The thing was decided in a hurry and with a certain amount of quite unnecessary excitement, doubtless because “nothing could be done in this house like anywhere else.”
He read the note in the uncertain rays that fell from the window. It was as follows:
“Dear me, general,” said Nastasia Philipovna, absently, “I really never imagined you had such a good heart.”
Gania stood before her, in his evening clothes, holding his white gloves and hat in his hand, speechless and motionless, with arms folded and eyes fixed on the fire.
The guests exchanged glances; they were annoyed and bewildered by the episode; but it was clear enough that all this had been pre-arranged and expected by Nastasia Philipovna, and that there was no use in trying to stop her now--for she was little short of insane.
“That his arrival at this time of night struck me as more or less strange may possibly be the case; but I remember I was by no means amazed at it. On the contrary, though I had not actually told him my thought in the morning, yet I know he understood it; and this thought was of such a character that it would not be anything very remarkable, if one were to come for further talk about it at any hour of night, however late.
“The good of it! Well, I want just to see a ray of the sun,” said Hippolyte. “Can one drink to the sun’s health, do you think, prince?”
“He jumped up, too.
“Especially as you know all, eh?”
“That is probably when they fire from a long distance.”
“Come, come, what does all this mean?” cried Colia beside himself at last. “What is it? What has happened to you? Why don’t you wish to come back home? Why have you gone out of your mind, like this?”
He had been turned out in disgrace, eventually, and this was the cause of his bad night and quarrelsome day, which ended in his sudden departure into the street in a condition approaching insanity, as recorded before.
She held out a weekly comic paper, pointing to an article on one of its pages. Just as the visitors were coming in, Lebedeff, wishing to ingratiate himself with the great lady, had pulled this paper from his pocket, and presented it to her, indicating a few columns marked in pencil. Lizabetha Prokofievna had had time to read some of it, and was greatly upset.
“You are not very modest!” said she.
“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.
He fell asleep on the bench; but his mental disquiet continued through his slumbers.
Only the prince stopped behind for a moment, as though in indecision; and Evgenie Pavlovitch lingered too, for he had not collected his scattered wits. But the Epanchins had not had time to get more than twenty paces away when a scandalous episode occurred. The young officer, Evgenie Pavlovitch’s friend who had been conversing with Aglaya, said aloud in a great state of indignation:
“She opened the parcel, looked at the earrings, and laughed.
“Well, a soldier once told me that they were always ordered to aim at the middle of the body. So you see they don’t aim at the chest or head; they aim lower on purpose. I asked some officer about this afterwards, and he said it was perfectly true.”
“Oh, I’ll write you a new one in half a minute,” said the prince, “if you like!”
To serve her brother’s interests, Varvara Ardalionovna was constantly at the Epanchins’ house, helped by the fact that in childhood she and Gania had played with General Ivan Fedorovitch’s daughters. It would have been inconsistent with her character if in these visits she had been pursuing a chimera; her project was not chimerical at all; she was building on a firm basis--on her knowledge of the character of the Epanchin family, especially Aglaya, whom she studied closely. All Varvara’s efforts were directed towards bringing Aglaya and Gania together. Perhaps she achieved some result; perhaps, also, she made the mistake of depending too much upon her brother, and expecting more from him than he would ever be capable of giving. However this may be, her manoeuvres were skilful enough. For weeks at a time she would never mention Gania. Her attitude was modest but dignified, and she was always extremely truthful and sincere. Examining the depths of her conscience, she found nothing to reproach herself with, and this still further strengthened her in her designs. But Varvara Ardalionovna sometimes remarked that she felt spiteful; that there was a good deal of vanity in her, perhaps even of wounded vanity. She noticed this at certain times more than at others, and especially after her visits to the Epanchins.
“I really don’t quite know how to tell you,” replied the prince, “but it certainly did seem to me that the man was full of passion, and not, perhaps, quite healthy passion. He seemed to be still far from well. Very likely he will be in bed again in a day or two, especially if he lives fast.”
