“This letter should be sent on at once,” said the prince, disturbed. “I’ll hand it over myself.”Evgenie Pavlovitch stood on the steps like one struck by lightning. Mrs. Epanchin stood still too, but not with the petrified expression of Evgenie. She gazed haughtily at the audacious person who had addressed her companion, and then turned a look of astonishment upon Evgenie himself.“What a dear little thing she is,” thought the prince, and immediately forgot all about her.
“The sun is rising,” he cried, seeing the gilded tops of the trees, and pointing to them as to a miracle. “See, it is rising now!”
She gazed thirstily at him and clutched his hands.“You hear him! You count upon it, too,” she continued, turning upon Doktorenko. “You are as sure of him now as if you had the money in your pocket. And there you are playing the swaggerer to throw dust in our eyes! No, my dear sir, you may take other people in! I can see through all your airs and graces, I see your game!”
“Vladimir Doktorenko,” said Lebedeff’s nephew briskly, and with a certain pride, as if he boasted of his name.No! he did not account her a child. Certain of her looks, certain of her words, of late, had filled him with apprehension. At times it had struck him that she was putting too great a restraint upon herself, and he remembered that he had been alarmed to observe this. He had tried, all these days, to drive away the heavy thoughts that oppressed him; but what was the hidden mystery of that soul? The question had long tormented him, although he implicitly trusted that soul. And now it was all to be cleared up. It was a dreadful thought. And “that woman” again! Why did he always feel as though “that woman” were fated to appear at each critical moment of his life, and tear the thread of his destiny like a bit of rotten string? That he always _had_ felt this he was ready to swear, although he was half delirious at the moment. If he had tried to forget her, all this time, it was simply because he was afraid of her. Did he love the woman or hate her? This question he did not once ask himself today; his heart was quite pure. He knew whom he loved. He was not so much afraid of this meeting, nor of its strangeness, nor of any reasons there might be for it, unknown to himself; he was afraid of the woman herself, Nastasia Philipovna. He remembered, some days afterwards, how during all those fevered hours he had seen but _her_ eyes, _her_ look, had heard _her_ voice, strange words of hers; he remembered that this was so, although he could not recollect the details of his thoughts.
“Oh! but you may have been sitting behind the bushes somewhere. However, I am very glad, on your account, of course. I was beginning to be afraid that Mr. Gania--might have the preference!”“Yes, yes,” agreed the prince, warmly.
“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.
“Did not you ask me the question seriously” inquired the prince, in amazement.
He stood there for a minute and then, suddenly and strangely enough, it seemed to him that a little corner of one of the blinds was lifted, and Rogojin’s face appeared for an instant and then vanished. He waited another minute, and decided to go and ring the bell once more; however, he thought better of it again and put it off for an hour.
“There’s the money!... How dare you?... The money!”
“I know Charasse’s book! Oh! I was so angry with his work! I wrote to him and said--I forget what, at this moment. You ask whether I was very busy under the Emperor? Oh no! I was called ‘page,’ but hardly took my duty seriously. Besides, Napoleon very soon lost hope of conciliating the Russians, and he would have forgotten all about me had he not loved me--for personal reasons--I don’t mind saying so now. My heart was greatly drawn to him, too. My duties were light. I merely had to be at the palace occasionally to escort the Emperor out riding, and that was about all. I rode very fairly well. He used to have a ride before dinner, and his suite on those occasions were generally Davoust, myself, and Roustan.”
Aglaya brought out these thronging words with great satisfaction. They came from her lips hurriedly and impetuously, and had been prepared and thought out long ago, even before she had ever dreamed of the present meeting. She watched with eagerness the effect of her speech as shown in Nastasia’s face, which was distorted with agitation.
“Proletarians and scions of nobility! An episode of the brigandage of today and every day! Progress! Reform! Justice!”
“But as if that is enough!” cried Evgenie, indignantly. “As if it is enough simply to say: ‘I know I am very guilty!’ You are to blame, and yet you persevere in evil-doing. Where was your heart, I should like to know, your _christian heart_, all that time? Did she look as though she were suffering less, at that moment? You saw her face--was she suffering less than the other woman? How could you see her suffering and allow it to continue? How could you?”“How? When?”
