On one of my excursions I received an invitation to dine at the house of a rich landowner and sportsman, Alexandr Mihalitch G——. His property was four miles from the small village where I was staying at the time. I put on a frock-coat, an article without which I advise no one to travel, even on a hunting expedition, and betook myself to Alexandr Mihalitch’s. The dinner was fixed for six o’clock; I arrived at five, and found already a great number of gentlemen in uniforms, in civilian dress, and other nondescript garments. My host met me cordially, but soon hurried away to the butler’s pantry. He was expecting a great dignitary, and was in a state of agitation not quite in keeping with his independent position in society and his wealth. Alexandr Mihalitch had never married, and did not care for women; his house was the centre of a bachelor society. He lived in grand style; he had enlarged and sumptuously redecorated his ancestral mansion, spent fifteen thousand roubles on wine from Moscow every year, and enjoyed the highest public consideration. Alexandr Mihalitch had retired from the service ages ago, and had no ambition to gain official honours of any kind. What could have induced him to go out of his way to procure a guest of high official position, and to be in a state of excitement from early morning on the day of the grand dinner? That remains buried in the obscurity of the unknown, as a friend of mine, an attorney, is in the habit of saying when he is asked whether he takes bribes when kindly-disposed persons offer them.
On parting from my host, I began walking through the rooms. Almost all the guests were utterly unknown to me: about twenty persons were already seated at the card-tables. Among these devotees of preference were two warriors, with aristocratic but rather battered countenances, a few civilian officials, with tight high cravats and drooping dyed moustaches, such as are only to be found in persons of resolute character and strict conservative opinions: these conservative persons picked up their cards with dignity, and, without turning their heads, glared sideways at everyone who approached; and five or six local petty officials, with fair round bellies, fat, moist little hands, and staid, immovable little legs. These worthies spoke in a subdued voice, smiled benignly in all directions, held their cards close up to their very shirt-fronts, and when they trumped did not flap their cards on the table, but, on the contrary, shed them with an undulatory motion on the green cloth, and packed their tricks together with a slight, unassuming, and decorous swish. The rest of the company were sitting on sofas, or hanging in groups about the doors or at the windows; one gentleman, no longer young, though of feminine appearance, stood in a corner, fidgeting, blushing, and twisting the seal of his watch over his stomach in his embarrassment, though no one was paying any attention to him; some others in swallow-tail coats and checked trousers, the handiwork of the tailor and Perpetual Master of the Tailors Corporation, Firs Klyuhin, were talking together with extraordinary ease and liveliness, turning their bald, greasy heads from side to side unconstrainedly as they talked; a young man of twenty, short-sighted and fair-haired, dressed from head to foot in black, obviously shy, smiled sarcastically. . . .
I was beginning, however, to feel bored, when suddenly I was joined by a young man, one Voinitsin by name, a student without a degree, who resided in the house of Alexandr Mihalitch in the capacity of . . . it would be hard to say precisely, of what. He was a first-rate shot, and could train dogs. I had known him before in Moscow. He was one of those young men who at every examination ‘played at dumb-show,’ that is to say, did not answer a single word to the professor’s questions. Such persons were also designated ‘the bearded students.’ (You will gather that this was in long past days.) This was how it used to be: they would call Voinitsin, for example. Voinitsin, who had sat upright and motionless in his place, bathed in a hot perspiration from head to foot, slowly and aimlessly looked about him, got up, hurriedly buttoned up his undergraduate’s uniform, and edged up to the examiner’s table. ‘Take a paper, please,’ the professor would say to him pleasantly. Voinitsin would stretch out his hand, and with trembling fingers fumble at the pile of papers. ‘No selecting, if you please,’ observed, in a jarring voice, an assistant-examiner, an irritable old gentleman, a professor in some other faculty, conceiving a sudden hatred for the unlucky bearded one. Voinitsin resigned himself to his fate, took a paper, showed the number on it, and went and sat down by the window, while his predecessor was answering his question. At the window Voinitsin never took his eyes off his paper, except that at times he looked slowly round as before, though he did not move a muscle. But his predecessor would finish at last, and would be dismissed with, ‘Good! you can go,’ or even ‘Good indeed, very good!’ according to his abilities. Then they call Voinitsin: Voinitsin gets up, and with resolute step approaches the table. ‘Read your question,’ they tell him. Voinitsin raises the paper in both hands up to his very nose, slowly reads it, and slowly drops his hands. ‘Well, now, your answer, please,’ the same professor remarks languidly, throwing himself backwards, and crossing his arms over his breast.
There reigns the silence of the tomb. ‘Why are you silent?’ Voinitsin is mute. The assistant-examiner begins to be restive. ‘Well, say something!’ Voinitsin is as still as if he were dead. All his companions gaze inquisitively at the back of his thick, close-cropped, motionless head. The assistant-examiner’s eyes are almost starting out of his head; he positively hates Voinitsin. ‘Well, this is strange, really,’ observes the other examiner. ‘Why do you stand as if you were dumb? Come, don’t you know it? if so, say so.’ ‘Let me take another question,’ the luckless youth articulates thickly. The professors look at one another.’ Well, take one,’ the head-examiner answers, with a wave of the hand. Voinitsin again takes a paper, again goes to the window, again returns to the table, and again is silent as the grave. The assistant-examiner is capable of devouring him alive. At last they send him away and mark him a nought. You would think, ‘Now, at least, he will go.’ Not a bit of it! He goes back to his place, sits just as immovably to the end of the examination, and, as he goes out, exclaims: ‘I’ve been on the rack! what ill-luck!’ and the whole of that day he wanders about Moscow, clutching every now and then at his head, and bitterly cursing his luckless fate. He never, of course, touched a book, and the next day the same story was repeated.
So this was the Voinitsin who joined me. We talked about Moscow, about sport.
‘Would you like me,’ he whispered to me suddenly, ‘to introduce you to the first wit of these parts?’
‘If you will be so kind.’
