The Possessed

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Chapter VII - A Meeting


VIRGINSKY LIVED IN HIS OWN house, or rather his wife’s, in Muravyin Street. It was a wooden house of one story, and there were no lodgers in it. On the pretext of Virginsky’s-name-day party, about fifteen guests were assembled; but the entertainment was not in the least like an ordinary provincial name-day party. From the very beginning of their married life the husband and wife had agreed once for all that it was utterly stupid to invite friends to celebrate name-days, and that “there is nothing to rejoice about in fact.” In a few years they had succeeded in completely cutting themselves off from all society. Though he was a man of some ability, and by no means very poor, he somehow seemed to every one an eccentric fellow who was fond of solitude, and, what’s more, “stuck up in conversation.” Madame Virginsky was a midwife by profession—and by that very fact was on the lowest rung of the social ladder, lower even than the priest’s wife in spite of her husband’s rank as an officer. But she was conspicuously lacking in the humility befitting her position. And after her very stupid and unpardonably open liaison on principle with Captain Lebyadkin, a notorious rogue, even the most indulgent of our ladies turned away from her with marked contempt. But Madame Virginsky accepted all this as though it were what she wanted. It is remarkable that those very ladies applied to Arina Prohorovna (that is, Madame Virginsky) when they were in an interesting condition, rather than to any one of the other three accoucheuses of the town. She was sent for even by country families living in the neighbourhood, so great was the belief in her knowledge, luck, and skill in critical cases. It ended in her practising only among the wealthiest ladies; she was greedy of money. Feeling her power to the full, she ended by not putting herself out for anyone. Possibly on purpose, indeed, in her practice in the best houses she used to scare nervous patients by the most incredible and nihilistic disregard of good manners, or by jeering at “everything holy,” at the very time when “everything holy” might have come in most useful. Our town doctor, Rozanov—he too was an accoucheur—asserted most positively that on one occasion when a patient in labour was crying out and calling on the name of the Almighty, a free-thinking sally from Arina Prohorovna, fired off like a pistol-shot, had so terrifying an effect on the patient that it greatly accelerated her delivery.

But though she was a nihilist, Madame Virginsky did not, when occasion arose, disdain social or even old-fashioned superstitions and customs if they could be of any advantage to herself. She would never, for instance, have stayed away from a baby’s christening, and always put on a green silk dress with a train and adorned her chignon with curls and ringlets for such events, though at other times she positively revelled in slovenliness. And though during the ceremony she always maintained “the most insolent air,” so that she put the clergy to confusion, yet when it was over she invariably handed champagne to the guests (it was for that that she came and dressed up), and it was no use trying to take the glass without a contribution to her “porridge bowl.”

The guests who assembled that evening at Virginsky’s (mostly men) had a casual and exceptional air. There was no supper nor cards. In the middle of the large drawing-room, which was papered with extremely old blue paper, two tables had been put together and covered with a large though not quite clean table-cloth, and on them two samovars were boiling. The end of the table was taken up by a huge tray with twenty-five glasses on it and a basket with ordinary French bread cut into a number of slices, as one sees it in genteel boarding-schools for boys or girls. The tea was poured out by a maiden lady of thirty, Arina Prohorovna’s sister, a silent and malevolent creature, with flaxen hair and no eyebrows, who shared her sister’s progressive ideas and was an object of terror to Virginsky himself in domestic life. There were only three ladies in the room: the lady of the house, her eyebrowless sister, and Virginsky’s sister, a girl who had just arrived from Petersburg. Arina Prohorovna, a good-looking and buxom woman of seven-and-twenty, rather dishevelled, in an everyday greenish woollen dress, was sitting scanning the guests with her bold eyes, and her look seemed in haste to say, “You see I am not in the least afraid of anything.” Miss Virginsky, a rosy-cheeked student and a nihilist, who was also good-looking, short, plump and round as a little ball, had settled herself beside Arina Prohorovna, almost in her travelling clothes. She held a roll of paper in her hand, and scrutinised the guests with impatient and roving eyes. Virginsky himself was rather unwell that evening, but he came in and sat in an easy chair by the tea-table. All the guests were sitting down too, and the orderly way in which they were ranged on chairs suggested a meeting. Evidently all were expecting something and were filling up the interval with loud but irrelevant conversation. When Stavrogin and Verhovensky appeared there was a sudden hush.

But I must be allowed to give a few explanations to make things clear.

I believe that all these people had come together in the agreeable expectation of hearing something particularly interesting, and had notice of it beforehand. They were the flower of the reddest Radicalism of our ancient town, and had been carefully picked out by Virginsky for this “meeting.” I may remark, too, that some of them (though not very many) had never visited him before. Of course most of the guests had no clear idea why they had been summoned. It was true that at that time all took Pyotr Stepanovitch for a fully authorised emissary from abroad; this idea had somehow taken root among them at once and naturally flattered them. And yet among the citizens assembled ostensibly to keep a name-day, there were some who had been approached with definite proposals. Pyotr Verhovensky had succeeded in getting together a “quintet” amongst us like the one he had already formed in Moscow and, as appeared later, in our province among the officers. It was said that he had another in X province. This quintet of the elect were sitting now at the general table, and very skilfully succeeded in giving themselves the air of being quite ordinary people, so that no one could have known them. They were—since it is no longer a secret—first Liputin, then Virginsky himself, then Shigalov (a gentleman with long ears, the brother of Madame Virginsky), Lyamshin, and lastly a strange person called Tolkatchenko, a man of forty, who was famed for his vast knowledge of the people, especially of thieves and robbers. He used to frequent the taverns on purpose (though not only with the object of studying the people), and plumed himself on his shabby clothes, tarred boots, and crafty wink and a flourish of peasant phrases. Lyamshin had once or twice brought him to Stepan Trofimovitch’s gatherings, where, however, he did not make a great sensation. He used to make his appearance in the town from time to time, chiefly when he was out of a job; he was employed on the railway.

