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

"'Child,' he said, abruptly. 'If I were to recognize the Russian orthodox religion and emancipate the serfs, do you think Russia would come over to me?'"

"'Never!' I cried, indignantly."

"The Emperor was much struck."

"'In the flashing eyes of this patriotic child I read and accept the fiat of the Russian people. Enough, Davoust, it is mere phantasy on our part. Come, let's hear your other project.'"

"'Yes, but that was a great idea," said the prince, clearly interested. "You ascribe it to Davoust, do you?"

"Well, at all events, they were consulting together at the time. Of course it was the idea of an eagle, and must have originated with Napoleon; but the other project was good too — it was the 'Conseil du lion!' as Napoleon called it. This project consisted in a proposal to occupy the Kremlin with the whole army; to arm and fortify it scientifically, to kill as many horses as could be got, and salt their flesh, and spend the winter there; and in spring to fight their way out. Napoleon liked the idea — it attracted him. We rode round the Kremlin walls every day, and Napoleon used to give orders where they were to be patched, where built up, where pulled down and so on. All was decided at last. They were alone together — those two and myself.

"Napoleon was walking up and down with folded arms. I could not take my eyes off his face — my heart beat loudly and painfully.

"'I'm off,' said Davoust. 'Where to?' asked Napoleon.

"'To salt horse-flesh,' said Davoust. Napoleon shuddered — his fate was being decided.

"'Child,' he addressed me suddenly, 'what do you think of our plan?' Of course he only applied to me as a sort of toss-up, you know. I turned to Davoust and addressed my reply to him. I said, as though inspired:

"'Escape, general! Go home! — '

"The project was abandoned; Davoust shrugged his shoulders and went out, whispering to himself — 'Bah, il devient superstitieux!' Next morning the order to retreat was given."

"All this is most interesting," said the prince, very softly, "if it really was so — that is, I mean — " he hastened to correct himself.

"Oh, my dear prince," cried the general, who was now so intoxicated with his own narrative that he probably could not have pulled up at the most patent indiscretion.

"You say, if it really was so!' There was more — much more, I assure you! These are merely a few little political acts. I tell you I was the eye-witness of the nightly sorrow and groanings of the great man, and of that no one can speak but myself. Towards the end he wept no more, though he continued to emit an occasional groan; but his face grew more overcast day by day, as though Eternity were wrapping its gloomy mantle about him. Occasionally we passed whole hours of silence together at night, Roustan snoring in the next room — that fellow slept like a pig. 'But he's loyal to me and my dynasty,' said Napoleon of him.

"Sometimes it was very painful to me, and once he caught me with tears in my eyes. He looked at me kindly. 'You are sorry for me,' he said, 'you, my child, and perhaps one other child — my son, the King of Rome — may grieve for me. All the rest hate me; and my brothers are the first to betray me in misfortune.' I sobbed and threw myself into his arms. He could not resist me — he burst into tears, and our tears mingled as we folded each other in a close embrace.

"'Write, oh, write a letter to the Empress Josephine!' I cried, sobbing. Napoleon started, reflected, and said, 'You remind me of a third heart which loves me. Thank you, my friend;' and then and there he sat down and wrote that letter to Josephine, with which Constant was sent off next day."

"You did a good action," said the prince, "for in the midst of his angry feelings you insinuated a kind thought into his heart."

"Just so, prince, just so. How well you bring out that fact! Because your own heart is good!" cried the ecstatic old gentleman, and, strangely enough, real tears glistened in his eyes. "Yes, prince, it was a wonderful spectacle. And, do you know, I all but went off to Paris, and should assuredly have shared his solitary exile with him; but, alas, our destinies were otherwise ordered! We parted, he to his island, where I am sure he thought of the weeping child who had embraced him so affectionately at parting in Moscow; and I was sent off to the cadet corps, where I found nothing but roughness and harsh discipline. Alas, my happy days were done!"

"'I do not wish to deprive your mother of you, and, therefore, I will not ask you to go with me,' he said, the morning of his departure, 'but I should like to do something for you.' He was mounting his horse as he spoke. 'Write something in my sister's album for me,' I said rather timidly, for he was in a state of great dejection at the moment. He turned, called for a pen, took the album. 'How old is your sister?' he asked, holding the pen in his hand. 'Three years old,' I said. 'Ah, petite fille alors!' and he wrote in the album:

'Ne mentes jamais! NAPOLEON (votre ami sincere).'

"Such advice, and at such a moment, you must allow, prince, was — "

"Yes, quite so; very remarkable."

"This page of the album, framed in gold, hung on the wall of my sister's drawing-room all her life, in the most conspicuous place, till the day of her death; where it is now, I really don't know. Heavens! it's two o'clock! How I have kept you, prince! It is really most unpardonable of me."

The general rose.

"Oh, not in the least," said the prince. "On the contrary, I have been so much interested, I'm really very much obliged to you."

"Prince,", said the general, pressing his hand, and looking at him with flashing eyes, and an expression as though he were under the influence of a sudden thought which had come upon him with stunning force. "Prince, you are so kind, so simple-minded, that sometimes I really feel sorry for you! I gaze at you with a feeling of real affection. Oh, Heaven bless you! May your life blossom and fructify in love. Mine is over. Forgive me, forgive me!"

He left the room quickly, covering his face with his hands.

The prince could not doubt the sincerity of his agitation. He understood, too, that the old man had left the room intoxicated with his own success. The general belonged to that class of liars, who, in spite of their transports of lying, invariably suspect that they are not believed. On this occasion, when he recovered from his exaltation, he would probably suspect Muishkin of pitying him, and feel insulted.

"Have I been acting rightly in allowing him to develop such vast resources of imagination?" the prince asked himself. But his answer was a fit of violent laughter which lasted ten whole minutes. He tried to reproach himself for the laughing fit, but eventually concluded that he needn't do so, since in spite of it he was truly sorry for the old man. The same evening he received a strange letter, short but decided. The general informed him that they must part for ever; that he was grateful, but that even from him he could not accept "signs of sympathy which were humiliating to the dignity of a man already miserable enough."

When the prince heard that the old man had gone to Nina Alexandrovna, though, he felt almost easy on his account.

We have seen, however, that the general paid a visit to Lizabetha Prokofievna and caused trouble there, the final upshot being that he frightened Mrs. Epanchin, and angered her by bitter hints as to his son Gania.

He had been turned out in disgrace, eventually, and this was the cause of his bad night and quarrelsome day, which ended in his sudden departure into the street in a condition approaching insanity, as recorded before.

Colia did not understand the position. He tried severity with his father, as they stood in the street after the latter had cursed the household, hoping to bring him round that way.

"Well, where are we to go to now, father?" he asked. "You don't want to go to the prince's; you have quarrelled with Lebedeff; you have no money; I never have any; and here we are in the middle of the road, in a nice sort of mess."

"Better to be of a mess than in a mess! I remember making a joke something like that at the mess in eighteen hundred and forty — forty — I forget. 'Where is my youth, where is my golden youth?' Who was it said that, Colia?"

"It was Gogol, in Dead Souls, father," cried Colia, glancing at him in some alarm.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

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