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Fyodor Dostoyevsky - The Gambler
The Gambler - Page 2
At first the proceedings were pure
Greek to me. I could only divine and distinguish that stakes were
hazarded on numbers, on "odd" or "even," and on colours.
Polina's money I decided to
risk, that evening, only to the amount of 100 gulden. The
thought that I was not going to play for myself quite unnerved
me. It was an unpleasant sensation, and I tried hard to banish
it. I had a feeling that, once I had begun to play for Polina, I
should wreck my own fortunes. Also, I wonder if any one has EVER
approached a gaming-table without falling an immediate prey to
superstition? I began by pulling out fifty gulden, and staking
them on "even." The wheel spun and stopped at 13. I had lost!
With a feeling like a sick qualm, as though I would like to make
my way out of the crowd and go home, I staked another fifty
gulden--this time on the red. The red turned up. Next time I
staked the 100 gulden just where they lay--and again the red
turned up. Again I staked the whole sum, and again the red
turned up. Clutching my 400 gulden, I placed 200 of them on
twelve figures, to see what would come of it. The result was
that the croupier paid me out three times my total stake! Thus
from 100 gulden my store had grown to 800! Upon that such a
curious, such an inexplicable, unwonted feeling overcame me that
I decided to depart. Always the thought kept recurring to me
that if I had been playing for myself alone I should never have
had such luck. Once more I staked the whole 800 gulden on the
"even." The wheel stopped at 4. I was paid out another 800
gulden, and, snatching up my pile of 1600, departed in search of
I found the whole party walking in the park, and was able to get
an interview with her only after supper. This time the Frenchman
was absent from the meal, and the General seemed to be in a more
expansive vein. Among other things, he thought it necessary to
remind me that he would be sorry to see me playing at the
gaming-tables. In his opinion, such conduct would greatly
compromise him--especially if I were to lose much.
"And even if
you were to WIN much I should be compromised," he added in a
meaning sort of way. "Of course I have no RIGHT to order your
actions, but you yourself will agree that..." As usual, he did not
finish his sentence. I answered drily that I had very little
money in my possession, and that, consequently, I was hardly in
a position to indulge in any conspicuous play, even if I did
gamble. At last, when ascending to my own room, I succeeded in
handing Polina her winnings, and told her that, next time, I
should not play for her.
"Why not?" she asked excitedly.
"Because I wish to play FOR MYSELF," I replied with a feigned
glance of astonishment. "That is my sole reason."
"Then are you so certain that your roulette-playing will get us
out of our difficulties?" she inquired with a quizzical smile.
I said very seriously, "Yes," and then added: "Possibly my
certainty about winning may seem to you ridiculous;
yet, pray leave me in peace."
Nonetheless she insisted that I ought to go halves with her in
the day's winnings, and offered me 800 gulden on condition that
henceforth, I gambled only on those terms; but I refused to do
so, once and for all--stating, as my reason, that I found myself
unable to play on behalf of any one else, "I am not unwilling
so to do," I added, "but in all probability I should lose."
"Well, absurd though it be, I place great hopes on your playing
of roulette," she remarked musingly; "wherefore, you ought to
play as my partner and on equal shares; wherefore, of course,
you will do as I wish."
Then she left me without listening to any further protests on my
On the morrow she said not a word to me about gambling. In fact,
she purposely avoided me, although her old manner to me had not
changed: the same serene coolness was hers on meeting me -- a
coolness that was mingled even with a spice of contempt and
dislike. In short, she was at no pains to conceal her aversion
to me. That I could see plainly. Also, she did not trouble to
conceal from me the fact that I was necessary to her, and that
she was keeping me for some end which she had in view.
Consequently there became established between us relations
which, to a large extent, were incomprehensible to me,
considering her general pride and aloofness. For example,
although she knew that I was madly in love with her, she allowed
me to speak to her of my passion (though she could not well have
showed her contempt for me more than by permitting me,
unhindered and unrebuked, to mention to her my love).
"You see," her attitude expressed, "how little I regard your
feelings, as well as how little I care for what you say to me,
or for what you feel for me." Likewise, though she spoke as
before concerning her affairs, it was never with complete
frankness. In her contempt for me there were refinements.