“I opened the purse and counted it myself; right to a single rouble.”
“You are still suspicious, I see, and do not believe me; but you may be quite at your ease. There shall be no more tears, nor questions--not from my side, at all events. All I wish is that you may be happy, you know that. I have submitted to my fate; but my heart will always be with you, whether we remain united, or whether we part. Of course I only answer for myself--you can hardly expect your sister--”
We may mention that Gania was no longer mentioned in the Epanchin household any more than the prince was; but that a certain circumstance in connection with the fatal evening at Nastasia’s house became known to the general, and, in fact, to all the family the very next day. This fact was that Gania had come home that night, but had refused to go to bed. He had awaited the prince’s return from Ekaterinhof with feverish impatience.
“Nor heard him?”
“I never, never thought you were like that,” said Muishkin, drawing a deep breath. “I thought you--you weren’t capable of--”
“Yes, I do! I have only been one day in Russia, but I have heard of the great beauty!” And the prince proceeded to narrate his meeting with Rogojin in the train and the whole of the latter’s story.
The prince took the first opportunity of informing the Epanchin ladies that he had intended to pay them a visit that day, if they had not themselves come this afternoon, and Lizabetha Prokofievna replied that she hoped he would still do so.
“Listen--I know it is best not to speak! It is best simply to give a good example--simply to begin the work. I have done this--I have begun, and--and--oh! _can_ anyone be unhappy, really? Oh! what does grief matter--what does misfortune matter, if one knows how to be happy? Do you know, I cannot understand how anyone can pass by a green tree, and not feel happy only to look at it! How anyone can talk to a man and not feel happy in loving him! Oh, it is my own fault that I cannot express myself well enough! But there are lovely things at every step I take--things which even the most miserable man must recognize as beautiful. Look at a little child--look at God’s day dawn--look at the grass growing--look at the eyes that love you, as they gaze back into your eyes!”
“I don’t know at all; but she said I was to tell you particularly.”
All this occurred, of course, in one instant of time.
As the prince opened his mouth to answer, he was interrupted by the girl, whose sweet face wore an expression of absolute frankness.
“Yes; I feel quite ill. I have been obliged to put on this shawl--I feel so cold,” replied Nastasia. She certainly had grown very pale, and every now and then she tried to suppress a trembling in her limbs.
“Affectation!” remarked someone else.
“Oh well, as you like!” said Muishkin. “I will think it over. You shall lose nothing!”
“He has acknowledged himself to be in the wrong. Don’t you see that the greater his vanity, the more difficult this admission must have been on his part? Oh, what a little child you are, Lizabetha Prokofievna!”
She appeared to be in the last stages of wrath and irritation; her eyes flashed. The prince stood dumbly and blindly before her, and suddenly grew pale.
“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!”
“Screw!” laughed Hippolyte.
The next day Keller came to visit the prince. He was in a high state of delight with the post of honour assigned to him at the wedding.
“Oho, how careful one has to be with you, prince! Haven’t you put a drop of poison in that remark now, eh? By the way--ha, ha, ha!--I forgot to ask, was I right in believing that you were a good deal struck yourself with Nastasia Philipovna.”
Her father, mother, and sisters came into the room and were much struck with the last words, which they just caught as they entered--“absurdity which of course meant nothing”--and still more so with the emphasis with which Aglaya had spoken.
“Of course it is; we are not a secret society; and that being the case, it is all the more curious that the general should have been on his way to wake me up in order to tell me this.”
“The gentle Abbot Pafnute signed this.”
“Very likely. So he wrote that you were to bring me a copy of his confession, did he? Why didn’t you bring it?”
“Yes _all_, Katia, all--every one of them. Let them in, or they’ll come in whether you like or no. Listen! what a noise they are making! Perhaps you are offended, gentlemen, that I should receive such guests in your presence? I am very sorry, and ask your forgiveness, but it cannot be helped--and I should be very grateful if you could all stay and witness this climax. However, just as you please, of course.”
