“Yes,” said the prince, squeezing the word out with difficulty owing to the dreadful beating of his heart.
At length she plunged into an energetic and hostile criticism of railways, and glared at the prince defiantly.
“What did she guess?”
“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.”
“It is very painful to me to answer these questions, Lizabetha Prokofievna.”
“Oh, damn the peasant girl! go on, go on!” said Gania, impatiently.
“I know nothing about that; what else?”
“Why, where are you going to squeeze lodgers in here? Don’t you use a study? Does this sort of thing pay?” she added, turning to Nina Alexandrovna.
“Dear me, what a philosopher you are!” laughed the prince.
Hippolyte raised his head with an effort, saying:
“What is this ‘star’?” asked another.
“Do you wish to make acquaintance?” asked the prince.
“I cannot boast of any such knowledge, of course, but I wished to know your name.”
“I tell you, sir, he wished it himself!”
“Perhaps,” he thought, “someone is to be with them until nine tonight and she is afraid that I may come and make a fool of myself again, in public.” So he spent his time longing for the evening and looking at his watch. But the clearing-up of the mystery came long before the evening, and came in the form of a new and agonizing riddle.
Next moment something appeared to burst open before him: a wonderful inner light illuminated his soul. This lasted perhaps half a second, yet he distinctly remembered hearing the beginning of the wail, the strange, dreadful wail, which burst from his lips of its own accord, and which no effort of will on his part could suppress.
“How so?” asked Adelaida, with curiosity.
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.
At last he was wide awake.
A silly, meaningless smile played on his white, death-like lips. He could not take his eyes off the smouldering packet; but it appeared that something new had come to birth in his soul--as though he were vowing to himself that he would bear this trial. He did not move from his place. In a few seconds it became evident to all that he did not intend to rescue the money.
The staircase led to the first and second corridors of the hotel, along which lay the guests’ bedrooms. As is often the case in Petersburg houses, it was narrow and very dark, and turned around a massive stone column.
“But whatever she may say, remember that she does not believe it herself,--remember that she will believe nothing but that she is a guilty creature.
“Yes, that’s the chief thing,” said Gania, helping the general out of his difficulties again, and curling his lips in an envenomed smile, which he did not attempt to conceal. He gazed with his fevered eyes straight into those of the general, as though he were anxious that the latter might read his thoughts.
It was said that Gania managed to make a fool of himself even on this occasion; for, finding himself alone with Aglaya for a minute or two when Varia had gone to the Epanchins’, he had thought it a fitting opportunity to make a declaration of his love, and on hearing this Aglaya, in spite of her state of mind at the time, had suddenly burst out laughing, and had put a strange question to him. She asked him whether he would consent to hold his finger to a lighted candle in proof of his devotion! Gania--it was said--looked so comically bewildered that Aglaya had almost laughed herself into hysterics, and had rushed out of the room and upstairs,--where her parents had found her.
“I should tell it to no one but yourself, prince, and I only name it now as a help to my soul’s evolution. When I die, that secret will die with me! But, excellency, if you knew, if you only had the least idea, how difficult it is to get money nowadays! Where to find it is the question. Ask for a loan, the answer is always the same: ‘Give us gold, jewels, or diamonds, and it will be quite easy.’ Exactly what one has not got! Can you picture that to yourself? I got angry at last, and said, ‘I suppose you would accept emeralds?’ ‘Certainly, we accept emeralds with pleasure. Yes!’ ‘Well, that’s all right,’ said I. ‘Go to the devil, you den of thieves!’ And with that I seized my hat, and walked out.”
“Happy! you can be happy?” cried Aglaya. “Then how can you say you did not learn to see? I should think you could teach _us_ to see!”
Aglaya sat with her eyes on the ground; she seemed to have alarmed even herself by what she had said.
The prince regarded Lebedeff with astonishment.
“There’s news!” said the general in some excitement, after listening to the story with engrossed attention.
The fire, choked between a couple of smouldering pieces of wood, had died down for the first few moments after the packet was thrown upon it. But a little tongue of fire now began to lick the paper from below, and soon, gathering courage, mounted the sides of the parcel, and crept around it. In another moment, the whole of it burst into flames, and the exclamations of woe and horror were redoubled.
“Yes, it is serious for a poor man who lives by his toil.”