Although she knew well that I was aware of a certain
circumstance in her life of something which might one day cause
her trouble, she would speak to me about her affairs (whenever
she had need of me for a given end) as though I were a slave or
a passing acquaintance--yet tell them me only in so far as one
would need to know them if one were going to be made temporary
use of. Had I not known the whole chain of events, or had she
not seen how much I was pained and disturbed by her teasing
insistency, she would never have thought it worthwhile to
soothe me with this frankness--even though, since she not
infrequently used me to execute commissions that were not only
troublesome, but risky, she ought, in my opinion, to have been
frank in ANY case. But, forsooth, it was not worth her while to
trouble about MY feelings--about the fact that I was uneasy, and,
perhaps, thrice as put about by her cares and misfortunes as she
For three weeks I had known of her intention to take to
roulette. She had even warned me that she would like me to play
on her behalf, since it was unbecoming for her to play in
person; and, from the tone of her words I had gathered that there
was something on her mind besides a mere desire to win money. As
if money could matter to HER! No, she had some end in view, and
there were circumstances at which I could guess, but which I did
not know for certain. True, the slavery and abasement in which
she held me might have given me (such things often do so) the
power to question her with abrupt directness (seeing that,
inasmuch as I figured in her eyes as a mere slave and nonentity,
she could not very well have taken offence at any rude
curiosity); but the fact was that, though she let me question
her, she never returned me a single answer, and at times did not
so much as notice me. That is how matters stood.
Next day there was a good deal of talk about a telegram which,
four days ago, had been sent to St. Petersburg, but to which
there had come no answer. The General was visibly disturbed and
moody, for the matter concerned his mother. The Frenchman, too,
was excited, and after dinner the whole party talked long and
seriously together--the Frenchman's tone being extraordinarily
presumptuous and offhand to everybody. It almost reminded one of
the proverb, "Invite a man to your table, and soon he will
place his feet upon it." Even to Polina he was brusque almost to
the point of rudeness. Yet still he seemed glad to join us in
our walks in the Casino, or in our rides and drives about the
town. I had long been aware of certain circumstances which bound
the General to him; I had long been aware that in Russia they
had hatched some scheme together although I did not know whether
the plot had come to anything, or whether it was still only in
the stage of being talked of. Likewise I was aware, in part, of
a family secret--namely, that, last year, the Frenchman had
bailed the General out of debt, and given him 30,000 roubles
wherewith to pay his Treasury dues on retiring from the service.
And now, of course, the General was in a vice -- although the
chief part in the affair was being played by Mlle. Blanche. Yes,
of this last I had no doubt.
But WHO was this Mlle. Blanche? It was said of her that she was
a Frenchwoman of good birth who, living with her mother,
possessed a colossal fortune. It was also said that she was some
relation to the Marquis, but only a distant one a cousin, or
cousin-german, or something of the sort. Likewise I knew that,
up to the time of my journey to Paris, she and the Frenchman had
been more ceremonious towards our party--they had stood on a much
more precise and delicate footing with them; but that now their
acquaintanceship--their friendship, their intimacy--had taken on a
much more off-hand and rough-and-ready air. Perhaps they thought
that our means were too modest for them, and, therefore, unworthy
of politeness or reticence. Also, for the last three days I had
noticed certain looks which Astley had kept throwing at Mlle.
Blanche and her mother; and it had occurred to me that he must
have had some previous acquaintance with the pair. I had even
surmised that the Frenchman too must have met Mr. Astley before.
Astley was a man so shy, reserved, and taciturn in his manner
that one might have looked for anything from him. At all events
the Frenchman accorded him only the slightest of greetings, and
scarcely even looked at him. Certainly he did not seem to be
afraid of him; which was intelligible enough. But why did Mlle.
Blanche also never look at the Englishman?--particularly since,
a propos of something or another, the Marquis had declared the
Englishman to be immensely and indubitably rich? Was not that a
sufficient reason to make Mlle. Blanche look at the Englishman?
Anyway the General seemed extremely uneasy; and, one could well
understand what a telegram to announce the death of his mother
would mean for him!