Voinitsin led me up to a little man, with a high tuft of hair on his forehead and moustaches, in a cinnamon-coloured frock-coat and striped cravat. His yellow, mobile features were certainly full of cleverness and sarcasm. His lips were perpetually curved in a flitting ironical smile; little black eyes, screwed up with an impudent expression, looked out from under uneven lashes. Beside him stood a country gentleman, broad, soft, and sweet — a veritable sugar-and-honey mixture — with one eye. He laughed in anticipation at the witticisms of the little man, and seemed positively melting with delight. Voinitsin presented me to the wit, whose name was Piotr Petrovitch Lupihin. We were introduced and exchanged the preliminary civilities.
‘Allow me to present to you my best friend,’ said Lupihin suddenly in a strident voice, seizing the sugary gentleman by the arm.
‘Come, don’t resist, Kirila Selifanitch,’ he added; ‘we’re not going to bite you. I commend him to you,’ he went on, while the embarrassed Kirila Selifanitch bowed with about as much grace as if he were undergoing a surgical operation; ‘he’s a most superior gentleman. He enjoyed excellent health up to the age of fifty, then suddenly conceived the idea of doctoring his eyes, in consequence of which he has lost one. Since then he doctors his peasants with similar success. . . . They, to be sure, repay with similar devotion . . . ’
‘What a fellow it is!’ muttered Kirila Selifanitch. And he laughed.
‘Speak out, my friend; eh, speak out!’ Lupihin rejoined. ‘Why, they may elect you a judge; I shouldn’t wonder, and they will, too, you see. Well, to be sure, the secretaries will do the thinking for you, we may assume; but you know you’ll have to be able to speak, anyhow, even if only to express the ideas of others. Suppose the governor comes and asks, “Why is it the judge stammers?” And they’d say, let’s assume, “It’s a paralytic stroke.” “Then bleed him,” he’d say. And it would be highly indecorous, in your position, you’ll admit.’
The sugary gentleman was positively rolling with mirth.
‘You see he laughs,’ Lupihin pursued with a malignant glance at Kirila Selifanitch’s heaving stomach. ‘And why shouldn’t he laugh?’ he added, turning to me: ‘he has enough to eat, good health, and no children; his peasants aren’t mortgaged — to be sure, he doctors them — and his wife is cracked.’ (Kirila Selifanitch turned a little away as though he were not listening, but he still continued to chuckle.) ‘I laugh too, while my wife has eloped with a land-surveyor.’ (He grinned.) ‘Didn’t you know that? What! Why, one fine day she ran away with him and left me a letter.
“Dear Piotr Petrovitch,” she said, “forgive me: carried away by passion, I am leaving with the friend of my heart.” . . . And the land-surveyor only took her fancy through not cutting his nails and wearing tight trousers. You’re surprised at that? “Why, this,” she said, “is a man with no dissimulation about him.” . . . But mercy on us! Rustic fellows like us speak the truth too plainly. But let us move away a bit. . . . It’s not for us to stand beside a future judge.’ . . .
He took me by the arm, and we moved away to a window.
‘I’ve the reputation of a wit here,’ he said to me, in the course of conversation. ‘You need not believe that. I’m simply an embittered man, and I do my railing aloud: that’s how it is I’m so free and easy in my speech. And why should I mince matters, if you come to that; I don’t care a straw for anyone’s opinion, and I’ve nothing to gain; I’m spiteful — what of that? A spiteful man, at least, needs no wit. And, however enlightening it may be, you won’t believe it. . . . I say, now, I say, look at our host! There! what is he running to and fro like that for? Upon my word, he keeps looking at his watch, smiling, perspiring, putting on a solemn face, keeping us all starving for our dinner! Such a prodigy! a real court grandee! Look, look, he’s running again — bounding, positively, look!’
And Lupihin laughed shrilly.
‘The only pity is, there are no ladies,’ he resumed with a deep sigh; ‘it’s a bachelor party, else that’s when your humble servant gets on. Look, look,’ he cried suddenly: ‘Prince Kozelsky’s come — that tall man there, with a beard, in yellow gloves. You can see at once he’s been abroad . . . and he always arrives as late. He’s as heavy, I tell you, by himself, as a pair of merchant’s horses, and you should see how condescendingly he talks with your humble servant, how graciously he deigns to smile at the civilities of our starving mothers and daughters! . . . And he sometimes sets up for a wit, but he is only here for a little time; and oh, his witticisms! It’s for all the world like hacking at a ship’s cable with a blunt knife. He can’t bear me. . . . I’m going to bow to him.’
And Lupihin ran off to meet the prince.
‘And here comes my special enemy,’ he observed, turning all at once to me. ‘Do you see that fat man with the brown face and the bristles on his head, over there, that’s got his cap clutched in his hand, and is creeping along by the wall and glaring in all directions like a wolf? I sold him for 400 roubles a horse worth 1000, and that stupid animal has a perfect right now to despise me; though all the while he is so destitute of all faculty of imagination, especially in the morning before his tea, or after dinner, that if you say “Good morning!” to him, he’ll answer, “Is it?” ‘And here comes the general,’ pursued Lupihin, ‘the civilian general, a retired, destitute general. He has a daughter of beetroot-sugar, and a manufactory with scrofula. . . . Beg pardon, I’ve got it wrong . . . but there, you understand. Ah! and the architect’s turned up here! A German, and wears moustaches, and does not understand his business — a natural phenomenon! . . . though what need for him to understand his business so long as he takes bribes and sticks in pillars everywhere to suit the tastes of our pillars of society!’
Lupihin chuckled again. . . . But suddenly a wave of excitement passed over the whole house. The grandee had arrived. The host positively rushed into the hall. After him ran a few devoted members of the household and eager guests. . . . The noisy talk was transformed into a subdued pleasant chat, like the buzzing of bees in spring within their hives. Only the turbulent wasp, Lupihin, and the splendid drone, Kozelsky, did not subdue their voices. . . . And behold, at last, the queen! — the great dignitary entered. Hearts bounded to meet him, sitting bodies rose; even the gentleman who had bought a horse from Lupihin poked his chin into his chest. The great personage kept up his dignity in an inimitable manner; throwing his head back, as though he were bowing, he uttered a few words of approbation, of which each was prefaced by the syllable er, drawled through his nose; with a sort of devouring indignation he looked at Prince Kozelsky’s democratic beard, and gave the destitute general with the factory and the daughter the forefinger of his right hand. After a few minutes, in the course of which the dignitary had had time to observe twice that he was very glad he was not late for dinner, the whole company trooped into the dining-room, the swells first.
