“She died very soon; I had thought she would live much longer. The day before her death I went to see her for the last time, just before sunset. I think she recognized me, for she pressed my hand.
“Look closer. Do you see that bench, in the park there, just by those three big trees--that green bench?”
“‘Surely not to throw yourself into the river?’ cried Bachmatoff in alarm. Perhaps he read my thought in my face.
But here the two sisters could restrain themselves no longer, and both of them burst into irrepressible laughter.
And I, your excellency, am the ass.”
The old dignitary blushed a little, and murmured that the prince had better not excite himself further.
“It is much warmer in the rooms here than it is abroad at this season,” observed the prince; “but it is much warmer there out of doors. As for the houses--a Russian can’t live in them in the winter until he gets accustomed to them.”
“_Love-letter?_ My letter a love-letter? That letter was the most respectful of letters; it went straight from my heart, at what was perhaps the most painful moment of my life! I thought of you at the time as a kind of light. I--”
“He is a nice fellow, but a little too simple,” said Adelaida, as the prince left the room.
“Nastasia Philipovna? Why, you don’t mean to say that she and Lihachof--” cried Rogojin, turning quite pale.
“I thought I caught sight of his eyes!” muttered the prince, in confusion. “But what of it!--Why is he here? Was he asked?”
“I only see that Aglaya Ivanovna is laughing at me,” said the poor prince, sadly.
A minute afterwards, Evgenie Pavlovitch reappeared on the terrace, in great agitation.
“Calm yourself, my dear fellow. You are exaggerating again; you really have no occasion to be so grateful to us. It is a feeling which does you great credit, but an exaggeration, for all that.”
“Those are the two hundred and fifty roubles you dared to send him as a charity, by the hands of Tchebaroff,” explained Doktorenko.
“I think you might have spared me that,” murmured the prince reproachfully, almost in a whisper.
“What? What hopes?” cried Colia; “you surely don’t mean Aglaya?--oh, no!--”
“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.
Besides tea and coffee, cheese, honey, butter, pan-cakes of various kinds (the lady of the house loved these best), cutlets, and so on, there was generally strong beef soup, and other substantial delicacies.
Gania looked more intently at her.
“Oh, they don’t come on frequently, besides, he’s a regular child, though he seems to be fairly educated. I should like you, if possible, my dears,” the general added, making slowly for the door, “to put him through his paces a bit, and see what he is good for. I think you should be kind to him; it is a good deed, you know--however, just as you like, of course--but he is a sort of relation, remember, and I thought it might interest you to see the young fellow, seeing that this is so.”
“Of course--she showed them to me herself. You are thinking of the razor, eh? Ha, ha, ha!”
“No, I’m not married!” replied the prince, smiling at the ingenuousness of this little feeler.
“So that I have not offended any of you? You will not believe how happy I am to be able to think so. It is as it should be. As if I _could_ offend anyone here! I should offend you again by even suggesting such a thing.”
“Ah, he’s ashamed to! He _meant_ to ask you, I know, for he said so. I suppose he thinks that as you gave him some once (you remember), you would probably refuse if he asked you again.”
Colia’s eyes flashed as he listened.
“It’s only a couple of yards,” said Colia, blushing.
The prince gazed affectionately at Colia, who, of course, had come in solely for the purpose of talking about this “gigantic thought.”
Alexandra now joined in, and it looked as though the three sisters were going to laugh on for ever.
At this moment a loud voice from behind the group which hedged in the prince and Nastasia Philipovna, divided the crowd, as it were, and before them stood the head of the family, General Ivolgin. He was dressed in evening clothes; his moustache was dyed.
“I hardly dare say,” said Lizabetha, as hurriedly, “but I think it’s as plain as anything can be.”
“We are neighbours, so will you be so kind as to come over one day and explain the Apocalypse to me?” said Aglaya. “I do not understand it in the least.”
