“Is it today, Gania?” asked Nina Alexandrovna, at last.
“Well, why have I worried him, for five years, and never let him go free? Is he worth it? He is only just what he ought to be--nothing particular. He thinks I am to blame, too. He gave me my education, kept me like a countess. Money--my word! What a lot of money he spent over me! And he tried to find me an honest husband first, and then this Gania, here. And what do you think? All these five years I did not live with him, and yet I took his money, and considered I was quite justified.
Gania felt a little guilty.
“I should not be surprised by anything. She is mad!”
Mrs. Epanchin was just wondering whether she would not forbid the performance after all, when, at the very moment that Aglaya commenced her declamation, two new guests, both talking loudly, entered from the street. The new arrivals were General Epanchin and a young man.
But Lizabetha Prokofievna felt somewhat consoled when she could say that one of her girls, Adelaida, was settled at last. “It will be one off our hands!” she declared aloud, though in private she expressed herself with greater tenderness. The engagement was both happy and suitable, and was therefore approved in society. Prince S. was a distinguished man, he had money, and his future wife was devoted to him; what more could be desired? Lizabetha Prokofievna had felt less anxious about this daughter, however, although she considered her artistic tastes suspicious. But to make up for them she was, as her mother expressed it, “merry,” and had plenty of “common-sense.” It was Aglaya’s future which disturbed her most. With regard to her eldest daughter, Alexandra, the mother never quite knew whether there was cause for anxiety or not. Sometimes she felt as if there was nothing to be expected from her. She was twenty-five now, and must be fated to be an old maid, and “with such beauty, too!” The mother spent whole nights in weeping and lamenting, while all the time the cause of her grief slumbered peacefully. “What is the matter with her? Is she a Nihilist, or simply a fool?”
“Well, in a couple of days I was known all over the palace and the Kremlin as ‘le petit boyard.’ I only went home to sleep. They were nearly out of their minds about me at home. A couple of days after this, Napoleon’s page, De Bazancour, died; he had not been able to stand the trials of the campaign. Napoleon remembered me; I was taken away without explanation; the dead page’s uniform was tried on me, and when I was taken before the emperor, dressed in it, he nodded his head to me, and I was told that I was appointed to the vacant post of page.
“Oh yes, of course, on purpose! I quite understand.”
“I asked Nicolai Ardalionovitch...”
The prince took a paper from his pocket-book, and handed it to Lizabetha Prokofievna. It ran as follows:
For some moments Gania stood as if stunned or struck by lightning, after his sister’s speech. But seeing that Nastasia Philipovna was really about to leave the room this time, he sprang at Varia and seized her by the arm like a madman.
“Another excellent idea, and worth considering!” replied Lebedeff. “But, again, that is not the question. The question at this moment is whether we have not weakened ‘the springs of life’ by the extension...”
“I don’t understand you. How could he have me in view, and not be aware of it himself? And yet, I don’t know--perhaps I do. Do you know I have intended to poison myself at least thirty times--ever since I was thirteen or so--and to write to my parents before I did it? I used to think how nice it would be to lie in my coffin, and have them all weeping over me and saying it was all their fault for being so cruel, and all that--what are you smiling at?” she added, knitting her brow. “What do _you_ think of when you go mooning about alone? I suppose you imagine yourself a field-marshal, and think you have conquered Napoleon?”
“Oh, no--no--I’m all right, I assure you!”
No one liked the idea much. Some smiled, some frowned; some objected, but faintly, not wishing to oppose Nastasia’s wishes; for this new idea seemed to be rather well received by her. She was still in an excited, hysterical state, laughing convulsively at nothing and everything. Her eyes were blazing, and her cheeks showed two bright red spots against the white. The melancholy appearance of some of her guests seemed to add to her sarcastic humour, and perhaps the very cynicism and cruelty of the game proposed by Ferdishenko pleased her. At all events she was attracted by the idea, and gradually her guests came round to her side; the thing was original, at least, and might turn out to be amusing. “And supposing it’s something that one--one can’t speak about before ladies?” asked the timid and silent young man.
“Four years! and I was in the same place nearly all the time,--in one village.”
