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.
“There, I’ve forgotten that too!”
“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.
“If I wish! That’s good, I must say! Do you think I am deceived as to the flagrant impropriety of my conduct? I am quite aware that his money is his own, and that my action--is much like an attempt at extortion. But you-you don’t know what life is! If people don’t learn by experience, they never understand. They must be taught. My intentions are perfectly honest; on my conscience he will lose nothing, and I will pay back the money with interest. Added to which he has had the moral satisfaction of seeing me disgraced. What does he want more? and what is he good for if he never helps anyone? Look what he does himself! just ask him about his dealings with others, how he deceives people! How did he manage to buy this house? You may cut off my head if he has not let you in for something--and if he is not trying to cheat you again. You are smiling. You don’t believe me?”
“Ah that is the secret,” said Lebedeff, with a smile.
“But is there capital punishment where you were?” asked Adelaida.
“Be quiet! How dare they laugh at me in your house?” said Aglaya, turning sharply on her mother in that hysterical frame of mind that rides recklessly over every obstacle and plunges blindly through proprieties. “Why does everyone, everyone worry and torment me? Why have they all been bullying me these three days about you, prince? I will not marry you--never, and under no circumstances! Know that once and for all; as if anyone could marry an absurd creature like you! Just look in the glass and see what you look like, this very moment! Why, _why_ do they torment me and say I am going to marry you? You must know it; you are in the plot with them!”
“Aglaya, don’t! This is unfair,” cried the prince, deeply distressed.
“Did you get my hedgehog?” she inquired, firmly and almost angrily.
“I have heard of you, and I think read of you in the newspapers.”
Several times during the last six months he had recalled the effect which the first sight of this face had had upon him, when he only saw its portrait. He recollected well that even the portrait face had left but too painful an impression.
“So we will not say anything about it, or let them take her away?”
“Ah! that is what you feared! It was inevitable, you say! Well, let me tell you that if I hate anyone here--I hate you all,” he cried, in a hoarse, strained voice--“but you, you, with your jesuitical soul, your soul of sickly sweetness, idiot, beneficent millionaire--I hate you worse than anything or anyone on earth! I saw through you and hated you long ago; from the day I first heard of you. I hated you with my whole heart. You have contrived all this! You have driven me into this state! You have made a dying man disgrace himself. You, you, you are the cause of my abject cowardice! I would kill you if I remained alive! I do not want your benefits; I will accept none from anyone; do you hear? Not from any one! I want nothing! I was delirious, do not dare to triumph! I curse every one of you, once for all!”
“‘Profoundest respect!’ What nonsense! First, insane giggling, and then, all of a sudden, a display of ‘profoundest respect.’ Why respect? Tell me at once, why have you suddenly developed this ‘profound respect,’ eh?”
At about half-past seven the prince started for the church in his carriage.
“Nothing--of course! That’s the best answer. Is it the case that you are going to live in his house?”
“Just about that time, that is, the middle of March, I suddenly felt very much better; this continued for a couple of weeks. I used to go out at dusk. I like the dusk, especially in March, when the night frost begins to harden the day’s puddles, and the gas is burning.
“How do you know that? How do you know that she is not really in love with that--that rich cad--the man she eloped with?”
“I know nothing about Evgenie Pavlovitch!” said the prince.
“‘O, puissent voir longtemps votre beauté sacrée Tant d’amis, sourds à mes adieux! Qu’ils meurent pleins de jours, que leur mort soit pleurée, Qu’un ami leur ferme les yeux!’
“Forgive a silly, horrid, spoilt girl”--(she took his hand here)--“and be quite assured that we all of us esteem you beyond all words. And if I dared to turn your beautiful, admirable simplicity to ridicule, forgive me as you would a little child its mischief. Forgive me all my absurdity of just now, which, of course, meant nothing, and could not have the slightest consequence.” She spoke these words with great emphasis.
It would be difficult to describe the animation and high spirits which distinguished the prince for the rest of the evening.
“Ferdishenko,” he said, gazing intently and inquiringly into the prince’s eyes.
“Oh, indeed! Then it is perhaps as well that I neither _did_ invite you, nor _do_ invite you now. Excuse me, prince, but we had better make this matter clear, once for all. We have just agreed that with regard to our relationship there is not much to be said, though, of course, it would have been very delightful to us to feel that such relationship did actually exist; therefore, perhaps--”
According to her opinion, the whole thing had been one huge, fantastical, absurd, unpardonable mistake. “First of all, this prince is an idiot, and, secondly, he is a fool--knows nothing of the world, and has no place in it. Whom can he be shown to? Where can you take him to? What will old Bielokonski say? We never thought of such a husband as _that_ for our Aglaya!”
