“Yes; come along, prince,” said the mother, “are you very hungry?”“I love Aglaya Ivanovna--she knows it,--and I think she must have long known it.”It was declared that he believed in no classes or anything else, excepting “the woman question.”“What is it?”
“Oh, well,” thought the general, “he’s lost to us for good, now.”“Gentlemen!” said Hippolyte, breaking off here, “I have not done yet, but it seems to me that I have written down a great deal here that is unnecessary,--this dream--”
“I thought” he stammered, making for the door.
“I shall laugh--I know I shall; I shall die of laughing,” she said, lugubriously.“Did not you ask me the question seriously” inquired the prince, in amazement.
“It is quite clear that he did not eat them all at once, but in a space of fifteen or twenty years: from that point of view the thing is comprehensible and natural...”
“Is it a note?”
He immediately button-holed Prince S., and standing at the front door, engaged in a whispered conversation with him. By the troubled aspect of both of them, when they entered the house, and approached Mrs. Epanchin, it was evident that they had been discussing very disturbing news.He was particularly anxious that this one day should be passed--especially the evening--without unpleasantness between himself and his family; and just at the right moment the prince turned up--“as though Heaven had sent him on purpose,” said the general to himself, as he left the study to seek out the wife of his bosom.“Prince,” he cried, “you are forgetting that if you consented to receive and hear them, it was only because of your kind heart which has no equal, for they had not the least right to demand it, especially as you had placed the matter in the hands of Gavrila Ardalionovitch, which was also extremely kind of you. You are also forgetting, most excellent prince, that you are with friends, a select company; you cannot sacrifice them to these gentlemen, and it is only for you to have them turned out this instant. As the master of the house I shall have great pleasure ....”
“Then you came for her sake?” Aglaya’s voice trembled.
He was sitting in the Summer Garden on a seat under a tree, and his mind dwelt on the matter. It was about seven o’clock, and the place was empty. The stifling atmosphere foretold a storm, and the prince felt a certain charm in the contemplative mood which possessed him. He found pleasure, too, in gazing at the exterior objects around him. All the time he was trying to forget some thing, to escape from some idea that haunted him; but melancholy thoughts came back, though he would so willingly have escaped from them. He remembered suddenly how he had been talking to the waiter, while he dined, about a recently committed murder which the whole town was discussing, and as he thought of it something strange came over him. He was seized all at once by a violent desire, almost a temptation, against which he strove in vain.However, it appeared to Totski that he might make use of her in another way; and he determined to establish her in St. Petersburg, surrounding her with all the comforts and luxuries that his wealth could command. In this way he might gain glory in certain circles.Towards six o’clock he found himself at the station of the Tsarsko-Selski railway.
“Just look, Lizabetha Prokofievna,” he began, with a kind of feverish haste; “these china cups are supposed to be extremely valuable. Lebedeff always keeps them locked up in his china-cupboard; they were part of his wife’s dowry. Yet he has brought them out tonight--in your honour, of course! He is so pleased--” He was about to add something else, but could not find the words.
So saying, she scornfully rose from her seat as though to depart.
“Met me somewhere, pfu! Why, it’s only three months since I lost two hundred roubles of my father’s money to you, at cards. The old fellow died before he found out. Ptitsin knows all about it. Why, I’ve only to pull out a three-rouble note and show it to you, and you’d crawl on your hands and knees to the other end of the town for it; that’s the sort of man you are. Why, I’ve come now, at this moment, to buy you up! Oh, you needn’t think that because I wear these boots I have no money. I have lots of money, my beauty,--enough to buy up you and all yours together. So I shall, if I like to! I’ll buy you up! I will!” he yelled, apparently growing more and more intoxicated and excited. “Oh, Nastasia Philipovna! don’t turn me out! Say one word, do! Are you going to marry this man, or not?”“What on earth will she say to me, I wonder?” he thought to himself.
“I knew you’d be wandering about somewhere here. I didn’t have to look for you very long,” muttered the latter between his teeth.“How stupid of me to speak of the portrait,” thought the prince as he entered the study, with a feeling of guilt at his heart, “and yet, perhaps I was right after all.” He had an idea, unformed as yet, but a strange idea.
“No, no; it’s all right, come in,” said Parfen, recollecting himself.“Do you know anything about Gavrila Ardalionovitch?” she asked at last.She was astonished and vexed, and her disappointment pleased Colia immensely. Of course he could have undeceived her before she started, but the mischievous boy had been careful not to do that, foreseeing the probably laughable disgust that she would experience when she found her dear friend, the prince, in good health. Colia was indelicate enough to voice the delight he felt at his success in managing to annoy Lizabetha Prokofievna, with whom, in spite of their really amicable relations, he was constantly sparring.
“I didn’t come here for that purpose, Parfen. That was not in my mind--”Here Evgenie Pavlovitch quite let himself go, and gave the reins to his indignation.
So ended Aglaya; and, to look at her, it was difficult, indeed, to judge whether she was joking or in earnest.
Lebedeff was so impressed by these words, and the tone in which they were spoken, that he could not leave Nina Alexandrovna all the evening--in fact, for several days. Till the general’s death, indeed, he spent almost all his time at his side.
