Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘Poor People’
By Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881)
Translation of Isabel Florence Hapgood

Letter from Varvara Dobrosyeloff to Makar Dyevushkin

POKROVSKY was a poor, very poor young man; his health did not permit of his attending regularly to his studies, and so it was only by way of custom that we called him a student. He lived modestly, peaceably, quietly, so that we could not even hear him from our room. He was very queer in appearance; he walked so awkwardly, bowed so uncouthly, spoke in such a peculiar manner, that at first I could not look at him without laughing. Moreover, he was of an irritable character, was constantly getting angry, flew into a rage at the slightest trifle, shouted at us, complained of us, and often went off to his own room in a fit of wrath without finishing our lesson. He had a great many books, all of them expensive, rare books. He gave lessons somewhere else also, received some remuneration, and just as soon as he had a little money, he went off and bought more books.
  In time I learned to understand him better. He was the kindest, the most worthy man, the best man I ever met. My mother respected him highly. Later on, he became my best friend—after my mother, of course….  2
  From time to time a little old man made his appearance at our house—a dirty, badly dressed, small, gray-haired, sluggish, awkward old fellow; in short, he was peculiar to the last degree. At first sight one would have thought that he felt ashamed of something, that his conscience smote him for something. He writhed and twisted constantly; he had such tricks of manner and ways of shrugging his shoulders, that one would not have been far wrong in assuming that he was a little crazy. He would come and stand close to the glazed door in the vestibule, and not dare to enter. As soon as one of us, Sasha or I or one of the servants whom he knew to be kindly disposed toward him, passed that way, he would begin to wave his hands, and beckon us to him, and make signs; and only when we nodded to him or called to him,—the signal agreed upon, that there was no stranger in the house and that he might enter when he pleased,—only then would the old man softly open the door, with a joyous smile, rubbing his hands together with delight, and betake himself to Pokrovsky’s room. He was his father.  3
  Afterward I learned in detail the story of this poor old man. Once upon a time he had been in the government service somewhere or other, but he had not the slightest capacity, and his place in the service was the lowest and most insignificant of all. When his first wife died (the mother of the student Pokrovsky), he took it into his head to marry again, and wedded a woman from the petty-merchant class. Under the rule of this new wife, everything was at sixes and sevens in his house; there was no living with her; she drew a tight rein over everybody. Student Pokrovsky was a boy at that time, ten years of age. His stepmother hated him. But fate was kind to little Pokrovsky. Bykoff, a landed proprietor, who was acquainted with Pokrovsky the father and had formerly been his benefactor, took the child under his protection and placed him in a school. He took an interest in him because he had known his dead mother, whom Anna Feodorovna had befriended while she was still a girl, and who had married her off to Pokrovsky. From school young Pokrovsky entered a gymnasium, and then the University, but his impaired health prevented his continuing his studies there. Mr. Bykoff introduced him to Anna Feodorovna, recommended him to her, and in this way young Pokrovsky had been taken into the house as a boarder, on condition that he should teach Sasha all that was necessary.  4
  But old Pokrovsky fell into the lowest dissipation through grief at his wife’s harshness, and was almost always in a state of drunkenness. His wife beat him, drove him into the kitchen to live, and brought matters to such a point that at last he got used to being beaten and ill-treated, and made no complaint. He was still far from being an old man, but his evil habits had nearly destroyed his mind. The only sign in him of noble human sentiments was his boundless love for his son. It was said that young Pokrovsky was as like his dead mother as two drops of water to each other. The old man could talk of nothing but his son, and came to see him regularly twice a week. He dared not come more frequently, because young Pokrovsky could not endure his father’s visits. Of all his failings, the first and greatest, without a doubt, was his lack of respect for his father. However, the old man certainly was at times the most intolerable creature in the world. In the first place he was dreadfully inquisitive; in the second, by his chatter and questions he interfered with his son’s occupations; and lastly, he sometimes presented himself in a state of intoxication. The son broke the father, in a degree, of his faults,—of his inquisitiveness and his chattering; and ultimately brought about such a condition of affairs that the latter listened to all he said as to an oracle, and dared not open his mouth without his permission.  5
