The Idiot/Part III/Chapter V

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The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Eva Martin
Part III/Chapter V

HIPPOLYTE, who had fallen asleep during Lebedeff's discourse, now suddenly woke up, just as though someone had jogged him in the side. He shuddered, raised himself on his arm, gazed around, and grew very pale. A look almost of terror crossed his face as he recollected.

"What! are they all off? Is it all over? Is the sun up?" He trembled, and caught at the prince's hand. "What time is it? Tell me, quick, for goodness' sake! How long have I slept?" he added, almost in despair, just as though he had overslept something upon which his whole fate depended.

"You have slept seven or perhaps eight minutes," said Evgenie Pavlovitch.

Hippolyte gazed eagerly at the latter, and mused for a few moments.

"Oh, is that all?" he said at last. "Then I—"

He drew a long, deep breath of relief, as it seemed. He realized that all was not over as yet, that the sun had not risen, and that the guests had merely gone to supper. He smiled, and two hectic spots appeared on his cheeks.

"So you counted the minutes while I slept, did you, Evgenie Pavlovitch?" he said, ironically. "You have not taken your eyes off me all the evening—I have noticed that much, you see! Ah, Rogojin! I've just been dreaming about him, prince," he added, frowning. "Yes, by the by," starting up, "where's the orator? Where's Lebedeff? Has he finished? What did he talk about? Is it true, prince, that you once declared that 'beauty would save the world'? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he's in love! Gentlemen, the prince is in love. I guessed it the moment he came in. Don't blush, prince; you make me sorry for you. What beauty saves the world? Colia told me that you are a zealous Christian; is it so? Colia says you call yourself a Christian."

The prince regarded him attentively, but said nothing.

"You don't answer me; perhaps you think I am very fond of you?" added Hippolyte, as though the words had been drawn from him.

"No, I don't think that. I know you don't love me."

"What, after yesterday? Wasn't I honest with you?"

"I knew yesterday that you didn't love me."

"Why so? why so? Because I envy you, eh? You always think that, I know. But do you know why I am saying all this? Look here! I must have some more champagne—pour me out some, Keller, will you?"

"No, you're not to drink any more, Hippolyte. I won't let you." The prince moved the glass away.

"Well perhaps you're right," said Hippolyte, musing. They might say—yet, devil take them! what does it matter?—prince, what can it matter what people will say of us THEN, eh? I believe I'm half asleep. I've had such a dreadful dream—I've only just remembered it. Prince, I don't wish you such dreams as that, though sure enough, perhaps, I DON'T love you. Why wish a man evil, though you do not love him, eh? Give me your hand—let me press it sincerely. There—you've given me your hand—you must feel that I DO press it sincerely, don't you? I don't think I shall drink any more. What time is it? Never mind, I know the time. The time has come, at all events. What! they are laying supper over there, are they? Then this table is free? Capital, gentlemen! I—hem! these gentlemen are not listening. Prince, I will just read over an article I have here. Supper is more interesting, of course, but—"

Here Hippolyte suddenly, and most unexpectedly, pulled out of his breast-pocket a large sealed paper. This imposing-looking document he placed upon the table before him.

The effect of this sudden action upon the company was instantaneous. Evgenie Pavlovitch almost bounded off his chair in excitement. Rogojin drew nearer to the table with a look on his face as if he knew what was coming. Gania came nearer too; so did Lebedeff and the others—the paper seemed to be an object of great interest to the company in general.

"What have you got there?" asked the prince, with some anxiety.

"At the first glimpse of the rising sun, prince, I will go to bed. I told you I would, word of honour! You shall see!" cried Hippolyte. "You think I'm not capable of opening this packet, do you?" He glared defiantly round at the audience in general.

The prince observed that he was trembling all over.

"None of us ever thought such a thing!" Muishkin replied for all. "Why should you suppose it of us? And what are you going to read, Hippolyte? What is it?"

"Yes, what is it?" asked others. The packet sealed with red wax seemed to attract everyone, as though it were a magnet.

"I wrote this yesterday, myself, just after I saw you, prince, and told you I would come down here. I wrote all day and all night, and finished it this morning early. Afterwards I had a dream."

"Hadn't we better hear it tomorrow?" asked the prince timidly.

