The reading of these letters produced some such effect upon the prince. He felt, before he even opened the envelopes, that the very fact of their existence was like a nightmare. How could she ever have made up her mind to write to her? he asked himself. How could she write about that at all? And how could such a wild idea have entered her head? And yet, the strangest part of the matter was, that while he read the letters, he himself almost believed in the possibility, and even in the justification, of the idea he had thought so wild. Of course it was a mad dream, a nightmare, and yet there was something cruelly real about it. For hours he was haunted by what he had read. Several passages returned again and again to his mind, and as he brooded over them, he felt inclined to say to himself that he had foreseen and known all that was written here; it even seemed to him that he had read the whole of this some time or other, long, long ago; and all that had tormented and grieved him up to now was to be found in these old, long since read, letters.
Offering all these facts to our readers and refusing to explain them, we do not for a moment desire to justify our hero’s conduct. On the contrary, we are quite prepared to feel our share of the indignation which his behaviour aroused in the hearts of his friends. Even Vera Lebedeff was angry with him for a while; so was Colia; so was Keller, until he was selected for best man; so was Lebedeff himself,--who began to intrigue against him out of pure irritation;--but of this anon. In fact we are in full accord with certain forcible words spoken to the prince by Evgenie Pavlovitch, quite unceremoniously, during the course of a friendly conversation, six or seven days after the events at Nastasia Philipovna’s house.
Prince S---- made the acquaintance of the general’s family, and Adelaida, the second girl, made a great impression upon him. Towards the spring he proposed to her, and she accepted him. The general and his wife were delighted. The journey abroad was put off, and the wedding was fixed for a day not very distant.
“No, no! I have my reasons for wishing them not to suspect us of being engaged in any specially important conversation. There are gentry present who are a little too much interested in us. You are not aware of that perhaps, prince? It will be a great deal better if they see that we are friendly just in an ordinary way. They’ll all go in a couple of hours, and then I’ll ask you to give me twenty minutes--half an hour at most.”
“He has told me already that he hates you,” murmured Aglaya, scarcely audibly.
“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.”
“Only to show it. Nastasia Philipovna gave it to Gavrila Ardalionovitch today, and the latter brought it here to show to the general.”
“‘I do not wish to deprive your mother of you, and, therefore, I will not ask you to go with me,’ he said, the morning of his departure, ‘but I should like to do something for you.’ He was mounting his horse as he spoke. ‘Write something in my sister’s album for me,’ I said rather timidly, for he was in a state of great dejection at the moment. He turned, called for a pen, took the album. ‘How old is your sister?’ he asked, holding the pen in his hand. ‘Three years old,’ I said. ‘Ah, _petite fille alors!_’ and he wrote in the album:
“I beg your pardon, I--”
“Married? how--what marriage?” murmured Gania, overwhelmed with confusion.
The Epanchin family, or at least the more serious members of it, were sometimes grieved because they seemed so unlike the rest of the world. They were not quite certain, but had at times a strong suspicion that things did not happen to them as they did to other people. Others led a quiet, uneventful life, while they were subject to continual upheavals. Others kept on the rails without difficulty; they ran off at the slightest obstacle. Other houses were governed by a timid routine; theirs was somehow different. Perhaps Lizabetha Prokofievna was alone in making these fretful observations; the girls, though not wanting in intelligence, were still young; the general was intelligent, too, but narrow, and in any difficulty he was content to say, “H’m!” and leave the matter to his wife. Consequently, on her fell the responsibility. It was not that they distinguished themselves as a family by any particular originality, or that their excursions off the track led to any breach of the proprieties. Oh no.
“It is the _heart_ which is the best teacher of refinement and dignity, not the dancing-master,” said her mother, sententiously, and departed upstairs to her own room, not so much as glancing at Aglaya.
Since their visit to Gania’s home, Rogojin’s followers had been increased by two new recruits--a dissolute old man, the hero of some ancient scandal, and a retired sub-lieutenant. A laughable story was told of the former. He possessed, it was said, a set of false teeth, and one day when he wanted money for a drinking orgy, he pawned them, and was never able to reclaim them! The officer appeared to be a rival of the gentleman who was so proud of his fists. He was known to none of Rogojin’s followers, but as they passed by the Nevsky, where he stood begging, he had joined their ranks. His claim for the charity he desired seemed based on the fact that in the days of his prosperity he had given away as much as fifteen roubles at a time. The rivals seemed more than a little jealous of one another. The athlete appeared injured at the admission of the “beggar” into the company. By nature taciturn, he now merely growled occasionally like a bear, and glared contemptuously upon the “beggar,” who, being somewhat of a man of the world, and a diplomatist, tried to insinuate himself into the bear’s good graces. He was a much smaller man than the athlete, and doubtless was conscious that he must tread warily. Gently and without argument he alluded to the advantages of the English style in boxing, and showed himself a firm believer in Western institutions. The athlete’s lips curled disdainfully, and without honouring his adversary with a formal denial, he exhibited, as if by accident, that peculiarly Russian object--an enormous fist, clenched, muscular, and covered with red hairs! The sight of this pre-eminently national attribute was enough to convince anybody, without words, that it was a serious matter for those who should happen to come into contact with it.
