The prince continued to regard Nastasia with a sorrowful, but intent and piercing, gaze.
“To judge from your words, you came straight to my house with the intention of staying there.”
“I will, Nastasia Philipovna.”
He had left things quiet and peaceful; the invalid was fast asleep, and the doctor, who had been called in, had stated that there was no special danger. Lebedeff, Colia, and Burdovsky were lying down in the sick-room, ready to take it in turns to watch. There was nothing to fear, therefore, at home.
“Let’s go,” said Rogojin, touching his shoulder. They left the alcove and sat down in the two chairs they had occupied before, opposite to one another. The prince trembled more and more violently, and never took his questioning eyes off Rogojin’s face.
“So I will,” he whispered hoarsely. “As soon as I get home I will go to bed at once; and I know I shall be dead in a fortnight; Botkine told me so himself last week. That is why I should like to say a few farewell words, if you will let me.”
“As for yesterday’s episode,” continued Gania, “of course it was pre-arranged.” Here he paused, as though expecting to be asked how he knew that. But the prince did not inquire. Concerning Evgenie Pavlovitch, Gania stated, without being asked, that he believed the former had not known Nastasia Philipovna in past years, but that he had probably been introduced to her by somebody in the park during these four days. As to the question of the IOU’s she had spoken of, there might easily be something in that; for though Evgenie was undoubtedly a man of wealth, yet certain of his affairs were equally undoubtedly in disorder. Arrived at this interesting point, Gania suddenly broke off, and said no more about Nastasia’s prank of the previous evening.
The prince made his bows and retired at once. Alexandra and Adelaida smiled and whispered to each other, while Lizabetha Prokofievna glared severely at them. “We are only laughing at the prince’s beautiful bows, mamma,” said Adelaida. “Sometimes he bows just like a meal-sack, but to-day he was like--like Evgenie Pavlovitch!”
“Another excellent idea, and worth considering!” replied Lebedeff. “But, again, that is not the question. The question at this moment is whether we have not weakened ‘the springs of life’ by the extension...”
But by this time they had reached Gania’s house.
The amiable and undoubtedly witty Prince N. could not but feel that he was as a sun, risen for one night only to shine upon the Epanchin drawing-room. He accounted them immeasurably his inferiors, and it was this feeling which caused his special amiability and delightful ease and grace towards them. He knew very well that he must tell some story this evening for the edification of the company, and led up to it with the inspiration of anticipatory triumph.
“What! surely not?” said Aglaya.
“Yes, that’s better,” said Adelaida; “the prince _learned to see_ abroad.”
The prince did not die before his wedding--either by day or night, as he had foretold that he might. Very probably he passed disturbed nights, and was afflicted with bad dreams; but, during the daytime, among his fellow-men, he seemed as kind as ever, and even contented; only a little thoughtful when alone.
“I have lain here now for three days,” cried the young man without noticing, “and I have seen a lot! Fancy! he suspects his daughter, that angel, that orphan, my cousin--he suspects her, and every evening he searches her room, to see if she has a lover hidden in it! He comes here too on tiptoe, creeping softly--oh, so softly--and looks under the sofa--my bed, you know. He is mad with suspicion, and sees a thief in every corner. He runs about all night long; he was up at least seven times last night, to satisfy himself that the windows and doors were barred, and to peep into the oven. That man who appears in court for scoundrels, rushes in here in the night and prays, lying prostrate, banging his head on the ground by the half-hour--and for whom do you think he prays? Who are the sinners figuring in his drunken petitions? I have heard him with my own ears praying for the repose of the soul of the Countess du Barry! Colia heard it too. He is as mad as a March hare!”
Her eyes were aglow with inspiration, and a slight tremor of rapture passed over her lovely features once or twice. She continued to recite:
“Excuse me,” said Lebedeff, “but did you observe the young gentleman’s style? ‘I’ll go and blow my brains out in the park,’ says he, ‘so as not to disturb anyone.’ He thinks he won’t disturb anybody if he goes three yards away, into the park, and blows his brains out there.”
“I do so want to hear about it,” repeated Adelaida.
“Pavlicheff’s son! It is not worth while!” cried Lebedeff. “There is no necessity to see them, and it would be most unpleasant for your excellency. They do not deserve...”
“But wait,” said Nastasia. “How is it that, five or six days since, I read exactly the same story in the paper, as happening between a Frenchman and an English girl? The cigar was snatched away exactly as you describe, and the poodle was chucked out of the window after it. The slapping came off, too, as in your case; and the girl’s dress was light blue!”