There is no need to describe to the reader how they put the great man in the most important place, between the civilian general and the marshal of the province, a man of an independent and dignified expression of face, in perfect keeping with his starched shirt-front, his expanse of waistcoat, and his round snuff-box full of French snuff; how our host bustled about, and ran up and down, fussing and pressing the guests to eat, smiling at the great man’s back in passing, and hurriedly snatching a plate of soup or a bit of bread in a corner like a schoolboy; how the butler brought in a fish more than a yard long, with a nosegay in its mouth; how the surly-looking foot-men in livery sullenly plied every gentleman, now with Malaga, now dry Madeira; and how almost all the gentlemen, particularly the more elderly ones, drank off glass after glass with an air of reluctantly resigning themselves to a sense of duty; and finally, how they began popping champagne bottles and proposing toasts: all that is probably only too well known to the reader. But what struck me as especially noteworthy was the anecdote told us by the great man himself amid a general delighted silence. Someone — I fancy it was the destitute general, a man familiar with modern literature — referred to the influence of women in general, and especially on young men. ‘Yes, yes,’ chimed in the great man, ‘that’s true; but young men ought to be kept in strict subjection, or else, very likely, they’ll go out of their senses over every petticoat.’ (A smile of child-like delight flitted over the faces of all the guests; positive gratitude could be seen in one gentleman’s eyes.) ‘For young men are idiots.’ (The great man, I suppose for the sake of greater impressiveness, sometimes changed the accepted accentuation of words.)
‘My son, Ivan, for instance,’ he went on; ‘the fool’s only just twenty — and all at once he comes to me and says: “Let me be married, father.” I told him he was a fool; told him he must go into the service first. . . . Well, there was despair — tears . . . but with me . . . no nonsense.’ (The words ‘no nonsense’ the great man seemed to enunciate more with his stomach than his lips; he paused and glanced majestically at his neighbour, the general, while he raised his eyebrows higher than any one could have expected. The civilian general nodded agreeably a little on one side, and with extraordinary rapidity winked with the eye turned to the great man.) ‘And what do you think?’ the great man began again: ‘now he writes to me himself, and thanks me for looking after him when he was a fool. . . . So that’s the way to act.’ All the guests, of course, were in complete agreement with the speaker, and seemed quite cheered up by the pleasure and instruction they derived from him. . . . After dinner, the whole party rose and moved into the drawing-room with a great deal of noise — decorous, however; and, as it were, licensed for the occasion. . . . They sat down to cards.
I got through the evening somehow, and charging my coachman to have my carriage ready at five o’clock next morning, I went to my room. But I was destined, in the course of that same day, to make the acquaintance of a remarkable man.
In consequence of the great number of guests staying in the house, no one had a bedroom to himself. In the small, greenish, damp room to which I was conducted by Alexandr Mihalitch’s butler, there was already another guest, quite undressed. On seeing me, he quickly ducked under the bed-clothes, covered himself up to the nose, turned a little on the soft feather-bed, and lay quiet, keeping a sharp look-out from under the round frill of his cotton night-cap. I went up to the other bed (there were only two in the room), undressed, and lay down in the damp sheets. My neighbour turned over in bed. . . . I wished him good-night.
Half-an-hour went by. In spite of all my efforts, I could not get to sleep: aimless and vague thoughts kept persistently and monotonously dragging one after another on an endless chain, like the buckets of a hydraulic machine.
‘You’re not asleep, I fancy?’ observed my neighbour.
‘No, as you see,’ I answered. ‘And you’re not sleepy either, are you?’
‘I’m never sleepy.’
‘Oh! I go to sleep — I don’t know what for. I lie in bed, and lie in bed, and so get to sleep.’
‘Why do you go to bed before you feel sleepy?’
‘Why, what would you have me do?’
I made no answer to my neighbour’s question.
‘I wonder,’ he went on, after a brief silence, ‘how it is there are no fleas here? Where should there be fleas if not here, one wonders?’
‘You seem to regret them,’ I remarked.
‘No, I don’t regret them; but I like everything to be consecutive.’
‘O-ho!’ thought I; ‘what words he uses.’
My neighbour was silent again.
‘Would you like to make a bet with me?’ he said again, rather loudly.
I began to be amused by him.
‘Hm . . . what about? Why, about this: I’m certain you take me for a fool.’
‘Really,’ I muttered, astounded.
‘For an ignoramus, for a rustic of the steppes. . . . Confess. . . . ’
‘I haven’t the pleasure of knowing you,’ I responded. ‘What can make you infer? . . . ’
‘Why, the sound of your voice is enough; you answer me so carelessly. . . . But I’m not at all what you suppose. . . . ’
‘Allow me. . . . ’
‘No, you allow me. In the first place, I speak French as well as you, and German even better; secondly, I have spent three years abroad — in Berlin alone I lived eight months. I’ve studied Hegel, honoured sir; I know Goethe by heart: add to that, I was a long while in love with a German professor’s daughter, and was married at home to a consumptive lady, who was bald, but a remarkable personality. So I’m a bird of your feather; I’m not a barbarian of the steppes, as you imagine. . . . I too have been bitten by reflection, and there’s nothing obvious about me.’
I raised my head and looked with redoubled attention at the queer fellow. By the dim light of the night-lamp I could hardly distinguish his features.
