A Hero of Our Time May 13

Today, in the morning, the doctor came to see me. His name is Werner, though he is Russian. What is surprising about that? I knew a German who was called Ivanov.

Werner was an excellent person for many reasons. He was a skeptic and a materialist, like almost all medics, but furthermore he was a poet—I jest not. Always a poet in deed, and often in word, though he hasn’t written two verses in his life. He has studied every living string of the human heart, like some who study the circulation of a corpse, but he has never been able to profit from his knowledge—like an excellent anatomist who isn’t able to treat a fever! Usually, Werner ridicules his patients when they aren’t looking; but I once saw him weep over a dying soldier . . . He was poor and dreamed of making millions but has not taken one extra step for money’s sake. He once said to me that he would sooner do a favor for an enemy than for a friend, because for a friend it seemed like selling charity, whereas the generosity of an adversary only gives proportional strength to hatred. He has a wicked tongue, expressed through his epigrams; more than one good-natured person has gained the reputation of a vulgar fool as a result. His rivals, envious spa medics, sent out a rumor that he draws caricatures of his patients; the patients became enraged, and almost all of them refused to see him. His acquaintances, all truly decent folk who have served in the Caucasus, then strived in vain to resurrect his fallen credibility.

His appearance was one that strikes you, on first glance, as unpleasant but which subsequently becomes likable, when the eye has learned to read the stamp of an experienced and lofty soul in his irregular features. There have been examples of women falling madly in love with such people, who wouldn’t exchange ugliness like his for the beauty of the most fresh and rosy Endymions. One must do justice to women: they have an instinct for a beautiful soul. That is perhaps why people like Werner love women so passionately.

Werner was short, thin, and as weak as a baby; one of his legs was shorter than the other, like Byron; his head seemed enormous in comparison to his trunk: he cropped his hair close, and the unevenness of his skull, exposed as it was, would have shocked a phrenologist with its strange weavings of opposing inclinations. His small black eyes, always agitated, sought to penetrate your thoughts. It was evident that there was taste and tidiness to his attire; his lean, veined hands stood out vividly in their light-yellow gloves. His frock coat, neck-tie and waistcoat were always black in color. Young men nicknamed him Mephistopheles. He acted as though he was angry at such a nickname but in actual fact, it gratified his vanity. We quickly understood each other and became friendly, because I am not capable of true friendship: one friend is always slave to the other, though often neither of them will admit it. I cannot be a slave, and to dominate in such a situation is an exhausting labor, because you must also lie at the same time. And besides I have a lackey and money! This is how we became friendly: I met Werner at S—in a crowded and noisy circle of young men; the conversation toward the end of the evening took a philosophical and metaphysical direction; we were talking about convictions. Each one of us was convinced of this or that.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m convinced of only one thing . . .” said the doctor.

“And what is that?” I asked, wanting to know the opinion of this person who had not yet spoken.

“Of the fact,” he replied, “that sooner or later, one fine day, I will die.”

“I am richer than you,” I said, “as I have, apart from that, another conviction, which is that one very nasty evening I had the misfortune of being born.”

Everyone found that we were talking nonsense, but, really, not one of them said anything any cleverer than that. From that minute, we had singled each other out in the crowd. The two of us often met and discussed abstract subjects that were very serious, neither of us noticing that we were but pulling the wool over each other’s eyes. Then, having looked meaningfully into each other’s eyes, as did the Roman augurs according to Cicero, we started guffawing and having laughed ourselves out, went our separate ways, satisfied with our evening.

I lay on the divan, aiming my eyes at the ceiling with my hand behind my head, when Werner came into my room. He sat in the armchair, put his walking stick in the corner, yawned and announced that it was becoming hot in the courtyard. I replied that the flies were bothering me, and we both fell silent.

“Note, dear doctor,” I said, “that, without fools, the world would be very boring . . . See, here we are, two intelligent people. We know in advance that we are each capable of debating to eternity, and so we don’t debate. We know nearly all of each other’s innermost thoughts. One word tells a whole story. We could see the kernel of each of our feelings through a three-layered shell. Sad things are funny to us. Funny things are sad to us. And in general, to tell the truth, we are indifferent to everything apart from our selves. And thus, there cannot be an exchange of feelings and thoughts between us. We know everything we wish to know about each other, and don’t wish to know more. One solution remains: to discuss the news. Can you give me any news?”

Tired from my long speech, I closed my eyes and yawned . . .

He thought for a while and replied:

“Well, there is an idea in that nonsense of yours.”

“Two of them!” I replied.

“Tell me one of them and I’ll tell you the other.”

“Good, let’s begin!” I said, continuing to examine the ceiling and smiling inwardly.

“You want details about one of the spa visitors, and I can guess which one you are bothering about, because there have been questions already about you, too.”

“Doctor! We must absolutely not converse: we are reading each other’s souls.”

“And for the second . . . ?”

“The other idea is this: I wanted to make you recount something. Firstly, because listening is less tiring; and secondly, one mustn’t be indiscreet; and thirdly, to learn the secrets of others; and fourthly, because intelligent people such as you like listeners more than they like storytellers. So then, to the matter at hand: what did old Princess Ligovsky say about me?”

“You are very sure that it was the older one . . . and not the young one?”

“Absolutely certain.”


“Because the young one was asking about Grushnitsky.”

“You have a great gift of understanding. The young princess said that she was certain that the young man in the soldier’s greatcoat was reduced to the ranks on account of a duel . . .”

“I hope that you left her with that pleasant delusion.”

