“What? Impossible!” exclaimed Mrs. Epanchin.
“I think you said, prince, that your letter was from Salaskin? Salaskin is a very eminent man, indeed, in his own world; he is a wonderfully clever solicitor, and if he really tells you this, I think you may be pretty sure that he is right. It so happens, luckily, that I know his handwriting, for I have lately had business with him. If you would allow me to see it, I should perhaps be able to tell you.”
At this moment Gania and Ptitsin entered the room together, and Nina Alexandrovna immediately became silent again. The prince remained seated next to her, but Varia moved to the other end of the room; the portrait of Nastasia Philipovna remained lying as before on the work-table. Gania observed it there, and with a frown of annoyance snatched it up and threw it across to his writing-table, which stood at the other end of the room.
“Ardalion Alexandrovitch,” she cried after him, “wait a moment, we are all sinners! When you feel that your conscience reproaches you a little less, come over to me and we’ll have a talk about the past! I dare say I am fifty times more of a sinner than you are! And now go, go, good-bye, you had better not stay here!” she added, in alarm, as he turned as though to come back.
“I have now--let’s see--I have a hundred and thirty-five thousand roubles,” said the prince, blushing violently.
“I was glad for the poor fellow, and went home. But an idea got hold of me somehow. I don’t know how. It was nearly two in the morning. I rang the bell and ordered the coachman to be waked up and sent to me. He came. I gave him a tip of fifteen roubles, and told him to get the carriage ready at once. In half an hour it was at the door. I got in and off we went.
“Here, in the first place, comes a strange thought!
“And do you know,” the prince continued, “I am amazed at your naive ways, Lebedeff! Don’t be angry with me--not only yours, everybody else’s also! You are waiting to hear something from me at this very moment with such simplicity that I declare I feel quite ashamed of myself for having nothing whatever to tell you. I swear to you solemnly, that there is nothing to tell. There! Can you take that in?” The prince laughed again.
“He discovered everything, the monster... himself......”
“My goodness, Lef Nicolaievitch, why, you can’t have heard a single word I said! Look at me, I’m still trembling all over with the dreadful shock! It is that that kept me in town so late. Evgenie Pavlovitch’s uncle--”
“It’s better so, you know, Gania--especially as, from one point of view, the matter may be considered as settled,” said Ptitsin; and sitting down a little way from the table he began to study a paper covered with pencil writing.
“No, Varia, I shall sit it out to the end.”
“Nastasia Philipovna!” said the general, in persuasive but agitated tones.
He turned and went downstairs.
“But after all, what is it? Is it possible that I should have just risked my fate by tossing up?” he went on, shuddering; and looked round him again. His eyes had a curious expression of sincerity. “That is an astonishing psychological fact,” he cried, suddenly addressing the prince, in a tone of the most intense surprise. “It is... it is something quite inconceivable, prince,” he repeated with growing animation, like a man regaining consciousness. “Take note of it, prince, remember it; you collect, I am told, facts concerning capital punishment... They told me so. Ha, ha! My God, how absurd!” He sat down on the sofa, put his elbows on the table, and laid his head on his hands. “It is shameful--though what does it matter to me if it is shameful?
“At the table stood a man in his shirt sleeves; he had thrown off his coat; it lay upon the bed; and he was unfolding a blue paper parcel in which were a couple of pounds of bread, and some little sausages.
“Make their acquaintance?” asked the man, in amazement, and with redoubled suspicion. “Then why did you say you had business with the general?”
“With pleasure! In fact, it is very necessary. I like your readiness, prince; in fact, I must say--I--I--like you very well, altogether,” said the general.
“You know quite well, but you are pretending to be ignorant,” said Aglaya, very low, with her eyes on the ground.
“Wasn’t it this same Pavlicheff about whom there was a strange story in connection with some abbot? I don’t remember who the abbot was, but I remember at one time everybody was talking about it,” remarked the old dignitary.