‘There, you’re looking at me now,’ he went on, setting his night-cap straight, ‘and probably you’re asking yourself, “How is it I didn’t notice him to-day?” I’ll tell you why you didn’t notice me: because I didn’t raise my voice; because I get behind other people, hang about doorways, and talk to no one; because, when the butler passes me with a tray, he raises his elbow to the level of my shoulder. . . . And how is it all that comes about? From two causes: first, I’m poor; and secondly, I’ve grown humble. . . . Tell the truth, you didn’t notice me, did you?’
‘Certainly, I’ve not had the pleasure. . . . ’
‘There, there,’ he interrupted me, ‘I knew that.’
He raised himself and folded his arms; the long shadow of his cap was bent from the wall to the ceiling.
‘And confess, now,’ he added, with a sudden sideway glance at me; ‘I must strike you as a queer fellow, an original, as they say, or possibly as something worse: perhaps you think I affect to be original!’
‘I must repeat again that I don’t know you. . . . ’
He looked down an instant.
‘Why have I begun talking so unexpectedly to you, a man utterly a stranger? — the Lord, the Lord only knows!’ (He sighed.) ‘Not through the natural affinity of our souls! Both you and I are respectable people, that’s to say, egoists: neither of us has the least concern with the other; isn’t it so? But we are neither of us sleepy . . . so why not chat? I’m in the mood, and that’s rare with me. I’m shy, do you see? and not shy because I’m a provincial, of no rank and poor, but because I’m a fearfully vain person. But at times, under favourable circumstances, occasions which I could not, however, particularise nor foresee, my shyness vanishes completely, as at this moment, for instance. At this moment you might set me face to face with the Grand Lama, and I’d ask him for a pinch of snuff. But perhaps you want to go to sleep?’
‘Quite the contrary,’ I hastened to respond; ‘it is a pleasure for me to talk to you.’
‘That is, I amuse you, you mean to say. . . . All the better. . . . And so, I tell you, they call me here an original; that’s what they call me when my name is casually mentioned, among other gossip. No one is much concerned about my fate. . . . They think it wounds me. . . . Oh, good Lord! if they only knew . . . it’s just what’s my ruin, that there is absolutely nothing original in me — nothing, except such freaks as, for instance, my conversation at this moment with you; but such freaks are not worth a brass farthing. That’s the cheapest and lowest sort of originality.’
He turned facing me, and waved his hands.
‘Honoured sir!’ he cried, ‘I am of the opinion that life on earth’s only worth living, as a rule, for original people; it’s only they who have a right to live. Man verre n’est pas grand, maisje bois dans mon verre, said someone. Do you see,’ he added in an undertone, ‘how well I pronounce French? What is it to one if one’s a capacious brain, and understands everything, and knows a lot, and keeps pace with the age, if one’s nothing of one’s own, of oneself! One more storehouse for hackneyed commonplaces in the world; and what good does that do to anyone? No, better be stupid even, but in one’s own way! One should have a flavour of one’s own, one’s individual flavour; that’s the thing! And don’t suppose that I am very exacting as to that flavour. . . . God forbid! There are no end of original people of the sort I mean: look where you will — there’s an original: every live man is an original; but I am not to be reckoned among them!’
‘And yet,’ he went on, after a brief silence, ‘in my youth what expectations I aroused! What a high opinion I cherished of my own individuality before I went abroad, and even, at first, after my return! Well, abroad I kept my ears open, held aloof from everyone, as befits a man like me, who is always seeing through things by himself, and at the end has not understood the A B C!’
‘An original, an original!’ he hurried on, shaking his head reproachfully. . . . ’ They call me an original. . . . In reality, it turns out that there’s not a man in the world less original than your humble servant. I must have been born even in imitation of someone else. . . . Oh, dear! It seems I am living, too, in imitation of the various authors studied by me; in the sweat of my brow I live: and I’ve studied, and fallen in love, and married, in fact, as it were, not through my own will — as it were, fulfilling some sort of duty, or sort of fate — who’s to make it out?’
He tore the nightcap off his head and flung it on the bed.
‘Would you like me to tell you the story of my life?’ he asked me in an abrupt voice; ‘or, rather, a few incidents of my life?’
‘Please do me the favour.’
‘Or, no, I’d better tell you how I got married. You see marriage is an important thing, the touchstone that tests the whole man: in it, as in a glass, is reflected. . . . But that sounds too hackneyed. . . . If you’ll allow me, I’ll take a pinch of snuff.’
He pulled a snuff-box from under his pillow, opened it, and began again, waving the open snuff-box about.
‘Put yourself, honoured sir, in my place. . . . Judge for yourself, what, now what, tell me as a favour: what benefit could I derive from the encyclopaedia of Hegel? What is there in common, tell me, between that encyclopaedia and Russian life? and how would you advise me to apply it to our life, and not it, the encyclopaedia only, but German philosophy in general. . . . I will say more — science itself?’
He gave a bound on the bed and muttered to himself, gnashing his teeth angrily.
‘Ah, that’s it, that’s it! . . . Then why did you go trailing off abroad? Why didn’t you stay at home and study the life surrounding you on the spot? You might have found out its needs and its future, and have come to a clear comprehension of your vocation, so to say. . . . But, upon my word,’ he went on, changing his tone again as though timidly justifying himself, ‘where is one to study what no sage has yet inscribed in any book? I should have been glad indeed to take lessons of her — of Russian life, I mean — but she’s dumb, the poor dear. You must take her as she is; but that’s beyond my power: you must give me the inference; you must present me with a conclusion. Here you have a conclusion too: listen to our wise men of Moscow — they’re a set of nightingales worth listening to, aren’t they? Yes, that’s the pity of it, that they pipe away like Kursk nightingales, instead of talking as the people talk. . . . Well, I thought, and thought —“Science, to be sure,” I thought, “is everywhere the same, and truth is the same”— so I was up and off, in God’s name, to foreign parts, to the heathen. . . . What would you have? I was infatuated with youth and conceit; I didn’t want, you know, to get fat before my time, though they say it’s healthy. Though, indeed, if nature doesn’t put the flesh on your bones, you won’t see much fat on your body!’