Although I thought it probable that Polina was avoiding me for a
definite reason, I adopted a cold and indifferent air; for I
felt pretty certain that it would not be long before she
herself approached me. For two days, therefore, I devoted my
attention to Mlle. Blanche. The poor General was in despair! To
fall in love at fifty-five, and with such vehemence, is indeed a
misfortune! And add to that his widowerhood, his children, his
ruined property, his debts, and the woman with whom he had
fallen in love! Though Mlle. Blanche was extremely good-looking,
I may or may not be understood when I say that she had one of
those faces which one is afraid of. At all events, I myself have
always feared such women. Apparently about twenty-five years of
age, she was tall and broad-shouldered, with shoulders that
sloped; yet though her neck and bosom were ample in their
proportions, her skin was dull yellow in colour, while her hair
(which was extremely abundant--sufficient to make two
coiffures) was as black as Indian ink. Add to that a pair of
black eyes with yellowish whites, a proud glance, gleaming
teeth, and lips which were perennially pomaded and redolent of
musk. As for her dress, it was invariably rich, effective, and
chic, yet in good taste. Lastly, her feet and hands were
astonishing, and her voice a deep contralto. Sometimes, when she
laughed, she displayed her teeth, but at ordinary times her air
was taciturn and haughty--especially in the presence of Polina
and Maria Philipovna. Yet she seemed to me almost destitute of
education, and even of wits, though cunning and suspicious.
This, apparently, was not because her life had been lacking in
incident. Perhaps, if all were known, the Marquis was not her
kinsman at all, nor her mother, her mother; but there was
evidence that, in Berlin, where we had first come across the
pair, they had possessed acquaintances of good standing. As for
the Marquis himself, I doubt to this day if he was a
Marquis--although about the fact that he had formerly belonged to
high society (for instance, in Moscow and Germany) there could
be no doubt whatever. What he had formerly been in France I had
not a notion. All I knew was that he was said to possess a
chateau. During the last two weeks I had looked for much to
transpire, but am still ignorant whether at that time anything
decisive ever passed between Mademoiselle and the General.
Everything seemed to depend upon our means--upon whether the
General would be able to flourish sufficient money in her face.
If ever the news should arrive that the grandmother was not
dead, Mlle. Blanche, I felt sure, would disappear in a
twinkling. Indeed, it surprised and amused me to observe what a
passion for intrigue I was developing. But how I loathed it all!
With what pleasure would I have given everybody and everything
the go-by! Only--I could not leave Polina. How, then, could I
show contempt for those who surrounded her? Espionage is a base
thing, but--what have I to do with that?
Mr. Astley, too, I found a curious person. I was only sure that
he had fallen in love With Polina. A remarkable and diverting
circumstance is the amount which may lie in the mien of a shy
and painfully modest man who has been touched with the divine
passion--especially when he would rather sink into the earth than
betray himself by a single word or look. Though Mr. Astley
frequently met us when we were out walking, he would merely take
off his hat and pass us by, though I knew he was dying to join
us. Even when invited to do so, he would refuse. Again, in
places of amusement--in the Casino, at concerts, or near the
fountain--he was never far from the spot where we were sitting.
In fact, WHEREVER we were in the Park, in the forest, or on the
Shlangenberg--one needed but to raise one's eyes and glance
around to catch sight of at least a PORTION of Mr. Astley's
frame sticking out--whether on an adjacent path or behind a bush.
Yet never did he lose any chance of speaking to myself; and, one
morning when we had met, and exchanged a couple of words, he
burst out in his usual abrupt way, without saying "Good-morning."
"That Mlle. Blanche," he said. "Well, I have seen a good many
women like her."
After that he was silent as he looked me meaningly in the face.
What he meant I did not know, but to my glance of inquiry he
returned only a dry nod, and a reiterated "It is so."
Presently, however, he resumed:
"Does Mlle. Polina like flowers?"
" I really cannot say," was my reply.
"What? You cannot say?" he cried in great astonishment.
"No; I have never noticed whether she does so or not," I
repeated with a smile.
"Hm! Then I have an idea in my mind," he concluded. Lastly,
with a nod, he walked away with a pleased expression on his
face. The conversation had been carried on in execrable French.
Today has been a day of folly, stupidity, and ineptness. The
time is now eleven o'clock in the evening, and I am sitting in
my room and thinking. It all began, this morning, with my being
forced to go and play roulette for Polina Alexandrovna. When she
handed me over her store of six hundred gulden I exacted two
conditions --namely, that I should not go halves with her in her
winnings, if any (that is to say, I should not take anything for
myself), and that she should explain to me, that same evening,
why it was so necessary for her to win, and how much was the sum
which she needed. For, I could not suppose that she was doing all
this merely for the sake of money. Yet clearly she did need some
money, and that as soon as possible, and for a special purpose.