“Are you out of your mind?” cried the prince, almost starting from his seat. “What do they accuse you of? Who accuses you?”
“You have forgotten, mother,” said Aglaya, suddenly. “He really did carry me about,--in Tver, you know. I was six years old, I remember. He made me a bow and arrow, and I shot a pigeon. Don’t you remember shooting a pigeon, you and I, one day?”
“Though the position of all of us at that time was not particularly brilliant, and the poverty was dreadful all round, yet the etiquette at court was strictly preserved, and the more strictly in proportion to the growth of the forebodings of disaster.”
“She has promised to tell me tonight at her own house whether she consents or not,” replied Gania.
“What do you know about it?” cried the latter. “Well, my father learned the whole story at once, and Zaleshoff blabbed it all over the town besides. So he took me upstairs and locked me up, and swore at me for an hour. ‘This is only a foretaste,’ says he; ‘wait a bit till night comes, and I’ll come back and talk to you again.’
But the prince was silent and serious. All awaited his reply.
When they were almost arrived at Daria Alexeyevna’s house (it was a large wooden structure of ancient date), a gorgeously-dressed lady and a young girl came out of it. Both these ladies took their seats in a carriage, which was waiting at the door, talking and laughing loudly the while, and drove away without appearing to notice the approaching couple.
Nastasia rushed to him like a madwoman, and seized both his hands.
A certain strangeness and impatience in his manner impressed the prince very forcibly.
“What simplifies the duty before me considerably, in my opinion,” he began, “is that I am bound to recall and relate the very worst action of my life. In such circumstances there can, of course, be no doubt. One’s conscience very soon informs one what is the proper narrative to tell. I admit, that among the many silly and thoughtless actions of my life, the memory of one comes prominently forward and reminds me that it lay long like a stone on my heart. Some twenty years since, I paid a visit to Platon Ordintzeff at his country-house. He had just been elected marshal of the nobility, and had come there with his young wife for the winter holidays. Anfisa Alexeyevna’s birthday came off just then, too, and there were two balls arranged. At that time Dumas-fils’ beautiful work, _La Dame aux Camélias_--a novel which I consider imperishable--had just come into fashion. In the provinces all the ladies were in raptures over it, those who had read it, at least. Camellias were all the fashion. Everyone inquired for them, everybody wanted them; and a grand lot of camellias are to be got in a country town--as you all know--and two balls to provide for!
Aglaya went up to him with a peculiarly serious look.
Lebedeff was so impressed by these words, and the tone in which they were spoken, that he could not leave Nina Alexandrovna all the evening--in fact, for several days. Till the general’s death, indeed, he spent almost all his time at his side.
“What is the good of it?” repeated Gavrila Ardalionovitch, with pretended surprise. “Well, firstly, because now perhaps Mr. Burdovsky is quite convinced that Mr. Pavlicheff’s love for him came simply from generosity of soul, and not from paternal duty. It was most necessary to impress this fact upon his mind, considering that he approved of the article written by Mr. Keller. I speak thus because I look on you, Mr. Burdovsky, as an honourable man. Secondly, it appears that there was no intention of cheating in this case, even on the part of Tchebaroff. I wish to say this quite plainly, because the prince hinted a while ago that I too thought it an attempt at robbery and extortion. On the contrary, everyone has been quite sincere in the matter, and although Tchebaroff may be somewhat of a rogue, in this business he has acted simply as any sharp lawyer would do under the circumstances. He looked at it as a case that might bring him in a lot of money, and he did not calculate badly; because on the one hand he speculated on the generosity of the prince, and his gratitude to the late Mr. Pavlicheff, and on the other to his chivalrous ideas as to the obligations of honour and conscience. As to Mr. Burdovsky, allowing for his principles, we may acknowledge that he engaged in the business with very little personal aim in view. At the instigation of Tchebaroff and his other friends, he decided to make the attempt in the service of truth, progress, and humanity. In short, the conclusion may be drawn that, in spite of all appearances, Mr. Burdovsky is a man of irreproachable character, and thus the prince can all the more readily offer him his friendship, and the assistance of which he spoke just now...”
