“I only see that Aglaya Ivanovna is laughing at me,” said the poor prince, sadly.
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.
About seven in the evening, soon after dinner, he arrived. At the first glance it struck the prince that he, at any rate, must know all the details of last night’s affair. Indeed, it would have been impossible for him to remain in ignorance considering the intimate relationship between him, Varvara Ardalionovna, and Ptitsin. But although he and the prince were intimate, in a sense, and although the latter had placed the Burdovsky affair in his hands--and this was not the only mark of confidence he had received--it seemed curious how many matters there were that were tacitly avoided in their conversations. Muishkin thought that Gania at times appeared to desire more cordiality and frankness. It was apparent now, when he entered, that he was convinced that the moment for breaking the ice between them had come at last.
“Lizabetha Prokofievna! Lizabetha Prokofievna! Lizabetha Prokofievna!”
“Why, you wished to have a talk with me when the others left?” he said.
Katia, the maid-servant, made her appearance, terribly frightened.
“I do desire it,” murmured Gania, softly but firmly, lowering his eyes; and he relapsed into gloomy silence.
It was a matter of general knowledge that the three girls were very fond of one another, and supported each other in every way; it was even said that the two elder ones had made certain sacrifices for the sake of the idol of the household, Aglaya. In society they not only disliked asserting themselves, but were actually retiring. Certainly no one could blame them for being too arrogant or haughty, and yet everybody was well aware that they were proud and quite understood their own value. The eldest was musical, while the second was a clever artist, which fact she had concealed until lately. In a word, the world spoke well of the girls; but they were not without their enemies, and occasionally people talked with horror of the number of books they had read.
“I knew nothing about your home before,” said the prince absently, as if he were thinking of something else.
“What on earth is the matter with the boy? What phenomenal feeble-mindedness!” exclaimed Ferdishenko.
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.
“Good Lord, he’s off again!” said Princess Bielokonski, impatiently.
The prince certainly was very pale. He sat at the table and seemed to be feeling, by turns, sensations of alarm and rapture.
“I remembered there was some quarrel between father and Miss Smith, the Bielokonski’s governess,” said Colia.
“Besides, though you are a prince and a millionaire, and even though you may really be simple and good-hearted, you can hardly be outside the general law,” Hippolyte declared loudly.
But all the same Gania was in haste, for his sister was waiting at Lebedeff’s to consult him on an urgent matter of business. If he had anticipated impatient questions, or impulsive confidences, he was soon undeceived. The prince was thoughtful, reserved, even a little absent-minded, and asked none of the questions--one in particular--that Gania had expected. So he imitated the prince’s demeanour, and talked fast and brilliantly upon all subjects but the one on which their thoughts were engaged. Among other things Gania told his host that Nastasia Philipovna had been only four days in Pavlofsk, and that everyone was talking about her already. She was staying with Daria Alexeyevna, in an ugly little house in Mattrossky Street, but drove about in the smartest carriage in the place. A crowd of followers had pursued her from the first, young and old. Some escorted her on horse-back when she took the air in her carriage.
“What do you say, sir?” growled the general, taking a step towards him.
Alas Aglaya still did not come--and the prince was quite lost. He had the greatest difficulty in expressing his opinion that railways were most useful institutions,--and in the middle of his speech Adelaida laughed, which threw him into a still worse state of confusion.
He longed to solve the mystery of something in the face of Nastasia Philipovna, something which had struck him as he looked at the portrait for the first time; the impression had not left him. It was partly the fact of her marvellous beauty that struck him, and partly something else. There was a suggestion of immense pride and disdain in the face almost of hatred, and at the same time something confiding and very full of simplicity. The contrast aroused a deep sympathy in his heart as he looked at the lovely face. The blinding loveliness of it was almost intolerable, this pale thin face with its flaming eyes; it was a strange beauty.
“_You_ came to me last week, in the night, at two o’clock, the day I was with you in the morning! Confess it was you!”
“This baseness on her part of course aroused my young blood to fever heat; I jumped up, and away I flew.
Lebedeff said this so seriously that the prince quite lost his temper with him.
“If you insist: but, judge for yourself, can I go, ought I to go?”