Well, she promised to explain matters, and I departed. There was
a tremendous crowd in the gaming-rooms. What an arrogant, greedy
crowd it was! I pressed forward towards the middle of the room
until I had secured a seat at a croupier's elbow. Then I began
to play in timid fashion, venturing only twenty or thirty gulden
at a time. Meanwhile, I observed and took notes. It seemed to me
that calculation was superfluous, and by no means possessed of
the importance which certain other players attached to it, even
though they sat with ruled papers in their hands, whereon they
set down the coups, calculated the chances, reckoned, staked,
and--lost exactly as we more simple mortals did who played
without any reckoning at all.
However, I deduced from the scene one conclusion which seemed to me
reliable --namely, that in the flow of fortuitous chances there is,
if not a system, at all events a sort of order. This, of course,
is a very strange thing. For instance, after a dozen middle figures
there would always occur a dozen or so outer ones. Suppose the ball
stopped twice at a dozen outer figures; it would then pass to a dozen of
the first ones, and then, again, to a dozen of the middle
ciphers, and fall upon them three or four times, and then revert
to a dozen outers; whence, after another couple of rounds, the
ball would again pass to the first figures, strike upon them
once, and then return thrice to the middle series--continuing
thus for an hour and a half, or two hours. One, three, two: one,
three, two. It was all very curious. Again, for the whole of a
day or a morning the red would alternate with the black, but
almost without any order, and from moment to moment, so that
scarcely two consecutive rounds would end upon either the one or
the other. Yet, next day, or, perhaps, the next evening, the red
alone would turn up, and attain a run of over two score, and
continue so for quite a length of time--say, for a whole day. Of
these circumstances the majority were pointed out to me by Mr.
Astley, who stood by the gaming-table the whole morning, yet
never once staked in person.
For myself, I lost all that I had on me, and with great speed.
To begin with, I staked two hundred gulden on " even," and won.
Then I staked the same amount again, and won: and so on some two or
three times. At one moment I must have had in my hands--gathered there
within a space of five minutes--about 4000 gulden. That, of course,
was the proper moment for me to have departed, but there arose in me a
strange sensation as of a challenge to Fate--as of a wish to deal her a
blow on the cheek, and to put out my tongue at her. Accordingly
I set down the largest stake allowed by the rules--namely, 4000
gulden--and lost. Fired by this mishap, I pulled out all the
money left to me, staked it all on the same venture, and--again
lost! Then I rose from the table, feeling as though I were
stupefied. What had happened to me I did not know; but, before
luncheon I told Polina of my losses-- until which time I walked
about the Park.
At luncheon I was as excited as I had been at the meal three
days ago. Mlle. Blanche and the Frenchman were lunching with us,
and it appeared that the former had been to the Casino that
morning, and had seen my exploits there. So now she showed me
more attention when talking to me; while, for his part, the
Frenchman approached me, and asked outright if it had been my
own money that I had lost. He appeared to be suspicious as to
something being on foot between Polina and myself, but I merely
fired up, and replied that the money had been all my own.
At this the General seemed extremely surprised, and asked me
whence I had procured it; whereupon I replied that, though I
had begun only with 100 gulden, six or seven rounds had
increased my capital to 5000 or 6000 gulden, and that
subsequently I had lost the whole in two rounds.
All this, of course, was plausible enough. During my recital I
glanced at Polina, but nothing was to be discerned on her face.
However, she had allowed me to fire up without correcting me,
and from that I concluded that it was my cue to fire up, and to
conceal the fact that I had been playing on her behalf. "At all
events," I thought to myself, "she, in her turn, has promised
to give me an explanation to-night, and to reveal to me
something or another."
Although the General appeared to be taking stock of me, he said
nothing. Yet I could see uneasiness and annoyance in his face.