Then the sky cleared in a moment. The prince seemed to arise from the dead; he asked Colia all about it, made him repeat the story over and over again, and laughed and shook hands with the boys in his delight.
“Besides,” said Burdovsky, “the prince would not like it, would he?” So they gave up the pursuit.
“You don’t seem to want to tell us,” said Aglaya, with a mocking air.
“I want to explain all to you--everything--everything! I know you think me Utopian, don’t you--an idealist? Oh, no! I’m not, indeed--my ideas are all so simple. You don’t believe me? You are smiling. Do you know, I am sometimes very wicked--for I lose my faith? This evening as I came here, I thought to myself, ‘What shall I talk about? How am I to begin, so that they may be able to understand partially, at all events?’ How afraid I was--dreadfully afraid! And yet, how _could_ I be afraid--was it not shameful of me? Was I afraid of finding a bottomless abyss of empty selfishness? Ah! that’s why I am so happy at this moment, because I find there is no bottomless abyss at all--but good, healthy material, full of life.
“It’s impossible, for that very reason,” said the prince. “How would she get out if she wished to? You don’t know the habits of that house--she _could_ not get away alone to Nastasia Philipovna’s! It’s all nonsense!”
Gavrila Ardalionovitch nodded to the prince and entered the room hastily.
“One moment, my dear prince, just one. I must absolutely speak to you about something which is most grave,” said Lebedeff, mysteriously and solemnly, entering the room with a bow and looking extremely important. He had but just returned, and carried his hat in his hand. He looked preoccupied and most unusually dignified.
“The old story, eh?”
“H’m!” grunted the astonished servant.
“One word from her,” he said, “one word from her, and I may yet be free.”
“She’s mad--she’s mad!” was the cry.
“You are crying, aren’t you?”
“Forgive a silly, horrid, spoilt girl”--(she took his hand here)--“and be quite assured that we all of us esteem you beyond all words. And if I dared to turn your beautiful, admirable simplicity to ridicule, forgive me as you would a little child its mischief. Forgive me all my absurdity of just now, which, of course, meant nothing, and could not have the slightest consequence.” She spoke these words with great emphasis.
“Oh, don’t think that I have no sense of my own humiliation! I have suffered already in reading so far. Which of you all does not think me a fool at this moment--a young fool who knows nothing of life--forgetting that to live as I have lived these last six months is to live longer than grey-haired old men. Well, let them laugh, and say it is all nonsense, if they please. They may say it is all fairy-tales, if they like; and I have spent whole nights telling myself fairy-tales. I remember them all. But how can I tell fairy-tales now? The time for them is over. They amused me when I found that there was not even time for me to learn the Greek grammar, as I wanted to do. ‘I shall die before I get to the syntax,’ I thought at the first page--and threw the book under the table. It is there still, for I forbade anyone to pick it up.
“Speak!” said the general, beside himself with rage and excitement; “speak--under the penalty of a father’s curse!”
“Of course it is all, my friend. I don’t doubt you for a moment,” said Lizabetha Prokofievna with dignity.
“Perhaps he is drunk? Your company is rather peculiar,” she added, with a glance at the other guests....
He felt in a very curious condition today, a condition similar to that which had preceded his fits in bygone years.
“To this keen question I replied as keenly, ‘The Russian heart can recognize a great man even in the bitter enemy of his country.’ At least, I don’t remember the exact words, you know, but the idea was as I say. Napoleon was struck; he thought a minute and then said to his suite: ‘I like that boy’s pride; if all Russians think like this child, then--’ he didn’t finish, but went on and entered the palace. I instantly mixed with his suite, and followed him. I was already in high favour. I remember when he came into the first hall, the emperor stopped before a portrait of the Empress Katherine, and after a thoughtful glance remarked, ‘That was a great woman,’ and passed on.
“I’ve--I’ve had a reward for my meanness--I’ve had a slap in the face,” he concluded, tragically.
The young officer, forgetting himself, sprang towards her. Nastasia’s followers were not by her at the moment (the elderly gentleman having disappeared altogether, and the younger man simply standing aside and roaring with laughter).
“Of course; quite so. In that case it all depends upon what is going on in her brain at this moment.”
Hippolyte looked around at the laughing guests. The prince observed that his teeth were chattering as though in a violent attack of ague.
