What's to be done? A romance.  (1909)  by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, translated by Benjamin R. Tucker
An Imbecile.


An Imbecile.

On the morning of the eleventh of July, 1856, the attachés of one of the principal hotels in St. Petersburg, situated near the Moscow railway station, became greatly perplexed and even somewhat alarmed. The night before, after eight o'clock, a traveller had arrived, carrying a valise, who, after having given up his passport that it might be taken to the police to be viséed, had ordered a cutlet and some tea, and then, pleading fatigue and need of sleep as a pretext, had asked that he might be disturbed no further, notifying them at the same time to awaken him without fail at exactly eight o'clock in the morning, as he had pressing business.

As soon as he was alone, he had locked his door. For a while was heard the noise of the knife, fork, and tea-service; then all became silent again: the man doubtless had gone to sleep.

In the morning, at eight o'clock, the waiter did not fail to knock at the new-comer's door.

But the new-comer did not respond. The waiter knocked louder, and louder yet. Still the new-comer did not respond: he probably was very tired. The waiter waited a quarter of an hour, then began again to knock and call, but with no better success. Then he went to consult the other waiters and the butler.

"May not something have happened to the traveller?"

"We must burst open the door," he concluded.

"No," said another, "the door can be burst open only in presence of the police."

They decided to try once more, and with greater energy, to awaken the obstinate traveller, and, in case they should not succeed, to send for the police. Which they had to do. While waiting for the police, they looked at each other anxiously, saying: "What can have happened?"

Towards ten o'clock the commissioner of police arrived; he began by knocking at the door himself, and then ordered the waiters to knock a last time. The same success.

"There is nothing left but to burst open the door," said the official; "do so, my friends."

The door yielded; they entered; the room was empty.

"Look under the bed," said the official. At the same time, approaching the table, he saw a sheet of paper, unfolded, upon which were written these words:

"I leave at eleven o'clock in the evening and shall not return. I shall be heard on the Liteing Bridge between two and three o'clock in the morning. Suspect no one."

"Ah! the thing is clear now! at first we did not understand," said the official.

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

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

The story of the commissioner of police was for a long time the subject of conversations and discussions; as for the adventure itself, this was it: At half-past two in the morning, the night being extremely dark, something like a flash was seen on the Liteing Bridge, and at the same time a pistol shot was heard. The guardians of the bridge and the few people who were passing ran to the spot, but found nobody.

"It is not a murder; some one has blown his brains out," they said; and some of the more generous offered to search the river. Hooks were brought and even a fisherman's net; but they pulled from the water only a few pieces of wood. Of the body no trace, and besides the night was very dark, and much time had elapsed: the body had had time to drift out to sea.

"Go search yonder!" said a group of carpers, who maintained that there was no body and that some drunkard or practical joker had simply fired a shot and fled; "perhaps he has even mingled with the crowd, now so anxious, and is laughing at the alarm which he has caused." These carpers were evidently progressives. But the majority, conservative, as it always is when it reasons prudently, held to the first explanation.

"A practical joker? Go to! Some one has really blown his brains out."

Being less numerous, the progressives were conquered. But the conquerors split at the very moment of victory.

He had blown his brains out, certainly, but why?

"He was drunk," said some.

"He had dissipated his fortune," thought others.

"Simply an imbecile!" observed somebody.

Upon this word imbecile, all agreed, even those who disputed suicide.

In short, whether it was a drunkard or a spendthrift who had blown his brains out or a practical joker who had made a pretence of killing himself (in the latter case the joke was a stupid one), he was an imbecile.

There ended the night's adventure. At the hotel was found the proof that it was no piece of nonsense, but a real suicide.

This conclusion satisfied the conservatives especially; for, said they, it proves that we are right. If it had been only a practical joker, we might have hesitated between the terms imbecile and insolent. But to blow one's brains out on a bridge! On a bridge, I ask you? Does one blow his brains out on a bridge? Why on a bridge? It would be stupid to do it on a bridge. Indisputably, then, he was an imbecile.

"Precisely," objected the progressives; "does one blow his brains out on a bridge?" And they in their turn disputed the reality of the suicide.

But that same evening the hotel attachés, being summoned to the police bureau to examine a cap pierced by a ball, which had been taken from the water, identified it as the actual cap worn by the traveller of the night before.

There had been a suicide, then, and the spirit of negation and progress was once more conquered.

Yes, it was really an imbecile; but suddenly a new thought struck them: to blow one's brains out on a bridge,—why, it is most adroit! In that way one avoids long suffering in case of a simple wound. He calculated wisely; he was prudent.

Now the mystification was complete. Imbecile and prudent!