“Nervous about you?” Aglaya blushed. “Why should I be nervous about you? What would it matter to me if you were to make ever such a fool of yourself? How can you say such a thing? What do you mean by ‘making a fool of yourself’? What a vulgar expression! I suppose you intend to talk in that sort of way tomorrow evening? Look up a few more such expressions in your dictionary; do, you’ll make a grand effect! I’m sorry that you seem to be able to come into a room as gracefully as you do; where did you learn the art? Do you think you can drink a cup of tea decently, when you know everybody is looking at you, on purpose to see how you do it?”
“Oh, what a queen she is!” he ejaculated, every other minute, throwing out the remark for anyone who liked to catch it. “That’s the sort of woman for me! Which of you would think of doing a thing like that, you blackguards, eh?” he yelled. He was hopelessly and wildly beside himself with ecstasy.
The boxer was dying to get in a few words; owing, no doubt, to the presence of the ladies, he was becoming quite jovial.
“Well, it is troublesome, rather,” said the latter; “but I suppose it will ‘pay’ pretty well. We have only just begun, however--”
“Quite so, quite so!” cried Mrs. Epanchin, delighted. “I see you _can_ be sensible now and then, Alexandra. You were speaking of Switzerland, prince?”
“I know that--I know that; but what a part to play! And think what she must take _you_ for, Gania! I know she kissed mother’s hand, and all that, but she laughed at you, all the same. All this is not good enough for seventy-five thousand roubles, my dear boy. You are capable of honourable feelings still, and that’s why I am talking to you so. Oh! _do_ take care what you are doing! Don’t you know yourself that it will end badly, Gania?”
“I can just see there’s a bed--”
“When I arose to lock the door after him, I suddenly called to mind a picture I had noticed at Rogojin’s in one of his gloomiest rooms, over the door. He had pointed it out to me himself as we walked past it, and I believe I must have stood a good five minutes in front of it. There was nothing artistic about it, but the picture made me feel strangely uncomfortable. It represented Christ just taken down from the cross. It seems to me that painters as a rule represent the Saviour, both on the cross and taken down from it, with great beauty still upon His face. This marvellous beauty they strive to preserve even in His moments of deepest agony and passion. But there was no such beauty in Rogojin’s picture. This was the presentment of a poor mangled body which had evidently suffered unbearable anguish even before its crucifixion, full of wounds and bruises, marks of the violence of soldiers and people, and of the bitterness of the moment when He had fallen with the cross--all this combined with the anguish of the actual crucifixion.
There was nothing, however, of love-making in his talk. His ideas were all of the most serious kind; some were even mystical and profound.
“‘Nurse, where is your tomb?’
The prince could not doubt the sincerity of his agitation. He understood, too, that the old man had left the room intoxicated with his own success. The general belonged to that class of liars, who, in spite of their transports of lying, invariably suspect that they are not believed. On this occasion, when he recovered from his exaltation, he would probably suspect Muishkin of pitying him, and feel insulted.
“As much as usual, prince--why?”
His cab took him to a small and bad hotel near the Litaynaya. Here he engaged a couple of rooms, dark and badly furnished. He washed and changed, and hurriedly left the hotel again, as though anxious to waste no time. Anyone who now saw him for the first time since he left Petersburg would judge that he had improved vastly so far as his exterior was concerned. His clothes certainly were very different; they were more fashionable, perhaps even too much so, and anyone inclined to mockery might have found something to smile at in his appearance. But what is there that people will not smile at?
Lebedeff had not returned, so towards evening Keller managed to penetrate into the prince’s apartments. He was not drunk, but in a confidential and talkative mood. He announced that he had come to tell the story of his life to Muishkin, and had only remained at Pavlofsk for that purpose. There was no means of turning him out; nothing short of an earthquake would have removed him.
“Why do you tease him?” cried the prince, suddenly.
Her acquaintances invited her to their “At Homes” because she was so decorative. She was exhibited to their guests like a valuable picture, or vase, or statue, or firescreen. As for the men, Ptitsin was one of Rogojin’s friends; Ferdishenko was as much at home as a fish in the sea, Gania, not yet recovered from his amazement, appeared to be chained to a pillory. The old professor did not in the least understand what was happening; but when he noticed how extremely agitated the mistress of the house, and her friends, seemed, he nearly wept, and trembled with fright: but he would rather have died than leave Nastasia Philipovna at such a crisis, for he loved her as if she were his own granddaughter. Afanasy Ivanovitch greatly disliked having anything to do with the affair, but he was too much interested to leave, in spite of the mad turn things had taken; and a few words that had dropped from the lips of Nastasia puzzled him so much, that he felt he could not go without an explanation. He resolved therefore, to see it out, and to adopt the attitude of silent spectator, as most suited to his dignity. General Epanchin alone determined to depart. He was annoyed at the manner in which his gift had been returned, as though he had condescended, under the influence of passion, to place himself on a level with Ptitsin and Ferdishenko, his self-respect and sense of duty now returned together with a consciousness of what was due to his social rank and official importance. In short, he plainly showed his conviction that a man in his position could have nothing to do with Rogojin and his companions. But Nastasia interrupted him at his first words.