“Oh, that may be. He may have known her some time ago--two or three years, at least. He used to know Totski. But it is impossible that there should be any intimacy between them. She has not even been in the place--many people don’t even know that she has returned from Moscow! I have only observed her carriage about for the last three days or so.”
His first impression was one of fascination. Somehow or other he felt that all these people must have been born on purpose to be together! It seemed to him that the Epanchins were not having a party at all; that these people must have been here always, and that he himself was one of them--returned among them after a long absence, but one of them, naturally and indisputably.
“What nonsense you are all talking! What do you mean by poor knight?”
Ptitsin was quiet and not easily offended--he only laughed. But on one occasion he explained seriously to Gania that he was no Jew, that he did nothing dishonest, that he could not help the market price of money, that, thanks to his accurate habits, he had already a good footing and was respected, and that his business was flourishing.
“Well, in a couple of days I was known all over the palace and the Kremlin as ‘le petit boyard.’ I only went home to sleep. They were nearly out of their minds about me at home. A couple of days after this, Napoleon’s page, De Bazancour, died; he had not been able to stand the trials of the campaign. Napoleon remembered me; I was taken away without explanation; the dead page’s uniform was tried on me, and when I was taken before the emperor, dressed in it, he nodded his head to me, and I was told that I was appointed to the vacant post of page.
An old woman opened to them and bowed low to Parfen, who asked her some questions hurriedly, but did not wait to hear her answer. He led the prince on through several dark, cold-looking rooms, spotlessly clean, with white covers over all the furniture.
“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...”
“No, I have never known her.”
This must be thought out; it was clear that there had been no hallucination at the station then, either; something had actually happened to him, on both occasions; there was no doubt of it. But again a loathing for all mental exertion overmastered him; he would not think it out now, he would put it off and think of something else. He remembered that during his epileptic fits, or rather immediately preceding them, he had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up to vigour and light; when he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away for ever; these moments were but presentiments, as it were, of the one final second (it was never more than a second) in which the fit came upon him. That second, of course, was inexpressible. When his attack was over, and the prince reflected on his symptoms, he used to say to himself: “These moments, short as they are, when I feel such extreme consciousness of myself, and consequently more of life than at other times, are due only to the disease--to the sudden rupture of normal conditions. Therefore they are not really a higher kind of life, but a lower.” This reasoning, however, seemed to end in a paradox, and lead to the further consideration:--“What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree--an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life?” Vague though this sounds, it was perfectly comprehensible to Muishkin, though he knew that it was but a feeble expression of his sensations.
“He entered, and shut the door behind him. Then he silently gazed at me and went quickly to the corner of the room where the lamp was burning and sat down underneath it.
“I know a new and most delightful game, added Ferdishenko.
All this was suspicious and unsatisfactory. Very likely the porter had received new instructions during the interval of the prince’s absence; his manner was so different now. He had been obliging--now he was as obstinate and silent as a mule. However, the prince decided to call again in a couple of hours, and after that to watch the house, in case of need. His hope was that he might yet find Nastasia at the address which he had just received. To that address he now set off at full speed.
Gania was silent and merely looked contemptuously at him.
“Just so, prince, just so. How well you bring out that fact! Because your own heart is good!” cried the ecstatic old gentleman, and, strangely enough, real tears glistened in his eyes. “Yes, prince, it was a wonderful spectacle. And, do you know, I all but went off to Paris, and should assuredly have shared his solitary exile with him; but, alas, our destinies were otherwise ordered! We parted, he to his island, where I am sure he thought of the weeping child who had embraced him so affectionately at parting in Moscow; and I was sent off to the cadet corps, where I found nothing but roughness and harsh discipline. Alas, my happy days were done!”