“Is that true?” she asked.“Formerly, when I was seven years old or so. I believe I wore one; but now I usually hold my napkin on my knee when I eat.”
When the widow hurried away to Pavlofsk, she went straight to Daria Alexeyevna’s house, and telling all she knew, threw her into a state of great alarm. Both ladies decided to communicate at once with Lebedeff, who, as the friend and landlord of the prince, was also much agitated. Vera Lebedeff told all she knew, and by Lebedeff’s advice it was decided that all three should go to Petersburg as quickly as possible, in order to avert “what might so easily happen.”“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?”
“Do you know I am specially glad that today is your birthday!” cried Hippolyte.“Well done, prince, capital!” cried Aglaya, who entered the room at this moment. “Thank you for assuming that I would not demean myself with lies. Come, is that enough, mamma, or do you intend to put any more questions?”
Mrs. General Epanchin was a proud woman by nature. What must her feelings have been when she heard that Prince Muishkin, the last of his and her line, had arrived in beggar’s guise, a wretched idiot, a recipient of charity--all of which details the general gave out for greater effect! He was anxious to steal her interest at the first swoop, so as to distract her thoughts from other matters nearer home.
Meanwhile all these people--though friends of the family and of each other to a certain extent--were very far from being such intimate friends of the family and of each other as the prince concluded. There were some present who never would think of considering the Epanchins their equals. There were even some who hated one another cordially. For instance, old Princess Bielokonski had all her life despised the wife of the “dignitary,” while the latter was very far from loving Lizabetha Prokofievna. The dignitary himself had been General Epanchin’s protector from his youth up; and the general considered him so majestic a personage that he would have felt a hearty contempt for himself if he had even for one moment allowed himself to pose as the great man’s equal, or to think of him--in his fear and reverence--as anything less than an Olympic God! There were others present who had not met for years, and who had no feeling whatever for each other, unless it were dislike; and yet they met tonight as though they had seen each other but yesterday in some friendly and intimate assembly of kindred spirits.“You must really excuse me,” interrupted the general, “but I positively haven’t another moment now. I shall just tell Elizabetha Prokofievna about you, and if she wishes to receive you at once--as I shall advise her--I strongly recommend you to ingratiate yourself with her at the first opportunity, for my wife may be of the greatest service to you in many ways. If she cannot receive you now, you must be content to wait till another time. Meanwhile you, Gania, just look over these accounts, will you? We mustn’t forget to finish off that matter--”
The prince followed quietly, making no further objection for fear of irritating the old man. At the same time he fervently hoped that General Sokolovitch and his family would fade away like a mirage in the desert, so that the visitors could escape, by merely returning downstairs. But to his horror he saw that General Ivolgin was quite familiar with the house, and really seemed to have friends there. At every step he named some topographical or biographical detail that left nothing to be desired on the score of accuracy. When they arrived at last, on the first floor, and the general turned to ring the bell to the right, the prince decided to run away, but a curious incident stopped him momentarily.
But as we said before, the fact of Adelaida’s approaching marriage was balm to the mother. For a whole month she forgot her fears and worries.“General, remember the siege of Kars! And you, gentlemen, I assure you my anecdote is the naked truth. I may remark that reality, although it is governed by invariable law, has at times a resemblance to falsehood. In fact, the truer a thing is the less true it sounds.”
“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?”
Besides, they could not help thinking that their sister Aglaya probably knew more about the whole matter than both they and their mother put together.The prince took a cab and drove to a street near the Nativity, where he soon discovered the house he was seeking. It was a small wooden villa, and he was struck by its attractive and clean appearance; it stood in a pleasant little garden, full of flowers. The windows looking on the street were open, and the sound of a voice, reading aloud or making a speech, came through them. It rose at times to a shout, and was interrupted occasionally by bursts of laughter.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.
“Oh, Mr. Lebedeff, I am told you lecture on the Apocalypse. Is it true?” asked Aglaya.
“Yes _all_, Katia, all--every one of them. Let them in, or they’ll come in whether you like or no. Listen! what a noise they are making! Perhaps you are offended, gentlemen, that I should receive such guests in your presence? I am very sorry, and ask your forgiveness, but it cannot be helped--and I should be very grateful if you could all stay and witness this climax. However, just as you please, of course.”
“I’ll wear it; and you shall have mine. I’ll take it off at once.”
“Neither during my illness nor at any previous time had I ever seen an apparition;--but I had always thought, both when I was a little boy, and even now, that if I were to see one I should die on the spot--though I don’t believe in ghosts. And yet _now_, when the idea struck me that this was a ghost and not Rogojin at all, I was not in the least alarmed. Nay--the thought actually irritated me. Strangely enough, the decision of the question as to whether this were a ghost or Rogojin did not, for some reason or other, interest me nearly so much as it ought to have done;--I think I began to muse about something altogether different. For instance, I began to wonder why Rogojin, who had been in dressing-gown and slippers when I saw him at home, had now put on a dress-coat and white waistcoat and tie? I also thought to myself, I remember--‘if this is a ghost, and I am not afraid of it, why don’t I approach it and verify my suspicions? Perhaps I am afraid--’ And no sooner did this last idea enter my head than an icy blast blew over me; I felt a chill down my backbone and my knees shook.
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.“May be! may be so!” said the prince, faintly; his heart was beating painfully.