“Yes, but the prince told us about the donkey very cleverly, all the same,” said Alexandra. “I have always been most interested to hear how people go mad and get well again, and that sort of thing. Especially when it happens suddenly.”
“What! a fraud? What, he is not Pavlicheff’s son? Impossible!”
“I’ll turn him out!” shouted Gania, glad of the opportunity of venting his vexation. “I shall just turn him out--we can’t have this.”
“I was astonished, seeing you so suddenly--” murmured the prince.
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.
“Oh, no, it is not the point, not a bit. It makes no difference, my marrying her--it means nothing.”
“I see what you are driving at,” said Nastasia Philipovna. “You imply that the prince is after the seventy-five thousand roubles--I quite understand you. Mr. Totski, I forgot to say, ‘Take your seventy-five thousand roubles’--I don’t want them. I let you go free for nothing--take your freedom! You must need it. Nine years and three months’ captivity is enough for anybody. Tomorrow I shall start afresh--today I am a free agent for the first time in my life.
“I had taken hold of the door-handle meanwhile, intending to leave the room without reply; but I was panting with my run upstairs, and my exhaustion came to a climax in a violent fit of coughing, so bad that I could hardly stand.
“‘Oh!’ I said, ‘there’s nothing to see; it’s quite a clear case--you’ve lost your post and have come up to make explanations and get another, if you can!’
“Well, all right! All right, my dear! I shall put that down to your account.”
The prince did not know, up to this, that the Epanchins had left the place. He grew very pale on hearing the news; but a moment later he nodded his head, and said thoughtfully:
Gania was a beginner, as it were, upon this road. A deep and unchangeable consciousness of his own lack of talent, combined with a vast longing to be able to persuade himself that he was original, had rankled in his heart, even from childhood.
“Be quiet, Ivan Fedorovitch! Leave me alone!” cried Mrs. Epanchin. “Why do you offer me your arm now? You had not sense enough to take me away before. You are my husband, you are a father, it was your duty to drag me away by force, if in my folly I refused to obey you and go quietly. You might at least have thought of your daughters. We can find our way out now without your help. Here is shame enough for a year! Wait a moment ‘till I thank the prince! Thank you, prince, for the entertainment you have given us! It was most amusing to hear these young men... It is vile, vile! A chaos, a scandal, worse than a nightmare! Is it possible that there can be many such people on earth? Be quiet, Aglaya! Be quiet, Alexandra! It is none of your business! Don’t fuss round me like that, Evgenie Pavlovitch; you exasperate me! So, my dear,” she cried, addressing the prince, “you go so far as to beg their pardon! He says, ‘Forgive me for offering you a fortune.’ And you, you mountebank, what are you laughing at?” she cried, turning suddenly on Lebedeff’s nephew. “‘We refuse ten thousand roubles; we do not beseech, we demand!’ As if he did not know that this idiot will call on them tomorrow to renew his offers of money and friendship. You will, won’t you? You will? Come, will you, or won’t you?”
“I am not finessing, and I am not in the least afraid of telling you; but I don’t see the slightest reason why I should not have written.”
“You should search your room and all the cupboards again,” said the prince, after a moment or two of silent reflection.
Both she and Aglaya stood and waited as though in expectation, and both looked at the prince like madwomen.
In the first place there were present Totski, and General Epanchin. They were both highly amiable, but both appeared to be labouring under a half-hidden feeling of anxiety as to the result of Nastasia’s deliberations with regard to Gania, which result was to be made public this evening.
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.
“Though the position of all of us at that time was not particularly brilliant, and the poverty was dreadful all round, yet the etiquette at court was strictly preserved, and the more strictly in proportion to the growth of the forebodings of disaster.”
General Ivan Fedorovitch Epanchin was standing in the middle of the room, and gazed with great curiosity at the prince as he entered. He even advanced a couple of steps to meet him.
