However, he made up his mind that he would himself take the note and deliver it. Indeed, he went so far as to leave the house and walk up the road, but changed his mind when he had nearly reached Ptitsin’s door. However, he there luckily met Colia, and commissioned him to deliver the letter to his brother as if direct from Aglaya. Colia asked no questions but simply delivered it, and Gania consequently had no suspicion that it had passed through so many hands.
“Why should I?” asked Nastasia Philipovna, smiling slightly.
The latter, with one thing and another, was now so disturbed and confused, that when, a couple of hours or so later, a message came from Colia that the general was ill, he could hardly take the news in.
“She opened the parcel, looked at the earrings, and laughed.
“He has been very ill,” added Varia.
“They do not at all approve of women going to see an execution there. The women who do go are condemned for it afterwards in the newspapers.”
“It was to be fifty if I won the case, only five if I lost,” interrupted Lebedeff, speaking in a low tone, a great contrast to his earlier manner.
“It is to annoy their mother; that is their one aim in life; it can be nothing else. The fact is it is all of a piece with these modern ideas, that wretched woman’s question! Six months ago Aglaya took a fancy to cut off her magnificent hair. Why, even I, when I was young, had nothing like it! The scissors were in her hand, and I had to go down on my knees and implore her... She did it, I know, from sheer mischief, to spite her mother, for she is a naughty, capricious girl, a real spoiled child spiteful and mischievous to a degree! And then Alexandra wanted to shave her head, not from caprice or mischief, but, like a little fool, simply because Aglaya persuaded her she would sleep better without her hair, and not suffer from headache! And how many suitors have they not had during the last five years! Excellent offers, too! What more do they want? Why don’t they get married? For no other reason than to vex their mother--none--none!”
Aglaya flushed up angrily.
“Oh, Lebedeff, Lebedeff! Can a man really sink to such depths of meanness?” said the prince, sadly.
“I should think so indeed!” cried the latter. “The court-martial came to no decision. It was a mysterious, an impossible business, one might say! Captain Larionoff, commander of the company, had died; his command was handed over to the prince for the moment. Very well. This soldier, Kolpakoff, stole some leather from one of his comrades, intending to sell it, and spent the money on drink. Well! The prince--you understand that what follows took place in the presence of the sergeant-major, and a corporal--the prince rated Kolpakoff soundly, and threatened to have him flogged. Well, Kolpakoff went back to the barracks, lay down on a camp bedstead, and in a quarter of an hour was dead: you quite understand? It was, as I said, a strange, almost impossible, affair. In due course Kolpakoff was buried; the prince wrote his report, the deceased’s name was removed from the roll. All as it should be, is it not? But exactly three months later at the inspection of the brigade, the man Kolpakoff was found in the third company of the second battalion of infantry, Novozemlianski division, just as if nothing had happened!”
Gania stood and frowned, he expected a family scene. He never thought of apologizing to the prince, however.
At this moment the study door opened, and a military man, with a portfolio under his arm, came out talking loudly, and after bidding good-bye to someone inside, took his departure.
Lebedeff grinned and wriggled.
And as to her face, could it inspire nothing but passion? Could her face inspire passion at all now? Oh, it inspired suffering, grief, overwhelming grief of the soul! A poignant, agonizing memory swept over the prince’s heart.
“Yes, I played with her,” said Rogojin, after a short silence.
“He has astonished me,” said Ivan Fedorovitch. “I nearly fell down with surprise. I could hardly believe my eyes when I met him in Petersburg just now. Why this haste? That’s what I want to know. He has always said himself that there is no need to break windows.”
The prince was instantly covered with confusion; for it appeared to be plain that everyone expected something of him--that everyone looked at him as though anxious to congratulate him, and greeted him with hints, and smiles, and knowing looks.
