A meek one…

from “A writer’s Diary”
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
(1876)

( Photo by Michael Tarasov )
      It was she who just started coming to me then to pawn some things. … She was so delicate and blonde, a little taller than average; she was always a little awkward with me, as if she was embarrassed. … As soon as she got her money she would turn around and leave at once. And never a word…What struck me first were the things she brought: cheap silver-plated earrings, a trashy little locket – twenty kopecks was all she’d get. And she herself knew they were worth next to nothing, but I could tell by her face that to her they were treasures. And sure enough, as I learned later, these were the only things she had left from mommy and daddy…She seemed terribly young, so young she might have been fourteen. Whereas in actual fact she was only a few months short of sixteen….At that time she was using her last resources on advertisements, and of course these were a bit presumptuous at least at first: “Governess, willing to travel. Submit offers by return mail.” But later: “Willing to accept any work: teach, serve as companion, manage household, nurse an invalid lady; have sewing skills” and so on – you know what it is! Of course, all these latter things were added to the advertisements bit by bit, while at last, when she had  reached the  point of despair, they would read: “Willing to work without salary, for board alone.”…

And so it was that she came in two days later, so pale and upset – I realized that something must have happened at home, and something really had happened. … The fact was that she had brought this icon… It was an image of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin with the Infant Jesus – an ancient, family household icon in a silver, gilded frame… I could see that the icon meant a lot to her, and she was pawning it all, frame included…

When she left I at once made my decision. That same day I went off on my final investigation and learned the remaining facts about her, right down to the most intimate details of her current life. I had learned her earlier history from Lukeria, who was than their servant and whom I had bribed several days before. …

Her father and mother had died some time ago…, and she had been left in the charge of some aunts whose way of life was rather improper; in fact, “improper” is not a strong enough word to describe them. One aunt was a widow with a large family – six little children, all close in age; the other aunt, a spinster, was a nasty old piece of work. They were both nasty, in fact. Her father had been a minor civil servant, a copying clerk who had only personal, but not hereditary, nobility. In short, the whole situation suited me to a tee. I appeared as if from another, higher world: I was still a retired junior captain from a renowned regiment, a nobleman by birth, of independent means, and so on, and as far as the pawnshop was concerned, the aunts could only look upon that with respect.

She had been enslaved to the aunts for three years, but still had managed to qualify, snatching moments from her merciless daily labor, and that signified something of her striving for what was sublime and noble! … To put it plainly, they even beat her and reproached her for every crust of bread. It ended by their planning to sell her. …

A fat shopkeeper in the neighborhood had watched the whole thing for a year…. He had already driven two wives to their graves with his beatings, and now he was looking for a third. His eye fell on her. … He started courting her and negotiating with the aunts. On top of everything else, he was a man of fifty; she was horrified.  It was at this point that she started coming to me to get money for the advertisements in The Voice. At last she began pleading with the aunts to give her just a tiny bit of time to think the matter over. They allowed her a little time, but only a little, and kept nagging at her: “We don’t know where our next meal is coming from ourselves, never mind having an extra mouth to feed.”…

I called Lukeria from the kitchen and told her to go back and whisper that I was at the gate with something urgent to tell her. I was pleased with myself… Right there at the gate, with Lukeria standing by, I explained to her… : “I’m a straightforward man, and I know the circumstances of your case.”…  I told her plainly that she would have enough food to eat, but there would be no fine dresses, theatre, or balls… Of course, I didn’t say a single word to her then about my doing her a good deed. On the contrary, quite on the contrary: “It is I,” I said, “who is the beneficiary here, and not you.” … She stood there by the gate and thought for a long time before she said, “Yes.” …

I remember Lukeria running out after me as I was leaving, stopping me on the road and saying, all in a rush: “God will reward you, sir, for taking our dear miss! Only don’t tell her that; she’s such a proud one.”…

A proud one, indeed! “I like those proud ones,” I thought. Proud women are especially beautiful when … well, when you have no more doubts about your power over them, isn’t it so?…

Oh, the filth! Oh, the filth I rescued her from then! Why, she must have understood that and appreciated what I did! There were other ideas I savored as well. For example: I’m forty-one, and she’s only sixteen. That was alluring, that feeling of inequality; a thing like that is delectable, very delectable.