"Tomorrow 'there will be no more time!'" laughed Hippolyte, hysterically. "You needn't be afraid; I shall get through the whole thing in forty minutes, at most an hour! Look how interested everybody is! Everybody has drawn near. Look! look at them all staring at my sealed packet! If I hadn't sealed it up it wouldn't have been half so effective! Ha, ha! that's mystery, that is! Now then, gentlemen, shall I break the seal or not? Say the word; it's a mystery, I tell you—a secret! Prince, you know who said there would be 'no more time'? It was the great and powerful angel in the Apocalypse."

"Better not read it now," said the prince, putting his hand on the packet.

"No, don't read it!" cried Evgenie suddenly. He appeared so strangely disturbed that many of those present could not help wondering.

"Reading? None of your reading now!" said somebody; "it's supper-time." "What sort of an article is it? For a paper? Probably it's very dull," said another. But the prince's timid gesture had impressed even Hippolyte.

"Then I'm not to read it?" he whispered, nervously. "Am I not to read it?" he repeated, gazing around at each face in turn. "What are you afraid of, prince?" he turned and asked the latter suddenly.

"What should I be afraid of?"

"Has anyone a coin about them? Give me a twenty-copeck piece, somebody!" And Hippolyte leapt from his chair.

"Here you are," said Lebedeff, handing him one; he thought the boy had gone mad.

"Vera Lukianovna," said Hippolyte, "toss it, will you? Heads, I read, tails, I don't."

Vera Lebedeff tossed the coin into the air and let it fall on the table.

It was "heads."

"Then I read it," said Hippolyte, in the tone of one bowing to the fiat of destiny. He could not have grown paler if a verdict of death had suddenly been presented to him.

"But after all, what is it? Is it possible that I should have just risked my fate by tossing up?" he went on, shuddering; and looked round him again. His eyes had a curious expression of sincerity. "That is an astonishing psychological fact," he cried, suddenly addressing the prince, in a tone of the most intense surprise. "It is ... it is something quite inconceivable, prince," he repeated with growing animation, like a man regaining consciousness. "Take note of it, prince, remember it; you collect, I am told, facts concerning capital punishment... They told me so. Ha, ha! My God, how absurd!" He sat down on the sofa, put his elbows on the table, and laid his head on his hands. "It is shameful—though what does it matter to me if it is shameful?

"Gentlemen, gentlemen! I am about to break the seal," he continued, with determination. "I-I—of course I don't insist upon anyone listening if they do not wish to."

With trembling fingers he broke the seal and drew out several sheets of paper, smoothed them out before him, and began sorting them.

"What on earth does all this mean? What's he going to read?" muttered several voices. Others said nothing; but one and all sat down and watched with curiosity. They began to think something strange might really be about to happen. Vera stood and trembled behind her father's chair, almost in tears with fright; Colia was nearly as much alarmed as she was. Lebedeff jumped up and put a couple of candles nearer to Hippolyte, so that he might see better.

"Gentlemen, this—you'll soon see what this is," began Hippolyte, and suddenly commenced his reading.

"It's headed, 'A Necessary Explanation,' with the motto, 'Apres moi le deluge!' Oh, deuce take it all! Surely I can never have seriously written such a silly motto as that? Look here, gentlemen, I beg to give notice that all this is very likely terrible nonsense. It is only a few ideas of mine. If you think that there is anything mysterious coming—or in a word—"

"Better read on without any more beating about the bush," said Gania.

"Affectation!" remarked someone else.

"Too much talk," said Rogojin, breaking the silence for the first time.

Hippolyte glanced at him suddenly, and when their eye, met Rogojin showed his teeth in a disagreeable smile, and said the following strange words: "That's not the way to settle this business, my friend; that's not the way at all."

Of course nobody knew what Rogojin meant by this; but his words made a deep impression upon all. Everyone seemed to see in a flash the same idea.

As for Hippolyte, their effect upon him was astounding. He trembled so that the prince was obliged to support him, and would certainly have cried out, but that his voice seemed to have entirely left him for the moment. For a minute or two he could not speak at all, but panted and stared at Rogojin. At last he managed to ejaculate:

"Then it was YOU who came—YOU—YOU?"

"Came where? What do you mean?" asked Rogojin, amazed. But Hippolyte, panting and choking with excitement, interrupted him violently.