“You are unjust; I found him sincerely repentant,” observed the prince, after listening for a time.
“Can’t _you_ get him out of the room, somehow? _Do_, please,” and tears of annoyance stood in the boy’s eyes. “Curse that Gania!” he muttered, between his teeth.
“When I observed that it was all the same whether one died among trees or in front of a blank brick wall, as here, and that it was not worth making any fuss over a fortnight, he agreed at once. But he insisted that the good air at Pavlofsk and the greenness would certainly cause a physical change for the better, and that my excitement, and my _dreams_, would be perhaps relieved. I remarked to him, with a smile, that he spoke like a materialist, and he answered that he had always been one. As he never tells a lie, there must be something in his words. His smile is a pleasant one. I have had a good look at him. I don’t know whether I like him or not; and I have no time to waste over the question. The hatred which I felt for him for five months has become considerably modified, I may say, during the last month. Who knows, perhaps I am going to Pavlofsk on purpose to see him! But why do I leave my chamber? Those who are sentenced to death should not leave their cells. If I had not formed a final resolve, but had decided to wait until the last minute, I should not leave my room, or accept his invitation to come and die at Pavlofsk. I must be quick and finish this explanation before tomorrow. I shall have no time to read it over and correct it, for I must read it tomorrow to the prince and two or three witnesses whom I shall probably find there.
“Mamma, it’s rather a strange order, that!” said Adelaida, who was fussing among her paints and paint-brushes at the easel. Aglaya and Alexandra had settled themselves with folded hands on a sofa, evidently meaning to be listeners. The prince felt that the general attention was concentrated upon himself.
Muishkin began to despair. He could not imagine how he had been so foolish as to trust this man. He only wanted one thing, and that was to get to Nastasia Philipovna’s, even at the cost of a certain amount of impropriety. But now the scandal threatened to be more than he had bargained for. By this time Ardalion Alexandrovitch was quite intoxicated, and he kept his companion listening while he discoursed eloquently and pathetically on subjects of all kinds, interspersed with torrents of recrimination against the members of his family. He insisted that all his troubles were caused by their bad conduct, and time alone would put an end to them.
All this filled poor Lizabetha’s mind with chaotic confusion. What on earth did it all mean? The most disturbing feature was the hedgehog. What was the symbolic signification of a hedgehog? What did they understand by it? What underlay it? Was it a cryptic message?
As to the few words which the general had let slip about Aglaya laughing at everybody, and at himself most of all--he entirely believed them. He did not feel the slightest sensation of offence; on the contrary, he was quite certain that it was as it should be.
“Yes; and I have another request to make, general. Have you ever been at Nastasia Philipovna’s?”
“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.
“Yes, I have,” replied the prince, quite unsuspicious of any irony in the remark.
“Ah, yes. Well, did you read it, general? It’s curious, isn’t it?” said the prince, delighted to be able to open up conversation upon an outside subject.
“I think I ought to tell you, Gavrila Ardalionovitch,” said the prince, suddenly, “that though I once was so ill that I really was little better than an idiot, yet now I am almost recovered, and that, therefore, it is not altogether pleasant to be called an idiot to my face. Of course your anger is excusable, considering the treatment you have just experienced; but I must remind you that you have twice abused me rather rudely. I do not like this sort of thing, and especially so at the first time of meeting a man, and, therefore, as we happen to be at this moment standing at a crossroad, don’t you think we had better part, you to the left, homewards, and I to the right, here? I have twenty-five roubles, and I shall easily find a lodging.”
“I cannot say anything at present. I’ll tell you afterwards.”
“Came where? What do you mean?” asked Rogojin, amazed. But Hippolyte, panting and choking with excitement, interrupted him violently.
“Yes, I remember too!” said Alexandra. “You quarrelled about the wounded pigeon, and Adelaida was put in the corner, and stood there with her helmet and sword and all.”
When Totski had approached the general with his request for friendly counsel as to a marriage with one of his daughters, he had made a full and candid confession. He had said that he intended to stop at no means to obtain his freedom; even if Nastasia were to promise to leave him entirely alone in future, he would not (he said) believe and trust her; words were not enough for him; he must have solid guarantees of some sort. So he and the general determined to try what an attempt to appeal to her heart would effect. Having arrived at Nastasia’s house one day, with Epanchin, Totski immediately began to speak of the intolerable torment of his position. He admitted that he was to blame for all, but candidly confessed that he could not bring himself to feel any remorse for his original guilt towards herself, because he was a man of sensual passions which were inborn and ineradicable, and that he had no power over himself in this respect; but that he wished, seriously, to marry at last, and that the whole fate of the most desirable social union which he contemplated, was in her hands; in a word, he confided his all to her generosity of heart.