Every one of these fine champions had formed this first group in the fervent conviction that their quintet was only one of hundreds and thousands of similar groups scattered all over Russia, and that they all depended on some immense central but secret power, which in its turn was intimately connected with the revolutionary movement all over Europe. But I regret to say that even at that time there was beginning to be dissension among them. Though they had ever since the spring been expecting Pyotr Verhovensky, whose coming had been heralded first by Tolkatchenko and then by the arrival of Shigalov, though they had expected extraordinary miracles from him, and though they had responded to his first summons without the slightest criticism, yet they had no sooner formed the quintet than they all somehow seemed to feel insulted; and I really believe it was owing to the promptitude with which they consented to join. They had joined, of course, from a not ignoble feeling of shame, for fear people might say afterwards that they had not dared to join; still they felt Pyotr Verhovensky ought to have appreciated their heroism and have rewarded it by telling them some really important bits of news at least. But Verhovensky was not at all inclined to satisfy their legitimate curiosity, and told them nothing but what was necessary; he treated them in general with great sternness and even rather casually. This was positively irritating, and Comrade Shigalov was already egging the others on to insist on his “explaining himself,” though, of course, not at Virginsky’s, where so many outsiders were present.

I have an idea that the above-mentioned members of the first quintet were disposed to suspect that among the guests of Virginsky’s that evening some were members of other groups, unknown to them, belonging to the same secret organisation and founded in the town by the same Verhovensky; so that in fact all present were suspecting one another, and posed in various ways to one another, which gave the whole party a very perplexing and even romantic air. Yet there were persons present who were beyond all suspicion. For instance, a major in the service, a near relation of Virginsky, a perfectly innocent person who had not been invited but had come of himself for the name-day celebration, so that it was impossible not to receive him. But Virginsky was quite unperturbed, as the major was “incapable of betraying them”; for in spite of his stupidity he had all his life been fond of dropping in wherever extreme Radicals met; he did not sympathise with their ideas himself, but was very fond of listening to them. What’s more, he had even been compromised indeed. It had happened in his youth that whole bundles of manifestoes and of numbers of The Bell had passed through his hands, and although he had been afraid even to open them, yet he would have considered it absolutely contemptible to refuse to distribute them—and there are such people in Russia even to this day.

The rest of the guests were either types of honourable amour-propre crushed and embittered, or types of the generous impulsiveness of ardent youth. There were two or three teachers, of whom one, a lame man of forty-five, a master in the high school, was a very malicious and strikingly vain person; and two or three officers. Of the latter, one very young artillery officer who had only just come from a military training school, a silent lad who had not yet made friends with anyone, turned up now at Virginsky’s with a pencil in his hand, and, scarcely taking any part in the conversation, continually made notes in his notebook. Everybody saw this, but every one pretended not to. There was, too, an idle divinity student who had helped Lyamshin to put indecent photographs into the gospel-woman’s pack. He was a solid youth with a free-and-easy though mistrustful manner, with an unchangeably satirical smile, together with a calm air of triumphant faith in his own perfection. There was also present, I don’t know why, the mayor’s son, that unpleasant and prematurely exhausted youth to whom I have referred already in telling the story of the lieutenant’s little wife. He was silent the whole evening. Finally there was a very enthusiastic and tousle-headed schoolboy of eighteen, who sat with the gloomy air of a young man whose dignity has been wounded, evidently distressed by his eighteen years. This infant was already the head of an independent group of conspirators which had been formed in the highest class of the gymnasium, as it came out afterwards to the surprise of every one.

I haven’t mentioned Shatov. He was there at the farthest corner of the table, his chair pushed back a little out of the row. He gazed at the ground, was gloomily silent, refused tea and bread, and did not for one instant let his cap go out of his hand, as though to show that he was not a visitor, but had come on business, and when he liked would get up and go away. Kirillov was not far from him. He, too, was very silent, but he did not look at the ground; on the contrary, he scrutinised intently every speaker with his fixed, lustreless eyes, and listened to everything without the slightest emotion or surprise. Some of the visitors who had never seen him before stole thoughtful glances at him. I can’t say whether Madame Virginsky knew anything about the existence of the quintet. I imagine she knew everything and from her husband. The girl-student, of course, took no part in anything; but she had an anxiety of her own: she intended to stay only a day or two and then to go on farther and farther from one university town to another “to show active sympathy with the sufferings of poor students and to rouse them to protest.” She was taking with her some hundreds of copies of a lithographed appeal, I believe of her own composition. It is remarkable that the schoolboy conceived an almost murderous hatred for her from the first moment, though he saw her for the first time in his life; and she felt the same for him. The major was her uncle, and met her to-day for the first time after ten years. When Stavrogin and Verhovensky came in, her cheeks were as red as cranberries: she had just quarrelled with her uncle over his views on the woman question.


