As we climbed the mountainside I offered my arm to Princess Mary, who didn’t let go of it through the entire walk.
Our conversation started with scandal. I began to go through the people we knew, both present and absent, first describing their ridiculous features, then their bad habits. My gall was up and after starting off in jest I finished in deadly earnest. At first she was amused, then alarmed.
“You are a dangerous man!” she told me. “I would rather risk a murderer’s knife in the forest than be flayed by your tongue. I beg of you quite earnestly–if you should ever take it into your mind to speak badly of me, take a knife instead and kill me. I believe you would not find it too difficult to do.”
“Do I look like a murderer?”
“You are worse . . .”
I thought for a moment and then said, taking on a deeply touched face: “Yes, such has been my lot since childhood. Everyone read signs of non-existent evil traits in my features. But since they were expected to be there, they did make their appearance. Because I was reserved, they said I was sly, so I grew reticent. I was keenly aware of good and evil, but instead of being indulged I was insulted and so I became spiteful. I was sulky while other children were merry and talkative, but though I felt superior to them I was considered inferior. So I grew envious. I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, and I learned to hate. My cheerless youth passed in conflict with myself and society, and fearing ridicule I buried my finest feelings deep in my heart, and there they died. I spoke the truth, but nobody believed me, so I began to practice duplicity. Having come to know society and its mainsprings, I became versed in the art of living and saw how others were happy without that proficiency, enjoying for free the favors I had so painfully striven for. It was then that despair was born in my heart–not the despair that is cured with a pistol, but a cold, impotent desperation, concealed under a polite exterior and a good-natured smile. I became a moral cripple; I had lost one half of my soul, for it had shriveled, dried up and died, and I had cut it off and cast it away, while the other half stirred and lived, adapted to serve every comer. No one noticed this, because no one suspected there had been another half. Now, however, you have awakened memories of it in me, and what I have just done is to read its epitaph to you. Many regard all epitaphs as ridiculous, but I do not, particularly when I remember what rests beneath them. Of course, I am not asking you to share my opinion; if what I have said seems ridiculous to you, please laugh, though I warn you that it will not annoy me in the slightest.”
At that moment our eyes met, and I saw that hers swam with tears. Her arm resting on mine trembled, her cheeks were red hot. She was sorry for me! Compassion–that emotion which all women so easily yield to–had sunk its claws into her inexperienced heart. Throughout the walk she was absent-minded and flirted with no one–and that is a great omen indeed!
We reached the ravine. The other ladies left their escorts, but she didn’t release my arm. The witticisms of the local dandies didn’t amuse her. The steepness of the bluff on the brink of which she stood didn’t alarm her, though the other young ladies squealed and closed their eyes.
On the way back I did not resume our sad conversation, but to my idle questions and jests she gave only brief and distracted answers.
“Have you ever been in love?” I finally asked her.
She looked at me intently, shook her head and again was lost in thought. It was evident that she wanted to say something but didn’t know where to begin. Her chest heaved . . . Indeed, a muslin sleeve affords but slight protection, and an electric tremor ran from my arm to hers–most passions begin that way, and we frequently deceive ourselves when we think that a woman loves us for our physical or moral qualities. True, they prepare the ground, dispose the heart to receive the sacred flame, but nevertheless it is the first physical contact that decides the issue.
“I have been very friendly today, have I not?” the princess said with a forced smile when we returned from our walk.
She is displeased with herself; she accuses herself of being cool. Ah, this is the first and most important triumph! Tomorrow she’ll want to reward me. I know it all by rote–and that is what makes it all so boring.
Pechorin’s account of how he changed when “fearing ridicule I buried my finest feelings deep in my heart, and there they died” is compelling – and I can relate to it – but his sincerity can be questioned. That does not mean there is no truth behind what he says.