“Not a couple of hours,” said Ptitsin, looking at his watch. “What’s the good of daylight now? One can read all night in the open air without it,” said someone.“Yes, he’s boasting like a drunkard,” added Nastasia, as though with the sole intention of goading him.
“Good God!” exclaimed Lizabetha Prokofievna involuntarily.But gradually the consciousness crept back into the minds of each one present that the prince had just made her an offer of marriage. The situation had, therefore, become three times as fantastic as before.
The prince sat down again. Both were silent for a few moments.
In a quarter of an hour or so Prince N. and Evgenie Pavlovitch and the old dignitary were hard at work endeavouring to restore the harmony of the evening, but it was of no avail, and very soon after the guests separated and went their ways.“Accept, Antip,” whispered the boxer eagerly, leaning past the back of Hippolyte’s chair to give his friend this piece of advice. “Take it for the present; we can see about more later on.”
“Oh! if you will sell it, very good--and thank you. You shall not be a loser! But for goodness’ sake, don’t twist about like that, sir! I have heard of you; they tell me you are a very learned person. We must have a talk one of these days. You will bring me the books yourself?”
Lizabetha Prokofievna stood like a stone.
“And you won’t reproach me for all these rude words of mine--some day--afterwards?” she asked, of a sudden.
“Well, they do heat them a little; but the houses and stoves are so different to ours.”
“My conclusion is vast,” replied Lebedeff, in a voice like thunder. “Let us examine first the psychological and legal position of the criminal. We see that in spite of the difficulty of finding other food, the accused, or, as we may say, my client, has often during his peculiar life exhibited signs of repentance, and of wishing to give up this clerical diet. Incontrovertible facts prove this assertion. He has eaten five or six children, a relatively insignificant number, no doubt, but remarkable enough from another point of view. It is manifest that, pricked by remorse--for my client is religious, in his way, and has a conscience, as I shall prove later--and desiring to extenuate his sin as far as possible, he has tried six times at least to substitute lay nourishment for clerical. That this was merely an experiment we can hardly doubt: for if it had been only a question of gastronomic variety, six would have been too few; why only six? Why not thirty? But if we regard it as an experiment, inspired by the fear of committing new sacrilege, then this number six becomes intelligible. Six attempts to calm his remorse, and the pricking of his conscience, would amply suffice, for these attempts could scarcely have been happy ones. In my humble opinion, a child is too small; I should say, not sufficient; which would result in four or five times more lay children than monks being required in a given time. The sin, lessened on the one hand, would therefore be increased on the other, in quantity, not in quality. Please understand, gentlemen, that in reasoning thus, I am taking the point of view which might have been taken by a criminal of the middle ages. As for myself, a man of the late nineteenth century, I, of course, should reason differently; I say so plainly, and therefore you need not jeer at me nor mock me, gentlemen. As for you, general, it is still more unbecoming on your part. In the second place, and giving my own personal opinion, a child’s flesh is not a satisfying diet; it is too insipid, too sweet; and the criminal, in making these experiments, could have satisfied neither his conscience nor his appetite. I am about to conclude, gentlemen; and my conclusion contains a reply to one of the most important questions of that day and of our own! This criminal ended at last by denouncing himself to the clergy, and giving himself up to justice. We cannot but ask, remembering the penal system of that day, and the tortures that awaited him--the wheel, the stake, the fire!--we cannot but ask, I repeat, what induced him to accuse himself of this crime? Why did he not simply stop short at the number sixty, and keep his secret until his last breath? Why could he not simply leave the monks alone, and go into the desert to repent? Or why not become a monk himself? That is where the puzzle comes in! There must have been something stronger than the stake or the fire, or even than the habits of twenty years! There must have been an idea more powerful than all the calamities and sorrows of this world, famine or torture, leprosy or plague--an idea which entered into the heart, directed and enlarged the springs of life, and made even that hell supportable to humanity! Show me a force, a power like that, in this our century of vices and railways! I might say, perhaps, in our century of steamboats and railways, but I repeat in our century of vices and railways, because I am drunk but truthful! Show me a single idea which unites men nowadays with half the strength that it had in those centuries, and dare to maintain that the ‘springs of life’ have not been polluted and weakened beneath this ‘star,’ beneath this network in which men are entangled! Don’t talk to me about your prosperity, your riches, the rarity of famine, the rapidity of the means of transport! There is more of riches, but less of force. The idea uniting heart and soul to heart and soul exists no more. All is loose, soft, limp--we are all of us limp.... Enough, gentlemen! I have done. That is not the question. No, the question is now, excellency, I believe, to sit down to the banquet you are about to provide for us!”