During these last few years all three of the general’s daughters--Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya--had grown up and matured. Of course they were only Epanchins, but their mother’s family was noble; they might expect considerable fortunes; their father had hopes of attaining to very high rank indeed in his country’s service--all of which was satisfactory. All three of the girls were decidedly pretty, even the eldest, Alexandra, who was just twenty-five years old. The middle daughter was now twenty-three, while the youngest, Aglaya, was twenty. This youngest girl was absolutely a beauty, and had begun of late to attract considerable attention in society. But this was not all, for every one of the three was clever, well educated, and accomplished.
“All this is very strange and interesting,” said Mrs. Epanchin. “Now let’s leave the donkey and go on to other matters. What are you laughing at, Aglaya? and you too, Adelaida? The prince told us his experiences very cleverly; he saw the donkey himself, and what have you ever seen? _you_ have never been abroad.”
“He was terribly confused and did not seem able to collect his scattered senses; the pocket-book was still in his left hand.
“I have not got the letter,” said the prince, timidly, extremely surprised at the turn the conversation had taken. “If anyone has it, if it still exists, Aglaya Ivanovna must have it.”
“Gospel truth, sir, Gospel truth!” exclaimed another passenger, a shabbily dressed man of about forty, who looked like a clerk, and possessed a red nose and a very blotchy face. “Gospel truth! All they do is to get hold of our good Russian money free, gratis, and for nothing.”
“Then within his distant castle, Home returned, he dreamed his days-- Silent, sad,--and when death took him He was mad, the legend says.”
“What should I be afraid of?”
“Yes, I think so!” said Adelaida.
“To the twelfth century, and those immediately preceding and following it. We are told by historians that widespread famines occurred in those days every two or three years, and such was the condition of things that men actually had recourse to cannibalism, in secret, of course. One of these cannibals, who had reached a good age, declared of his own free will that during the course of his long and miserable life he had personally killed and eaten, in the most profound secrecy, sixty monks, not to mention several children; the number of the latter he thought was about six, an insignificant total when compared with the enormous mass of ecclesiastics consumed by him. As to adults, laymen that is to say, he had never touched them.”
And again he stood like a log in the middle of the pavement; so amazed that his mouth remained open after the last word had left it.
“I’ll tell you. In the first place he must immediately deliver up the pistol which he boasted of, with all its appurtenances. If he does this I shall consent to his being allowed to spend the night in this house--considering his feeble state of health, and of course conditionally upon his being under proper supervision. But tomorrow he must go elsewhere. Excuse me, prince! Should he refuse to deliver up his weapon, then I shall instantly seize one of his arms and General Ivolgin the other, and we shall hold him until the police arrive and take the matter into their own hands. Mr. Ferdishenko will kindly fetch them.”
“He talks very well, you know!” said Mrs. Epanchin, who still continued to nod at each word the prince spoke. “I really did not expect it at all; in fact, I suppose it was all stuff and nonsense on the general’s part, as usual. Eat away, prince, and tell me where you were born, and where you were brought up. I wish to know all about you, you interest me very much!”
“I will think about it,” said the prince dreamily, and went off.
“It’s simply that there is a Russian poem,” began Prince S., evidently anxious to change the conversation, “a strange thing, without beginning or end, and all about a ‘poor knight.’ A month or so ago, we were all talking and laughing, and looking up a subject for one of Adelaida’s pictures--you know it is the principal business of this family to find subjects for Adelaida’s pictures. Well, we happened upon this ‘poor knight.’ I don’t remember who thought of it first--”
“Oh, nothing more, nothing more! I was saying to myself but now... ‘I am quite unworthy of friendly relations with him,’ say I; ‘but perhaps as landlord of this house I may, at some future date, in his good time, receive information as to certain imminent and much to be desired changes--’”
“Besides,” said Colia, “it is quite unusual, almost improper, for people in our position to take any interest in literature. Ask Evgenie Pavlovitch if I am not right. It is much more fashionable to drive a waggonette with red wheels.”
If it had been any other family than the Epanchins’, nothing particular would have happened. But, thanks to Mrs. Epanchin’s invariable fussiness and anxiety, there could not be the slightest hitch in the simplest matters of everyday life, but she immediately foresaw the most dreadful and alarming consequences, and suffered accordingly.
“Oh yes--I did learn a little, but--”
Hippolyte looked furious, but he restrained himself.
