Such were her words--very likely she did not give her real reason for this eccentric conduct; but, at all events, that was all the explanation she deigned to offer.
“I have observed,” said the prince, “that he seems to be an object of very singular interest to you, Evgenie Pavlovitch. Why is it?”
“He’s got a stroke!” cried Colia, loudly, realizing what was the matter at last.
“Quite true,” whispered the prince.
“Probably an honest girl living by her own toil. Why do you speak of a housemaid so contemptuously?”
Little by little the family gathered together upstairs in Lizabetha Prokofievna’s apartments, and Prince Muishkin found himself alone on the verandah when he arrived. He settled himself in a corner and sat waiting, though he knew not what he expected. It never struck him that he had better go away, with all this disturbance in the house. He seemed to have forgotten all the world, and to be ready to sit on where he was for years on end. From upstairs he caught sounds of excited conversation every now and then.
However, let us take one more example. Thus, we know for a fact that during the whole of this fortnight the prince spent all his days and evenings with Nastasia; he walked with her, drove with her; he began to be restless whenever he passed an hour without seeing her--in fact, to all appearances, he sincerely loved her. He would listen to her for hours at a time with a quiet smile on his face, scarcely saying a word himself. And yet we know, equally certainly, that during this period he several times set off, suddenly, to the Epanchins’, not concealing the fact from Nastasia Philipovna, and driving the latter to absolute despair. We know also that he was not received at the Epanchins’ so long as they remained at Pavlofsk, and that he was not allowed an interview with Aglaya;--but next day he would set off once more on the same errand, apparently quite oblivious of the fact of yesterday’s visit having been a failure,--and, of course, meeting with another refusal. We know, too, that exactly an hour after Aglaya had fled from Nastasia Philipovna’s house on that fateful evening, the prince was at the Epanchins’,--and that his appearance there had been the cause of the greatest consternation and dismay; for Aglaya had not been home, and the family only discovered then, for the first time, that the two of them had been to Nastasia’s house together.
“I never thought of doing any such thing. I have not seen him, and he is not a rogue, in my opinion. I have had a letter from him.”
“And you wouldn’t run away?”
Her character was absolutely changed. No more of the girlish alternations of timidity and petulance, the adorable naivete, the reveries, the tears, the playfulness... It was an entirely new and hitherto unknown being who now sat and laughed at him, and informed him to his face that she had never had the faintest feeling for him of any kind, except loathing and contempt--contempt which had followed closely upon her sensations of surprise and bewilderment after her first acquaintance with him.
“As the true friend of your father, I wish to say a few words to you,” he began. “I have suffered--there was a catastrophe. I suffered without a trial; I had no trial. Nina Alexandrovna my wife, is an excellent woman, so is my daughter Varvara. We have to let lodgings because we are poor--a dreadful, unheard-of come-down for us--for me, who should have been a governor-general; but we are very glad to have _you_, at all events. Meanwhile there is a tragedy in the house.”
“Why did you not ask for me at my room if you were in the hotel?” asked the prince, suddenly.
“I knew yesterday that you didn’t love me.”
“I really think I must request you to step into the next room!” he said, with all the insistence he could muster.
“H’m! then Colia has spoken to you already?”
“Nastasia Philipovna! Nastasia Philipovna!”
The occurrence at the Vauxhall had filled both mother and daughters with something like horror. In their excitement Lizabetha Prokofievna and the girls were nearly running all the way home.
“Those are the two hundred and fifty roubles you dared to send him as a charity, by the hands of Tchebaroff,” explained Doktorenko.
“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.
“I have heard many things of the kind about you...they delighted me... I have learned to hold you in the highest esteem,” continued Hippolyte.
“But I don’t know _how_ to see!”
So saying, she had left the room, banging the door after her, and the prince went off, looking as though he were on his way to a funeral, in spite of all their attempts at consolation.
