“Evgenie Pavlovitch,” he said, with strange excitement and seizing the latter’s hand in his own, “be assured that I esteem you as a generous and honourable man, in spite of everything. Be assured of that.”
He had the key in his hand. Mounting the staircase he turned and signalled to the prince to go more softly; he opened the door very quietly, let the prince in, followed him, locked the door behind him, and put the key in his pocket.“What Osterman?” asked the prince in some surprise.
“Won’t you be ashamed, afterwards, to reflect that your wife very nearly ran away with Rogojin?”“You know quite well that I am telling the truth, because I have always been frank with you. I have never concealed my own opinion from you. I have always told you that I consider a marriage between you and her would be ruin to her. You would also be ruined, and perhaps even more hopelessly. If this marriage were to be broken off again, I admit I should be greatly pleased; but at the same time I have not the slightest intention of trying to part you. You may be quite easy in your mind, and you need not suspect me. You know yourself whether I was ever really your rival or not, even when she ran away and came to me.
“Excuse me,” continued Evgenie Pavlovitch hotly, “I don’t say a word against liberalism. Liberalism is not a sin, it is a necessary part of a great whole, which whole would collapse and fall to pieces without it. Liberalism has just as much right to exist as has the most moral conservatism; but I am attacking _Russian_ liberalism; and I attack it for the simple reason that a Russian liberal is not a Russian liberal, he is a non-Russian liberal. Show me a real Russian liberal, and I’ll kiss him before you all, with pleasure.”
The president joined in the general outcry.
“Yes, your brother does not attract me much.”
But the old lady, before Parfen had time to touch her, raised her right hand, and, with three fingers held up, devoutly made the sign of the cross three times over the prince. She then nodded her head kindly at him once more.
The words burst involuntarily from every mouth. All present started up in bewildered excitement; all surrounded her; all had listened uneasily to her wild, disconnected sentences. All felt that something had happened, something had gone very far wrong indeed, but no one could make head or tail of the matter.
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing!” said the prince, and again he wore the smile which was so inconsistent with the circumstances.“Excuse me,” interrupted Hippolyte, “is not this rather sentimental? You said you wished to come to the point; please remember that it is after nine o’clock.”
“Prince, my dear fellow, do remember what you are about,” said the general, approaching Muishkin, and pulling him by the coat sleeve.
“‘Oh, it was evident at the first glance,’ I said ironically, but not intentionally so. ‘There are lots of people who come up from the provinces full of hope, and run about town, and have to live as best they can.’
“But--but, why is this? What does it mean?”
“Agreed that all this may be true; but we need not discuss a subject which belongs to the domain of theology.”
But he had hardly become conscious of this curious phenomenon, when another recollection suddenly swam through his brain, interesting him for the moment, exceedingly. He remembered that the last time he had been engaged in looking around him for the unknown something, he was standing before a cutler’s shop, in the window of which were exposed certain goods for sale. He was extremely anxious now to discover whether this shop and these goods really existed, or whether the whole thing had been a hallucination.“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?”
“Oh, come--nonsense!” cried Gania; “if you did not go shaming us all over the town, things might be better for all parties.”I cannot say, either, whether she showed the letter to her sisters.At the beginning of the evening, when the prince first came into the room, he had sat down as far as possible from the Chinese vase which Aglaya had spoken of the day before.
“N-no, I have never given him money, and he knows well that I will never give him any; because I am anxious to keep him out of intemperate ways. He is going to town with me now; for you must know I am off to Petersburg after Ferdishenko, while the scent is hot; I’m certain he is there. I shall let the general go one way, while I go the other; we have so arranged matters in order to pop out upon Ferdishenko, you see, from different sides. But I am going to follow that naughty old general and catch him, I know where, at a certain widow’s house; for I think it will be a good lesson, to put him to shame by catching him with the widow.”“What do you say, sir?” growled the general, taking a step towards him.
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.
“Well, but--have you taken the purse away now?”
“Why, what has he done?”
“Let’s play at some game!” suggested the actress.