As to Lizabetha Prokofievna, she, as the reader knows, belonged to an aristocratic family. True, Russians think more of influential friends than of birth, but she had both. She was esteemed and even loved by people of consequence in society, whose example in receiving her was therefore followed by others. It seems hardly necessary to remark that her family worries and anxieties had little or no foundation, or that her imagination increased them to an absurd degree; but if you have a wart on your forehead or nose, you imagine that all the world is looking at it, and that people would make fun of you because of it, even if you had discovered America! Doubtless Lizabetha Prokofievna was considered “eccentric” in society, but she was none the less esteemed: the pity was that she was ceasing to believe in that esteem. When she thought of her daughters, she said to herself sorrowfully that she was a hindrance rather than a help to their future, that her character and temper were absurd, ridiculous, insupportable. Naturally, she put the blame on her surroundings, and from morning to night was quarrelling with her husband and children, whom she really loved to the point of self-sacrifice, even, one might say, of passion.
“No,--the thing is, I was telling all about the execution a little while ago, and--”
“If that is true,” said he, “I have been deceived, grossly deceived, but not by Tchebaroff: and for a long time past, a long time. I do not wish for experts, not I, nor to go to see you. I believe you. I give it up.... But I refuse the ten thousand roubles. Good-bye.”
“Well, she isn’t the first in the world, nor the last,” said another.
The general very nearly smiled, but thought better of it and kept his smile back. Then he reflected, blinked his eyes, stared at his guest once more from head to foot; then abruptly motioned him to a chair, sat down himself, and waited with some impatience for the prince to speak.
“He’s fainted!” the cry went round.
No, this was no apparition!
“Well, take care you don’t tell him to his face that you have found the purse. Simply let him see that it is no longer in the lining of your coat, and form his own conclusions.”
“Listen, Mr. Terentieff,” said Ptitsin, who had bidden the prince good-night, and was now holding out his hand to Hippolyte; “I think you remark in that manuscript of yours, that you bequeath your skeleton to the Academy. Are you referring to your own skeleton--I mean, your very bones?”
“Yes, for certain--quite for certain, now! I have discovered it _absolutely_ for certain, these last few days.”
Lizabetha Prokofievna had announced, directly after lunch, that they would all take a walk together. The information was given in the form of a command, without explanation, drily and abruptly. All had issued forth in obedience to the mandate; that is, the girls, mamma, and Prince S. Lizabetha Prokofievna went off in a direction exactly contrary to the usual one, and all understood very well what she was driving at, but held their peace, fearing to irritate the good lady. She, as though anxious to avoid any conversation, walked ahead, silent and alone. At last Adelaida remarked that it was no use racing along at such a pace, and that she could not keep up with her mother.
Lebedeff made an impatient movement.
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, what do you think? The old fellow went straight off to Nastasia Philipovna, touched the floor with his forehead, and began blubbering and beseeching her on his knees to give him back the diamonds. So after awhile she brought the box and flew out at him. ‘There,’ she says, ‘take your earrings, you wretched old miser; although they are ten times dearer than their value to me now that I know what it must have cost Parfen to get them! Give Parfen my compliments,’ she says, ‘and thank him very much!’ Well, I meanwhile had borrowed twenty-five roubles from a friend, and off I went to Pskoff to my aunt’s. The old woman there lectured me so that I left the house and went on a drinking tour round the public-houses of the place. I was in a high fever when I got to Pskoff, and by nightfall I was lying delirious in the streets somewhere or other!”
“Well, this strange circumstance--which I have described with so much detail--was the ultimate cause which led me to taking my final determination. So that no logic, or logical deductions, had anything to do with my resolve;--it was simply a matter of disgust.
“Oh, I happened to recall it, that’s all! It fitted into the conversation--”
“You have forgotten, mother,” said Aglaya, suddenly. “He really did carry me about,--in Tver, you know. I was six years old, I remember. He made me a bow and arrow, and I shot a pigeon. Don’t you remember shooting a pigeon, you and I, one day?”
“Well? Go on.”
