A Dreary Story - VI
I am in Harkov.
As it would be useless to contend against my present mood and, indeed, beyond my power, I have made up my mind that the last days of my life shall at least be irreproachable externally. If I am unjust in regard to my wife and daughter, which I fully recognize, I will try and do as she wishes; since she wants me to go to Harkov, I go to Harkov. Besides, I have become of late so indifferent to everything that it is really all the same to me where I go, to Harkov, or to Paris, or to Berditchev.
I arrived here at midday, and have put up at the hotel not far from the cathedral. The train was jolting, there were draughts, and now I am sitting on my bed, holding my head and expecting tic douloureux. I ought to have gone today to see some professors of my acquaintance, but I have neither strength nor inclination.
The old corridor attendant comes in and asks whether I have brought my bed-linen. I detain him for five minutes, and put several questions to him about Gnekker, on whose account I have come here. The attendant turns out to be a native of Harkov; he knows the town like the fingers of his hand, but does not remember any household of the surname of Gnekker. I question him about the estate—the same answer.
The clock in the corridor strikes one, then two, then three.... These last months in which I am waiting for death seem much longer than the whole of my life. And I have never before been so ready to resign myself to the slowness of time as now. In the old days, when one sat in the station and waited for a train, or presided in an examination-room, a quarter of an hour would seem an eternity. Now I can sit all night on my bed without moving, and quite unconcernedly reflect that tomorrow will be followed by another night as long and colourless, and the day after tomorrow.
In the corridor it strikes five, six, seven.... It grows dark.
There is a dull pain in my cheek, the tic beginning. To occupy myself with thoughts, I go back to my old point of view, when I was not so indifferent, and ask myself why I, a distinguished man, a privy councillor, am sitting in this little hotel room, on this bed with the unfamiliar grey quilt. Why am I looking at that cheap tin washing-stand and listening to the whirr of the wretched clock in the corridor? Is all this in keeping with my fame and my lofty position? And I answer these questions with a jeer. I am amused by the naivete with which I used in my youth to exaggerate the value of renown and of the exceptional position which celebrities are supposed to enjoy. I am famous, my name is pronounced with reverence, my portrait has been both in the Niva and in the Illustrated News of the World; I have read my biography even in a German magazine. And what of all that? Here I am sitting utterly alone in a strange town, on a strange bed, rubbing my aching cheek with my hand.... Domestic worries, the hard-heartedness of creditors, the rudeness of the railway servants, the inconveniences of the passport system, the expensive and unwholesome food in the refreshment-rooms, the general rudeness and coarseness in social intercourse—all this, and a great deal more which would take too long to reckon up, affects me as much as any working man who is famous only in his alley. In what way, does my exceptional position find expression? Admitting that I am celebrated a thousand times over, that I am a hero of whom my country is proud. They publish bulletins of my illness in every paper, letters of sympathy come to me by post from my colleagues, my pupils, the general public; but all that does not prevent me from dying in a strange bed, in misery, in utter loneliness. Of course, no one is to blame for that; but I in my foolishness dislike my popularity. I feel as though it had cheated me.
At ten o’clock I fall asleep, and in spite of the tic I sleep soundly, and should have gone on sleeping if I had not been awakened. Soon after one came a sudden knock at the door.
“Who is there?”
“You might have waited till tomorrow,” I say angrily, taking the telegram from the attendant. “Now I shall not get to sleep again.”
“I am sorry. Your light was burning, so I thought you were not asleep.”
I tear open the telegram and look first at the signature. From my wife.
“What does she want?”
“Gnekker was secretly married to Liza yesterday. Return.”
I read the telegram, and my dismay does not last long. I am dismayed, not by what Liza and Gnekker have done, but by the indifference with which I hear of their marriage. They say philosophers and the truly wise are indifferent. It is false: indifference is the paralysis of the soul; it is premature death.
I go to bed again, and begin trying to think of something to occupy my mind. What am I to think about? I feel as though everything had been thought over already and there is nothing which could hold my attention now.
When daylight comes I sit up in bed with my arms round my knees, and to pass the time I try to know myself. “Know thyself” is excellent and useful advice; it is only a pity that the ancients never thought to indicate the means of following this precept.
When I have wanted to understand somebody or myself I have considered, not the actions, in which everything is relative, but the desires.
“Tell me what you want, and I will tell you what manner of man you are.”
And now I examine myself: what do I want?
I want our wives, our children, our friends, our pupils, to love in us, not our fame, not the brand and not the label, but to love us as ordinary men. Anything else? I should like to have had helpers and successors. Anything else? I should like to wake up in a hundred years’ time and to have just a peep out of one eye at what is happening in science. I should have liked to have lived another ten years... What further? Why, nothing further. I think and think, and can think of nothing more. And however much I might think, and however far my thoughts might travel, it is clear to me that there is nothing vital, nothing of great importance in my desires. In my passion for science, in my desire to live, in this sitting on a strange bed, and in this striving to know myself—in all the thoughts, feelings, and ideas I form about everything, there is no common bond to connect it all into one whole. Every feeling and every thought exists apart in me; and in all my criticisms of science, the theatre, literature, my pupils, and in all the pictures my imagination draws, even the most skilful analyst could not find what is called a general idea, or the god of a living man.