"YOU came to me last week, in the night, at two o'clock, the day I was with you in the morning! Confess it was you!"

"Last week? In the night? Have you gone cracked, my good friend?"

Hippolyte paused and considered a moment. Then a smile of cunning—almost triumph—crossed his lips.

"It was you," he murmured, almost in a whisper, but with absolute conviction. "Yes, it was you who came to my room and sat silently on a chair at my window for a whole hour—more! It was between one and two at night; you rose and went out at about three. It was you, you! Why you should have frightened me so, why you should have wished to torment me like that, I cannot tell—but you it was."

There was absolute hatred in his eyes as he said this, but his look of fear and his trembling had not left him.

"You shall hear all this directly, gentlemen. I-I—listen!"

He seized his paper in a desperate hurry; he fidgeted with it, and tried to sort it, but for a long while his trembling hands could not collect the sheets together. "He's either mad or delirious," murmured Rogojin. At last he began.

For the first five minutes the reader's voice continued to tremble, and he read disconnectedly and unevenly; but gradually his voice strengthened. Occasionally a violent fit of coughing stopped him, but his animation grew with the progress of the reading—as did also the disagreeable impression which it made upon his audience,—until it reached the highest pitch of excitement.

Here is the article.

MY NECESSARY EXPLANATION.

"Apres moi le deluge.

"Yesterday morning the prince came to see me. Among other things he asked me to come down to his villa. I knew he would come and persuade me to this step, and that he would adduce the argument that it would be easier for me to die' among people and green trees,'—as he expressed it. But today he did not say 'die,' he said 'live.' It is pretty much the same to me, in my position, which he says. When I asked him why he made such a point of his 'green trees,' he told me, to my astonishment, that he had heard that last time I was in Pavlofsk I had said that I had come 'to have a last look at the trees.'

"When I observed that it was all the same whether one died among trees or in front of a blank brick wall, as here, and that it was not worth making any fuss over a fortnight, he agreed at once. But he insisted that the good air at Pavlofsk and the greenness would certainly cause a physical change for the better, and that my excitement, and my DREAMS, would be perhaps relieved. I remarked to him, with a smile, that he spoke like a materialist, and he answered that he had always been one. As he never tells a lie, there must be something in his words. His smile is a pleasant one. I have had a good look at him. I don't know whether I like him or not; and I have no time to waste over the question. The hatred which I felt for him for five months has become considerably modified, I may say, during the last month. Who knows, perhaps I am going to Pavlofsk on purpose to see him! But why do I leave my chamber? Those who are sentenced to death should not leave their cells. If I had not formed a final resolve, but had decided to wait until the last minute, I should not leave my room, or accept his invitation to come and die at Pavlofsk. I must be quick and finish this explanation before tomorrow. I shall have no time to read it over and correct it, for I must read it tomorrow to the prince and two or three witnesses whom I shall probably find there.

"As it will be absolutely true, without a touch of falsehood, I am curious to see what impression it will make upon me myself at the moment when I read it out. This is my 'last and solemn'—but why need I call it that? There is no question about the truth of it, for it is not worthwhile lying for a fortnight; a fortnight of life is not itself worth having, which is a proof that I write nothing here but pure truth.

("N.B.—Let me remember to consider; am I mad at this moment, or not? or rather at these moments? I have been told that consumptives sometimes do go out of their minds for a while in the last stages of the malady. I can prove this tomorrow when I read it out, by the impression it makes upon the audience. I must settle this question once and for all, otherwise I can't go on with anything.)

"I believe I have just written dreadful nonsense; but there's no time for correcting, as I said before. Besides that, I have made myself a promise not to alter a single word of what I write in this paper, even though I find that I am contradicting myself every five lines. I wish to verify the working of the natural logic of my ideas tomorrow during the reading—whether I am capable of detecting logical errors, and whether all that I have meditated over during the last six months be true, or nothing but delirium.

"If two months since I had been called upon to leave my room and the view of Meyer's wall opposite, I verily believe I should have been sorry. But now I have no such feeling, and yet I am leaving this room and Meyer's brick wall FOR EVER. So that my conclusion, that it is not worth while indulging in grief, or any other emotion, for a fortnight, has proved stronger than my very nature, and has taken over the direction of my feelings. But is it so? Is it the case that my nature is conquered entirely? If I were to be put on the rack now, I should certainly cry out. I should not say that it is not worth while to yell and feel pain because I have but a fortnight to live.

