In point of fact, Varia had rather exaggerated the certainty of her news as to the prince’s betrothal to Aglaya. Very likely, with the perspicacity of her sex, she gave out as an accomplished fact what she felt was pretty sure to become a fact in a few days. Perhaps she could not resist the satisfaction of pouring one last drop of bitterness into her brother Gania’s cup, in spite of her love for him. At all events, she had been unable to obtain any definite news from the Epanchin girls—the most she could get out of them being hints and surmises, and so on. Perhaps Aglaya’s sisters had merely been pumping Varia for news while pretending to impart information; or perhaps, again, they had been unable to resist the feminine gratification of teasing a friend—for, after all this time, they could scarcely have helped divining the aim of her frequent visits.
On the other hand, the prince, although he had told Lebedeff,—as we know, that nothing had happened, and that he had nothing to impart,—the prince may have been in error. Something strange seemed to have happened, without anything definite having actually happened. Varia had guessed that with her true feminine instinct.
How or why it came about that everyone at the Epanchins’ became imbued with one conviction—that something very important had happened to Aglaya, and that her fate was in process of settlement—it would be very difficult to explain. But no sooner had this idea taken root, than all at once declared that they had seen and observed it long ago; that they had remarked it at the time of the “poor knight” joke, and even before, though they had been unwilling to believe in such nonsense.
So said the sisters. Of course, Lizabetha Prokofievna had foreseen it long before the rest; her “heart had been sore” for a long while, she declared, and it was now so sore that she appeared to be quite overwhelmed, and the very thought of the prince became distasteful to her.
There was a question to be decided—most important, but most difficult; so much so, that Mrs. Epanchin did not even see how to put it into words. Would the prince do or not? Was all this good or bad? If good (which might be the case, of course), why good? If bad (which was hardly doubtful), wherein, especially, bad? Even the general, the paterfamilias, though astonished at first, suddenly declared that, “upon his honour, he really believed he had fancied something of the kind, after all. At first, it seemed a new idea, and then, somehow, it looked as familiar as possible.” His wife frowned him down there. This was in the morning; but in the evening, alone with his wife, he had given tongue again.
“Well, really, you know”—(silence)—“of course, you know all this is very strange, if true, which I cannot deny; but”—(silence).—“But, on the other hand, if one looks things in the face, you know—upon my honour, the prince is a rare good fellow—and—and—and—well, his name, you know—your family name—all this looks well, and perpetuates the name and title and all that—which at this moment is not standing so high as it might—from one point of view—don’t you know? The world, the world is the world, of course—and people will talk—and—and—the prince has property, you know—if it is not very large—and then he—he—” (Continued silence, and collapse of the general.)
Hearing these words from her husband, Lizabetha Prokofievna was driven beside herself.
According to her opinion, the whole thing had been one huge, fantastical, absurd, unpardonable mistake. “First of all, this prince is an idiot, and, secondly, he is a fool—knows nothing of the world, and has no place in it. Whom can he be shown to? Where can you take him to? What will old Bielokonski say? We never thought of such a husband as that for our Aglaya!”
Of course, the last argument was the chief one. The maternal heart trembled with indignation to think of such an absurdity, although in that heart there rose another voice, which said: “And why is not the prince such a husband as you would have desired for Aglaya?” It was this voice which annoyed Lizabetha Prokofievna more than anything else.
For some reason or other, the sisters liked the idea of the prince. They did not even consider it very strange; in a word, they might be expected at any moment to range themselves strongly on his side. But both of them decided to say nothing either way. It had always been noticed in the family that the stronger Mrs. Epanchin’s opposition was to any project, the nearer she was, in reality, to giving in.
Alexandra, however, found it difficult to keep absolute silence on the subject. Long since holding, as she did, the post of “confidential adviser to mamma,” she was now perpetually called in council, and asked her opinion, and especially her assistance, in order to recollect “how on earth all this happened?” Why did no one see it? Why did no one say anything about it? What did all that wretched “poor knight” joke mean? Why was she, Lizabetha Prokofievna, driven to think, and foresee, and worry for everybody, while they all sucked their thumbs, and counted the crows in the garden, and did nothing? At first, Alexandra had been very careful, and had merely replied that perhaps her father’s remark was not so far out: that, in the eyes of the world, probably the choice of the prince as a husband for one of the Epanchin girls would be considered a very wise one. Warming up, however, she added that the prince was by no means a fool, and never had been; and that as to “place in the world,” no one knew what the position of a respectable person in Russia would imply in a few years—whether it would depend on successes in the government service, on the old system, or what.