“Of course!”

“We have a start!” I cried with rapture. “And we will take some trouble over the start of this comedy! Obviously, fate has taken upon itself to make things interesting for me!”

“I have a premonition,” said the doctor, “that poor Grushnitsky will be your victim . . .”

“Continue, Doctor . . .”

“Princess Ligovsky said that your face is familiar. I remarked to her that she had probably met you in St. Petersburg, somewhere in social circles . . . I told her your name . . . It was familiar to her. It seems that your story has made quite a lot of noise there . . . The princess continued to describe your escapades, adding, in all likelihood, her own observations to society gossip . . . The daughter listened with interest. In her imagination, you grew into the hero of one of those new novels . . . I didn’t contradict the princess, even though I knew that she was talking nonsense.”

“My worthy friend!” I said, offering him my hand.

The doctor shook it with feeling, and continued:

“If you like, I’ll introduce you . . .”

“Good gracious!” I said, raising my hands. “Do heroes really get introduced? Do they not become acquainted as they save their beloved from certain death . . . ?”

“And you really want to court the princess?”

“On the contrary, absolutely on the contrary! Doctor, finally I have triumphed: you don’t understand me!” I continued after a minute of silence: “But this distresses me, Doctor . . . I have never exposed my secrets, but I do awfully like it when they are guessed because, in that case, I can always deny them when something happens. However, you must describe mother and daughter to me. How are they as people?”

“Firstly, the Princess Ligovsky is a lady of forty-five years,” said Werner, “and she has excellent digestion, but her blood is contaminated. She has red dots on her cheeks. She has spent the last half of her life so far in Moscow and now, in retirement, she has grown fat. She loves naughty anecdotes and she herself sometimes speaks of indecent things when her daughter is not in the room. She conveyed to me that her daughter is as innocent as a dove. What was it to me? . . . I was moved to say something in reply—that I wouldn’t tell anyone, to ensure her peace of mind! The Princess Ligovsky is being treated for rheumatism, and the daughter for goodness knows what. I ordered them both to drink two glasses of sulfurous water a day and to bathe in a diluted bath twice a week. The Princess Ligovsky, it seems, is not used to orders. She has a respect for the intelligence and knowledge of her daughter, who has read Byron in English and knows algebra. In Moscow, the young ladies have embarked on learning and it is a good thing, I’d say! Our men are so impolite in general, that to have to flirt with them must be unbearable to a clever woman. The Princess Ligovsky likes young men, but the young Princess Mary looks at them with a certain contempt: a Muscovite habit! In Moscow, they have only forty-year-old wits for their consumption.”

“Have you been to Moscow, doctor?”

“Yes, I have practiced there a bit.”


“Well, I have said everything, it seems . . . Yes! One more thing: the young princess, it seems, loves to discuss feelings, passions, and the like . . . She was in Petersburg for a winter, and it didn’t please her, especially the society there. I suppose they received her coldly.”

“You didn’t see anyone with them today?”

“On the contrary: there was one adjutant, one tense-looking guardsman, and a lady who has just arrived, a relative of the princess by marriage, very pretty, but very poorly, it seems . . . Didn’t you meet her at the well? She is of medium height, fair, with regular features and a consumptive color to her face, and there is a mole on her right cheek. Her expressive face is most striking.”

“A mole!” I muttered through my teeth. “Really?”

The doctor looked at me and said solemnly, putting his hand on my heart: “You are acquainted with her . . . !”

Indeed, my heart was beating more strongly than usual. “Now it is your turn to celebrate!” I said. “Only I am counting on you: don’t lie to me. I haven’t yet seen her, but I am sure that I recognize a certain woman in your portrait, whom I loved in days of old . . . But do not breathe a word about me to her; if she asks, treat me with disdain.”

“As you like!” said Werner, shrugging his shoulders.

When he left, a terrible sadness squeezed my heart. Had fate led us again to the Caucasus, or had she purposefully come here, knowing she would find me? . . . And how will we meet? . . . And also, is it really her? . . . My sense of premonition has never lied to me. There isn’t a person in the world over whom the past gains such power as it does over me. Every memory of a past sorrow or joy hits my soul painfully and elicits from it the same sounds it once did . . . I am a foolish creature: I don’t forget anything—ever!

After dinner, at about six o’clock, I went to the boulevard: there was a crowd. Princess Ligovsky and Princess Mary sat on a bench, surrounded by young men, who were vying with one another to pay them their compliments. I placed myself on another bench at some distance and stopped two officers from the D——regiment whom I knew, and started to tell them something. Obviously it was funny because they started to laugh as loudly as lunatics. The curiosity of several of those surrounding the young princess was piqued. One by one, they all abandoned her and joined my circle. I didn’t stop: my anecdotes were so clever that they were silly; my mockeries of the eccentrics walking past were mean to the point of brutality . . . I continued to entertain the public until the sun went down. Several times, the young princess walked past with her mother, arm in arm, accompanied by some limping little old man. Several times her gaze, falling on me, expressed contempt while trying to express indifference . . .

“What stories was he telling?” she asked one of the young people who turned to her in politeness. “I suppose it was a very enthralling story—about his victory in battle . . . ?” she said rather loudly and, probably, with the intention of taunting me.

“Aha,” I thought, “you have become angry indeed, dear princess; but wait, there is more!”

Grushnitsky followed her movements like a predatory beast—she didn’t leave his sight. I’ll wager that tomorrow he will be begging someone to introduce him to her. She will be very glad of it because she is bored.