But at this moment he saw, seated before him, Nastasia Philipovna. He had not dreamed of meeting her here, evidently, for her appearance produced a marvellous effect upon him. He grew pale, and his lips became actually blue.
“Good God!” exclaimed Lizabetha Prokofievna involuntarily.
“Then, you don’t know how, for it is a matter that needs practice. Now listen and learn; in the first place buy good powder, not damp (they say it mustn’t be at all damp, but very dry), some fine kind it is--you must ask for _pistol_ powder, not the stuff they load cannons with. They say one makes the bullets oneself, somehow or other. Have you got a pistol?”
“How strangely you speak, and how odd you look!” said the other, involuntarily.
Around him all was quiet; only the flutter and whisper of the leaves broke the silence, but broke it only to cause it to appear yet more deep and still.
“I tell you it’s true,” said Rogojin quietly, but with eyes ablaze with passion.
All the guests were known to the prince; but the curious part of the matter was that they had all arrived on the same evening, as though with one accord, although he had only himself recollected the fact that it was his birthday a few moments since.
“Let me remind you once more, Evgenie,” said Prince S., “that your joke is getting a little threadbare.”
“What! don’t you know about it yet? He doesn’t know--imagine that! Why, he’s shot himself. Your uncle shot himself this very morning. I was told at two this afternoon. Half the town must know it by now. They say there are three hundred and fifty thousand roubles, government money, missing; some say five hundred thousand. And I was under the impression that he would leave you a fortune! He’s whistled it all away. A most depraved old gentleman, really! Well, ta, ta!--bonne chance! Surely you intend to be off there, don’t you? Ha, ha! You’ve retired from the army in good time, I see! Plain clothes! Well done, sly rogue! Nonsense! I see--you knew it all before--I dare say you knew all about it yesterday-”
“Well, what, general? Not quite good form, eh? Oh, nonsense! Here have I been sitting in my box at the French theatre for the last five years like a statue of inaccessible virtue, and kept out of the way of all admirers, like a silly little idiot! Now, there’s this man, who comes and pays down his hundred thousand on the table, before you all, in spite of my five years of innocence and proud virtue, and I dare be sworn he has his sledge outside waiting to carry me off. He values me at a hundred thousand! I see you are still angry with me, Gania! Why, surely you never really wished to take _me_ into your family? _me_, Rogojin’s mistress! What did the prince say just now?”
“I will not accept ten thousand roubles,” said Burdovsky.
“Forgiving me! why so? What have I done to need his forgiveness?”
“It seems to me that you have been too painfully impressed by the news of what happened to your good benefactor,” said the old dignitary, kindly, and with the utmost calmness of demeanour. “You are excitable, perhaps as the result of your solitary life. If you would make up your mind to live more among your fellows in society, I trust, I am sure, that the world would be glad to welcome you, as a remarkable young man; and you would soon find yourself able to look at things more calmly. You would see that all these things are much simpler than you think; and, besides, these rare cases come about, in my opinion, from ennui and from satiety.”
“That’s what comes of telling the truth for once in one’s life!” said Lebedeff. “It reduced him to tears.”
She took the handkerchief from her face, glanced keenly at him, took in what he had said, and burst out laughing--such a merry, unrestrained laugh, so hearty and gay, that Adelaida could not contain herself. She, too, glanced at the prince’s panic-stricken countenance, then rushed at her sister, threw her arms round her neck, and burst into as merry a fit of laughter as Aglaya’s own. They laughed together like a couple of school-girls. Hearing and seeing this, the prince smiled happily, and in accents of relief and joy, he exclaimed “Well, thank God--thank God!”
Aglaya went up to him with a peculiarly serious look.
Gavrila Ardalionovitch meanwhile seemed to be trying to recall something.
“This letter cannot be allowed to remain in your hands.”
“You see,” he said, “I was given to understand that Ferdishenko was that sort of man,--that one can’t say everything before him. One has to take care not to say too much, you understand? I say this to prove that he really is, so to speak, more likely to have done this than anyone else, eh? You understand? The important thing is, not to make a mistake.”