"But is it true that I have but a fortnight of life left to me? I know I told some of my friends that Doctor B. had informed me that this was the case; but I now confess that I lied; B. has not even seen me. However, a week ago, I called in a medical student, Kislorodoff, who is a Nationalist, an Atheist, and a Nihilist, by conviction, and that is why I had him. I needed a man who would tell me the bare truth without any humbug or ceremony—and so he did—indeed, almost with pleasure (which I thought was going a little too far).

"Well, he plumped out that I had about a month left me; it might be a little more, he said, under favourable circumstances, but it might also be considerably less. According to his opinion I might die quite suddenly—tomorrow, for instance—there had been such cases. Only a day or two since a young lady at Colomna who suffered from consumption, and was about on a par with myself in the march of the disease, was going out to market to buy provisions, when she suddenly felt faint, lay down on the sofa, gasped once, and died.

"Kislorodoff told me all this with a sort of exaggerated devil-may-care negligence, and as though he did me great honour by talking to me so, because it showed that he considered me the same sort of exalted Nihilistic being as himself, to whom death was a matter of no consequence whatever, either way.

"At all events, the fact remained—a month of life and no more! That he is right in his estimation I am absolutely persuaded.

"It puzzles me much to think how on earth the prince guessed yesterday that I have had bad dreams. He said to me, 'Your excitement and dreams will find relief at Pavlofsk.' Why did he say 'dreams'? Either he is a doctor, or else he is a man of exceptional intelligence and wonderful powers of observation. (But that he is an 'idiot,' at bottom there can be no doubt whatever.) It so happened that just before he arrived I had a delightful little dream; one of a kind that I have hundreds of just now. I had fallen asleep about an hour before he came in, and dreamed that I was in some room, not my own. It was a large room, well furnished, with a cupboard, chest of drawers, sofa, and my bed, a fine wide bed covered with a silken counterpane. But I observed in the room a dreadful-looking creature, a sort of monster. It was a little like a scorpion, but was not a scorpion, but far more horrible, and especially so, because there are no creatures anything like it in nature, and because it had appeared to me for a purpose, and bore some mysterious signification. I looked at the beast well; it was brown in colour and had a shell; it was a crawling kind of reptile, about eight inches long, and narrowed down from the head, which was about a couple of fingers in width, to the end of the tail, which came to a fine point. Out of its trunk, about a couple of inches below its head, came two legs at an angle of forty-five degrees, each about three inches long, so that the beast looked like a trident from above. It had eight hard needle-like whiskers coming out from different parts of its body; it went along like a snake, bending its body about in spite of the shell it wore, and its motion was very quick and very horrible to look at. I was dreadfully afraid it would sting me; somebody had told me, I thought, that it was venomous; but what tormented me most of all was the wondering and wondering as to who had sent it into my room, and what was the mystery which I felt it contained.

"It hid itself under the cupboard and under the chest of drawers, and crawled into the corners. I sat on a chair and kept my legs tucked under me. Then the beast crawled quietly across the room and disappeared somewhere near my chair. I looked about for it in terror, but I still hoped that as my feet were safely tucked away it would not be able to touch me.

"Suddenly I heard behind me, and about on a level with my head, a sort of rattling sound. I turned sharp round and saw that the brute had crawled up the wall as high as the level of my face, and that its horrible tail, which was moving incredibly fast from side to side, was actually touching my hair! I jumped up—and it disappeared. I did not dare lie down on my bed for fear it should creep under my pillow. My mother came into the room, and some friends of hers. They began to hunt for the reptile and were more composed than I was; they did not seem to be afraid of it. But they did not understand as I did.

"Suddenly the monster reappeared; it crawled slowly across the room and made for the door, as though with some fixed intention, and with a slow movement that was more horrible than ever.

"Then my mother opened the door and called my dog, Norma. Norma was a great Newfoundland, and died five years ago.

"She sprang forward and stood still in front of the reptile as if she had been turned to stone. The beast stopped too, but its tail and claws still moved about. I believe animals are incapable of feeling supernatural fright—if I have been rightly informed,—but at this moment there appeared to me to be something more than ordinary about Norma's terror, as though it must be supernatural; and as though she felt, just as I did myself, that this reptile was connected with some mysterious secret, some fatal omen.

