Dostoevsky’s epistolary short story is about two apparent “friends,” one of whom borrowed money from the other, and their attempts to meet up and square the debt. Their relationship grows increasingly strained as their correspondence continues, as it becomes clear that one of them is lying to avoid the other. The story is updated here by changing the names, and the locating the communication on modern electronic devices, which shows that the human tendency to manipulate the means of communication (and engage in deliberate miscommunication) far predates terms like vaguebooking, catfishing, TMI, and flame war.
For the last two days I have been, I may say, in pursuit of you, my friend, having to talk over most urgent business with you, and I cannot run into you anywhere. Yesterday, while we were at Steve’s, my wife made a joke about you, saying that you and Tatiana were a pair of birds, always on the wing. You’ve not been married three months and you already neglect your domestic hearth. We all laughed heartily—from our genuine kindly feeling for you, of course—but, joking apart, my precious friend, you have given me a lot of trouble.
I lost my phone and I’m waiting for the new one to be delivered, so I’m hard to reach right now, I know. Steve said that you might be going to happy hour at the Social Union. Leaving my wife with Steve and his f, I flew off to the Social Union. It was funny and tragic! Everyone was dancing and there I am alone, without my wife! I ran into Andrew in the coat check and seeing me alone, he at once concluded that I had a passion for dancing, and taking me by the arm, wanted to drag me off by force to a dancing class, saying that it was too crowded at the Social Union, that an ardent spirit had not room to turn, and that his head ached from the patchouli and garlic. Of course, I found neither you, nor Tatiana there. Andrew checked FourSquare and declared that you were at “Woe from Wit,” at the Alexandra Theater.
I flew off to the Alexandra Theater: you were not there, either. This morning I expected to find you at Christopher’s, but no sign of you there. Christopher texted Peterson; the same thing! In fact, I am quite worn out: you can see how much trouble I have taken!
So now I am messaging you (there is nothing else I can do.) My business is by no means a literary one (you understand me?); it would be better to meet face to face, it is extremely necessary to discuss something with you and as quickly as possible, and so I beg you to come to my place today with Tatiana for tea and a chat in the evening. My wife Anna will be extremely pleased to see you. You will truly, as they say, oblige me to my dying day.
By the way, my precious friend—since I have started typing, I’ll go into all I have against you. I have a slight complaint I must make; in fact, I must reproach you, my worthy friend, for an apparently very innocent little trick that you played at my expense. . . .
You are a rascal, a man without conscience. About the middle of last month, you brought into my house an acquaintance of yours, Nikolas. You vouched for him and I received the young man with open arms, and when I did so, I put my head in a noose. I don’t have time now to explain, and indeed it is an awkward thing to do in writing, only a very humble request to you, my malicious friend: could you not somehow delicately, in passing, drop a hint to the young man that there are a great many houses in the metropolis besides ours?
It’s more than I can stand, my dear fellow! We fall at your feet, as our friend Steve says. I will tell you all about it when we meet. And I don’t mean to say that the young man has sinned against good manners, or is lacking in spiritual qualities, or is not up to the mark in some other way. On the contrary, he is an amiable and pleasant fellow—he has friended me on FB, and I do enjoy his posts; but wait, we shall meet. Meanwhile if you see him, whisper a hint to him, my good friend. I would do it myself, but you know what I am, I simply can’t, and that’s all about it. You introduced him to us. But I will explain myself more fully this evening, anyway. Bye.
P.S.—My little boy has been sick for the last week, and gets worse and worse every day; he is teething. My wife is nursing him all the time, and is depressed, poor thing. Be sure to come, you will give us real pleasure, my precious friend.
I got your message yesterday. I read it and was perplexed. You looked for me, goodness knows where, and I was simply at home. Till ten o’clock I was expecting Tom. At once on getting your message I set out with my wife—I even went to the expense of taking a cab—and reached your house about half-past six. You were not at home, but we were met by your wife. I waited to see you till half-past ten, I could not stay later. I set off with my wife, went to the expense of a cab again, saw her home, and went on myself to the Peterson’s house, thinking I might meet you there, but again I was out in my reckoning.
When I got home I did not sleep all night, I felt uneasy. I know you lost your phone, so this morning, I decided to drop by, and I drove round to you three times, at nine, at ten, and at eleven; three times I went to the expense of a cab, and again you left me in the lurch. I read your message and was amazed.
You write about Nikolas, beg me to whisper some hint, and do not tell me what about. I commend your caution, but all messages are not alike. I am puzzled, in fact, to know with what motive you wrote all this to me. And why should I meddle in the matter? I don’t poke my nose into other people’s business. Unfriend him if you want; or you can be not at home to him. I only see that I must have a brief and decisive explanation with you, and, moreover, time is passing. And I am in financial straits and I don’t know what to do if you are going to neglect the terms of our agreement. A journey for nothing; a journey costs something, too, and my wife’s whining for me to get her that Chanel coat.
