Thursday, September 20, 2012

Dostoevsky: "Did you ever love me or was I mistaken?"

They were sitting facing one another at the table at which we had yesterday drunk to his "resurrection." I got a good view of their faces. She was wearing a simple black dress, and was as beautiful and apparently calm as always. He was speaking; she was listening with intense and sympathetic attention. Perhaps there was some trace of timidity in her, too. He was terribly excited. I had come in the middle of their conversation, and so for some time I could make nothing of it. I remember she suddenly asked:

"And I was the cause?"

"No, I was the cause," he answered; "and you were only innocently guilty. You know that there are the innocently guilty. Those are generally the most unpardonable crimes, and they almost always bring their punishment," he added, laughing strangely. "And I actually thought for a moment that I had forgotten you and could laugh at my stupid passion … but you know that. What is he to me, though, that man you're going to marry? Yesterday I made you an offer, forgive me for it; it was absurd and yet I had no alternative but that… . What could I have done but that absurd thing? I don't know… ."

As he said this, he laughed hopelessly, suddenly lifting his eyes to her; till then he had looked away as he talked. If I had been in her place, I should have been frightened at that laugh, I felt that. He suddenly got up from his chair.

"Tell me, how could you consent to come here?" he asked suddenly, as though remembering the real point. "My invitation and my whole letter was absurd… . Stay, I can quite imagine how it came to pass that you consented to come, but—why did you come? that's the question. Can you have come simply from fear?"

"I came to see you," she said, looking at him with timid caution. Both were silent for half a minute. Versilov sank back in his chair, and in a voice soft but almost trembling and full of intense feeling began:

"It's so terribly long since I've seen you, Katerina Nikolaevna, so long that I scarcely thought it possible I should ever be sitting beside you again as I now am, looking into your face and listening to your voice… . For two years we've not seen each other, for two years we've not talked. I never thought to speak to you again. But so be it, what is past is past, and what is will vanish like smoke to-morrow—so be it! I assent because there is no alternative again, but don't let your coming be in vain," he added suddenly, almost imploringly; "since you have shown me this charity and have come, don't let it be in vain; answer me one question!"

"What question?"

"You know we shall never see each other again, and what is it to you? Tell me the truth for once, and answer me one question which sensible people never ask. Did you ever love me, or was I … mistaken?"

She flushed crimson.

"I did love you," she brought out.

I expected she would say that. Oh, always truthful, always sincere, always honest!

"And now?" he went on.

"I don't love you now."

"And you are laughing?"

"No, I laughed just now by accident, because I knew you would ask, 'And now.' And I smiled at that, because when one guesses right one always does smile… ."

It seemed quite strange to me; I had never seen her so much on her guard, almost timid, indeed, and embarrassed.

His eyes devoured her.

"I know that you don't love me … and—you don't love me at all?"

"Perhaps not at all. I don't love you," she added firmly, without smiling or flushing. "Yes, I did love you, but not for long. I very soon got over it."

"I know, I know, you saw that it was not what you wanted, but … what do you want? Explain that once more… ."

"Have I ever explained that to you? What do I want? Why, I'm the most ordinary woman; I'm a peaceful person. I like … I like cheerful people."


"You see, I don't know even how to talk to you. I believe that if you could have loved me less, I should have loved you then," she smiled timidly again. The most absolute sincerity was transparent in her answer; and was it possible she did not realise that her answer was the most final summing up of their relations, explaining everything. Oh, how well he must have understood that! But he looked at her and smiled strangely.

"Is Büring a cheerful person?" he went on, questioning her.

"He ought not to trouble you at all," she answered with some haste. "I'm marrying him simply because with him I shall be most at peace. My whole heart remains in my own keeping."

"They say that you have grown fond of society, of the fashionable world again?"

"Not fond of it. I know that there is just the same disorderliness in good society as everywhere else; but the outer forms are still attractive, so that if one lives only to pass the time, one can do it better there than anywhere."

"I've often heard the word 'disorderliness' of late; you used to be afraid of my disorderliness, too—chains, ideas, and imbecilities!"

"No, it was not quite that… ."

"What then, for God's sake tell me all, frankly."

"Well, I'll tell you frankly, for I look on you as a man of great intellect… . I always felt there was something ridiculous about you." When she had said this she suddenly flushed crimson, as though she feared she had said something fearfully indiscreet.

"For what you have just said I can forgive you a great deal," he commented strangely.

"I hadn't finished," she said hurriedly, still flushing. "It's I who am ridiculous to talk to you like a fool."

"No, you are not ridiculous, you are only a depraved, worldly woman," he said, turning horribly white. "I did not finish either, when I asked you why you had come. Would you like me to finish? There is a document, a letter in existence, and you're awfully afraid of it, because if that letter comes into your father's hands, he may curse you, and cut you out of his will. You're afraid of that letter, and you've come for that letter," he brought out. He was shaking all over, and his teeth were almost chattering. She listened to him with a despondent and pained expression of face.

"I know that you can do all sorts of things to harm me," she said, as if warding off his words, "but I have come not so much to persuade you not to persecute me, as to see you yourself. I've been wanting to meet you very much for a long time. But I find you just the same as ever," she added suddenly, as though carried away by a special and striking thought, and even by some strange sudden emotion.

"Did you hope to see me different, after my letter about your depravity? Tell me, did you come here without any fear?"