“Here’s another alternative for me,” said Nastasia, turning once more to the actress; “and he does it out of pure kindness of heart. I know him. I’ve found a benefactor. Perhaps, though, what they say about him may be true--that he’s an--we know what. And what shall you live on, if you are really so madly in love with Rogojin’s mistress, that you are ready to marry her--eh?”
“But is there capital punishment where you were?” asked Adelaida.
“And you are not offended?”
“How can you?” he murmured; “she is so unhappy.”
It was late now, nearly half-past two, and the prince did not find General Epanchin at home. He left a card, and determined to look up Colia, who had a room at a small hotel near. Colia was not in, but he was informed that he might be back shortly, and had left word that if he were not in by half-past three it was to be understood that he had gone to Pavlofsk to General Epanchin’s, and would dine there. The prince decided to wait till half-past three, and ordered some dinner. At half-past three there was no sign of Colia. The prince waited until four o’clock, and then strolled off mechanically wherever his feet should carry him.
But Prince S. was laughing now, too, so was Evgenie Pavlovitch, so was Colia, and so was the prince himself, who caught the infection as he looked round radiantly upon the others.
She paused a moment as though getting breath, or trying to master her feeling of annoyance.
“No, it is impossible for me to come to your house again,” he added slowly.
“Don’t be cross, Daria Alexeyevna!” laughed Nastasia. “I was not angry when I spoke; I wasn’t reproaching Gania. I don’t know how it was that I ever could have indulged the whim of entering an honest family like his. I saw his mother--and kissed her hand, too. I came and stirred up all that fuss, Gania, this afternoon, on purpose to see how much you could swallow--you surprised me, my friend--you did, indeed. Surely you could not marry a woman who accepts pearls like those you knew the general was going to give me, on the very eve of her marriage? And Rogojin! Why, in your own house and before your own brother and sister, he bargained with me! Yet you could come here and expect to be betrothed to me before you left the house! You almost brought your sister, too. Surely what Rogojin said about you is not really true: that you would crawl all the way to the other end of the town, on hands and knees, for three roubles?”
But this intercession seemed to rekindle the general.
“Oh, I hardly know! You see, I only went to restore my health. I don’t know whether I learned to see, exactly. I was very happy, however, nearly all the time.”
“What have I done wrong now?” cried Colia. “What was the good of telling you that the prince was nearly well again? You would not have believed me; it was so much more interesting to picture him on his death-bed.”
“Oh, don’t apologize. No, I don’t think I have either talents or special abilities of any kind; on the contrary. I have always been an invalid and unable to learn much. As for bread, I should think--”
“And I also wish for justice to be done, once for all,” cried Madame Epanchin, “about this impudent claim. Deal with them promptly, prince, and don’t spare them! I am sick of hearing about the affair, and many a quarrel I have had in your cause. But I confess I am anxious to see what happens, so do make them come out here, and we will remain. You have heard people talking about it, no doubt?” she added, turning to Prince S.
“How?” cried Aglaya--and her lower lip trembled violently. “You were _afraid_ that I--you dared to think that I--good gracious! you suspected, perhaps, that I sent for you to come here in order to catch you in a trap, so that they should find us here together, and make you marry me--”
“In the first place, I have had the opportunity of getting a correct idea of Mr. Burdovsky. I see what he is for myself. He is an innocent man, deceived by everyone! A defenceless victim, who deserves indulgence! Secondly, Gavrila Ardalionovitch, in whose hands I had placed the matter, had his first interview with me barely an hour ago. I had not heard from him for some time, as I was away, and have been ill for three days since my return to St. Petersburg. He tells me that he has exposed the designs of Tchebaroff and has proof that justifies my opinion of him. I know, gentlemen, that many people think me an idiot. Counting upon my reputation as a man whose purse-strings are easily loosened, Tchebaroff thought it would be a simple matter to fleece me, especially by trading on my gratitude to Pavlicheff. But the main point is--listen, gentlemen, let me finish!--the main point is that Mr. Burdovsky is not Pavlicheff’s son at all. Gavrila Ardalionovitch has just told me of his discovery, and assures me that he has positive proofs. Well, what do you think of that? It is scarcely credible, even after all the tricks that have been played upon me. Please note that we have positive proofs! I can hardly believe it myself, I assure you; I do not yet believe it; I am still doubtful, because Gavrila Ardalionovitch has not had time to go into details; but there can be no further doubt that Tchebaroff is a rogue! He has deceived poor Mr. Burdovsky, and all of you, gentlemen, who have come forward so nobly to support your friend--(he evidently needs support, I quite see that!). He has abused your credulity and involved you all in an attempted fraud, for when all is said and done this claim is nothing else!”
