, however, I felt somehow morally shattered, my heart was throbbing and I was unmistakably expecting something.
About ten minutes passed; suddenly in the midst of a resounding peal of laughter some one leapt up from a chair with just the same noise as before, then I heard shrieks from both the women. I heard Stebelkov jump up too and say something in quite a different tone of voice, as though he were justifying himself and begging them to listen. . . . But they did not listen to him; I heard cries of anger: “Go away! You’re a scoundrel, you’re a shameless villain!” In fact it was clear that he was being turned out of the room. I opened the door at the very minute when he skipped into the passage, as it seemed literally thrust out by their hands. Seeing me he cried out at once, pointing at me: “This is Versilov’s son! If you don’t believe me, here is his son, his own son! I assure you!” And he seized me by the arm as though I belonged to him. “This is his son, his own son!” he repeated, though he added nothing by way of explanation, as he led me to the ladies.
The young woman was standing in the passage, the elderly one a step behind her, in the doorway. I only remember that this poor girl was about twenty, and pretty, though thin and sickly looking; she had red hair, and was somehow a little like my sister; this likeness flashed upon me at the time, and remained in my memory; but Liza never had been, and never could have been in the wrathful frenzy by which the girl standing before me was possessed: her lips were white, her light grey eyes were flashing, she was trembling all over with indignation. I remember, too, that I was in an exceedingly foolish and undignified position, for, thanks to this insolent scoundrel, I was at a complete loss what to say.
“What do you mean, his son! If he’s with you he’s a scoundrel too. If you are Versilov’s son,” she turned suddenly to me, “tell your father from me that he is a scoundrel, that he’s a mean, shameless wretch, that I don’t want his money . . . . There, there, there, give him this money at once!”
She hurriedly took out of her pocket several notes, but the older lady (her mother, as it appeared later) clutched her hand:
“Olya, but you know . . . perhaps it’s not true . . . perhaps it’s not his son!”
Olya looked at her quickly, reflected, looked at me contemptuously and went back into the room; but before she slammed the door she stood still in the doorway and shouted to Stebelkov once more:
And she even stamped her foot at him. Then the door was slammed and locked. Stebelkov, still holding me by the shoulder, with his finger raised and his mouth relaxed in a slow doubtful grin, bent a look of inquiry on me.
“I consider the way you’ve behaved with me ridiculous and disgraceful,” I muttered indignantly. But he did not hear what I said, though he was still staring at me.
“This ought to be looked into,” he pronounced, pondering.
“But how dare you drag me in? Who is this? What is this woman? You took me by the shoulder, and brought me in — what does it mean?”
“Yes, by Jove! A young person who has lost her fair fame . . . a frequently recurring exception — you follow?” And he poked me in the chest with his finger.
“Ech, damnation!” I pushed away his finger. But he suddenly and quite unexpectedly went off into a low, noiseless, prolonged chuckle of merriment. Finally he put on his hat and, with a rapid change to an expression of gloom, he observed, frowning:
“The landlady must be informed . . . they must be turned out of the lodgings, to be sure, and without loss of time too, or they’ll be . . . you will see! Mark my words, you will see! Yes, by Jove!” he was gleeful again all at once. “You’ll wait for Grisha, I suppose?”
“No, I shan’t wait,” I answered resolutely.
“Well, it’s all one to me . . . .”
And without adding another syllable he turned, went out, and walked downstairs, without vouchsafing a glance in the landlady’s direction, though she was evidently expecting news and explanations. I, too, took up my hat, and asking the landlady to tell Vassin that I, Dolgoruky, had called, I ran downstairs.