Without the ceremony of knocking, Parfen entered a small apartment, furnished like a drawing-room, but with a polished mahogany partition dividing one half of it from what was probably a bedroom. In one corner of this room sat an old woman in an arm-chair, close to the stove. She did not look very old, and her face was a pleasant, round one; but she was white-haired and, as one could detect at the first glance, quite in her second childhood. She wore a black woollen dress, with a black handkerchief round her neck and shoulders, and a white cap with black ribbons. Her feet were raised on a footstool. Beside her sat another old woman, also dressed in mourning, and silently knitting a stocking; this was evidently a companion. They both looked as though they never broke the silence. The first old woman, so soon as she saw Rogojin and the prince, smiled and bowed courteously several times, in token of her gratification at their visit.
The prince muttered that the spot was a lovely one.
At this they laughed heartily.
“In spite of Norma’s terror she looked furious, though she trembled in all her limbs. At length she slowly bared her terrible teeth, opened her great red jaws, hesitated--took courage, and seized the beast in her mouth. It seemed to try to dart out of her jaws twice, but Norma caught at it and half swallowed it as it was escaping. The shell cracked in her teeth; and the tail and legs stuck out of her mouth and shook about in a horrible manner. Suddenly Norma gave a piteous whine; the reptile had bitten her tongue. She opened her mouth wide with the pain, and I saw the beast lying across her tongue, and out of its body, which was almost bitten in two, came a hideous white-looking substance, oozing out into Norma’s mouth; it was of the consistency of a crushed black-beetle. Just then I awoke and the prince entered the room.”
This idea amused the prince.
“Of course; you can’t go in _there_ with it on, anyhow.”
“There is too much about myself, I know, but--” As Hippolyte said this his face wore a tired, pained look, and he wiped the sweat off his brow.
He fell senseless at last--and was carried into the prince’s study.
“Yes, yes--twenty years and three months. We were educated together; I went straight into the army, and he--”
The general, who had been talking to his chief up to this moment, had observed the prince’s solitude and silence, and was anxious to draw him into the conversation, and so introduce him again to the notice of some of the important personages.
Of course, the last argument was the chief one. The maternal heart trembled with indignation to think of such an absurdity, although in that heart there rose another voice, which said: “And _why_ is not the prince such a husband as you would have desired for Aglaya?” It was this voice which annoyed Lizabetha Prokofievna more than anything else.
“You should go into the country,” said Lebedeff timidly.
He burst out laughing again, but it was the laughter of a madman. Lizabetha Prokofievna approached him anxiously and seized his arm. He stared at her for a moment, still laughing, but soon his face grew serious.
“I love these arguments, prince,” said Keller, also more than half intoxicated, moving restlessly in his chair. “Scientific and political.” Then, turning suddenly towards Evgenie Pavlovitch, who was seated near him: “Do you know, I simply adore reading the accounts of the debates in the English parliament. Not that the discussions themselves interest me; I am not a politician, you know; but it delights me to see how they address each other ‘the noble lord who agrees with me,’ ‘my honourable opponent who astonished Europe with his proposal,’ ‘the noble viscount sitting opposite’--all these expressions, all this parliamentarism of a free people, has an enormous attraction for me. It fascinates me, prince. I have always been an artist in the depths of my soul, I assure you, Evgenie Pavlovitch.”
“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.
“Of course it is nonsense, and in nonsense it would have ended, doubtless; but you know these fellows, they--”
“My dear prince! your words lie in the lowest depth of my heart--it is their tomb!” said Lebedeff, solemnly, pressing his hat to the region of his heart.
“Very glad, I’m particularly hungry. Yes, yes, a strange coincidence--almost a psychological--”
This new woman gave him further to understand that though it was absolutely the same to her whom he married, yet she had decided to prevent this marriage--for no particular reason, but that she _chose_ to do so, and because she wished to amuse herself at his expense for that it was “quite her turn to laugh a little now!”
“Of course it is all, my friend. I don’t doubt you for a moment,” said Lizabetha Prokofievna with dignity.
Nastasia Philipovna burst out laughing and jumped up from the sofa.
Aglaya left the room in a fit of irritation, and it was not until late in the evening, past eleven, when the prince was taking his departure, that she said a word or two to him, privately, as she accompanied him as far as the front door.
“What an extraordinary idea!” said the general.
“With pleasure! In fact, it is very necessary. I like your readiness, prince; in fact, I must say--I--I--like you very well, altogether,” said the general.