Perhaps his straitened circumstances made it hard for him to
have to hear of piles of gold passing through the hands of an
irresponsible fool like myself within the space of a quarter of
an hour. Now, I have an idea that, last night, he and the
Frenchman had a sharp encounter with one another. At all events
they closeted themselves together, and then had a long and vehement
discussion; after which the Frenchman departed in what appeared to be
a passion, but returned, early this morning, to renew the combat.
On hearing of my losses, however, he only remarked with a sharp,
and even a malicious, air that "a man ought to go more carefully."
Next, for some reason or another, he added that, "though a great many
Russians go in for gambling, they are no good at the game."
"I think that roulette was devised specially for Russians," I
retorted; and when the Frenchman smiled contemptuously at my
reply I further remarked that I was sure I was right; also that,
speaking of Russians in the capacity of gamblers, I had far more
blame for them than praise--of that he could be quite sure.
"Upon what do you base your opinion?" he inquired.
"Upon the fact that to the virtues and merits of the civilised
Westerner there has become historically added--though this is
not his chief point--a capacity for acquiring capital; whereas,
not only is the Russian incapable of acquiring capital, but also
he exhausts it wantonly and of sheer folly. None the less we
Russians often need money; wherefore, we are glad of, and greatly
devoted to, a method of acquisition like roulette--whereby, in a
couple of hours, one may grow rich without doing any work. This
method, I repeat, has a great attraction for us, but since we
play in wanton fashion, and without taking any trouble, we
almost invariably lose."
"To a certain extent that is true," assented the Frenchman with
a self-satisfied air.
"Oh no, it is not true," put in the General sternly. "And you,"
he added to me, "you ought to be ashamed of yourself for
traducing your own country!"
"I beg pardon," I said. "Yet it would be difficult to say
which is the worst of the two--Russian ineptitude or the German
method of growing rich through honest toil."
"What an extraordinary idea," cried the General.
"And what a RUSSIAN idea!" added the Frenchman.
I smiled, for I was rather glad to have a quarrel with them.
"I would rather live a wandering life in tents," I cried,
"than bow the knee to a German idol!"
"To WHAT idol?" exclaimed the General, now seriously angry.
"To the German method of heaping up riches. I have not been
here very long, but I can tell you that what I have seen and
verified makes my Tartar blood boil. Good Lord! I wish for no
virtues of that kind. Yesterday I went for a walk of about ten
versts; and, everywhere I found that things were even as we read
of them in good German picture-books -- that every house has its
'Fater,' who is horribly beneficent and extraordinarily
honourable. So honourable is he that it is dreadful to have
anything to do with him; and I cannot bear people of that sort.
Each such 'Fater' has his family, and in the evenings they
read improving books aloud. Over their roof-trees there murmur
elms and chestnuts; the sun has sunk to his rest; a stork is
roosting on the gable; and all is beautifully poetic and
touching. Do not be angry, General. Let me tell you something
that is even more touching than that. I can remember how, of an
evening, my own father, now dead, used to sit under the lime
trees in his little garden, and to read books aloud to myself
and my mother. Yes, I know how things ought to be done. Yet
every German family is bound to slavery and to submission to its
'Fater.' They work like oxen, and amass wealth like Jews.
Suppose the 'Fater' has put by a certain number of gulden
which he hands over to his eldest son, in order that the said
son may acquire a trade or a small plot of land. Well, one
result is to deprive the daughter of a dowry, and so leave her
among the unwedded. For the same reason, the parents will have
to sell the younger son into bondage or the ranks of the army,
in order that he may earn more towards the family capital. Yes,
such things ARE done, for I have been making inquiries on the
subject. It is all done out of sheer rectitude--out of a
rectitude which is magnified to the point of the younger son
believing that he has been RIGHTLY sold, and that it is simply
idyllic for the victim to rejoice when he is made over into
pledge. What more have I to tell? Well, this--that matters bear
just as hardly upon the eldest son. Perhaps he has his Gretchen
to whom his heart is bound; but he cannot marry her, for the
reason that he has not yet amassed sufficient gulden. So, the
pair wait on in a mood of sincere and virtuous expectation, and
smilingly deposit themselves in pawn the while. Gretchen's
cheeks grow sunken, and she begins to wither; until at last,
after some twenty years, their substance has multiplied, and
sufficient gulden have been honourably and virtuously
accumulated. Then the 'Fater' blesses his forty-year-old heir and
the thirty-five-year-old Gretchen with the sunken bosom and the
scarlet nose; after which he bursts, into tears, reads the pair
a lesson on morality, and dies. In turn the eldest son becomes a
virtuous 'Fater,' and the old story begins again. In fifty or
sixty years' time the grandson of the original 'Fater' will
have amassed a considerable sum; and that sum he will hand over
to, his son, and the latter to HIS son, and so on for several
generations; until at length there will issue a Baron
Rothschild, or a 'Hoppe and Company,' or the devil knows what!
