“I wouldn’t mind betting, prince,” he cried, “that you did not in the least mean to say that, and very likely you meant to address someone else altogether. What is it? Are you feeling unwell or anything?”
All around, on the bed, on a chair beside it, on the floor, were scattered the different portions of a magnificent white silk dress, bits of lace, ribbons and flowers. On a small table at the bedside glittered a mass of diamonds, torn off and thrown down anyhow. From under a heap of lace at the end of the bed peeped a small white foot, which looked as though it had been chiselled out of marble; it was terribly still.
“Undoubtedly, at ten years old you would not have felt the sense of fear, as you say,” blurted out the prince, horribly uncomfortable in the sensation that he was just about to blush.
Colia came into the room and gave the prince a note; it was from the general and was carefully sealed up. It was clear from Colia’s face how painful it was to him to deliver the missive. The prince read it, rose, and took his hat.
Mrs. Epanchin was just wondering whether she would not forbid the performance after all, when, at the very moment that Aglaya commenced her declamation, two new guests, both talking loudly, entered from the street. The new arrivals were General Epanchin and a young man.
“That’s impossible!” said he in an aggrieved tone. “I am often discussing subjects of this nature with him, gentlemen, but for the most part he talks nonsense enough to make one deaf: this story has no pretence of being true.”
“Oh, what a queen she is!” he ejaculated, every other minute, throwing out the remark for anyone who liked to catch it. “That’s the sort of woman for me! Which of you would think of doing a thing like that, you blackguards, eh?” he yelled. He was hopelessly and wildly beside himself with ecstasy.
Alexandra, who had seemed to wish to put in her word when the prince began, now sat silent, as though some sudden thought had caused her to change her mind about speaking.
“Well, she isn’t the first in the world, nor the last,” said another.
“Good-bye,” said Rogojin, pressing it hard, but quite mechanically.
The prince glanced at it, but took no further notice. He moved on hastily, as though anxious to get out of the house. But Rogojin suddenly stopped underneath the picture.
The company departed very quickly, in a mass. Ptitsin, Gania, and Rogojin went away together.
“In the other wing.”
“On the table along with these things were a few old bits of black bread, and some tea in a pot. From under the bed there protruded an open portmanteau full of bundles of rags. In a word, the confusion and untidiness of the room were indescribable.
“Perhaps you are right,” said the prince, smiling. “I think I am a philosopher, perhaps, and who knows, perhaps I do wish to teach my views of things to those I meet with?”
The company departed very quickly, in a mass. Ptitsin, Gania, and Rogojin went away together.
“I am, of course, quite ready to add my efforts to yours in such a case,” said the prince, rising; “but I confess, Lebedeff, that I am terribly perplexed. Tell me, do you still think... plainly, you say yourself that you suspect Mr. Ferdishenko?”
“Oh, do stop pretending, mamma,” cried Aglaya, in vexation. “Send him up, father; mother allows.”
“Widower. Why do you want to know all this?”
To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving.
“I will say you are quite wrong, if you wish.”
“I shall never forgive you for all this, Ivan Fedorovitch--never! Look at her now. Why doesn’t she make fun of him? She said she would, and she doesn’t. Look there! She stares at him with all her eyes, and doesn’t move; and yet she told him not to come. He looks pale enough; and that abominable chatterbox, Evgenie Pavlovitch, monopolizes the whole of the conversation. Nobody else can get a word in. I could soon find out all about everything if I could only change the subject.”
“She ought to be whipped--that’s the only way to deal with creatures like that--she ought to be whipped!”
“N-no!--I don’t think so. A coward is a man who is afraid and runs away; the man who is frightened but does not run away, is not quite a coward,” said the prince with a smile, after a moment’s thought.
Suddenly Gania approached our hero who was at the moment standing over Nastasia Philipovna’s portrait, gazing at it.
“Why? You very nearly were, anyhow.”
“God forbid that he should share your ideas, Ivan Fedorovitch!” his wife flashed back. “Or that he should be as gross and churlish as you!”
“You got that from some magazine, Colia,” remarked Adelaida.