“Nothing unexpected. I discovered that it’s all true. My husband was wiser than either of us. Just as he suspected from the beginning, so it has fallen out. Where is he?”
“It was, I assure you, and if not to her then to Rogojin, which is the same thing. Mr. Hippolyte has had letters, too, and all from the individual whose name begins with an A.,” smirked Lebedeff, with a hideous grin.
“No, no, I mean with the ‘explanation,’ especially that part of it where he talks about Providence and a future life. There is a gigantic thought there.”
“Yes, your brother does not attract me much.”
She lived almost entirely alone; she read, she studied, she loved music. Her principal acquaintances were poor women of various grades, a couple of actresses, and the family of a poor schoolteacher. Among these people she was much beloved.
The prince was startled, and reflected for a moment.
“Very glad, I’m particularly hungry. Yes, yes, a strange coincidence--almost a psychological--”
“Excellency, I have the honour of inviting you to my funeral; that is, if you will deign to honour it with your presence. I invite you all, gentlemen, as well as the general.”
“Oh, he was very likely joking; he said it for fun.”
“Then for a day and a half I neither slept, nor ate, nor drank, and would not leave her. I knelt at her feet: ‘I shall die here,’ I said, ‘if you don’t forgive me; and if you have me turned out, I shall drown myself; because, what should I be without you now?’ She was like a madwoman all that day; now she would cry; now she would threaten me with a knife; now she would abuse me. She called in Zaleshoff and Keller, and showed me to them, shamed me in their presence. ‘Let’s all go to the theatre,’ she says, ‘and leave him here if he won’t go--it’s not my business. They’ll give you some tea, Parfen Semeonovitch, while I am away, for you must be hungry.’ She came back from the theatre alone. ‘Those cowards wouldn’t come,’ she said. ‘They are afraid of you, and tried to frighten me, too. “He won’t go away as he came,” they said, “he’ll cut your throat--see if he doesn’t.” Now, I shall go to my bedroom, and I shall not even lock my door, just to show you how much I am afraid of you. You must be shown that once for all. Did you have tea?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘and I don’t intend to.’ ‘Ha, ha! you are playing off your pride against your stomach! That sort of heroism doesn’t sit well on you,’ she said.
“Gentlemen, you’d better look out,” cried Colia, also seizing Hippolyte by the hand. “Just look at him! Prince, what are you thinking of?” Vera and Colia, and Keller, and Burdovsky were all crowding round Hippolyte now and holding him down.
To serve her brother’s interests, Varvara Ardalionovna was constantly at the Epanchins’ house, helped by the fact that in childhood she and Gania had played with General Ivan Fedorovitch’s daughters. It would have been inconsistent with her character if in these visits she had been pursuing a chimera; her project was not chimerical at all; she was building on a firm basis--on her knowledge of the character of the Epanchin family, especially Aglaya, whom she studied closely. All Varvara’s efforts were directed towards bringing Aglaya and Gania together. Perhaps she achieved some result; perhaps, also, she made the mistake of depending too much upon her brother, and expecting more from him than he would ever be capable of giving. However this may be, her manoeuvres were skilful enough. For weeks at a time she would never mention Gania. Her attitude was modest but dignified, and she was always extremely truthful and sincere. Examining the depths of her conscience, she found nothing to reproach herself with, and this still further strengthened her in her designs. But Varvara Ardalionovna sometimes remarked that she felt spiteful; that there was a good deal of vanity in her, perhaps even of wounded vanity. She noticed this at certain times more than at others, and especially after her visits to the Epanchins.
“Ardalion Alexandrovitch,” she cried after him, “wait a moment, we are all sinners! When you feel that your conscience reproaches you a little less, come over to me and we’ll have a talk about the past! I dare say I am fifty times more of a sinner than you are! And now go, go, good-bye, you had better not stay here!” she added, in alarm, as he turned as though to come back.