With conspicuous nonchalance Verhovensky lounged in the chair at the upper end of the table, almost without greeting anyone. His expression was disdainful and even haughty. Stavrogin bowed politely, but in spite of the fact that they were all only waiting for them, everybody, as though acting on instruction, appeared scarcely to notice them. The lady of the house turned severely to Stavrogin as soon as he was seated.

“Stavrogin, will you have tea?”

“Please,” he answered.

“Tea for Stavrogin,” she commanded her sister at the samovar. “And you, will you?” (This was to Verhovensky.)

“Of course. What a question to ask a visitor! And give me cream too; you always give one such filthy stuff by way of tea, and with a name-day party in the house!”

“What, you believe in keeping name-days too!” the girl-student laughed suddenly. “We were just talking of that.”

“That’s stale,” muttered the schoolboy at the other end of the table.

“What’s stale? To disregard conventions, even the most innocent is not stale; on the contrary, to the disgrace of every one, so far it’s a novelty,” the girl-student answered instantly, darting forward on her chair. “Besides, there are no innocent conventions,” she added with intensity.

“I only meant,” cried the schoolboy with tremendous excitement, “to say that though conventions of course are stale and must be eradicated, yet about name-days everybody knows that they are stupid and very stale to waste precious time upon, which has been wasted already all over the world, so that it would be as well to sharpen one’s wits on something more useful.…”

“You drag it out so, one can’t understand what you mean,” shouted the girl.

“I think that every one has a right to express an opinion as well as every one else, and if I want to express my opinion like anybody else …”

“No one is attacking your right to give an opinion,” the lady of the house herself cut in sharply. “You were only asked not to ramble because no one can make out what you mean.”

“But allow me to remark that you are not treating me with respect. If I couldn’t fully express my thought, it’s not from want of thought but from too much thought,” the schoolboy muttered, almost in despair, losing his thread completely.

“If you don’t know how to talk, you’d better keep quiet,” blurted out the girl.

The schoolboy positively jumped from his chair.

“I only wanted to state,” he shouted, crimson with shame and afraid to look about him, “that you only wanted to show off your cleverness because Mr. Stavrogin came in—so there!”

“That’s a nasty and immoral idea and shows the worthlessness of your development. I beg you not to address me again,” the girl rattled off.

“Stavrogin,” began the lady of the house, “they’ve been discussing the rights of the family before you came—this officer here”—she nodded towards her relation, the major—“and, of course, I am not going to worry you with such stale nonsense, which has been dealt with long ago. But how have the rights and duties of the family come about in the superstitious form in which they exist at present? That’s the question. What’s your opinion?”

“What do you mean by ‘come about’?” Stavrogin asked in his turn.

“We know, for instance, that the superstition about God came from thunder and lightning.” The girl-student rushed into the fray again, staring at Stavrogin with her eyes almost jumping out of her head. “It’s well known that primitive man, scared by thunder and lightning, made a god of the unseen enemy, feeling their weakness before it. But how did the superstition of the family arise? How did the family itself arise?”

“That’s not quite the same thing.…” Madame Virginsky tried to check her.

“I think the answer to this question wouldn’t be quite discreet,” answered Stavrogin.

“How so?” said the girl-student, craning forward suddenly. But there was an audible titter in the group of teachers, which was at once caught up at the other end by Lyamshin and the schoolboy and followed by a hoarse chuckle from the major.

“You ought to write vaudevilles,” Madame Virginsky observed to Stavrogin.

“It does you no credit, I don’t know what your name is,” the girl rapped out with positive indignation.

“And don’t you be too forward,” boomed the major. “You are a young lady and you ought to behave modestly, and you keep jumping about as though you were sitting on a needle.”

“Kindly hold your tongue and don’t address me familiarly with your nasty comparisons. I’ve never seen you before and I don’t recognise the relationship.”

“But I am your uncle; I used to carry you about when you were a baby!”

“I don’t care what babies you used to carry about. I didn’t ask you to carry me. It must have been a pleasure to you to do so, you rude officer. And allow me to observe, don’t dare to address me so familiarly, unless it’s as a fellow-citizen. I forbid you to do it, once for all.”

“There, they are all like that!” cried the major, banging the table with his fist and addressing Stavrogin, who was sitting opposite. “But, allow me, I am fond of Liberalism and modern ideas, and I am fond of listening to clever conversation; masculine conversation, though, I warn you. But to listen to these women, these nightly windmills—no, that makes me ache all over! Don’t wriggle about!” he shouted to the girl, who was leaping up from her chair. “No, it’s my turn to speak, I’ve been insulted.”

“You can’t say anything yourself, and only hinder other people talking,” the lady of the house grumbled indignantly.

“No, I will have my say,” said the major hotly, addressing Stavrogin. “I reckon on you, Mr. Stavrogin, as a fresh person who has only just come on the scene, though I haven’t the honour of knowing you. Without men they’ll perish like flies—that’s what I think. All their woman question is only lack of originality. I assure you that all this woman question has been invented for them by men in foolishness and to their own hurt. I only thank God I am not married. There’s not the slightest variety in them, they can’t even invent a simple pattern; they have to get men to invent them for them! Here I used to carry her in my arms, used to dance the mazurka with her when she was ten years old; to-day she’s come, naturally I fly to embrace her, and at the second word she tells me there’s no God. She might have waited a little, she was in too great a hurry! Clever people don’t believe, I dare say; but that’s from their cleverness. But you, chicken, what do you know about God, I said to her. ‘Some student taught you, and if he’d taught you to light the lamp before the ikons you would have lighted it.’”