“Do you think so? Had I not just better tell him I have found it, and pretend I never guessed where it was?”
But here he was back at his hotel.
“Yes, I do think so!”
“What’s that got to do with it?” asked the general, who loathed Ferdishenko.
“I don’t think so, Ferdishenko; please be quiet,” answered Nastasia Philipovna dryly.
“I determined to die at Pavlofsk at sunrise, in the park--so as to make no commotion in the house.
However, he made up his mind that he would himself take the note and deliver it. Indeed, he went so far as to leave the house and walk up the road, but changed his mind when he had nearly reached Ptitsin’s door. However, he there luckily met Colia, and commissioned him to deliver the letter to his brother as if direct from Aglaya. Colia asked no questions but simply delivered it, and Gania consequently had no suspicion that it had passed through so many hands.
“She opened the parcel, looked at the earrings, and laughed.
Nastasia turned to him. Her eyes flashed; she rushed up to a young man standing near, whom she did not know in the least, but who happened to have in his hand a thin cane. Seizing this from him, she brought it with all her force across the face of her insulter.
“How dare you speak so to me?” she said, with a haughtiness which was quite indescribable, replying to Nastasia’s last remark.
“Oh, what _nonsense!_ You must buy one. French or English are the best, they say. Then take a little powder, about a thimbleful, or perhaps two, and pour it into the barrel. Better put plenty. Then push in a bit of felt (it _must_ be felt, for some reason or other); you can easily get a bit off some old mattress, or off a door; it’s used to keep the cold out. Well, when you have pushed the felt down, put the bullet in; do you hear now? The bullet last and the powder first, not the other way, or the pistol won’t shoot. What are you laughing at? I wish you to buy a pistol and practise every day, and you must learn to hit a mark for _certain_; will you?”
The old man was very pale; every now and then his lips trembled, and his hands seemed unable to rest quietly, but continually moved from place to place. He had twice already jumped up from his chair and sat down again without being in the least aware of it. He would take up a book from the table and open it--talking all the while,--look at the heading of a chapter, shut it and put it back again, seizing another immediately, but holding it unopened in his hand, and waving it in the air as he spoke.
“I felt so furious with him at this moment that I longed to rush at him; but as I had sworn that he should speak first, I continued to lie still--and the more willingly, as I was still by no means satisfied as to whether it really was Rogojin or not.
“I did not feel much remorse either then or afterwards; but I would not repeat the performance--believe it or not as you please. There--that’s all.”
He approached the table and laid a small sheet of paper before her. It looked like a little note.
A man, whose face it was difficult to see in the gloom, approached the bench, and sat down beside him. The prince peered into his face, and recognized the livid features of Rogojin.
“No--Aglaya--come, enough of this, you mustn’t behave like this,” said her father, in dismay.
All this looked likely enough, and was accepted as fact by most of the inhabitants of the place, especially as it was borne out, more or less, by daily occurrences.
Both she and Aglaya stood and waited as though in expectation, and both looked at the prince like madwomen.
“I don’t understand why people in my position do not oftener indulge in such ideas--if only for a joke! Perhaps they do! Who knows! There are plenty of merry souls among us!
What had really happened?
“Twenty-seventh!” said Gania.
“But that evening and that night were sown the first seeds of my ‘last conviction.’ I seized greedily on my new idea; I thirstily drank in all its different aspects (I did not sleep a wink that night!), and the deeper I went into it the more my being seemed to merge itself in it, and the more alarmed I became. A dreadful terror came over me at last, and did not leave me all next day.
Mrs. Epanchin had approached Hippolyte and seized him firmly by the arm, while her eyes, blazing with fury, were fixed upon his face.
The prince gave a short narrative of what we have heard before, leaving out the greater part. The two ladies listened intently.
“Well, good-bye,” he said abruptly. “You think it is easy for me to say good-bye to you? Ha, ha!”
“What, only ten thousand!” cried Hippolyte.
“Come, come, I’ve always heard that you ran away with the beautiful Countess Levitsky that time--throwing up everything in order to do it--and not from the Jesuits at all,” said Princess Bielokonski, suddenly.