To all this her mother replied that Alexandra was a freethinker, and that all this was due to that “cursed woman’s rights question.”
Half an hour after this conversation, she went off to town, and thence to the Kammenny Ostrof, [“Stone Island,” a suburb and park of St. Petersburg] to see Princess Bielokonski, who had just arrived from Moscow on a short visit. The princess was Aglaya’s godmother.
“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.
Lizabetha Prokofievna well understood that the old lady was angry at the failure of Evgenie Pavlovitch—her own recommendation. She returned home to Pavlofsk in a worse humour than when she left, and of course everybody in the house suffered. She pitched into everyone, because, she declared, they had ‘gone mad.’ Why were things always mismanaged in her house? Why had everybody been in such a frantic hurry in this matter? So far as she could see, nothing whatever had happened. Surely they had better wait and see what was to happen, instead of making mountains out of molehills.
And so the conclusion of the matter was that it would be far better to take it quietly, and wait coolly to see what would turn up. But, alas! peace did not reign for more than ten minutes. The first blow dealt to its power was in certain news communicated to Lizabetha Prokofievna as to events which had happened during her trip to see the princess. (This trip had taken place the day after that on which the prince had turned up at the Epanchins at nearly one o’clock at night, thinking it was nine.)
The sisters replied candidly and fully enough to their mother’s impatient questions on her return. They said, in the first place, that nothing particular had happened since her departure; that the prince had been, and that Aglaya had kept him waiting a long while before she appeared—half an hour, at least; that she had then come in, and immediately asked the prince to have a game of chess; that the prince did not know the game, and Aglaya had beaten him easily; that she had been in a wonderfully merry mood, and had laughed at the prince, and chaffed him so unmercifully that one was quite sorry to see his wretched expression.
She had then asked him to play cards—the game called “little fools.” At this game the tables were turned completely, for the prince had shown himself a master at it. Aglaya had cheated and changed cards, and stolen others, in the most bare-faced way, but, in spite of everything the prince had beaten her hopelessly five times running, and she had been left “little fool” each time.
Aglaya then lost her temper, and began to say such awful things to the prince that he laughed no more, but grew dreadfully pale, especially when she said that she should not remain in the house with him, and that he ought to be ashamed of coming to their house at all, especially at night, “after all that had happened.”
So saying, she had left the room, banging the door after her, and the prince went off, looking as though he were on his way to a funeral, in spite of all their attempts at consolation.
Suddenly, a quarter of an hour after the prince’s departure, Aglaya had rushed out of her room in such a hurry that she had not even wiped her eyes, which were full of tears. She came back because Colia had brought a hedgehog. Everybody came in to see the hedgehog. In answer to their questions Colia explained that the hedgehog was not his, and that he had left another boy, Kostia Lebedeff, waiting for him outside. Kostia was too shy to come in, because he was carrying a hatchet; they had bought the hedgehog and the hatchet from a peasant whom they had met on the road. He had offered to sell them the hedgehog, and they had paid fifty copecks for it; and the hatchet had so taken their fancy that they had made up their minds to buy it of their own accord. On hearing this, Aglaya urged Colia to sell her the hedgehog; she even called him “dear Colia,” in trying to coax him. He refused for a long time, but at last he could hold out no more, and went to fetch Kostia Lebedeff. The latter appeared, carrying his hatchet, and covered with confusion. Then it came out that the hedgehog was not theirs, but the property of a schoolmate, one Petroff, who had given them some money to buy Schlosser’s History for him, from another schoolfellow who at that moment was driven to raising money by the sale of his books. Colia and Kostia were about to make this purchase for their friend when chance brought the hedgehog to their notice, and they had succumbed to the temptation of buying it. They were now taking Petroff the hedgehog and hatchet which they had bought with his money, instead of Schlosser’s History. But Aglaya so entreated them that at last they consented to sell her the hedgehog. As soon as she had got possession of it, she put it in a wicker basket with Colia’s help, and covered it with a napkin. Then she said to Colia: “Go and take this hedgehog to the prince from me, and ask him to accept it as a token of my profound respect.” Colia joyfully promised to do the errand, but he demanded explanations. “What does the hedgehog mean? What is the meaning of such a present?” Aglaya replied that it was none of his business. “I am sure that there is some allegory about it,” Colia persisted. Aglaya grew angry, and called him “a silly boy.” “If I did not respect all women in your person,” replied Colia, “and if my own principles would permit it, I would soon prove to you, that I know how to answer such an insult!” But, in the end, Colia went off with the hedgehog in great delight, followed by Kostia Lebedeff. Aglaya’s annoyance was soon over, and seeing that Colia was swinging the hedgehog’s basket violently to and fro, she called out to him from the verandah, as if they had never quarrelled: “Colia, dear, please take care not to drop him!” Colia appeared to have no grudge against her, either, for he stopped, and answered most cordially: “No, I will not drop him! Don’t be afraid, Aglaya Ivanovna!” After which he went on his way. Aglaya burst out laughing and ran up to her room, highly delighted. Her good spirits lasted the whole day.