About Nikolas: when I was at the Peterson’s house yesterday, I made inquiries. He has five hundred employees, and he expects his grandmother will leave him her company with three hundred employees someday. How much money he has I cannot tell; I think you ought to know that better. I beg you once for all to appoint a place where I can meet you. You met Andrew yesterday, and you write that he told you that I was at the Alexandra Theater with my wife. I write that he is a liar, and it shows how little he is to be trusted in such cases. Only the day before yesterday, he did his grandmother out of eight hundred dollars at poker.
P.S.—My wife is going to have a baby; she is nervous about it and feels depressed at times. At the theater they sometimes have fire alarms going off and sham thunderstorms. And so for fear of a shock to my wife’s nerves I do not take her to the theater. And I have no great partiality for the theater myself.
I am to blame, to blame, a thousand times to blame, but I hasten to defend myself. Between five and six yesterday, just as we were talking of you with the warmest affection, I got a call (landline) from my Uncle Alex with the news that my aunt was very bad.
Being afraid of alarming my wife, I did not say a word of this to her, but on the pretext of other urgent business, I drove off to my aunt’s house. I found her almost dying. Just at five o’clock she had a stroke, the third she has had in the last two years.
The ER doctor told us that she might not live through the night. You can judge of my position, dearest friend. We were up all night in grief and anxiety. It was not till morning that, utterly exhausted and overcome by weakness, I lay down on the sofa; I forgot to tell them to wake me, and only woke at half-past eleven.
My aunt was better. I drove home to my wife. She, poor thing, was quite worn, out expecting me.
I snatched a bite of something, embraced my little boy, reassured my wife and set off to call on you. You were not at home. At your flat, I found Nikolas. When I got home I got on FB, and here I am.
Don’t grumble and be cross to me, my true friend. Beat me, chop my guilty head off my shoulders, but don’t deprive me of your affection. From your wife I learned that you will be at the Slate’s this evening. I will certainly be there. I look forward with the greatest impatience to seeing you.
P.S. —We are in perfect despair about our little boy. The doctor prescribes rhubarb. He moans. Yesterday he did not know any one. This morning he did know us, and began lisping papa, mamma, boo… My wife was in tears the whole morning.
I am typing this at YOUR desk, at YOUR computer. Before signing on, I have been waiting for more than two and a half hours for you. Now allow me to tell you straight out, Peter, my frank opinion about this shabby incident. From your last message, I gathered that you were expected at the Slate’s, that you were inviting me to go there. I turned up, I stayed for five hours and there was no sign of you.
Why, am I to be made a laughing-stock to people, do you suppose? Excuse me, my dear sir … I came to you this morning, I hoped to find you, not imitating certain deceitful persons who look for people, God knows where, when they can be found at home at any suitably chosen time. There is no sign of you at home. I don’t know what restrains me from telling you now the whole harsh truth. I will only say that I see you seem to be going back on your bargain regarding our agreement.
And only now reflecting on the whole affair, I cannot but confess that I am absolutely astounded at the artful workings of your mind. I see clearly now that you have been cherishing your un- friendly design for a long time. This supposition of mine is confirmed by the fact that last week in an almost unpardonable way you took possession of my phone, claiming you needed to make a call and then disappearing with it, and now I see that you deleted the text in which you laid down yourself, though rather vaguely and incoherently, the terms of our agreement in regard to a circumstance of which I need not remind you.
You are afraid of that text, you destroy it, and you try to make a fool of me. But I won’t allow myself to be made a fool of, for no one has ever considered me one hitherto, and everyone has thought well of me in that respect. I am opening my eyes. You try to put me off, confuse me with talk of Nikolas, and when with your message of the seventh of this month, which I am still at a loss to understand, I seek a personal explanation from you, you make humbugging appointments, while you keep out of the way.
Surely you do not suppose that I am not equal to noticing all this? You promised to reward me for my services, of which you are very well aware, in the way of introducing various persons, and at the same time—and I don’t know how you do it—you contrive to “borrow” money from me in considerable sums without giving a receipt, as happened no longer ago than last week.
Now, having got the money, you cannot be found or contacted, and what’s more, you repudiate the service I have done you in regard to Nikolas. You are probably reckoning on my speedy departure to Seattle, and hoping I may not have time to settle this business. But I assure you solemnly and testify on my word that if it comes to that, I am prepared to spend two more months in Petersburg expressly to carry through my business, to attain my objects, and to get hold of you. For I, too, on occasion know how to get the better of people.