He satisfied their curiosity, in as few words as possible, with regard to the wedding, but their exclamations and sighs were so numerous and sincere that he was obliged to tell the whole story--in a short form, of course. The advice of all these agitated ladies was that the prince should go at once and knock at Rogojin’s until he was let in: and when let in insist upon a substantial explanation of everything. If Rogojin was really not at home, the prince was advised to go to a certain house, the address of which was given, where lived a German lady, a friend of Nastasia Philipovna’s. It was possible that she might have spent the night there in her anxiety to conceal herself.
Ptitsin bowed his head and looked at the ground, overcome by a mixture of feelings. Totski muttered to himself: “He may be an idiot, but he knows that flattery is the best road to success here.”“But there is no necessity for you to retire at all,” complained the general, “as far as I know.”
“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!
He could remember that Vera brought him some dinner, and that he took it; but whether he slept after dinner, or no, he could not recollect.
“Yes, of course; he had written letters to the latter with proposals of peace, had he not?” put in the prince.
“It’s all right, Katia, let them all in at once.”
“I took her to see my mother, and she was as respectful and kind as though she were her own daughter. Mother has been almost demented ever since father died--she’s an old woman. She sits and bows from her chair to everyone she sees. If you left her alone and didn’t feed her for three days, I don’t believe she would notice it. Well, I took her hand, and I said, ‘Give your blessing to this lady, mother, she’s going to be my wife.’ So Nastasia kissed mother’s hand with great feeling. ‘She must have suffered terribly, hasn’t she?’ she said. She saw this book here lying before me. ‘What! have you begun to read Russian history?’ she asked. She told me once in Moscow, you know, that I had better get Solovieff’s Russian History and read it, because I knew nothing. ‘That’s good,’ she said, ‘you go on like that, reading books. I’ll make you a list myself of the books you ought to read first--shall I?’ She had never once spoken to me like this before; it was the first time I felt I could breathe before her like a living creature.”
“I guess what you mean--I should be an Osterman, not a Gleboff--eh? Is that what you meant?”
They stopped on the landing, and rang the bell at a door opposite to Parfen’s own lodging.
“How, nothing that they have done is Russian?” asked Prince S.
“Lef Nicolaievitch!” interposed Madame Epanchin, suddenly, “read this at once, this very moment! It is about this business.”
“Yes, and then he’ll go about the place and disgrace us as he did yesterday.”
The prince gazed at it for a minute or two, then glanced around him, and hurriedly raised the portrait to his lips. When, a minute after, he reached the drawing-room door, his face was quite composed. But just as he reached the door he met Aglaya coming out alone.
Gania recollected himself in time to rush after her in order to show her out, but she had gone. He followed her to the stairs.IX.
“I love Aglaya Ivanovna--she knows it,--and I think she must have long known it.”
“Well, what of that? Can’t I buy a new knife if I like?” shouted Rogojin furiously, his irritation growing with every word.“Well, I’ll come, I’ll come,” interrupted the prince, hastily, “and I’ll give you my word of honour that I will sit the whole evening and not say a word.”