Another thought tormented him: He wondered was this an arranged business--arranged to happen when he had guests in his house, and in anticipation of his humiliation rather than of his triumph? But he reproached himself bitterly for such a thought, and felt as if he should die of shame if it were discovered. When his new visitors appeared, he was quite ready to believe himself infinitely less to be respected than any of them.
“Did you read them?” asked the prince, struck by the thought.
“It is plain to me, that _you_ are not in it at all,” he continued, at last, a little less vaguely, “but perhaps you had better not come to our house for a little while. I ask you in the friendliest manner, mind; just till the wind changes again. As for Evgenie Pavlovitch,” he continued with some excitement, “the whole thing is a calumny, a dirty calumny. It is simply a plot, an intrigue, to upset our plans and to stir up a quarrel. You see, prince, I’ll tell you privately, Evgenie and ourselves have not said a word yet, we have no formal understanding, we are in no way bound on either side, but the word may be said very soon, don’t you see, _very_ soon, and all this is most injurious, and is meant to be so. Why? I’m sure I can’t tell you. She’s an extraordinary woman, you see, an eccentric woman; I tell you I am so frightened of that woman that I can’t sleep. What a carriage that was, and where did it come from, eh? I declare, I was base enough to suspect Evgenie at first; but it seems certain that that cannot be the case, and if so, why is she interfering here? That’s the riddle, what does she want? Is it to keep Evgenie to herself? But, my dear fellow, I swear to you, I swear he doesn’t even _know_ her, and as for those bills, why, the whole thing is an invention! And the familiarity of the woman! It’s quite clear we must treat the impudent creature’s attempt with disdain, and redouble our courtesy towards Evgenie. I told my wife so.
“She seems always to be searching about, as if she had lost something. The mere idea of her coming marriage disgusts her; she looks on it as an insult. She cares as much for _him_ as for a piece of orange-peel--not more. Yet I am much mistaken if she does not look on him with fear and trembling. She forbids his name to be mentioned before her, and they only meet when unavoidable. He understands, well enough! But it must be gone through. She is restless, mocking, deceitful, violent....”
“Lebedeff, you seem to be angry for some reason!” said the prince.
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.
“No, no, read it--read it at once directly, and aloud, aloud!” cried she, calling Colia to her and giving him the journal.--“Read it aloud, so that everyone may hear it!”
However, it appeared to Totski that he might make use of her in another way; and he determined to establish her in St. Petersburg, surrounding her with all the comforts and luxuries that his wealth could command. In this way he might gain glory in certain circles.
“But it’s not I alone,” cried Colia. “They all talked about it, and they do still. Why, just now Prince S. and Adelaida Ivanovna declared that they upheld ‘the poor knight’; so evidently there does exist a ‘poor knight’; and if it were not for Adelaida Ivanovna, we should have known long ago who the ‘poor knight’ was.”
“Now, that is a valuable piece of information, Mr. Keller,” replied Gania. “However that may be, I have private information which convinces me that Mr. Burdovsky, though doubtless aware of the date of his birth, knew nothing at all about Pavlicheff’s sojourn abroad. Indeed, he passed the greater part of his life out of Russia, returning at intervals for short visits. The journey in question is in itself too unimportant for his friends to recollect it after more than twenty years; and of course Mr. Burdovsky could have known nothing about it, for he was not born. As the event has proved, it was not impossible to find evidence of his absence, though I must confess that chance has helped me in a quest which might very well have come to nothing. It was really almost impossible for Burdovsky or Tchebaroff to discover these facts, even if it had entered their heads to try. Naturally they never dreamt...”