‘But I fancy,’ he added, after a moment’s thought, ‘I promised to tell you how I got married — listen. First, I must tell you that my wife is no longer living; secondly . . . secondly, I see I must give you some account of my youth, or else you won’t be able to make anything out of it. . . . But don’t you want to go to sleep?’
‘No, I’m not sleepy.’
‘That’s good news. Hark! . . . how vulgarly Mr. Kantagryuhin is snoring in the next room! I was the son of parents of small property — I say parents, because, according to tradition, I had once had a father as well as a mother, I don’t remember him: he was a narrow-minded man, I’ve been told, with a big nose, freckles, and red hair; he used to take snuff on one side of his nose only; his portrait used to hang in my mother’s bedroom, and very hideous he was in a red uniform with a black collar up to his ears. They used to take me to be whipped before him, and my mother used always on such occasions to point to him, saying, “He would give it to you much more if he were here.” You can imagine what an encouraging effect that had on me. I had no brother nor sister — that’s to say, speaking accurately, I had once had a brother knocking about, with the English disease in his neck, but he soon died. . . . And why ever, one wonders, should the English disease make its way to the Shtchigri district of the province of Kursk? But that’s neither here nor there. My mother undertook my education with all the vigorous zeal of a country lady of the steppes: she undertook it from the solemn day of my birth till the time when my sixteenth year had come. . . . You are following my story?’
‘Yes, please go on.’
‘All right. Well, when I was sixteen, my mother promptly dismissed my teacher of French, a German, Filipóvitch, from the Greek settlement of Nyezhin. She conducted me to Moscow, put down my name for the university, and gave up her soul to the Almighty, leaving me in the hands of my uncle, the attorney Koltun-Babur, one of a sort well-known not only in the Shtchigri district. My uncle, the attorney Koltun-Babur, plundered me to the last half-penny, after the custom of guardians. . . . But again that’s neither here nor there. I entered the university — I must do so much justice to my mother — rather well grounded; but my lack of originality was even then apparent. My childhood was in no way distinguished from the childhood of other boys; I grew up just as languidly and dully — much as if I were under a feather-bed — just as early I began repeating poetry by heart and moping under the pretence of a dreamy inclination . . . for what? — why, for the beautiful . . . and so on. In the university I went on in the same way; I promptly got into a “circle.” Times were different then. . . . But you don’t know, perhaps, what sort of thing a student’s “circle” is? I remember Schiller said somewhere:
Gefährlich ist’s den Leu zu wecken
Und schrecklich ist des Tigers Zahn,
Doch das schrecklichste der Schrecken
Das ist der Mensch in seinem Wahn!
He didn’t mean that, I can assure you; he meant to say: Das ist ein circle in der Stadt Moskau!’
‘But what do you find so awful in the circle?’ I asked.
My neighbour snatched his cap and pulled it down on to his nose.
‘What do I find so awful?’ he shouted. ‘Why, this: the circle is the destruction of all independent development; the circle is a hideous substitute for society, woman, life; the circle . . . oh, wait a bit, I’ll tell you what a circle is! A circle is a slothful, dull living side by side in common, to which is attached a serious significance and a show of rational activity; the circle replaces conversation by debate, trains you in fruitless discussion, draws you away from solitary, useful labour, develops in you the itch for authorship — deprives you, in fact, of all freshness and virgin vigour of soul. The circle — why, it’s vulgarity and boredom under the name of brotherhood and friendship! a concatenation of misunderstandings and cavillings under the pretence of openness and sympathy: in the circle — thanks to the right of every friend, at all hours and seasons, to poke his unwashed fingers into the very inmost soul of his comrade — no one has a single spot in his soul pure and undefiled; in the circle they fall down before the shallow, vain, smart talker and the premature wise-acre, and worship the rhymester with no poetic gift, but full of “subtle” ideas; in the circle young lads of seventeen talk glibly and learnedly of women and of love, while in the presence of women they are dumb or talk to them like a book — and what do they talk about? The circle is the hot-bed of glib fluency; in the circle they spy on one another like so many police officials. . . . Oh, circle! thou’rt not a circle, but an enchanted ring, which has been the ruin of many a decent fellow!’
‘Come, you’re exaggerating, allow me to observe,’ I broke in.
My neighbour looked at me in silence.
‘Perhaps, God knows, perhaps. But, you see, there’s only one pleasure left your humble servant, and that’s exaggeration — well, that was the way I spent four years in Moscow. I can’t tell you, my dear sir, how quickly, how fearfully quickly, that time passed; it’s positively painful and vexatious to remember. Some mornings one gets up, and it’s like sliding downhill on little sledges. . . . Before one can look round, one’s flown to the bottom; it’s evening already, and already the sleepy servant is pulling on one’s coat; one dresses, and trails off to a friend, and may be smokes a pipe, drinks weak tea in glasses, and discusses German philosophy, love, the eternal sunshine of the spirit, and other far-fetched topics. But even there I met original, independent people: however some men stultify themselves and warp themselves out of shape, still nature asserts itself; I alone, poor wretch, moulded myself like soft wax, and my pitiful little nature never made the faintest resistance! Meantime I had reached my twenty-first year. I came into possession of my inheritance, or, more correctly speaking, that part of my inheritance which my guardian had thought fit to leave me, gave a freed house-serf Vassily Kudryashev a warranty to superintend all my patrimony, and set off abroad to Berlin. I was abroad, as I have already had the pleasure of telling you, three years. Well. There too, abroad too, I remained the same unoriginal creature. In the first place, I need not say that of Europe, of European life, I really learnt nothing. I listened to German professors and read German books on their birthplace: that was all the difference. I led as solitary a life as any monk; I got on good terms with a retired lieutenant, weighed down, like myself, by a thirst for knowledge but always dull of comprehension, and not gifted with a flow of words; I made friends with slow-witted families from Penza and other agricultural provinces, hung about cafés, read the papers, in the evening went to the theatre. With the natives I associated very little; I talked to them with constraint, and never had one of them to see me at my own place, except two or three intrusive fellows of Jewish extraction, who were constantly running in upon me and borrowing money — thanks to der Russe’s gullibility. A strange freak of chance brought me at last to the house of one of my professors. It was like this: I came to him to enter my name for a course of lectures, and he, all of a sudden, invited me to an evening party at his house. This professor had two daughters, of twenty-seven, such stumpy little things — God bless them! — with such majestic noses, frizzed curls and pale-blue eyes, and red hands with white nails. One was called Linchen and the other Minchen. I began to go to the professor’s. I ought to tell you that the professor was not exactly stupid, but seemed, as it were, dazed: in his professorial desk he spoke fairly consecutively, but at home he lisped, and always had his spectacles on his forehead — he was a very learned man, though. Well, suddenly it seemed to me that I was in love with Linchen, and for six whole months this impression remained. I talked to her, it’s true, very little — it was more that I looked at her; but I used to read various touching passages aloud to her, to press her hand on the sly, and to dream beside her in the evenings, gazing persistently at the moon, or else simply up aloft. Besides, she made such delicious coffee! One asks oneself — what more could one desire? Only one thing troubled me: at the very moments of ineffable bliss, as it’s called, I always had a sort of sinking in the pit of the stomach, and a cold shudder ran down my back. At last I could not stand such happiness, and ran away. Two whole years after that I was abroad: I went to Italy, stood before the Transfiguration in Rome, and before the Venus in Florence, and suddenly fell into exaggerated raptures, as though an attack of delirium had come upon me; in the evenings I wrote verses, began a diary; in fact, there too I behaved just like everyone else. And just mark how easy it is to be original! I take no interest, for instance, in painting and sculpture. . . . But simply saying so aloud . . . no, it was impossible! I must needs take a cicerone, and run to gaze at the frescoes.’ . . .