On meeting Colia the prince determined to accompany the general, though he made up his mind to stay as short a time as possible. He wanted Colia, but firmly resolved to leave the general behind. He could not forgive himself for being so simple as to imagine that Ivolgin would be of any use. The three climbed up the long staircase until they reached the fourth floor where Madame Terentieff lived.
Gania recollected himself in time to rush after her in order to show her out, but she had gone. He followed her to the stairs.
Every little fly that buzzed in the sun’s rays was a singer in the universal chorus, “knew its place, and was happy in it.” Every blade of grass grew and was happy. Everything knew its path and loved it, went forth with a song and returned with a song; only he knew nothing, understood nothing, neither men nor words, nor any of nature’s voices; he was a stranger and an outcast.
“No--I know nothing about it,” said Nastasia, drily and abruptly.
Lebedeff immediately procured the services of an old doctor, and carried the latter away to Pavlofsk to see the prince, by way of viewing the ground, as it were, and to give him (Lebedeff) counsel as to whether the thing was to be done or not. The visit was not to be official, but merely friendly.
“Prince,” whispered Hippolyte, suddenly, his eyes all ablaze, “you don’t suppose that I did not foresee all this hatred?” He looked at the prince as though he expected him to reply, for a moment. “Enough!” he added at length, and addressing the whole company, he cried: “It’s all my fault, gentlemen! Lebedeff, here’s the key,” (he took out a small bunch of keys); “this one, the last but one--Colia will show you--Colia, where’s Colia?” he cried, looking straight at Colia and not seeing him. “Yes, he’ll show you; he packed the bag with me this morning. Take him up, Colia; my bag is upstairs in the prince’s study, under the table. Here’s the key, and in the little case you’ll find my pistol and the powder, and all. Colia packed it himself, Mr. Lebedeff; he’ll show you; but it’s on condition that tomorrow morning, when I leave for Petersburg, you will give me back my pistol, do you hear? I do this for the prince’s sake, not yours.”
“Do you cut your pages with it, or what?” asked Muishkin, still rather absently, as though unable to throw off a deep preoccupation into which the conversation had thrown him.
The prince listened, smiling.
The prince would never so much as suspect such a thing in the delight of his first impression.
“Oh, you needn’t fear! He’ll live another six weeks all right. Very likely he will recover altogether; but I strongly advise you to pack him off tomorrow.”
“Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, be quiet!” Aglaya struck in, suddenly, seizing his hand in hers, and gazing at him almost in terror.
But here he was back at his hotel.
“What an idea! Of course not. And what are you blushing for again? And there comes that frown once more! You’ve taken to looking too gloomy sometimes, Aglaya, much more than you used to. I know why it is.”
“Immediately, immediately! As for my story, gentlemen, it is too stupid and absurd to tell you.
“Very glad, I’m particularly hungry. Yes, yes, a strange coincidence--almost a psychological--”
“Surely not _all_, ma’am? They seem so disorderly--it’s dreadful to see them.”
Such were, for instance, Varvara Ardalionovna Ptitsin, her husband, and her brother, Gania.
“I’ll tell you what!” cried Rogojin, and his eyes flashed fire. “I can’t understand your yielding her to me like this; I don’t understand it. Have you given up loving her altogether? At first you suffered badly--I know it--I saw it. Besides, why did you come post-haste after us? Out of pity, eh? He, he, he!” His mouth curved in a mocking smile.
“No, don’t read it!” cried Evgenie suddenly. He appeared so strangely disturbed that many of those present could not help wondering.
“I knew yesterday that you didn’t love me.”
“Hush! hush! Gavrila Ardalionovitch!” cried Muishkin in dismay, but it was too late.
“How dare you speak so to me?” she said, with a haughtiness which was quite indescribable, replying to Nastasia’s last remark.
