“Was I an optimist?”
“Why, surely. A charming one. Do you love Russia as truly as ever?”
I laughed, my hand on the door. “That’s my affair, Alexei Petrovitch,” I answered.
“Certainly,” he said, smiling. “You’re looking older, you know.”
“You too,” I said.
“Yes, perhaps. Would I still think you sentimental, do you suppose?”
“It is of no importance, Alexei Petrovitch,” I said. “I’m sure you have other better things to do. Are you remaining in Petrograd?”
He looked at me then very seriously, his eyes staring straight into mine.
“I hope so.”
“You will work at your practice?”
“Perhaps.” He nodded to me. “Strange to find you here....” he said. “We shall meet again. Good-night.”
He closed the door behind me.
Next day I fell ill. I had felt unwell for several weeks, and now I woke up to a bad feverish cold, my body one vast ache, and at the same time impersonal, away from me, floating over above me, sinking under me, tied to me only by pain....
I was too utterly apathetic to care. The old woman who looked after my rooms telephoned to my doctor, a stout, red-faced jolly man, who came and laughed at me, ordered me some medicine, said that I was in a high fever, and left me. After that, I was, for several days, caught into a world of dreams and nightmares. No one, I think, came near me, save my old woman, Marfa, and a new acquaintance of mine, the Rat.
The Rat I had met some weeks before outside my house. I had been returning one evening, through the dark, with a heavy bag of books which I had fetched from an English friend of mine who lodged in the Millionnaya. I had had a cab for most of the distance, but that had stopped on the other side of the bridge—it could not drive amongst the rubbish pebbles and spars of my island. As I staggered along with my bag a figure had risen, as it seemed to me, out of the ground and asked huskily whether he could help me. I had only a few steps to go, but he seized my burden and went in front of me. I submitted. I told him my door and he entered the dark passage, climbed the rickety stairs and entered my room. Here we were both astonished. He, when I had lighted my lamp, was staggered by the splendour and luxury of my life, I, as I looked at him, by the wildness and uncouthness of his appearance. He was as a savage from the centre of Africa, thick ragged hair and beard, a powerful body in rags, and his whole attitude to the world primeval and utterly primitive. His mouth was cruel; his eyes, as almost always with the Russian peasant, mild and kindly. I do not intend to take up much space here with an account of him, but he did, after this first meeting, in some sort attach himself to me. I never learned his name nor where he lived; he was I should suppose an absolutely abominable plunderer and pirate and ruffian.