All this filled poor Lizabetha’s mind with chaotic confusion. What on earth did it all mean? The most disturbing feature was the hedgehog. What was the symbolic signification of a hedgehog? What did they understand by it? What underlay it? Was it a cryptic message?
Poor General Epanchin “put his foot in it” by answering the above questions in his own way. He said there was no cryptic message at all. As for the hedgehog, it was just a hedgehog, which meant nothing—unless, indeed, it was a pledge of friendship,—the sign of forgetting of offences and so on. At all events, it was a joke, and, of course, a most pardonable and innocent one.
We may as well remark that the general had guessed perfectly accurately.
The prince, returning home from the interview with Aglaya, had sat gloomy and depressed for half an hour. He was almost in despair when Colia arrived with the hedgehog.
Then the sky cleared in a moment. The prince seemed to arise from the dead; he asked Colia all about it, made him repeat the story over and over again, and laughed and shook hands with the boys in his delight.
It seemed clear to the prince that Aglaya forgave him, and that he might go there again this very evening; and in his eyes that was not only the main thing, but everything in the world.
“What children we are still, Colia!” he cried at last, enthusiastically,—“and how delightful it is that we can be children still!”
“Simply—my dear prince,—simply she is in love with you,—that’s the whole of the secret!” replied Colia, with authority.
The prince blushed, but this time he said nothing. Colia burst out laughing and clapped his hands. A minute later the prince laughed too, and from this moment until the evening he looked at his watch every other minute to see how much time he had to wait before evening came.
But the situation was becoming rapidly critical.
Mrs. Epanchin could bear her suspense no longer, and in spite of the opposition of husband and daughters, she sent for Aglaya, determined to get a straightforward answer out of her, once for all.
“Otherwise,” she observed hysterically, “I shall die before evening.”
It was only now that everyone realized to what a ridiculous dead-lock the whole matter had been brought. Excepting feigned surprise, indignation, laughter, and jeering—both at the prince and at everyone who asked her questions,—nothing could be got out of Aglaya.
Lizabetha Prokofievna went to bed and only rose again in time for tea, when the prince might be expected.
She awaited him in trembling agitation; and when he at last arrived she nearly went off into hysterics.
Muishkin himself came in very timidly. He seemed to feel his way, and looked in each person’s eyes in a questioning way,—for Aglaya was absent, which fact alarmed him at once.
This evening there were no strangers present—no one but the immediate members of the family. Prince S. was still in town, occupied with the affairs of Evgenie Pavlovitch’s uncle.
“I wish at least he would come and say something!” complained poor Lizabetha Prokofievna.
The general sat still with a most preoccupied air. The sisters were looking very serious and did not speak a word, and Lizabetha Prokofievna did not know how to commence the conversation.
At length she plunged into an energetic and hostile criticism of railways, and glared at the prince defiantly.
Alas Aglaya still did not come—and the prince was quite lost. He had the greatest difficulty in expressing his opinion that railways were most useful institutions,—and in the middle of his speech Adelaida laughed, which threw him into a still worse state of confusion.