“My word! what a thing to be melancholy about! Why, do you think I should be any happier if I were to feel disturbed about the excavations you tell me of?”
“Why do you speak so?” he murmured. “Why do you ask my forgiveness?”
“I’ll turn him out!” shouted Gania, glad of the opportunity of venting his vexation. “I shall just turn him out--we can’t have this.”
“‘Escape, general! Go home!--’
“‘Like Napoleon going to England, eh?’ cried he, laughing. ‘I’ll do it though--of course, and at once, if I can!’ he added, seeing that I rose seriously from my chair at this point.
“Let’s go in--but you mustn’t--well--let’s go in.”
“I _do_ know all!” she cried, with another burst of indignation. “You were living in the same house as that horrible woman with whom you ran away.” She did not blush as she said this; on the contrary, she grew pale, and started from her seat, apparently oblivious of what she did, and immediately sat down again. Her lip continued to tremble for a long time.
The young fellow accompanying the general was about twenty-eight, tall, and well built, with a handsome and clever face, and bright black eyes, full of fun and intelligence.
“That seems to me all the more reason for sparing her,” said the prince timidly.
The prince shuddered.
“Yes, and he made me a cardboard helmet, and a little wooden sword--I remember!” said Adelaida.
“Pavlicheff was a man of bright intellect and a good Christian, a sincere Christian,” said the prince, suddenly. “How could he possibly embrace a faith which is unchristian? Roman Catholicism is, so to speak, simply the same thing as unchristianity,” he added with flashing eyes, which seemed to take in everybody in the room.
“Well, what, my dear girl? As if you can possibly like it yourself? The heart is the great thing, and the rest is all rubbish--though one must have sense as well. Perhaps sense is really the great thing. Don’t smile like that, Aglaya. I don’t contradict myself. A fool with a heart and no brains is just as unhappy as a fool with brains and no heart. I am one and you are the other, and therefore both of us suffer, both of us are unhappy.”
“What have you done now?” said Varia to Gania. “He’ll probably be making off _there_ again! What a disgrace it all is!”
“Oh, just a silly, little occurrence, really not worth telling, about Princess Bielokonski’s governess, Miss Smith, and--oh, it is really not worth telling!”
“I knew it was all a joke!” cried Adelaida. “I felt it ever since--since the hedgehog.”
“How stupid of me to speak of the portrait,” thought the prince as he entered the study, with a feeling of guilt at his heart, “and yet, perhaps I was right after all.” He had an idea, unformed as yet, but a strange idea.
“Yes, a candle! What’s there improbable about that?”
He was not allowed to finish his sentence. Somebody pushed him back into his chair, and begged him to be calm. Nina Alexandrovna trembled, and cried quietly. Gania retired to the window in disgust.
“I’ll tell you what, my friend,” cried Mrs. Epanchin, of a sudden, “here are we all sitting here and imagining we are very clever, and perhaps laughing at the prince, some of us, and meanwhile he has received a letter this very day in which that same claimant renounces his claim, and begs the prince’s pardon. There! _we_ don’t often get that sort of letter; and yet we are not ashamed to walk with our noses in the air before him.”
“You should search your room and all the cupboards again,” said the prince, after a moment or two of silent reflection.
“She is there at this moment?”
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.