He looked down again, and again pulled off his nightcap.
‘Well, I came back to my own country at last,’ he went on in a weary voice. ‘I went to Moscow. In Moscow a marvellous transformation took place in me. Abroad I was mostly silent, but now suddenly I began to talk with unexpected smartness, and at the same time I began to conceive all sorts of ideas of myself. There were kindly disposed persons to be found, to whom I seemed all but a genius; ladies listened sympathetically to my diatribes; but I was not able to keep on the summit of my glory. One fine morning a slander sprang up about me (who had originated it, I don’t know; it must have been some old maid of the male sex — there are any number of such old maids in Moscow); it sprang up and began to throw off outshoots and tendrils like a strawberry plant. I was abashed, tried to get out of it, to break through its clinging toils — that was no good. . . . I went away. Well, in that too I showed that I was an absurd person; I ought to have calmly waited for the storm to blow over, just as one waits for the end of nettle-rash, and the same kindly-disposed persons would have opened their arms to me again, the same ladies would have smiled approvingly again at my remarks. . . . But what’s wrong is just that I’m not an original person. Conscientious scruples, please to observe, had been stirred up in me; I was somehow ashamed of talk, talk without ceasing, nothing but talk — yesterday in Arbat, to-day in Truba, to-morrow in Sivtsevy-Vrazhky, and all about the same thing. . . . But if that is what people want of me? Look at the really successful men in that line: they don’t ask its use; on the contrary, it’s all they need; some will keep their tongues wagging twenty years together, and always in one direction. . . . That’s what comes of self-confidence and conceit! I had that too, conceit — indeed, even now it’s not altogether stifled. . . . But what was wrong was that — I say again, I’m not an original person — I stopped midway: nature ought to have given me far more conceit or none at all. But at first I felt the change a very hard one; moreover, my stay abroad too had utterly drained my resources, while I was not disposed to marry a merchant’s daughter, young, but flabby as a jelly, so I retired to my country place. I fancy,’ added my neighbour, with another glance sideways at me, ‘I may pass over in silence the first impressions of country life, references to the beauty of nature, the gentle charm of solitude, etc.’
‘You can, indeed,’ I put in.
‘All the more,’ he continued, ‘as all that’s nonsense; at least, as far as I’m concerned. I was as bored in the country as a puppy locked up, though I will own that on my journey home, when I passed through the familiar birchwood in spring for the first time, my head was in a whirl and my heart beat with a vague, sweet expectation. But these vague expectations, as you’re well aware, never come to pass; on the other hand, very different things do come to pass, which you don’t at all expect, such as cattle disease, arrears, sales by auction, and so on, and so on. I managed to make a shift from day to day with the aid of my agent, Yakov, who replaced the former superintendent, and turned out in the course of time to be as great, if not a greater robber, and over and above that poisoned my existence by the smell of his tarred boots; suddenly one day I remembered a family I knew in the neighbourhood, consisting of the widow of a retired colonel and her two daughters, ordered out my droshky, and set off to see them. That day must always be a memorable one for me; six months later I was married to the retired colonel’s second daughter! . . . ’
The speaker dropped his head, and lifted his hands to heaven.
‘And now,’ he went on warmly, ‘I couldn’t bear to give you an unfavourable opinion of my late wife. Heaven forbid! She was the most generous, sweetest creature, a loving nature capable of any sacrifice, though I must between ourselves confess that if I had not had the misfortune to lose her, I should probably not be in a position to be talking to you to-day; since the beam is still there in my barn, to which I repeatedly made up my mind to hang myself!’