No one liked the idea much. Some smiled, some frowned; some objected, but faintly, not wishing to oppose Nastasia’s wishes; for this new idea seemed to be rather well received by her. She was still in an excited, hysterical state, laughing convulsively at nothing and everything. Her eyes were blazing, and her cheeks showed two bright red spots against the white. The melancholy appearance of some of her guests seemed to add to her sarcastic humour, and perhaps the very cynicism and cruelty of the game proposed by Ferdishenko pleased her. At all events she was attracted by the idea, and gradually her guests came round to her side; the thing was original, at least, and might turn out to be amusing. “And supposing it’s something that one--one can’t speak about before ladies?” asked the timid and silent young man.
There were sounds of half-smothered laughter at this.
“No doubt... and I... is that acting like a prince? And you... you may be a general! But I... I am not your valet! And I... I...” stammered Antip Burdovsky.
“At once... at once... in one moment!”
“Show it me!”
“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.”
“Philosophy is necessary, sir--very necessary--in our day. It is too much neglected. As for me, much esteemed prince, I am sensible of having experienced the honour of your confidence in a certain matter up to a certain point, but never beyond that point. I do not for a moment complain--”
“He talks very well, you know!” said Mrs. Epanchin, who still continued to nod at each word the prince spoke. “I really did not expect it at all; in fact, I suppose it was all stuff and nonsense on the general’s part, as usual. Eat away, prince, and tell me where you were born, and where you were brought up. I wish to know all about you, you interest me very much!”
“You must have forgotten Russia, hadn’t you?”
“Nastasia Philipovna!” cried the prince.
He broke off abruptly, and could not add another word. This was his one attempt to stop the mad child, and, after he had made it, he followed her as though he had no will of his own. Confused as his thoughts were, he was, nevertheless, capable of realizing the fact that if he did not go with her, she would go alone, and so he must go with her at all hazards. He guessed the strength of her determination; it was beyond him to check it.
He fell asleep on the bench; but his mental disquiet continued through his slumbers.
He could not help observing the excited and agitated condition of all members of the family, and from certain hints dropped in conversation he gathered that they were all anxious as to the impression he should make upon the princess. But the Epanchins, one and all, believed that Muishkin, in his simplicity of mind, was quite incapable of realizing that they could be feeling any anxiety on his account, and for this reason they all looked at him with dread and uneasiness.
“You will admit yourself, general, that for an honourable man, if the author is an honourable man, that is an--an insult,” growled the boxer suddenly, with convulsive jerkings of his shoulders.
“Yes, sir--on that very spot.” The prince gazed strangely at Lebedeff. “And the general?” he asked, abruptly.
Ivan Fedorovitch, now quite out of patience, interrupted suddenly. “Let me remark in my turn, sir,” he said in tones of deep annoyance, “that my wife is here as the guest of Prince Lef Nicolaievitch, our friend and neighbour, and that in any case, young man, it is not for you to pass judgment on the conduct of Lizabetha Prokofievna, or to make remarks aloud in my presence concerning what feelings you think may be read in my face. Yes, my wife stayed here,” continued the general, with increasing irritation, “more out of amazement than anything else. Everyone can understand that a collection of such strange young men would attract the attention of a person interested in contemporary life. I stayed myself, just as I sometimes stop to look on in the street when I see something that may be regarded as-as-as-”
The prince said all this with manifest effort--in broken sentences, and with many drawings of breath. He was evidently much agitated. Nastasia Philipovna looked at him inquisitively, but did not laugh.
He saw them gather up the broken bits of china; he heard the loud talking of the guests and observed how pale Aglaya looked, and how very strangely she was gazing at him. There was no hatred in her expression, and no anger whatever. It was full of alarm for him, and sympathy and affection, while she looked around at the others with flashing, angry eyes. His heart filled with a sweet pain as he gazed at her.
“No--Mr. Pavlicheff, who had been supporting me there, died a couple of years ago. I wrote to Mrs. General Epanchin at the time (she is a distant relative of mine), but she did not answer my letter. And so eventually I came back.”
“Well? Go on.”