Is it not a beautiful spectacle--the spectacle of a century or
two of inherited labour, patience, intellect, rectitude,
character, perseverance, and calculation, with a stork sitting
on the roof above it all? What is more; they think there can
never be anything better than this; wherefore, from their point
of view they begin to judge the rest of the world, and to
censure all who are at fault--that is to say, who are not exactly
like themselves. Yes, there you have it in a nutshell. For my
own part, I would rather grow fat after the Russian manner, or
squander my whole substance at roulette. I have no wish to be
'Hoppe and Company' at the end of five generations. I want the
money for MYSELF, for in no way do I look upon my personality
as necessary to, or meet to be given over to, capital. I may be
wrong, but there you have it. Those are MY views."
"How far you may be right in what you have said I do not know,"
remarked the General moodily; "but I DO know that you are
becoming an insufferable farceur whenever you are given the
As usual, he left his sentence unfinished. Indeed, whenever he
embarked upon anything that in the least exceeded the limits of
daily small-talk, he left unfinished what he was saying. The
Frenchman had listened to me contemptuously, with a slight
protruding of his eyes; but, he could not have understood very
much of my harangue. As for Polina, she had looked on with
serene indifference. She seemed to have heard neither my voice
nor any other during the progress of the meal.
Yes, she had been extraordinarily meditative. Yet, on leaving
the table, she immediately ordered me to accompany her for a
walk. We took the children with us, and set out for the fountain
in the Park.
I was in such an irritated frame of mind that in rude and abrupt
fashion I blurted out a question as to "why our Marquis de
Griers had ceased to accompany her for strolls, or to speak to
her for days together."
"Because he is a brute," she replied in rather a curious way.
It was the first time that I had heard her speak so of De
Griers: consequently, I was momentarily awed into silence by this
expression of resentment.
"Have you noticed, too, that today he is by no means on good
terms with the General?" I went on.
"Yes-- and I suppose you want to know why," she replied with dry
captiousness. "You are aware, are you not, that the General is
mortgaged to the Marquis, with all his property? Consequently,
if the General's mother does not die, the Frenchman will become
the absolute possessor of everything which he now holds only in
"Then it is really the case that everything is mortgaged? I
have heard rumours to that effect, but was unaware how far they
might be true."
"Yes, they ARE true. What then?"
"Why, it will be a case of 'Farewell, Mlle. Blanche,'" I
remarked; "for in such an event she would never become Madame
General. Do you know, I believe the old man is so much in love
with her that he will shoot himself if she should throw him
over. At his age it is a dangerous thing to fall in love."
"Yes, something, I believe, WILL happen to him," assented
"And what a fine thing it all is!" I continued. "Could anything
be more abominable than the way in which she has agreed to marry
for money alone? Not one of the decencies has
been observed; the whole affair has taken place without the
least ceremony. And as for the grandmother, what could be more
comical, yet more dastardly, than the sending of telegram after
telegram to know if she is dead? What do you think of it, Polina
"Yes, it is very horrible," she interrupted with a shudder.
"Consequently, I am the more surprised that YOU should be so
cheerful. What are YOU so pleased about? About the fact that you
have gone and lost my money?"
"What? The money that you gave me to lose? I told you I should
never win for other people--least of all for you. I obeyed you
simply because you ordered me to; but you must not blame me for
the result. I warned you that no good would ever come of it. You
seem much depressed at having lost your money. Why do you need
it so greatly?"
"Why do YOU ask me these questions?"
"Because you promised to explain matters to me. Listen. I am
certain that, as soon as ever I 'begin to play for myself' (and I
still have 120 gulden left), I shall win. You can then take of
me what you require."
She made a contemptuous grimace.