In conclusion, I beg to inform you that if you do not give me a satisfactory explanation today, first in writing, and then personally face to face, and do not make a fresh statement in your message of the chief points of the agreement existing between us, and do not explain fully your views in regard to Nikolas, I shall be compelled to have recourse to measures that will be highly unpleasant to you, and indeed repugnant to me also.
Wow. I was cut to the heart by your message. I wonder you were not ashamed, my dear but unjust friend, to behave like this to one of your most devoted friends. Why be in such a hurry, and without explaining things fully, wound me with such insulting suspicions? But I hasten to reply to your charges. You did not find me yesterday, Evan, because I was suddenly and quite unexpectedly called away to a deathbed.
My aunt passed away yesterday evening at eleven o’clock in the night. By the general consent of the relatives, I was selected to make the arrangements for the sad and sorrowful ceremony. I had so much to do that I had not time to see you this morning, nor even to send you a line. I am grieved to the heart at the misunderstanding, which has arisen between us.
My words about Nikolas uttered casually and in jest you have taken in quite a wrong sense, and have ascribed to them a meaning deeply offensive to me. You refer to money and express your anxiety about it. But without wasting words I am ready to satisfy all your claims and demands, though I must remind you that the three hundred and fifty dollars I had from you last week were in accordance with a certain agreement and not by way of a loan.
In the latter case, there would certainly have been a receipt. I will not condescend to discuss the other points mentioned in your message. I see that it is a misunderstanding. I see it is your habitual hastiness, hot temper, and obstinacy. I know that your goodheartedness and open character will not allow doubts to persist in your heart, and that you will be, in fact, the first to hold out your hand to me.
You are mistaken, Evan, you are greatly mistaken! Although your message has deeply wounded me, I should be prepared even today to come to you and apologize, but I have been since yesterday in such a rush and flurry that I am utterly exhausted and can scarcely stand on my feet. To complete my troubles, my wife is laid up; I am afraid she is seriously ill. Our little boy, thank God, is better; but I must close up FB now. I have a mass of things to do and they are urgent.
I have been waiting for three days, I tried to make a profitable use of them—meanwhile I feel that politeness and good manners are the greatest of ornaments for everyone. Since my last message, I have neither by word nor deed reminded you of my existence, partly in order to allow you undisturbed to perform the duty of a Christian in regard to your aunt, partly because I needed the time for certain considerations and investigations in regard to a business you know of.
Now I hasten to explain myself to you in the most thoroughgoing and decisive manner. I frankly confess that on reading your first two messages I seriously supposed that you did not understand what I wanted; that was how it was that I rather sought an interview with you and explanations face to face. I was afraid of writing, and blamed myself for lack of clearness in the expression of my thoughts.
You are aware that I have not the advantages of education and good manners, and that I shun a hollow show of gentility because I have learned from bitter experience how misleading appearances often are, and that a snake sometimes lies hidden under flowers. But you understood me; you did not answer me as you should have done because you had planned beforehand to be faithless to your word and to our friendship. You have proved this absolutely by your abominable conduct towards me of late, which is fatal to my interests, which I did not expect and which I refused to believe till the present moment. From the very beginning of our acquaintance, I enjoyed your clever manners, the subtlety of your behavior, your knowledge of affairs, and the advantages to be gained by association with you. I imagined that I had found a true friend and well-wisher.
Now I recognize clearly that there are many people who under a flattering and brilliant exterior hide venom in their hearts, who use their cleverness to weave snares for their neighbors and for unpardonable deception, and so are afraid of meeting face to face, and at the same time use their social media not for the benefit of their neighbor and their country, but to drug and bewitch the reason of those who have entered into business relations of any sort with them. Your treachery to me, my dear sir, can be clearly seen from what follows.
In the first place, when, in the clear and distinct terms of my message, I described my position, sir, and at the same time asked you in my first message what you meant by certain expressions and intentions of yours, principally in regard to Nikolas, you tried for the most part to avoid answering, and confounding me by doubts and suspicions, you calmly put the subject aside.
Then after treating me in a way that cannot be described by any seemly word, you began writing that you were wounded. Then when every minute was precious to me and when you had set me running after you all over the town, you wrote, pretending personal friendship, messages in which, intentionally avoiding all mention of business, you spoke of utterly irrelevant matters; to wit, of the illnesses of your wife, for whom I have, in any case, every respect, and of how your baby was cutting a tooth.
All this you alluded to in every message with a disgusting regularity that was insulting to me. Of course I am prepared to admit that a father’s heart may be torn by the sufferings of his baby, but why make mention of this when something different, far more important and interesting, was needed? I endured it in silence, but now when time has elapsed I think it my duty to explain myself. Finally, treacherously deceiving me several times by making fake appointments, you tried, it seems, to make me play the part of a fool and a laughing-stock for you, which 1 never intend to be.