The prince was away for six months, and even those who were most interested in his destiny were able to pick up very little news about him all that while. True, certain rumours did reach his friends, but these were both strange and rare, and each one contradicted the last.
“Why?” asked Alexandra.
“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.
“Oh, I saw that at once,” replied the latter. “I don’t think it at all nice of him to play a part. What does he wish to gain by it, I wonder?”
As for his red-nosed neighbour, the latter--since the information as to the identity of Rogojin--hung over him, seemed to be living on the honey of his words and in the breath of his nostrils, catching at every syllable as though it were a pearl of great price.
The prince hesitated. He perceived that he had said too much now.
“In the first place, my dear prince, don’t be angry with me. I would have come to see you yesterday, but I didn’t know how Lizabetha Prokofievna would take it. My dear fellow, my house is simply a hell just now, a sort of sphinx has taken up its abode there. We live in an atmosphere of riddles; I can’t make head or tail of anything. As for you, I feel sure you are the least to blame of any of us, though you certainly have been the cause of a good deal of trouble. You see, it’s all very pleasant to be a philanthropist; but it can be carried too far. Of course I admire kind-heartedness, and I esteem my wife, but--”
“I will come with the greatest pleasure, and thank you very much for taking a fancy to me. I dare say I may even come today if I have time, for I tell you frankly that I like you very much too. I liked you especially when you told us about the diamond earrings; but I liked you before that as well, though you have such a dark-clouded sort of face. Thanks very much for the offer of clothes and a fur coat; I certainly shall require both clothes and coat very soon. As for money, I have hardly a copeck about me at this moment.”
“Don’t they heat them at all?”
“I don’t know; I thought it was a hallucination. I often have hallucinations nowadays. I feel just as I did five years ago when my fits were about to come on.”
So saying, she scornfully rose from her seat as though to depart.
The Epanchins’ country-house was a charming building, built after the model of a Swiss chalet, and covered with creepers. It was surrounded on all sides by a flower garden, and the family sat, as a rule, on the open verandah as at the prince’s house.
“How so? Did he bring the portrait for my husband?”
“God knows, Aglaya, that to restore her peace of mind and make her happy I would willingly give up my life. But I cannot love her, and she knows that.”
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.
“Come, that is enough! That is all now; you have no more to say? Now go to bed; you are burning with fever,” said Lizabetha Prokofievna impatiently. Her anxious eyes had never left the invalid. “Good heavens, he is going to begin again!”
When Colia had finished reading, he handed the paper to the prince, and retired silently to a corner of the room, hiding his face in his hands. He was overcome by a feeling of inexpressible shame; his boyish sensitiveness was wounded beyond endurance. It seemed to him that something extraordinary, some sudden catastrophe had occurred, and that he was almost the cause of it, because he had read the article aloud.
“Well, bring them, with or without respect, provided always you do not drop them on the way; but on the condition,” went on the lady, looking full at him, “that you do not cross my threshold. I do not intend to receive you today. You may send your daughter Vera at once, if you like. I am much pleased with her.”
“I am base--base!” muttered Lebedeff, beating his breast, and hanging his head.
In reply to a very guarded question of her sisters’, Aglaya had answered coldly, but exceedingly haughtily:
Nastasia Philipovna gazed at him with a haughty, ironical expression of face; but when she glanced at Nina Alexandrovna and Varia, and from them to Gania, she changed her tone, all of a sudden.
“He won’t do any harm now; and--and don’t be too severe with him.”
“Yes, yes, I ought--but I couldn’t! She would have died--she would have killed herself. You don’t know her; and I should have told Aglaya everything afterwards--but I see, Evgenie Pavlovitch, you don’t know all. Tell me now, why am I not allowed to see Aglaya? I should have cleared it all up, you know. Neither of them kept to the real point, you see. I could never explain what I mean to you, but I think I could to Aglaya. Oh! my God, my God! You spoke just now of Aglaya’s face at the moment when she ran away. Oh, my God! I remember it! Come along, come along--quick!” He pulled at Evgenie’s coat-sleeve nervously and excitedly, and rose from his chair.