I had merely wasted my time. On coming out I set to work at once to look for lodgings; but I was preoccupied. I wandered about the streets for several hours, and, though I went into five or six flats with rooms to let, I am sure I passed by twenty without noticing them. To increase my vexation I found it far more difficult to get a lodging than I had imagined. Everywhere there were rooms like Vassin’s, or a great deal worse, while the rent was enormous, that is, not what I had reckoned upon. I asked for nothing more than a “corner” where I could turn round, and I was informed contemptuously that if that was what I wanted, I must go where rooms were let “in corners.” Moreover, I found everywhere numbers of strange lodgers, in whose proximity I could not have lived; in fact, I would have paid anything not to have to live in their proximity. There were queer gentlemen in their waistcoats without their coats, who had dishevelled beards, and were inquisitive and free-and-easy in their manners. In one tiny room there were about a dozen such sitting over cards and beer, and I was offered the next room. In another place I answered the landlady’s inquiries so absurdly that they looked at me in surprise, and in one flat I actually began quarrelling with the people. However, I won’t describe these dismal details; I only felt that I was awfully tired. I had something to eat in a cookshop when it was almost dark. I finally decided that I would go and give Versilov the letter concerning the will, with no one else present (making no explanation), that I would go upstairs, pack my things in my trunk and bag, and go for the night, if need be, to an hotel. At the end of the Obuhovsky Prospect, at the Gate of Triumph, I knew there was an inn where one could get a room to oneself for thirty kopecks; I resolved for one night to sacrifice that sum, rather than sleep at Versilov’s. And as I was passing the Institute of Technology, the notion suddenly struck me to call on Tatyana Pavlovna, who lived just opposite the institute. My pretext for going in was this same letter about the will, but my overwhelming impulse to go in was due to some other cause, which I cannot to this day explain. My mind was in a turmoil, brooding over “the baby,” the “exceptions that pass into rules.” I had a longing to tell some one, or to make a scene, or to fight, or even to have a cry — I can’t tell which, but I went up to Tatyana Pavlovna’s. I had only been there once before, with some message from my mother, soon after I came from Moscow, and I remember I went in, gave my message, and went out a minute later, without sitting down, and indeed she did not ask me to.
I rang the bell, and the cook at once opened the door to me, and showed me into the room without speaking. All these details are necessary that the reader may understand how the mad adventure, which had so vast an influence on all that followed, was rendered possible. And to begin with, as regards the cook. She was an ill-tempered, snub-nosed Finnish woman, and I believe hated her mistress Tatyana Pavlovna, while the latter, on the contrary, could not bring herself to part with her from a peculiar sort of infatuation, such as old maids sometimes show for damp-nosed pug dogs, or somnolent cats. The Finnish woman was either spiteful and rude or, after a quarrel, would be silent for weeks together to punish her mistress. I must have chanced upon one of these dumb days, for even when I asked her, as I remember doing, whether her mistress were at home, she made no answer, but walked off to the kitchen in silence. Feeling sure after this that Tatyana Pavlovna was at home, I walked into the room, and finding no one there, waited expecting that she would come out of her bedroom before long; otherwise, why should the cook have shown me in? Without sitting down, I waited two minutes, three; it was dusk and Tatyana Pavlovna’s dark flat seemed even less hospitable from the endless yards of cretonne hanging about. A couple of words about that horrid little flat, to explain the surroundings of what followed. With her obstinate and peremptory character, and the tastes she had formed from living in the country in the past, Tatyana Pavlovna could not put up with furnished lodgings, and had taken this parody of a flat simply in order to live apart and be her own mistress. The two rooms were exactly like two bird-cages, set side by side, one smaller than the other; the flat was on the third storey, and the windows looked into the courtyard. Coming into the flat, one stepped straight into a tiny passage, a yard and a half wide; on the left, the two afore-mentioned bird-cages, and at the end of the passage the tiny kitchen. The five hundred cubic feet of air required to last a human being twelve hours were perhaps provided in this room, but hardly more. The rooms were hideously low-pitched, and, what was stupider than anything, the windows, the doors, the furniture, all were hung or draped with cretonne, good French cretonne, and decorated with festoons; but this made the room twice as dark and more than ever like the inside of a travelling-coach. In the room where I was waiting it was possible to turn round, though it was cumbered up with furniture, and the furniture, by the way, was not at all bad: there were all sorts of little inlaid tables, with bronze fittings, boxes, an elegant and even sumptuous toilet table. But the next room, from which I expected her to come in, the bedroom, screened off by a thick curtain, consisted literally of a bedstead, as appeared afterwards. All these details are necessary to explain the foolishness of which I was guilty.