At this moment in marched Aglaya, as calm and collected as could be. She gave the prince a ceremonious bow and solemnly took up a prominent position near the big round table. She looked at the prince questioningly.
All present realized that the moment for the settlement of perplexities had arrived.
“Did you get my hedgehog?” she inquired, firmly and almost angrily.
“Yes, I got it,” said the prince, blushing.
“Tell us now, at once, what you made of the present? I must have you answer this question for mother’s sake; she needs pacifying, and so do all the rest of the family!”
“Look here, Aglaya—” began the general.
“This—this is going beyond all limits!” said Lizabetha Prokofievna, suddenly alarmed.
“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.”
“What—what sort of opinion, Aglaya Ivanovna?”
“About the hedgehog.”
“That is—I suppose you wish to know how I received the hedgehog, Aglaya Ivanovna,—or, I should say, how I regarded your sending him to me? In that case, I may tell you—in a word—that I—in fact—”
He paused, breathless.
“Come—you haven’t told us much!” said Aglaya, after waiting some five seconds. “Very well, I am ready to drop the hedgehog, if you like; but I am anxious to be able to clear up this accumulation of misunderstandings. Allow me to ask you, prince,—I wish to hear from you, personally—are you making me an offer, or not?”
“Gracious heavens!” exclaimed Lizabetha Prokofievna. The prince started. The general stiffened in his chair; the sisters frowned.
“Don’t deceive me now, prince—tell the truth. All these people persecute me with astounding questions—about you. Is there any ground for all these questions, or not? Come!”
“I have not asked you to marry me yet, Aglaya Ivanovna,” said the prince, becoming suddenly animated; “but you know yourself how much I love you and trust you.”
“No—I asked you this—answer this! Do you intend to ask for my hand, or not?”
“Yes—I do ask for it!” said the prince, more dead than alive now.
There was a general stir in the room.
“No—no—my dear girl,” began the general. “You cannot proceed like this, Aglaya, if that’s how the matter stands. It’s impossible. Prince, forgive it, my dear fellow, but—Lizabetha Prokofievna!”—he appealed to his spouse for help—“you must really—”
“Not I—not I! I retire from all responsibility,” said Lizabetha Prokofievna, with a wave of the hand.
“Allow me to speak, please, mamma,” said Aglaya. “I think I ought to have something to say in the matter. An important moment of my destiny is about to be decided”—(this is how Aglaya expressed herself)—“and I wish to find out how the matter stands, for my own sake, though I am glad you are all here. Allow me to ask you, prince, since you cherish those intentions, how you consider that you will provide for my happiness?”
“I—I don’t quite know how to answer your question, Aglaya Ivanovna. What is there to say to such a question? And—and must I answer?”
“I think you are rather overwhelmed and out of breath. Have a little rest, and try to recover yourself. Take a glass of water, or—but they’ll give you some tea directly.”
“I love you, Aglaya Ivanovna,—I love you very much. I love only you—and—please don’t jest about it, for I do love you very much.”
“Well, this matter is important. We are not children—we must look into it thoroughly. Now then, kindly tell me—what does your fortune consist of?”
“No—Aglaya—come, enough of this, you mustn’t behave like this,” said her father, in dismay.
“It’s disgraceful,” said Lizabetha Prokofievna in a loud whisper.
“She’s mad—quite!” said Alexandra.
“Fortune—money—do you mean?” asked the prince in some surprise.
“I have now—let’s see—I have a hundred and thirty-five thousand roubles,” said the prince, blushing violently.
“Is that all, really?” said Aglaya, candidly, without the slightest show of confusion. “However, it’s not so bad, especially if managed with economy. Do you intend to serve?”
“I—I intended to try for a certificate as private tutor.”
“Very good. That would increase our income nicely. Have you any intention of being a Kammer-junker?”
“A Kammer-junker? I had not thought of it, but—”
But here the two sisters could restrain themselves no longer, and both of them burst into irrepressible laughter.
Adelaida had long since detected in Aglaya’s features the gathering signs of an approaching storm of laughter, which she restrained with amazing self-control.
Aglaya looked menacingly at her laughing sisters, but could not contain herself any longer, and the next minute she too had burst into an irrepressible, and almost hysterical, fit of mirth. At length she jumped up, and ran out of the room.
