The Idiot By Fyodor Dostoevsky Part IV: Chapters 2-4

"They do say one can dance with those!"

"Quite so, quite so; and he swears that his wife never found out that one of his legs was wooden all the while they were married. When I showed him the ridiculousness of all this, he said, 'Well, if you were one of Napoleon's pages in 1812, you might let me bury my leg in the Moscow cemetery.'

"Why, did you say — " began the prince, and paused in confusion.

The general gazed at his host disdainfully.

"Oh, go on," he said, "finish your sentence, by all means. Say how odd it appears to you that a man fallen to such a depth of humiliation as I, can ever have been the actual eye-witness of great events. Go on, I don't mind! Has he found time to tell you scandal about me?"

"No, I've heard nothing of this from Lebedeff, if you mean Lebedeff."

"H'm; I thought differently. You see, we were talking over this period of history. I was criticizing a current report of something which then happened, and having been myself an eye-witness of the occurrence — you are smiling, prince — you are looking at my face as if — "

"Oh no! not at all — I — "

"I am rather young-looking, I know; but I am actually older than I appear to be. I was ten or eleven in the year 1812. I don't know my age exactly, but it has always been a weakness of mine to make it out less than it really is.

"I assure you, general, I do not in the least doubt your statement. One of our living autobiographers states that when he was a small baby in Moscow in 1812 the French soldiers fed him with bread."

"Well, there you see!" said the general, condescendingly. "There is nothing whatever unusual about my tale. Truth very often appears to be impossible. I was a page — it sounds strange, I dare say. Had I been fifteen years old I should probably have been terribly frightened when the French arrived, as my mother was (who had been too slow about clearing out of Moscow); but as I was only just ten I was not in the least alarmed, and rushed through the crowd to the very door of the palace when Napoleon alighted from his horse."

"Undoubtedly, at ten years old you would not have felt the sense of fear, as you say," blurted out the prince, horribly uncomfortable in the sensation that he was just about to blush.

"Of course; and it all happened so easily and naturally. And yet, were a novelist to describe the episode, he would put in all kinds of impossible and incredible details."

"Oh," cried the prince, "I have often thought that! Why, I know of a murder, for the sake of a watch. It's in all the papers now. But if some writer had invented it, all the critics would have jumped down his throat and said the thing was too improbable for anything. And yet you read it in the paper, and you can't help thinking that out of these strange disclosures is to be gained the full knowledge of Russian life and character. You said that well, general; it is so true," concluded the prince, warmly, delighted to have found a refuge from the fiery blushes which had covered his face.

"Yes, it's quite true, isn't it?" cried the general, his eyes sparkling with gratification. "A small boy, a child, would naturally realize no danger; he would shove his way through the crowds to see the shine and glitter of the uniforms, and especially the great man of whom everyone was speaking, for at that time all the world had been talking of no one but this man for some years past. The world was full of his name; I — so to speak — drew it in with my mother's milk. Napoleon, passing a couple of paces from me, caught sight of me accidentally. I was very well dressed, and being all alone, in that crowd, as you will easily imagine . . .

"Oh, of course! Naturally the sight impressed him, and proved to him that not ALL the aristocracy had left Moscow; that at least some nobles and their children had remained behind."

Just so just so! He wanted to win over the aristocracy! When his eagle eye fell on me, mine probably flashed back in response.' Voila un garcon bien eveille! Qui est ton pere?' I immediately replied, almost panting with excitement, 'A general, who died on the battle-fields of his country! "Le fils d'un boyard et d'un brave, pardessus le marche. J'aime les boyards. M'aimes-tu, petit?' To this keen question I replied as keenly, 'The Russian heart can recognize a great man even in the bitter enemy of his country.' At least, I don't remember the exact words, you know, but the idea was as I say. Napoleon was struck; he thought a minute and then said to his suite: 'I like that boy's pride; if all Russians think like this child', then he didn't finish, but went on and entered the palace. I instantly mixed with his suite, and followed him. I was already in high favour. I remember when he came into the first hall, the emperor stopped before a portrait of the Empress Katherine, and after a thoughtful glance remarked, 'That was a great woman,' and passed on.

"Well, in a couple of days I was known all over the palace and the Kremlin as 'le petit boyard.' I only went home to sleep. They were nearly out of their minds about me at home. A couple of days after this, Napoleon's page, De Bazancour, died; he had not been able to stand the trials of the campaign. Napoleon remembered me; I was taken away without explanation; the dead page's uniform was tried on me, and when I was taken before the emperor, dressed in it, he nodded his head to me, and I was told that I was appointed to the vacant post of page.