“Admitted that consciousness is called into existence by the will of a Higher Power; admitted that this consciousness looks out upon the world and says ‘I am;’ and admitted that the Higher Power wills that the consciousness so called into existence, be suddenly extinguished (for so--for some unexplained reason--it is and must be)--still there comes the eternal question--why must I be humble through all this? Is it not enough that I am devoured, without my being expected to bless the power that devours me? Surely--surely I need not suppose that Somebody--there--will be offended because I do not wish to live out the fortnight allowed me? I don’t believe it.
“You seem to be very religious,” he continued, kindly, addressing the prince, “which is a thing one meets so seldom nowadays among young people.”
“It’s impossible, she cannot have given it to you to read! You are lying. You read it yourself!”
“Oh, but I learned very little, you know!” added the prince, as though excusing himself. “They could not teach me very much on account of my illness.”
“I suppose you’ll say there is nothing national about our literature either?” said Alexandra.
“What, has she been here?” asked the prince with curiosity.
The Epanchin family, or at least the more serious members of it, were sometimes grieved because they seemed so unlike the rest of the world. They were not quite certain, but had at times a strong suspicion that things did not happen to them as they did to other people. Others led a quiet, uneventful life, while they were subject to continual upheavals. Others kept on the rails without difficulty; they ran off at the slightest obstacle. Other houses were governed by a timid routine; theirs was somehow different. Perhaps Lizabetha Prokofievna was alone in making these fretful observations; the girls, though not wanting in intelligence, were still young; the general was intelligent, too, but narrow, and in any difficulty he was content to say, “H’m!” and leave the matter to his wife. Consequently, on her fell the responsibility. It was not that they distinguished themselves as a family by any particular originality, or that their excursions off the track led to any breach of the proprieties. Oh no.
“It’s--it’s really--now could you have imagined anything like it, Lef Nicolaievitch?” cried the general. He was evidently so much agitated that he hardly knew what he wished to say. “Seriously now, seriously I mean--”
“Oh, but think how delightful to hear how one’s friends lie! Besides you needn’t be afraid, Gania; everybody knows what your worst action is without the need of any lying on your part. Only think, gentlemen,”--and Ferdishenko here grew quite enthusiastic, “only think with what eyes we shall observe one another tomorrow, after our tales have been told!”
“Your bundle has some importance, however,” continued the clerk, when they had laughed their fill (it was observable that the subject of their mirth joined in the laughter when he saw them laughing); “for though I dare say it is not stuffed full of friedrichs d’or and louis d’or--judge from your costume and gaiters--still--if you can add to your possessions such a valuable property as a relation like Mrs. General Epanchin, then your bundle becomes a significant object at once. That is, of course, if you really are a relative of Mrs. Epanchin’s, and have not made a little error through--well, absence of mind, which is very common to human beings; or, say--through a too luxuriant fancy?”
“What a regular old woman I am today,” he had said to himself each time, with annoyance. “I believe in every foolish presentiment that comes into my head.”
“Is there anything you hold sacred?”
“I guessed which was your house from a hundred yards off,” said the prince at last.
Elizabetha Prokofievna sometimes informed the girls that they were a little too candid in this matter, but in spite of their outward deference to their mother these three young women, in solemn conclave, had long agreed to modify the unquestioning obedience which they had been in the habit of according to her; and Mrs. General Epanchin had judged it better to say nothing about it, though, of course, she was well aware of the fact.
“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.”
“Well?” cried the prince.
“You are crying, aren’t you?”
“Oh yes, I do; but it is so unnecessary. I mean, I did not think you need make such a proposition,” said the prince, looking confused.
“A nap?” shrieked the general. “I am not drunk, sir; you insult me! I see,” he continued, rising, “I see that all are against me here. Enough--I go; but know, sirs--know that--”
“Not railways, properly speaking, presumptuous youth, but the general tendency of which railways may be considered as the outward expression and symbol. We hurry and push and hustle, for the good of humanity! ‘The world is becoming too noisy, too commercial!’ groans some solitary thinker. ‘Undoubtedly it is, but the noise of waggons bearing bread to starving humanity is of more value than tranquillity of soul,’ replies another triumphantly, and passes on with an air of pride. As for me, I don’t believe in these waggons bringing bread to humanity. For, founded on no moral principle, these may well, even in the act of carrying bread to humanity, coldly exclude a considerable portion of humanity from enjoying it; that has been seen more than once.”