The prince began to think of Aglaya. She had certainly given him a wonderful smile, both at coming and again at leave-taking, but had not said a word, not even when the others all professed their friendship for him. She had looked very intently at him, but that was all. Her face had been paler than usual; she looked as though she had slept badly.
“Then about executions.”
“It is not right! Half an hour ago, prince, it was agreed among us that no one should interrupt, no one should laugh, that each person was to express his thoughts freely; and then at the end, when everyone had spoken, objections might be made, even by the atheists. We chose the general as president. Now without some such rule and order, anyone might be shouted down, even in the loftiest and most profound thought....”
At last, about half-past ten, the prince was left alone. His head ached. Colia was the last to go, after having helped him to change his wedding clothes. They parted on affectionate terms, and, without speaking of what had happened, Colia promised to come very early the next day. He said later that the prince had given no hint of his intentions when they said good-bye, but had hidden them even from him. Soon there was hardly anyone left in the house. Burdovsky had gone to see Hippolyte; Keller and Lebedeff had wandered off together somewhere.
“No, I have forgotten nothing. Come! This is the house--up this magnificent staircase. I am surprised not to see the porter, but .... it is a holiday... and the man has gone off... Drunken fool! Why have they not got rid of him? Sokolovitch owes all the happiness he has had in the service and in his private life to me, and me alone, but... here we are.”
The prince, when he heard the story afterwards, felt that he had never yet come across so wonderful a humorist, or such remarkable brilliancy as was shown by this man; and yet if he had only known it, this story was the oldest, stalest, and most worn-out yarn, and every drawing-room in town was sick to death of it. It was only in the innocent Epanchin household that it passed for a new and brilliant tale--as a sudden and striking reminiscence of a splendid and talented man.
“Thank goodness, we’ve just managed to finish it before you came in!” said Vera, joyfully.
“Gracious heavens!” exclaimed Lizabetha Prokofievna. The prince started. The general stiffened in his chair; the sisters frowned.
“Had we not better end this game?” asked Totski.
“This ‘explanation’ will make the matter clear enough to the police. Students of psychology, and anyone else who likes, may make what they please of it. I should not like this paper, however, to be made public. I request the prince to keep a copy himself, and to give a copy to Aglaya Ivanovna Epanchin. This is my last will and testament. As for my skeleton, I bequeath it to the Medical Academy for the benefit of science.
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.
“Lizabetha Prokofievna is in a really fiendish temper today,” she added, as she went out, “but the most curious thing is that Aglaya has quarrelled with her whole family; not only with her father and mother, but with her sisters also. It is not a good sign.” She said all this quite casually, though it was extremely important in the eyes of the prince, and went off with her brother. Regarding the episode of “Pavlicheff’s son,” Gania had been absolutely silent, partly from a kind of false modesty, partly, perhaps, to “spare the prince’s feelings.” The latter, however, thanked him again for the trouble he had taken in the affair.
“Yes, it’s quite true, isn’t it?” cried the general, his eyes sparkling with gratification. “A small boy, a child, would naturally realize no danger; he would shove his way through the crowds to see the shine and glitter of the uniforms, and especially the great man of whom everyone was speaking, for at that time all the world had been talking of no one but this man for some years past. The world was full of his name; I--so to speak--drew it in with my mother’s milk. Napoleon, passing a couple of paces from me, caught sight of me accidentally. I was very well dressed, and being all alone, in that crowd, as you will easily imagine...”
“I don’t know in the least; I wasn’t present when the joke was made. It _is_ a joke. I suppose, and that’s all.”
“I did not come to marry at all,” replied the prince.
He seized a glass from the table, broke away from the prince, and in a moment had reached the terrace steps.
“And you are _not_, I presume, eh?”
“Well, good-bye!” said the prince, holding out his hand.
He laid much stress on the genius of the sufferer, as if this idea must be one of immense solace in the present crisis.
Arrived at the rendezvous of the prince and her daughter, and hearing the strange words of the latter, Lizabetha Prokofievna had been dreadfully alarmed, for many reasons. However, now that she had dragged the prince home with her, she began to feel a little frightened at what she had undertaken. Why should not Aglaya meet the prince in the park and have a talk with him, even if such a meeting should be by appointment?
