“No humbug at all.”
At length she looked straight into Nastasia’s eyes, and instantly read all there was to read in her rival’s expression. Woman understood woman! Aglaya shuddered.
“Then you think they won’t see it?”
He could not say how long he sat there. It grew late and became quite dark.
“But, you wretched man, at least she must have said something? There must be _some_ answer from her!”
The general liked serious subjects of conversation; but both he and Lizabetha Prokofievna felt that they were having a little too much of a good thing tonight, and as the evening advanced, they both grew more or less melancholy; but towards night, the prince fell to telling funny stories, and was always the first to burst out laughing himself, which he invariably did so joyously and simply that the rest laughed just as much at him as at his stories.“Old Bielokonski” listened to all the fevered and despairing lamentations of Lizabetha Prokofievna without the least emotion; the tears of this sorrowful mother did not evoke answering sighs--in fact, she laughed at her. She was a dreadful old despot, this princess; she could not allow equality in anything, not even in friendship of the oldest standing, and she insisted on treating Mrs. Epanchin as her _protégée_, as she had been thirty-five years ago. She could never put up with the independence and energy of Lizabetha’s character. She observed that, as usual, the whole family had gone much too far ahead, and had converted a fly into an elephant; that, so far as she had heard their story, she was persuaded that nothing of any seriousness had occurred; that it would surely be better to wait until something _did_ happen; that the prince, in her opinion, was a very decent young fellow, though perhaps a little eccentric, through illness, and not quite as weighty in the world as one could wish. The worst feature was, she said, Nastasia Philipovna.
“I meant to say--I only meant to say,” said the prince, faltering, “I merely meant to explain to Aglaya Ivanovna--to have the honour to explain, as it were--that I had no intention--never had--to ask the honour of her hand. I assure you I am not guilty, Aglaya Ivanovna, I am not, indeed. I never did wish to--I never thought of it at all--and never shall--you’ll see it yourself--you may be quite assured of it. Some wicked person has been maligning me to you; but it’s all right. Don’t worry about it.”“You manage your composure too awkwardly. I see you wish to insult me,” he cried to Gania. “You--you are a cur!” He looked at Gania with an expression of malice.
Neither one nor the other seemed to give expression to her full thoughts.
Today, as I have said, she returned from their house with a heavy feeling of dejection. There was a sensation of bitterness, a sort of mocking contempt, mingled with it.
“I have long sought the honour and opportunity of meeting you--much-esteemed Lef Nicolaievitch,” he murmured, pressing the prince’s hand very hard, almost painfully so; “long--very long.”
Gania was silent for a minute or two, as though thinking out some problem. Suddenly he cried:“I know he won’t, I know he won’t, general; but I--I’m master here!”
At the moment when he lost Aglaya, and after the scene with Nastasia, he had felt so low in his own eyes that he actually brought the money back to the prince. Of this returning of the money given to him by a madwoman who had received it from a madman, he had often repented since--though he never ceased to be proud of his action. During the short time that Muishkin remained in Petersburg Gania had had time to come to hate him for his sympathy, though the prince told him that it was “not everyone who would have acted so nobly” as to return the money. He had long pondered, too, over his relations with Aglaya, and had persuaded himself that with such a strange, childish, innocent character as hers, things might have ended very differently. Remorse then seized him; he threw up his post, and buried himself in self-torment and reproach.
“Save me!” she cried. “Take me away, anywhere you like, quick!”The prince gave no answer, and sat deep in thought. Evidently he was struggling to decide.
Burdovsky alone sat silent and motionless.
“I hear you have called twice; I suppose you are still worried about yesterday’s affair.”“Very well, then there’s an experiment, and the thing is proved; one cannot live and count each moment; say what you like, but one _cannot_.”“Tomorrow morning, I shall be at the green bench in the park at seven, and shall wait there for you. I have made up my mind to speak to you about a most important matter which closely concerns yourself.“But what is the use of talking? I’m afraid all this is so commonplace that my confession will be taken for a schoolboy exercise--the work of some ambitious lad writing in the hope of his work ‘seeing the light’; or perhaps my readers will say that ‘I had perhaps something to say, but did not know how to express it.’
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.
The crowd parted on each side of him and he was left face to face with Nastasia Philipovna, three paces from her. She stood by the fire and waited, with her intent gaze fixed upon him.
“Yes, believe it or not! It’s all the same to me!”“It was just a minute before the execution,” began the prince, readily, carried away by the recollection and evidently forgetting everything else in a moment; “just at the instant when he stepped off the ladder on to the scaffold. He happened to look in my direction: I saw his eyes and understood all, at once--but how am I to describe it? I do so wish you or somebody else could draw it, you, if possible. I thought at the time what a picture it would make. You must imagine all that went before, of course, all--all. He had lived in the prison for some time and had not expected that the execution would take place for at least a week yet--he had counted on all the formalities and so on taking time; but it so happened that his papers had been got ready quickly. At five o’clock in the morning he was asleep--it was October, and at five in the morning it was cold and dark. The governor of the prison comes in on tip-toe and touches the sleeping man’s shoulder gently. He starts up. ‘What is it?’ he says. ‘The execution is fixed for ten o’clock.’ He was only just awake, and would not believe at first, but began to argue that his papers would not be out for a week, and so on. When he was wide awake and realized the truth, he became very silent and argued no more--so they say; but after a bit he said: ‘It comes very hard on one so suddenly’ and then he was silent again and said nothing.“Very likely. So he wrote that you were to bring me a copy of his confession, did he? Why didn’t you bring it?”
“Is he raving?” said the general. “Are we really in a mad-house?”He sat down on the edge of his chair, smiling and making faces, and rubbing his hands, and looking as though he were in delighted expectation of hearing some important communication, which had been long guessed by all.
“And Nastasia Philipovna?”“Four years! and I was in the same place nearly all the time,--in one village.”“Oh, make a sacrifice of yourself! That sort of thing becomes you well, you know. Why not do it? And don’t call me ‘Aglaya’; you have done it several times lately. You are bound, it is your _duty_ to ‘raise’ her; you must go off somewhere again to soothe and pacify her. Why, you love her, you know!”“Wait a minute, prince,” said Aglaya, suddenly rising from her seat, “do write something in my album first, will you? Father says you are a most talented caligraphist; I’ll bring you my book in a minute.” She left the room.
“Oh, I’m so glad!” said the prince, joyfully. “I was so afraid.”“Yes, a candle! What’s there improbable about that?”Varia pounced upon her brother.
“Oh yes!” cried the prince, starting. “Hippolyte’s suicide--”To all this her mother replied that Alexandra was a freethinker, and that all this was due to that “cursed woman’s rights question.”
“How pale you have grown!” cried Aglaya in alarm.
“The gentleman before me gazed at me for some seconds in amazement, and his wife in terror; as though there was something alarmingly extraordinary in the fact that anyone could come to see them. But suddenly he fell upon me almost with fury; I had had no time to mutter more than a couple of words; but he had doubtless observed that I was decently dressed and, therefore, took deep offence because I had dared enter his den so unceremoniously, and spy out the squalor and untidiness of it.
But when she had read it herself once more, it suddenly struck her that surely that conceited boy, Colia, had not been the one chosen correspondent of the prince all this while. She determined to ask him, and did so with an exaggerated show of carelessness. He informed her haughtily that though he had given the prince his permanent address when the latter left town, and had offered his services, the prince had never before given him any commission to perform, nor had he written until the following lines arrived, with Aglaya’s letter. Aglaya took the note, and read it.
“Where’s your luggage?” he asked, as he led the prince away to his room.“Was not Nastasia Philipovna here with him, yesterday evening?”