Right from the start, despite some attempt at restraint, she rushed to meet me with love, she would greet me with delight when I visited her in the evening, she would babble on (that charming, innocent babble of hers) about her childhood, her earliest years, her parents’ home, her father and mother. But I at once threw cold water on all this rapture of hers. That was just my plan, you see. When she was elated, I would respond with silence – a benevolent silence, of course … but still she would quickly see that we were two very different people and that I was an enigma. And my main point was to keep working at the enigma!  Maybe it was just for the sake of solving an enigma that I did this whole stupid thing! Strictness, in the first place. It was strictness when I brought her into my house. In short, while I went on with my daily round, quite satisfied, I created a whole system. Oh, it happend without any effort and just sprang up on its own….

So I at once set to work on the issue of money. I stressed the money question. And I stressed it so much that she began more and more to keep silent. She would open her big eyes, listen to me, look at me, and not say a word….

When I took her into my home I wanted complete respect. I wanted her to stand before me in ardent homage… Oh, I was always proud; I always wanted all or nothing. …

At first she would argue. And how she argued! But then she began to keep quiet, and at last she wouldn’t say a word; only she would open her eyes as wide as could be while she listened, such big, big eyes, full of attention. And … and apart from that  I suddenly noticed a smile, a skeptical, silent, unpleasant smile. And so it was with this smile that I brought her into my house. It’s true, of course, that she had nowhere else to go…

True enough, it was I who insisted on the silence, not she. Once or twice she had fits of affection when she rushed to embrace me but since these outbursts of hers were unhealthy and hysterical, while I needed happiness that was solid, with respect from her, I reacted coldly. And I was right: the day after every outburst we would have a quarrel.

They weren’t really quarrels, I mean, but there was silence, and it took on a more and more insolent manner on her part…  Yes, that gentle face of hers grew more and more insolent. Believe it or not, she began to find me obnoxious; I could tell that…. It wasn’t poverty that bothered her, it was my supposed stinginess in housekeeping… She herself suddenly refused to go to the theatre. And that mocking look of hers became more and more obvious… while I made my silence more and more intense.

Let me explain: I knew that a female, and especially a girl of sixteen, could do nothing other than submit completely to her husband. Women have no originality: why, that’s an axiom…

The quarrels started because she suddenly took it into her head to loan money on her own terms and to appraise articles at higher than their real value. Twice she even presumed to quarrel with me on the topic…

I spoke mildly but firmly and reasonably to her. She was sitting on the bed, looking at the floor, flicking her right toe against the carpet; a nasty smile played on her lips. Then, without raising my voice at all, I stated calmly that the money was mine, that I had the right to regard life through my eyes, and that when I brought her into my house I had hidden nothing from her…

Suddenly she jumped to her feet, all a-tremble, and – can you believe it? – suddenly started stamping her feet at me. She was a wild beast… I had never expected antics like this. But I kept my head and didn’t even make a move; once more, in the same calm voice as before, I told her plainly that henceforth I would let her have no more part in my business affairs. She laughed in my face and walked out of the apartment…

The fact is, she did not have the right to walk out of the apartment. Nowhere without me: such was the agreement made before we married. She came back toward evening; I didn’t say a word. …

After I had tea I closed the shop, went to the market, and bought an iron bedstead and a screen. On returning home, I had the bed set up in the anteroom with the screen around it. This was a bed for her, but I said not a word to her about it. She needed no words to understand… the marriage was dissolved, she was “vanquished, but not forgiven.”

During the night, she became delirious, and by morning had developed a high fever. She was in bed for six weeks…. We looked after her day and night for the six weeks of her illness – I, Lukeria, and a trained nurse whom I hired from the hospital. I didn’t begrudge the money and even wanted to spend it on her. I called in Dr. Schroeder and paid him ten rubles per visit. When she regained consciousness I spent less time around her… When she was completely oh her feet again, she quitely and without a word sat herself down in my room at a special table which I had also bought for her at that time… Yes, it’s true: we said not a word to one another. Well, actually, we did begin speaking later on, but only about quite ordinary things….

That winter I deliberately did several good deeds. I forgave two loans; I loaned money to one poor woman without a pawn. And I said nothing to my wife about it, and did not do it in order for her to find out; but the old woman herself came to thank me almost on her knees. And so the deed became known. I think that my wife truly was pleased to learn about the old woman….