“I hear,” said the prince in a whisper, his eyes fixed on Rogojin.
“Yes, I shall marry her--yes.”
She received four or five friends sometimes, of an evening. Totski often came. Lately, too, General Epanchin had been enabled with great difficulty to introduce himself into her circle. Gania made her acquaintance also, and others were Ferdishenko, an ill-bred, and would-be witty, young clerk, and Ptitsin, a money-lender of modest and polished manners, who had risen from poverty. In fact, Nastasia Philipovna’s beauty became a thing known to all the town; but not a single man could boast of anything more than his own admiration for her; and this reputation of hers, and her wit and culture and grace, all confirmed Totski in the plan he had now prepared.
“He jumped up, too.
“One more second and I should have stopped him,” said Keller, afterwards. In fact, he and Burdovsky jumped into another carriage and set off in pursuit; but it struck them as they drove along that it was not much use trying to bring Nastasia back by force.
“That you are rushing madly into the undertaking, and that you would do well to think it over again. It is more than possible that Varvara Ardalionovna is right.”
“Not for the world, not for the world! I merely wish to make him ashamed of himself. Oh, prince, great though this misfortune be to myself, I cannot help thinking of his morals! I have a great favour to ask of you, esteemed prince; I confess that it is the chief object of my visit. You know the Ivolgins, you have even lived in their house; so if you would lend me your help, honoured prince, in the general’s own interest and for his good.”
He had absently taken up the knife a second time, and again Rogojin snatched it from his hand, and threw it down on the table. It was a plain looking knife, with a bone handle, a blade about eight inches long, and broad in proportion, it did not clasp.
A certain strangeness and impatience in his manner impressed the prince very forcibly.
The prince begged him to step in and sit down.
“No. I was only going to say that what surprises me most of all is your extraordinary confidence.”
“Wasn’t she joking? She was speaking sarcastically!”
Nastasia Philipovna burst out laughing and jumped up from the sofa.
“Not those very words. She only just had time to whisper as she went by; but by the way she looked at me I knew it was important. She looked at me in a way that made my heart stop beating.”
“Oh, not in the least,” said the prince. “On the contrary, I have been so much interested, I’m really very much obliged to you.”
“I don’t know; I always feel like that when I look at the beauties of nature for the first time; but then, I was ill at that time, of course!”
“Why, open it, for the time being, don’t you know?” he said, most confidentially and mysteriously.
Aglaya suddenly whispered angrily to herself the word--
“Why? Nobody would ever challenge me to a duel!”
The general was brought round to some extent, but the doctors declared that he could not be said to be out of danger. Varia and Nina Alexandrovna never left the sick man’s bedside; Gania was excited and distressed, but would not go upstairs, and seemed afraid to look at the patient. He wrung his hands when the prince spoke to him, and said that “such a misfortune at such a moment” was terrible.
“I don’t think so, Ferdishenko; please be quiet,” answered Nastasia Philipovna dryly.
“Well--just for one second, then. The fact is, I came for advice. Of course I live now without any very practical objects in life; but, being full of self-respect, in which quality the ordinary Russian is so deficient as a rule, and of activity, I am desirous, in a word, prince, of placing myself and my wife and children in a position of--in fact, I want advice.”
“To this keen question I replied as keenly, ‘The Russian heart can recognize a great man even in the bitter enemy of his country.’ At least, I don’t remember the exact words, you know, but the idea was as I say. Napoleon was struck; he thought a minute and then said to his suite: ‘I like that boy’s pride; if all Russians think like this child, then--’ he didn’t finish, but went on and entered the palace. I instantly mixed with his suite, and followed him. I was already in high favour. I remember when he came into the first hall, the emperor stopped before a portrait of the Empress Katherine, and after a thoughtful glance remarked, ‘That was a great woman,’ and passed on.
Rogojin stared intently at them; then he took his hat, and without a word, left the room.
“I, too, was burning to have my say!
The prince flushed up so much that he could not look her in the face.
“Yes, lock it.”