His black-haired neighbour inspected these peculiarities, having nothing better to do, and at length remarked, with that rude enjoyment of the discomforts of others which the common classes so often show:
“Did she say that?”
“Oh, I’m a mean wretch--a mean wretch!” he said, approaching the prince once more, and beating his breast, with tears in his eyes.
“Yes, he’s in church.”
“I expect he knows all about it!” thought the prince.
She put her questions very quickly and talked fast, every now and then forgetting what she had begun to say, and not finishing her sentence. She seemed to be impatient to warn the prince about something or other. She was in a state of unusual excitement, and though she put on a brave and even defiant air, she seemed to be rather alarmed. She was dressed very simply, but this suited her well. She continually trembled and blushed, and she sat on the very edge of the seat.
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.
“House of Rogojin, hereditary and honourable citizen.”
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.”
“What, did they hang the fellow?”
In a word, Ferdishenko was very angry and rapidly forgetting himself; his whole face was drawn with passion. Strange as it may appear, he had expected much better success for his story. These little errors of taste on Ferdishenko’s part occurred very frequently. Nastasia trembled with rage, and looked fixedly at him, whereupon he relapsed into alarmed silence. He realized that he had gone a little too far.
“I can see it by your face! Say ‘how do you do’ to the others, and come and sit down here, quick--I’ve been waiting for you!” he added, accentuating the fact that he had waited. On the prince’s asking, “Will it not be injurious to you to sit out so late?” he replied that he could not believe that he had thought himself dying three days or so ago, for he never had felt better than this evening.
“It is not a Christian religion, in the first place,” said the latter, in extreme agitation, quite out of proportion to the necessity of the moment. “And in the second place, Roman Catholicism is, in my opinion, worse than Atheism itself. Yes--that is my opinion. Atheism only preaches a negation, but Romanism goes further; it preaches a disfigured, distorted Christ--it preaches Anti-Christ--I assure you, I swear it! This is my own personal conviction, and it has long distressed me. The Roman Catholic believes that the Church on earth cannot stand without universal temporal Power. He cries ‘non possumus!’ In my opinion the Roman Catholic religion is not a faith at all, but simply a continuation of the Roman Empire, and everything is subordinated to this idea--beginning with faith. The Pope has seized territories and an earthly throne, and has held them with the sword. And so the thing has gone on, only that to the sword they have added lying, intrigue, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, swindling;--they have played fast and loose with the most sacred and sincere feelings of men;--they have exchanged everything--everything for money, for base earthly _power!_ And is this not the teaching of Anti-Christ? How could the upshot of all this be other than Atheism? Atheism is the child of Roman Catholicism--it proceeded from these Romans themselves, though perhaps they would not believe it. It grew and fattened on hatred of its parents; it is the progeny of their lies and spiritual feebleness. Atheism! In our country it is only among the upper classes that you find unbelievers; men who have lost the root or spirit of their faith; but abroad whole masses of the people are beginning to profess unbelief--at first because of the darkness and lies by which they were surrounded; but now out of fanaticism, out of loathing for the Church and Christianity!”
“Look here, Parfen; if you love her so much, surely you must be anxious to earn her respect? And if you do so wish, surely you may hope to? I said just now that I considered it extraordinary that she could still be ready to marry you. Well, though I cannot yet understand it, I feel sure she must have some good reason, or she wouldn’t do it. She is sure of your love; but besides that, she must attribute _something_ else to you--some good qualities, otherwise the thing would not be. What you have just said confirms my words. You say yourself that she found it possible to speak to you quite differently from her usual manner. You are suspicious, you know, and jealous, therefore when anything annoying happens to you, you exaggerate its significance. Of course, of course, she does not think so ill of you as you say. Why, if she did, she would simply be walking to death by drowning or by the knife, with her eyes wide open, when she married you. It is impossible! As if anybody would go to their death deliberately!”
“Stay a little,” said Parfen, not leaving his chair and resting his head on his right hand. “I haven’t seen you for a long time.”
“I’ll wear it; and you shall have mine. I’ll take it off at once.”
“The prince is formally engaged to her--that’s settled. The elder sisters told me about it. Aglaya has agreed. They don’t attempt to conceal it any longer; you know how mysterious and secret they have all been up to now. Adelaida’s wedding is put off again, so that both can be married on one day. Isn’t that delightfully romantic? Somebody ought to write a poem on it. Sit down and write an ode instead of tearing up and down like that. This evening Princess Bielokonski is to arrive; she comes just in time--they have a party tonight. He is to be presented to old Bielokonski, though I believe he knows her already; probably the engagement will be openly announced. They are only afraid that he may knock something down, or trip over something when he comes into the room. It would be just like him.”