This, then, was the society that the prince accepted at once as true coin, as pure gold without alloy.
“‘Peter Matveyevitch Bachmatoff!’ he cried, trembling all over with excitement. ‘Why, nearly everything depends on that very man!’
“Where are you going to now?” cried Mrs. Epanchin.
“No, I don’t think it was a special case,” said the prince, quietly, but firmly.
“Don’t lose your temper. You are just like a schoolboy. You think that all this sort of thing would harm you in Aglaya’s eyes, do you? You little know her character. She is capable of refusing the most brilliant party, and running away and starving in a garret with some wretched student; that’s the sort of girl she is. You never could or did understand how interesting you would have seen in her eyes if you had come firmly and proudly through our misfortunes. The prince has simply caught her with hook and line; firstly, because he never thought of fishing for her, and secondly, because he is an idiot in the eyes of most people. It’s quite enough for her that by accepting him she puts her family out and annoys them all round--that’s what she likes. You don’t understand these things.”
Lebedeff made an impatient movement.
“Well, I’m afraid of you. You shudder and tremble so. We’ll pass the night here together. There are no other beds besides that one; but I’ve thought how we’ll manage. I’ll take the cushions off all the sofas, and lay them down on the floor, up against the curtain here--for you and me--so that we shall be together. For if they come in and look about now, you know, they’ll find her, and carry her away, and they’ll be asking me questions, and I shall say I did it, and then they’ll take me away, too, don’t you see? So let her lie close to us--close to you and me.
“And supposing I do know something?” observed the other, triumphantly.
He looked at the address on the letter once more. Oh, he was not in the least degree alarmed about Aglaya writing such a letter; he could trust her. What he did not like about it was that he could not trust Gania.
This idea was, that if Rogojin were in Petersburg, though he might hide for a time, yet he was quite sure to come to him--the prince--before long, with either good or evil intentions, but probably with the same intention as on that other occasion. At all events, if Rogojin were to come at all he would be sure to seek the prince here--he had no other town address--perhaps in this same corridor; he might well seek him here if he needed him. And perhaps he did need him. This idea seemed quite natural to the prince, though he could not have explained why he should so suddenly have become necessary to Rogojin. Rogojin would not come if all were well with him, that was part of the thought; he would come if all were not well; and certainly, undoubtedly, all would not be well with him. The prince could not bear this new idea; he took his hat and rushed out towards the street. It was almost dark in the passage.
“Oh, but you’re quite wrong in my particular instance,” said the Swiss patient, quietly. “Of course I can’t argue the matter, because I know only my own case; but my doctor gave me money--and he had very little--to pay my journey back, besides having kept me at his own expense, while there, for nearly two years.”
The prince glanced in the direction indicated.
The announcement of his name gave rise to some surprise and to some smiles, especially when it became evident, from Nastasia’s astonished look, that she had not thought of inviting him. But her astonishment once over, Nastasia showed such satisfaction that all prepared to greet the prince with cordial smiles of welcome.
“Yesterday! Morning or evening? Before the music or after?”
He had attained his end. The prince left the house beside himself with terror.
He twisted himself about with rage, and grew paler and paler; he shook his fist. So the pair walked along a few steps. Gania did not stand on ceremony with the prince; he behaved just as though he were alone in his room. He clearly counted the latter as a nonentity. But suddenly he seemed to have an idea, and recollected himself.
“What sort of a face was I to draw? I couldn’t draw a mask.”
“Well, I was glad enough, for I had long felt the greatest sympathy for this man; and then the pretty uniform and all that--only a child, you know--and so on. It was a dark green dress coat with gold buttons--red facings, white trousers, and a white silk waistcoat--silk stockings, shoes with buckles, and top-boots if I were riding out with his majesty or with the suite.