"Norma backed slowly and carefully away from the brute, which followed her, creeping deliberately after her as though it intended to make a sudden dart and sting her.

"In spite of Norma's terror she looked furious, though she trembled in all her limbs. At length she slowly bared her terrible teeth, opened her great red jaws, hesitated—took courage, and seized the beast in her mouth. It seemed to try to dart out of her jaws twice, but Norma caught at it and half swallowed it as it was escaping. The shell cracked in her teeth; and the tail and legs stuck out of her mouth and shook about in a horrible manner. Suddenly Norma gave a piteous whine; the reptile had bitten her tongue. She opened her mouth wide with the pain, and I saw the beast lying across her tongue, and out of its body, which was almost bitten in two, came a hideous white-looking substance, oozing out into Norma's mouth; it was of the consistency of a crushed black-beetle. just then I awoke and the prince entered the room."

"Gentlemen!" said Hippolyte, breaking off here, "I have not done yet, but it seems to me that I have written down a great deal here that is unnecessary,—this dream—"

"You have indeed!" said Gania.

"There is too much about myself, I know, but—" As Hippolyte said this his face wore a tired, pained look, and he wiped the sweat off his brow.

"Yes," said Lebedeff, "you certainly think a great deal too much about yourself."

"Well—gentlemen—I do not force anyone to listen! If any of you are unwilling to sit it out, please go away, by all means!"

"He turns people out of a house that isn't his own," muttered Rogojin.

"Suppose we all go away?" said Ferdishenko suddenly.

Hippolyte clutched his manuscript, and gazing at the last speaker with glittering eyes, said: "You don't like me at all!" A few laughed at this, but not all.

"Hippolyte," said the prince, "give me the papers, and go to bed like a sensible fellow. We'll have a good talk tomorrow, but you really mustn't go on with this reading; it is not good for you!"

"How can I? How can I?" cried Hippolyte, looking at him in amazement. "Gentlemen! I was a fool! I won't break off again. Listen, everyone who wants to!"

He gulped down some water out of a glass standing near, bent over the table, in order to hide his face from the audience, and recommenced.

"The idea that it is not worth while living for a few weeks took possession of me a month ago, when I was told that I had four weeks to live, but only partially so at that time. The idea quite overmastered me three days since, that evening at Pavlofsk. The first time that I felt really impressed with this thought was on the terrace at the prince's, at the very moment when I had taken it into my head to make a last trial of life. I wanted to see people and trees (I believe I said so myself), I got excited, I maintained Burdovsky's rights, 'my neighbour!'—I dreamt that one and all would open their arms, and embrace me, that there would be an indescribable exchange of forgiveness between us all! In a word, I behaved like a fool, and then, at that very same instant, I felt my 'last conviction.' I ask myself now how I could have waited six months for that conviction! I knew that I had a disease that spares no one, and I really had no illusions; but the more I realized my condition, the more I clung to life; I wanted to live at any price. I confess I might well have resented that blind, deaf fate, which, with no apparent reason, seemed to have decided to crush me like a fly; but why did I not stop at resentment? Why did I begin to live, knowing that it was not worthwhile to begin? Why did I attempt to do what I knew to be an impossibility? And yet I could not even read a book to the end; I had given up reading. What is the good of reading, what is the good of learning anything, for just six months? That thought has made me throw aside a book more than once.

"Yes, that wall of Meyer's could tell a tale if it liked. There was no spot on its dirty surface that I did not know by heart. Accursed wall! and yet it is dearer to me than all the Pavlofsk trees!—That is—it WOULD be dearer if it were not all the same to me, now!

"I remember now with what hungry interest I began to watch the lives of other people—interest that I had never felt before! I used to wait for Colia's arrival impatiently, for I was so ill myself, then, that I could not leave the house. I so threw myself into every little detail of news, and took so much interest in every report and rumour, that I believe I became a regular gossip! I could not understand, among other things, how all these people—with so much life in and before them—do not become RICH— and I don't understand it now. I remember being told of a poor wretch I once knew, who had died of hunger. I was almost beside myself with rage! I believe if I could have resuscitated him I would have done so for the sole purpose of murdering him!