“Oh, but he didn’t kill himself; the pistol didn’t go off.” Aglaya insisted on hearing the whole story. She hurried the prince along, but interrupted him with all sorts of questions, nearly all of which were irrelevant. Among other things, she seemed greatly interested in every word that Evgenie Pavlovitch had said, and made the prince repeat that part of the story over and over again.
“However, within three weeks my determination was taken, owing to a very strange circumstance.
“Oh, he won’t shoot himself!” cried several voices, sarcastically.
To make an end, we may say that there were many changes in the Epanchin household in the spring, so that it was not difficult to forget the prince, who sent no news of himself.
If the prince had been in a condition to pay more attention to what the general was saying, he would have discovered that the latter was desirous of drawing some information out of him, or indeed of asking him some question outright; but that he could not make up his mind to come to the point.
“I’m all right; yesterday I was a little--”
Nastasia seemed to Totski to have divined all this, and to be preparing something on her own account, which frightened him to such an extent that he did not dare communicate his views even to the general. But at times he would pluck up his courage and be full of hope and good spirits again, acting, in fact, as weak men do act in such circumstances.
“No, no, no, can’t _bear_ him, I can’t _bear_ your young man!” cried Aglaya, raising her head. “And if you dare say that _once_ more, papa--I’m serious, you know, I’m,--do you hear me--I’m serious!”
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!
“Hey! that’s it! You stumped up your money for nothing, and we believe in those fellows, here!” remarked the black-haired individual, sarcastically.
“It was Nastasia Philipovna,” said the prince; “didn’t you know that? I cannot tell you who her companion was.”
“I saw him yesterday, and his fingers were all right!”
“Oh, if you put it in that way,” cried the general, excitedly, “I’m ready to tell the whole story of my life, but I must confess that I prepared a little story in anticipation of my turn.”
“Is Parfen Semionovitch at home?” he asked.
“Well, you have no right, you have no right, no right at all!... Your friends indeed!”... gabbled Burdovsky, defiantly examining the faces round him, and becoming more and more excited. “You have no right!...” As he ended thus abruptly, he leant forward, staring at the prince with his short-sighted, bloodshot eyes. The latter was so astonished, that he did not reply, but looked steadily at him in return.
“If that is the case, why did you begin by making such a fuss about it?” asked the astonished prince.
“I do not wish to quarrel with them about this; in some things they won’t be reasonable. I always did feel a loathing for the laws which seem to guide mamma’s conduct at times. I don’t speak of father, for he cannot be expected to be anything but what he is. Mother is a noble-minded woman, I know; you try to suggest anything mean to her, and you’ll see! But she is such a slave to these miserable creatures! I don’t mean old Bielokonski alone. She is a contemptible old thing, but she is able to twist people round her little finger, and I admire that in her, at all events! How mean it all is, and how foolish! We were always middle-class, thoroughly middle-class, people. Why should we attempt to climb into the giddy heights of the fashionable world? My sisters are all for it. It’s Prince S. they have to thank for poisoning their minds. Why are you so glad that Evgenie Pavlovitch is coming?”
“Yes--I saw an execution in France--at Lyons. Schneider took me over with him to see it.”
“Poor Peter Volhofskoi was desperately in love with Anfisa Alexeyevna. I don’t know whether there was anything--I mean I don’t know whether he could possibly have indulged in any hope. The poor fellow was beside himself to get her a bouquet of camellias. Countess Sotski and Sophia Bespalova, as everyone knew, were coming with white camellia bouquets. Anfisa wished for red ones, for effect. Well, her husband Platon was driven desperate to find some. And the day before the ball, Anfisa’s rival snapped up the only red camellias to be had in the place, from under Platon’s nose, and Platon--wretched man--was done for. Now if Peter had only been able to step in at this moment with a red bouquet, his little hopes might have made gigantic strides. A woman’s gratitude under such circumstances would have been boundless--but it was practically an impossibility.
“Oh no--not a bit! It was foolish of me to say I was afraid! Don’t repeat it please, Lebedeff, don’t tell anyone I said that!”
The company departed very quickly, in a mass. Ptitsin, Gania, and Rogojin went away together.