“I knew it was all a joke!” cried Adelaida. “I felt it ever since—since the hedgehog.”
“No, no! I cannot allow this,—this is a little too much,” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, exploding with rage, and she rose from her seat and followed Aglaya out of the room as quickly as she could.
The two sisters hurriedly went after her.
The prince and the general were the only two persons left in the room.
“It’s—it’s really—now could you have imagined anything like it, Lef Nicolaievitch?” cried the general. He was evidently so much agitated that he hardly knew what he wished to say. “Seriously now, seriously I mean—”
“I only see that Aglaya Ivanovna is laughing at me,” said the poor prince, sadly.
“Wait a bit, my boy, I’ll just go—you stay here, you know. But do just explain, if you can, Lef Nicolaievitch, how in the world has all this come about? And what does it all mean? You must understand, my dear fellow; I am a father, you see, and I ought to be allowed to understand the matter—do explain, I beg you!”
“I love Aglaya Ivanovna—she knows it,—and I think she must have long known it.”
The general shrugged his shoulders.
“Strange—it’s strange,” he said, “and you love her very much?”
“Yes, very much.”
“Well—it’s all most strange to me. That is—my dear fellow, it is such a surprise—such a blow—that… You see, it is not your financial position (though I should not object if you were a bit richer)—I am thinking of my daughter’s happiness, of course, and the thing is—are you able to give her the happiness she deserves? And then—is all this a joke on her part, or is she in earnest? I don’t mean on your side, but on hers.”
At this moment Alexandra’s voice was heard outside the door, calling out “Papa!”
“Wait for me here, my boy—will you? Just wait and think it all over, and I’ll come back directly,” he said hurriedly, and made off with what looked like the rapidity of alarm in response to Alexandra’s call.
He found the mother and daughter locked in one another’s arms, mingling their tears.
These were the tears of joy and peace and reconciliation. Aglaya was kissing her mother’s lips and cheeks and hands; they were hugging each other in the most ardent way.
“There, look at her now—Ivan Fedorovitch! Here she is—all of her! This is our real Aglaya at last!” said Lizabetha Prokofievna.
Aglaya raised her happy, tearful face from her mother’s breast, glanced at her father, and burst out laughing. She sprang at him and hugged him too, and kissed him over and over again. She then rushed back to her mother and hid her face in the maternal bosom, and there indulged in more tears. Her mother covered her with a corner of her shawl.
“Oh, you cruel little girl! How will you treat us all next, I wonder?” she said, but she spoke with a ring of joy in her voice, and as though she breathed at last without the oppression which she had felt so long.
“Cruel?” sobbed Aglaya. “Yes, I am cruel, and worthless, and spoiled—tell father so,—oh, here he is—I forgot Father, listen!” She laughed through her tears.
“My darling, my little idol,” cried the general, kissing and fondling her hands (Aglaya did not draw them away); “so you love this young man, do you?”
“No, no, no, can’t bear him, I can’t bear your young man!” cried Aglaya, raising her head. “And if you dare say that once more, papa—I’m serious, you know, I’m,—do you hear me—I’m serious!”
She certainly did seem to be serious enough. She had flushed up all over and her eyes were blazing.
The general felt troubled and remained silent, while Lizabetha Prokofievna telegraphed to him from behind Aglaya to ask no questions.
“If that’s the case, darling—then, of course, you shall do exactly as you like. He is waiting alone downstairs. Hadn’t I better hint to him gently that he can go?” The general telegraphed to Lizabetha Prokofievna in his turn.
“No, no, you needn’t do anything of the sort; you mustn’t hint gently at all. I’ll go down myself directly. I wish to apologize to this young man, because I hurt his feelings.”
“Yes, seriously,” said the general, gravely.
“Well, you’d better stay here, all of you, for a little, and I’ll go down to him alone to begin with. I’ll just go in and then you can follow me almost at once. That’s the best way.”
She had almost reached the door when she turned round again.
“I shall laugh—I know I shall; I shall die of laughing,” she said, lugubriously.
However, she turned and ran down to the prince as fast as her feet could carry her.
“Well, what does it all mean? What do you make of it?” asked the general of his spouse, hurriedly.