“You keep telling lies, you are a very spiteful person. I proved to you just now the untenability of your position,” the girl answered contemptuously, as though disdaining further explanations with such a man. “I told you just now that we’ve all been taught in the Catechism if you honour your father and your parents you will live long and have wealth. That’s in the Ten Commandments. If God thought it necessary to offer rewards for love, your God must be immoral. That’s how I proved it to you. It wasn’t the second word, and it was because you asserted your rights. It’s not my fault if you are stupid and don’t understand even now. You are offended and you are spiteful—and that’s what explains all your generation.”

“You’re a goose!” said the major.

“And you are a fool!”

“You can call me names!”

“Excuse me, Kapiton Maximitch, you told me yourself you don’t believe in God,” Liputin piped from the other end of the table.

“What if I did say so—that’s a different matter. I believe, perhaps, only not altogether. Even if I don’t believe altogether, still I don’t say God ought to be shot. I used to think about God before I left the hussars. From all the poems you would think that hussars do nothing but carouse and drink. Yes, I did drink, maybe, but would you believe it, I used to jump out of bed at night and stood crossing myself before the images with nothing but my socks on, praying to God to give me faith; for even then I couldn’t be at peace as to whether there was a God or not. It used to fret me so! In the morning, of course, one would amuse oneself and one’s faith would seem to be lost again; and in fact I’ve noticed that faith always seems to be less in the daytime.”

“Haven’t you any cards?” asked Verhovensky, with a mighty yawn, addressing Madame Virginsky.

“I sympathise with your question, I sympathise entirely,” the girl-student broke in hotly, flushed with indignation at the major’s words.

“We are wasting precious time listening to silly talk,” snapped out the lady of the house, and she looked reprovingly at her husband.

The girl pulled herself together.

“I wanted to make a statement to the meeting concerning the sufferings of the students and their protest, but as time is being wasted in immoral conversation …”

“There’s no such thing as moral or immoral,” the schoolboy brought out, unable to restrain himself as soon as the girl began.

“I knew that, Mr. Schoolboy, long before you were taught it.”

“And I maintain,” he answered savagely, “that you are a child come from Petersburg to enlighten us all, though we know for ourselves the commandment ‘honour thy father and thy mother,’ which you could not repeat correctly; and the fact that it’s immoral every one in Russia knows from Byelinsky.”

“Are we ever to have an end of this?” Madame Virginsky said resolutely to her husband. As the hostess, she blushed for the ineptitude of the conversation, especially as she noticed smiles and even astonishment among the guests who had been invited for the first time.

“Gentlemen,” said Virginsky, suddenly lifting up his voice, “if anyone wishes to say anything more nearly connected with our business, or has any statement to make, I call upon him to do so without wasting time.”

“I’ll venture to ask one question,” said the lame teacher suavely. He had been sitting particularly decorously and had not spoken till then. “I should like to know, are we some sort of meeting, or are we simply a gathering of ordinary mortals paying a visit? I ask simply for the sake of order and so as not to remain in ignorance.”

This “sly” question made an impression. People looked at each other, every one expecting someone else to answer, and suddenly all, as though at a word of command, turned their eyes to Verhovensky and Stavrogin.

“I suggest our voting on the answer to the question whether we are a meeting or not,” said Madame Virginsky.

“I entirely agree with the suggestion,” Liputin chimed in, “though the question is rather vague.”

“I agree too.”

“And so do I,” cried voices. “I too think it would make our proceedings more in order,” confirmed Virginsky.

“To the vote then,” said his wife. “Lyamshin, please sit down to the piano; you can give your vote from there when the voting begins.”

“Again!” cried Lyamshin. “I’ve strummed enough for you.”

“I beg you most particularly, sit down and play. Don’t you care to do anything for the cause?”

“But I assure you, Arina Prohorovna, nobody is eavesdropping. It’s only your fancy. Besides, the windows are high, and people would not understand if they did hear.”

“We don’t understand ourselves,” someone muttered. “But I tell you one must always be on one’s guard. I mean in case there should be spies,” she explained to Verhovensky. “Let them hear from the street that we have music and a name-day party.”

“Hang it all!” Lyamshin swore, and sitting down to the piano, began strumming a valse, banging on the keys almost with his fists, at random.

“I propose that those who want it to be a meeting should put up their right hands,” Madame Virginsky proposed.

Some put them up, others did not. Some held them up and then put them down again and then held them up again. “Foo! I don’t understand it at all,” one officer shouted. “I don’t either,” cried the other.

“Oh, I understand,” cried a third. “If it’s yes, you hold your hand up.”

“But what does ‘yes’ mean?”

“Means a meeting.”

“No, it means not a meeting.”

“I voted for a meeting,” cried the schoolboy to Madame Virginsky.

“Then why didn’t you hold up your hand?”

“I was looking at you. You didn’t hold up yours, so I didn’t hold up mine.”

“How stupid! I didn’t hold up my hand because I proposed it. Gentlemen, now I propose the contrary. Those who want a meeting, sit still and do nothing; those who don’t, hold up their right hands.”

“Those who don’t want it?” inquired the schoolboy. “Are you doing it on purpose?” cried Madame Virginsky wrathfully.

“No. Excuse me, those who want it, or those who don’t want it? For one must know that definitely,” cried two or three voices.

“Those who don’t want it—those who don’t want it.”

“Yes, but what is one to do, hold up one’s hand or not hold it up if one doesn’t want it?” cried an officer.

“Ech, we are not accustomed to constitutional methods yet!” remarked the major.