  There were no bounds to the old man’s admiration of and delight in his Petinka, as he called his son. When he came to visit him he almost always wore a rather anxious, timid expression, probably on account of his uncertainty as to how his son would receive him, and generally could not make up his mind for a long time to go in; and if I happened to be present, he would question me for twenty minutes: How was Petinka? Was he well? In what mood was he, and was not he occupied in something important? What, precisely, was he doing? Was he writing, or engaged in meditation? When I had sufficiently encouraged and soothed him, the old man would at last make up his mind to enter, and would open the door very, very softly, very, very cautiously, and stick his head in first; and if he saw that his son was not angry, and nodded to him, he would step gently into the room, take off his little coat, and his hat, which was always crumpled, full of holes and with broken rims, and hang them on a hook, doing everything very softly, and inaudibly. Then he would seat himself cautiously on a chair and never take his eyes from his son, but would watch his every movement in his desire to divine the state of his Petinka’s temper. If the son was not exactly in the right mood, and the old man detected it, he instantly rose from his seat and explained, “I only ran in for a minute, Petinka. I have been walking a good ways, and happened to be passing by, so I came in to rest myself.” And then silently he took his poor little coat and his wretched little hat, opened the door again very softly, and went away, forcing a smile in order to suppress the grief which was seething up in his soul, and not betray it to his son.  6
  But when the son received his father well, the old man was beside himself with joy. His satisfaction shone forth in his face, in his gestures, in his movements. If his son addressed a remark to him, the old man always rose a little from his chair, and replied softly, cringingly, almost reverently, and always made an effort to employ the most select, that is to say, the most ridiculous expressions. But he had not the gift of language; he always became confused and frightened, so that he did not know what to do with his hands, or what to do with his person, and went on, for a long time afterward, whispering his answer to himself, as though desirous of recovering his composure. But if he succeeded in making a good answer, the old man gained courage, set his waistcoat to rights, and his cravat and his coat, and assumed an air of personal dignity. Sometimes his courage rose to such a point, his daring reached such a height, that he rose gently from his chair, went up to the shelf of books, took down a book. He did all this with an air of artificial indifference and coolness, as though he could always handle his son’s books in this proprietary manner, as though his son’s caresses were no rarity to him. But I once happened to witness the old man’s fright when Pokrovsky asked him not to touch his books. He became confused, hurriedly replaced the book upside down, then tried to put it right, turned it round and set it wrong side to, leaves out, smiled, reddened, and did not know how to expiate his crime.  7
  One day old Pokrovsky came in to see us. He chatted with us for a long time, was unusually cheerful, alert, talkative; he laughed and joked after his fashion, and at last revealed the secret of his raptures, and announced to us that his Petinka’s birthday fell precisely a week later, and that it was his intention to call upon his son, without fail, on that day; that he would don a new waistcoat, and that his wife had promised to buy him some new boots. In short, the old man was perfectly happy, and chattered about everything that came into his head.  8
  His birthday! That birthday gave me no peace, either day or night. I made up my mind faithfully to remind Pokrovsky of my friendship, and to make him a present. But what? At last I hit upon the idea of giving him some books. I knew that he wished to own the complete works of Pushkin, in the latest edition. I had thirty rubles of my own, earned by my handiwork. I had put this money aside for a new gown. I immediately sent old Matryona, our cook, to inquire the price of a complete set. Alas! The price of the eleven volumes, together with the expenses of binding, would be sixty rubles at the very least. I thought and thought, but could not tell what to do. I did not wish to ask my mother. Of course she would have helped me; but, in that case every one in the house would have known about our gift; moreover, the gift would have been converted into an expression of gratitude, a payment for Pokrovsky’s labors for the whole year. My desire was to make the present privately, unknown to any one. And for his toilsome lessons to me I wished to remain forever indebted to him, without any payment whatever. At last I devised an escape from my predicament. I knew that one could often buy at half price from the old booksellers in the Gostinny Dvor, if one bargained well, little used and almost entirely new books. I made up my mind to go to the Gostinny Dvor myself. So it came about; the very next morning both Anna Feodorovna and we needed something. Mamma was not feeling well, and Anna Feodorovna, quite opportunely, had a fit of laziness, so all the errands were turned over to me, and I set out with Matryona.  9