“Napoleon was walking up and down with folded arms. I could not take my eyes off his face--my heart beat loudly and painfully.
Gania’s irritation increased with every word he uttered, as he walked up and down the room. These conversations always touched the family sores before long.
All he said and did was abrupt, confused, feverish--very likely the words he spoke, as often as not, were not those he wished to say. He seemed to inquire whether he _might_ speak. His eyes lighted on Princess Bielokonski.
“I? I? Do you mean me? Often, my friend, often! I only pretended I had not in order to avoid a painful subject. You saw today, you were a witness, that I did all that a kind, an indulgent father could do. Now a father of altogether another type shall step into the scene. You shall see; the old soldier shall lay bare this intrigue, or a shameless woman will force her way into a respectable and noble family.”
“And you wouldn’t run away?”
“‘I’m afraid you are ill?’ he remarked, in the tone which doctors use when they address a patient. ‘I am myself a medical man’ (he did not say ‘doctor’), with which words he waved his hands towards the room and its contents as though in protest at his present condition. ‘I see that you--’
Nastasia smiled amiably at him; but evidently her depression and irritability were increasing with every moment. Totski was dreadfully alarmed to hear her promise a revelation out of her own life.
And so he departed. The prince found out afterwards that this gentleman made it his business to amaze people with his originality and wit, but that it did not as a rule “come off.” He even produced a bad impression on some people, which grieved him sorely; but he did not change his ways for all that.
“She’s mad--quite!” said Alexandra.
Heaven knows how long and upon what subjects he thought. He thought of many things--of Vera Lebedeff, and of her father; of Hippolyte; of Rogojin himself, first at the funeral, then as he had met him in the park, then, suddenly, as they had met in this very passage, outside, when Rogojin had watched in the darkness and awaited him with uplifted knife. The prince remembered his enemy’s eyes as they had glared at him in the darkness. He shuddered, as a sudden idea struck him.
“Well, not exactly. I will tell you all about him some day.... What do you think of Nastasia Philipovna? She is beautiful, isn’t she? I had never seen her before, though I had a great wish to do so. She fascinated me. I could forgive Gania if he were to marry her for love, but for money! Oh dear! that is horrible!”
“Mother, this is disgraceful!” cried Aglaya.
“She has promised to tell me tonight at her own house whether she consents or not,” replied Gania.
The prince had been listening attentively to Radomski’s words, and thought his manner very pleasant. When Colia chaffed him about his waggonette he had replied with perfect equality and in a friendly fashion. This pleased Muishkin.
“How so? Do you want to make out that you love them _both?_”
“Whoever is afraid of wolves had better not go into the wood,” said Nastasia, smiling.
The prince turned sharply round and looked at both of them. Gania’s face was full of real despair; he seemed to have said the words almost unconsciously and on the impulse of the moment.
“Oh, come--nonsense!” cried Gania; “if you did not go shaming us all over the town, things might be better for all parties.”
“I don’t understand your condescension,” said Hippolyte. “As for me, I promised myself, on the first day of my arrival in this house, that I would have the satisfaction of settling accounts with you in a very thorough manner before I said good-bye to you. I intend to perform this operation now, if you like; after you, though, of course.”
But it was more serious than he wished to think. As soon as the visitors had crossed the low dark hall, and entered the narrow reception-room, furnished with half a dozen cane chairs, and two small card-tables, Madame Terentieff, in the shrill tones habitual to her, continued her stream of invectives.
Her dress was modest and simple to a degree, dark and elderly in style; but both her face and appearance gave evidence that she had seen better days.
“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.
“Why? You very nearly were, anyhow.”
“Yes, that is so... for the last fifteen years.”
Here he rose again from his chair, so that it seemed strange that he should have thought it worth while to sit down at all.
The incredulous amazement with which all regarded the prince did not last long, for Nastasia herself appeared at the door and passed in, pushing by the prince again.
“You are going to Pavlofsk too?” asked the prince sharply. “Everybody seems to be going there. Have you a house in that neighbourhood?”
“Koulakoff... Koulakoff means nothing. This is Sokolovitch’s flat, and I am ringing at his door.... What do I care for Koulakoff?... Here comes someone to open.”
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.
He walked to the far end of the verandah, where the sofa stood, with a table in front of it. Here he sat down and covered his face with his hands, and so remained for ten minutes. Suddenly he put his hand in his coat-pocket and hurriedly produced three letters.