“Mr. Lyamshin, excuse me, but you are thumping so that no one can hear anything,” observed the lame teacher.

“But, upon my word, Arina Prohorovna, nobody is listening, really!” cried Lyamshin, jumping up. “I won’t play! I’ve come to you as a visitor, not as a drummer!”

“Gentlemen,” Virginsky went on, “answer verbally, are we a meeting or not?”

“We are! We are!” was heard on all sides. “If so, there’s no need to vote, that’s enough. Are you satisfied, gentlemen? Is there any need to put it to the vote?”

“No need—no need, we understand.”

“Perhaps someone doesn’t want it to be a meeting?”

“No, no; we all want it.”

“But what does ‘meeting’ mean?” cried a voice. No one answered.

“We must choose a chairman,” people cried from different parts of the room.

“Our host, of course, our host!”

“Gentlemen, if so,” Virginsky, the chosen chairman, began, “I propose my original motion. If anyone wants to say anything more relevant to the subject, or has some statement to make, let him bring it forward without loss of time.”

There was a general silence. The eyes of all were turned again on Verhovensky and Stavrogin.

“Verhovensky, have you no statement to make?” Madame Virginsky asked him directly.

“Nothing whatever,” he answered, yawning and stretching on his chair. “But I should like a glass of brandy.”

“Stavrogin, don’t you want to?”

“Thank you, I don’t drink.”

“I mean don’t you want to speak, not don’t you want brandy.”

“To speak, what about? No, I don’t want to.”

“They’ll bring you some brandy,” she answered Verhovensky.

The girl-student got up. She had darted up several times already.

“I have come to make a statement about the sufferings of poor students and the means of rousing them to protest.”

But she broke off. At the other end of the table a rival had risen, and all eyes turned to him. Shigalov, the man with the long ears, slowly rose from his seat with a gloomy and sullen air and mournfully laid on the table a thick notebook filled with extremely small handwriting. He remained standing in silence. Many people looked at the notebook in consternation, but Liputin, Virginsky, and the lame teacher seemed pleased.

“I ask leave to address the meeting,” Shigalov pronounced sullenly but resolutely.

“You have leave.” Virginsky gave his sanction.

The orator sat down, was silent for half a minute, and pronounced in a solemn voice,


“Here’s the brandy,” the sister who had been pouring out tea and had gone to fetch brandy rapped out, contemptuously and disdainfully putting the bottle before Verhovensky, together with the wineglass which she brought in her fingers without a tray or a plate.

The interrupted orator made a dignified pause.

“Never mind, go on, I am not listening,” cried Verhovensky, pouring himself out a glass.

“Gentlemen, asking your attention and, as you will see later, soliciting your aid in a matter of the first importance,” Shigalov began again, “I must make some prefatory remarks.”

“Arina Prohorovna, haven’t you some scissors?” Pyotr Stepanovitch asked suddenly.

“What do you want scissors for?” she asked, with wide-open eyes.

“I’ve forgotten to cut my nails; I’ve been meaning to for the last three days,” he observed, scrutinising his long and dirty nails with unruffled composure.

Arina Prohorovna crimsoned, but Miss Virginsky seemed pleased.

“I believe I saw them just now on the window.” She got up from the table, went and found the scissors, and at once brought them. Pyotr Stepanovitch did not even look at her, took the scissors, and set to work with them. Arina Prohorovna grasped that these were realistic manners, and was ashamed of her sensitiveness. People looked at one another in silence. The lame teacher looked vindictively and enviously at Verhovensky. Shigalov went on.

“Dedicating my energies to the study of the social organisation which is in the future to replace the present condition of things, I’ve come to the conviction that all makers of social systems from ancient times up to the present year, 187-, have been dreamers, tellers of fairy-tales, fools who contradicted themselves, who understood nothing of natural science and the strange animal called man. Plato, Rousseau, Fourier, columns of aluminium, are only fit for sparrows and not for human society. But, now that we are all at last preparing to act, a new form of social organisation is essential. In order to avoid further uncertainty, I propose my own system of world-organisation. Here it is.” He tapped the notebook. “I wanted to expound my views to the meeting in the most concise form possible, but I see that I should need to add a great many verbal explanations, and so the whole exposition would occupy at least ten evenings, one for each of my chapters.” (There was the sound of laughter.) “I must add, besides, that my system is not yet complete.” (Laughter again.) “I am perplexed by my own data and my conclusion is a direct contradiction of the original idea with which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that there can be no solution of the social problem but mine.”

The laughter grew louder and louder, but it came chiefly from the younger and less initiated visitors. There was an expression of some annoyance on the faces of Madame Virginsky, Liputin, and the lame teacher.

“If you’ve been unsuccessful in making your system consistent, and have been reduced to despair yourself, what could we do with it?” one officer observed warily.

“You are right, Mr. Officer”—Shigalov turned sharply to him—“especially in using the word despair. Yes, I am reduced to despair. Nevertheless, nothing can take the place of the system set forth in my book, and there is no other way out of it; no one can invent anything else. And so I hasten without loss of time to invite the whole society to listen for ten evenings to my book and then give their opinions of it. If the members are unwilling to listen to me, let us break up from the start—the men to take up service under government, the women to their cooking; for if you reject my solution you’ll find no other, none whatever! If they let the opportunity slip, it will simply be their loss, for they will be bound to come back to it again.”

There was a stir in the company. “Is he mad, or what?” voices asked.