  To my delight I soon found a Pushkin, and in a very handsome binding. I began to bargain for it. How I enjoyed it! But alas! My entire capital consisted of thirty rubles in paper, and the merchant would not consent to accept less than ten rubles in silver. At last I began to entreat him, and I begged and begged, until eventually he yielded. But he only took off two rubles and a half, and swore that he had done so only for my sake, because I was such a nice young lady, and that he would not have come down in his price for any one else. Two rubles and a half were still lacking! I was ready to cry with vexation. But the most unexpected circumstance came to my rescue in my grief. Not far from me, at another stall, I caught sight of old Pokrovsky. Four or five old booksellers were clustered about him; he had completely lost his wits, and they had thoroughly bewildered him. Each one was offering him his wares, and what stuff they were offering, and what all was he not ready to buy! I stepped up to him and asked him what he was doing there? The old man was very glad to see me; he loved me unboundedly,—no less than his Petinka, perhaps. “Why, I am buying a few little books, Varvara Alexievna,” he replied; “I am buying some books for Petinka.” I asked him if he had much money? “See here,”—and the poor old man took out all his money, which was wrapped up in a dirty scrap of newspaper; “here’s a half-ruble, and a twenty-kopek piece, and twenty kopeks in copper coins.” I immediately dragged him off to my bookseller. “Here are eleven books, which cost altogether thirty-two rubles and a half; I have thirty; put your two rubles and a half with mine, and we will buy all these books and give them to him in partnership.” The old man was quite beside himself with joy, and the bookseller loaded him down with our common library.  10
  The next day the old man came to see his son, sat with him a little while, then came to us and sat down beside me with a very comical air of mystery. Every moment he grew more sad and uneasy; at last he could hold out no longer.  11
  “Listen, Varvara Alexievna,” he began timidly, in a low voice: “do you know what, Varvara Alexievna?” The old man was dreadfully embarrassed. “You see, when his birthday comes, do you take ten of those little books and give them to him yourself, that is to say, from yourself, on your own behalf; then I will take the eleventh and give it from myself, for my share. So you see, you will have something to give, and I shall have something to give; we shall both have something to give.”  12
  I was awfully sorry for the old man. I did not take long to think it over. The old man watched me anxiously. “Listen to me, Zakhar Petrovitch,” I said: “do you give him all.”—“How all? Do you mean all the books?”—“Yes, certainly, all the books.”—“And from myself?”—“From yourself.”—“From myself alone—that is, in my own name?”—“Yes, in your own name.” I thought I was expressing myself with sufficient clearness, but the old man could not understand me for a long time.  13
  “You see,” he explained to me at last, “I sometimes indulge myself, Varvara Alexievna,—that is to say, I wish to state to you that I nearly always indulge myself,—I do that which is not right,—that is, you know, when it is cold out of doors, and when various unpleasant things happen at times, or when I feel sad for any reason, or something bad happens,—then sometimes, I do not restrain myself, and I drink too much. This is very disagreeable to Petrushka, you see, Varvara Alexievna; he gets angry, and he scolds me and reads me moral lectures. So now I should like to show him by my gift that I have reformed, and am beginning to conduct myself well; that I have been saving up my money to buy a book, saving for a long time, because I hardly ever have any money, except when it happens that Petrushka gives me some now and then. He knows that. Consequently, he will see what use I have made of my money, and he will know that I have done this for his sake alone.”…  14
  “Well, yes,” he said, after thinking it over, “yes! That will be very fine, that would be very fine indeed,—only, what are you going to do, Varvara Alexievna?”—“Why, I shall not give anything.”—“What!” cried the old man almost in terror; “so you will not give Petinka anything, so you do not wish to give him anything?” He was alarmed. At that moment it seemed as though he were ready to relinquish his own suggestions, so that I might have something to give his son. He was a kind-hearted old man! I explained that I would be glad to give something, only I did not wish to deprive him of the pleasure.