“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.”
“It is nearly midnight; we are going. Will he come with us, or is he to stay here?” Doktorenko asked crossly of the prince.
He caught sight of something flashing in Hippolyte’s right hand, and saw that it was a pistol. He rushed at him, but at that very instant Hippolyte raised the pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger. There followed a sharp metallic click, but no report.
“Shut up, Gania!” said Colia.
“‘I’ll do it--I’ll do it, of course!’ he said. ‘I shall attack my uncle about it tomorrow morning, and I’m very glad you told me the story. But how was it that you thought of coming to me about it, Terentieff?’
“My goodness--surely she is not in love with such a--surely she isn’t mad!” groaned Mrs. Epanchin, under her breath.
“That’s the beauty of it, general!”
“And you can marry her now, Parfen! What will come of it all?” said the prince, with dread in his voice.
“Russian books, indeed? Then, of course, you can read and write quite correctly?”
“I’ve covered her with oilcloth--best American oilcloth, and put the sheet over that, and four jars of disinfectant, on account of the smell--as they did at Moscow--you remember? And she’s lying so still; you shall see, in the morning, when it’s light. What! can’t you get up?” asked Rogojin, seeing the other was trembling so that he could not rise from his seat.
“Come along, Colia, I want to see your father. I have an idea,” said the prince.
“As a matter of fact, I did not read it,” interrupted the boxer, “but its contents had been given me on unimpeachable authority, and I...”
“Well! naturally he came to grief: the law is not administered as it used to be, and he only got laughed at for his pains. But he was much pleased with himself in spite of that. ‘Most learned judge!’ said he, ‘picture this unhappy man, crippled by age and infirmities, who gains his living by honourable toil--picture him, I repeat, robbed of his all, of his last mouthful; remember, I entreat you, the words of that learned legislator, “Let mercy and justice alike rule the courts of law.”’ Now, would you believe it, excellency, every morning he recites this speech to us from beginning to end, exactly as he spoke it before the magistrate. To-day we have heard it for the fifth time. He was just starting again when you arrived, so much does he admire it. He is now preparing to undertake another case. I think, by the way, that you are Prince Muishkin? Colia tells me you are the cleverest man he has ever known....”
After a time it became known that Totski had married a French marquise, and was to be carried off by her to Paris, and then to Brittany.
“H’m! I like to see that you know your manners; and you are by no means such a person as the general thought fit to describe you. Come along; you sit here, opposite to me,” she continued, “I wish to be able to see your face. Alexandra, Adelaida, look after the prince! He doesn’t seem so very ill, does he? I don’t think he requires a napkin under his chin, after all; are you accustomed to having one on, prince?”
“H’m destiny it is,” said the general, “and there’s no getting out of destiny.”
Nastasia Philipovna was at this moment passing the young ladies’ chairs.
“The visit to Rogojin exhausted me terribly. Besides, I had felt ill since the morning; and by evening I was so weak that I took to my bed, and was in high fever at intervals, and even delirious. Colia sat with me until eleven o’clock.
“What’s the matter?” asked Aglaya, in a whisper, giving his sleeve a little tug.
“This gentleman declares, Gavrila Ardalionovitch,” began the man, confidentially and almost familiarly, “that he is Prince Muishkin and a relative of Madame Epanchin’s. He has just arrived from abroad, with nothing but a bundle by way of luggage--.”
He felt in a very curious condition today, a condition similar to that which had preceded his fits in bygone years.
“Well, then--they were all children there, and I was always among children and only with children. They were the children of the village in which I lived, and they went to the school there--all of them. I did not teach them, oh no; there was a master for that, one Jules Thibaut. I may have taught them some things, but I was among them just as an outsider, and I passed all four years of my life there among them. I wished for nothing better; I used to tell them everything and hid nothing from them. Their fathers and relations were very angry with me, because the children could do nothing without me at last, and used to throng after me at all times. The schoolmaster was my greatest enemy in the end! I had many enemies, and all because of the children. Even Schneider reproached me. What were they afraid of? One can tell a child everything, anything. I have often been struck by the fact that parents know their children so little. They should not conceal so much from them. How well even little children understand that their parents conceal things from them, because they consider them too young to understand! Children are capable of giving advice in the most important matters. How can one deceive these dear little birds, when they look at one so sweetly and confidingly? I call them birds because there is nothing in the world better than birds!