"Well, I was glad enough, for I had long felt the greatest sympathy for this man; and then the pretty uniform and all that — only a child, you know — and so on. It was a dark green dress coat with gold buttons — red facings, white trousers, and a white silk waistcoat — silk stockings, shoes with buckles, and top-boots if I were riding out with his majesty or with the suite.

"Though the position of all of us at that time was not particularly brilliant, and the poverty was dreadful all round, yet the etiquette at court was strictly preserved, and the more strictly in proportion to the growth of the forebodings of disaster."

"Quite so, quite so, of course!" murmured the poor prince, who didn't know where to look. "Your memoirs would be most interesting."

The general was, of course, repeating what he had told Lebedeff the night before, and thus brought it out glibly enough, but here he looked suspiciously at the prince out of the corners of his eyes.

"My memoirs!" he began, with redoubled pride and dignity. "Write my memoirs? The idea has not tempted me. And yet, if you please, my memoirs have long been written, but they shall not see the light until dust returns to dust. Then, I doubt not, they will be translated into all languages, not of course on account of their actual literary merit, but because of the great events of which I was the actual witness, though but a child at the time. As a child, I was able to penetrate into the secrecy of the great man's private room. At nights I have heard the groans and wailings of this 'giant in distress.' He could feel no shame in weeping before such a mere child as I was, though I understood even then that the reason for his suffering was the silence of the Emperor Alexander."

"Yes, of course; he had written letters to the latter with proposals of peace, had he not?" put in the prince.

"We did not know the details of his proposals, but he wrote letter after letter, all day and every day. He was dreadfully agitated. Sometimes at night I would throw myself upon his breast with tears (Oh, how I loved that man!). 'Ask forgiveness, Oh, ask forgiveness of the Emperor Alexander!' I would cry. I should have said, of course, 'Make peace with Alexander,' but as a child I expressed my idea in the naive way recorded. 'Oh, my child,' he would say (he loved to talk to me and seemed to forget my tender years), 'Oh, my child, I am ready to kiss Alexander's feet, but I hate and abominate the King of Prussia and the Austrian Emperor, and — and — but you know nothing of politics, my child.' He would pull up, remembering whom he was speaking to, but his eyes would sparkle for a long while after this. Well now, if I were to describe all this, and I have seen greater events than these, all these critical gentlemen of the press and political parties — Oh, no thanks! I'm their very humble servant, but no thanks!"

"Quite so — parties — you are very right," said the prince. "I was reading a book about Napoleon and the Waterloo campaign only the other day, by Charasse, in which the author does not attempt to conceal his joy at Napoleon's discomfiture at every page. Well now, I don't like that; it smells of 'party,' you know. You are quite right. And were you much occupied with your service under Napoleon?"

The general was in ecstasies, for the prince's remarks, made, as they evidently were, in all seriousness and simplicity, quite dissipated the last relics of his suspicion.

"I know Charasse's book! Oh! I was so angry with his work! I wrote to him and said — I forget what, at this moment. You ask whether I was very busy under the Emperor? Oh no! I was called 'page,' but hardly took my duty seriously. Besides, Napoleon very soon lost hope of conciliating the Russians, and he would have forgotten all about me had he not loved me — for personal reasons — I don't mind saying so now. My heart was greatly drawn to him, too. My duties were light. I merely had to be at the palace occasionally to escort the Emperor out riding, and that was about all. I rode very fairly well. He used to have a ride before dinner, and his suite on those occasions were generally Davoust, myself, and Roustan."

"Constant?" said the prince, suddenly, and quite involuntarily.

"No; Constant was away then, taking a letter to the Empress Josephine. Instead of him there were always a couple of orderlies — and that was all, excepting, of course, the generals and marshals whom Napoleon always took with him for the inspection of various localities, and for the sake of consultation generally. I remember there was one — Davoust — nearly always with him — a big man with spectacles. They used to argue and quarrel sometimes. Once they were in the Emperor's study together — just those two and myself — I was unobserved — and they argued, and the Emperor seemed to be agreeing to something under protest. Suddenly his eye fell on me and an idea seemed to flash across him.

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At the end of Part III, Nastasya and Rogozhin each ask Myshkin the same question. What was it?