"I came because I once loved you; but do you know, I beg you not to threaten me, please, with anything. While we are now together, don't remind me of my evil thoughts and feelings. If you could talk to me of something else I should be very glad. Let threats come afterwards; but it should be different now… . I came really to see you for a minute and to hear you. Oh, well, if you can't help it, kill me straight off, only don't threaten me and don't torture yourself before me," she concluded, looking at him in strange expectation, as though she really thought he might kill her. He got up from his seat again, and looking at her with glowing eyes, said resolutely:

"While you are here you will suffer not the slightest annoyance."

"Oh yes, your word of honour," she said, smiling.

"No, not only because I gave my word of honour in my letter, but because I want to think of you all night… ."

"To torture yourself?"

"I picture you in my mind whenever I'm alone. I do nothing but talk to you. I go into some squalid, dirty hole, and as a contrast you appear to me at once. But you always laugh at me as you do now… ." He said this as though he were beside himself… .

"I have never laughed at you, never!" she exclaimed in a voice full of feeling, and with a look of the greatest compassion in her face. "In coming here I tried my utmost to do it so that you should have no reason to be mortified," she added suddenly. "I came here to tell you that I almost love you… . Forgive me, perhaps I used the wrong words," she went on hurriedly.

He laughed.

"How is it you cannot dissemble? Why is it you are such a simple creature? Why is it you're not like all the rest? … Why, how can you tell a man you are turning away that you 'almost love him'?"

"It's only that I could not express myself," she put in hurriedly. "I used the wrong words; it's because I've always felt abashed and unable to talk to you from the first time I met you, and if I used the wrong words, saying that I almost love you, in my thought it was almost so—so that's why I said so, though I love you with that … well, with that GENERAL love with which one loves every one and which one is never ashamed to own… ."

He listened in silence, fixing his glowing eyes upon her.

"I am offending you, of course," he went on, as though beside himself. "This must really be what they call passion… . All I know is that in your presence I am done for, in your absence, too. It's just the same whether you are there or not, wherever you may be you are always before me. I know, too, that I can hate you intensely, more than I can love you. But I've long given up thinking about anything now—it's all the same to me. I am only sorry I should love a woman like you."

His voice broke; he went on, as it were, gasping for breath.

"What is it to you? You think it wild of me to talk like that!" He smiled a pale smile. "I believe, if only that would charm you, I would be ready to stand for thirty years like a post on one leg… . I see you are sorry for me; your face says 'I would love you if I could but I can't… .' Yes? Never mind, I've no pride. I'm ready to take any charity from you like a beggar—do you hear, any … a beggar has no pride."

She got up and went to him. "Dear friend," she said, with inexpressible feeling in her face, touching his shoulder with her hand, "I can't hear you talk like that! I shall think of you all my life as some one most precious, great-hearted, as some thing most sacred of all that I respect and Love. Andrey Petrovitch, understand what I say. Why, it's not for nothing I've come here now, dear friend … dear to me then and now: I shall never forget how deeply you stirred my mind when first we met. Let us part as friends, and you will be for me the most earnest and dearest thought in my whole life."

"Let us part and then I will love you; I will love you—only let us part. Listen," he brought out, perfectly white, "grant me one charity more: don't love me, don't live with me, let us never meet; I will be your slave if you summon me, and I will vanish at once if you don't want to see me, or hear me, only … ONLY DON'T MARRY ANYONE!"

It sent a pang to my heart to hear those words. That naïvely humiliating entreaty was the more pitiful, the more heartrending for being so flagrant and impossible. Yes, indeed, he was asking charity! Could he imagine she would consent? Yet he had humbled himself to put it to the test; he had tried entreating her! This depth of spiritual degradation was insufferable to watch. Every feature in her face seemed suddenly distorted with pain, but before she had time to utter a word, he suddenly realised what he had done.

"I will STRANGLE you," he said suddenly, in a strange distorted voice unlike his own.

But she answered him strangely, too, and she, too, spoke in a different voice, unlike her own.

"If I granted you charity," she said with sudden firmness, "you would punish me for it afterwards worse than you threaten me now, for you would never forget that you stood before me as a beggar… . I can't listen to threats from you!" she added, looking at him with indignation, almost defiance.

"'Threats from you,' you mean—from such a beggar. I was joking," he said softly, smiling. "I won't touch you, don't be afraid, go away … and I'll do my utmost to send you that letter—only go; go! I wrote you a stupid letter, and you answered my stupid letter in kind by coming; we are quits. This is your way." He pointed towards the door. (She was moving towards the room in which I was standing behind the curtain.)

"Forgive me if you can," she said, stopping in the doorway.

"What if we meet some day quite friends and recall this scene with laughter?" he said suddenly, but his face was quivering all over like the face of a man in convulsions.

"Oh, God grant we may!" she cried, clasping her hands, though she watched his face timidly, as though trying to guess what he meant.

"Go along. Much sense we have, the pair of us, but you… . Oh, you are one of my own kind! I wrote you a mad letter, and you agreed to come to tell me that 'you almost love me.' Yes, we are possessed by the same madness! Be always as mad, don't change, and we shall meet as friends—that I predict, that I swear!"

"And then I shall certainly love you, for I feel that even now!" The woman in her could not resist flinging those last words to him from the doorway.

She went out. With noiseless haste I went into the kitchen, and scarcely glancing at Darya Onisimovna, who was waiting for me, I went down the back staircase and across the yard into the street, but I had only time to see her get into the sledge that was waiting for her at the steps. I ran down the street.

(Part III, Chapter 10/4)
A Raw Youth
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky
(Translator: Constance Garnett)
Published: 1875

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