“It was Gogol, in Dead Souls, father,” cried Colia, glancing at him in some alarm.
“And this is my son--my own son--whom I--oh, gracious Heaven! Eropegoff--Eroshka Eropegoff didn’t exist!”
“H’m! and you take no notice of it?”
The prince watched the whole scene, silent and dejected.
Totski grew white as a sheet. The general was struck dumb. All present started and listened intently. Gania sat rooted to his chair.
“Yes, here in my chest. I received them at the siege of Kars, and I feel them in bad weather now. And as to the third of our trio, Epanchin, of course after that little affair with the poodle in the railway carriage, it was all _up_ between us.”
“No, I have forgotten nothing. Come! This is the house--up this magnificent staircase. I am surprised not to see the porter, but .... it is a holiday... and the man has gone off... Drunken fool! Why have they not got rid of him? Sokolovitch owes all the happiness he has had in the service and in his private life to me, and me alone, but... here we are.”
“Pafnute, yes. And who was he?”
“I am base--base!” muttered Lebedeff, beating his breast, and hanging his head.
“Quite so--together! But the second time I thought better to say nothing about finding it. I found it alone.”
On the morning following the bacchanalian songs and quarrels recorded above, as the prince stepped out of the house at about eleven o’clock, the general suddenly appeared before him, much agitated.
“Yes, he would!” said Rogojin, quietly, but with an air of absolute conviction.
“Oh! do be quiet! You must be drunk! He has taken it into his head to play the lawyer, prince, and he practices speechifying, and is always repeating his eloquent pleadings to his children. And who do you think was his last client? An old woman who had been robbed of five hundred roubles, her all, by some rogue of a usurer, besought him to take up her case, instead of which he defended the usurer himself, a Jew named Zeidler, because this Jew promised to give him fifty roubles....”
To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving.
“I must say it’s very nice of you to laugh. I see you really are a kind-hearted fellow,” said Mrs. Epanchin.
“But if I beg you to make it up?” said Varia.
“Just a couple of words!” whispered another voice in the prince’s other ear, and another hand took his other arm. Muishkin turned, and to his great surprise observed a red, flushed face and a droll-looking figure which he recognized at once as that of Ferdishenko. Goodness knows where he had turned up from!
“Oh no, I remember all right, and I shall go, of course. I should think so! She’s twenty-five years old today! And, you know, Gania, you must be ready for great things; she has promised both myself and Afanasy Ivanovitch that she will give a decided answer tonight, yes or no. So be prepared!”
“Accept, accept, Prince Lef Nicolaievitch” said Lebedef solemnly; “don’t let it slip! Accept, quick!”
“What you say is quite true,” observed General Epanchin; then, clasping his hands behind his back, he returned to his place on the terrace steps, where he yawned with an air of boredom.
He did not dare look at her, but he was conscious, to the very tips of his fingers, that she was gazing at him, perhaps angrily; and that she had probably flushed up with a look of fiery indignation in her black eyes.
“In our dear country, as indeed in the whole of Europe, a famine visits humanity about four times a century, as far as I can remember; once in every twenty-five years. I won’t swear to this being the exact figure, but anyhow they have become comparatively rare.”
Nina Alexandrovna started, and examined the photograph intently, gazing at it long and sadly. At last she looked up inquiringly at Varia.
The prince sat silent for a long while. His mind was filled with dread and horror.
“It grieves me to see you so, Hippolyte. Why didn’t you send me a message? I would have come up and saved you this trouble.”
“What have you got there?” asked the prince, with some anxiety.
“Speak, Ivan Fedorovitch! What are we to do?” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, irritably. “Please break your majestic silence! I tell you, if you cannot come to some decision, I will stay here all night myself. You have tyrannized over me enough, you autocrat!”
Of such people there are countless numbers in this world--far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can--that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.
So saying, Rogojin crossed the road.
“Nastasia Philipovna, is this really you? You, once so refined and delicate of speech. Oh, what a tongue! What dreadful things you are saying,” cried the general, wringing his hands in real grief.
No sooner had the carriage driven off than the door opened once more; and Rogojin, who had apparently been awaiting them, let them in and closed it after them.
“He is, indeed,” said Alexandra; “almost laughably so at times.”
The prince begged him to take a chair.
“Of course I wrote an apology, and called, but they would not receive either me or my apology, and the Epanchins cut me, too!”
“And how do you know that I am ‘so happy’?”