“So the whole point lies in Shigalov’s despair,” Lyamshin commented, “and the essential question is whether he must despair or not?”

“Shigalov’s being on the brink of despair is a personal question,” declared the schoolboy.

“I propose we put it to the vote how far Shigalov’s despair affects the common cause, and at the same time whether it’s worth while listening to him or not,” an officer suggested gaily.

“That’s not right.” The lame teacher put in his spoke at last. As a rule he spoke with a rather mocking smile, so that it was difficult to make out whether he was in earnest or joking. “That’s not right, gentlemen. Mr. Shigalov is too much devoted to his task and is also too modest. I know his book. He suggests as a final solution of the question the division of mankind into two unequal parts. One-tenth enjoys absolute liberty and unbounded power over the other nine-tenths. The others have to give up all individuality and become, so to speak, a herd, and, through boundless submission, will by a series of regenerations attain primæval innocence, something like the Garden of Eden. They’ll have to work, however. The measures proposed by the author for depriving nine-tenths of mankind of their freedom and transforming them into a herd through the education of whole generations are very remarkable, founded on the facts of nature and highly logical. One may not agree with some of the deductions, but it would be difficult to doubt the intelligence and knowledge of the author. It’s a pity that the time required—ten evenings—is impossible to arrange for, or we might hear a great deal that’s interesting.”

“Can you be in earnest?” Madame Virginsky addressed the lame gentleman with a shade of positive uneasiness in her voice, “when that man doesn’t know what to do with people and so turns nine-tenths of them into slaves? I’ve suspected him for a long time.”

“You say that of your own brother?” asked the lame man.

“Relationship? Are you laughing at me?”

“And besides, to work for aristocrats and to obey them as though they were gods is contemptible!” observed the girl-student fiercely.

“What I propose is not contemptible; it’s paradise, an earthly paradise, and there can be no other on earth,” Shigalov pronounced authoritatively.

“For my part,” said Lyamshin, “if I didn’t know what to do with nine-tenths of mankind, I’d take them and blow them up into the air instead of putting them in paradise. I’d only leave a handful of educated people, who would live happily ever afterwards on scientific principles.”

“No one but a buffoon can talk like that!” cried the girl, flaring up.

“He is a buffoon, but he is of use,” Madame Virginsky whispered to her.

“And possibly that would be the best solution of the problem,” said Shigalov, turning hotly to Lyamshin. “You certainly don’t know what a profound thing you’ve succeeded in saying, my merry friend. But as it’s hardly possible to carry out your idea, we must confine ourselves to an earthly paradise, since that’s what they call it.”

“This is pretty thorough rot,” broke, as though involuntarily, from Verhovensky. Without even raising his eyes, however, he went on cutting his nails with perfect nonchalance.

“Why is it rot?” The lame man took it up instantly, as though he had been lying in wait for his first words to catch at them. “Why is it rot? Mr. Shigalov is somewhat fanatical in his love for humanity, but remember that Fourier, still more Cabet and even Proudhon himself, advocated a number of the most despotic and even fantastic measures. Mr. Shigalov is perhaps far more sober in his suggestions than they are. I assure you that when one reads his book it’s almost impossible not to agree with some things. He is perhaps less far from realism than anyone and his earthly paradise is almost the real one—if it ever existed—for the loss of which man is always sighing.”

“I knew I was in for something,” Verhovensky muttered again.

“Allow me,” said the lame man, getting more and more excited. “Conversations and arguments about the future organisation of society are almost an actual necessity for all thinking people nowadays. Herzen was occupied with nothing else all his life. Byelinsky, as I know on very good authority, used to spend whole evenings with his friends debating and settling beforehand even the minutest, so to speak, domestic, details of the social organisation of the future.”

“Some people go crazy over it,” the major observed suddenly.

“We are more likely to arrive at something by talking, anyway, than by sitting silent and posing as dictators,” Liputin hissed, as though at last venturing to begin the attack.

“I didn’t mean Shigalov when I said it was rot,” Verhovensky mumbled. “You see, gentlemen,”—he raised his eyes a trifle—“to my mind all these books, Fourier, Cabet, all this talk about the right to work, and Shigalov’s theories—are all like novels of which one can write a hundred thousand—an æsthetic entertainment. I can understand that in this little town you are bored, so you rush to ink and paper.”

“Excuse me,” said the lame man, wriggling on his chair, “though we are provincials and of course objects of commiseration on that ground, yet we know that so far nothing has happened in the world new enough to be worth our weeping at having missed it. It is suggested to us in various pamphlets made abroad and secretly distributed that we should unite and form groups with the sole object of bringing about universal destruction. It’s urged that, however much you tinker with the world, you can’t make a good job of it, but that by cutting off a hundred million heads and so lightening one’s burden, one can jump over the ditch more safely. A fine idea, no doubt, but quite as impracticable as Shigalov’s theories, which you referred to just now so contemptuously.”

“Well, but I haven’t come here for discussion.” Verhovensky let drop this significant phrase, and, as though quite unaware of his blunder, drew the candle nearer to him that he might see better.

“It’s a pity, a great pity, that you haven’t come for discussion, and it’s a great pity that you are so taken up just now with your toilet.”

“What’s my toilet to you?”

“To remove a hundred million heads is as difficult as to transform the world by propaganda. Possibly more difficult, especially in Russia,” Liputin ventured again.

“It’s Russia they rest their hopes on now,” said an officer.