“Oh, why not?” the prince insisted, with some warmth. “When I was in Basle I saw a picture very much in that style--I should like to tell you about it; I will some time or other; it struck me very forcibly.”
“That seems to me all the more reason for sparing her,” said the prince timidly.
“Directly! There, that’s enough. I’ll lie down directly. I must drink to the sun’s health. I wish to--I insist upon it! Let go!”
“Not for anything!” cried the other; “no, no, no!”
Aglaya did not so much as glance at the new arrivals, but went on with her recitation, gazing at the prince the while in an affected manner, and at him alone. It was clear to him that she was doing all this with some special object.
“Honour, indeed!” said the latter, with contempt.
Adelaida had long since detected in Aglaya’s features the gathering signs of an approaching storm of laughter, which she restrained with amazing self-control.
Another guest was an elderly, important-looking gentleman, a distant relative of Lizabetha Prokofievna’s. This gentleman was rich, held a good position, was a great talker, and had the reputation of being “one of the dissatisfied,” though not belonging to the dangerous sections of that class. He had the manners, to some extent, of the English aristocracy, and some of their tastes (especially in the matter of under-done roast beef, harness, men-servants, etc.). He was a great friend of the dignitary’s, and Lizabetha Prokofievna, for some reason or other, had got hold of the idea that this worthy intended at no distant date to offer the advantages of his hand and heart to Alexandra.
“General, they say you require rest,” said Nastasia Philipovna, with the melancholy face of a child whose toy is taken away.
“Won’t you be ashamed, afterwards, to reflect that your wife very nearly ran away with Rogojin?”
The latter had no idea and could give no information as to why Pavlicheff had taken so great an interest in the little prince, his ward.
“What! did it miss fire?”
“_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!”
Varia had risen from her place and had started to go upstairs to her mother; but at this observation of Gania’s she turned and gazed at him attentively.
He turned and went downstairs.
He rose from his seat in order to follow her, when a bright, clear peal of laughter rang out by his side. He felt somebody’s hand suddenly in his own, seized it, pressed it hard, and awoke. Before him stood Aglaya, laughing aloud.
“When you rang the bell this morning I thought it must be you. I went to the door on tip-toe and heard you talking to the servant opposite. I had told her before that if anyone came and rang--especially you, and I gave her your name--she was not to tell about me. Then I thought, what if he goes and stands opposite and looks up, or waits about to watch the house? So I came to this very window, looked out, and there you were staring straight at me. That’s how it came about.”
“This produced a great effect upon me. I used to dream of the poor old woman at nights. I really am not superstitious, but two days after, I went to her funeral, and as time went on I thought more and more about her. I said to myself, ‘This woman, this human being, lived to a great age. She had children, a husband and family, friends and relations; her household was busy and cheerful; she was surrounded by smiling faces; and then suddenly they are gone, and she is left alone like a solitary fly... like a fly, cursed with the burden of her age. At last, God calls her to Himself. At sunset, on a lovely summer’s evening, my little old woman passes away--a thought, you will notice, which offers much food for reflection--and behold! instead of tears and prayers to start her on her last journey, she has insults and jeers from a young ensign, who stands before her with his hands in his pockets, making a terrible row about a soup tureen!’ Of course I was to blame, and even now that I have time to look back at it calmly, I pity the poor old thing no less. I repeat that I wonder at myself, for after all I was not really responsible. Why did she take it into her head to die at that moment? But the more I thought of it, the more I felt the weight of it upon my mind; and I never got quite rid of the impression until I put a couple of old women into an almshouse and kept them there at my own expense. There, that’s all. I repeat I dare say I have committed many a grievous sin in my day; but I cannot help always looking back upon this as the worst action I have ever perpetrated.”
“However, observe” (she wrote in another of the letters), “that although I couple you with him, yet I have not once asked you whether you love him. He fell in love with you, though he saw you but once. He spoke of you as of ‘the light.’ These are his own words--I heard him use them. But I understood without his saying it that you were all that light is to him. I lived near him for a whole month, and I understood then that you, too, must love him. I think of you and him as one.”
“Then you think they won’t see it?”
“Oh, I only judge by what I see. Varvara Ardalionovna said just now--”
“He is for me, undoubtedly!” thought the prince, with a smile. Colia also had joined the party, and was talking with animation to Hippolyte, who listened with a jeering smile on his lips.
“It was Colia told me, and his father told _him_ at about six this morning. They met at the threshold, when Colia was leaving the room for something or other.” The prince told Lebedeff all that Colia had made known to himself, in detail.
“Won’t you come?” asked the prince in a gentle voice.