Lebedeff clasped his hands once more.
“The letter is not sealed--” continued Gania, and paused in confusion.
“Has she never laughed at you?”
“No, I have forgotten nothing. Come! This is the house--up this magnificent staircase. I am surprised not to see the porter, but .... it is a holiday... and the man has gone off... Drunken fool! Why have they not got rid of him? Sokolovitch owes all the happiness he has had in the service and in his private life to me, and me alone, but... here we are.”
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.
“He is a nice fellow, but a little too simple,” said Adelaida, as the prince left the room.
“It was just a minute before the execution,” began the prince, readily, carried away by the recollection and evidently forgetting everything else in a moment; “just at the instant when he stepped off the ladder on to the scaffold. He happened to look in my direction: I saw his eyes and understood all, at once--but how am I to describe it? I do so wish you or somebody else could draw it, you, if possible. I thought at the time what a picture it would make. You must imagine all that went before, of course, all--all. He had lived in the prison for some time and had not expected that the execution would take place for at least a week yet--he had counted on all the formalities and so on taking time; but it so happened that his papers had been got ready quickly. At five o’clock in the morning he was asleep--it was October, and at five in the morning it was cold and dark. The governor of the prison comes in on tip-toe and touches the sleeping man’s shoulder gently. He starts up. ‘What is it?’ he says. ‘The execution is fixed for ten o’clock.’ He was only just awake, and would not believe at first, but began to argue that his papers would not be out for a week, and so on. When he was wide awake and realized the truth, he became very silent and argued no more--so they say; but after a bit he said: ‘It comes very hard on one so suddenly’ and then he was silent again and said nothing.
“Yes, I hear.”
Excepting Ivan Fedorovitch, who had not as yet returned from town, the whole family was present. Prince S. was there; and they all intended to go out to hear the band very soon.
“Why do you hate me so?” asked the prince, sadly. “You know yourself that all you suspected is quite unfounded. I felt you were still angry with me, though. Do you know why? Because you tried to kill me--that’s why you can’t shake off your wrath against me. I tell you that I only remember the Parfen Rogojin with whom I exchanged crosses, and vowed brotherhood. I wrote you this in yesterday’s letter, in order that you might forget all that madness on your part, and that you might not feel called to talk about it when we met. Why do you avoid me? Why do you hold your hand back from me? I tell you again, I consider all that has passed a delirium, an insane dream. I can understand all you did, and all you felt that day, as if it were myself. What you were then imagining was not the case, and could never be the case. Why, then, should there be anger between us?”
He wished to add that he was unworthy of being asked for forgiveness by her, but paused. Perhaps he did understand Aglaya’s sentence about “absurdity which meant nothing,” and like the strange fellow that he was, rejoiced in the words.
Farther on, in another place, she wrote: “Do not consider my words as the sickly ecstasies of a diseased mind, but you are, in my opinion--perfection! I have seen you--I see you every day. I do not judge you; I have not weighed you in the scales of Reason and found you Perfection--it is simply an article of faith. But I must confess one sin against you--I love you. One should not love perfection. One should only look on it as perfection--yet I am in love with you. Though love equalizes, do not fear. I have not lowered you to my level, even in my most secret thoughts. I have written ‘Do not fear,’ as if you could fear. I would kiss your footprints if I could; but, oh! I am not putting myself on a level with you!--Look at the signature--quick, look at the signature!”
The prince rose and took off his mantle, revealing a neat enough morning costume--a little worn, but well made. He wore a steel watch chain and from this chain there hung a silver Geneva watch. Fool the prince might be, still, the general’s servant felt that it was not correct for him to continue to converse thus with a visitor, in spite of the fact that the prince pleased him somehow.
“Oh yes, but then, you see, you are a philosopher. Have you any talents, or ability in any direction--that is, any that would bring in money and bread? Excuse me again--”
“Nowhere, as yet.”
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.
“I do not despise toil; I despise you when you speak of toil.”
Hippolyte clutched his manuscript, and gazing at the last speaker with glittering eyes, said: “You don’t like me at all!” A few laughed at this, but not all.