“He began to talk at once excitedly and with trembling lips; he began complaining and telling me his story. He interested me, I confess; I sat there nearly an hour. His story was a very ordinary one. He had been a provincial doctor; he had a civil appointment, and had no sooner taken it up than intrigues began. Even his wife was dragged into these. He was proud, and flew into a passion; there was a change of local government which acted in favour of his opponents; his position was undermined, complaints were made against him; he lost his post and came up to Petersburg with his last remaining money, in order to appeal to higher authorities. Of course nobody would listen to him for a long time; he would come and tell his story one day and be refused promptly; another day he would be fed on false promises; again he would be treated harshly; then he would be told to sign some documents; then he would sign the paper and hand it in, and they would refuse to receive it, and tell him to file a formal petition. In a word he had been driven about from office to office for five months and had spent every farthing he had; his wife’s last rags had just been pawned; and meanwhile a child had been born to them and--and today I have a final refusal to my petition, and I have hardly a crumb of bread left--I have nothing left; my wife has had a baby lately--and I--I--’
“I am very glad indeed to have met you here, Colia,” said the prince. “Can you do something for me? I must see Nastasia Philipovna, and I asked Ardalion Alexandrovitch just now to take me to her house, but he has gone to sleep, as you see. Will you show me the way, for I do not know the street? I have the address, though; it is close to the Grand Theatre.”
At this moment the study door opened, and a military man, with a portfolio under his arm, came out talking loudly, and after bidding good-bye to someone inside, took his departure.
“It’s better so, you know, Gania--especially as, from one point of view, the matter may be considered as settled,” said Ptitsin; and sitting down a little way from the table he began to study a paper covered with pencil writing.
The prince blushed. He thought, as so many in his position do, that nobody had seen, heard, noticed, or understood anything.
“What are you doing? Where are you going to? You can’t let him go now; if you do he’ll go and do something worse.”
“Why, what has he done?”
The prince gazed and gazed, and felt that the more he gazed the more death-like became the silence. Suddenly a fly awoke somewhere, buzzed across the room, and settled on the pillow. The prince shuddered.
“But, my dear fellow, what are you doing, what do you mean?”
Of course, after this, Aglaya went with the rest. In fact, she had never had the slightest intention of doing otherwise.
“So should I, in your place, I’ve no doubt!” laughed the prince to Ferdishenko; then continued, addressing Nastasia: “Your portrait struck me very forcibly this morning; then I was talking about you to the Epanchins; and then, in the train, before I reached Petersburg, Parfen Rogojin told me a good deal about you; and at the very moment that I opened the door to you I happened to be thinking of you, when--there you stood before me!”
“What was the matter yesterday?” (she wrote on another sheet). “I passed by you, and you seemed to me to _blush_. Perhaps it was only my fancy. If I were to bring you to the most loathsome den, and show you the revelation of undisguised vice--you should not blush. You can never feel the sense of personal affront. You may hate all who are mean, or base, or unworthy--but not for yourself--only for those whom they wrong. No one can wrong _you_. Do you know, I think you ought to love me--for you are the same in my eyes as in his--you are as light. An angel cannot hate, perhaps cannot love, either. I often ask myself--is it possible to love everybody? Indeed it is not; it is not in nature. Abstract love of humanity is nearly always love of self. But you are different. You cannot help loving all, since you can compare with none, and are above all personal offence or anger. Oh! how bitter it would be to me to know that you felt anger or shame on my account, for that would be your fall--you would become comparable at once with such as me.
Nearly everyone observed the little band advancing, and all pretended not to see or notice them, except a few young fellows who exchanged glances and smiled, saying something to one another in whispers.
“Wasn’t it you,” he said, suddenly turning to the old gentleman, “who saved the student Porkunoff and a clerk called Shoabrin from being sent to Siberia, two or three months since?”
The door opened at this point, and in came Gania most unexpectedly.
“You see, Lebedeff, a mistake here would be a dreadful thing. This Ferdishenko, I would not say a word against him, of course; but, who knows? Perhaps it really was he? I mean he really does seem to be a more likely man than... than any other.”
Lebedeff’s country-house was not large, but it was pretty and convenient, especially the part which was let to the prince.
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.
“House of Rogojin, hereditary and honourable citizen.”