“We’ve heard they are resting their hopes on it,” interposed the lame man. “We know that a mysterious finger is pointing to our delightful country as the land most fitted to accomplish the great task. But there’s this: by the gradual solution of the problem by propaganda I shall gain something, anyway—I shall have some pleasant talk, at least, and shall even get some recognition from government for my services to the cause of society. But in the second way, by the rapid method of cutting off a hundred million heads, what benefit shall I get personally? If you began advocating that, your tongue might be cut out.”

“Yours certainly would be,” observed Verhovensky.

“You see. And as under the most favourable circumstances you would not get through such a massacre in less than fifty or at the best thirty years—for they are not sheep, you know, and perhaps they would not let themselves be slaughtered—wouldn’t it be better to pack one’s bundle and migrate to some quiet island beyond calm seas and there close one’s eyes tranquilly? Believe me”—he tapped the table significantly with his finger—“you will only promote emigration by such propaganda and nothing else!”

He finished evidently triumphant. He was one of the intellects of the province. Liputin smiled slyly, Virginsky listened rather dejectedly, the others followed the discussion with great attention, especially the ladies and officers. They all realised that the advocate of the hundred million heads theory had been driven into a corner, and waited to see what would come of it.

“That was a good saying of yours, though,” Verhovensky mumbled more carelessly than ever, in fact with an air of positive boredom. “Emigration is a good idea. But all the same, if in spite of all the obvious disadvantages you foresee, more and more come forward every day ready to fight for the common cause, it will be able to do without you. It’s a new religion, my good friend, coming to take the place of the old one. That’s why so many fighters come forward, and it’s a big movement. You’d better emigrate! And, you know, I should advise Dresden, not ‘the calm islands.’ To begin with, it’s a town that has never been visited by an epidemic, and as you are a man of culture, no doubt you are afraid of death. Another thing, it’s near the Russian frontier, so you can more easily receive your income from your beloved Fatherland. Thirdly, it contains what are called treasures of art, and you are a man of æsthetic tastes, formerly a teacher of literature, I believe. And, finally, it has a miniature Switzerland of its own—to provide you with poetic inspiration, for no doubt you write verse. In fact it’s a treasure in a nutshell!” There was a general movement, especially among the officers. In another instant they would have all begun talking at once. But the lame man rose irritably to the bait.

“No, perhaps I am not going to give up the common cause. You must understand that …”

“What, would you join the quintet if I proposed it to you?” Verhovensky boomed suddenly, and he laid down the scissors.

Every one seemed startled. The mysterious man had revealed himself too freely. He had even spoken openly of the “quintet.”

“Every one feels himself to be an honest man and will not shirk his part in the common cause”—the lame man tried to wriggle out of it—“but …”

“No, this is not a question which allows of a but,” Verhovensky interrupted harshly and peremptorily. “I tell you, gentlemen, I must have a direct answer. I quite understand that, having come here and having called you together myself, I am bound to give you explanations” (again an unexpected revelation), “but I can give you none till I know what is your attitude to the subject. To cut the matter short—for we can’t go on talking for another thirty years as people have done for the last thirty—I ask you which you prefer: the slow way, which consists in the composition of socialistic romances and the academic ordering of the destinies of humanity a thousand years hence, while despotism will swallow the savoury morsels which would almost fly into your mouths of themselves if you’d take a little trouble; or do you, whatever it may imply, prefer a quicker way which will at last untie your hands, and will let humanity make its own social organisation in freedom and in action, not on paper? They shout ‘a hundred million heads’; that may be only a metaphor; but why be afraid of it if, with the slow day-dream on paper, despotism in the course of some hundred years will devour not a hundred but five hundred million heads? Take note too that an incurable invalid will not be cured whatever prescriptions are written for him on paper. On the contrary, if there is delay, he will grow so corrupt that he will infect us too and contaminate all the fresh forces which one might still reckon upon now, so that we shall all at last come to grief together. I thoroughly agree that it’s extremely agreeable to chatter liberally and eloquently, but action is a little trying.… However, I am no hand at talking; I came here with communications, and so I beg all the honourable company not to vote, but simply and directly to state which you prefer: walking at a snail’s pace in the marsh, or putting on full steam to get across it?”

“I am certainly for crossing at full steam!” cried the schoolboy in an ecstasy.

“So am I,” Lyamshin chimed in.

“There can be no doubt about the choice,” muttered an officer, followed by another, then by someone else. What struck them all most was that Verhovensky had come “with communications” and had himself just promised to speak.

“Gentlemen, I see that almost all decide for the policy of the manifestoes,” he said, looking round at the company.

“All, all!” cried the majority of voices.

“I confess I am rather in favour of a more humane policy,” said the major, “but as all are on the other side, I go with all the rest.”

“It appears, then, that even you are not opposed to it,” said Verhovensky, addressing the lame man.

“I am not exactly …” said the latter, turning rather red, “but if I do agree with the rest now, it’s simply not to break up—”

“You are all like that! Ready to argue for six months to practise your Liberal eloquence and in the end you vote the same as the rest! Gentlemen, consider though, is it true that you are all ready?”

(Ready for what? The question was vague, but very alluring.)

“All are, of course!” voices were heard. But all were looking at one another.

“But afterwards perhaps you will resent having agreed so quickly? That’s almost always the way with you.”

The company was excited in various ways, greatly excited. The lame man flew at him.

“Allow me to observe, however, that answers to such questions are conditional. Even if we have given our decision, you must note that questions put in such a strange way …”

“In what strange way?”