And if there is not that, then there is nothing.
In a state so poverty-stricken, a serious ailment, the fear of death, the influences of circumstance and men were enough to turn upside down and scatter in fragments all which I had once looked upon as my theory of life, and in which I had seen the meaning and joy of my existence. So there is nothing surprising in the fact that I have over-shadowed the last months of my life with thoughts and feelings only worthy of a slave and barbarian, and that now I am indifferent and take no heed of the dawn. When a man has not in him what is loftier and mightier than all external impressions a bad cold is really enough to upset his equilibrium and make him begin to see an owl in every bird, to hear a dog howling in every sound. And all his pessimism or optimism with his thoughts great and small have at such times significance as symptoms and nothing more.
I am vanquished. If it is so, it is useless to think, it is useless to talk. I will sit and wait in silence for what is to come.
In the morning the corridor attendant brings me tea and a copy of the local newspaper. Mechanically I read the advertisements on the first page, the leading article, the extracts from the newspapers and journals, the chronicle of events.... In the latter I find, among other things, the following paragraph: “Our distinguished savant, Professor Nikolay Stepanovitch So-and-so, arrived yesterday in Harkov, and is staying in the So-and-so Hotel.”
Apparently, illustrious names are created to live on their own account, apart from those that bear them. Now my name is promenading tranquilly about Harkov; in another three months, printed in gold letters on my monument, it will shine bright as the sun itself, while I shall be already under the moss.
A light tap at the door. Somebody wants me.
“Who is there? Come in.”
The door opens, and I step back surprised and hurriedly wrap my dressing-gown round me. Before me stands Katya.
“How do you do?” she says, breathless with running upstairs. “You didn’t expect me? I have come here, too.... I have come, too!”
She sits down and goes on, hesitating and not looking at me.
“Why don’t you speak to me? I have come, too... today.... I found out that you were in this hotel, and have come to you.”
“Very glad to see you,” I say, shrugging my shoulders, “but I am surprised. You seem to have dropped from the skies. What have you come for?”
“Oh... I’ve simply come.”
Silence. Suddenly she jumps up impulsively and comes to me.
“Nikolay Stepanovitch,” she says, turning pale and pressing her hands on her bosom—“Nikolay Stepanovitch, I cannot go on living like this! I cannot! For God’s sake tell me quickly, this minute, what I am to do! Tell me, what am I to do?”
“What can I tell you?” I ask in perplexity. “I can do nothing.”
“Tell me, I beseech you,” she goes on, breathing hard and trembling all over. “I swear that I cannot go on living like this. It’s too much for me!”
She sinks on a chair and begins sobbing. She flings her head back, wrings her hands, taps with her feet; her hat falls off and hangs bobbing on its elastic; her hair is ruffled.
“Help me! help me!” she implores me. “I cannot go on!”
She takes her handkerchief out of her travelling-bag, and with it pulls out several letters, which fall from her lap to the floor. I pick them up, and on one of them I recognize the handwriting of Mihail Fyodorovitch and accidentally read a bit of a word “passionat...”
“There is nothing I can tell you, Katya,” I say.
“Help me!” she sobs, clutching at my hand and kissing it. “You are my father, you know, my only friend! You are clever, educated; you have lived so long; you have been a teacher! Tell me, what am I to do?”
“Upon my word, Katya, I don’t know....”
I am utterly at a loss and confused, touched by her sobs, and hardly able to stand.
“Let us have lunch, Katya,” I say, with a forced smile. “Give over crying.”
And at once I add in a sinking voice:
“I shall soon be gone, Katya....”
“Only one word, only one word!” she weeps, stretching out her hands to me.
“What am I to do?”
“You are a queer girl, really...” I mutter. “I don’t understand it! So sensible, and all at once crying your eyes out....”
A silence follows. Katya straightens her hair, puts on her hat, then crumples up the letters and stuffs them in her bag—and all this deliberately, in silence. Her face, her bosom, and her gloves are wet with tears, but her expression now is cold and forbidding.... I look at her, and feel ashamed that I am happier than she. The absence of what my philosophic colleagues call a general idea I have detected in myself only just before death, in the decline of my days, while the soul of this poor girl has known and will know no refuge all her life, all her life!
“Let us have lunch, Katya,” I say.
“No, thank you,” she answers coldly. Another minute passes in silence. “I don’t like Harkov,” I say; “it’s so grey here—such a grey town.”
“Yes, perhaps.... It’s ugly. I am here not for long, passing through. I am going on today.”
“To the Crimea... that is, to the Caucasus.”
“Oh! For long?”
“I don’t know.”
Katya gets up, and, with a cold smile, holds out her hand without looking at me.
I want to ask her, “Then, you won’t be at my funeral?” but she does not look at me; her hand is cold and, as it were, strange. I escort her to the door in silence. She goes out, walks down the long corridor without looking back; she knows that I am looking after her, and most likely she will look back at the turn.
No, she did not look back. I’ve seen her black dress for the last time: her steps have died away. Farewell, my treasure!