She gazed thirstily at him and clutched his hands.
“What are you up to? Where are you off to? You’ve nowhere to go to, you know,” cried Gania, out of the window.
“Well, take her! It’s Fate! She’s yours. I surrender her.... Remember Rogojin!” And pushing the prince from him, without looking back at him, he hurriedly entered his own flat, and banged the door.
“I will explain matters to you. Five weeks ago I received a visit from Tchebaroff, your agent, Mr. Burdovsky. You have given a very flattering description of him in your article, Mr. Keller,” he continued, turning to the boxer with a smile, “but he did not please me at all. I saw at once that Tchebaroff was the moving spirit in the matter, and, to speak frankly, I thought he might have induced you, Mr. Burdovsky, to make this claim, by taking advantage of your simplicity.”
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.
Again Nastasia Philipovna did not hear the sentence out. She glanced at Gania, and cried, laughing, “What a face! My goodness, what a face you have on at this moment!”
“What do _you_ know about our faces?” exclaimed the other two, in chorus.
“I knew it was bound to be so.” Then he added quickly:
“That is exactly the word I wanted,” said the general with satisfaction--“a curiosity. However, the most astonishing and, if I may so express myself, the most painful, thing in this matter, is that you cannot even understand, young man, that Lizabetha Prokofievna, only stayed with you because you are ill,--if you really are dying--moved by the pity awakened by your plaintive appeal, and that her name, character, and social position place her above all risk of contamination. Lizabetha Prokofievna!” he continued, now crimson with rage, “if you are coming, we will say goodnight to the prince, and--”
Lebedeff could restrain himself no longer; he made his way through the row of chairs.
“What! don’t you know about it yet? He doesn’t know--imagine that! Why, he’s shot himself. Your uncle shot himself this very morning. I was told at two this afternoon. Half the town must know it by now. They say there are three hundred and fifty thousand roubles, government money, missing; some say five hundred thousand. And I was under the impression that he would leave you a fortune! He’s whistled it all away. A most depraved old gentleman, really! Well, ta, ta!--bonne chance! Surely you intend to be off there, don’t you? Ha, ha! You’ve retired from the army in good time, I see! Plain clothes! Well done, sly rogue! Nonsense! I see--you knew it all before--I dare say you knew all about it yesterday-”
The prince had been left an orphan when quite a little child, and Pavlicheff had entrusted him to an old lady, a relative of his own, living in the country, the child needing the fresh air and exercise of country life. He was educated, first by a governess, and afterwards by a tutor, but could not remember much about this time of his life. His fits were so frequent then, that they made almost an idiot of him (the prince used the expression “idiot” himself). Pavlicheff had met Professor Schneider in Berlin, and the latter had persuaded him to send the boy to Switzerland, to Schneider’s establishment there, for the cure of his epilepsy, and, five years before this time, the prince was sent off. But Pavlicheff had died two or three years since, and Schneider had himself supported the young fellow, from that day to this, at his own expense. Although he had not quite cured him, he had greatly improved his condition; and now, at last, at the prince’s own desire, and because of a certain matter which came to the ears of the latter, Schneider had despatched the young man to Russia.
“What’s to be done? It’s fate,” said the general, shrugging his shoulders, and, for a long while after, he continued to repeat: “It’s fate, it’s fate!”
They all laughed, and the thought crossed the prince’s mind that perhaps Lebedeff was really trifling in this way because he foresaw inconvenient questions, and wanted to gain time.
“What if he were to come out of that corner as I go by and--and stop me?” thought the prince, as he approached the familiar spot. But no one came out.
“I’ve looked everywhere, and turned out everything.”
There was no reason for the prince to set anyone to watch, even if he had been capable of such a thing. Aglaya’s command that he should stay at home all day seemed almost explained now. Perhaps she meant to call for him, herself, or it might be, of course, that she was anxious to make sure of his not coming there, and therefore bade him remain at home. His head whirled; the whole room seemed to be turning round. He lay down on the sofa, and closed his eyes.