Then after first inviting me and thoroughly deceiving me, you informed me that you were called away to your suffering aunt who had had a stroke, precisely at five o’clock as you stated with shameful exactitude. Luckily for me, sir, in the course of these three days I’ve done a little FB research and from other statuses, have learnt that your aunt had a stroke on the day before, the seventh not long before midnight.
From this fact, I see that you have made use of sacred family relations in order to deceive persons in no way concerned with them. Finally, in your last message you mention the death of your relative as though it had taken place precisely at the time when I was to have visited you to consult about various business matters. But here the vileness of your arts and calculations exceeds all belief, for from Twitter I know that your aunt was tweeting a full twenty-four hours later than the time you so impiously fixed for her death in your message. It would take forever to enumerate all the signs by which I have discovered your treachery in regard to me. It is sufficient, indeed, for any impartial observer that in every message you call me your true friend, and call me all sorts of polite names, which you do, to the best of my belief, for no other object than to put my conscience to sleep.
I have come now to your principal act of deceit and treachery in regard to me, to wit, your continual silence of late in regard to everything concerning our common interests, in regard to your wicked theft of the message in which you stated, though in language somewhat obscure and not perfectly intelligible to me, our mutual agreements, your barbarous forcible loan of three hundred and fifty dollars which you borrowed from me as your partner without giving any receipt, and finally, your abominable slander of Nikolas.
I see clearly now that you meant to show me that he was, if you will allow me to say so, like a billy-goat, good for neither milk nor wool, that he was neither one thing nor the other, neither fish nor flesh, which you put down as a vice in him in your message of the sixth instant. I knew Nikolas as a modest and well-behaved young man, whereby he may well attract, gain, and deserve respect in society. I know also that every evening for the last fortnight you’ve put into your pocket dozens and sometimes even hundreds of dollars, gambling with Nicholas.
Now you disavow all this, and not only refuse to compensate me for what I have suffered, but have even appropriated money belonging to me, tempting me by suggestions that I should be partner in the affair, and luring me with various advantages which were to accrue. After having appropriated, in a most illegal way, money of mine and of Nikolas’s, you decline to compensate me, resorting for that object to calumny with which you have unjustifiably blackened in my eyes a man whom I, by my efforts and exertions, introduced to you.
While on the contrary, from what I hear from your friends, you are still almost slobbering over him, and give out to the whole world that he is your dearest friend, though there is no one in the world such a fool as not to guess at once what your designs are aiming at and what your friendly relations really mean. I should say that they mean deceit, treachery, forgetfulness of human duties, and proprieties, contrary to the law of God and vicious in every way. I take myself as a proof and example. In what way have I offended you and why have you treated me in this fashion?
I will end my message. I have explained myself. Now in conclusion. If, sir, you do not in the shortest possible time after receiving this message return me in full, first, the three hundred and fifty dollars I gave you, and, secondly, all the sums that should come to me according to your promise, I will have recourse to every possible means to compel you to return it, even to open force, secondly to the protection of the laws, and finally I inform you that I am in possession of facts, which, if they remain in the hands of your humble servant, may ruin and disgrace your name in the eyes of all the world.
When I received your vulgar and at the same time odd message, my impulse for the first minute was to delete it without reading it, but I have preserved it as a curiosity. I do, however, sincerely regret our misunderstandings and unpleasant relations. I did not mean to answer you.
But I am compelled by necessity. I must in these lines inform you that it would be very unpleasant for me to see you in my house at any time; my wife feels the same: she is in delicate health and the smell of losers upsets her. My wife sends your wife the book, Don Quixote de la Mancha, with her sincere thanks. As for the galoshes you say you left behind here on your last visit, I must regretfully inform you that they are nowhere to be found. They are still being looked for; but if they do not turn up, then I will buy you a new pair.
I remain your sincere friend.
Peter: see the forwarded email, below:
Yesterday was utterly impossible. My husband was at home the whole evening. Be sure to come tomorrow punctually at eleven. At half-past ten, my husband is going to his aunt’s and not coming back till evening. I was in a rage all night. Thank you for sending me the information and the email thread. Did she really write all that? She has style though; many thanks, dear; I see that you love me. Don’t be angry, but, for goodness sake, come tomorrow.
Evan: see forwarded email, below.
Good-bye! The Lord will reward you for this too. May you be happy, but my lot is bitter, terribly bitter! It is your choice. If it had not been for my aunt, I should not have put such trust in you. Do not laugh at me nor at my aunt. Tomorrow is our wedding. Aunt is relieved that a good man has been found, and that he will take me without a dowry. I took a good look at him for the first time today. He seems good-natured. They are hurrying me. Farewell, farewell… My darling! ! Think of me sometimes; I shall never forget you. Farewell! I sign this last like my first message, do you remember?