“In a way such questions are not asked.”

“Teach me how, please. But do you know, I felt sure you’d be the first to take offence.”

“You’ve extracted from us an answer as to our readiness for immediate action; but what right had you to do so? By what authority do you ask such questions?”

“You should have thought of asking that question sooner! Why did you answer? You agree and then you go back on it!”

“But to my mind the irresponsibility of your principal question suggests to me that you have no authority, no right, and only asked from personal curiosity.”

“What do you mean? What do you mean?” cried Verhovensky, apparently beginning to be much alarmed.

“Why, that the initiation of new members into anything you like is done, anyway, tête-à-tête and not in the company of twenty people one doesn’t know!” blurted out the lame man. He had said all that was in his mind because he was too irritated to restrain himself. Verhovensky turned to the general company with a capitally simulated look of alarm.

“Gentlemen, I deem it my duty to declare that all this is folly, and that our conversation has gone too far. I have so far initiated no one, and no one has the right to say of me that I initiate members. We were simply discussing our opinions. That’s so, isn’t it? But whether that’s so or not, you alarm me very much.” He turned to the lame man again. “I had no idea that it was unsafe here to speak of such practically innocent matters except tête-à-tête. Are you afraid of informers? Can there possibly be an informer among us here?”

The excitement became tremendous; all began talking.

“Gentlemen, if that is so,” Verhovensky went on, “I have compromised myself more than anyone, and so I will ask you to answer one question, if you care to, of course. You are all perfectly free.”

“What question? What question?” every one clamoured.

“A question that will make it clear whether we are to remain together, or take up our hats and go our several ways without speaking.”

“The question! The question!”

“If any one of us knew of a proposed political murder, would he, in view of all the consequences, go to give information, or would he stay at home and await events? Opinions may differ on this point. The answer to the question will tell us clearly whether we are to separate, or to remain together and for far longer than this one evening. Let me appeal to you first.” He turned to the lame man.

“Why to me first?”

“Because you began it all. Be so good as not to prevaricate; it won’t help you to be cunning. But please yourself, it’s for you to decide.”

“Excuse me, but such a question is positively insulting.”

“No, can’t you be more exact than that?”

“I’ve never been an agent of the Secret Police,” replied the latter, wriggling more than ever.

“Be so good as to be more definite, don’t keep us waiting.”

The lame man was so furious that he left off answering. Without a word he glared wrathfully from under his spectacles at his tormentor.

“Yes or no? Would you inform or not?” cried Verhovensky.

“Of course I wouldn’t,” the lame man shouted twice as loudly.

“And no one would, of course not!” cried many voices.

“Allow me to appeal to you, Mr. Major. Would you inform or not?” Verhovensky went on. “And note that I appeal to you on purpose.”

“I won’t inform.”

“But if you knew that someone meant to rob and murder someone else, an ordinary mortal, then you would inform and give warning?”

“Yes, of course; but that’s a private affair, while the other would be a political treachery. I’ve never been an agent of the Secret Police.”

“And no one here has,” voices cried again. “It’s an unnecessary question. Every one will make the same answer. There are no informers here.”

“What is that gentleman getting up for?” cried the girl-student.

“That’s Shatov. What are you getting up for?” cried the lady of the house.

Shatov did, in fact, stand up. He was holding his cap in his hand and looking at Verhovensky. Apparently he wanted to say something to him, but was hesitating. His face was pale and wrathful, but he controlled himself. He did not say one word, but in silence walked towards the door.

“Shatov, this won’t make things better for you!” Verhovensky called after him enigmatically.

“But it will for you, since you are a spy and a scoundrel!” Shatov shouted to him from the door, and he went out.

Shouts and exclamations again.

“That’s what comes of a test,” cried a voice.

“It’s been of use,” cried another.

“Hasn’t it been of use too late?” observed a third.

“Who invited him? Who let him in? Who is he? Who is Shatov? Will he inform, or won’t he?” There was a shower of questions.

“If he were an informer he would have kept up appearances instead of cursing it all and going away,” observed someone.

“See, Stavrogin is getting up too. Stavrogin has not answered the question either,” cried the girl-student.

Stavrogin did actually stand up, and at the other end of the table Kirillov rose at the same time.

“Excuse me, Mr. Stavrogin,” Madame Virginsky addressed him sharply, “we all answered the question, while you are going away without a word.”

“I see no necessity to answer the question which interests you,” muttered Stavrogin.

“But we’ve compromised ourselves and you won’t,” shouted several voices.

“What business is it of mine if you have compromised yourselves?” laughed Stavrogin, but his eyes flashed.

“What business? What business?” voices exclaimed.

Many people got up from their chairs.

“Allow me, gentlemen, allow me,” cried the lame man. “Mr. Verhovensky hasn’t answered the question either; he has only asked it.”

The remark produced a striking effect. All looked at one another. Stavrogin laughed aloud in the lame man’s face and went out; Kirillov followed him; Verhovensky ran after them into the passage.

“What are you doing?” he faltered, seizing Stavrogin’s hand and gripping it with all his might in his. Stavrogin pulled away his hand without a word.

“Be at Kirillov’s directly, I’ll come.… It’s absolutely necessary for me to see you!…”

“It isn’t necessary for me,” Stavrogin cut him short.

“Stavrogin will be there,” Kirillov said finally. “Stavrogin, it is necessary for you. I will show you that there.”

They went out.

Return to the The Possessed Summary Return to the Fyodor Dostoevsky Library

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