Elizabetha Prokofievna sometimes informed the girls that they were a little too candid in this matter, but in spite of their outward deference to their mother these three young women, in solemn conclave, had long agreed to modify the unquestioning obedience which they had been in the habit of according to her; and Mrs. General Epanchin had judged it better to say nothing about it, though, of course, she was well aware of the fact.
“I know, I heard; the china vase caught it! I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’ve come about something important. In the first place I had, the pleasure of seeing Gavrila Ardalionovitch and Aglaya Ivanovna enjoying a rendezvous on the green bench in the park. I was astonished to see what a fool a man can look. I remarked upon the fact to Aglaya Ivanovna when he had gone. I don’t think anything ever surprises you, prince!” added Hippolyte, gazing incredulously at the prince’s calm demeanour. “To be astonished by nothing is a sign, they say, of a great intellect. In my opinion it would serve equally well as a sign of great foolishness. I am not hinting about you; pardon me! I am very unfortunate today in my expressions.”
“I am assuredly noble-minded, and chivalrous to a degree!” said Keller, much softened. “But, do you know, this nobility of mind exists in a dream, if one may put it so? It never appears in practice or deed. Now, why is that? I can never understand.”
“Oh! how ashamed you will be of this afterwards!”
“Come, you know nothing about _her_,” said Rogojin, impatiently.
“Aglaya, don’t! This is unfair,” cried the prince, deeply distressed.
“You’re a dreadful sceptic, prince,” he continued, after a moment’s silence. “I have observed of late that you have grown sceptical about everything. You don’t seem to believe in people as you did, and are always attributing motives and so on--am I using the word ‘sceptic’ in its proper sense?”
“Why, don’t you, aren’t you--” began the general, in alarm.
“Come back, father; the neighbours will hear!” cried Varia.
“Oh no! Never.”
“What was I to draw? According to the lines she quoted:
“Duel! You’ve come to talk about a duel, too!” The prince burst out laughing, to the great astonishment of Keller. He laughed unrestrainedly, and Keller, who had been on pins and needles, and in a fever of excitement to offer himself as “second,” was very near being offended.
The prince reflected.
Her character was absolutely changed. No more of the girlish alternations of timidity and petulance, the adorable naivete, the reveries, the tears, the playfulness... It was an entirely new and hitherto unknown being who now sat and laughed at him, and informed him to his face that she had never had the faintest feeling for him of any kind, except loathing and contempt--contempt which had followed closely upon her sensations of surprise and bewilderment after her first acquaintance with him.
The prince was rather alarmed at all this, and was obliged to end by appointing the same hour of the following day for the interview desired. The general left him much comforted and far less agitated than when he had arrived.
“‘He scarcely ever talked about the particular crimes of any of them, but listened if any volunteered information on that point. All the convicts were equal for him, and he made no distinction. He spoke to all as to brothers, and every one of them looked upon him as a father. When he observed among the exiles some poor woman with a child, he would always come forward and fondle the little one, and make it laugh. He continued these acts of mercy up to his very death; and by that time all the criminals, all over Russia and Siberia, knew him!
“Who was by him at night?”
But the prince was silent and serious. All awaited his reply.
“Oh, trust _him_ for that!” said Adelaida. “Evgenie Pavlovitch turns everything and everybody he can lay hold of to ridicule. You should hear the things he says sometimes, apparently in perfect seriousness.”
He did not finish his sentence, for at this moment Ferdishenko pushed a chair up from behind, and the general, not very firm on his legs, at this post-prandial hour, flopped into it backwards. It was always a difficult thing to put this warrior to confusion, and his sudden descent left him as composed as before. He had sat down just opposite to Nastasia, whose fingers he now took, and raised to his lips with great elegance, and much courtesy. The general had once belonged to a very select circle of society, but he had been turned out of it two or three years since on account of certain weaknesses, in which he now indulged with all the less restraint; but his good manners remained with him to this day, in spite of all.
“Goodness knows what it means, ma’am,” she said. “There is a whole collection of men come--all tipsy--and want to see you. They say that ‘it’s Rogojin, and she knows all about it.’”
“If you really intended to shoot yourself, Terentieff,” said Evgenie Pavlovitch, laughing, “if I were you, after all these compliments, I should just not shoot myself in order to vex them all.”
Aglaya blushed with pleasure. All these changes in her expression came about so naturally and so rapidly--they delighted the prince; he watched her, and laughed.
Nastasia listened to all this with great interest; but the conversation soon turned to Rogojin and his visit, and this theme proved of the greatest attraction to both Totski and the general.
“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.”
“Is he mad?” asked Madame Epanchin suddenly.
The laughter became louder than ever.