“I will not deceive you. ‘Reality’ got me so entrapped in its meshes now and again during the past six months, that I forgot my ‘sentence’ (or perhaps I did not wish to think of it), and actually busied myself with affairs.
“I came into this room with anguish in my heart,” continued the prince, with ever-growing agitation, speaking quicker and quicker, and with increasing strangeness. “I--I was afraid of you all, and afraid of myself. I was most afraid of myself. When I returned to Petersburg, I promised myself to make a point of seeing our greatest men, and members of our oldest families--the old families like my own. I am now among princes like myself, am I not? I wished to know you, and it was necessary, very, very necessary. I had always heard so much that was evil said of you all--more evil than good; as to how small and petty were your interests, how absurd your habits, how shallow your education, and so on. There is so much written and said about you! I came here today with anxious curiosity; I wished to see for myself and form my own convictions as to whether it were true that the whole of this upper stratum of Russian society is _worthless_, has outlived its time, has existed too long, and is only fit to die--and yet is dying with petty, spiteful warring against that which is destined to supersede it and take its place--hindering the Coming Men, and knowing not that itself is in a dying condition. I did not fully believe in this view even before, for there never was such a class among us--excepting perhaps at court, by accident--or by uniform; but now there is not even that, is there? It has vanished, has it not?”
“He is always silent, but I know well that he loves me so much that he must hate me. My wedding and yours are to be on the same day; so I have arranged with him. I have no secrets from him. I would kill him from very fright, but he will kill me first. He has just burst out laughing, and says that I am raving. He knows I am writing to you.”
“_C’est très-curieux et c’est très-sérieux_,” he whispered across the table to Ivan Petrovitch, rather loudly. Probably the prince heard him.
No, this was no apparition!
“Have you just seen Lizabetha Prokofievna?” asked the prince, scarcely believing his ears.
“Yes, he was.”
“And I’ve heard one!” said Adelaida. All three of the girls laughed out loud, and the prince laughed with them.
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.
“Is it long since you saw her?”
“How? What kind of person is she?” cried the general, arrived at the limits of his patience. “Look here, Gania, don’t you go annoying her tonight. What you are to do is to be as agreeable towards her as ever you can. Well, what are you smiling at? You must understand, Gania, that I have no interest whatever in speaking like this. Whichever way the question is settled, it will be to my advantage. Nothing will move Totski from his resolution, so I run no risk. If there is anything I desire, you must know that it is your benefit only. Can’t you trust me? You are a sensible fellow, and I have been counting on you; for, in this matter, that, that--”
“Well!” she cried, “we _have_ ‘put him through his paces,’ with a vengeance! My dears, you imagined, I believe, that you were about to patronize this young gentleman, like some poor _protégé_ picked up somewhere, and taken under your magnificent protection. What fools we were, and what a specially big fool is your father! Well done, prince! I assure you the general actually asked me to put you through your paces, and examine you. As to what you said about my face, you are absolutely correct in your judgment. I am a child, and know it. I knew it long before you said so; you have expressed my own thoughts. I think your nature and mine must be extremely alike, and I am very glad of it. We are like two drops of water, only you are a man and I a woman, and I’ve not been to Switzerland, and that is all the difference between us.”
“Come--you haven’t told us much!” said Aglaya, after waiting some five seconds. “Very well, I am ready to drop the hedgehog, if you like; but I am anxious to be able to clear up this accumulation of misunderstandings. Allow me to ask you, prince,--I wish to hear from you, personally--are you making me an offer, or not?”
“What’s up with you this morning, Lebedeff? You look so important and dignified, and you choose your words so carefully,” said the prince, smiling.
“I think you said, prince, that your letter was from Salaskin? Salaskin is a very eminent man, indeed, in his own world; he is a wonderfully clever solicitor, and if he really tells you this, I think you may be pretty sure that he is right. It so happens, luckily, that I know his handwriting, for I have lately had business with him. If you would allow me to see it, I should perhaps be able to tell you.”