*        *        *        *        *
  On the festive day he made his appearance at precisely eleven o’clock, straight from the mass, in his dress coat, decently patched, and actually in a new waistcoat and new boots. We were all sitting in the hall with Anna Feodorovna, and drinking coffee (it was Sunday). The old man began, I believe, by saying that Pushkin was a good poet; then he lost the thread of his discourse and got confused, and suddenly jumped to the assertion that a man must behave well, and that if he does not behave himself well, then it simply means that he indulges himself; he even cited several terrible examples of intemperance, and wound up by stating that for some time past he had been entirely a reformed character, and that he now behaved with perfect propriety. That even earlier he had recognized the justice of his son’s exhortations, and had treasured them all in his heart, and had actually begun to be sober. In proof of which he now presented these books, which had been purchased with money which he had been hoarding up for a long time.  16
  I could not refrain from tears and laughter, as I listened to the poor old fellow; he knew well how to lie when the occasion demanded! The books were taken to Pokrovsky’s room and placed on the shelf. Pokrovsky immediately divined the truth.
*        *        *        *        *
  Pokrovsky fell ill, two months after the events which I have described above. During those two months he had striven incessantly for the means of existence, for up to that time he had never had a settled position. Like all consumptives, he bade farewell only with his last breath to the hope of a very long life…. Anna Feodorovna herself made all the arrangements about the funeral. She bought the very plainest sort of a coffin, and hired a truckman. In order to repay herself for her expenditure, Anna Feodorovna took possession of all the dead man’s books and effects. The old man wrangled with her, raised an uproar, snatched from her as many books as possible, stuffed all his pockets with them, thrust them into his hat and wherever he could, carried them about with him all the three days which preceded the funeral, and did not even part with them when the time came to go to the church. During all those days he was like a man stunned, who has lost his memory, and he kept fussing about near the coffin with a certain strange anxiety; now he adjusted the paper band upon the dead man’s brow, now he lighted and snuffed the candles. It was evident that he could not fix his thoughts in orderly manner on anything. Neither my mother nor Anna Feodorovna went to the funeral services in the church. My mother was ill, but Anna Feodorovna quarreled with old Pokrovsky just as she was all ready to start, and so stayed away. The old man and I were the only persons present. A sort of fear came over me during the services—like the presentiment of something which was about to happen. I could hardly stand out the ceremony in church. At last they put the lid on the coffin and nailed it down, placed it on the cart and drove away. I accompanied it only to the end of the street. The truckman drove at a trot. The old man ran after the cart, weeping aloud; the sound of his crying was broken and shaken by his running. The poor man lost his hat and did not stop to pick it up. His head was wet with the rain; the sleet lashed and cut his face. The old man did not appear to feel the bad weather, but ran weeping from one side of the cart to the other. The skirts of his shabby old coat waved in the wind like wings. Books protruded from every one of his pockets; in his hands was a huge book, which he held tightly clutched. The passers-by removed their hats and made the sign of the cross. Some halted and stared in amazement at the poor old man. Every moment the books kept falling out of his pockets into the mud, People stopped him, and pointed out his losses to him; he picked them up, and set out again in pursuit of the coffin. At the corner of the street an old beggar woman joined herself to him to escort the coffin. At last the cart turned the corner, and disappeared from my eyes. I went home, I flung myself, in dreadful grief, on my mother’s bosom.  18
Letter from Makar Dyevushkin to Varvara Alexievna Dobrosyeloff

My dear Varvara Alexievna!
  I am quite beside myself as I write this. I am utterly upset by a most terrible occurrence. My head is whirling. I feel as though everything were turning in dizzy circles round about me. Ah, my dearest, what a thing I have to tell you now! We had not even a presentiment of such a thing. No, I don’t believe that I did not have a presentiment—I foresaw it all. My heart forewarned me of this whole thing! I even dreamed of something like it not long ago.
