The Bet and Other Stories/Overwhelming Sensations


This happened not so very long ago in the Moscow Circuit Court. The jurymen, left in court for the night, before going to bed, began a conversation about overwhelming sensations. It was occasioned by someone's recollection of a witness who became a stammerer and turned grey, owing, as he said, to one dreadful moment. The jurymen decided before going to bed that each one of them should dig into his memories and tell a story. Life is short; but still there is not a single man who can boast that he had not had some dreadful moments in his past.

One juryman related how he was nearly drowned. A second told how one night he poisoned his own child, in a place where there was neither doctor nor chemist, by giving the child white copperas in mistake for soda. The child did not die, but the father nearly went mad. A third, not an old man, but sickly, described his two attempts to commit suicide. Once he shot himself; the second time he threw himself in front of a train.

The fourth, a short, stout man, smartly dressed, told the following story:

"I was no more than twenty-two or twenty-three years old, when I fell head over heels in love with my present wife and proposed to her. Now, I would gladly give myself a thrashing for that early marriage; but then—well, I don't know what would have happened to me if Natasha had refused. My love was most ardent, the kind described in novels as mad, passionate, and so on. My happiness choked me, and I did not know how to escape from it. I bored my father, my friends, the servants by continually telling them how desperately I was in love. Happy people are quite the most tiresome and boring. I used to be awfully exasperating. Even now I'm ashamed.

"At the time I had a newly-called barrister among my friends. The barrister is now known all over Russia, but then he was only at the beginning of his popularity, and he was not rich or famous enough to have the right not to recognise a friend when he met him or not to raise his hat. I used to go and see him once or twice a week.

"When I came, we used both to stretch ourselves upon the sofas and begin to philosophise.

"Once I lay on the sofa, harping on the theme that there is no more ungrateful profession than a barrister's. I tried to show that after the witnesses have been heard the Court can easily dispense with the Crown Prosecutor and the barrister, because they are equally unnecessary and only hindrances. If an adult juryman, sound in spirit and mind, is convinced that this ceiling is white, or that Ivanov is guilty, no Demosthenes has the power to fight and overcome his conviction. Who can convince me that my moustache is carroty when I know it is black? When I listen to an orator I may perhaps get sentimental and even shed a tear, but my rooted convictions, for the most part based on the obvious and on facts, will not be changed an atom. My friend the barrister contended that I was still young and silly and was talking childish nonsense. In his opinion an obvious fact when illumined by conscientious experts became still more obvious. That was his first point. His second was that a talent is a force, an elemental power, a hurricane, that is able to turn even stones to dust, not to speak of such trifles as the convictions of householders and small shopkeepers. It is as hard for human frailty to struggle against a talent as it is to look at the sun without being blinded or to stop the wind. By the power of the word one single mortal converts thousands of convinced savages to Christianity. Ulysses was the most convinced person in the world, but he was all submission before the Syrens, and so on. All history is made up of such instances. In life we meet them at every turn. And so it ought to be; otherwise a clever person of talent would not be preferred before the stupid and untalented.

"I persisted and continued to argue that a conviction is stronger than any talent, though, speaking frankly, I myself could not define what exactly is a conviction and what is a talent. Probably I talked only for the sake of talking.

"'Take even your own case' . . . said the barrister. 'You are convinced that your fiancée is an angel and that there's not a man in all the town happier than you. I tell you, ten or twenty minutes would be quite enough for me to make you sit down at this very table and write to break off the engagement.'"

I began to laugh.

"'Don't laugh. I'm talking seriously,' said my friend.' If I only had the desire, in twenty minutes you would be happy in the thought that you have been saved from marriage. My talent is not great, but neither are you strong?'"

"'Well, try, please,' I said.

"'No, why should I? I only said it in passing. You're a good boy. It would be a pity to expose you to such an experiment. Besides, I'm not in the mood, to-day.'

"We sat down to supper. The wine and thoughts of Natasha and my love utterly filled me with a sense of youth and happiness. My happiness was so infinitely great that the green-eyed barrister opposite me seemed so unhappy, so little, so grey!"

"'But do try,' I pressed him. 'I beg you.' "The barrister shook his head and knit his brows. Evidently I had begun to bore him.

