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.
“How so?” asked Adelaida, with curiosity.
“But, my goodness me,” laughed Ivan Petrovitch, “why can’t I be cousin to even a splendid man?”
“You know of course why I requested this meeting?” she said at last, quietly, and pausing twice in the delivery of this very short sentence.
That month in the provinces, when he had seen this woman nearly every day, had affected him so deeply that he could not now look back upon it calmly. In the very look of this woman there was something which tortured him. In conversation with Rogojin he had attributed this sensation to pity--immeasurable pity, and this was the truth. The sight of the portrait face alone had filled his heart full of the agony of real sympathy; and this feeling of sympathy, nay, of actual _suffering_, for her, had never left his heart since that hour, and was still in full force. Oh yes, and more powerful than ever!
“Oh, curse it all,” he said; “what on earth must you go blabbing for? You know nothing about the thing, and yet--idiot!” he added, muttering the last word to himself in irrepressible rage.
“No--no--no!” muttered Lebedeff, clutching at his arm. He was clearly aghast at the largeness of the sum, and thought a far smaller amount should have been tried first.
But there were other defenders for Nastasia on the spot by this time. The gentleman known as the “boxer” now confronted the enraged officer.“You did a good action,” said the prince, “for in the midst of his angry feelings you insinuated a kind thought into his heart.”
“I know their faces, too,” said the prince, with a peculiar stress on the words.
The old man tried to put a good face on the affair.
“_Smoke?_” said the man, in shocked but disdainful surprise, blinking his eyes at the prince as though he could not believe his senses. “No, sir, you cannot smoke here, and I wonder you are not ashamed of the very suggestion. Ha, ha! a cool idea that, I declare!”
“However, observe” (she wrote in another of the letters), “that although I couple you with him, yet I have not once asked you whether you love him. He fell in love with you, though he saw you but once. He spoke of you as of ‘the light.’ These are his own words--I heard him use them. But I understood without his saying it that you were all that light is to him. I lived near him for a whole month, and I understood then that you, too, must love him. I think of you and him as one.”Lebedeff made a strange and very expressive grimace; he twisted about in his chair, and did something, apparently symbolical, with his hands.
The company departed very quickly, in a mass. Ptitsin, Gania, and Rogojin went away together.
“What letters?” said the prince, alarmed.“She’s here,” replied Rogojin, slowly, after a slight pause.
“I might have been surprised (though I admit I know nothing of the world), not only that you should have stayed on just now in the company of such people as myself and my friends, who are not of your class, but that you should let these... young ladies listen to such a scandalous affair, though no doubt novel-reading has taught them all there is to know. I may be mistaken; I hardly know what I am saying; but surely no one but you would have stayed to please a whippersnapper (yes, a whippersnapper; I admit it) to spend the evening and take part in everything--only to be ashamed of it tomorrow. (I know I express myself badly.) I admire and appreciate it all extremely, though the expression on the face of his excellency, your husband, shows that he thinks it very improper. He-he!” He burst out laughing, and was seized with a fit of coughing which lasted for two minutes and prevented him from speaking.
“I think I have served you faithfully. I never even asked you what happiness you expected to find with Aglaya.”
The prince had been listening attentively to Radomski’s words, and thought his manner very pleasant. When Colia chaffed him about his waggonette he had replied with perfect equality and in a friendly fashion. This pleased Muishkin.
“Just as before, sir, just as before! To a certain person, and from a certain hand. The individual’s name who wrote the letter is to be represented by the letter A.--”
“Oh! yes, long ago,” continued Ivan Petrovitch, “while you were living with my cousin at Zlatoverhoff. You don’t remember me? No, I dare say you don’t; you had some malady at the time, I remember. It was so serious that I was surprised--”
“If you insist: but, judge for yourself, can I go, ought I to go?”
“‘Dead Souls,’ yes, of course, dead. When I die, Colia, you must engrave on my tomb:
First of all Hippolyte had arrived, early in the evening, and feeling decidedly better, had determined to await the prince on the verandah. There Lebedeff had joined him, and his household had followed--that is, his daughters and General Ivolgin. Burdovsky had brought Hippolyte, and stayed on with him. Gania and Ptitsin had dropped in accidentally later on; then came Keller, and he and Colia insisted on having champagne. Evgenie Pavlovitch had only dropped in half an hour or so ago. Lebedeff had served the champagne readily.
He longed to get up and go to her at once--but he _could not_. At length, almost in despair, he unfolded the letters, and began to read them.
“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!”
“Yet I remember all he talked about, and every word we said, though whenever my eyes closed for a moment I could picture nothing but the image of Surikoff just in the act of finding a million roubles. He could not make up his mind what to do with the money, and tore his hair over it. He trembled with fear that somebody would rob him, and at last he decided to bury it in the ground. I persuaded him that, instead of putting it all away uselessly underground, he had better melt it down and make a golden coffin out of it for his starved child, and then dig up the little one and put her into the golden coffin. Surikoff accepted this suggestion, I thought, with tears of gratitude, and immediately commenced to carry out my design.
“Nervous about you?” Aglaya blushed. “Why should I be nervous about you? What would it matter to me if you were to make ever such a fool of yourself? How can you say such a thing? What do you mean by ‘making a fool of yourself’? What a vulgar expression! I suppose you intend to talk in that sort of way tomorrow evening? Look up a few more such expressions in your dictionary; do, you’ll make a grand effect! I’m sorry that you seem to be able to come into a room as gracefully as you do; where did you learn the art? Do you think you can drink a cup of tea decently, when you know everybody is looking at you, on purpose to see how you do it?”
As for Hippolyte, their effect upon him was astounding. He trembled so that the prince was obliged to support him, and would certainly have cried out, but that his voice seemed to have entirely left him for the moment. For a minute or two he could not speak at all, but panted and stared at Rogojin. At last he managed to ejaculate:The impatience of Lizabetha Prokofievna “to get things settled” explained a good deal, as well as the anxiety of both parents for the happiness of their beloved daughter. Besides, Princess Bielokonski was going away soon, and they hoped that she would take an interest in the prince. They were anxious that he should enter society under the auspices of this lady, whose patronage was the best of recommendations for any young man.
“Be quiet! How dare they laugh at me in your house?” said Aglaya, turning sharply on her mother in that hysterical frame of mind that rides recklessly over every obstacle and plunges blindly through proprieties. “Why does everyone, everyone worry and torment me? Why have they all been bullying me these three days about you, prince? I will not marry you--never, and under no circumstances! Know that once and for all; as if anyone could marry an absurd creature like you! Just look in the glass and see what you look like, this very moment! Why, _why_ do they torment me and say I am going to marry you? You must know it; you are in the plot with them!”And so he departed. The prince found out afterwards that this gentleman made it his business to amaze people with his originality and wit, but that it did not as a rule “come off.” He even produced a bad impression on some people, which grieved him sorely; but he did not change his ways for all that.
He pulled the note out and kissed it; then paused and reflected. “How strange it all is! how strange!” he muttered, melancholy enough now. In moments of great joy, he invariably felt a sensation of melancholy come over him--he could not tell why.
“Lizabetha Prokofievna!” exclaimed the prince.