“Yes, yes, so he does,” laughed the others.Lizabetha Prokofievna had announced, directly after lunch, that they would all take a walk together. The information was given in the form of a command, without explanation, drily and abruptly. All had issued forth in obedience to the mandate; that is, the girls, mamma, and Prince S. Lizabetha Prokofievna went off in a direction exactly contrary to the usual one, and all understood very well what she was driving at, but held their peace, fearing to irritate the good lady. She, as though anxious to avoid any conversation, walked ahead, silent and alone. At last Adelaida remarked that it was no use racing along at such a pace, and that she could not keep up with her mother.“I arrived at the old woman’s house beside myself. She was sitting in a corner all alone, leaning her face on her hand. I fell on her like a clap of thunder. ‘You old wretch!’ I yelled and all that sort of thing, in real Russian style. Well, when I began cursing at her, a strange thing happened. I looked at her, and she stared back with her eyes starting out of her head, but she did not say a word. She seemed to sway about as she sat, and looked and looked at me in the strangest way. Well, I soon stopped swearing and looked closer at her, asked her questions, but not a word could I get out of her. The flies were buzzing about the room and only this sound broke the silence; the sun was setting outside; I didn’t know what to make of it, so I went away.
“No, don’t read it!” cried Evgenie suddenly. He appeared so strangely disturbed that many of those present could not help wondering.
“What a pity! What a pity! It’s just my luck!” repeated Ardalion Alexandrovitch over and over again, in regretful tones. “When your master and mistress return, my man, tell them that General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin desired to present themselves, and that they were extremely sorry, excessively grieved...”“He’s got some new idea in his head,” thought Varia. “Are they pleased over there--the parents?” asked Gania, suddenly.
Aglaya left without saying good-bye. But the evening was not to end without a last adventure. An unexpected meeting was yet in store for Lizabetha Prokofievna.
The two old gentlemen looked quite alarmed. The old general (Epanchin’s chief) sat and glared at the prince in severe displeasure. The colonel sat immovable. Even the German poet grew a little pale, though he wore his usual artificial smile as he looked around to see what the others would do.“Upon my word, I didn’t! To this moment I don’t know how it all happened. I--I ran after Aglaya Ivanovna, but Nastasia Philipovna fell down in a faint; and since that day they won’t let me see Aglaya--that’s all I know.”
“Met me somewhere, pfu! Why, it’s only three months since I lost two hundred roubles of my father’s money to you, at cards. The old fellow died before he found out. Ptitsin knows all about it. Why, I’ve only to pull out a three-rouble note and show it to you, and you’d crawl on your hands and knees to the other end of the town for it; that’s the sort of man you are. Why, I’ve come now, at this moment, to buy you up! Oh, you needn’t think that because I wear these boots I have no money. I have lots of money, my beauty,--enough to buy up you and all yours together. So I shall, if I like to! I’ll buy you up! I will!” he yelled, apparently growing more and more intoxicated and excited. “Oh, Nastasia Philipovna! don’t turn me out! Say one word, do! Are you going to marry this man, or not?”
“Then don’t speak at all. Sit still and don’t talk.”The latter had no idea and could give no information as to why Pavlicheff had taken so great an interest in the little prince, his ward.
“I have not got the letter,” said the prince, timidly, extremely surprised at the turn the conversation had taken. “If anyone has it, if it still exists, Aglaya Ivanovna must have it.”
“Yes... from you it is quite natural.”
“And Hippolyte has come down here to stay,” said Colia, suddenly.
The prince’s expression was so good-natured at this moment, and so entirely free from even a suspicion of unpleasant feeling was the smile with which he looked at the general as he spoke, that the latter suddenly paused, and appeared to gaze at his guest from quite a new point of view, all in an instant.Sure enough, some of the brave fellows entirely lost their heads at this point, and retreated into the next room. Others, however, took the hint and sat down, as far as they could from the table, however; feeling braver in proportion to their distance from Nastasia.
She gazed thirstily at him and clutched his hands.“You should pass us by and forgive us our happiness,” said the prince in a low voice.
“We have done without him so far,” interrupted Adelaida in her turn. “Surely we can wait until to-morrow.”
At this moment, Lizabetha Prokofievna rose swiftly from her seat, beckoned her companions, and left the place almost at a run.“I felt sure you would think I had some object in view when I resolved to pay you this visit,” the prince interrupted; “but I give you my word, beyond the pleasure of making your acquaintance I had no personal object whatever.”