“I hardly dare say,” said Lizabetha, as hurriedly, “but I think it’s as plain as anything can be.”
“I think so too, as clear as day; she loves him.”
“Loves him? She is head over ears in love, that’s what she is,” put in Alexandra.
“Well, God bless her, God bless her, if such is her destiny,” said Lizabetha, crossing herself devoutly.
“H’m destiny it is,” said the general, “and there’s no getting out of destiny.”
With these words they all moved off towards the drawing-room, where another surprise awaited them. Aglaya had not only not laughed, as she had feared, but had gone to the prince rather timidly, and said to him:
“Forgive a silly, horrid, spoilt girl”—(she took his hand here)—“and be quite assured that we all of us esteem you beyond all words. And if I dared to turn your beautiful, admirable simplicity to ridicule, forgive me as you would a little child its mischief. Forgive me all my absurdity of just now, which, of course, meant nothing, and could not have the slightest consequence.” She spoke these words with great emphasis.
Her father, mother, and sisters came into the room and were much struck with the last words, which they just caught as they entered—“absurdity which of course meant nothing”—and still more so with the emphasis with which Aglaya had spoken.
They exchanged glances questioningly, but the prince did not seem to have understood the meaning of Aglaya’s words; he was in the highest heaven of delight.
“Why do you speak so?” he murmured. “Why do you ask my forgiveness?”
He wished to add that he was unworthy of being asked for forgiveness by her, but paused. Perhaps he did understand Aglaya’s sentence about “absurdity which meant nothing,” and like the strange fellow that he was, rejoiced in the words.
Undoubtedly the fact that he might now come and see Aglaya as much as he pleased again was quite enough to make him perfectly happy; that he might come and speak to her, and see her, and sit by her, and walk with her—who knows, but that all this was quite enough to satisfy him for the whole of his life, and that he would desire no more to the end of time?
(Lizabetha Prokofievna felt that this might be the case, and she didn’t like it; though very probably she could not have put the idea into words.)
It would be difficult to describe the animation and high spirits which distinguished the prince for the rest of the evening.
He was so happy that “it made one feel happy to look at him,” as Aglaya’s sisters expressed it afterwards. He talked, and told stories just as he had done once before, and never since, namely on the very first morning of his acquaintance with the Epanchins, six months ago. Since his return to Petersburg from Moscow, he had been remarkably silent, and had told Prince S. on one occasion, before everyone, that he did not think himself justified in degrading any thought by his unworthy words.
But this evening he did nearly all the talking himself, and told stories by the dozen, while he answered all questions put to him clearly, gladly, and with any amount of detail.
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.
He aired his own views on various matters, some of his most private opinions and observations, many of which would have seemed rather funny, so his hearers agreed afterwards, had they not been so well expressed.
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.
As for Aglaya, she hardly said a word all the evening; but she listened with all her ears to Lef Nicolaievitch’s talk, and scarcely took her eyes off him.
“She looked at him, and stared and stared, and hung on every word he said,” said Lizabetha afterwards, to her husband, “and yet, tell her that she loves him, and she is furious!”
“What’s to be done? It’s fate,” said the general, shrugging his shoulders, and, for a long while after, he continued to repeat: “It’s fate, it’s fate!”
We may add that to a business man like General Epanchin the present position of affairs was most unsatisfactory. He hated the uncertainty in which they had been, perforce, left. However, he decided to say no more about it, and merely to look on, and take his time and tune from Lizabetha Prokofievna.
The happy state in which the family had spent the evening, as just recorded, was not of very long duration. Next day Aglaya quarrelled with the prince again, and so she continued to behave for the next few days. For whole hours at a time she ridiculed and chaffed the wretched man, and made him almost a laughing-stock.
It is true that they used to sit in the little summer-house together for an hour or two at a time, very often, but it was observed that on these occasions the prince would read the paper, or some book, aloud to Aglaya.
“Do you know,” Aglaya said to him once, interrupting the reading, “I’ve remarked that you are dreadfully badly educated. You never know anything thoroughly, if one asks you; neither anyone’s name, nor dates, nor about treaties and so on. It’s a great pity, you know!”
“I told you I had not had much of an education,” replied the prince.
“How am I to respect you, if that’s the case? Read on now. No—don’t! Stop reading!”