"Occasionally I was so much better that I could go out; but the streets used to put me in such a rage that I would lock myself up for days rather than go out, even if I were well enough to do so! I could not bear to see all those preoccupied, anxious-looking creatures continuously surging along the streets past me! Why are they always anxious? What is the meaning of their eternal care and worry? It is their wickedness, their perpetual detestable malice—that's what it is—they are all full of malice, malice!

"Whose fault is it that they are all miserable, that they don't know how to live, though they have fifty or sixty years of life before them? Why did that fool allow himself to die of hunger with sixty years of unlived life before him?

"And everyone of them shows his rags, his toil-worn hands, and yells in his wrath: 'Here are we, working like cattle all our lives, and always as hungry as dogs, and there are others who do not work, and are fat and rich!' The eternal refrain! And side by side with them trots along some wretched fellow who has known better days, doing light porter's work from morn to night for a living, always blubbering and saying that 'his wife died because he had no money to buy medicine with,' and his children dying of cold and hunger, and his eldest daughter gone to the bad, and so on. Oh! I have no pity and no patience for these fools of people. Why can't they be Rothschilds? Whose fault is it that a man has not got millions of money like Rothschild? If he has life, all this must be in his power! Whose fault is it that he does not know how to live his life?

"Oh! it's all the same to me now—NOW! But at that time I would soak my pillow at night with tears of mortification, and tear at my blanket in my rage and fury. Oh, how I longed at that time to be turned out—ME, eighteen years old, poor, half-clothed, turned out into the street, quite alone, without lodging, without work, without a crust of bread, without relations, without a single acquaintance, in some large town—hungry, beaten (if you like), but in good health—and THEN I would show them—

"What would I show them?

"Oh, don't think that I have no sense of my own humiliation! I have suffered already in reading so far. Which of you all does not think me a fool at this moment—a young fool who knows nothing of life—forgetting that to live as I have lived these last six months is to live longer than grey-haired old men. Well, let them laugh, and say it is all nonsense, if they please. They may say it is all fairy-tales, if they like; and I have spent whole nights telling myself fairy-tales. I remember them all. But how can I tell fairy-tales now? The time for them is over. They amused me when I found that there was not even time for me to learn the Greek grammar, as I wanted to do. 'I shall die before I get to the syntax,' I thought at the first page—and threw the book under the table. It is there still, for I forbade anyone to pick it up.

"If this 'Explanation' gets into anybody's hands, and they have patience to read it through, they may consider me a madman, or a schoolboy, or, more likely, a man condemned to die, who thought it only natural to conclude that all men, excepting himself, esteem life far too lightly, live it far too carelessly and lazily, and are, therefore, one and all, unworthy of it. Well, I affirm that my reader is wrong again, for my convictions have nothing to do with my sentence of death. Ask them, ask any one of them, or all of them, what they mean by happiness! Oh, you may be perfectly sure that if Columbus was happy, it was not after he had discovered America, but when he was discovering it! You may be quite sure that he reached the culminating point of his happiness three days before he saw the New World with his actual eves, when his mutinous sailors wanted to tack about, and return to Europe! What did the New World matter after all? Columbus had hardly seen it when he died, and in reality he was entirely ignorant of what he had discovered. The important thing is life— life and nothing else! What is any 'discovery' whatever compared with the incessant, eternal discovery of life?

"But what is the use of talking? I'm afraid all this is so commonplace that my confession will be taken for a schoolboy exercise—the work of some ambitious lad writing in the hope of his work 'seeing the light'; or perhaps my readers will say that 'I had perhaps something to say, but did not know how to express it.'

"Let me add to this that in every idea emanating from genius, or even in every serious human idea—born in the human brain—there always remains something—some sediment—which cannot be expressed to others, though one wrote volumes and lectured upon it for five-and-thirty years. There is always a something, a remnant, which will never come out from your brain, but will remain there with you, and you alone, for ever and ever, and you will die, perhaps, without having imparted what may be the very essence of your idea to a single living soul.

"So that if I cannot now impart all that has tormented me for the last six months, at all events you will understand that, having reached my 'last convictions,' I must have paid a very dear price for them. That is what I wished, for reasons of my own, to make a point of in this my 'Explanation.'

"But let me resume.