“I am very proud, in spite of what I am,” she continued. “You called me ‘perfection’ just now, prince. A nice sort of perfection to throw up a prince and a million and a half of roubles in order to be able to boast of the fact afterwards! What sort of a wife should I make for you, after all I have said? Afanasy Ivanovitch, do you observe I have really and truly thrown away a million of roubles? And you thought that I should consider your wretched seventy-five thousand, with Gania thrown in for a husband, a paradise of bliss! Take your seventy-five thousand back, sir; you did not reach the hundred thousand. Rogojin cut a better dash than you did. I’ll console Gania myself; I have an idea about that. But now I must be off! I’ve been in prison for ten years. I’m free at last! Well, Rogojin, what are you waiting for? Let’s get ready and go.”
“I must also admit,” said the prince, “that I have not seen much, or been very far into the question; but I cannot help thinking that you are more or less right, and that Russian liberalism--that phase of it which you are considering, at least--really is sometimes inclined to hate Russia itself, and not only its existing order of things in general. Of course this is only _partially_ the truth; you cannot lay down the law for all...”
Rogojin asked his question like a lost soul appealing to some divinity, with the reckless daring of one appointed to die, who has nothing to lose.
“Of course I know they say that one must be obedient, and of course, too, the prince is one of those who say so: that one must be obedient without questions, out of pure goodness of heart, and that for my worthy conduct in this matter I shall meet with reward in another world. We degrade God when we attribute our own ideas to Him, out of annoyance that we cannot fathom His ways.
“I did not ask about Gania out of curiosity,” said the elder, at last. “I wish to know how much you know about him, because he said just now that we need not stand on ceremony with you. What, exactly, does that mean?”
He dreamed many dreams as he sat there, and all were full of disquiet, so that he shuddered every moment.
“You are quite ready, I observe,” she said, with absolute composure, “dressed, and your hat in your hand. I see somebody has thought fit to warn you, and I know who. Hippolyte?”
“I wished to find out from you,” she said, firmly, “by what right you dare to meddle with his feelings for me? By what right you dared send me those letters? By what right do you continually remind both me and him that you love him, after you yourself threw him over and ran away from him in so insulting and shameful a way?”
“‘How do you know that?’ he asked in amazement.
But they all laughed on.
“Oh! what on earth are we to do with him?” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna. She hastened to him and pressed his head against her bosom, while he sobbed convulsively.
“Why, where are you going to squeeze lodgers in here? Don’t you use a study? Does this sort of thing pay?” she added, turning to Nina Alexandrovna.
Evgenie takes this much to heart, and he has a heart, as is proved by the fact that he receives and even answers letters from Colia. But besides this, another trait in his character has become apparent, and as it is a good trait we will make haste to reveal it. After each visit to Schneider’s establishment, Evgenie Pavlovitch writes another letter, besides that to Colia, giving the most minute particulars concerning the invalid’s condition. In these letters is to be detected, and in each one more than the last, a growing feeling of friendship and sympathy.
There was nothing premeditated, there was not even any conscious purpose in it all, and yet, in spite of everything, the family, although highly respected, was not quite what every highly respected family ought to be. For a long time now Lizabetha Prokofievna had had it in her mind that all the trouble was owing to her “unfortunate character,” and this added to her distress. She blamed her own stupid unconventional “eccentricity.” Always restless, always on the go, she constantly seemed to lose her way, and to get into trouble over the simplest and more ordinary affairs of life.
“It _is_ true, it _is_ true,” cried Aglaya, almost beside herself with rage.
“Besides,” said Burdovsky, “the prince would not like it, would he?” So they gave up the pursuit.
The prince wanted to say something, but was so confused and astonished that he could not. However, he moved off towards the drawing-room with the cloak over his arm.
All these days Colia had been in a state of great mental preoccupation. Muishkin was usually out all day, and only came home late at night. On his return he was invariably informed that Colia had been looking for him. However, when they did meet, Colia never had anything particular to tell him, excepting that he was highly dissatisfied with the general and his present condition of mind and behaviour.
“In the first place, because of my carefully brought-up daughters,” said Mrs. Epanchin, cuttingly; “and as that is the best reason I can give you we need not bother about any other at present. Enough of words, now! We shall see how both of you (I don’t count Aglaya) will manage your business, and whether you, most revered Alexandra Ivanovna, will be happy with your fine mate.”
He laughed again.
“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.
“At the table stood a man in his shirt sleeves; he had thrown off his coat; it lay upon the bed; and he was unfolding a blue paper parcel in which were a couple of pounds of bread, and some little sausages.