“Once two little girls got hold of some food and took it to her, and came back and told me. They said she had burst into tears, and that they loved her very much now. Very soon after that they all became fond of Marie, and at the same time they began to develop the greatest affection for myself. They often came to me and begged me to tell them stories. I think I must have told stories well, for they did so love to hear them. At last I took to reading up interesting things on purpose to pass them on to the little ones, and this went on for all the rest of my time there, three years. Later, when everyone--even Schneider--was angry with me for hiding nothing from the children, I pointed out how foolish it was, for they always knew things, only they learnt them in a way that soiled their minds but not so from me. One has only to remember one’s own childhood to admit the truth of this. But nobody was convinced... It was two weeks before her mother died that I had kissed Marie; and when the clergyman preached that sermon the children were all on my side.This message entirely calmed the prince’s mind.
Here the sound judgment of Totski stood him in good stead. He realized that Nastasia Philipovna must be well aware that she could do nothing by legal means to injure him, and that her flashing eyes betrayed some entirely different intention.
He looked back at her, but at times it was clear that he did not see her and was not thinking of her.
“Why, what do you mean? You said you knew, and now suddenly you know nothing! You say ‘very well; let’s leave it so.’ But I say, don’t be so confiding, especially as you know nothing. You are confiding simply _because_ you know nothing. But do you know what these good people have in their minds’ eye--Gania and his sister? Perhaps you are suspicious? Well, well, I’ll drop the subject!” he added, hastily, observing the prince’s impatient gesture. “But I’ve come to you on my own business; I wish to make you a clear explanation. What a nuisance it is that one cannot die without explanations! I have made such a quantity of them already. Do you wish to hear what I have to say?”
“Why? Because you have suffered more than we have?”“Oh, but you can’t stay here. You are a visitor--a guest, so to speak. Is it the general himself you wish to see?”“Of course, mamma!” said Alexandra. “But let’s have lunch now, we are all hungry!”
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.
It is impossible to describe Aglaya’s irritation. She flared up, and said some indignant words about “all these silly insinuations.” She added that “she had no intentions as yet of replacing anybody’s mistress.”
As is well known, these fits occur instantaneously. The face, especially the eyes, become terribly disfigured, convulsions seize the limbs, a terrible cry breaks from the sufferer, a wail from which everything human seems to be blotted out, so that it is impossible to believe that the man who has just fallen is the same who emitted the dreadful cry. It seems more as though some other being, inside the stricken one, had cried. Many people have borne witness to this impression; and many cannot behold an epileptic fit without a feeling of mysterious terror and dread.“You’ll soon see. D’you know I had a feeling that there would be a lot of people here tonight? It’s not the first time that my presentiments have been fulfilled. I wish I had known it was your birthday, I’d have brought you a present--perhaps I have got a present for you! Who knows? Ha, ha! How long is it now before daylight?”
“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.“Look here, Lef Nicolaievitch, you go straight on to the house; I shall walk on the other side. See that we keep together.”“In the morning we had parted not the best of friends; I remember he looked at me with disagreeable sarcasm once or twice; and this same look I observed in his eyes now--which was the cause of the annoyance I felt.
The fire, choked between a couple of smouldering pieces of wood, had died down for the first few moments after the packet was thrown upon it. But a little tongue of fire now began to lick the paper from below, and soon, gathering courage, mounted the sides of the parcel, and crept around it. In another moment, the whole of it burst into flames, and the exclamations of woe and horror were redoubled.“We did not know the details of his proposals, but he wrote letter after letter, all day and every day. He was dreadfully agitated. Sometimes at night I would throw myself upon his breast with tears (Oh, how I loved that man!). ‘Ask forgiveness, Oh, ask forgiveness of the Emperor Alexander!’ I would cry. I should have said, of course, ‘Make peace with Alexander,’ but as a child I expressed my idea in the naive way recorded. ‘Oh, my child,’ he would say (he loved to talk to me and seemed to forget my tender years), ‘Oh, my child, I am ready to kiss Alexander’s feet, but I hate and abominate the King of Prussia and the Austrian Emperor, and--and--but you know nothing of politics, my child.’ He would pull up, remembering whom he was speaking to, but his eyes would sparkle for a long while after this. Well now, if I were to describe all this, and I have seen greater events than these, all these critical gentlemen of the press and political parties--Oh, no thanks! I’m their very humble servant, but no thanks!”
“She’s here,” replied Rogojin, slowly, after a slight pause.