"You must not be angry with me," I continued, "for making such
a proposal. I am so conscious of being only a nonentity in your
eyes that you need not mind accepting money from me. A gift from
me could not possibly offend you. Moreover, it was I who lost
She glanced at me, but, seeing that I was in an irritable,
sarcastic mood, changed the subject.
"My affairs cannot possibly interest you," she said. Still,
if you DO wish to know, I am in debt. I borrowed some
money, and must pay it back again. I have a curious, senseless
idea that I am bound to win at the gaming-tables. Why I think so
I cannot tell, but I do think so, and with some assurance.
Perhaps it is because of that assurance that I now find myself
without any other resource."
"Or perhaps it is because it is so NECESSARY for you to win. It
is like a drowning man catching at a straw. You yourself will
agree that, unless he were drowning he would not mistake a straw
for the trunk of a tree."
Polina looked surprised.
"What?" she said. "Do not you also hope something from it?
Did you not tell me again and again, two weeks ago, that you
were certain of winning at roulette if you played here? And did
you not ask me not to consider you a fool for doing so? Were you
joking? You cannot have been, for I remember that you spoke with
a gravity which forbade the idea of your jesting."
"True," I replied gloomily. "I always felt certain that I
should win. Indeed, what you say makes me ask myself--Why have my
absurd, senseless losses of today raised a doubt in my mind?
Yet I am still positive that, so soon as ever I begin to play
for myself, I shall infallibly win."
"And why are you so certain?"
"To tell the truth, I do not know. I only know that I must
win--that it is the one resource I have left. Yes, why do I feel
so assured on the point?"
"Perhaps because one cannot help winning if one is fanatically
certain of doing so."
"Yet I dare wager that you do not think me capable of serious
feeling in the matter?"
"I do not care whether you are so or not," answered Polina with
calm indifference. "Well, since you ask me, I DO doubt your
ability to take anything seriously. You are capable of worrying,
but not deeply. You are too ill-regulated and unsettled a person
for that. But why do you want money? Not a single one of the reasons
which you have given can be looked upon as serious."
"By the way," I interrupted, "you say you want to pay off a
debt. It must be a large one. Is it to the Frenchman?"
"What do you mean by asking all these questions? You are very
clever today. Surely you are not drunk?"
"You know that you and I stand on no ceremony, and that
sometimes I put to you very plain questions. I repeat that I am
your, slave--and slaves cannot be shamed or offended."
"You talk like a child. It is always possible to comport
oneself with dignity. If one has a quarrel it ought to elevate
rather than to degrade one."
"A maxim straight from the copybook! Suppose I CANNOT comport
myself with dignity. By that I mean that, though I am a man of
self-respect, I am unable to carry off a situation properly. Do
you know the reason? It is because we Russians are too richly and
multifariously gifted to be able at once to find the proper mode
of expression. It is all a question of mode. Most of us are so
bounteously endowed with intellect as to require also a spice of
genius to choose the right form of behaviour. And genius is
lacking in us for the reason that so little genius at all
exists. It belongs only to the French--though a few other
Europeans have elaborated their forms so well as to be able to
figure with extreme dignity, and yet be wholly undignified
persons. That is why, with us, the mode is so all-important. The
Frenchman may receive an insult-- a real, a venomous insult: yet,
he will not so much as frown. But a tweaking of the nose he
cannot bear, for the reason that such an act is an infringement
of the accepted, of the time-hallowed order of decorum. That is
why our good ladies are so fond of Frenchmen--the Frenchman's
manners, they say, are perfect! But in my opinion there is no
such thing as a Frenchman's manners. The Frenchman is only a
bird--the coq gaulois. At the same time, as I am not a woman, I
do not properly understand the question. Cocks may be excellent
birds. If I am wrong you must stop me. You ought to stop and
correct me more often when I am speaking to you, for I am too
apt to say everything that is in my head.
"You see, I have lost my manners. I agree that I have none, nor yet
any dignity. I will tell you why. I set no store upon such things.
Everything in me has undergone a cheek. You know the reason. I have not a
single human thought in my head. For a long while I have been
ignorant of what is going on in the world--here or in Russia. I
have been to Dresden, yet am completely in the dark as to what
Dresden is like. You know the cause of my obsession. I have no
hope now, and am a mere cipher in your eyes; wherefore, I tell
you outright that wherever I go I see only you--all the rest is a
matter of indifference.