The clerk stood looking after his guest, struck by his sudden absent-mindedness. He had not even remembered to say goodbye, and Lebedeff was the more surprised at the omission, as he knew by experience how courteous the prince usually was.
“I did not confess anything to you,” said the prince, blushing. “I only answered your question.”
Aglaya had not foreseen that particular calamity. She herself looked wonderfully beautiful this evening. All three sisters were dressed very tastefully, and their hair was done with special care.
“If anyone had treated me so,” grumbled the boxer.
“I believe I have just written dreadful nonsense; but there’s no time for correcting, as I said before. Besides that, I have made myself a promise not to alter a single word of what I write in this paper, even though I find that I am contradicting myself every five lines. I wish to verify the working of the natural logic of my ideas tomorrow during the reading--whether I am capable of detecting logical errors, and whether all that I have meditated over during the last six months be true, or nothing but delirium.
“And supposing I do know something?” observed the other, triumphantly.
“Prince,” said Nastasia Philipovna, unexpectedly turning to Muishkin, “here are my old friends, Totski and General Epanchin, who wish to marry me off. Tell me what you think. Shall I marry or not? As you decide, so shall it be.”
“Yes, your brother does not attract me much.”
“I think so too, as clear as day; she loves him.”
The prince begged him to take a chair.
“Hippolyte, Hippolyte, what is the matter with you?” cried Muishkin.
“Well, sir, I suppose you wanted to make me look ridiculous?”
Lizabetha Prokofievna went to bed and only rose again in time for tea, when the prince might be expected.
“You think he is drunk?” cried the young man on the sofa. “Not in the least. He’s only had three or four small glasses, perhaps five; but what is that? The usual thing!”
“Is that true?” she asked.
“Can you shoot at all?”
“And Nastasia Philipovna?”
“But how do you, how can you--” began the prince, gazing with dread and horror at Rogojin.
In vain the girls assured her that a man who had not written for six months would not be in such a dreadful hurry, and that probably he had enough to do in town without needing to bustle down to Pavlofsk to see them. Their mother was quite angry at the very idea of such a thing, and announced her absolute conviction that he would turn up the next day at latest.
At length she plunged into an energetic and hostile criticism of railways, and glared at the prince defiantly.
“That I only _pitied_ her--and--and loved her no longer!”
This, then, was the society that the prince accepted at once as true coin, as pure gold without alloy.
“The children of the nineteenth century, and their parents--” began the general, again.
“But who else _could_ it be, my very dear prince?” repeated Lebedeff, as sweet as sugar again. “If you don’t wish me to suspect Mr. Burdovsky?”
“Oh, the devil take Switzerland!”
“Oh no,” continued the prince thoughtfully, not noticing Aglaya’s mocking tone, “I was almost always silent there. I often wished to speak, but I really did not know what to say. In some cases it is best to say nothing, I think. I loved her, yes, I loved her very much indeed; but afterwards--afterwards she guessed all.”
“I see, I see,” said Evgenie, smiling gently. His mirth seemed very near the surface this evening.
Mrs. Epanchin gazed keenly into the prince’s eyes. She was anxious to see what impression the news as to Evgenie Pavlovitch had made upon him.
He took her hand and seated her on the bench; then sat down beside her and reflected.
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.
“She is a woman who is seeking...”
“Listen to me, Aglaya,” said the prince, “I do believe you are nervous lest I shall make a fool of myself tomorrow at your party?”
“They do not at all approve of women going to see an execution there. The women who do go are condemned for it afterwards in the newspapers.”
“Well, good-bye!” said the prince, holding out his hand.
“Yes--those very ones,” interrupted Rogojin, impatiently, and with scant courtesy. I may remark that he had not once taken any notice of the blotchy-faced passenger, and had hitherto addressed all his remarks direct to the prince.