Besides this, it was clear that the Epanchins’ position gained each year, with geometrical accuracy, both as to financial solidity and social weight; and, therefore, the longer the girls waited, the better was their chance of making a brilliant match.
“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.”
“I would much rather not, just now,” said the prince, a little disturbed and frowning slightly.
“Oho! ho, ho, ho!” cried Ferdishenko. “_Now_ then, prince! My word, what things I would say if I had such a chance as that! My goodness, prince--go on!”
This was the first time in his life that he had seen a little corner of what was generally known by the terrible name of “society.” He had long thirsted, for reasons of his own, to penetrate the mysteries of the magic circle, and, therefore, this assemblage was of the greatest possible interest to him.
Lebedeff clasped his hands in supplication.
No, this was no apparition!
This injunction had to be repeated several times before the man could be persuaded to move. Even then he turned back at the door, came as far as the middle of the room, and there went through his mysterious motions designed to convey the suggestion that the prince should open the letter. He did not dare put his suggestion into words again.
“Oh! it’s all the same to me now--_now!_ But at that time I would soak my pillow at night with tears of mortification, and tear at my blanket in my rage and fury. Oh, how I longed at that time to be turned out--_me_, eighteen years old, poor, half-clothed, turned out into the street, quite alone, without lodging, without work, without a crust of bread, without relations, without a single acquaintance, in some large town--hungry, beaten (if you like), but in good health--and _then_ I would show them--
“I bet anything it is!” exclaimed the red-nosed passenger, with extreme satisfaction, “and that he has precious little in the luggage van!--though of course poverty is no crime--we must remember that!”
“I don’t know--I dreamed last night that I was being suffocated with a wet cloth by--somebody. I’ll tell you who it was--Rogojin! What do you think, can a man be suffocated with a wet cloth?”
“Don’t suppose, prince,” she began, bracing herself up for the effort, “don’t suppose that I have brought you here to ask questions. After last night, I assure you, I am not so exceedingly anxious to see you at all; I could have postponed the pleasure for a long while.” She paused.
“No--and I don’t want one,” said the prince, laughing.
“I don’t wish to joke with you, Lef Nicolaievitch. I shall see Hippolyte myself. Tell him so. As for you, I think you are behaving very badly, because it is not right to judge a man’s soul as you are judging Hippolyte’s. You have no gentleness, but only justice--so you are unjust.”
“‘Maybe sad Love upon his setting smiles, And with vain hopes his farewell hour beguiles.’
“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--”
“I admit that it is an historic thought, but what is your conclusion?” asked the prince.
“At last I’ve stormed the citadel! Why do you tie up your bell?” she said, merrily, as she pressed Gania’s hand, the latter having rushed up to her as soon as she made her appearance. “What are you looking so upset about? Introduce me, please!”
“I long sought to meet Marie alone; and at last I did meet her, on the hillside beyond the village. I gave her the eight francs and asked her to take care of the money because I could get no more; and then I kissed her and said that she was not to suppose I kissed her with any evil motives or because I was in love with her, for that I did so solely out of pity for her, and because from the first I had not accounted her as guilty so much as unfortunate. I longed to console and encourage her somehow, and to assure her that she was not the low, base thing which she and others strove to make out; but I don’t think she understood me. She stood before me, dreadfully ashamed of herself, and with downcast eyes; and when I had finished she kissed my hand. I would have kissed hers, but she drew it away. Just at this moment the whole troop of children saw us. (I found out afterwards that they had long kept a watch upon me.) They all began whistling and clapping their hands, and laughing at us. Marie ran away at once; and when I tried to talk to them, they threw stones at me. All the village heard of it the same day, and Marie’s position became worse than ever. The children would not let her pass now in the streets, but annoyed her and threw dirt at her more than before. They used to run after her--she racing away with her poor feeble lungs panting and gasping, and they pelting her and shouting abuse at her.
The sufferer was immediately taken to his room, and though he partially regained consciousness, he lay long in a semi-dazed condition.
“Yes, that same one.”
“I don’t think we have a copy of Pushkin in the house.”
“Of course, mamma!” said Alexandra. “But let’s have lunch now, we are all hungry!”