A few moments later, the prince was seated by Nastasia on the sofa, gazing into her eyes and stroking her face and hair, as he would a little child’s. He laughed when she laughed, and was ready to cry when she cried. He did not speak, but listened to her excited, disconnected chatter, hardly understanding a word of it the while. No sooner did he detect the slightest appearance of complaining, or weeping, or reproaching, than he would smile at her kindly, and begin stroking her hair and her cheeks, soothing and consoling her once more, as if she were a child.
“He really is very charming,” whispered the old dignitary to Ivan Petrovitch.
The prince’s further fate was more or less decided by Colia, who selected, out of all the persons he had met during the last six or seven months, Evgenie Pavlovitch, as friend and confidant. To him he made over all that he knew as to the events above recorded, and as to the present condition of the prince. He was not far wrong in his choice. Evgenie Pavlovitch took the deepest interest in the fate of the unfortunate “idiot,” and, thanks to his influence, the prince found himself once more with Dr. Schneider, in Switzerland.
“I have not much time for making acquaintances, as a rule,” said the general, “but as, of course, you have your object in coming, I--”
“Shall I see you home?” asked the prince, rising from his seat, but suddenly stopping short as he remembered Aglaya’s prohibition against leaving the house. Hippolyte laughed.
“Some dirty little thousand or so may be touched,” said Lebedeff, immensely relieved, “but there’s very little harm done, after all.”
“Nowhere, as yet.”
“Wheugh! my goodness!” The black-haired young fellow whistled, and then laughed.
“Come, come, don’t overdo your philosophy. Of course you did. Now it’s all over, and a good thing, too; pair of fools that we have been! I confess I have never been able to look at it seriously. I busied myself in it for your sake, thinking that there was no knowing what might happen with a funny girl like that to deal with. There were ninety to one chances against it. To this moment I can’t make out why you wished for it.”
“I don’t know at all; but she said I was to tell you particularly.”
“Yes, I’m at home. Where else should I go to?”
“Go on! Go on!”
“And you, princess,” he went on, addressing Princess Bielokonski, “was it not you who received me in Moscow, six months since, as kindly as though I had been your own son, in response to a letter from Lizabetha Prokofievna; and gave me one piece of advice, again as to your own son, which I shall never forget? Do you remember?”
The actress was a kind-hearted woman, and highly impressionable. She was very angry now.
Rogojin took the chair offered him, but he did not sit long; he soon stood up again, and did not reseat himself. Little by little he began to look around him and discern the other guests. Seeing Gania, he smiled venomously and muttered to himself, “Look at that!”
“Perhaps that is just what was so fascinating about it.”
She was very like her mother: she even dressed like her, which proved that she had no taste for smart clothes. The expression of her grey eyes was merry and gentle, when it was not, as lately, too full of thought and anxiety. The same decision and firmness was to be observed in her face as in her mother’s, but her strength seemed to be more vigorous than that of Nina Alexandrovna. She was subject to outbursts of temper, of which even her brother was a little afraid.
“Yes, but the prince told us about the donkey very cleverly, all the same,” said Alexandra. “I have always been most interested to hear how people go mad and get well again, and that sort of thing. Especially when it happens suddenly.”
The prince blushed and broke off, without finishing what he meant to say.
“Yes, I do--this kind.”
“She said, ‘I wouldn’t even have you for a footman now, much less for a husband.’ ‘I shan’t leave the house,’ I said, ‘so it doesn’t matter.’ ‘Then I shall call somebody and have you kicked out,’ she cried. So then I rushed at her, and beat her till she was bruised all over.”
“Give me a chair!” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, but she seized one for herself and sat down opposite to Hippolyte. “Colia, you must go home with him,” she commanded, “and tomorrow I will come my self.”
“But surely you do not believe that she...”
Colia had no choice but to obey. With crimson cheeks he read on unsteadily:
“It was engineered by other people, and is, properly speaking, rather a fantasy than an intrigue!”
“Won’t you leave the room, mamma?” asked Varia, aloud.
“H’m! and instead of a bad action, your excellency has detailed one of your noblest deeds,” said Ferdishenko. “Ferdishenko is ‘done.’”
