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Dostoyevsky’s short stories show him to be equally adept at the short story as with the novel. Exploring many of the same themes as in his longer works, these small masterpieces move from the tender and romantic White Nights, an archetypal nineteenth-century morality tale of pathos and loss, to the famous Notes from the Underground, a story of guilt, ineffectiveness, and uncompromising cynicism, and the first major work of existential literature. Among Dostoyevsky’s prototypical characters is Yemelyan in The Honest Thief, whose tragedy turns on an inability to resist crime.
One morning, just as I was about to set off to my office, Agrafena, my cook, washerwoman and housekeeper, came in to me and, to my surprise, entered into conversation.
She had always been such a silent, simple creature that, except her daily inquiry about dinner, she had not uttered a word for the last six years. I, at least, had heard nothing else from her.
“Here I have come in to have a word with you, sir,” she began abruptly; “you really ought to let the little room.”
“Which little room?”
“Why, the one next the kitchen, to be sure.”
“What for? Why because folks do take in lodgers, to be sure.”
“But who would take it?”
“Who would take it? Why, a lodger would take it, to be sure.”
“But, my good woman, one could not put a bedstead in it; there wouldn’t be room to move! Who could live in it?”
“Who wants to live there! As long as he has a place to sleep in. Why, he would live in the window.”
“In what window?”
“In what window! As though you didn’t know! The one in the passage, to be sure. He would sit there, sewing or doing anything else. Maybe he would sit on a chair, too. He’s got a chair; and he has a table, too; he’s got everything.”
“Who is ‘he’ then?”
“Oh, a good man, a man of experience. I will cook for him. And I’ll ask him three roubles a month for his board and lodging.”
After prolonged efforts I succeeded at last in learning from Agrafena that an elderly man had somehow managed to persuade her to admit him into the kitchen as a lodger and boarder. Any notion Agrafena took into her head had to be carried out; if not, I knew she would give me no peace. When anything was not to her liking, she at once began to brood, and sank into a deep dejection that would last for a fortnight or three weeks. During that period my dinners were spoiled, my linen was mislaid, my floors went unscrubbed; in short, I had a great deal to put up with. I had observed long ago that this inarticulate woman was incapable of conceiving a project, of originating an idea of her own. But if anything like a notion or a project was by some means put into her feeble brain, to prevent its being carried out meant, for a time, her moral assassination. And so, as I cared more for my peace of mind than for anything else, I consented forthwith.
“Has he a passport anyway, or something of the sort?”
“To be sure, he has. He is a good man, a man of experience; three roubles he’s promised to pay.”
The very next day the new lodger made his appearance in my modest bachelor quarters; but I was not put out by this, indeed I was inwardly pleased. I lead as a rule a very lonely hermit’s existence. I have scarcely any friends; I hardly ever go anywhere. As I had spent ten years never coming out of my shell, I had, of course, grown used to solitude. But another ten or fifteen years or more of the same solitary existence, with the same Agrafena, in the same bachelor quarters, was in truth a somewhat cheerless prospect. And therefore a new inmate, if well-behaved, was a heaven-sent blessing.
Agrafena had spoken truly: my lodger was certainly a man of experience. From his passport it appeared that he was an old soldier, a fact which I should have known indeed from his face. An old soldier is easily recognised. Astafy Ivanovitch was a favourable specimen of his class. We got on very well together. What was best of all, Astafy Ivanovitch would sometimes tell a story, describing some incident in his own life. In the perpetual boredom of my existence such a story-teller was a veritable treasure. One day he told me one of these stories. It made an impression on me. The following event was what led to it.
I was left alone in the flat; both Astafy and Agrafena were out on business of their own. All of a sudden I heard from the inner room somebody–I fancied a stranger–come in; I went out; there actually was a stranger in the passage, a short fellow wearing no overcoat in spite of the cold autumn weather.
“What do you want?”
“Does a clerk called Alexandrov live here?”
“Nobody of that name here, brother. Good-bye.”
“Why, the dvornik told me it was here,” said my visitor, cautiously retiring towards the door.
“Be off, be off, brother, get along.”
Next day after dinner, while Astafy Ivanovitch was fitting on a coat which he was altering for me, again some one came into the passage. I half opened the door.
Before my very eyes my yesterday’s visitor, with perfect composure, took my wadded greatcoat from the peg and, stuffing it under his arm, darted out of the flat. Agrafena stood all the time staring at him, agape with astonishment and doing nothing for the protection of my property. Astafy Ivanovitch flew in pursuit of the thief and ten minutes later came back out of breath and empty-handed. He had vanished completely.
“Well, there’s a piece of luck, Astafy Ivanovitch!”
“It’s a good job your cloak is left! Or he would have put you in a plight, the thief!”