"Why or how I have come to love you I do not know. It may be that
you are not altogether fair to look upon. Do you know, I am ignorant
even as to what your face is like. In all probability, too, your heart
is not comely, and it is possible that your mind is wholly ignoble."
"And because you do not believe in my nobility of soul you
think to purchase me with money?" she said.
"WHEN have I thought to do so?" was my reply.
"You are losing the thread of the argument. If you do not wish
to purchase me, at all events you wish to purchase my respect."
"Not at all. I have told you that I find it difficult to
explain myself. You are hard upon me. Do not be angry at my
chattering. You know why you ought not to be angry with me--that
I am simply an imbecile. However, I do not mind if you ARE
angry. Sitting in my room, I need but to think of you, to
imagine to myself the rustle of your dress, and at once I fall
almost to biting my hands. Why should you be angry with me?
Because I call myself your slave? Revel, I pray you, in my
slavery--revel in it. Do you know that sometimes I could kill
you?--not because I do not love you, or am jealous of you, but,
because I feel as though I could simply devour you... You are
"No, I am not," she retorted. "But I order you, nevertheless,
to be silent."
She stopped, well nigh breathless with anger. God knows, she may
not have been a beautiful woman, yet I loved to see her come to
a halt like this, and was therefore, the more fond of arousing
her temper. Perhaps she divined this, and for that very reason
gave way to rage. I said as much to her.
"What rubbish!" she cried with a shudder.
"I do not care," I continued. "Also, do you know that it is
not safe for us to take walks together? Often I have a feeling
that I should like to strike you, to disfigure you, to strangle
you. Are you certain that it will never come to that? You are
driving me to frenzy. Am I afraid of a scandal, or of your
anger? Why should I fear your anger? I love without hope, and
know that hereafter I shall love you a thousand times more. If
ever I should kill you I should have to kill myself too. But I
shall put off doing so as long as possible, for I wish to
continue enjoying the unbearable pain which your coldness gives
me. Do you know a very strange thing? It is that, with every
day, my love for you increases--though that would seem to be
almost an impossibility. Why should I not become a fatalist?
Remember how, on the third day that we ascended the
Shlangenberg, I was moved to whisper in your ear: 'Say but the
word, and I will leap into the abyss.' Had you said it, I should
have leapt. Do you not believe me?"
"What stupid rubbish!" she cried.
"I care not whether it be wise or stupid," I cried in return.
"I only know that in your presence I must speak, speak, speak.
Therefore, I am speaking. I lose all conceit when I am with you,
and everything ceases to matter."
"Why should I have wanted you to leap from the Shlangenberg?"
she said drily, and (I think) with wilful offensiveness. "THAT
would have been of no use to me."
"Splendid!" I shouted. "I know well that you must have used
the words 'of no use' in order to crush me. I can see through
you. 'Of no use,' did you say? Why, to give pleasure is ALWAYS
of use; and, as for barbarous, unlimited power--even if it be only
over a fly--why, it is a kind of luxury. Man is a despot by
nature, and loves to torture. You, in particular, love to do so."
I remember that at this moment she looked at me in a peculiar
way. The fact is that my face must have been expressing all the
maze of senseless, gross sensations which were seething within
me. To this day I can remember, word for word, the conversation
as I have written it down. My eyes were suffused with blood, and
the foam had caked itself on my lips. Also, on my honour I swear
that, had she bidden me cast myself from the summit of the
Shlangenberg, I should have done it. Yes, had she bidden me in
jest, or only in contempt and with a spit in my face, I should
have cast myself down.
"Oh no! Why so? I believe you," she said, but in such a
manner--in the manner of which, at times, she was a mistress--and
with such a note of disdain and viperish arrogance in her tone,
that God knows I could have killed her.
Yes, at that moment she stood in peril. I had not lied to her
"Surely you are not a coward?" suddenly she asked me.
"I do not know," I replied. "Perhaps I am, but I do not know.
I have long given up thinking about such things."
"If I said to you, 'Kill that man,' would you kill him?"
"Whomsoever I wish?"
"Do not ask me questions; return me answers. I repeat,
whomsoever I wish? I desire to see if you were speaking
seriously just now."
She awaited my reply with such gravity and impatience that I
found the situation unpleasant.