It was a fact that Lebedeff, though he was so anxious to keep everyone else from disturbing the patient, was continually in and out of the prince’s room himself. He invariably began by opening the door a crack and peering in to see if the prince was there, or if he had escaped; then he would creep softly up to the arm-chair, sometimes making Muishkin jump by his sudden appearance. He always asked if the patient wanted anything, and when the latter replied that he only wanted to be left in peace, he would turn away obediently and make for the door on tip-toe, with deprecatory gestures to imply that he had only just looked in, that he would not speak a word, and would go away and not intrude again; which did not prevent him from reappearing in ten minutes or a quarter of an hour. Colia had free access to the prince, at which Lebedeff was quite disgusted and indignant. He would listen at the door for half an hour at a time while the two were talking. Colia found this out, and naturally told the prince of his discovery.
“Affectation!” remarked someone else.
“Do you know anything about Gavrila Ardalionovitch?” she asked at last.
“Well, I’ll come, I’ll come,” interrupted the prince, hastily, “and I’ll give you my word of honour that I will sit the whole evening and not say a word.”
“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.
During the next fortnight--that is, through the early part of July--the history of our hero was circulated in the form of strange, diverting, most unlikely-sounding stories, which passed from mouth to mouth, through the streets and villas adjoining those inhabited by Lebedeff, Ptitsin, Nastasia Philipovna and the Epanchins; in fact, pretty well through the whole town and its environs. All society--both the inhabitants of the place and those who came down of an evening for the music--had got hold of one and the same story, in a thousand varieties of detail--as to how a certain young prince had raised a terrible scandal in a most respectable household, had thrown over a daughter of the family, to whom he was engaged, and had been captured by a woman of shady reputation whom he was determined to marry at once--breaking off all old ties for the satisfaction of his insane idea; and, in spite of the public indignation roused by his action, the marriage was to take place in Pavlofsk openly and publicly, and the prince had announced his intention of going through with it with head erect and looking the whole world in the face. The story was so artfully adorned with scandalous details, and persons of so great eminence and importance were apparently mixed up in it, while, at the same time, the evidence was so circumstantial, that it was no wonder the matter gave food for plenty of curiosity and gossip.
“Don’t listen to her, prince,” said Mrs. Epanchin; “she says that sort of thing out of mischief. Don’t think anything of their nonsense, it means nothing. They love to chaff, but they like you. I can see it in their faces--I know their faces.”
Totski took his hat and rose to go. He and the general exchanged glances, making a private arrangement, thereby, to leave the house together.
“Oh, I forgive him with all my heart; you may tell him so if you like,” laughed Evgenie.
“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.”
“It is not like her, you say? My friend, that’s absurd. Perhaps such an act would horrify her, if she were with you, but it is quite different where I am concerned. She looks on me as vermin. Her affair with Keller was simply to make a laughing-stock of me. You don’t know what a fool she made of me in Moscow; and the money I spent over her! The money! the money!”
“Why, he wears an ‘order,’ and it looks so well!”
“I’m all right; yesterday I was a little--”
“I was not going to express myself so. But how could you so blind her?”
Nina Alexandrovna came in, looking frightened. She had changed much since we last saw her, half a year ago, and had grown thin and pale. Colia looked worried and perplexed. He could not understand the vagaries of the general, and knew nothing of the last achievement of that worthy, which had caused so much commotion in the house. But he could see that his father had of late changed very much, and that he had begun to behave in so extraordinary a fashion both at home and abroad that he was not like the same man. What perplexed and disturbed him as much as anything was that his father had entirely given up drinking during the last few days. Colia knew that he had quarrelled with both Lebedeff and the prince, and had just bought a small bottle of vodka and brought it home for his father.
“Meek! What do you mean?”
“Now and then I was able to persuade her almost to see light around her again; but she would soon fall, once more, into her old tormenting delusions, and would go so far as to reproach me for placing myself on a pedestal above her (I never had an idea of such a thing!), and informed me, in reply to my proposal of marriage, that she ‘did not want condescending sympathy or help from anybody.’ You saw her last night. You don’t suppose she can be happy among such people as those--you cannot suppose that such society is fit for her? You have no idea how well-educated she is, and what an intellect she has! She astonished me sometimes.”
“‘Lumen caeli, sancta Rosa!’ Shouting on the foe he fell, And like thunder rang his war-cry O’er the cowering infidel.
“Gentlemen--” began the prince.
“And what about the maid?” asked Nastasia Philipovna, with undisguised contempt.