“No--no, impossible!” said Evgenie, rising.
“‘And to think that you are to be cut off from life!’ remarked Bachmatoff, in a tone of reproach, as though he would like to find someone to pitch into on my account.
“Oh, he was very likely joking; he said it for fun.”
“I admit that it is an historic thought, but what is your conclusion?” asked the prince.
“It’s a wonderful face,” said the prince, “and I feel sure that her destiny is not by any means an ordinary, uneventful one. Her face is smiling enough, but she must have suffered terribly--hasn’t she? Her eyes show it--those two bones there, the little points under her eyes, just where the cheek begins. It’s a proud face too, terribly proud! And I--I can’t say whether she is good and kind, or not. Oh, if she be but good! That would make all well!”
But alas! at the German lady’s house they did not even appear to understand what he wanted. After a while, by means of certain hints, he was able to gather that Nastasia must have had a quarrel with her friend two or three weeks ago, since which date the latter had neither heard nor seen anything of her. He was given to understand that the subject of Nastasia’s present whereabouts was not of the slightest interest to her; and that Nastasia might marry all the princes in the world for all she cared! So Muishkin took his leave hurriedly. It struck him now that she might have gone away to Moscow just as she had done the last time, and that Rogojin had perhaps gone after her, or even _with_ her. If only he could find some trace!
“Only on condition that he has a napkin under his chin at lunch, then,” said Mrs. Epanchin, “and let Fedor, or Mavra, stand behind him while he eats. Is he quiet when he has these fits? He doesn’t show violence, does he?”
“Mother,” said Rogojin, kissing her hand, “here is my great friend, Prince Muishkin; we have exchanged crosses; he was like a real brother to me at Moscow at one time, and did a great deal for me. Bless him, mother, as you would bless your own son. Wait a moment, let me arrange your hands for you.”
“I don’t quite know. Your house has the aspect of yourself and all your family; it bears the stamp of the Rogojin life; but ask me why I think so, and I can tell you nothing. It is nonsense, of course. I am nervous about this kind of thing troubling me so much. I had never before imagined what sort of a house you would live in, and yet no sooner did I set eyes on this one than I said to myself that it must be yours.”
“She is mad, insane--I assure you, she is mad,” replied the prince in trembling tones, holding out both his hands mechanically towards the officer.
However, it was something to move on and know where he was going. A minute later he was still moving on, but without knowing anything. He could no longer think out his new idea. He tried to take an interest in all he saw; in the sky, in the Neva. He spoke to some children he met. He felt his epileptic condition becoming more and more developed. The evening was very close; thunder was heard some way off.
“I only had a small bundle, containing linen, with me, nothing more. I can carry it in my hand, easily. There will be plenty of time to take a room in some hotel by the evening.”
The girls generally rose at about nine in the morning in the country; Aglaya, of late, had been in the habit of getting up rather earlier and having a walk in the garden, but not at seven o’clock; about eight or a little later was her usual time.
“Yes--I have it still,” the prince replied.
With these last excited words, Lebedeff’s nephew was silent.
All surrounded the prince with exclamations of welcome, and, on hearing that it was his birthday, with cries of congratulation and delight; many of them were very noisy.
“Yes--I dare say it is all as you say; I dare say you are quite right,” muttered the prince once more. “She is very sensitive and easily put out, of course; but still, she...”
Nature loves and favours such people. Ptitsin will certainly have his reward, not three houses, but four, precisely because from childhood up he had realized that he would never be a Rothschild. That will be the limit of Ptitsin’s fortune, and, come what may, he will never have more than four houses.
“Very well then, stay at home,” said Mrs. Epanchin, “and a good thing too, for Evgenie Pavlovitch is coming down and there will be no one at home to receive him.”
An ominous expression passed over Nastasia Philipovna’s face, of a sudden. It became obstinate-looking, hard, and full of hatred; but she did not take her eyes off her visitors for a moment.