  This is what has happened! I will relate it to you without attempting fine style, and as the Lord shall put it into my soul. I went to the office to-day. When I arrived, I sat down and began to write. But you must know, my dear, that I wrote yesterday also. Well, yesterday Timofei Ivan’itch came to me, and was pleased to give me a personal order. “Here’s a document that is much needed,” says he, “and we’re in a hurry for it. Copy it, Makar Alexievitch,” says he, “as quickly and as neatly and carefully as possible: it must be handed in for signature to-day.” I must explain to you, my angel, that I was not quite myself yesterday, and didn’t wish to look at anything; such sadness and depression had fallen upon me! My heart was cold, my mind was dark; you filled all my memory, and incessantly, my poor darling. Well, so I set to work on the copy; I wrote clearly and well, only,—I don’t know exactly how to describe it to you, whether the Evil One himself tangled me up, or whether it was decreed by some mysterious fate, or simply whether it was bound to happen so, but I omitted a whole line, and the sense was utterly ruined. The Lord only knows what sense there was—simply none whatever. They were late with the papers yesterday, so they only gave this document to his Excellency for signature this morning. To-day I presented myself at the usual hour, as though nothing at all were the matter, and set myself down alongside Emelyan Ivanovitch.  20
  I must tell you, my dear, that lately I have become twice as shamefaced as before, and more mortified. Of late I have ceased to look at any one. As soon as any one’s chair squeaks, I am more dead than alive. So to-day I crept in, slipped humbly into my seat, and sat there all doubled up, so that Efim Akimovitch (he’s the greatest tease in the world) remarked in such a way that all could hear him, “Why do you sit so like a y-y-y, Makar Alexievitch?” Then he made such a grimace that everybody round him and me split with laughter, and of course at my expense. They kept it up interminably! I drooped my ears and screwed up my eyes, and sat there motionless. That’s my way; they stop the quicker. All at once I heard a noise, a running and a tumult; I heard—did my ears deceive me? They were calling for me, demanding me, summoning Dyevushkin. My heart quivered in my breast, and I didn’t know myself what I feared, for nothing of the sort had ever happened to me in the whole course of my life. I was rooted to my chair,—as though nothing had occurred, as though it were not I. But then they began again, nearer at hand, and nearer still. And here they were, right in my very ear: “Dyevushkin! Dyevushkin!” they called; “where’s Dyevushkin?” I raise my eyes, and there before me stands Evstafiy Ivanovitch; he says:—“Makar Alexievitch, hasten to his Excellency as quickly as possible! You’ve made a nice mess with that document!”  21
  That was all he said, but it was enough, wasn’t it, my dear,—quite enough to say? I turned livid, and grew as cold as ice, and lost my senses; I started, and I simply didn’t know whether I was alive or dead as I went. They led me through one room, and through another room, and through a third room, to the private office, and I presented myself! Positively, I cannot give you any account of what I was thinking about. I saw his Excellency standing there, with all of them around him. It appears that I did not make my salute; I forgot it completely. I was so scared that my lips trembled and my legs shook. And there was sufficient cause, my dear. In the first place, I was ashamed of myself; I glanced to the right, at a mirror, and what I beheld therein was enough to drive any man out of his senses. And in the second place, I have always behaved as though there were no place for me in the world. So that it is not likely that his Excellency was even aware of my existence. It is possible that he may have heard it cursorily mentioned that there was a person named Dyevushkin in the department, but he had never come into any closer relations.  22
  He began angrily, “What’s the meaning of this, sir? What are you staring at? Here’s an important paper, needed in haste, and you go and spoil it. And how did you come to permit such a thing?” Here his Excellency turned on Evstafiy Ivanovitch. I only listen, and the sounds of the words reach me: “It’s gross carelessness. Heedlessness! You’ll get yourself into trouble!” I tried to open my mouth for some purpose or other. I seemed to want to ask forgiveness, but I couldn’t; to run away, but I didn’t dare to make the attempt: and then—then, my dearest, something so dreadful happened that I can hardly hold my pen even now for the shame of it. My button—deuce take it—my button, which was hanging by a thread, suddenly broke loose, jumped off, skipped along (evidently I had struck it by accident), clattered and rolled away, the cursed thing, straight to his Excellency’s feet, and that in the midst of universal silence. And that was the whole of my justification, all my excuse, all my answer, everything which I was preparing to say to his Excellency!  23
