A vital question; or, What is to be done?/I

A vital question; or, What is to be done?  (1886)  by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, translated by Nathan Haskell Dole and Simon S. Skidelsky
I. A Fool.




On the morning of the 23d of July, 1856, the servants of one of the largest hotels of Petersburg, near the Moscow railroad station, were in perplexity, and even partly in fear. On the previous evening, about nine o'clock, a gentleman arrived with a valise, took a room, gave his passport to be registered, asked for tea and a small cutlet, gave orders that they should not disturb him during the evening, because he was tired and wanted to sleep, but that they should wake him without fail at eight o'clock in the morning, because he had important business. Then he locked the door; and, after rattling his knife and fork, and jingling the tea-things for a time, nothing more was heard of him. He was apparently asleep. Morning came; at eight o'clock a servant knocked at the stranger's door; the stranger did not answer. The servant knocked louder, very loud; still the stranger did not reply. Apparently he was very tired. The servant waited a quarter of an hour, again tried to arouse him, again was unsuccessful. He consulted with the other servants, with the butler.

"Can anything have happened to him?"

"We must break in the door."

"No, that won't do! If we break in the door, we must have a policeman."

It was decided to try once more, still louder; if it failed this time, to send for the police.

They made their last endeavor; they could not arouse him. They sent for the police, and now they are waiting to see what the result will be.

About ten o'clock a policeman came; he himself knocked at the door, ordered the servants to knock; result the same as before.

"There is nothing to be done; burst in the door, children."

They broke open the door. The room was empty.

"Look under the bed!"

But there was no one under the bed. The policeman went to the table; on the table lay a sheet of paper, and written in large letters were these words:—

"I shall go away at eleven o'clock this evening, and I shall not return. You will hear of me on the Liteinaïa bridge between two and three o'clock to-night. Let no one be suspected."

"Now I see, the matter is plain; nobody could make anything out of it," said the policeman.

"What do you mean, Ivan Afanasyévitch?" asked the butler.

"Give me some tea. I will tell you."

The policeman's narration long served as a subject for lively discussions and arguments in the hotel. The story was of this sort:—

At half-past three last night,—the night was cloudy, dark,—on the centre of the Liteinaïa bridge a fire flashed, and the report of a pistol was heard. The guards rushed to the spot, a few people quickly collected; not a person or a thing was to be seen where the pistol shot was fired. It was evidently not a murder, but a suicide. Volunteers wanted to dive; in a few moments boat-hooks were brought, a fishing-net was brought; they dived, they grappled, they dragged the river; they brought up about fifty large chips, but they could neither catch nor discover the body. Yes; and how could it be found? The night was dark. In those two hours the body was already far down towards the sea. Go, find it there. Therefore advanced thinkers arose, discrediting the former supposition:—

"May be there was no corpse whatsoever. May be some drunken man, or simply some mischievous fellow, played a joke, fired off a pistol, and ran; or perhaps the very fellow is standing here among the excited crowd, yes, and laughing at the trouble which he has made."

But the majority, as is usual when a case is argued reasonably, proved to be conservative, and defended the former supposition:—

"What kind of a joke is that? Of course he put a bullet into his brain, and that is the end of it!" The progressive party were outruled. But the victorious party, as usual, having won the victory, was itself immediately divided. "Let us suppose that he committed suicide. But what did he do it for?"

"He was drunk," was the opinion of some of the conservatives; "a ruined spendthrift," asserted others.

"Only a fool" (durak), said someone. And this expression, "Only a fool," was accepted by all, even by those who discredited the fact of a suicide. Indeed, whether it was a drunkard or a spendthrift committed suicide, or whether some mischievous fellow did not commit suicide at all, but simply played a trick; at all events, it was an absurd trick of a fool.

And this put an end to the matter that night on the bridge. In the morning, at the hotel of the Moscow railroad, it was decided that the fool did not play a joke, but committed suicide.

But there still remained, after all this story, an element in regard to which even the vanquished party were in agreement. It was this. If it was not a trick, but a case of suicide, nevertheless, it was a fool! This conclusion, so satisfactory to all parties, was particularly strong from the very fact that the conservatives were victorious; if he had only played a trick by firing his pistol on the bridge, it would have been really doubtful whether he were a fool or a mischievous fellow. But he shot himself on the bridge. Who shot himself on the bridge? How on the bridge? Why on the bridge? Ridiculous to do it on the bridge! and, therefore, he was doubtless a fool.

Again a doubt arose among some of them. He shot himself on the bridge, but people don't go to a bridge to shoot themselves; consequently, he did not commit suicide. Towards evening, however, the servants of the hotel were summoned to the station to identify a cap, pierced with a bullet hole, which had been taken out of the water; all recognized that it was the very same cap that the stranger had worn. Thus indubitably he must have shot himself, and the spirit of denial and progress was entirely defeated.

All were agreed that it was a fool (durak), and suddenly all began to chatter, "On the bridge, a clever dodge! It was done evidently so as to save suffering; for if the shot did not kill,—he reasoned wisely,—no matter how slight the wound was, he would jump into the water, and so drown before he knew what had happened. Yes, on the bridge! wisely done!"

At this stage it was utterly impossible to come to any decision; both a fool and wise!