So I had no doubts and was waiting, when there came a ring at the bell. I heard the cook cross the little passage with lagging footsteps, and admit the visitors, still in silence, just as she had me. They were two ladies and both were talking loudly, but what was my amazement when from their voices I recognized one as Tatyana Pavlovna, and the other as the woman I was least prepared to meet now, above all in such circumstances! I could not be mistaken: I had heard that powerful, mellow, ringing voice the day before, only for three minutes it is true, but it still resounded in my heart. Yes, it was “yesterday’s woman.” What was I to do? I am not asking the reader this question, I am only picturing that moment to myself, and I am utterly unable to imagine even now how it came to pass that I suddenly rushed behind the curtain, and found myself in Tatyana Pavlovna’s bedroom. In short, I hid myself, and had scarcely time to do so when they walked in. Why I hid and did not come forward to meet them, I don’t know. It all happened accidentally and absolutely without premeditation.
After rushing into the bedroom and knocking against the bed, I noticed at once that there was a door leading from the bedroom into the kitchen, and so there was a way out of my horrible position, and I could make my escape but — oh, horror! the door was locked, and there was no key in it. I sank on the bed in despair; I realized that I should overhear their talk, and from the first sentence, from the first sound of their conversation, I guessed that they were discussing delicate and private matters. Oh, of course, a straightforward and honourable man should even then have got up, come out, said aloud, “I’m here, stop!” and, in spite of his ridiculous position, walked past them; but I did not get up, and did not come out; I didn’t dare, I was in a most despicable funk.
“My darling Katerina Nikolaevna, you distress me very much,” Tatyana Pavlovna was saying in an imploring voice. “Set your mind at rest once for all, it’s not like you. You bring joy with you wherever you go, and now suddenly . . . I suppose you do still believe in me? Why, you know how devoted I am to you. As much so as to Andrey Petrovitch, and I make no secret of my undying devotion to him. . . . But do believe me, I swear on my honour he has no such document in his possession, and perhaps no one else has either; and he is not capable of anything so underhand, it’s wicked of you to suspect him. This hostility between you two is simply the work of your own imaginations . . . .”
“There is such a document, and he is capable of anything. And there, as soon as I go in yesterday, the first person I meet is ce petit espion, whom he has foisted on my father.”
“Ach, ce petit espion! To begin with he is not an espion at all, for it was I, I insisted on his going to the prince, or else he would have gone mad, or died of hunger in Moscow — that was the account they sent us of him; and what’s more, that unmannerly urchin is a perfect little fool, how could he be a spy?”
“Yes, he is a fool, but that does not prevent his being a scoundrel. If I hadn’t been so angry, I should have died of laughing yesterday: he turned pale, he ran about, made bows and talked French. And Marie Ivanovna talked of him in Moscow as a genius. That that unlucky letter is still in existence and is in dangerous hands somewhere, I gathered chiefly from Marie Ivanovna’s face.”
“My beauty! why you say yourself she has nothing!”
“That’s just it, that she has; she does nothing but tell lies, and she is a good hand at it, I can tell you! Before I went to Moscow, I still had hopes that no papers of any sort were left, but then, then . . . .”
“Oh, it’s quite the contrary, my dear, I am told she is a good-natured and sensible creature; Andronikov thought more of her than of any of his other nieces. It’s true I don’t know her well — but you should have won her over, my beauty! It’s no trouble to you to win hearts — why, I’m an old woman, but here I’m quite in love with you already, and can’t resist kissing you. . . . But it would have been nothing to you to win her heart.”
“I did, Tatyana Pavlovna, I tried; she was enchanted with me, but she’s very sly too. . . . Yes, she’s a regular type, and a peculiar Moscow type. . . . And would you believe it, she advised me to apply to a man here called Kraft, who had been Andronikov’s assistant. ‘Maybe he knows something,’ she said. I had some idea of what Kraft was like, and in fact, I had a faint recollection of him; but as she talked about Kraft, I suddenly felt certain that it was not that she simply knew nothing but that she knew all about it and was lying.”
“But why, why? Well, perhaps you might find out from him! That German, Kraft, isn’t a chatterbox, and I remember him as very honest — you really ought to question him! Only I fancy he is not in Petersburg now . . . .”