‘Some pears,’ he began again, after a brief pause, ‘need to lie in an underground cellar for a time, to come, as they say, to their real flavour; my wife, it seems, belonged to a similar order of nature’s works. It’s only now that I do her complete justice. It’s only now, for instance, that memories of some evenings I spent with her before marriage no longer awaken the slightest bitterness, but move me almost to tears. They were not rich people; their house was very old-fashioned and built of wood, but comfortable; it stood on a hill between an overgrown courtyard and a garden run wild. At the bottom of the hill ran a river, which could just be seen through the thick leaves. A wide terrace led from the house to the garden; before the terrace flaunted a long flower-bed, covered with roses; at each end of the flower-bed grew two acacias, which had been trained to grow into the shape of a screw by its late owner. A little farther, in the very midst of a thicket of neglected and overgrown raspberries, stood an arbour, smartly painted within, but so old and tumble-down outside that it was depressing to look at it. A glass door led from the terrace into the drawing-room; in the drawing-room this was what met the eye of the inquisitive spectator: in the various corners stoves of Dutch tiles, a squeaky piano to the right, piled with manuscript music, a sofa, covered with faded blue material with a whitish pattern, a round table, two what-nots of china and glass, knicknacks of the Catherine period; on the wall the well-known picture of a flaxen-haired girl with a dove on her breast and eyes turned upwards; on the table a vase of fresh roses. You see how minutely I describe it. In that drawing-room, on that terrace, was rehearsed all the tragi-comedy of my love. The colonel’s wife herself was an ill-natured old dame, whose voice was always hoarse with spite — a petty, snappish creature. Of the daughters, one, Vera, did not differ in any respect from the common run of young ladies of the provinces; the other, Sofya, I fell in love with. The two sisters had another little room too, their common bedroom, with two innocent little wooden bedsteads, yellowish albums, mignonette, portraits of friends sketched in pencil rather badly (among them was one gentleman with an exceptionally vigorous expression of face and a still more vigorous signature, who had in his youth raised disproportionate expectations, but had come, like all of us, to nothing), with busts of Goethe and Schiller, German books, dried wreaths, and other objects, kept as souvenirs. But that room I rarely and reluctantly entered; I felt stifled there somehow. And, too, strange to say, I liked Sofya best of all when I was sitting with my back to her, or still more, perhaps, when I was thinking or dreaming about her in the evening on the terrace. At such times I used to gaze at the sunset, at the trees, at the tiny leaves, already in darkness, but standing out sharply against the rosy sky; in the drawing-room Sofya sat at the piano continually playing over and over again some favourite, passionately pathetic phrase from Beethoven; the ill-natured old lady snored peacefully, sitting on the sofa; in the dining-room, which was flooded by a glow of lurid light, Vera was bustling about getting tea; the samovar hissed merrily as though it were pleased at something; the cracknels snapped with a pleasant crispness, and the spoons tinkled against the cups; the canary, which trilled mercilessly all day, was suddenly still, and only chirruped from time to time, as though asking for something; from a light transparent cloud there fell a few passing drops of rain. . . . And I would sit and sit, listen, listen, and look, my heart would expand, and again it seemed to me that I was in love. Well, under the influence of such an evening, I one day asked the old lady for her daughter’s hand, and two months later I was married. It seemed to me that I loved her. . . . By now, indeed, it’s time I should know, but, by God, even now I don’t know whether I loved Sofya. She was a sweet creature, clever, silent, and warm-hearted, but God only knows from what cause, whether from living too long in the country, or for some other reason, there was at the bottom of her heart (if only there is a bottom to the heart) a secret wound, or, to put it better, a little open sore which nothing could heal, to which neither she nor I could give a name. Of the existence of this sore, of course, I only guessed after marriage. The struggles I had over it . . . nothing availed! When I was a child I had a little bird, which had once been caught by the cat in its claws; it was saved and tended, but the poor bird never got right; it moped, it pined, it ceased to sing. . . . It ended by a cat getting into its open cage one night and biting off its beak, after which it made up its mind at last to die. I don’t know what cat had caught my wife in its claws, but she too moped and pined just like my unlucky bird. Sometimes she obviously made an effort to shake herself, to rejoice in the open air, in the sunshine and freedom; she would try, and shrink up into herself again. And, you know she loved me; how many times has she assured me that she had nothing left to wish for? — oof! damn my soul! and the light was fading out of her eyes all the while. I wondered whether there hadn’t been something in her past. I made investigations: there was nothing forthcoming. Well, you may form your own judgment; an original man would have shrugged his shoulders and heaved a sigh or two, perhaps, and would have proceeded to live his own life; but I, not being an original creature, began to contemplate a beam and halter. My wife was so thoroughly permeated by all the habits of an old maid — Beethoven, evening walks, mignonette, corresponding with her friends, albums, et cetera — that she never could accustom herself to any other mode of life, especially to the life of the mistress of a house; and yet it seemed absurd for a married woman to be pining in vague melancholy and singing in the evening: “Waken her not at the dawn!”
‘Well, we were blissful after that fashion for three years; in the fourth, Sofya died in her first confinement, and, strange to say, I had felt, as it were, beforehand that she would not be capable of giving me a daughter or a son — of giving the earth a new inhabitant. I remember how they buried her. It was in the spring. Our parish church was small and old, the screen was blackened, the walls bare, the brick floor worn into hollows in parts; there was a big, old-fashioned holy picture in each half of the choir. They brought in the coffin, placed it in the middle before the holy gates, covered it with a faded pall, set three candlesticks about it. The service commenced. A decrepit deacon, with a little shock of hair behind, belted low down with a green kerchief, was mournfully mumbling before a reading-desk; a priest, also an old man, with a kindly, purblind face, in a lilac cassock with yellow flowers on it, served the mass for himself and the deacon. At all the open windows the fresh young leaves were stirring and whispering, and the smell of the grass rose from the churchyard outside; the red flame of the wax-candles paled in the bright light of the spring day; the sparrows were twittering all over the church, and every now and then there came the ringing cry of a swallow flying in under the cupola. In the golden motes of the sunbeams the brown heads of the few peasants kept rising and dropping down again as they prayed earnestly for the dead; in a thin bluish stream the smoke issued from the holes of the censer. I looked at the dead face of my wife. . . . My God! even death — death itself — had not set her free, had not healed her wound: the same sickly, timid, dumb look, as though, even in her coffin, she were ill at ease. . . . My heart was filled with bitterness. A sweet, sweet creature she was, and she did well for herself to die!’
The speaker’s cheeks flushed, and his eyes grew dim.