And once more, that same evening, Aglaya mystified them all. Prince S. had returned, and Aglaya was particularly amiable to him, and asked a great deal after Evgenie Pavlovitch. (Muishkin had not come in as yet.)
Suddenly Prince S. hinted something about “a new and approaching change in the family.” He was led to this remark by a communication inadvertently made to him by Lizabetha Prokofievna, that Adelaida’s marriage must be postponed a little longer, in order that the two weddings might come off together.
It is impossible to describe Aglaya’s irritation. She flared up, and said some indignant words about “all these silly insinuations.” She added that “she had no intentions as yet of replacing anybody’s mistress.”
These words painfully impressed the whole party; but especially her parents. Lizabetha Prokofievna summoned a secret council of two, and insisted upon the general’s demanding from the prince a full explanation of his relations with Nastasia Philipovna. The general argued that it was only a whim of Aglaya’s; and that, had not Prince S. unfortunately made that remark, which had confused the child and made her blush, she never would have said what she did; and that he was sure Aglaya knew well that anything she might have heard of the prince and Nastasia Philipovna was merely the fabrication of malicious tongues, and that the woman was going to marry Rogojin. He insisted that the prince had nothing whatever to do with Nastasia Philipovna, so far as any liaison was concerned; and, if the truth were to be told about it, he added, never had had.
Meanwhile nothing put the prince out, and he continued to be in the seventh heaven of bliss. Of course he could not fail to observe some impatience and ill-temper in Aglaya now and then; but he believed in something else, and nothing could now shake his conviction. Besides, Aglaya’s frowns never lasted long; they disappeared of themselves.
Perhaps he was too easy in his mind. So thought Hippolyte, at all events, who met him in the park one day.
“Didn’t I tell you the truth now, when I said you were in love?” he said, coming up to Muishkin of his own accord, and stopping him.
The prince gave him his hand and congratulated him upon “looking so well.”
Hippolyte himself seemed to be hopeful about his state of health, as is often the case with consumptives.
He had approached the prince with the intention of talking sarcastically about his happy expression of face, but very soon forgot his intention and began to talk about himself. He began complaining about everything, disconnectedly and endlessly, as was his wont.
“You wouldn’t believe,” he concluded, “how irritating they all are there. They are such wretchedly small, vain, egotistical, commonplace people! Would you believe it, they invited me there under the express condition that I should die quickly, and they are all as wild as possible with me for not having died yet, and for being, on the contrary, a good deal better! Isn’t it a comedy? I don’t mind betting that you don’t believe me!”
The prince said nothing.
“I sometimes think of coming over to you again,” said Hippolyte, carelessly. “So you don’t think them capable of inviting a man on the condition that he is to look sharp and die?”
“I certainly thought they invited you with quite other views.”
“Ho, ho! you are not nearly so simple as they try to make you out! This is not the time for it, or I would tell you a thing or two about that beauty, Gania, and his hopes. You are being undermined, pitilessly undermined, and—and it is really melancholy to see you so calm about it. But alas! it’s your nature—you can’t help it!”
“My word! what a thing to be melancholy about! Why, do you think I should be any happier if I were to feel disturbed about the excavations you tell me of?”
“It is better to be unhappy and know the worst, than to be happy in a fool’s paradise! I suppose you don’t believe that you have a rival in that quarter?”
“Your insinuations as to rivalry are rather cynical, Hippolyte. I’m sorry to say I have no right to answer you! As for Gania, I put it to you, can any man have a happy mind after passing through what he has had to suffer? I think that is the best way to look at it. He will change yet, he has lots of time before him, and life is rich; besides—besides…” the prince hesitated. “As to being undermined, I don’t know what in the world you are driving at, Hippolyte. I think we had better drop the subject!”
“Very well, we’ll drop it for a while. You can’t look at anything but in your exalted, generous way. You must put out your finger and touch a thing before you’ll believe it, eh? Ha! ha! ha! I suppose you despise me dreadfully, prince, eh? What do you think?”
“Why? Because you have suffered more than we have?”
“No; because I am unworthy of my sufferings, if you like!”