“Oh, he came back yesterday evening, I have just been to see him. . . . I have come to you in such a state, I’m shaking all over. I wanted to ask you, Tatyana Pavlovna, my angel, for you know every one, wouldn’t it be possible to find out from his papers, for he must have left papers, to whom they will come now? They may come into dangerous hands again! I wanted to ask your advice.”
“But what papers are you talking about?” said Tatyana Pavlovna, not understanding. “Why, you say you have just been at Kraft’s?”
“Yes, I have been, I have, I have just been there, but he’s shot himself! Yesterday evening.”
I jumped up from the bed. I was able to sit through being called a spy and an idiot, and the longer the conversation went on the more impossible it seemed to show myself. It was impossible to contemplate! I inwardly determined with a sinking heart to stay where I was till Tatyana Pavlovna went to the door with her visitor (if, that is, I were lucky, and she did not before then come to fetch something from the bedroom), and afterwards, when Mme. Ahmakov had gone out, then, if need be, I’d fight it out with Tatyana Pavlovna. . . . But when, now, suddenly hearing about Kraft, I jumped up from the bed, I shuddered all over. Without thinking, without reflecting, or realizing what I was doing, I took a step, lifted the curtain, and appeared before the two of them. It was still light enough for them to see me, pale and trembling. . . . They both cried out, and indeed they well might.
“Kraft?” I muttered, turning to Mme. Ahmakov —“he has shot himself? Yesterday? At sunset?”
“Where were you? Where have you come from?” screamed Tatyana Pavlovna, and she literally clawed my shoulder. “You’ve been spying? You have been eavesdropping?”
“What did I tell you just now?” said Katerina Nikolaevna, getting up from the sofa and pointing at me.
I was beside myself.
“It’s a lie, it’s nonsense!” I broke in furiously. “You called me a spy just now, my God! You are not worth spying on, life’s not worth living in the same world with such people as you, in fact! A great-hearted man has killed himself, Kraft has shot himself — for the sake of an idea, for the sake of Hecuba. . . . But how should you know about Hecuba? . . . And here — one’s to live among your intrigues, to linger in the midst of your lying, your deceptions and underhand plots . . . . Enough!”
“Slap him in the face! Slap him in the face!” cried Tatyana Pavlovna, and as Katerina Nikolaevna did not move, though she stared fixedly at me (I remember it all minutely), Tatyana Pavlovna would certainly have done so herself without loss of time, so that I instinctively raised my hand to protect my face; and this gesture led her to imagine that I meant to strike her.
“Well, strike me, strike me, show me that you are a low cur from your birth up: you are stronger than women, why stand on ceremony with them!”
“That’s enough of your slander!” I cried. “I have never raised my hand against a woman! You are shameless, Tatyana Pavlovna, you’ve always treated me with contempt. Oh, servants must be treated without respect! You laugh, Katerina Nikolaevna, at my appearance I suppose; yes, God has not blessed me with the elegance of your young officers. And, yet I don’t feel humbled before you, on the contrary I feel exalted. . . . I don’t care how I express myself, only I’m not to blame! I got here by accident, Tatyana Pavlovna, it’s all the fault of your cook, or rather of your devotion to her: why did she bring me in here without answering my question? And afterwards to dash out of a woman’s bedroom seemed so monstrous, that I made up my mind not to show myself, but to sit and put up with your insults. . . . You are laughing again, Katerina Nikolaevna!”
“Leave the room, leave the room, go away!” screamed Tatyana Pavlovna, almost pushing me out. “Don’t think anything of his abuse, Katerina Nikolaevna: I’ve told you that they sent us word that he was mad!”
“Mad? They sent word? Who sent you word? No matter, enough of this, Katerina Nikolaevna! I swear to you by all that’s sacred, this conversation and all that I’ve heard shall remain hidden. . . . Am I to blame for having learned your secrets? Especially as I am leaving your father’s service to-morrow, so as regards the letter you are looking for, you need not worry yourself!”
“What’s that. . . . What letter are you talking about?” asked Katerina Nikolaevna in such confusion that she turned pale, or perhaps I fancied it. I realized that I had said too much.
I walked quickly out; they watched me go without a word, with looks of intense amazement. I had in fact set them a riddle.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53