“I can but thank you,” he said, in a tone too respectful to be sincere, “for your kindness in letting me speak, for I have often noticed that our Liberals never allow other people to have an opinion of their own, and immediately answer their opponents with abuse, if they do not have recourse to arguments of a still more unpleasant nature.”
But the prince was not satisfied with what he had said to Rogojin. Only at this moment, when she suddenly made her appearance before him, did he realize to the full the exact emotion which she called up in him, and which he had not described correctly to Rogojin.
“There were a couple of old bullets in the bag which contained the pistol, and powder enough in an old flask for two or three charges.
“Who has been annoying her? Who has been tormenting the child? Who could have said such a thing to her? Is she raving?” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, trembling with rage, to the company in general.
Little by little a sort of inspiration, however, began to stir within him, ready to spring into life at the right moment. When he did begin to speak, it was accidentally, in response to a question, and apparently without any special object.
He saw, for instance, that one important dignitary, old enough to be his grandfather, broke off his own conversation in order to listen to _him_--a young and inexperienced man; and not only listened, but seemed to attach value to his opinion, and was kind and amiable, and yet they were strangers and had never seen each other before. Perhaps what most appealed to the prince’s impressionability was the refinement of the old man’s courtesy towards him. Perhaps the soil of his susceptible nature was really predisposed to receive a pleasant impression.
“You are altogether perfection; even your pallor and thinness are perfect; one could not wish you otherwise. I did so wish to come and see you. I--forgive me, please--”
“Oh no, oh no!” said the prince; “I couldn’t, you know--my illness--I hardly ever saw a soul.”
“Absolutely and utterly impossible--and yet, so it must be. But one thing I am sure of, if it be a theft, it was committed, not in the evening when we were all together, but either at night or early in the morning; therefore, by one of those who slept here. Burdovsky and Colia I except, of course. They did not even come into my room.”
“No! Oh no! Not at all!” said Evgenie. “But--how is it, prince, that you--(excuse the question, will you?)--if you are capable of observing and seeing things as you evidently do, how is it that you saw nothing distorted or perverted in that claim upon your property, which you acknowledged a day or two since; and which was full of arguments founded upon the most distorted views of right and wrong?”
“She’s a real princess! I’d sell my soul for such a princess as that!”
“One more second and I should have stopped him,” said Keller, afterwards. In fact, he and Burdovsky jumped into another carriage and set off in pursuit; but it struck them as they drove along that it was not much use trying to bring Nastasia back by force.
Meanwhile all these people--though friends of the family and of each other to a certain extent--were very far from being such intimate friends of the family and of each other as the prince concluded. There were some present who never would think of considering the Epanchins their equals. There were even some who hated one another cordially. For instance, old Princess Bielokonski had all her life despised the wife of the “dignitary,” while the latter was very far from loving Lizabetha Prokofievna. The dignitary himself had been General Epanchin’s protector from his youth up; and the general considered him so majestic a personage that he would have felt a hearty contempt for himself if he had even for one moment allowed himself to pose as the great man’s equal, or to think of him--in his fear and reverence--as anything less than an Olympic God! There were others present who had not met for years, and who had no feeling whatever for each other, unless it were dislike; and yet they met tonight as though they had seen each other but yesterday in some friendly and intimate assembly of kindred spirits.
Rogojin suffered from brain fever for two months. When he recovered from the attack he was at once brought up on trial for murder.
Rogojin took the chair offered him, but he did not sit long; he soon stood up again, and did not reseat himself. Little by little he began to look around him and discern the other guests. Seeing Gania, he smiled venomously and muttered to himself, “Look at that!”
“But, at times, I can’t help thinking that I am wrong in feeling so about it, you know. Sincerity is more important than elocution, isn’t it?”
The prince took the first opportunity of informing the Epanchin ladies that he had intended to pay them a visit that day, if they had not themselves come this afternoon, and Lizabetha Prokofievna replied that she hoped he would still do so.
If the prince had been in a condition to pay more attention to what the general was saying, he would have discovered that the latter was desirous of drawing some information out of him, or indeed of asking him some question outright; but that he could not make up his mind to come to the point.
“Oh, I forgive him with all my heart; you may tell him so if you like,” laughed Evgenie.
“‘Profoundest respect!’ What nonsense! First, insane giggling, and then, all of a sudden, a display of ‘profoundest respect.’ Why respect? Tell me at once, why have you suddenly developed this ‘profound respect,’ eh?”