“Yes, of course,” said Ferdishenko. “C’est du nouveau.”“Oh! I _know_ you haven’t read it, and that you could never be that man’s accomplice. Read it, I wish you to read it.”Poor General Epanchin “put his foot in it” by answering the above questions in his own way. He said there was no cryptic message at all. As for the hedgehog, it was just a hedgehog, which meant nothing--unless, indeed, it was a pledge of friendship,--the sign of forgetting of offences and so on. At all events, it was a joke, and, of course, a most pardonable and innocent one.
Mrs. Epanchin confirmed all this. She said the princess had written to much the same effect, and added that there was no curing a fool. But it was plain, from her expression of face, how strongly she approved of this particular young fool’s doings. In conclusion, the general observed that his wife took as great an interest in the prince as though he were her own son; and that she had commenced to be especially affectionate towards Aglaya was a self-evident fact.
“Nastasia Philipovna.” said the prince, quietly, and with deep emotion, “I said before that I shall esteem your consent to be my wife as a great honour to myself, and shall consider that it is you who will honour me, not I you, by our marriage. You laughed at these words, and others around us laughed as well; I heard them. Very likely I expressed myself funnily, and I may have looked funny, but, for all that, I believe I understand where honour lies, and what I said was but the literal truth. You were about to ruin yourself just now, irrevocably; you would never have forgiven yourself for so doing afterwards; and yet, you are absolutely blameless. It is impossible that your life should be altogether ruined at your age. What matter that Rogojin came bargaining here, and that Gavrila Ardalionovitch would have deceived you if he could? Why do you continually remind us of these facts? I assure you once more that very few could find it in them to act as you have acted this day. As for your wish to go with Rogojin, that was simply the idea of a delirious and suffering brain. You are still quite feverish; you ought to be in bed, not here. You know quite well that if you had gone with Rogojin, you would have become a washer-woman next day, rather than stay with him. You are proud, Nastasia Philipovna, and perhaps you have really suffered so much that you imagine yourself to be a desperately guilty woman. You require a great deal of petting and looking after, Nastasia Philipovna, and I will do this. I saw your portrait this morning, and it seemed quite a familiar face to me; it seemed to me that the portrait-face was calling to me for help. I--I shall respect you all my life, Nastasia Philipovna,” concluded the prince, as though suddenly recollecting himself, and blushing to think of the sort of company before whom he had said all this.
“Oh come! just as if you didn’t understand, Lukian Timofeyovitch! What are you up to? I can’t make you out! The money, the money, sir! The four hundred roubles that you lost that day. You came and told me about it one morning, and then went off to Petersburg. There, _now_ do you understand?”
“Listen, Parfen; you put a question to me just now. This is my reply. The essence of religious feeling has nothing to do with reason, or atheism, or crime, or acts of any kind--it has nothing to do with these things--and never had. There is something besides all this, something which the arguments of the atheists can never touch. But the principal thing, and the conclusion of my argument, is that this is most clearly seen in the heart of a Russian. This is a conviction which I have gained while I have been in this Russia of ours. Yes, Parfen! there is work to be done; there is work to be done in this Russian world! Remember what talks we used to have in Moscow! And I never wished to come here at all; and I never thought to meet you like this, Parfen! Well, well--good-bye--good-bye! God be with you!”
The prince rose to go, but the general once more laid his hand in a friendly manner on his shoulder, and dragged him down on to the sofa.Hippolyte was scarcely listening. He kept saying “well?” and “what else?” mechanically, without the least curiosity, and by mere force of habit.
“Yes, yes, so he does,” laughed the others.
“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 beg your pardon, gentlemen; please excuse me,” said the prince. “I thought absolute frankness on both sides would be best, but have it your own way. I told Tchebaroff that, as I was not in Petersburg, I would commission a friend to look into the matter without delay, and that I would let you know, Mr. Burdovsky. Gentlemen, I have no hesitation in telling you that it was the fact of Tchebaroff’s intervention that made me suspect a fraud. Oh! do not take offence at my words, gentlemen, for Heaven’s sake do not be so touchy!” cried the prince, seeing that Burdovsky was getting excited again, and that the rest were preparing to protest. “If I say I suspected a fraud, there is nothing personal in that. I had never seen any of you then; I did not even know your names; I only judged by Tchebaroff; I am speaking quite generally--if you only knew how I have been ‘done’ since I came into my fortune!”