“Whoever can suffer is worthy to suffer, I should think. Aglaya Ivanovna wished to see you, after she had read your confession, but—”
“She postponed the pleasure—I see—I quite understand!” said Hippolyte, hurriedly, as though he wished to banish the subject. “I hear—they tell me—that you read her all that nonsense aloud? Stupid bosh it was—written in delirium. And I can’t understand how anyone can be so—I won’t say cruel, because the word would be humiliating to myself, but we’ll say childishly vain and revengeful, as to reproach me with this confession, and use it as a weapon against me. Don’t be afraid, I’m not referring to yourself.”
“Oh, but I’m sorry you repudiate the confession, Hippolyte—it is sincere; and, do you know, even the absurd parts of it—and these are many” (here Hippolyte frowned savagely) “are, as it were, redeemed by suffering—for it must have cost you something to admit what you there say—great torture, perhaps, for all I know. Your motive must have been a very noble one all through. Whatever may have appeared to the contrary, I give you my word, I see this more plainly every day. I do not judge you; I merely say this to have it off my mind, and I am only sorry that I did not say it all then—”
Hippolyte flushed hotly. He had thought at first that the prince was “humbugging” him; but on looking at his face he saw that he was absolutely serious, and had no thought of any deception. Hippolyte beamed with gratification.
“And yet I must die,” he said, and almost added: “a man like me!
“And imagine how that Gania annoys me! He has developed the idea—or pretends to believe—that in all probability three or four others who heard my confession will die before I do. There’s an idea for you—and all this by way of consoling me! Ha! ha! ha! In the first place they haven’t died yet; and in the second, if they did die—all of them—what would be the satisfaction to me in that? He judges me by himself. But he goes further, he actually pitches into me because, as he declares, ‘any decent fellow’ would die quietly, and that ‘all this’ is mere egotism on my part. He doesn’t see what refinement of egotism it is on his own part—and at the same time, what ox-like coarseness! Have you ever read of the death of one Stepan Gleboff, in the eighteenth century? I read of it yesterday by chance.”
“Who was he?”
“He was impaled on a stake in the time of Peter.”
“I know, I know! He lay there fifteen hours in the hard frost, and died with the most extraordinary fortitude—I know—what of him?”
“Only that God gives that sort of dying to some, and not to others. Perhaps you think, though, that I could not die like Gleboff?”
“Not at all!” said the prince, blushing. “I was only going to say that you—not that you could not be like Gleboff—but that you would have been more like—”
“I guess what you mean—I should be an Osterman, not a Gleboff—eh? Is that what you meant?”
“What Osterman?” asked the prince in some surprise.
“Why, Osterman—the diplomatist. Peter’s Osterman,” muttered Hippolyte, confused. There was a moment’s pause of mutual confusion.
“Oh, no, no!” said the prince at last, “that was not what I was going to say—oh no! I don’t think you would ever have been like Osterman.”
Hippolyte frowned gloomily.
“I’ll tell you why I draw the conclusion,” explained the prince, evidently desirous of clearing up the matter a little. “Because, though I often think over the men of those times, I cannot for the life of me imagine them to be like ourselves. It really appears to me that they were of another race altogether than ourselves of today. At that time people seemed to stick so to one idea; now, they are more nervous, more sensitive, more enlightened—people of two or three ideas at once—as it were. The man of today is a broader man, so to speak—and I declare I believe that is what prevents him from being so self-contained and independent a being as his brother of those earlier days. Of course my remark was only made under this impression, and not in the least—”
“I quite understand. You are trying to comfort me for the naiveness with which you disagreed with me—eh? Ha! ha! ha! You are a regular child, prince! However, I cannot help seeing that you always treat me like—like a fragile china cup. Never mind, never mind, I’m not a bit angry! At all events we have had a very funny talk. Do you know, all things considered, I should like to be something better than Osterman! I wouldn’t take the trouble to rise from the dead to be an Osterman. However, I see I must make arrangements to die soon, or I myself—. Well—leave me now! Au revoir. Look here—before you go, just give me your opinion: how do you think I ought to die, now? I mean—the best, the most virtuous way? Tell me!”
“You should pass us by and forgive us our happiness,” said the prince in a low voice.
“Ha! ha! ha! I thought so. I thought I should hear something like that. Well, you are—you really are—oh dear me! Eloquence, eloquence! Good-bye!”