“Because I know all, all--and that is why I speak so. I know very well how you--half a year since--offered her your hand before everybody. Don’t interrupt me. You see, I am merely stating facts without any comment upon them. After that she ran away with Rogojin. Then you lived with her at some village or town, and she ran away from you.” (Aglaya blushed dreadfully.) “Then she returned to Rogojin again, who loves her like a madman. Then you--like a wise man as you are--came back here after her as soon as ever you heard that she had returned to Petersburg. Yesterday evening you sprang forward to protect her, and just now you dreamed about her. You see, I know all. You did come back here for her, for her--now didn’t you?”
“I think you disturb yourself too much.”
“Yes, yes, yours, yours! What is there to surprise anyone in that? Come, come, you mustn’t go on like this, crying in the middle of the road; and you a general too, a military man! Come, let’s go back.”
“I sometimes think of coming over to you again,” said Hippolyte, carelessly. “So you _don’t_ think them capable of inviting a man on the condition that he is to look sharp and die?”
“I have not much time for making acquaintances, as a rule,” said the general, “but as, of course, you have your object in coming, I--”
“I don’t know what you are driving at; what mask do you mean?” said Mrs. Epanchin, irritably. She began to see pretty clearly though what it meant, and whom they referred to by the generally accepted title of “poor knight.” But what specially annoyed her was that the prince was looking so uncomfortable, and blushing like a ten-year-old child.
It was impossible to avoid noticing them, however, in reality, for they made their presence only too conspicuous by laughing and talking loudly. It was to be supposed that some of them were more than half drunk, although they were well enough dressed, some even particularly well. There were one or two, however, who were very strange-looking creatures, with flushed faces and extraordinary clothes; some were military men; not all were quite young; one or two were middle-aged gentlemen of decidedly disagreeable appearance, men who are avoided in society like the plague, decked out in large gold studs and rings, and magnificently “got up,” generally.
“Why did you ask me?”
All present concentrated their attention upon Ptitsin, reading the prince’s letter. The general curiosity had received a new fillip. Ferdishenko could not sit still. Rogojin fixed his eyes first on the prince, and then on Ptitsin, and then back again; he was extremely agitated. Lebedeff could not stand it. He crept up and read over Ptitsin’s shoulder, with the air of a naughty boy who expects a box on the ear every moment for his indiscretion.
“Oh, _that’s_ all the same! The chief thing is that she wants to see you after six months’ absence. Look here, Gania, this is a _serious_ business. Don’t swagger again and lose the game--play carefully, but don’t funk, do you understand? As if she could possibly avoid seeing what I have been working for all this last six months! And just imagine, I was there this morning and not a word of this! I was there, you know, on the sly. The old lady did not know, or she would have kicked me out. I ran some risk for you, you see. I did so want to find out, at all hazards.”
“Ardalion,” said Nina Alexandrovitch, entreatingly.
Nastasia Philipovna laughed hysterically.
So saying he smiled strangely; but suddenly and excitedly he began again:
His cab took him to a small and bad hotel near the Litaynaya. Here he engaged a couple of rooms, dark and badly furnished. He washed and changed, and hurriedly left the hotel again, as though anxious to waste no time. Anyone who now saw him for the first time since he left Petersburg would judge that he had improved vastly so far as his exterior was concerned. His clothes certainly were very different; they were more fashionable, perhaps even too much so, and anyone inclined to mockery might have found something to smile at in his appearance. But what is there that people will not smile at?
“Nor do I believe it, in spite of the proofs. The girl is self-willed and fantastic, and insane! She’s wicked, wicked! I’ll repeat it for a thousand years that she’s wicked; they _all_ are, just now, all my daughters, even that ‘wet hen’ Alexandra. And yet I don’t believe it. Because I don’t choose to believe it, perhaps; but I don’t. Why haven’t you been?” she turned on the prince suddenly. “Why didn’t you come near us all these three days, eh?”