“I don’t want any dinner, thanks, Colia. I had too good a lunch at General Epanchin’s.”
“No; a bundle--your brother has just gone to the hall for it.”
This last fact could, of course, reflect nothing but credit upon the general; and yet, though unquestionably a sagacious man, he had his own little weaknesses--very excusable ones,--one of which was a dislike to any allusion to the above circumstance. He was undoubtedly clever. For instance, he made a point of never asserting himself when he would gain more by keeping in the background; and in consequence many exalted personages valued him principally for his humility and simplicity, and because “he knew his place.” And yet if these good people could only have had a peep into the mind of this excellent fellow who “knew his place” so well! The fact is that, in spite of his knowledge of the world and his really remarkable abilities, he always liked to appear to be carrying out other people’s ideas rather than his own. And also, his luck seldom failed him, even at cards, for which he had a passion that he did not attempt to conceal. He played for high stakes, and moved, altogether, in very varied society.
He spoke so seriously in addressing Lebedeff, that his tone contrasted quite comically with that of the others. They were very nearly laughing at him, too, but he did not notice it.
The prince regarded Lebedeff with astonishment.
“Wait a minute, prince,” shouted the latter, as he went. “I shall be back in five minutes.”
“So do I,” said Adelaida, solemnly.
“Nastasia Philipovna!” cried the prince.
“What--shame you? I?--what do you mean, you young calf? I shame you? I can only do you honour, sir; I cannot shame you.”
“Yes, you are, indeed.”
“Oh! do be quiet! You must be drunk! He has taken it into his head to play the lawyer, prince, and he practices speechifying, and is always repeating his eloquent pleadings to his children. And who do you think was his last client? An old woman who had been robbed of five hundred roubles, her all, by some rogue of a usurer, besought him to take up her case, instead of which he defended the usurer himself, a Jew named Zeidler, because this Jew promised to give him fifty roubles....”
“And I’ve heard one!” said Adelaida. All three of the girls laughed out loud, and the prince laughed with them.
“I know he won’t, I know he won’t, general; but I--I’m master here!”
“Well, that is the murderer! It is he--in fact--”
“I felt sure of that, or I should not have come to you. We might manage it with the help of Nina Alexandrovna, so that he might be closely watched in his own house. Unfortunately I am not on terms... otherwise... but Nicolai Ardalionovitch, who adores you with all his youthful soul, might help, too.”
“In Petersburg? Oh no! hardly at all, and now they say so much is changed in the place that even those who did know it well are obliged to relearn what they knew. They talk a good deal about the new law courts, and changes there, don’t they?”
“Very well, what next?” said the latter, almost laughing in his face.
She laughed, but she was rather angry too.
All present concentrated their attention upon Ptitsin, reading the prince’s letter. The general curiosity had received a new fillip. Ferdishenko could not sit still. Rogojin fixed his eyes first on the prince, and then on Ptitsin, and then back again; he was extremely agitated. Lebedeff could not stand it. He crept up and read over Ptitsin’s shoulder, with the air of a naughty boy who expects a box on the ear every moment for his indiscretion.
She seemed to be very angry, but suddenly burst out laughing, quite good-humouredly.
“It seems to me, Mr. Colia, that you were very foolish to bring your young friend down--if he is the same consumptive boy who wept so profusely, and invited us all to his own funeral,” remarked Evgenie Pavlovitch. “He talked so eloquently about the blank wall outside his bedroom window, that I’m sure he will never support life here without it.”
“What! Pleased with all that nonsense! Why, cannot you see that they are all infatuated with pride and vanity?”
“Rogojin was evidently by no means pleased to see me, and hinted, delicately, that he saw no reason why our acquaintance should continue. For all that, however, I spent a very interesting hour, and so, I dare say, did he. There was so great a contrast between us that I am sure we must both have felt it; anyhow, I felt it acutely. Here was I, with my days numbered, and he, a man in the full vigour of life, living in the present, without the slightest thought for ‘final convictions,’ or numbers, or days, or, in fact, for anything but that which-which--well, which he was mad about, if he will excuse me the expression--as a feeble author who cannot express his ideas properly.
“If you wished to preserve your good name, why did you not give up your--your ‘guardian,’ Totski, without all that theatrical posturing?” said Aglaya, suddenly a propos of nothing.