“Fits?” asked the prince, slightly surprised. “I very seldom have fits nowadays. I don’t know how it may be here, though; they say the climate may be bad for me.”
“Lef Nicolaievitch!” interposed Madame Epanchin, suddenly, “read this at once, this very moment! It is about this business.”
“The prince is clearly a democrat,” remarked Aglaya.
“She is worthy of sympathy? Is that what you wished to say, my good fellow? But then, for the mere sake of vindicating her worthiness of sympathy, you should not have insulted and offended a noble and generous girl in her presence! This is a terrible exaggeration of sympathy! How can you love a girl, and yet so humiliate her as to throw her over for the sake of another woman, before the very eyes of that other woman, when you have already made her a formal proposal of marriage? And you _did_ propose to her, you know; you did so before her parents and sisters. Can you be an honest man, prince, if you act so? I ask you! And did you not deceive that beautiful girl when you assured her of your love?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” said the prince, apparently in a deep reverie.
“I know it for a fact,” replied Rogojin, with conviction.
“Oh, you needn’t laugh! These things do happen, you know! Now then--why didn’t you come to us? We have a wing quite empty. But just as you like, of course. Do you lease it from _him?_--this fellow, I mean,” she added, nodding towards Lebedeff. “And why does he always wriggle so?”
“I had a note,” said the prince.
“Let him go on reading at all costs!” ordered Lizabetha Prokofievna, evidently preserving her composure by a desperate effort. “Prince, if the reading is stopped, you and I will quarrel.”
“How ‘means nothing’? You are talking nonsense, my friend. You are marrying the woman you love in order to secure her happiness, and Aglaya sees and knows it. How can you say that it’s ‘not the point’?”
The prince brought out his “copy-book sentence” in the firm belief that it would produce a good effect. He felt instinctively that some such well-sounding humbug, brought out at the proper moment, would soothe the old man’s feelings, and would be specially acceptable to such a man in such a position. At all hazards, his guest must be despatched with heart relieved and spirit comforted; that was the problem before the prince at this moment.
“I may have said so,” answered Hippolyte, as if trying to remember. “Yes, I certainly said so,” he continued with sudden animation, fixing an unflinching glance on his questioner. “What of it?”
“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?”
“Wasn’t it this same Pavlicheff about whom there was a strange story in connection with some abbot? I don’t remember who the abbot was, but I remember at one time everybody was talking about it,” remarked the old dignitary.
“‘Why, what on earth can have possessed you to come and see _me_, Terentieff?’ he cried, with his usual pleasant, sometimes audacious, but never offensive familiarity, which I liked in reality, but for which I also detested him. ‘Why what’s the matter?’ he cried in alarm. ‘Are you ill?’
“No, no! I can’t announce a visitor like yourself without the secretary. Besides the general said he was not to be disturbed--he is with the Colonel C--. Gavrila Ardalionovitch goes in without announcing.”
“It is not in the least beyond all limits, mamma!” said her daughter, firmly. “I sent the prince a hedgehog this morning, and I wish to hear his opinion of it. Go on, prince.”
“Read this,” she said, handing him Gania’s note.
“I was not at all afraid for myself, Gania, as you know well. It was not for my own sake that I have been so anxious and worried all this time! They say it is all to be settled to-day. What is to be settled?”
“But after all, what is it? Is it possible that I should have just risked my fate by tossing up?” he went on, shuddering; and looked round him again. His eyes had a curious expression of sincerity. “That is an astonishing psychological fact,” he cried, suddenly addressing the prince, in a tone of the most intense surprise. “It is... it is something quite inconceivable, prince,” he repeated with growing animation, like a man regaining consciousness. “Take note of it, prince, remember it; you collect, I am told, facts concerning capital punishment... They told me so. Ha, ha! My God, how absurd!” He sat down on the sofa, put his elbows on the table, and laid his head on his hands. “It is shameful--though what does it matter to me if it is shameful?
“Confess that you are pleased to have read it.”