His costume was the same as it had been in the morning, except for a new silk handkerchief round his neck, bright green and red, fastened with a huge diamond pin, and an enormous diamond ring on his dirty forefinger.
“I asked Nicolai Ardalionovitch...”
The general was, of course, repeating what he had told Lebedeff the night before, and thus brought it out glibly enough, but here he looked suspiciously at the prince out of the corners of his eyes.
“Comparatively to what?”
“Oh, he’s simply a fool,” said Gania.
“Oh! it’s not a great matter to guess who told her. A thief! A thief in our family, and the head of the family, too!”
“I knew you would be at that hotel,” he continued, just as men sometimes commence a serious conversation by discussing any outside subject before leading up to the main point. “As I entered the passage it struck me that perhaps you were sitting and waiting for me, just as I was waiting for you. Have you been to the old lady at Ismailofsky barracks?”
Vainly trying to comfort himself with these reflections, the prince reached the Ismailofsky barracks more dead than alive.
“Oh, I can’t do that, you know! I shall say something foolish out of pure ‘funk,’ and break something for the same excellent reason; I know I shall. Perhaps I shall slip and fall on the slippery floor; I’ve done that before now, you know. I shall dream of it all night now. Why did you say anything about it?”
“Is that all? What about her character?” persisted Mrs. Epanchin.
She was evidently in difficulties as to how best to go on. “May I speak of something serious to you, for once in my life?” she asked, angrily. She was irritated at she knew not what, and could not restrain her wrath.
“Oh, why not?” the prince insisted, with some warmth. “When I was in Basle I saw a picture very much in that style--I should like to tell you about it; I will some time or other; it struck me very forcibly.”
“Perhaps,” he thought, “someone is to be with them until nine tonight and she is afraid that I may come and make a fool of myself again, in public.” So he spent his time longing for the evening and looking at his watch. But the clearing-up of the mystery came long before the evening, and came in the form of a new and agonizing riddle.
“Especially as he asked himself,” said Ferdishenko.
However, she turned and ran down to the prince as fast as her feet could carry her.
“No, I didn’t,” said the prince, trembling a little, and in great agitation. “You say Gavrila Ardalionovitch has private communications with Aglaya?--Impossible!”
“Your son, indeed! A nice papa you are! _You_ might have come to see me anyhow, without compromising anyone. Do you hide yourself, or does your son hide you?”
But they did not let her finish, and gathered round her eagerly. The prince immediately invited everyone to stay for tea, and apologized for not having thought of it before. The general murmured a few polite words, and asked Lizabetha Prokofievna if she did not feel cold on the terrace. He very nearly asked Hippolyte how long he had been at the University, but stopped himself in time. Evgenie Pavlovitch and Prince S. suddenly grew extremely gay and amiable. Adelaida and Alexandra had not recovered from their surprise, but it was now mingled with satisfaction; in short, everyone seemed very much relieved that Lizabetha Prokofievna had got over her paroxysm. Aglaya alone still frowned, and sat apart in silence. All the other guests stayed on as well; no one wanted to go, not even General Ivolgin, but Lebedeff said something to him in passing which did not seem to please him, for he immediately went and sulked in a corner. The prince took care to offer tea to Burdovsky and his friends as well as the rest. The invitation made them rather uncomfortable. They muttered that they would wait for Hippolyte, and went and sat by themselves in a distant corner of the verandah. Tea was served at once; Lebedeff had no doubt ordered it for himself and his family before the others arrived. It was striking eleven.
Next day, she took it out, and put it into a large book, as she usually did with papers which she wanted to be able to find easily. She laughed when, about a week later, she happened to notice the name of the book, and saw that it was Don Quixote, but it would be difficult to say exactly why.
Nastasia Philipovna’s reply to this long rigmarole astonished both the friends considerably.
He rose from his seat in order to follow her, when a bright, clear peal of laughter rang out by his side. He felt somebody’s hand suddenly in his own, seized it, pressed it hard, and awoke. Before him stood Aglaya, laughing aloud.