"Bachmatoff saw me home after the dinner and we crossed the Nicolai bridge. We were both a little drunk. He told me of his joy, the joyful feeling of having done a good action; he said that it was all thanks to myself that he could feel this satisfaction; and held forth about the foolishness of the theory that individual charity is useless.
"I, too, was burning to have my say!
"'In Moscow,' I said, 'there was an old state counsellor, a civil general, who, all his life, had been in the habit of visiting the prisons and speaking to criminals. Every party of convicts on its way to Siberia knew beforehand that on the Vorobeef Hills the "old general" would pay them a visit. He did all he undertook seriously and devotedly. He would walk down the rows of the unfortunate prisoners, stop before each individual and ask after his needs — he never sermonized them; he spoke kindly to them — he gave them money; he brought them all sorts of necessaries for the journey, and gave them devotional books, choosing those who could read, under the firm conviction that they would read to those who could not, as they went along.
"'He scarcely ever talked about the particular crimes of any of them, but listened if any volunteered information on that point. All the convicts were equal for him, and he made no distinction. He spoke to all as to brothers, and every one of them looked upon him as a father. When he observed among the exiles some poor woman with a child, he would always come forward and fondle the little one, and make it laugh. He continued these acts of mercy up to his very death; and by that time all the criminals, all over Russia and Siberia, knew him!
"'A man I knew who had been to Siberia and returned, told me that he himself had been a witness of how the very most hardened criminals remembered the old general, though, in point of fact, he could never, of course, have distributed more than a few pence to each member of a party. Their recollection of him was not sentimental or particularly devoted. Some wretch, for instance, who had been a murderer — cutting the throat of a dozen fellow-creatures, for instance; or stabbing six little children for his own amusement (there have been such men!) — would perhaps, without rhyme or reason, suddenly give a sigh and say, "I wonder whether that old general is alive still!" Although perhaps he had not thought of mentioning him for a dozen years before! How can one say what seed of good may have been dropped into his soul, never to die?'
"I continued in that strain for a long while, pointing out to Bachmatoff how impossible it is to follow up the effects of any isolated good deed one may do, in all its influences and subtle workings upon the heart and after-actions of others.
"'And to think that you are to be cut off from life!' remarked Bachmatoff, in a tone of reproach, as though he would like to find someone to pitch into on my account.
"We were leaning over the balustrade of the bridge, looking into the Neva at this moment.
"'Do you know what has suddenly come into my head?' said I, suddenly — leaning further and further over the rail.
"'Surely not to throw yourself into the river?' cried Bachmatoff in alarm. Perhaps he read my thought in my face.
"'No, not yet. At present nothing but the following consideration. You see I have some two or three months left me to live — perhaps four; well, supposing that when I have but a month or two more, I take a fancy for some "good deed" that needs both trouble and time, like this business of our doctor friend, for instance: why, I shall have to give up the idea of it and take to something else — some LITTLE good deed, MORE WITHIN MY MEANS, eh? Isn't that an amusing idea!'
"Poor Bachmatoff was much impressed — painfully so. He took me all the way home; not attempting to console me, but behaving with the greatest delicacy. On taking leave he pressed my hand warmly and asked permission to come and see me. I replied that if he came to me as a 'comforter,' so to speak (for he would be in that capacity whether he spoke to me in a soothing manner or only kept silence, as I pointed out to him), he would but remind me each time of my approaching death! He shrugged his shoulders, but quite agreed with me; and we parted better friends than I had expected.
"But that evening and that night were sown the first seeds of my 'last conviction.' I seized greedily on my new idea; I thirstily drank in all its different aspects (I did not sleep a wink that night!), and the deeper I went into it the more my being seemed to merge itself in it, and the more alarmed I became. A dreadful terror came over me at last, and did not leave me all next day.
"Sometimes, thinking over this, I became quite numb with the terror of it; and I might well have deduced from this fact, that my 'last conviction' was eating into my being too fast and too seriously, and would undoubtedly come to its climax before long. And for the climax I needed greater determination than I yet possessed.
"However, within three weeks my determination was taken, owing to a very strange circumstance.
"Here on my paper, I make a note of all the figures and dates that come into my explanation. Of course, it is all the same to me, but just now — and perhaps only at this moment — I desire that all those who are to judge of my action should see clearly out of how logical a sequence of deductions has at length proceeded my 'last conviction.'
"I have said above that the determination needed by me for the accomplishment of my final resolve, came to hand not through any sequence of causes, but thanks to a certain strange circumstance which had perhaps no connection whatever with the matter at issue. Ten days ago Rogojin called upon me about certain business of his own with which I have nothing to do at present. I had never seen Rogojin before, but had often heard about him.
"I gave him all the information he needed, and he very soon took his departure; so that, since he only came for the purpose of gaining the information, the matter might have been expected to end there.
"But he interested me too much, and all that day I was under the influence of strange thoughts connected with him, and I determined to return his visit the next day.
"Rogojin was evidently by no means pleased to see me, and hinted, delicately, that he saw no reason why our acquaintance should continue. For all that, however, I spent a very interesting hour, and so, I dare say, did he. There was so great a contrast between us that I am sure we must both have felt it; anyhow, I felt it acutely. Here was I, with my days numbered, and he, a man in the full vigour of life, living in the present, without the slightest thought for 'final convictions,' or numbers, or days, or, in fact, for anything but that which-which — well, which he was mad about, if he will excuse me the expression — as a feeble author who cannot express his ideas properly.
"In spite of his lack of amiability, I could not help seeing, in Rogojin a man of intellect and sense; and although, perhaps, there was little in the outside world which was of interest to him, still he was clearly a man with eyes to see.
"I hinted nothing to him about my 'final conviction,' but it appeared to me that he had guessed it from my words. He remained silent — he is a terribly silent man. I remarked to him, as I rose to depart, that, in spite of the contrast and the wide differences between us two, les extremites se touchent ('extremes meet,' as I explained to him in Russian); so that maybe he was not so far from my final conviction as appeared.
"His only reply to this was a sour grimace. He rose and looked for my cap, and placed it in my hand, and led me out of the house — that dreadful gloomy house of his — to all appearances, of course, as though I were leaving of my own accord, and he were simply seeing me to the door out of politeness. His house impressed me much; it is like a burial-ground, he seems to like it, which is, however, quite natural. Such a full life as he leads is so overflowing with absorbing interests that he has little need of assistance from his surroundings.
"The visit to Rogojin exhausted me terribly. Besides, I had felt ill since the morning; and by evening I was so weak that I took to my bed, and was in high fever at intervals, and even delirious. Colia sat with me until eleven o'clock.
"Yet I remember all he talked about, and every word we said, though whenever my eyes closed for a moment I could picture nothing but the image of Surikoff just in the act of finding a million roubles. He could not make up his mind what to do with the money, and tore his hair over it. He trembled with fear that somebody would rob him, and at last he decided to bury it in the ground. I persuaded him that, instead of putting it all away uselessly underground, he had better melt it down and make a golden coffin out of it for his starved child, and then dig up the little one and put her into the golden coffin. Surikoff accepted this suggestion, I thought, with tears of gratitude, and immediately commenced to carry out my design.