“As for you, sir,” he cried, “you should at least remember that you are in a strange house and--receiving hospitality; you should not take the opportunity of tormenting an old man, sir, who is too evidently out of his mind.”
“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.”
All present interchanged glances, but at last the old dignitary burst out laughing frankly. Prince N. took out his eye-glass to have a good look at the speaker. The German poet came out of his corner and crept nearer to the table, with a spiteful smile.
Gania was much confused, and blushed for shame “Do forgive me, prince!” he cried, suddenly changing his abusive tone for one of great courtesy. “For Heaven’s sake, forgive me! You see what a miserable plight I am in, but you hardly know anything of the facts of the case as yet. If you did, I am sure you would forgive me, at least partially. Of course it was inexcusable of me, I know, but--”
So spoke the good lady, almost angrily, as she took leave of Evgenie Pavlovitch.
“Oh, on the contrary! my mother will be very glad,” said Gania, courteously and kindly.
“Aha! I think you are growing less cool, my friend, and are beginning to be a trifle surprised, aren’t you? I’m glad that you are not above ordinary human feelings, for once. I’ll console you a little now, after your consternation. See what I get for serving a young and high-souled maiden! This morning I received a slap in the face from the lady!”
“I was much surprised, and looked at him expectantly.
“Very good. That would increase our income nicely. Have you any intention of being a Kammer-junker?”
Despair overmastered his soul; he would not go on, he would go back to his hotel; he even turned and went the other way; but a moment after he changed his mind again and went on in the old direction.
“Yes, that’s better,” said Adelaida; “the prince _learned to see_ abroad.”
“I hardly dare say,” said Lizabetha, as hurriedly, “but I think it’s as plain as anything can be.”
Once she turned and observed the prince hurrying after them. Noticing his anxiety to catch them up, she smiled ironically, and then looked back no more. At length, just as they neared the house, General Epanchin came out and met them; he had only just arrived from town.
The prince followed her. Arrived at the dining-room, she stopped.
“Having now shown you that I am not quite such a fool as I look, and that I have to be fished for with a rod and line for a good long while before I am caught, I will proceed to explain why I specially wished to make your brother look a fool. That my motive power is hate, I do not attempt to conceal. I have felt that before dying (and I am dying, however much fatter I may appear to you), I must absolutely make a fool of, at least, one of that class of men which has dogged me all my life, which I hate so cordially, and which is so prominently represented by your much esteemed brother. I should not enjoy paradise nearly so much without having done this first. I hate you, Gavrila Ardalionovitch, solely (this may seem curious to you, but I repeat)--solely because you are the type, and incarnation, and head, and crown of the most impudent, the most self-satisfied, the most vulgar and detestable form of commonplaceness. You are ordinary of the ordinary; you have no chance of ever fathering the pettiest idea of your own. And yet you are as jealous and conceited as you can possibly be; you consider yourself a great genius; of this you are persuaded, although there are dark moments of doubt and rage, when even this fact seems uncertain. There are spots of darkness on your horizon, though they will disappear when you become completely stupid. But a long and chequered path lies before you, and of this I am glad. In the first place you will never gain a certain person.”
“Do you really forgive me?” he said at last. “And--and Lizabetha Prokofievna too?” The laugh increased, tears came into the prince’s eyes, he could not believe in all this kindness--he was enchanted.
“Oh, the devil take Switzerland!”
“Yes, he is a rogue, but I was obliged to pay him,” said the young man. “As to his being a rogue, he is assuredly that, and I am not saying it because he beat you. He is an ex-lieutenant, prince, dismissed from the service, a teacher of boxing, and one of Rogojin’s followers. They are all lounging about the pavements now that Rogojin has turned them off. Of course, the worst of it is that, knowing he was a rascal, and a card-sharper, I none the less played palki with him, and risked my last rouble. To tell the truth, I thought to myself, ‘If I lose, I will go to my uncle, and I am sure he will not refuse to help me.’ Now that was base--cowardly and base!”
“Bend down--bend down your ear. I’ll tell you all--disgrace--bend down, I’ll tell you in your ear.”
This was the note:
“At home? Oh, I can do as I like there, of course; only my father will make a fool of himself, as usual. He is rapidly becoming a general nuisance. I don’t ever talk to him now, but I hold him in check, safe enough. I swear if it had not been for my mother, I should have shown him the way out, long ago. My mother is always crying, of course, and my sister sulks. I had to tell them at last that I intended to be master of my own destiny, and that I expect to be obeyed at home. At least, I gave my sister to understand as much, and my mother was present.”
“Yes, I have just read it.”
With trembling fingers he broke the seal and drew out several sheets of paper, smoothed them out before him, and began sorting them.