“Yes, they’ll be awfully annoyed if they don’t see it.”“What, know of it? Ha, ha, ha! Why, there was a whole crowd round her the moment she appeared on the scenes here. You know what sort of people surround her nowadays, and solicit the honour of her ‘acquaintance.’ Of course she might easily have heard the news from someone coming from town. All Petersburg, if not all Pavlofsk, knows it by now. Look at the slyness of her observation about Evgenie’s uniform! I mean, her remark that he had retired just in time! There’s a venomous hint for you, if you like! No, no! there’s no insanity there! Of course I refuse to believe that Evgenie Pavlovitch could have known beforehand of the catastrophe; that is, that at such and such a day at seven o’clock, and all that; but he might well have had a presentiment of the truth. And I--all of us--Prince S. and everybody, believed that he was to inherit a large fortune from this uncle. It’s dreadful, horrible! Mind, I don’t suspect Evgenie of anything, be quite clear on that point; but the thing is a little suspicious, nevertheless. Prince S. can’t get over it. Altogether it is a very extraordinary combination of circumstances.”
Hippolyte looked furious, but he restrained himself.
At that moment Vera, carrying the baby in her arms as usual, came out of the house, on to the terrace. Lebedeff kept fidgeting among the chairs, and did not seem to know what to do with himself, though he had no intention of going away. He no sooner caught sight of his daughter, than he rushed in her direction, waving his arms to keep her away; he even forgot himself so far as to stamp his foot.
“Ardalion,” said Nina Alexandrovitch, entreatingly.
Only Vera Lebedeff remained hurriedly rearranging the furniture in the rooms. As she left the verandah, she glanced at the prince. He was seated at the table, with both elbows upon it, and his head resting on his hands. She approached him, and touched his shoulder gently. The prince started and looked at her in perplexity; he seemed to be collecting his senses for a minute or so, before he could remember where he was. As recollection dawned upon him, he became violently agitated. All he did, however, was to ask Vera very earnestly to knock at his door and awake him in time for the first train to Petersburg next morning. Vera promised, and the prince entreated her not to tell anyone of his intention. She promised this, too; and at last, when she had half-closed the door, he called her back a third time, took her hands in his, kissed them, then kissed her forehead, and in a rather peculiar manner said to her, “Until tomorrow!”He could not settle himself to his papers again, for agitation and excitement, but began walking up and down the room from corner to corner.
“My father’s name was Nicolai Lvovitch.”VI.
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.Then, of course, there was Gania who was by no means so amiable as his elders, but stood apart, gloomy, and miserable, and silent. He had determined not to bring Varia with him; but Nastasia had not even asked after her, though no sooner had he arrived than she had reminded him of the episode between himself and the prince. The general, who had heard nothing of it before, began to listen with some interest, while Gania, drily, but with perfect candour, went through the whole history, including the fact of his apology to the prince. He finished by declaring that the prince was a most extraordinary man, and goodness knows why he had been considered an idiot hitherto, for he was very far from being one.
Of such people there are countless numbers in this world--far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can--that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.
“Yes, it is,” replied Rogojin with an unpleasant smile, as if he had expected his guest to ask the question, and then to make some disagreeable remark.
“Seeking?”“I don’t know whether I did or not,” said Rogojin, drily, seeming to be a little astonished at the question, and not quite taking it in.
“Here’s your miserable hat. He couldn’t even choose a respectable shape for his hat! Come on! She did that because I took your part and said you ought to have come--little vixen!--else she would never have sent you that silly note. It’s a most improper note, I call it; most improper for such an intelligent, well-brought-up girl to write. H’m! I dare say she was annoyed that you didn’t come; but she ought to have known that one can’t write like that to an idiot like you, for you’d be sure to take it literally.” Mrs. Epanchin was dragging the prince along with her all the time, and never let go of his hand for an instant. “What are you listening for?” she added, seeing that she had committed herself a little. “She wants a clown like you--she hasn’t seen one for some time--to play with. That’s why she is anxious for you to come to the house. And right glad I am that she’ll make a thorough good fool of you. You deserve it; and she can do it--oh! she can, indeed!--as well as most people.”
“You have no right--you have no right!” cried Burdovsky.
“I think you might fairly remember that I was not in any way bound, I had no reason to be silent about that portrait. You never asked me not to mention it.”“Then at all events he knows her!” remarked the prince, after a moment’s silence.