‘When at last,’ he began again, ‘I emerged from the deep depression which overwhelmed me after my wife’s death, I resolved to devote myself, as it is called, to work. I went into a government office in the capital of the province; but in the great apartments of the government institution my head ached, and my eyesight too began to fail: other incidental causes came in. . . . I retired. I had thought of going on a visit to Moscow, but, in the first place, I hadn’t the money, and secondly . . . I’ve told you already: I’m resigned. This resignation came upon me both suddenly and not suddenly. In spirit I had long ago resigned myself, but my brain was still unwilling to accept the yoke. I ascribed my humble temper and ideas to the influence of country life and happiness! . . . On the other side, I had long observed that all my neighbours, young and old alike, who had been frightened at first by my learning, my residence abroad, and my other advantages of education, had not only had time to get completely used to me, but had even begun to treat me half-rudely, half-contemptuously, did not listen to my observations, and, in talking to me, no longer made use of superfluous signs of respect. I forgot to tell you, too, that during the first year after my marriage, I had tried to launch into literature, and even sent a thing to a journal — a story, if I’m not mistaken; but in a little time I received a polite letter from the editor, in which, among other things, I was told that he could not deny I had intelligence, but he was obliged to say I had no talent, and talent alone was what was needed in literature. To add to this, it came to my knowledge that a young man, on a visit from Moscow — a most good-natured youth too — had referred to me at an evening party at the governor’s as a shallow person, antiquated and behind the times. But my half-wilful blindness still persisted: I was unwilling to give myself a slap in the face, you know; at last, one fine morning, my eyes were opened. This was how it happened. The district captain of police came to see me, with the object of calling my attention to a tumble-down bridge on my property, which I had absolutely no money to repair. After consuming a glass of vodka and a snack of dried fish, this condescending guardian of order reproached me in a paternal way for my heedlessness, sympathising, however, with my position, and only advising me to order my peasants to patch up the bridge with some rubbish; he lighted a pipe, and began talking of the coming elections. A candidate for the honourable post of marshal of the province was at that time one Orbassanov, a noisy, shallow fellow, who took bribes into the bargain. Besides, he was not distinguished either for wealth or for family. I expressed my opinion with regard to him, and rather casually too: I regarded Mr. Orbassanov, I must own, as beneath my level. The police-captain looked at me, patted me amicably on the shoulder, and said good-naturedly: “Come, come, Vassily Vassilyevitch, it’s not for you and me to criticise men like that — how are we qualified to? Let the shoemaker stick to his last.” “But, upon my word,” I retorted with annoyance, “whatever difference is there between me and Mr. Orbassanov?” The police-captain took his pipe out of his mouth, opened his eyes wide, and fairly roared. “Well, you’re an amusing chap,” he observed at last, while the tears ran down his cheeks: “what a joke to make! . . . Ah! you are a funny fellow!” And till his departure he never ceased jeering at me, now and then giving me a poke in the ribs with his elbow, and addressing me by my Christian name. He went away at last. This was enough: it was the last drop, and my cup was overflowing. I paced several times up and down the room, stood still before the looking-glass and gazed a long, long while at my embarrassed countenance, and deliberately putting out my tongue, I shook my head with a bitter smile. The scales fell from my eyes: I saw clearly, more clearly than I saw my face in the glass, what a shallow, insignificant, worthless, unoriginal person I was!’
‘In one of Voltaire’s tragedies,’ he went on wearily, ‘there is some worthy who rejoices that he has reached the furthest limit of unhappiness. Though there is nothing tragic in my fate, I will admit I have experienced something of that sort. I have known the bitter transports of cold despair; I have felt how sweet it is, lying in bed, to curse deliberately for a whole morning together the hour and day of my birth. I could not resign myself all at once. And indeed, think of it yourself: I was kept by impecuniosity in the country, which I hated; I was not fitted for managing my land, nor for the public service, nor for literature, nor anything; my neighbours I didn’t care for, and books I loathed; as for the mawkish and morbidly sentimental young ladies who shake their curls and feverishly harp on the word “life,” I had ceased to have any attraction for them ever since I gave up ranting and gushing; complete solitude I could not face. . . . I began — what do you suppose? — I began hanging about, visiting my neighbours. As though drunk with self-contempt, I purposely exposed myself to all sorts of petty slights. I was missed over in serving at table; I was met with supercilious coldness, and at last was not noticed at all; I was not even allowed to take part in general conversation, and from my corner I myself used purposely to back up some stupid talker who in those days at Moscow would have ecstatically licked the dust off my feet, and kissed the hem of my cloak. . . . I did not even allow myself to believe that I was enjoying the bitter satisfaction of irony. . . . What sort of irony, indeed, can a man enjoy in solitude? Well, so I have behaved for some years on end, and so I behave now.’
‘Really, this is beyond everything,’ grumbled the sleepy voice of Mr. Kantagryuhin from the next room: ‘what fool is it that has taken a fancy to talk all night?’
The speaker promptly ducked under the clothes and peeping out timidly, held up his finger to me warningly,
‘Sh — sh —!’ he whispered; and, as it were, bowing apologetically in the direction of Kantagryuhin’s voice, he said respectfully: ‘I obey, sir, I obey; I beg your pardon. . . . It’s permissible for him to sleep; he ought to sleep,’ he went on again in a whisper: ‘he must recruit his energies — well, if only to eat his dinner with the same relish to-morrow. We have no right to disturb him. Besides, I think I’ve told you all I wanted to; probably you’re sleepy too. I wish you good-night.’
He turned away with feverish rapidity and buried his head in the pillow.
‘Let me at least know,’ I asked, ‘with whom I have had the pleasure. . . . ’
He raised his head quickly.
‘No, for mercy’s sake!’ he cut me short, ‘don’t inquire my name either of me or of others. Let me remain to you an unknown being, crushed by fate, Vassily Vassilyevitch. Besides, as an unoriginal person, I don’t deserve an individual name. . . . But if you really want to give me some title, call me . . . call me the Hamlet of the Shtchigri district. There are many such Hamlets in every district, but perhaps you haven’t come across others. . . . After which, good-bye.’
He buried himself again in his feather-bed, and the next morning, when they came to wake me, he was no longer in the room. He had left before daylight.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01