Some time after four o-clock on a bright, sunny day in April, I was sitting in the shop checking my accounts. Suddenly I heard her, sitting in our room and working at her table, begin ever so softly … to sing. This new event surprised me enormously, and even now I do not understand it. Previously I had scarcely ever heard her sing – oh, perhaps in the very first days after I brought her home, when we still could rollick about, target shooting with the pistol. Then her voice was still quite strong and clear, although not always true, but very pleasant and sound. But now her little song was so weak… it was as if something in her voice had cracked and broken, as if her little voice could not cope any more, as if the song itself were ill…

Completely shocked, I remained at my place for a time; then I suddenly rose, took my hat, and went out, scarcely knowing what I was doing. At least I didn’t know where I was going and why. Lukeria came to help me with my overcoat.
“She’s singing?” I couldn’t help but ask Lukeria. She did not understand and looked at me, still uncomprehending…
“Is that the first time she’s been singing?”
“No, she sometimes sings when you’re not home,” Lukeria answered….

The poor, cracked broken note began to ring in my soul once more. I could scarcely catch my breath. The shroud was falling from my eyes! Is she could start singing in my presence, it meant she had forgotten about me – that was clear and that was dreadful. …

I ran up the stairs in a great rush… I came into the room; she was sitting in her usual place sewing, her head bent over her work. but wasn’t singing any more. She cast a passing, uncurious glance at me; in fact, it was not a glance but merely an instinctive and indifferent gesture, the kind directed at anyone who enters a room.

I made straight for her and took a chair close beside her, like one scarcely in his right mind. She glanced quickly at me, as if taking fright; I took her hand and don’t recall what I said to her – or rather, what I tried to say to her, because I couldn’t even speak properly… I was gasping for breath…

“Let’s talk … you know .. say something to me!” I babbled something stupid. How could I collect my thoughts? She shuddered and drew back in great fear, staring at my face. But suddenly I could see stern amazement in her eyes. Amazement, yes, and it was stern. She looked at me wide-eyed. This sternness, this stern amazement was like a blow that shattered my skull. “So is it still love you want? Is it love?” This was what her amazed expression seemed to be asking me, although she still didn’t say a word. But I could read everything, absolutely everything. I felt a tremor pass through my whole being and I simply collapsed at her feet. Yes, I fell down at her feet… I kissed her feet in happiness, in ecstasy…I didn’t leave her the whole evening. I kept telling her that I would take her to Boulogne to bathe in the sea – right away, this moment, in other day; that I would close the shop…; that everything would begin anew…. She listened, growing more frightened all the while… She wept. “And I thought you would just let me go on like that.” This burst forth from her involuntarily, so much so that perhaps she wasn’t even aware of saying it….Lukeria says… that after I left the house, and only some twenty minures before I came back, she suddenly went to the mistress in our room to ask something… and noticed that her icon (that same icon of the Virgin Mary) had been removed from the icon case and was standing before her on the table; the mistress, it seemed, has just been praying before it.
“What is it, ma’am?”
“It’s nothing, Lukeria, you may go… Wait, Lukeria.”
She came up to Lukeria and kissed her.
“Are you happy, ma’am?” Lukeria asked.
“Yes, Lukeria.”
“The master should have come to ask your forgiveness a long time ago, ma’am. Thanks be to God you’ve made it up.”
“That’s fine, Lukeria,” She said. “You may go now.”
And she smiled, but oddly somehow…
I looked at her, turned and went out on tiptoe, wondering about her. But suddenly I heard the window open. Right away I went in to tell her that it was still cool outside and she might catch a cold if she wasn’t careful. And I saw that she’d climbed up on the windowsill and was standing upright in the open window, her back to me, holding the icon. My heart just sank inside me, and I shouted “Ma’am, ma’am!” She heard me and made a move as if to turn toward me, but didn’t . She took a step, pressed the icon to her bosom, and leapt out the window!”I remember only that when I came through the gate she was still warm… and she was lying there with the icon.

( Photo by Kino       )
   
THE END
* * *

“The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 1 million people die each year from suicide… A suicidal person may not ask for help, but that doesn’t mean that help isn’t wanted. Most people who commit suicide don’t want to die—they just want to stop hurting. Suicide prevention starts with recognizing the warning signs and taking them seriously. If you think a friend or family member is considering suicide, you might be afraid to bring up the subject. But talking openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings can save a life.”

(From “Spotting the Signs and Helping a Suicidal Person” )

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