  The results were terrible! His Excellency immediately directed his attention to my figure and my costume. I remembered what I had seen in the mirror; I flew to catch the button! A fit of madness descended upon me! I bent down and tried to grasp the button, but it rolled and twisted, and I couldn’t get hold of it, in short, and I also distinguished myself in the matter of dexterity. Then I felt my last strength fail me, and knew that all, all was lost! My whole reputation was lost, the whole man ruined! And then, without rhyme or reason, Teresa and Faldoni began to ring in both my ears. At last I succeeded in seizing the button, rose upright, drew myself up in proper salute, but like a fool, and stood calmly there with my hands lined down on the seams of my trousers! No, I didn’t, though. I began to try to fit the button on the broken thread, just as though it would stick fast by that means; and moreover, I began to smile and went on smiling.  24
  At first his Excellency turned away; then he scrutinized me again, and I heard him say to Evstafiy Ivanovitch:—“How’s this? See what a condition he is in! What a looking man! What’s the matter with him?” Ah, my own dearest, think of that—“What a looking man!” and “What’s the matter with him!”—“He has distinguished himself!” I heard Evstafiy say; “he has no bad marks, no bad marks on any score, and his conduct is exemplary; his salary is adequate, in accordance with the rates.” “Well then, give him some sort of assistance,” says his Excellency; “make him an advance on his salary.”—“But he has had it, he has taken it already, for ever so long in advance. Probably circumstances have compelled him to do so; but his conduct is good, and he has received no reprimands, he has never been rebuked.” My dear little angel, I turned hot and burned as though in the fires of the bad place! I was on the point of fainting. “Well,” says his Excellency in a loud voice, “the document must be copied again as quickly as possible; come here, Dyevushkin, make a fresh copy without errors; and listen to me;” here his Excellency turned to the others and gave them divers orders, and sent them all away. As soon as they were all gone, his Excellency hastily took out his pocket-book, and from it drew a hundred-ruble bank-note. “Here,” said he, “this is all I can afford, and I am happy to help to that extent; reckon it as you please, take it,”—and he thrust it into my hand. I trembled, my angel, my whole soul was in a flutter; I didn’t know what was the matter with me; I tried to catch his hand and kiss it. But he turned very red in the face, my darling, and—I am not deviating from the truth by so much as a hair’s-breadth—he took my unworthy hand, and shook it, indeed he did; he took it and shook it as though it were of equal rank with his own, as though it belonged to a General like himself. “Go,” says he; “I am glad to do what I can. Make no mistakes, but now do it as well as you can.”  25
  Now, my dear, this is what I have decided: I beg you and Feodor—and if I had children I would lay my commands upon them—to pray to God for him; though they should not pray for their own father, that they should pray daily and forever, for his Excellency! One thing more I will say, my dearest, and I say it solemnly,—heed me well, my dear,—I swear that, no matter in what degree I may be reduced to spiritual anguish in the cruel days of our adversity, as I look on you and your poverty, on myself, on my humiliation and incapacity,—in spite of all this, I swear to you that the hundred rubles are not so precious to me as the fact that his Excellency himself deigned to press my unworthy hand, the hand of a straw, a drunkard! Thereby he restored my self-respect. By that deed he brought to life again my spirit, he made my existence sweeter forevermore, and I am firmly convinced that, however sinful I may be in the sight of the Almighty, yet my prayer for the happiness and prosperity of his Excellency will reach his throne!  26
  My dearest, I am at present in the most terrible state of spiritual prostration, in a horribly overwrought condition. My heart beats as though it would burst out of my breast, and I seem to be weak all over. I send you forty-five rubles, paper money. I shall give twenty rubles to my landlady, and keep thirty-five for myself; with twenty I will get proper clothes, and the other fifteen will go for my living expenses. But just now all the impressions of this morning have shaken my whole being to the foundations. I am going to lie down for a bit. Nevertheless, I am calm, perfectly calm. Only, my soul aches, and down there, in the depths, my soul is trembling and throbbing and quivering. I shall go to see you; but just now I am simply intoxicated with all these emotions. God sees all, my dearest, my own darling, my precious one.
Your worthy friend,                    

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