"'I know,' he said, 'that when the experiment is over you will thank me and call me saviour, but one must think of your sweetheart too. She loves you, and your refusal would make her suffer. But what a beauty she is! I envy you.'

"The barrister sighed, swallowed some wine, and began to speak of what a wonderful creature my Natasha was. He had an uncommon gift for description. He could pour out a whole heap of words about a woman's eyelashes or her little finger. I listened to him with delight.

"'I've seen many women in my life-time,' he said, 'but I give you my word of honour, I tell you as a friend, your Natasha Andreevna is a gem, a rare girl! Of course, there are defects, even a good many, I grant you, but still she is charming.'

"And the barrister began to speak of the defects of my sweetheart. Now I quite understand it was a general conversation about women, one about their weak points in general; but it appeared to me then as though he was speaking only of Natasha. He went into raptures about her snub-nose, her excited voice, her shrill laugh, her affectation—indeed, about everything I particularly disliked in her. All this was in his opinion infinitely amiable, gracious and feminine. Imperceptibly he changed from enthusiasm first to paternal edification, then to a light, sneering tone. . . . There was no Chairman of the Bench with us to stop the barrister riding the high horse. I hadn't a chance of opening my mouth and what could I have said? My friend said nothing new, his truths were long familiar. The poison was not at all in what he said, but altogether in the devilish form in which he said it. A form of Satan's own invention! As I listened to him I was convinced that one and the same word had a thousand meanings and nuances according to the way it is pronounced and the turn given to the sentence. I certainly cannot reproduce the tone or the form. I can only say that as I listened to my friend and paced from corner to corner of my room, I was revolted, exasperated, contemptuous according as he felt. I even believed him when, with tears in his eyes, he declared to me that I was a great man, deserving a better fate, and destined in the future to accomplish some remarkable exploit, from which I might be prevented by my marriage.

"'My dear friend,' he exclaimed, firmly grasping my hand, 'I implore you, I command you: stop before it is too late. Stop! God save you from this strange and terrible mistake! My friend, don't ruin your youth.'

"Believe me or not as you will, but finally I sat down at the table and wrote to my sweetheart breaking off the engagement. I wrote and rejoiced that there was still time to repair my mistake. When the envelope was sealed I hurried into the street to put it in a pillar box. The barrister came with me.

"'Splendid! Superb!' he praised me when my letter to Natasha disappeared into the darkness of the pillar-box. 'I congratulate you with all my heart. I'm delighted for your sake.'

"After we had gone about ten steps together, the barrister continued:

"'Of course, marriage has its bright side too. I, for instance, belong to the kind of men for whom marriage and family life are everything.'

"He was already describing his life: all the ugliness of a lonely bachelor existence appeared before me.

"He spoke with enthusiasm of his future wife, of the pleasures of an ordinary family life, and his transports were so beautiful and sincere that I was in absolute despair by the time we reached his door.

"'What are you doing with me, you damnable man?' I said panting. 'You've ruined me! Why did you make me write that cursed letter? I love her! I love her!'

"And I swore that I was in love. I was terrified of my action. It already seemed wild and absurd to me. Gentlemen, it is quite impossible to imagine a more overwhelming sensation than mine at that moment! If a kind man had happened to slip a revolver into my hand I would have put a bullet through my head gladly.

"'Well, that's enough, enough!' the advocate said, patting my shoulder and beginning to laugh. 'Stop crying! The letter won't reach your sweetheart. It was I, not you, wrote the address on the envelope, and I muddled it up so that they won't be able to make anything of it at the post-office. But let this be a lesson to you. Don't discuss things you don't understand.'"

"Now, gentlemen, next, please."

The fifth juryman had settled himself comfortably and already opened his mouth to begin his story, when we heard the clock striking from Spaisky Church-tower.

"Twelve . . ." one of the jurymen counted. "To which class, gentlemen, would you assign the sensations which our prisoner at the bar is now feeling? The murderer passes the night here in a prisoner's cell, either lying or sitting, certainly without sleeping and all through the sleepless night listens to the striking of the hours. What does he think of? What dreams visit him?"

And all the jurymen suddenly forgot about overwhelming sensations. The experience of their friend, who once wrote the letter to his Natasha, seemed unimportant, and not even amusing. Nobody told any more stories; but they began to go to bed quietly, in silence.