Lebedeff really had been busy for some little while; but, as usual, his plans had become too complex to succeed, through sheer excess of ardour. When he came to the prince--the very day before the wedding--to confess (for he always confessed to the persons against whom he intrigued, especially when the plan failed), he informed our hero that he himself was a born Talleyrand, but for some unknown reason had become simple Lebedeff. He then proceeded to explain his whole game to the prince, interesting the latter exceedingly.
“Get up!” he said, in a frightened whisper, raising her. “Get up at once!”
“Especially as he asked himself,” said Ferdishenko.
“What are you thinking of? Don’t go, he’ll blow his brains out in a minute!” cried Vera Lebedeff, rushing up to Hippolyte and catching hold of his hands in a torment of alarm. “What are you thinking of? He said he would blow his brains out at sunrise.”
“Did no one awake me besides yourself? Was there no one else here? I thought there was another woman.”
In her opinion there was so much disclosed and laid bare by the episode, that, in spite of the chaotic condition of her mind, she was able to feel more or less decided on certain points which, up to now, had been in a cloudy condition.
“But after all is said, we are mixed up in it. Your daughters are mixed up in it, Ivan Fedorovitch; young ladies in society, young ladies at an age to be married; they were present, they heard everything there was to hear. They were mixed up with that other scene, too, with those dreadful youths. You must be pleased to remember they heard it all. I cannot forgive that wretched prince. I never shall forgive him! And why, if you please, has Aglaya had an attack of nerves for these last three days? Why has she all but quarrelled with her sisters, even with Alexandra--whom she respects so much that she always kisses her hands as though she were her mother? What are all these riddles of hers that we have to guess? What has Gavrila Ardalionovitch to do with it? Why did she take upon herself to champion him this morning, and burst into tears over it? Why is there an allusion to that cursed ‘poor knight’ in the anonymous letter? And why did I rush off to him just now like a lunatic, and drag him back here? I do believe I’ve gone mad at last. What on earth have I done now? To talk to a young man about my daughter’s secrets--and secrets having to do with himself, too! Thank goodness, he’s an idiot, and a friend of the house! Surely Aglaya hasn’t fallen in love with such a gaby! What an idea! Pfu! we ought all to be put under glass cases--myself first of all--and be shown off as curiosities, at ten copecks a peep!”
“Disgraced you! How?”
Arrived at the rendezvous of the prince and her daughter, and hearing the strange words of the latter, Lizabetha Prokofievna had been dreadfully alarmed, for many reasons. However, now that she had dragged the prince home with her, she began to feel a little frightened at what she had undertaken. Why should not Aglaya meet the prince in the park and have a talk with him, even if such a meeting should be by appointment?
“It’s better so, you know, Gania--especially as, from one point of view, the matter may be considered as settled,” said Ptitsin; and sitting down a little way from the table he began to study a paper covered with pencil writing.
“Is that all?” asked Aglaya.
The officer, tearing himself from the prince’s grasp, pushed him so violently backwards that he staggered a few steps and then subsided into a chair.
“So do I,” said Adelaida, solemnly.
“‘Look here now,’ I said, when we came out, ‘none of your interference here after this--do you understand?’ He laughed: ‘And how are you going to settle up with your father?’ says he. I thought I might as well jump into the Neva at once without going home first; but it struck me that I wouldn’t, after all, and I went home feeling like one of the damned.”
Rogojin seized her in his arms and almost carried her to the carriage. Then, in a flash, he tore a hundred-rouble note out of his pocket and held it to the coachman.
“Accidental case!” said Evgenie Pavlovitch. “Do you consider it an accidental case, prince?”
“Can you? I’m sorry for it then, for I should have had a good laugh at you otherwise. Do break _something_ at least, in the drawing-room! Upset the Chinese vase, won’t you? It’s a valuable one; _do_ break it. Mamma values it, and she’ll go out of her mind--it was a present. She’ll cry before everyone, you’ll see! Wave your hand about, you know, as you always do, and just smash it. Sit down near it on purpose.”
“He is not in.”